Beyond Forever | Part One

“You what?

“I'm moving in with Giles—”

“Buffy if you were tired of living on campus, or if Willow is too busy now with that new friend of hers, why didn't you ask me about moving back in?”

“Mom, I'm going to live with Giles.”

Joyce Summers gazed at her daughter blankly for a moment then the colour drained from her face.

“You can't be serious? He's…he's…Buffy I forbid it.”

“You can't forbid me. And it's not like you don't know the guy—”

Joyce sat down hard on the nearest chair. “Buffy he's older than me. When did this happen? What did he do to you?”

Buffy rolled her eyes. “Have a cow, mom. Look, he didn't do anything to me. He hasn't done anything to me for the last three years except protect me, risk his life for me and pretty much get kicked around by me. It's just…I only just realised that I've been in love with him since…well, for a long time.”

Joyce's eyes narrowed. “And how long, pray, has he been in love with you?”

Buffy shrugged. “I don't know exactly. Isn't that the point? And I know how much he loved Jenny Calendar.” Buffy watched her mother doing rapid calculations and rolled her eyes again. “Mom, don't,” she said harshly. “You know Giles. You know he's the most honourable, straight, gentle guy on the face of the planet. Just don't.”

Joyce focused and caught one hand with the other. “But, this…it isn't right. It just isn't.”

“Why? Since when did love come with rules? Mom, I was contemplating spending the rest of my life with a two hundred and forty year old vampire, for God's sake. At least Giles is alive…and he loves me, as much as I love him, which you have to admit is a big plus. Besides, its actually a bigger decision for him than me.” Buffy focused directly on her mother's troubled face. “I'm not supposed to live past 25, remember? He's going to outlive me.”

Joyce's fists clenched. “That's not true, and I don't need you to remind me of it,” she said through her teeth. “But I can't…I won't…”

Buffy sighed. “I love him, mom. More than I've ever loved anyone, ever. He's…well… he's the other half of me. I think he always has been, but I was so busy with the slayage and feeling sorry for myself, mostly, that I didn't notice, until Willow yelled at me a little while back about forgetting his birthday.”

Colour rushed back into Joyce's face. “Then this has been going on for some time…?”

Buffy rolled her eyes again. “About three weeks. Look mom, if they were going to draft me, because some big new thing, conflict, whatever, was happening, would you stop them?”

Joyce shook her head, puzzled.

“Do you expect me to vote at the next election?”

She nodded slowly.

“And you had no problems with me and Riley being…uh…together?”

Joyce's colour deepened. “I'm a parent. I don't have to like these things, but it's your business, especially now that you're at co…” She trailed off, clamped her mouth shut.

“Exactly,” Buffy said softly. “Look, mom, I know it seems weird at first. It did to me too, but I knew. I can't believe it took me so long, but I knew. I would never have survived Angel leaving me otherwise. A part of me has known since Olivia came.”

“Olivia?”

“Old girlfriend of Giles'. Came through town a couple of times and stayed with him. You have no idea how majorly wigged I was by that the first time I saw her there. I've been mad at him ever since, and we only just figured out why.”

“Be…cause you were in love with him?” Joyce said slowly, trying out the words out loud, and trying not to think about the other woman at all.

Buffy nodded. “Now you're getting it. Trust me, mom, I don't have the time for crushes or messing around. If I weren't a hundred and ten percent positive I wouldn't be here now. I wouldn't have even told him.”

Joyce rose and came to her daughter. “Buffy this is serious. You've got to know how serious. It's not like Riley, or any of the boys at college. Mister Giles—”

“Mom, his name is Rupert. Even I don't call him Mister.”

“Giles,” Joyce persisted, “isn't a young man. He's going to be fifty before you're twenty-five. He's coming into the age group where men start having problems, all kinds of problems. It isn't fair to ask you—”

Buffy blew out a frustrated breath. “And has it been fair to ask him to give up everything for me? He has no life, mom, except me. He's not even an official Watcher any more, but he's still here, for me.”

“Pity?” Joyce said suddenly, hopefully. “You feel sorry for him? That's not enough—”

“Hardly,” Buffy snorted. “I'm your daughter, remember? Buffy Summers, selfish, much,” she drawled. “I only just thought of it, but it's true. He never got to have a family of his own, I blew up his job, and he threw in the official lifetime Watcherguy calling for me. He has no real friends here…except I think there's some guy or someone who collects demonology books…and only old ones like Ethan, back in England. I've never felt sorry for Giles…I hurt for him when Jenny Calendar died, but pity…well, you know us, mom, when do we have time for pity?” she added sarcastically, remembering for some reason, the one Christmas that it snowed in Sunnydale.

Joyce stepped back a little. “You think I'm selfish and insensitive?” she asked in a tremulous voice.

Buffy's expression softened. “I think Summers women forget sometimes how to stop and smell the flowers. I think we hurt people way too easily. You should have let Giles come over for Christmas. And I should have remembered his birthdays…among about a million other things…”

Joyce frowned. “That stupid candy didn't help, but things might have been better if you hadn't run away to Los Angeles. I never forgave him for taking you from me, losing you like that. It wasn't right the way he took over your life,” she added, memories of that revelation harsh and clear. “I told him…I told him…”

Buffy's eyes narrowed. “You told him what, mom?”

“That I blamed him. I blamed him for you going, for being lost, for taking you away. It wasn't right how much control he had over your life.”

“You…you told him that while I was still gone?” Buffy stammered, her face pale. “After everything that happened to him because of me, everything I did, you told him it was all his fault?”

Joyce's expression hardened. “It was. He made you what you were. It was all a lie. The whole Slayer thing was one long lie, all the way from Los Angeles to the moment you walked out of the house. How do you think I liked finding out I only had half a child? That I was nothing more than incidental to your new life?”

Buffy's cheeks blanched even more if that were possible. She'd never considered how deep her mother's pain might have been, how much the older woman might have suffered because of her so-called destiny. And she certainly never contemplated that her mother would hurt Giles like that…or that Giles would keep it to himself all this time. As if he hadn't already suffered enough. She shivered at the still-too-clear memory of Xander's narrative about those weeks she was gone, and what Rupert had gone through while she was away.

Two licks of colour flamed in the now milk-white cheeks. “You didn't have to hurt him like that. Wasn't the torture enough? I didn't leave because of Giles. I left because I was hurting and I had nowhere to go. I sent Angel to hell…and I hurt them…all of them.” Her blue eyes looked up slowly and met her mother's. “And I couldn't even come home…”

“That…that's not fair,” Joyce reeled. “I was angry. I never meant…I thought you'd come back and have it out with me…not run off like…”

“Like what, mom?” Buffy asked quietly. “Like a scared kid?”

Joyce looked away.

“You know Giles spent the entire summer looking for me? Xander said that when he finally started to heal, he started looking for me. He told me about the nightmares, the pain. He told me how little he ate or slept while he was looking for me and how much of his own money he spent. I'm betting he never asked you for a penny and you never offered.”

Joyce's face turned swiftly back to Buffy's. “I didn't ask him to…” but her voice trailed off again.

“No, you didn't,” Buffy said softly. “But he did it any way. Even before he was in love with me, he loved me. I never did anything but hurt him and let him down, but he still loved me. And you know what? After everything that happened to him because of me, when I came back from L.A. and everyone was yelling at me and judging me, do you know what his first words were?”

Where the hell have you been?” Joyce ventured more harshly than she intended.

Buffy closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them and refocused, ignoring the moisture glistening in them.

“He just got that gentle look on his face and said: 'Welcome home, Buffy…' And I still didn't get it…I never got it…how good he is…how much I hurt him.” Buffy collected herself before clearing her throat. “Does major bitchdom run in our family, or what?” she asked sardonically.

Joyce looked alarmed.

“Forget it. Stupid question.”

“No…no,” Joyce said dazedly. “You can't say things like that and just leave it there. I tried, Buffy. You have no idea how hard it was trying to deal with you in Los Angeles, and here. I had no way of knowing that you were anything but a troubled, difficult teenager. What was I supposed to do when I found out you were conducting a secret life, lying to me constantly, and under the control of a strange, middle-aged man, no less, and worse, that you were killing…things…on a nightly basis…that you'd been more or less constantly in danger since you were fifteen!”

Buffy swallowed. “Be mad. Be outraged. Be scared, but at least listen,” she offered unsteadily. “But you didn't…you…you drank. You saw the vampire explode; you heard what Spike said. You knew Giles was in danger. I told you that I had to save the world…and you decided to ground me.”

Joyce closed her eyes. “It was all so insane…I just needed—”

“Yeah, mom,” Buffy interrupted abruptly. “And that about sums us up, doesn't it? It doesn't matter what's happening to the people we love, or the rest of the world, as long as we take care of what WE need, first.”

Joyce's face flushed with anger and she raised her hand suddenly, but stopped it in its downward arc and burst into tears.

“I'm not you, Buffy...the…the Slayer. I'm just a parent. I made a lot of mistakes, but none of it was meant to cause pain. Not to you, to Mister Giles, to anyone.” She stared into her daughter's blue eyes. “You at least had him…and Willow and Xander. Who did I have, Buffy? Tell me who I had to turn to when you turned my world upside-down? Who was I supposed to talk to, to look to for support while you were gone, when I was so lonely I thought I'd die, and so frightened for you I couldn't sleep most of the time?”

Buffy watched the hand fall to her mother's side and closed her eyes again, tears squeezing through her lashes and trickling down her cheeks. “Dad. Dad would have wanted to help, if he'd known,” she said softly.

“No,” Joyce replied, shaking her head. “Help you, yes. Help me, not on his best day,” she said vehemently.

Buffy stared at her mother sadly and let it go. “Are you going to give us a chance…or are you going to hurt him again?”

Joyce blinked. “Your father?”

Buffy shook her head. “No, mom. Giles and me…are you going to be okay with us?”

“No, I'm not going to be okay,” she said tremulously, “but I won't stand in your way. I still think it's wrong. You're not much more than a child and he's…he's…”

“He's not old, mom. Paul McCartney…even Jagger is older than he is, for God's sake. And in a way I've been old since The Master drowned me…maybe even since Merrick died,” she whispered then frowned. “Is this just about me being too young, or is this really about that whole older man/younger woman thing? I mean you used to do whole, endless soliloquies about dad's bimbo girl-fiends. You know, Louise, then that Missy ditz, not to mention the noxious Pia…?”

“No it's not,” Joyce snapped, not wanting to even think about Hank's youthful dalliances since the split. “But he should have known better. A grown man chasing college girls…and…and an actress.”

“Actress-wannabe,” Buffy drawled. “The next thing you're supposed to say is: 'Where the hell does that leave me?' The answer is, it doesn't. This has nothing to do with dad…unless you actually have a thing for Giles?”

“Don't be ridiculous,” Joyce sniffed. “He's not even my type.”

“Buffy repressed a smile. “Even I know that, mom. He's nothing like dad, for a start, even less like Ted. Once you guys stopped talking about art there was nothing else.”

“Well, I think that's a little unfair,” she began.

“Mom, you like Barry Manilow, waffles, your totally square car, old movies, French Colonial, and your art stuff. Giles is art nouveau, and he has musical taste, well, except for the Bay City Rollers, which having seen his music collection I think he was pulling my leg about, and I still have to get him back for that…where was I? Oh yeah, and he's mushy peas, jelly donuts, moussaka and tea, and he loves really ancient stuff, history, his books, old weapons, the magick and Rugby...plus I think he harbours a secret yen for a motorcycle.”

“Rugby?”

“Something called Wiggan.”

“Oh.” Joyce frowned in thought. “I knew so quickly with your father…and Ted…well that was denial. I wanted so badly to have someone of my own…and he seemed so perfect.”

But Buffy could see the longing in her eyes, the part of her that would have loved Ted to be a real person, the way he was before he started showing his psychoses. She still found it eerie the way her mother had connected so completely with a machine, and worse a machine with the soul of a lunatic…but she understood loneliness…

Hadn't she reached out to a two hundred and forty year old vampire, and way worse, to Parker Abrams?

'I know you need someone, mom. We all do. I do. Can't you understand just a little bit how much I need Rupert? I miss him just from being over here. I miss him all day when I'm in classes…and when I'm with him I feel so…” She stopped. “I don't think I can put it into words. I just know I love everything about him; the way he talks, the way he smells, the way his face feels when he needs a shave and the way he laughs…the way he gets so engrossed in his stupid books he doesn't seem to hear a word I say, then five minutes later he looks up and answers everything I said.” She smiled to herself. “I even love the way he takes his glasses off every time he wants to make a point, and the way he says my name when he's happy and the stuffy way he says it when he's ticked.”

Joyce put a hand to her brow. She knew. She remembered being so in love with Hank… but time and distance made her sharply aware that Hank had never really given her the kind of joy now glowing in Buffy's face. She had never truly been loved like that…

She sighed a long, slow sigh. “If…if he makes you truly happy…if you love him and he loves you…then I have no right to stand in your way,” she said slowly. “I'm scared to death, Buffy. A part of me still wants to slap him for even thinking about touching you, but it isn't up to me any more.”

“Then…then you still don't really approve?”

Joyce faced her. “Don't ask for more than I can give, Buffy. I can't approve what I don't believe is right. That man has been more of a father to you in the last three years than your own flesh and blood…”

Buffy's face screwed up. “Eieww, mom, gross! In your dreams…” She frowned even harder. “And maybe Willow's stupid spell. The truth is he's been my guide, my teacher, my Watcher and way more than a friend, but he's never ever taken Dad's place in my life…well, except maybe for me wigging that one time with Dad being total loser-guy about my eighteenth birthday and the Ice Show…” she muttered, “but we all know how rational I was during that mess. You have to get off this age kick, mom. You didn't have hives about that guy on Northern Exposure. You thought it was kinda cute. And he WAS old.”

“And you thought it was totally gross,” Joyce retorted. “I remember eye-rolling, retching noises and head-shaking.”

“And your point is? The guy was in his sixties, mom, and extremely aesthetically challenged. Giles is forty-something and still terminally cute. He also still has a great body and he can do things guys half his age can't do. Actually he can do stuff most other guys will never be able to do. He is…well…he's just…perfect. Besides which I happen to love him...” Buffy's face changed again and her eyes danced. “I've got it. You and your big romantic thing with the sighing and the worshipping when we used to watch all those old late night movies together…Bogie and Bacall…The 'romance of the century,' you said they called it. Checkmate, mom. What was he, like forty-five, and she was what?”

Joyce scowled and sighed. “Twenty,” she said through her teeth. “All right. I've said all I'm going to say, but you're not going to die, Buffy, and one day you're going to want a family and children and all the things a girl wants from life…and he's going to be old enough to be your baby's grandfather.”

Buffy blinked. “Angel was around my age, sorta, but he couldn't even give me children. If it… If I live long enough to marry Giles…if he asks me…he'll make a great father. He'll play Rugby with them, teach them book stuff and watch them graduate from college.” Her eyes glittered. “He'll eat ice-cream and probably mushy peas with them.” She smiled to herself again. “He'll make time to take them to ice shows, be there for their high-school graduation and he won't be so busy he doesn't even know that his daughter has her own expiration date…”

“Buffy! Your father is a lot of things, and he certainly has a lot to learn about priorities, but it isn't his fault he doesn't know about the Slayer business. Either of us could have told him…but you didn't want that.”

“If he was still here, he'd know, for the same reason you know,” Buffy pointed out, her voice shaking and the moisture perilously close to overflowing. “But he isn't, and I don't need the grief. You tell him and he's going to do the 'get thee to a nunnery' thing. I can see him flying up here, challenging Giles, getting knocked on his ass, getting even angrier and blaming you, maybe trying to take me back to Los Angeles, or send me away to school. Let him live in his secure little world for now.”

“Lucky him,” Joyce muttered, but her voice cracked.

At that a small sob escaped Buffy's own throat. She stepped forward and hugged the older woman.

“I love you, mom. I've never stopped, but it's all so much bigger than just us. Don't be mad at me, and don't take it out on Giles…with or without him I would still have been called. He kept me sane…kept me alive. Any other Watcher would have tried to turn me into Kendra…and got me killed.”

Joyce hugged Buffy hard to her. It had been a very long time.

“I love you too, honey. It's just…I'm so tired of trying to deal with all of it. Just trying to sleep at night knowing you could be dead when I wake up in the morning is almost unbearable. The other stuff just makes it even more difficult. I didn't think things could get any more bizarre…and then Faith switched your bodies…I can't tell you how horrible that was.”

Buffy drew away. “I know, mom. It was horrible for me, too. I'm guessing it wasn't actually that great for Faith either. In fact, if I got anything out of the experience it was that being Faith isn't much fun for Faith either. I don't ever want to be spit on again.” She focused. “Anyway, it's over now and I'm me, not her.”

“Thank God,” Joyce observed dryly then appeared to think of something. “Buffy, I never asked you before, but why haven't you come home more often?”

It was Buffy's turn to look away. “I wanted to…at first. But you didn't need me any more. My room…you took over my room…and then Thanksgiving…I just…I was…”

“Mad at me?” Joyce asked softly.

Buffy nodded. “I'm sorry. It just seemed like everyone was pushing me away. First Angel, then Giles had Olivia and his Hugh Hefner thing going and you didn't want me. Xander had this big thing with Anya and Willow was having this big romance with knowledge and the whole College is my world bit. I guess I developed an almost terminal attack of self-pity. Pathetic, much, huh?”

Joyce finally chuckled. “Much,” she agreed, “but you were wrong about me not wanting you. I've missed you very much. That stuff was only in your room for a couple of weeks, you know. And I hadn't seen your Aunt in such a long time. If I'd known how important it was to you I wouldn't have accepted the invitation.”

“You don't have to rub it in,” Buffy told her, but there was affection in her tone now.

Joyce looked at her for a long moment, observing the changes in her daughter. “Are you really happy, Buffy?” she asked softly.

Buffy smiled, her eyes glowing. “For the first time since I can remember I feel good almost all the time. It's like he's with me, even when he's not. With Angel it was mostly pain, even before well, you know. Then there was Riley…another casualty of Summers sensitivity. Telling him was harder than telling you, but when I realised how I felt about Giles, it was like Riley just wasn't there any more. This is…well, not like anything before. For the first time in my life I actually don't feel alone. Does that make sense? I mean before, even with Giles and the guys being there for me, I always felt so alone… like nobody knew what it was like to be me, what it was like to do the things I had to do, to live with the memories I have…And nobody could die for me when my time came.”

“And now?”

“And now he knows all of it. He understands it all better than me.” She touched her chest. “He's right here, all the time…and he would…die for me, I mean. Not that I'd ever let him…but he would. It helps.”

Joyce's face softened. “I can see how it might,” she said gently. “Buffy, you know I don't hate Mister…Rupert. And you know I want you to be happy. Give me some time to get used to the idea, not that I'm going to have any dramatic reversals of opinion about the gap between you, but I can at least find a way to manage my feelings about it a little better…for both your sakes.”

Buffy appeared to be working that through, then she half smiled and nodded. “That's about as much as I could have asked for and more than I expected to get. I guess I'd better go. Giles is meeting me to patrol tonight.” She looked at her new watch. “In about half an hour. Looks like I'm jogging to Restfield.” She started to turn, then turned back.

“And mom….thanks.”

Joyce smiled at her and nodded.

“I promise I'll visit more often from now on,” she called as she went out the door.

Joyce watched it close and shook her head, then the smile faded and she sighed heavily.


********

When Buffy reached Restfield Cemetery it was peaceful and undisturbed. The stars were bright and the tiniest of breezes was ruffling the trees as she made her way to her meeting point with Giles.

He was sitting by the mausoleum reading a book. Buffy grinned and started to circle around, intending to frighten a year's growth out of him for not being on guard in such a dangerous place. She was about to spring out from a tree about five feet from him when she suddenly found herself confronted by over six-feet of stake wielding Watcher.

“Buffy!”

“Nice to see the reflexes haven't slowed down,” she grinned, throwing herself into his arms and enjoying the embrace with gusto before kissing him with just as much enthusiasm. “Missed you.”

Giles put her down good-naturedly. “You know if you're going to keep missing me this much my back won't be able to take the strain.”

Buffy giggled and leaned against him. “I talked to mom.”

“Oh, lord,” he said softly.

She giggled again. “It's okay. I didn't have to call the coronary care unit and she hasn't disowned me.”

“But she was…unhappy?”

“You could say that. Or you could say she went ballistic, freaked out and generally wigged to the max.”

Giles cleared his throat. “I get the picture. And the end result was…? You were gone for some time.”

“The end result was that she's still wigged, but we talked about a lot of stuff, some old, some new, and she's promised to try not to act too creeped out by the whole thing if we don't expect her to suddenly start loving the idea.”

Giles sighed. “Sounds like a realistic approach, if disappointing. I'm genuinely sorry to hurt your mother in any way, but the bottom line is that it is not her decision.”

Buffy kissed his chin. “I know. Consenting adults and all that. She knows too. Doesn't help a lot. It doesn't help either that my dad's been reliving his youth in Los Angeles these past few years. I wish I hadn't told mom about his girlfriends after my visits.”

Giles held her away a little. “Is that what you think I'm doing? Reliving my youth?”

Buffy's face softened. “Nah, you did that already,” she teased. “Please don't do it again. I like you just the way you are.”

“I'm serious,” he said.

Her eyes hardened a little. “I am too. Dad still hasn't got a grip. He's still doing the denial thing about his age. And I know he hasn't really been in love since he left mom.” She reached up and stroked his cheek. “I know you love me. I feel it inside of me, even when I'm not with you. And it has nothing to do with lost youth.”

He relaxed a little then and smiled down at her. “Good,” he said. “Because the last thing I want is to relive those days again. Twice was more than enough for a lifetime.” He traced her cheek, trailed his fingers down her neck to her throat. “And I do love you so very dearly…”

Buffy pulled back and looked up at him. “God, I love you too. I only realised how much I don't deserve you today when I was talking to mom. I feel like for every time you say something like that a lightning bolt is going to zap down and turn me into a pile of ash.”

Giles laughed. “A little guilt is good for the soul,” he observed and laughed more when she pushed his chest good-naturedly.

“A little guilt is way depressing, you fiend. You know how totally of the bad I was. Sometimes I feel like there was a greater force at work, making me so horrible. I mean, Summers women aren't exactly in the sensitive, nurturing column at the best of times, but ever since Angel announced the big good-bye last year, part of me seems to have been living on another planet.” She rested her brow against his dark shirt. “Just thinking about what I was doing to you hurts.”

He kissed the top of her head and drew his arms around her. “Nor was I exactly entirely blameless, love,” he told her softly. “You must come to terms with your mistakes in your own time. All that is important now is that you're mine.”

She looked up, resting her chin on a button. “How did you get so gorgeous?” she asked and felt his chest shake with laughter.

“Came by it naturally,” he chuckled.

She smiled back. “I thought so. Well, I'm not going to forget all those mistakes…all that stuff I did, but I do intend to make sure it doesn't happen again…well,” she frowned momentarily, “not too much, anyway. I shouldn't make promises I can't keep.”

He turned her gently. “You'll do better, simply because you want to. Now, time to patrol.”

“Slave-driver. Whose idea was it to come here anyway? Nothing ever happens here lately.”

“It was yours, I believe,” he pointed out dryly. “Specifically for that reason.”

“Oh yeah,” Buffy grinned as they passed several rows of ramshackle, overgrown graves, and ran a hand up his thigh. “I wanted more time to appreciate the view.”

Giles cleared his throat. “Yes, well, the view just got rather more interesting.”

Buffy looked up. There were three of them. They were large and male and annoyed about being disturbed. They were also not newly-risen.

“What do you suppose they're doing over there?”

“Waiting for someone to rise. Someone important perhaps,” Giles said quietly as the trio moved into fighting positions and Buffy drew Mister Pointy from the back of Giles' belt, under his jacket.

“This shouldn't take long,” she drawled confidently and launched into the attack.

Giles watched with his heart in his throat. They were large and looked in remarkably good condition for vampires. He moved closer, Holy water in hand, and when Buffy tossed one of them his way, threw the contents of the bottle into its face. A moment later he was able to stake it as Buffy dealt with the other two.

As she staked the last vampire he moved towards her and she looked up grinning. “My hero. Thanks. I told you it wouldn't take—”

“Buffy!”

It all happened in seconds. Giles scooped her up, swinging her around. Buffy heard him grunt and felt the impact of …something. Then he went limp. She caught him and lowered him to the ground before chasing the receding figure.

It was a newly risen female. Apart from the fact that she must have been gorgeous when she was alive, Buffy could see nothing special about her, except for the polished hunk of marble in her hand, possibly broken off her own headstone. Certainly the fight she put up wasn't much and she turned to dust as mundanely as any other vamp…

Buffy turned and ran back to where Giles still lay motionless on the ground, felt frantically for a pulse, but couldn't find one. Terrified, her heart thumping, she turned him over and searched for evidence of whatever had hit him, hampered by the darkness.

Don't die,” she whispered, pulling his shirt out. It wasn't bloody, nor did there seem to be a weapon. There was no bruise, no stab wound. Nothing. She had a thought and moved her fingers to his throat, desperately trying to find a pulse. There was one there. Faint, but there. She licked her fingers and held them under his nostrils. Equally faint breath tickled the damp skin. She sobbed with relief and turned him back onto his back.

His face was pale and his mouth was open slightly, but there was no blood, no bruises. She lifted one lid, then the other. They do that on TV programs. Her brow furrowed. What was it the medicos always said after flashing their pokey little lights in the victim's eyes? Pupils equal and reactive…

She felt in his pocket for the lighter he always carried, and produced a flame on her third attempt. With his head in her lap, she lifted a lid and flashed the small flame just far enough from his eye to be safe. The pupil was kind of normal and it shrank nicely. She lifted the other one and drew a sharp breath. It was way big and it didn't do anything when she put the flame near it.

With great care she turned him on his stomach again and felt around in his hair for a wound…and found one on the back of his head the size of a tennis ball. A view with the aid of the small flame told her that the skin wasn't broken, but there was bad bruising, maybe even bleeding, beneath the scalp.

She knew she had to go for help, but the nearest phone booth was a block away. At least there was a reasonable certainty now that he was safe from vamps. She made a pillow out of her jacket and touched his face with a trembling hand before getting up and taking off without looking back…


********

Buffy prowled the waiting room at the ER like a caged tiger, drawing scowls from some and annoyed looks from reception. After forty-five minutes without word she finally slumped in a moulded plastic chair, only to rise again a few minutes later when Xander and Willow arrived.

“No Anya?” she asked wearily.

“Nowadays she doesn't like anything to do with sick people,” Xander shrugged, his face pale and drawn. “Unless its me. Are you okay?”

She nodded and looked at Willow. “Tara?”

Willow shrugged. “Studying.”

The blue eyes grew bitter. “So here we are: the original and the best. Together again. And all it took was my bad…again…to get us together.”

“It wasn't your fault, Buffy. You couldn't know she was going to—”

“Of course I should have known,” Buffy snapped then her face dropped. “Sorry, Will. I know you're trying to help, but like I said on the phone, it's my fault. Giles said they were probably waiting for someone to rise, but I was distracted and I let him get hurt…again.”

For another hour they waited, but no one came. Another three hours passed after that, until, finally, someone dangling a stethoscope approached them, looking rumpled and monumentally weary.

“Buffy Summers?”

“That would be me,” she said in a small voice.

“Your name is on the paperwork as Next-of-Kin.”

She nodded and looked up at the youngish, hawk-faced intern. “He's my…uh…fiancé.”

The intern cleared his throat. “Yes, well, Mister Giles has a depressed fracture of the occipital region of his skull, subdural bleeding and a severe concussion. At this stage he's stabilised and in intensive care. We have relieved the pressure and made him comfortable, but he hasn't regained consciousness…er…from the anaesthetic yet.”

“How much longer?” Xander demanded, but Willow was looking at the young doctor, all the colour now drained from her small face.

The doctor cleared his throat again. “He should be awake now. He's under observation, but we won't know for some time if…that is, we've done a number of tests, scans and such…We'll inform you of the results as soon as we know…”

“They think he's going to die,” Willow said miserably.

“He's not going to die,” Buffy said quietly. “I won't let him die. You have to let me see him.”

Willow collected herself. “Doctor—” She stopped to look at his name-tag. “Doctor Schmidt, they're very close. If Giles…I mean, Mister Giles, is in a coma, Buffy is the one who should be with him.”

“We…we don't know yet. We hoped that relieving the pressure…”

“Which room?” Buffy demanded.

“I don't know if…”

“WHICH ROOM?”


********


Buffy opened the door of the small intensive care unit slowly. He seemed terribly alone, all hooked up to monitors and drips, even something that went in his mouth, the head of the bed raised slightly, a small nurse sitting quietly in a chair alongside him and the other two beds unoccupied…

The nurse looked up as she slid into the room and closed the door carefully.

Buffy held up her left hand, upon which she'd moved her best dress ring to her ring finger and removed the others.

“You still really shouldn't be in here, uh, Mrs Giles,” she said softly, frowned and looked down at the patient, then back up at the girl now standing over him.

“Fiancée,” Buffy muttered. “How is he?”

“No change.”

Thereafter Buffy ignored her, pulling the visitor's hard, plastic chair close to the bedside and sliding her hand into his. For a long while she just looked at him, then drew his hand against her breast.

“Missed you,” she said softly, a tear sliding unheeded down a pale cheek. “All those bonks on the head and now you have to go and do this to me. God, Giles, could your timing be any worse? We finally get things figured out…and I let you get whacked by a newbie vamp…um…vandal. Those darn vandals,” she added lamely, trying not to check the nurse's face to see if her slip had been noticed.

His hand was limp and not as warm as she'd have liked. Her other one slipped almost of its own volition to his rumpled hair. His head was turned to one side and there were obvious signs of shaving at the back, and a dressing. She stroked the smooth brow, pushing back the sweat-limp locks as she spoke.

“Giles, please…please don't go away. You said you'd never leave me. You didn't go when they fired you and you didn't go even when I turned into bitch-monster of the century…no wait, that was Professor Walsh,” she teased. “I need you, Rupert. And that's a big, for me. I've never needed anyone before, except for you. I wanted Angel so bad, but I never needed him. But you…once I needed you to be my Watcher. Now I need you just to want to go on living and breathing.” Her voice wavered. “I-I'm not sure I can do that without you, Bookguy…the living or the breathing.”

But Giles didn't move. He was as still as a corpse. Even the normally reassuring rise and fall of his chest was shallow and barely perceptible. For a long moment Buffy stared at the pale face, missing the soft green eyes, the crinkles at their corners when he was amused and the little dent that appeared above the bridge of his nose when she confused him or he was annoyed about something. All there was now was the gentle face that had so often reassured her in the past, looking fragile and unreachable as the machines beeped and pleeped into the silence of the room.

She shuddered and closed her fingers more tightly around his hand, then slid weakly to the seat.

“Giles, if you die I promise you I'll let Xander and Anya do your eulogy and I'll tell everyone about you and mom and the police car,” she warned in a dire voice, trying to hold back the hurt. “Did I tell you I…” She shot a half look at the nurse, who was reading quietly. “…I dusted that problem you had earlier?”

A small sob escaped her throat in the ensuing silence. She was so used to his small quips, his chuckles at her silliness, and the soothing tone of his voice when he was explaining things or even just reading something to her, that the silence was agonising.

She lifted the hand to her lips and caressed the limp fingers with them. “I'm not letting you get away with this. You know that, don't you? You can't die. God, even I came back…well, Xander dragged me back…and you really wouldn't want my mom to have the last word, would you? Okay, that was lame. I wish you'd open your eyes and tell me how lame,” she almost whimpered, and held the palm of his hand against her cheek.

“Buffy…” a voice whispered behind her. The nurse looked up from the other side of the bed and frowned.

Buffy turned, still holding the big hand between both of hers.

“Mom?” she half-whispered.

Joyce gestured for her to come out into the hall.

Reluctantly she tucked the hand back into his side, brushed the curls she'd stroked earlier back off his brow and kissed it.

“Gotta go for a few minutes, Beautiful. Don't go anywhere…and remember what I said about Xander and Anya doing your eulogy.”

She pulled herself away from the bedside and followed her mother out, allowed her to draw her into her arms.

“I'm so sorry.”

“Thanks for coming, mom. Who told you?”

“Willow.”

“Figures.”

They separated slowly.

“Was…was it a vampire…is he?”

“Yeah, it was a vamp…a new one. It was my fault. And no, he's not.” Buffy's lip trembled and the tears began in earnest. “I was goofing off…he saved my life, mom, and they don't even know if he's going to l-live. A-And he's got so many wires and tubes…”

Joyce's face dropped. “Oh God,” she said softly. “I know you want to go back to him, but I just wanted you to know I'll be out here with the kids until whatever happens, happens. I won't leave you…either of you.”

A ghost of a smile flitted through the misery on Buffy's face. “Thanks. Just…thanks, but I know you have to take care of the gallery. We'll be fine, really. I-If anything changes I'll make sure someone lets you guys know right away…and mom, tell Will and Xander he's holding his own…at the moment. E-Everything's still beeping and stuff.” She held her mother's gaze a moment longer, her face bleak, but managed a brief smile again, before disappearing back into the room.

Willow looked up from the very old magazine she was pretending to read as Mrs. Summers approached them. Her eyes widened and she jumped up when she saw the redness and the moisture on the usually immaculate face.

“Is he…?”

Joyce shook her head. “Buffy is staying with him. There's no change. She said he's holding his own.”

“How's Buffy doing?” she asked quietly as Xander joined her.

“Not too good, but holding her own too, I think. I know one thing. They aren't going to move her away from him unless she wants to go,” she told them wryly.

Both of them half-smiled but Joyce could see their hearts weren't in it. What was it about Rupert Giles that made them all love him so very much?

“Both of you should think about going home and getting some sleep. You know I'll be here and that I'll call you immediately if anything changes,” she said gently, and was unsurprised to see both their expressions harden and their mouths disappear into flat, stubborn lines.

Willow spoke first. “I can't leave,” she said tremulously. “Not while he's in danger. Xander can go if he wants, but I'm staying.”

“No way,” Xander said harshly. “I'm staying. He's my…He's my friend…I can't go until I know he's safe. I just can't.”

Joyce nodded. “I didn't think you would, but I'm a parent. I had to try. There's a cafeteria not too far away. I saw it when I came in. Can I get something for you?”

Xander brightened just a little. “I'll come with you,” he offered. “Anything's better than just sitting around, waiting. I was getting a numb butt.”

Joyce almost chuckled, except the image of her daughter kept getting in the way, amplified by the fear in the dark eyes now looking back at her.

“Willow?”

Willow shook her head then stopped. “A drink, maybe, for later. Juice…something…” she suggested absently. “I'll wait here.”


********

Buffy had only resumed her place at Giles' side minutes before, when a relieving nurse came to take over from the younger one. The new one was much older, and seemed to be a more senior nurse than the other.

Buffy tightened her grasp of Giles' hand and faced her new companion off until the latter finally spoke.

“Visiting hours are over, dear,” she said gently. “You can come back and visit with your father tomorrow. We'll take good care of him.”

Buffy scowled, well-meaning mid-western accent and matronly face or no. “Fiancée,” she growled and held up the ring finger again. “And I'm not going anywhere,” she growled in a voice that shouldn't have brooked any argument.

Unfortunately the nurse seemed oblivious to Buffy's intimidation tactics.

“This isn't really the place for you…uh…Miss?”

“You can call me Ms Summers,” Buffy muttered. “And it's the only place for me. I won't leave him. I'm staying, and if you try and have me removed it's going to be bad for everyone, so just…chill. The man I love may be dying and you want to quibble about visiting hours,” she snapped, gradually losing it. “I've failed him so many times nothing on this earth, let alone a…a…whatever you are…is going to get in the way of me being here for him this time.”

The round face smiled in a kindly way, though her colour was now high. “Please don't distress yourself, dear. I'm just doing my job. I won't force you to go, but I had to ask. Understand though, that when it's time for me to do my job, I expect you to stand clear and let me do it…for his sake.”

Buffy stared at her for a long moment. God, she must come from Iowa or somewhere. She nodded slowly. “I'm Buffy…Buffy Summers. Please don't let him die.”

The smiled returned. “Mine name is Evvie and I can't make any promises, but with both of us here, he's in good hands, wouldn't you say?”

Buffy exhaled, long and heavily. “Good hands,” she whispered, looked down at the still face and trailed her fingers from his temple to his cheek.

“Hear that, Big Guy? You're in good hands. You hear me? So don't take too much longer to come back, or I'll get Evvie to give you a bed bath.”

There was a small choking noise from the other side of the bed, then a throat being cleared.

“Got it?” Buffy went on, caressing the beloved face. “Bed bath from Evvie, Xander and Anya writing the eulogy, you and mom and the police car and oh…how about I ask mom to bring in some of my calisthenics music in the morning if you're still not cooperating?”

A tear splashed on a wan, stubbly cheek, and then another, then Buffy dropped back into the chair and buried her face in the hand she was holding.

Evelyn McBride watched sadly, sighed and did a full scan of all the equipment in the room, checked the drip, and prepared to take observations.


********


When Buffy stirred again it was because there was a rattling noise making its way along the hallway, past the room. She raised her head and blinked.

“It's five o'clock,” Evvie said softly. “Breakfast is starting.”

But Buffy wasn't listening. She was on her feet and leaning over Giles, checking every square millimetre of his face for any hopeful sign, biting down hard to hold back the disappointment both of waking up to find that the nightmare was true, and that there was no apparent change. She slowly lowered her brow to his chest and sobbed softly, before breathing deeply and collecting herself. She straightened.

“H-How is he? You let me sleep,” she added accusingly.

“You needed it,” Evvie said gently. “And you were right here. You weren't going to miss anything, honey. He's stronger but there's no change otherwise. Best to wait and see what the doctors have to say about their tests now.”

Buffy's face became marginally less stormy and she looked down again at Giles, her fingers curling around his again for a few moments. “I'm going to go see the guys,” she told him softly. “But I'll be back real soon. Be good for Evvie.”

Joyce was drinking black coffee and looking remarkably unruffled when Buffy padded into the waiting room. Xander was asleep in a chair, his head back and his mouth open, and Willow was curled up next to him, seemingly dozing on his shoulder.

“Anything?” Joyce asked softly, rising and meeting her half way, handing her the almost full cup.

Buffy shook her head and sipped at the strong, fragrant beverage. Apart from being rumpled and creased she was little the worse for wear.

“No change.”

What unsettled Joyce most were her eyes. The bleak, fragile despair in them was something she had never seen there before. No matter how bad things had been in the past, Buffy had always gotten angry, even hard, rather than succumb to pain, or fear…or despair.

“You all need a hot shower and a change of clothes,” she told her. “They wouldn't go, but if you could convince them to take turns, they might.”

Buffy blinked again, and focused, as though thinking was almost too difficult. She crushed the now empty paper cup. “Why?” she rasped.

“Because you don't have any idea how long you're going to have to do this. As long as one of you is here, he's not alone, and if you don't eat or sleep or look after yourselves you're going to be no good to him or anyone else.”

Joyce watched her turn and look at the others, still dozing, and showing obvious signs of a long night.

“I have to get back to him. Tell them I said to take turns. Tell them if they do, I will. One of them can sit with him while I'm gone. You should do the same thing. And you have the gallery to worry about.”

Before she could reply Buffy had turned and was disappearing through the big swing doors with their 'no unauthorized entry' signs.


********

Evvie, due to go off duty, watched the young woman settle in the chair alongside Mister Giles and wondered.

Young Buffy claimed to be his fiancée and this one wasn't much older. She had also glimpsed an older woman, obviously Buffy's mother, the night before, and a gangly boy trying to peek in this morning, while Buffy introduced this Willow child, begged her indulgence for an hour or so and left with the greatest reluctance to go home, shower and get a change of clothes.

The Willow girl had taken Mister Giles' hand in both of hers and was staring at him as though she could will him to waken. Evvie watched the tears roll down the creamy cheeks and knew that this man was loved. She swallowed and picked up her magazine. She'd read it twice through, but she was well practised at withdrawing from other people's private moments.

Willow knew her time was brief, and that there was even a chance this might be the last time she ever saw him. It hurt to see him so helpless after so many narrow escapes, so much past tragedy…

She tightened her hold on his hand. “Giles,” she whispered, “please don't go away. We need you…” She paused. “God, did I say that? We don't want to lose you, Giles. We—I couldn't bear it if you were gone.”

Only the sounds of the machines answered her. Her huge green eyes grew even larger and she sighed jaggedly.

“Damn it, we do need you. I know that sounds selfish but…well, tough. You can't leave us,” she finished almost angrily, colour flashing in her wan cheeks. The tears that coursed over them, however, belied her tone.

For the next hour or so she continued to talk to him, rambling about things Evvie couldn't guess at and at times didn't want to. A lot of it was about him being hurt on other occasions. It seemed that he was prone to head injuries. She wondered at his line of work and what a Glove of Minagon might be…

Then the door flew open and Buffy Summers was back, dressed in black stretch pants and a man's grey sweater, far, far too big for her and rather stretched to boot.

Willow stood up. “Buffy. You were fast.”

Buffy shrugged. “Mom dropped me on her way back to the gallery. How is he?”

She shook her head and looked toward Evvie.

“No change,” she said softly, then as though she couldn't bear the disappointment in their eyes: “but his pulse is stronger and his blood pressure is almost normal, both good signs.”

They nodded almost in unison. “I'll go tell Xander,” Willow said quietly, and ran her fingers down Buffy's sleeve, half smiled, before her lip started to tremble.

“His favourite,” she managed, then caught the other girl's eyes for a moment and was lost, sobbing as she fled the room.

Buffy watched her go, a stubborn frown on her face even as her mouth tried to crumble. She took Giles' hand again.

“Is he going to die, Evvie?”

The nurse looked at the striking figure behind the wires, sensors, tubes and cannula, and then at the equally striking girl holding his hand almost defiantly.

“I'm not a doctor, Buffy,” she finally answered. “But he's not going anywhere right now.”

Buffy exhaled, as though she'd been holding her breath, and sat down on the chair. “So when do I see the doctor?”

********

When the time came, Buffy was surprised to see that it wasn't Doctor Schmidt. Rather, it was a much older individual, not nearly as tired and rumpled, in fact pretty spiffy in his very expensive suit. His name was Jorgensen and he was a Professor, and apparently, the surgeon who had operated on Giles.

She didn't much like the way the pale blue eyes sized her up beneath their bushy white eyebrows after he checked the chart and spoke quietly with the nurse.

“You are his fiancée, Miss…?”

“I am the woman he loves,” Buffy returned. “And the name is Summers. Ms Summers.”

“Well, Ms Summers, in the absence of any next-of-kin, I must tell you that Mister Giles is severely injured. The depressed skull fracture is in a particularly sensitive area. Coma is particularly unpredictable and we won't know until the bruising and swelling subsides what, if any, permanent damage has been done. There are a number of sensitive, even critical areas in close proximity to the site of the injury. I would advise you to be prepared for all eventualities.”

Buffy's eyes narrowed. “Are you saying you don't think he's going to die now, but he still might be brain damaged, or worse?”

“His survival, at this point, depends on him. He appears, for the time being, to be stable, however that could change. There will be ongoing tests. As to the rest, we just don't know. I simply believe it is far better to be prepared for these things, rather than be taken unawares when the time comes.”

The colour had once again drained from Buffy's face, and her eyes glistened, but she nodded and stared back at him.

“Your bedside manner owes a lot to Attila the Hun,” she said dryly, “but I appreciate the honesty.”

At that Jorgensen actually grinned and looked down at Giles. “I think perhaps he's a lucky man,” he said quietly then turned and headed out the door.

“Well that's a first,” Evvie mused.

“A-A first?”

The nurse grinned and cocked her head toward the door. “He's usually so full of his own self importance you wouldn't know there was a human being under there. You made him grin. A first.”

Buffy, back sitting alongside Giles and quietly stroking his brow, half-smiled. “I'm not easily intimidated,” she said simply.

Tell me something I don't know, Evvie thought to herself, wondering at the same time if her Relief would arrive on time so that she could go home and take her shoes off…


********

The days began to blur. Xander and Buffy convinced Willow to keep up her classes, to take notes for Buffy, staying in touch by phone to make being away bearable. Xander relieved Buffy in the afternoon long enough for her to get a few hours sleep, not that her mind or body would let her rest any more, anyway. Willow gave Xander a break each day from dinnertime until midnight, when she returned to the dorm to try and sleep, so that her classes would make some semblance of sense the next morning. Joyce Summers came and went, bringing supplies, motherly advice and silent support for her daughter.

It was on the fourth day that Buffy was being driven back to the hospital by her mother after a break to shower and change for the first time in two days. She'd even managed to catch four hours sleep, the best she'd done at a stretch in the past week.

The sun was shining brilliantly and the roads were clear. Buffy's golden head was tilted back against the seat, her eyes closed in the reflected warmth; had been for most of the journey. Joyce could see the weariness, the effects of not eating or sleeping, in every line, every crease in her daughter's face.

Just when the peace was beginning to lull the older woman into something resembling relaxation, Buffy sat bolt upright.

“Mom, the hospital! Hurry!”

“Buffy, what?” she demanded, putting her foot down steadily.

“I feel…I don't know. I just… Something's wrong. I don't know what, or how. I just know I have to be there, now!

In dire peril of being pulled over for speeding, Joyce finally brought the big vehicle to a halt in front of the hospital, Buffy not willing to wait for her to find a parking space.

The Slayer's headlong flight through the hospital brought her to Giles' room panting and panicked, the overwhelming sense of impending…something…almost making her ill as she put her hand on the doorknob.

Terror seized her…a morbid certainty that she was too late, that she'd failed him again. She was shaking like a leaf and unable to make herself open the door. She couldn't, however, stifle a despairing sob.

A moment later, Evvie opened it.

“I thought I heard someone…” She trailed off. “Buffy? Are you ill? What's wrong?”

“Giles…” Buffy whispered. “R-Rupert, is he?”

Evvie helped her into the room, not exactly sure what was going on, but alarmed at the girl's pallor.

Buffy drew a sharp breath. Willow, who was giving an exhausted Xander a chance to get a full night's sleep, was asleep herself, her head resting on the side of the bed. And Giles…

…Giles was staring out the window, endotracheal tube removed, looking…almost human again.

She slipped past Willow to the head of the bed and took his hand, making him jump.

“Willow?” he whispered and turned his head.

“Giles…” Buffy whispered, never so relieved to see anything, as she was to look into those soft green eyes again.

There was a swift intake of breath. “Buffy…?”

It was a fragile, desperate sound. Something was wrong. She swallowed another sob. “I'm here now. I'm sorry I wasn't here…but I'm here now,” she babbled, stroking his brow.

“Buffy, love…” His hand closed convulsively around the one holding it and he closed his eyes again. “You're here…” he sighed. “You're here.”

Buffy looked around, bewildered, to the nurse as Willow stirred and stretched sleepily.

“He's been awake for a little while now. The doctor has seen him and Doctor Jorgensen, himself, is going to talk to you later this afternoon.” She smiled kindly. “This will be my last day with you.”

Buffy clutched Giles' hand closer and turned to Willow. “Will…why didn't you call?”

Willow blinked. “Call?”

“About Giles being awake?”

The green eyes grew as large as saucers. “He's awake?” She forgot everything except Giles, her hand unconsciously resting on his chest as she leaned in to look at his face.

“Giles?”

He half smiled, but didn't open his eyes. “Willow,” he said weakly, in a dry, raspy voice. “Knew you were there somewhere…sandalwood…”

Willow looked at the nurse accusingly. “You didn't tell me.”

“You didn't ask,” she retorted pointedly.

“Will,” Buffy said desperately. “What's going on?”

Willow looked miserable. “I was away from the room for maybe an hour…Tara needed to see me…I-I'm sorry, Buffy. The nurse said it would be okay…I was only in the waiting room.” She looked back at Giles. “You were asleep when I got back.” She scowled. “She didn't tell me.”

“It's all right, Willow,” Giles said slowly. “Not procedure…”

Evvie nodded at Buffy. “Your friend isn't Next-of-Kin. It's stupid, but it could mean my job, not to follow certain rules. Privacy issues are a little different than bending the rules about visiting hours.”

“I don't care about any of that,” Willow told them impatiently. “Giles is back; nothing else matters. A-Are you okay?”

He smiled and patted the hand on his chest, his eyes opening again, almost reluctantly. “I'm going to be fine. Even the doctor was pleased…”

Buffy felt his other hand tightening around hers and frowned. Something was very wrong.

“Will,” she said quietly. “Why don't you go and tell mom the news?”

Willow looked from one friend to the other, sensing trouble but not sure what it could be. She nodded then smiled at Giles again, opened her mouth to say goodbye…

But Giles wasn't smiling back. He wasn't even looking at her. He wasn't looking at anything.

Willow's frightened eyes flicked swiftly to the grey-blue ones and saw the realisation dawning on her friend's face at the same moment. She bit her bottom lip before leaning forward and touching his cheek gently.

“Welcome back, Giles. We…I love you,” she whispered.

His other hand sought and squeezed the fingers touching his face. “And I you,” he said softly.

Willow choked down a surge of emotion, withdrew and left swiftly. Giles' hand extended momentarily after her.

“Buffy…?”

“She's okay,” Buffy said softly, and scowled at the nurse. “Why didn't you tell me?”

Evvie stared back patiently. “When have I had the chance? Besides, everything will be explained this afternoon.” She shook her head. “It's just not my place.”

Buffy snorted and turned back to the man she loved, stroking his brow tenderly. “Hiya, Beautiful,” she crooned then almost choked trying to smother a sob when she saw his amused grin.

“That's the second time you've called me that,” he told her in a slow, deliberate voice. “I heard you, you know. I don't think anyone has ever called me that before.”

“Well they should have,” she admonished. “Because you are. I didn't think you were ever going to come back. I missed you so much.”

“I missed you too, love, wherever the hell I was.” A look of anguish passed over his haggard features. “I wish I could see your face…”

Tears trickled down her cheeks. “I wish you could too,” she said softly, her hand aching now from his grip on it. She lifted it and held it against her breast.

He closed his eyes again. “Funny,” he said softly, “it doesn't seem to matter whether they're open or closed.”

Buffy swallowed. “Is it like…back when Willow's spell…?”

He didn't speak for a long moment. Finally he nodded, silently. “After you all left,” he whispered, “I thought I would go mad…”

“I'm sorry,” she whispered, remembering, with shame, the way she'd behaved under the spell. “But I'm here now and I won't leave you again, I promise. They can't make me.”

“Of that I'm certain,” he managed hoarsely as her fingers traced his jaw, and chuckled in a raspy, crackled sort of way, stopping only when her mouth covered his. For long moments nothing existed except the two of them. For those moments Giles forgot the pain, the discomfort, forgot that he might never see again, that he might never drink his fill of that beautiful face, or see those grey-blue eyes looking into his again.

It was Buffy who finally ended it, resting her head on his shoulder. Giles shuddered when he opened his eyes to yet more darkness, and reality crushed down on him again. It was bad enough when Willow blinded him, but at least then he was able to cling to the knowledge that a spell—any spell—could be reversed, eventually…but this…

He kissed the herbal scented head, aware that his monitors were beginning to make the wrong kind of noises, but helpless to stop the despair that was consuming him, or its effects on his severely weakened body.

“Buffy,” Evvie said after another moment of erratic pleeping and beeping. Buffy raised her head. “Time for me to do my job.”

The younger woman frowned at the noises that filled the room and looked up.

“Giles…?” she asked fearfully, searching his face.

“He's fine,” Evvie said quickly. “It's just a little bit soon for you to be getting him all excited. Why don't you go tell your mom and the others how he's doing and come back in a little while?”

Buffy didn't want to go, and she knew by the grip Giles still had on her hand that a part of him didn't want her to go either.

“The nurse is right, love,” he said softly. “I'll be fine.” He managed a smile. “See what you do to me?”

“Good thing you don't have these things on you at home then, huh? Or we might have blown the place up by now,” Buffy teased, both of them chuckling at first. Then their faces almost simultaneously froze at the mutual realisation that 'home' might never be quite the same again.

Very slowly Buffy lifted his hand and kissed his fingers. “I won't be gone long, I promise,” she whispered. “If you need me, Evvie will call me. Won't you, Evvie?” The blue eyes dared the nurse to say otherwise.

Evvie nodded. “Right away,” she agreed, watched the fiery young woman leave, and the flicker of despair that crossed the handsome face as her footsteps receded, amazed yet again at the intensity of the connection between the charismatic pair.


*******

Buffy, Willow and Joyce were all deep in conversation, Buffy and Willow still looking the worse for wear, when Xander arrived. Willow had missed him earlier, when she tried to call his home with the news.

He stopped dead in the doorway of the room. They hadn't seen him, and he wasn't sure he wanted to go any further. The implications of them all being together didn't bear thinking about. His heart raced and his palms had already started to sweat. He couldn't lose Giles…he couldn't. Without even saying a word, the older man had made him feel more wanted, more…cared for, than his parents had in the whole of his short lifetime. Even when the girls had been too busy, or to preoccupied with their own seemingly endless problems, Giles had always been there, always listened…not always sympathetically, but with forbearance, with the tolerance of a real…

Xander took a deep breath and halted his thoughts.

All three women looked up as he approached, and were instantly on their feet.

“Xander, what's wrong?” Willow demanded, moving to his side and taking an arm.

He shrugged, but his hands weren't steady. “Giles…is he…?” he managed hoarsely.

“Oh, Xander,” Joyce said softly.

Buffy went to him then. “It's okay, Xand. He's awake,” she said gently.

“A-Awake?” he said disbelievingly. “He's okay?”

Buffy nodded. “He's going to be just fine.”

Xander looked from one to the other. It wasn't unadulterated joy he saw in their eyes. “But something's still wrong?”

“He…” Willow looked at Buffy, who nodded. “He can't see. We don't know if it's permanent or not, yet.”

Xander let out a breath he didn't know he'd been holding. “Well, hey, he's been blind before. It's not like he doesn't know the deal…and we can help,” he said nervously.

“If he wants our help,” Willow said darkly. “You know Giles.”

“I'm sure it's only temporary,” Joyce said soothingly, but her eyes betrayed her concern. It was one thing for Buffy to contemplate a long term relationship with a man Rupert Giles' age when he was fit and able to support her, another altogether for her to be tied to him with no form of support, no real future. She hadn't forced herself to go and see Angel, only to see Buffy committed to a union just as hopeless in spite of her best efforts…

“Mom, this is a head injury. Even I know you can't predict anything about head injuries,” Buffy said bitterly. “Right, Will?”

Willow nodded slowly. “He might get his sight back slowly over the next few days, or all at once…or never. A-And there might be other things…h-head trauma is—”

“This is Giles,” Xander interjected suddenly. “Mister granite head, remember? He always gets better and I don't remember any bad…”

Willow's eyes grew larger and glistened with moisture.

”Willow?” Buffy demanded, unnerved. “What do you know?”

“He-He's had problems before.”

“What kind of problems?” Buffy demanded tensely, knowing she had no right to be angry; that it was just as much her fault that she'd never noticed, never bothered to check on him even though she…and her destiny…had been to blame at least in part, for nearly all of his injuries…

“After the Anointed One…y'know, kidnapped us, he had at least two dizzy spells in the library that I know of,” Willow said carefully. “A-And after the…after Angelus…he had a lot of pills in the bathroom…” She frowned. “There were bad nightmares…and he had trouble remembering things …and headaches…lots of headaches.”

“And…when he nearly died,” Xander said slowly, “after Mrs Post tried to cave his head in—I remember now…”

“Giles nearly died?”

Both of them turned to Buffy.

“God, Buff, didn't you ever listen?” Xander said harshly. “They had to revive him at least once on the way to the hospital. He had more wires and tubes in him than a Borg on a bad day.”

“He nearly died twice,” Willow told her quietly. “And afterward he took a long time… with more nightmares, and insomnia…and more headaches.” She frowned again. “I think even his right hand went kinda funny for a while. I know he swore about it a lot…”

Buffy stared. “Why don't I know any of this?”

“Yeah,” Xander muttered. “Why don't you?”

She closed her eyes. “What do you want?” she whispered. “I wasn't there for him. I was never there.”

“Well that's a start,” Xander muttered. “Must have had something to do with your morbid fascination with dead things,” he added bitterly.

Buffy looked him squarely in the eye. “How about it has to do with being sixteen and finding out that dead things are your life?” she shot back. “I didn't ask to be the Slayer and I never wanted the deal. I can't change the past. I can't undo what I've done to him…all I can do now is love him. And if that isn't enough…”

Xander put a big finger to her lips. “It's enough. I've seen how he looks at you…how you look at him. I just wish you had…”

The lip trembled beneath his finger. “I know. So do I,” she whispered and took the big hand in her own. “You know where his room is?” Xander nodded. “I made him all excited,” she said ruefully. “But I think he'd like it if you visited…I…I can wait,” she added, when he opened his mouth to speak.

He stared at her for a long moment, saw that she meant it, and nodded, his eyes bright.
.
Buffy smiled slowly and then more widely when he finally smiled back. “Go,” she said, and watched him almost run to the doors.


*******

Xander slipped down the corridor trying to look nonchalant. He was as aware as they all were that Giles really wasn't meant to have visitors, especially ones that weren't family. He snorted. They were family. In all but name…

The room was kind of tranquil, half-lit, silent but for the rhythmic noises of the monitors, and deserted but for the one nurse and the one occupied bed. He slipped inside and went to sit on the window side of the bed, opposite the nurse, who met his gaze momentarily, warnings dire and otherwise clear in her large grey eyes, then went back to her novel.

He watched the older man's face for a long while, wondering if he was in a heavy sleep or just unaware that he had company, until he saw the long fingers curl into a fist. A look at Giles' clenched jaw told him the older man was either in pain, or having a nightmare.

Then the green eyes opened and, for a moment, Xander thought they were looking straight into his, but when he moved forward and the eyes didn't follow, his heart dropped.

“Hi Giles,” he said softly.

“Xander?”

“So that head isn't as hard as we all thought…who knew?” He joked in a strained voice.

“Where's Buffy?” Giles asked uncertainly.

A look of great sadness passed over the boy's face. “Sorry…she's in the waiting room. Do you want—?”

A large hand snaked out and felt for his. He took it and felt the big fingers tighten around his.

“H-How is Anya?”

For a moment Xander stared at his friend, too moved to speak, then covered the hand with his other one wordlessly.

“She's fine. You know Anya. Not into the illness thing unless she's dishing it out, or nursing me,” he replied, half smiling.

Giles moved his head almost imperceptibly in a nod. “The…slaying?”

“Riley's guys are doing double patrols. And Adam's been pretty quiet. I think something may be brewing but there's not much happening on the streets.”

“Good,” Giles sighed and closed his eyes again.

Xander watched him knowingly. “She's doing fine,” he said softly. “She's hardly left your side since it happened.”

The big fingers squeezed his again, but Giles didn't speak. After a time Xander felt the grip loosen and knew that he had dozed off again

With great gentleness he extricated himself and headed back to the waiting room.

A drawn-looking Buffy got up quickly and came to him.

“He's fine. Asleep now.” He smiled gently at her. “He was looking for you.”

She managed a small smile back, nodded and slipped away.

He watched her go, amazed once again at the changes in her since she and Giles had finally found each other. Once he got over the weirdness factor it didn't take him long to concede that it had been inevitable. It was, in fact, about as right as things ever got… which did not, however, make the changes in Buffy any less spectacular.

He'd watched her bloom overnight into womanhood…the self absorbed, oblivious teen long gone. Gods knew she was going to need every bit of that new maturity and strength of character to get through this. The man in that room was going to need her, badly…


*******

Buffy opened the door to Giles' new room and slipped inside.

The last two days had passed much faster than the previous four. She'd come straight from her first trip back to the campus since the accident to find her mother already there, with Xander, who was wolfing down sandwiches from the hospital canteen before catching a lift to town, with Joyce.

He looked so pale and lonely lying there, still elevated slightly, asleep against the white pillows.

She moved silently to his side and looked at him, unable to stop herself from reaching out and touching his face very gently. His eyes flickered open and she felt him start then relax when he remembered why everything was still dark.

“Hey, Beautiful,” she said softly.

“Hey, yourself,” he said, barely above a whisper, a shadow of a smile touching his lips then vanishing again.

“How do you feel?” She winced. “I know, dumb question, but I did wait three days to ask.”

Giles half smiled again. “I feel like going home, but I'm not sure I'm going to be able to convince anyone else.”

Her fingers traced his jaw and trailed down his neck to his chest. “I'll see what I can do about getting them to see reason,” she said lightly. “I mean, hey, look how soon they let you escape last time your head nearly got knocked off.”

He smirked and the unfocused eyes danced for a moment. “And which time would that be, pray? There have been rather a lot of them.”

Buffy's face sobered. “The one Xander told me you almost died from,” she whispered hauntedly. “Why didn't you tell me?”

His amusement turned to a frown. “Bad timing,” he said quietly. “I was angry, and hurt.” He paused then. “…Lord, I'm beginning to sound rather a wimp, even to myself,” he mused wryly.

Her fingers stilled for a moment then shifted to take his hand. “Wimp nothing. You never have talked about any of it,” she said softly. “We, all of us, should have been there for you, even just a little. Me most of all, and I was the worst. At least Willow and Xander tried.”

He squeezed her fingers. “Willow and Xander weren't busy trying to keep the world from being consumed by evil.”

“Softy,” she said lovingly, leaning over and resting her head on his shoulder. “We both know the truth. I'll never be able to make it up to you, but I want to spend the rest of our lives trying.”

Giles sighed and kissed the soft-scented head, but his expression was one of profound sadness. They remained liked like that for some time, his arm around her, his face turned into the softness of her hair. They were disturbed only when the door opened unexpectedly.

Doctor Jorgensen let himself into the room and picked up Giles' notes without paying any particular attention to the scene before him.

“How are we feeling today, Mister Giles?” He asked without lifting his head.

“About how you'd expect us to be feeling,” Giles drawled as Buffy straightened and scowled at the surgeon.

Jorgensen looked up, ignored Buffy and focused on his patient. “Your tests indicate that you're a very lucky man. The latest results would appear to indicate that you've managed to avoid permanent damage to a number of areas we had significant concerns about.”

“But?” Buffy demanded. “Giles…Rupert…is still blind. Are you saying that's the one area with permanent damage?”

Jorgensen's pale eyes widened and his bushy brows rose. “Not at all,” he snorted. “It's possible, of course, but there's a significant likelihood that he will regain some or all of his sight eventually.”

She scowled again and closed her fingers more tightly around his, felt the responding squeeze. “How eventually is 'eventually?'”

“Well, now, that is the question. It varies with the injury, the individual, and a number of other factors, but the truth is there is no accurate predictor for this type of injury.”

“How long before we know if it's permanent…or at least that recovery is extremely unlikely?” Giles asked quietly.

“We won't, for certain,” the surgeon replied. “But the longer it takes for you to notice any change, the less likelihood there is for a full recovery.”

“But…but he could still get it all back at once, even if it takes a while?” Buffy ventured.

Jorgensen sighed again, this time impatiently. “Anything is possible, but it is unlikely.”

“When can I go home?” Giles asked suddenly.

“You will be moved out of intensive care this afternoon. If you remain stable and tomorrow morning's tests are favourable there is no reason why you can't go home towards the end of the week. By then we should have a much clearer picture of the extent of the damage and any further surprises that might still be in store for us.”

Buffy watched the door close behind the pompous physician before turning back to her lover. “Well, the good news is you're coming home…”

“And that I could have my eyesight back tomorrow,” Giles added dryly.

“And the bad news is he's not letting you out before Friday…”

“Or of course I could remain a blind, useless old fart for the rest of my life,” he added, bitterness creeping into his voice.

Startled, Buffy's eyes flew to his. “Don't talk like that. You learned what…five, six languages, plus a few dead ones? You can deal. Braille should be a piece of cake for a brain like you,” she admonished, unnerved by the fear she saw in the soft green depths.

“Of course I can,” he said roughly. “And I can get a cane and a seeing-eye dog and we can take strolls in the park together. We'll train the dog to alert you whenever there's a demon hovering close by.”

His tone was harsh and unpleasant. Buffy let go of his hand and straightened. “Don't,” she whispered.

“Don't what?” he asked roughly. “If you can't deal with the realities involved, I suggest you go home.”

Buffy stared. “Giles, why are you doing this? We can handle it together, like we've alw—” She stopped miserably. “I love you,” she whispered.

Giles closed his eyes. “I'm tired,” he said quietly. “Why don't you go home and get some sleep? I'm fine.” He swallowed hard at the small, involuntary sound of distress she made, but kept his eyes closed until he heard the door open and close.

A moment later his face crumpled and the golden brown lashes crushed into his pale cheekbones.

“I'm sorry…” he whispered.

*******

“What time are you going back to the hospital?”

Buffy looked up at Willow, who was almost ready for classes. “I don't know if I'm going at all, today. It's not like he's going to be lonely, between you and mom and Xander. He barely talks to me, except to be civil, and he keeps telling me I've missed too many classes. He's not eating properly either. God, I hope they let him come home tomorrow. Maybe that'll snap him out of whatever's eating him.”

Willow frowned. “Maybe he's just scared, Buffy?”

Buffy turned startled eyes to her friend. “I know it's scary, but we've faced worse before. You know Giles…how brave he is. Besides, he's not alone now. He's being a big baby and a poop-head and I don't know why.”

“This isn't the same kind of scared as 'closing the Hellmouth' scared,” Willow said carefully.

Buffy's eyes narrowed. “Has he told you something?”

The emerald gaze flashed up at her. “Only that there's been no improvement, not even shadows. He's really scared, Buffy, except he tries not to show it.”

“Then how do you know?”

Willow shrugged. “You can see it in his face when he jokes about it…and his fists clench when he talks about his progress, about going home, about the future.”

“He doesn't act like he's scared. He acts like he doesn't want me around,” Buffy said unhappily.

“Don't think that. He needs you now more than ever, Buff.”

Buffy met her friend's gaze. “I know. It's just…he's so cold, so not Giles. I miss him…my him, Will.”

Willow didn't know what to say. “He'll be okay, Buffy. Maybe when he comes home he'll feel more like himself. Hospitals are pretty ick at the best of times. Maybe he just hates being cooped up.”

Buffy finally smiled just a little. “Thanks. You know I can take the Mister Grumpy, it's the not being able to help that's killing me.”

Willow smiled back. Buffy had changed so much in so short a time it didn't seem fair for her to be punished like this now. “Don't give up on him, Buffy. He needs you.”

“Don't worry, I won't,” she said softly. “I love him so much it hurts…”

Willow's eyes dilated alarmingly.

“Oh…in a good way,” Buffy added. “It's like I don't care what happens to me, as long as he's okay. I hurt because he hurts. All I want is to make it go away. Have you ever noticed how gorgeous he looks when he really smiles?” She frowned, focusing again. “Anyway, with Angel…with Angel I hurt because… because he could hurt me so much and did. This is nothing like that…”

The other girl relaxed. “I'm glad. You don't want to go there again.”

Buffy shook her head. “It'll never be like that with Giles…not ever…”


*******

“You've missed far too many classes already.”

“I don't care. I'm going to be here to take you home and you can't stop me. Willow can help me with notes and stuff later.”

“No.”

“What do you mean, no?” Buffy demanded, eyes flashing.

“I mean no,” Giles told her, feeling for and picking up another piece of cold hospital toast. “I've given this a great deal of thought over the last few days and I've come to the conclusion that you are neither old enough nor emotionally equipped to deal with all the problems that go with my…er…condition. I think it would be far easier for both of us if you concentrated on your education and the Slaying…”

Buffy stared at him in disbelief. “You…you're breaking up with me? Giles, we're not high school kids going steady! This is you and me…Watcher…Slayer…remember? Destiny…us…together?”

He shook his head and bit with deliberation into the last of his slice of buttered toast.

“I'm sorry, Buffy, but I really don't see how it can work. You must finish college and your Slaying duties must not be impinged upon. I will find someone who can manage the basics for me…and as you pointed out, I can learn the rest. Of course, there's always hope, but since I can't even see a shadow of a bloody shadow at the moment, that Nazi surgeon of mine has now all but declared the permanency of my condition before I even leave the hospital.

“Giles,” Buffy said unsteadily. “Don't do this. I love you so much…I can't do this again…I want to be with you…I…I can't lose you too. Please, R-Rupert…”

Giles very carefully found the second piece of toast, a knife, and, after knocking a fork off the tray, located the tiny stainless steel bowl of marmalade, with his fingertips. He started spreading it with slow deliberation.

“I'm not going anywhere, Buffy,” he said evenly. “I'll always be there with any information, any support you might require. It's…” His knife went off the end of the bread and spread marmalade onto the side of the plate. “It's not the end of the world. You are a beautiful young woman who c-can have anyone she wants.” He put the knife down and turned his sightless eyes to her. “You must continue as the Slayer and you must finish your education…you must be free to do both, Buffy.”

“You bastard,” she rasped, through tears, unable to stop herself from shaking like a leaf. “I don't know why you're doing this, but I hate you for doing it. I thought you loved me. I thought you wanted me as much as I want you. I trusted you, Giles.”

There was a moment's silence then he jolted as the door slammed hard. As the silence stretched his face twisted into lines of pure rage. A moment later his plate was crashing into the wall and the left over egg and toast was sliding down the pastel blue paintwork. Before he could do anything else, however, the door opened again. He opened his mouth to try to appease duty nurse.

“You did the right thing.”

His scowl deepened. “You again,” he growled. “I thought you had a gallery to run. I did as you asked.” He closed his eyes. “I hurt her…”

Joyce Summers' expression grew bleak as she took in the mess slowly dripping down the wall, the shards of broken plate on the floor.

“I saw her go. It's going to be hard on her for a little while, but she got over that vampire, didn't she? As bad as it was, she moved on. She even found a young man she could have made a life with, but…”

“But she didn't love him,” he finished, struggling to stay calm. “What do you want? I did as you requested. I did it for her, not for you, but for some reason I feel as though I've just desecrated something incredibly precious and fragile. I feel rather a bastard, actually…” His fists wound themselves in his sheets. “So I'd appreciate it if you didn't stay terribly long.”

Joyce stared at him, trembling at the enormity of what she done, what they'd both done. Nothing, however, was more important to her than the future of her only child, and a part of her was relieved that it was over. More than that, a part of her was glad. He'd already taken the part of Buffy that was the Slayer, long ago. To surrender the rest…the small, vital part that was still hers, to him as well…

“You…you did the right thing,” she repeated helplessly.

He snorted and turned away from the sound of her voice. “It wasn't right,” he growled. “Whether it had to be done or not.” His voice broke. “Now, please…”

Joyce nodded, forgetting that he couldn't see her, turned and left swiftly.

For a moment Giles sat rigidly, his sightless eyes seemingly staring out the window. Then, very slowly, his eyes filled and his hands began to shake.


*******

Outside, in the waiting room, Willow stood frowning. Buffy had run past her only minutes before, looking so shattered she wouldn't have been surprised to see Angelus come chasing after her. Not long after that, while she was still collecting her wits, Joyce Summers had walked by looking strained, but satisfied, and had gone through to where Giles's room was. Moments later she'd come back looking distressed, but even more determined than when she went in.

Something weird was going on. A shiver went down her spine. Buffy had tried to tell her…

Willow reached Giles' room only to find the door still half open. She peeked in, half expecting him to be asleep, drew a sharp breath and then a jagged one, her soft heart breaking. She should have known…

Apprehensive, but driven by the strength of compassion, she crept up to the bedside, wrenched by the sight of a man she had only ever known for his strength so caught in the throes of hell that his body shook with his silent sobs. Without hesitation she lifted herself onto the bed and put her arms around his half-turned shoulders, and held him until he quieted.

When he did she rested her cheek against the head bowed on her shoulder.

“Sandalwood again,” he whispered. “Willow, what are you doing here? You should be…”

“Right now I should be with you,” she admonished gently, feeling the still fading jerks of his body from the intensity of his earlier misery. “I saw them…Buffy, and Mrs Summers,” she told him quietly.

He drew away from her and allowed her to lay him back against the pillows on the raised bed head. He looked pale and drawn and there was a fragility about him she hadn't seen since Jenny died. She took one of his hands in hers.

“You…you sent her away, didn't you?” she guessed.

He looked away and closed his eyes. “It's not your concern, Willow,” he said quietly.

“It's wrong, Giles. You belong together. You always have.”

The big fingers tightened around hers. “No,” he whispered. “She has to be free…”

“Why?” she demanded. “Who says she's free now?”

Giles turned, frowning, his unfocused eyes tortured.

Willow swallowed. “Trust me, there's no freedom in having a part of your soul ripped away…of missing someone so much you don't know if you can face another day without them…She needs you as much as you need her.”

“I love her so much,” he whispered brokenly.

Willow bit back tears and squeezed his hand, determined not to make things any worse.

“I know,” she said gently.


*******

The door opened and Giles stood, oblivious of his surroundings, yet comforted by the familiar smell, familiar feel.

Xander looked over his shoulder. Willow had obviously been in. Every small trace of Buffy had been removed, from the favourite ornaments she'd placed, to the pile of textbooks Giles hadn't been able to convince her to move from his desk and the sweater Willow told him had been draped over the couch for two days while Giles waited for Buffy to move it. Giles had apparently been well aware that Buffy knew he was waiting, and that she therefore had, accordingly, made no effort to put it away.

He closed the front door and brought Giles' small bag of accumulated belongings from the hospital into the room before guiding him unobtrusively to his favourite armchair.

“Welcome home, G-Man,” he grinned. “Willow cleaned and I did the market thing. Your refrigerator is stuffed with goodies. The only thing I couldn't get was beer.”

“Thank you,” Giles said wearily, barely attempting to smile back at the relentlessly cheerful voice. “I think I can survive without it. I am, however, glad to be h…back.”

“Can I get you something?”

Giles almost smiled. “Tea…?”

He smiled nervously. “Sure. Coming right up.”

“Xander…?”

He turned in the hallway near the archway to the kitchen.

“Yo?”

“How…how is Buffy?”

Xander's head dropped. “She's not talking. Willow says she's almost caught up with her studies and she's been patrolling every night until dawn, since…well, you know. But she won't talk, even to Will. At least, not about anything that matters…”

In the living room Giles closed his eyes.

Xander watched him sadly for a moment before turning back to the kitchen.

When he returned Giles had rested his elbow on the arm of the chair and lowered his brow into his palm.

“Tea,” he announced with deliberate cheerfulness and slid the tray onto the coffee table.

Giles lifted his head slowly. “Splendid,” he said without real enthusiasm.

After an uncomfortable moment Xander suddenly realised that he would have to pour and jumped forward.

Giles listened to the liquid being poured into the teacup and the tinkle of the teaspoon against his good china. He almost smiled. Xander was fussing…

The younger man put the milk down and rose with the cup, carefully taking Giles' left hand and bringing his fingers to the edge of the saucer. He took it with relative ease and Xander stepped away, relieved.

“Have you…Have you got someone to come in, yet?”

Giles looked up, frustrated once again that the instinctive move was as fruitless as it had been since he first woke to the nightmare that was now his life.

“Don't worry. I'll be fine. I managed last time and I'll manage again.”

“Last time? Oh yeah…Willow's spell.”

Giles nodded. “You all very kindly left me to experience the joys of profound sightlessness alone for quite a number of hours. It was a…unique…experience.”

Xander cleared his throat. “There's been a lot of not thinking this past year, by all of us. I'm sorry…about…y'know. It's not going to happen this time. I'm not letting you do this alone, Giles.”

The other man's expression softened. “Your concern is appreciated,” he said softly. “But the one who most needs your support now is Buffy. I…”

Xander looked up when he stopped. “Why?” he asked simply. “Why did you do it?”

Giles froze for a moment then very deliberately began sipping at his tea again. “In my current state I am nothing but a liability and a distraction. I can't offer her any kind of future or security…or even any real support, while I'm in this condition.”

Xander's brow knitted, though he didn't immediately speak. For one thing it sounded less like Giles, than Giles quoting someone else. Not that he wouldn't always put Buffy first, no matter what…but…

“Bullshit,” he said finally.

Giles' head jerked up. “What?”

“You heard me. She loves you so much she actually grew up for you… Willow says she's not eating, hardly sleeping and barely functional outside of slaying and studying. She needs you…as much as you need her. Giles, think about it. It doesn't make any sense. She's in pain… you're in pain. You need her…she needs you…are we starting to see a pattern here?”

“What I may or may not need is irrelevant,” Giles replied roughly. “All that is important is her future. All that matters to me is her happiness.”

“Yeah, she's so happy…that's why she cries herself to sleep; why she's in such great shape she's in danger of staking herself every time she looks in the mirror. That's why Willow says she calls out your name in her nightmares, every night.”

“No…she…it'll pass. She put Angel behind her and he…”

“He wasn't you,” Xander finished. “Big passion, big obsession…big flame…bigger burnout. Even I…even I can see the difference. You and Buffy…you're two parts of a whole…a constant. Once I stopped wigging even I could see that you two are forever.” He smiled self-consciously. “Not as dumb as I look, huh?”

Giles roused from the vision of Buffy in his mind's eye. “You're not 'dumb', Xander, you never were,” he said softly. “In fact right now it would appear you're a hell of a lot smarter than I.” He sighed. “Of course it changes nothing. Buffy must have a future, and at this point I cannot give it to her.”

Xander scowled then sighed. “Is there anything else I can get you?”

The older man shook his head. “I expect Anya is waiting for you. Why don't you go? I shall probably spend some time familiarizing myself with my own bloody home, after which I'll almost certainly need to rest. I'll be fine.”

“No you won't,” Xander said quietly, “but if you want me to go…”

“What I want…” Giles muttered. “Do whatever you want, Xander. What I want became irrelevant a long time ago.”

Xander didn't pretend to know exactly what that meant, but he was as aware as any of them that life hadn't been easy for the ex-Watcher for a very long time. Then, finally, Giles had found happiness, the first real happiness, in Xander's experience, since his arrival as the new librarian at Sunnydale High. He sighed. He'd been through so much…and now this.

“It doesn't look good on you,” he said quietly, a part of him seriously wanting to run as he and Willow had run from Giles' hurt, back on Buffy's birthday, after the older man had discovered just how 'irrelevant' he'd become. A lot, however, had happened since then…

“What doesn't?” Giles asked irritably.

“Self pity,” the boy ventured. “I never saw you like this before, even after…well…after Miss Calendar…Angelus…Buffy being missing…but now…”

“You don't understand,” Giles whispered. “Regardless of how bad things were…she was here. We were together…”

“Forgetting Buffy's little vacation in L.A. aren't we?”

Giles shook his head again. “It kept me from going mad…from the other…searching for her. It was all there was…until she returned.”

Xander stared at him. “You've been in love with Buffy for that long?”

The wide shoulders squared. “I have always loved her.”

The younger man's eyes widened. “You're kidding, Giles…” His face screwed up. “And…gross.”

Giles' face darkened. “If that's all you have to offer, I suggest you leave.”

“It's not right…”

“It wasn't like that,” Giles hissed through his teeth. “You judgmental young fool. Not every mans life is dictated solely by their hormones. I said I loved her. I've loved her more than I've ever loved anything, since…since before she died. I just…I didn't know I was in love with her until after I lost Jenny…until that summer…when I thought I'd lost Buffy too.”

Xander watched the lonely figure rocking almost imperceptibly as he spoke. “Giles…I-I'm sorry…”

The ex-Watcher put down the empty teacup he was still holding with a shaky hand.

“Now you know. Now get out.”

“Giles—”

“Leave, Xander.”

Colour flooded into the boyish face, and the dark eyes grew very bright. “Giles—”

But there was no answer.

Giles heard the door close moments later and leaned forward to feel for the teapot. A teaspoon dislodged and fell on the floor as his fingers skimmed across the tray. He swore and when he located the pot and lifted it, used his other hand to locate the rim of his cup, still sitting on the table.

A moment later the room rang with the worst kind of language as the Watcher let go of his half-filled cup, slammed down the teapot and sucked his scalded finger.


* * *


Part Two