Beyond Forever | Part Three

As Giles rose from the depths of sleep toward consciousness, a great many things flashed through his mind, not least of which was the painful realisation that many of the delightful things racing through his thoughts were probably little more than stardust and dreams. And for one exquisitely painful moment he didn't want to wake up, or to find himself alone again.

Then he was awake, whether he wanted to be or not. He could feel the warmth of the morning sun through the window, could hear birds singing nearby and the chill on one of his arms, which had obviously been outside the bedcovers for most of the night. After another tentative moment he opened his eyes and drew a sharp breath.

He could see slightly more light and, for the first time since his injury, a blurred, vague outline of something, but no matter how hard he tried it didn't focus. He knew it was the doorway, but only because he was facing that way. He sighed and closed them again before turning over and feeling the other side of the bed.

For a few brief seconds his heart constricted to a tight lump of misery, then he found the other pillow, pulled it to his face and drew a deep breath. It was redolent of Buffy's perfume and shampoo. The relief was so overwhelming that he found himself struggling with a real sob, which he barely managed to turn into a manly cough, just in case.

“Buffy?” he called a moment later, when he had his emotions under control.

“Kitchen!” came a faint response, then the sound of footsteps and finally the soft footfalls of bare feet on the stairs.

“Giles?”

He turned in the direction of the voice and his heart leaped when he detected a dark, moving shape that could only be her.

“Buffy? I just…I'm…” But he didn't really know what to say, how to explain his moment of panic.

For a moment there was silence, then he felt soft fingers in his hair, tender lips against his brow.

“Nothing will ever take me away from you again,” she whispered and crawled under the covers with him.

He laughed as she slid over his thighs and deliberately rested her soft warmth, which was still exposed beneath the sweater she'd borrowed to go downstairs, against his morning erection.

“Wow,” she said, wriggling.

“Very wow,” he agreed huskily, rapidly becoming really aroused in spite of the pressure she was putting on a suddenly extremely beleaguered bladder. “Except that I simply have go to the bathroom and I'm not going to make it if you keep being quite so…wow...”

Buffy scowled, unseen by her lover. “Yeah, but if you go to the bathroom now, there won't be any wow left by the time you get back. Even I know that.”

“Then you also know I absolutely have to go,” Giles pointed out, amused. Despite her misgivings he knew he would be just as ready when he returned. With her scent, her touch, and a few wriggles of her beautiful body she'd already aroused him more than any lover he'd ever known.

“This loft should have a bathroom,” she muttered and heard him laugh as he slid out of bed and reached, not quite accurately, for his robe, finding it after a couple of experimental sweeps of his hand.

When he hadn't returned quite a few minutes later, Buffy went down to the first landing and looked out into the living area.

He was at the front door, talking to someone about the weather, of all things. With a silent prayer that his robe was suitably rearranged, she half-turned to go and put on some clothes. Then she recognized the visitor's voice asking if he knew where she was, and Giles' answering stammer.

“I'm here, mom,” she said, arriving at his side not more than a moment later and touching him reassuringly between the shoulder blades as she squinted out into the sunshine. “Is there a problem?”

“Well, no, not exactly,” the other woman admitted, obviously flustered and trying not to notice their attire, or lack thereof. “I just…I wanted to know where—how you were, if you were eating, and Willow was being evasive.”

“Willow sucks at subterfuge nearly as much as me,” Buffy muttered.

“She's an honest girl,” her mother pointed, her colour ebbing and flowing alarmingly.

“Indeed,” Giles agreed dryly, finally finding his voice. “Why don't you come in while I make us some tea?”

Wondering what he was up to, Buffy led her bemused mother to the sitting room, aware that Joyce was watching Rupert pick his way back to the kitchen without running into a single thing, and barely having to touch anything to find his way.

“Buffy, shouldn't you…?”

“Why?”

“Because, well, he…”

“Giles and Xander saved my life yesterday, mom. Giles killed a vampire.”

“Is that why you're…?”

Buffy rolled her eyes. “That's how. Not why. The real 'why' here is: why did you do it? Angel, Giles…why, mom?”

The colour drained from Joyce's flawless complexion. “Did he tell you…?”

Buffy shook her head almost sadly. “Willow saw you…leaving Giles' room at the hospital, I mean. She and Xander worked it out eventually. I happened to overhear. Why do you always have to assume the worst about Rupert? I should tell you he's the one who convinced me that violence wasn't an option in this situation,” she added dryly, slipping her hands under her thighs to hide their trembling.

Joyce looked away. “You were that angry with me?”

Buffy's voice became harsh and flat, leaving no room for ambiguity.

“Worse.”

“You're so thin…” Joyce said weakly.

“Tea's up,” Giles called, sliding the tray carefully onto the breakfast counter.

Joyce watched her daughter move across to pick it up, realising for the first time just exactly how thin she'd grown since the last time they'd spoken. She watched them come back, Buffy just in front with the tray, Giles a couple of steps behind with a plate of sliced fruitcake.

Buffy slid the tray onto the table and took the plate from him before they both sat down again.

Joyce swallowed. Despite whatever sleep they must have had the night before, she could see now that he looked as though he hadn't slept more than a couple of hours since he left the hospital, deep lines still carved into the corners of his eyes, his mouth, and dark circles etched beneath the soft brown lashes.

Buffy poured and brought a cup of tea to his fingertips, allowing him to take the saucer confidently before she turned and poured for her mother, apparently still unconcerned about his ability to cope with the hot beverage.

“So, mom, you were looking for me. Something big?”

Joyce blinked. “No…no, like I said, I just wanted to know if you were okay. I won't…I won't keep you too long,” she added, accepting the cup from Buffy and watching Giles casually run his fingers over the table to locate the plate with the cake, securing the first piece he touched, as easily as if he could see it.

Buffy saw. “You haven't had any breakfast,” she objected.

“Hungry,” he mumbled around the cake, now in his mouth.

She made a disapproving noise. “Just one, then, or our deal's off.”

Giles swallowed. “Just one,” he agreed blandly, took another sip of his tea and pushed the rest of his cake into his mouth.

“Deal?” Joyce asked helplessly.

Buffy looked at her lover tenderly. “I start eating, he starts sleeping, and like that. We have a lot of catching up to do and that's what we were planning on doing, among other things, today.”

Giles turned a guffaw into a choke and was lucky not spray crumbs everywhere.

“We just need some time, and as usual there's a bad guy out there somewhere that I'm probably going to have to kill, stuff to deal with and not enough hours in the day,” Buffy sighed, ignoring him.

Joyce watched a large hand move to gently squeeze her daughter's shoulder for a moment before slipping unobtrusively back to his side, and struggled against a sudden desire to burst into tears.

“H-has there been um…any more news?”

Buffy turned to look into her mother's eyes, knowing exactly what she meant. “There's been some improvement,” she confirmed quietly, but not enough to give the specialist a happy.”

Giles snorted. “Spanish fly wouldn't give that pillock a happy,” he muttered under his breath.

“I'm sorry…?” Joyce asked, the muffled muttering too low for her to hear, and wondered what Buffy was giggling about.

“What? Oh, I just said the doctor isn't very happy,” he said, his sightless eyes wide with innocence, making Buffy almost choke trying not to giggle any more. “Would you like some more tea?”

“Oh…well, I'm so glad that you've at least had some improvement,” Joyce said carefully. “There's always room for hope.”

Buffy stopped giggling, her face suddenly becoming deadly serious.

“You still haven't explained why you did it, mom,” she said softly.

Joyce closed her eyes. “I love you, Buffy, very much.”

“I kinda pretty much have that part down,” her daughter observed humourlessly.

“Angel could never give—”

“No,” Buffy interrupted, “he couldn't…and I might even have worked that out on my own, if…” She looked up again at the handsome profile of the man next to her. “Actually, I definitely would have, eventually, but I was never given the chance to make that choice. You made it for me, for him, the same as you tried to make it for us.”

Again, Joyce noted the subtle movement of Giles' arm, sliding around Buffy's shoulders supportively as she spoke, her hand moving automatically to squeeze his thigh reassuringly in reply.

The older woman looked down at her own hands. “I saved you from one terrible mistake. I didn't…I didn't want to see you make another. I didn't…” She closed her eyes and clenched her fists. “I had no idea…”

“But we talked…” Buffy objected.

Joyce finally looked up. “Just words, Buffy. It wasn't just about age differences, no matter how much you wanted to believe it was.”

“Love…” Giles said quietly. “You didn't believe it was possible…that Buffy could love me as I love her.”

“No…” she said slowly, perhaps admitting it to herself for the first time. “No, I didn't.”

“Which is why you were so sure we had no future together if I remained blind?”

Buffy's eyes were growing wider and wider. “Bulletin: Buffy is still in the room,” she said irritably and looked up at him, her fingers moving from his thigh to slip into his hand. “There may have been room for doubt in mom's mind, justifiable…room,” she added carefully, “based on my less than spectacular performance since I started college …but there isn't any doubt in my heart now and there never will be again. Nothing is going to take me away from you, ever.”

The silence that followed was filled with the thoughts of all three, each unaware that they were thinking the same thing.

Unless…

Giles' hand tightened around hers to the point where, had she not been the Slayer, it might have been painful. Buffy returned the pressure and faced her mother again.

“I won't leave either of you,” she said quietly. “I've been dead and I didn't like it very much. Besides, I'm the first Slayer in history to have a team. That's gotta count for something.”

The older woman turned, through force of habit, to look into the unfocused green eyes. “Does it?” she asked.

Giles' brow furrowed. “I believe it does,” he said slowly. “Buffy has survived too many situations in which even other Slayers would, and in some cases, have, perished. In a significant number of those instances her survival depended on the talents of her friends, Willow, Xander—”

Buffy rested her head against the point of his shoulder. “And even if I've never said it enough…” She frowned for a moment. “Even if I've never said it,” she corrected unhappily, “I survived most of all because of Giles; because of what he knows, what he can do, and the fact that he's always given me everything…all of it. I've always just taken it for granted that he'd be there for me; that he'd know the answer, that he'd catch me when I fell. I guess it was a major selfishness to just assume a thing like that, but somehow, I knew. And the terrible thing was I never told him.”

Giles cleared his throat. “Bulletin: 'he' is still in the room,” he reminded her good- naturedly, his face softening. “I had a duty, love. I didn't want to be anywhere else. I still don't.”

Buffy sat up a looked at him again. “I know,” she said softly. “I just wish there hadn't been so much—”

“Spilt milk,” he admonished. “What's over is done with. Of course, it is true you were a horrible child…ow!”

Joyce swallowed as she watched her daughter punch his arm good-humouredly.

“A horrible child who was busting her butt killing demons and vampires and saving the world on a regular basis, not to mention getting killed a time or two for you and your ex-cronies. Don't forget that,” Buffy retorted.

Above her head, and seeming for all the world to be looking straight at Joyce, Giles stopped smiling and closed his eyes.

“I never have,” he said very softly, then opened them again. “Shall I freshen up the tea? Does anyone want something hot to eat?”

Buffy snapped out of her reverie over the past and looked to her mother. “No, I think maybe we're all done here,” she speculated pointedly. “Mom…?”

Joyce focused. “Oh, yes, I think so. Now that I know you're going to be fine and that…that someone is taking care of you. Just…please…be careful out there, Buffy.”

Buffy didn't tease or laugh. She held her mother's gaze and nodded. “Always,” she said quietly. “Always. I'll walk you out, mom, so Giles can sneak another piece of cake while I'm gone.”

Giles snorted as the two women rose. “How do you know I'll stop at two?”

“Because I'm the Slayer, remember?” Buffy drawled, a smile in her eyes, before catching her mother's and realising that Joyce wanted a moment. Buffy moved away as Giles picked up another slice of the fruitcake and deliberately pushed the whole piece into his mouth. “I saw that,” she called, moving further away as Joyce stepped closer, and chuckled at the two-fingered salute she was given in lieu of a crumb-filled reply.

“Mist…Rupert, I wanted…I just wanted to tell you, there's no way I can make this up to either of you, but I wanted you to know how sorry I am.”

Cake demolished, the handsome head tilted back, as though looking at her. “Joyce, you don't have to—”

“Oh, yes I do,” she said softly. “I was so angry about this…about the two of you. And I was so wrong. I owe it to you to tell you that…after all I've always let you know all too bluntly when I thought you were at fault. It's still going to be a nightmare. Even you must know that, but I was wrong to think I had a right to try and interfere…not in what the two of you have.”

Giles smiled gently. “Thank you,” he said equally as gently.

“But I won't regret what happened with Angel. I can't. Their relationship was always doomed. He was only ever going to bring her pain…”

Giles nodded. “I don't think even Buffy would disagree with those sentiments, but I think she needs to know you regret the method by which you precipitated those events. The Prom, for God's sake, Joyce; even a preparatory school clod like me could see what it meant to all of them, and you've been there. Did it even occur to you what the results might be if you were successful?”

“I never meant…” Joyce whispered.

“I know,” Giles sighed. “But you took not only her lover, and her dreams, worst of all you took her self-esteem. Every male in her life to date, to my knowledge, has eventually let her down…made her a victim one way or another. You probably know all their names better than I. In fact, you probably number me among them. As do I,” he added sadly, memories of Buffy's eighteenth birthday still poignant and painful. “You, however, took away any chance she might have had of choosing her own destiny… instead of having it slap her in the face, yet again.”

“You don't pull any punches, do you?” she asked tremulously.

He shook his head slowly. “Should I?”

In turn, she shook hers. “Of course not,” she replied, her voice breaking. “But I'm just a parent. I don't have a manual. I just wanted to protect her, the only way I knew how. Don't judge me too harshly, Rupert, for loving her too much.”

Giles opened his mouth to reply, but he could hear her receding footsteps, and closed it again, regretfully.

Moments later Buffy was back, her hand sliding around the back of his neck and her lips pressing to his brow.

“I love you,” she whispered.

“I don't know why,” he muttered. “I was far too hard on your mother.”

Buffy made a small noise that told him much. “She'll be okay. I asked her if you made her cry. She said no, she did that all by herself. I think she understood what you were saying and she wasn't mad.”

Giles turned his head toward her and tilted it to one side.

“Slayer hearing,” she explained sheepishly, surreptitiously brushing moisture from her cheeks. “I heard everything. Did I mention how much I love you?”

His hands came out and dragged her onto his lap, pulled her close. “Not nearly enough,” he chided.

“Then y'think maybe I should start practising?” she asked mischievously and slid her hand inside his robe.

“Mm,” he agreed, his voice changing to a growl as her fingers continued downwards. “I would definitely suggest practising…” He groaned when they found their target. “…very …hard.”

“Not here.”

Amused, Giles allowed her to draw him to the stairs and back up to the loft, where she swiftly removed the robe and the mercifully long, baggy grey sweater.

“Aren't you cold?” he teased when the sweater fell at his feet.

“Not for long,” Buffy growled as her hands slid up his chest and his arms moved around her, to caress her in firm sensual strokes, from her shoulders to her soft buttocks.

A few moments later Giles allowed her to draw his head down into a passionate kiss, reciprocating her enthusiasm for some time before cupping her rear with his wide palms and lifting her to him.

She groaned, her arms winding around his neck, legs around his hips as he fitted her against his own desire and kissed her again.

When he finally lifted his head it was to growl one word:

“Bed…?”

“Right behind us.”

Giles stepped forward just a little and turned so that he could lower her onto the pillow, located her thighs with his fingers and carefully placed a knee on the bed, between them, as he joined her.

Suddenly the stress, heartache and misery of the last weeks combined with his courage and the day's events so far, were just too much.

Buffy sat up and threw her arms around his neck, her soft lips trailing kisses from his brow to his jaw.

“Ay, what's brought this on, then?” he asked gently, pausing, surprise in his voice.

She kissed his mouth hard for a moment then drew back far enough to speak.

“Everything,” she whispered, lovingly tracing the strong jaw. “Every moment since you got hurt. Since then nothing has been right…nothing. I love you so much. It hurt…so much, not being with you…even more seeing you hurt so bad.” She touched his eyes. “I don't care about this, but I know it tears you up inside and I want so much for you to be truly happy again. It isn't fair,” she whimpered brokenly.

He lifted her back against the pillows and found her face with his fingertips. “I am happy, love. You don't know how happy. Of course I want to see you again, to watch you when you giggle and to see you scowl at me the way you do when you can't get your own way…” he teased. One of his hands trailed down to her tender breasts, each point straining to him. “And I want to be able to see the beauty of you again when I love you,” he added softly as he traced each one, “but all that matters to me right now is that you're here and we're together.”

“Together,” she echoed, arching as his lips joined his fingers in exploring the sweet softness of those curves, caressing each one until she groaned before moving on to trail over her silky body, exploring every contour, every warm centimetre of her until he reached her thighs.

He smiled as he drew caressing fingers along the sensitive inner flesh of each one, listening to her soft moans and feeling her arch even further off the bed as they stopped close to their mark, but without quite touching the soft warmth.

“Rupert, please…!” she begged after he'd repeated the exercise several times with his fingertips. Finally, he traced the same paths with his lips and mouth, and finished by sliding the tip of his tongue along the tender flesh where leg met groin, first on one side, then the other.

Buffy gasped, then groaned, partly with pleasure, partly in frustration. “Giles!”

A moment later she bucked again as he caressed her now throbbing heat with just one finger, drawn tormentingly over its soft folds, and chased by her hungry hips.

Giles…!” she groaned again.

Finally, as the sweet muskiness of her reached him, Giles bent his head and savoured her, smiling as her cries of pleasure reverberated around the apartment.

For several long moments Buffy gasped and shuddered and moaned as he pleasured her expertly, before pulling herself away, still groaning.

Giles lifted his head, concerned. “Love…?”

Her reply was firm hands pushing him over onto his back, and a soft mouth against his, once again.

He tried again to speak when she finally released his lips and trailed her own down his jaw and his throat, before playing across his wide chest from one side to the other, but by then he couldn't remember why…

Instead he closed his sightless eyes and moaned as she moved down the length of his long torso, her hands caressing his body as she kissed her way past his navel to the soft flesh below it.

When Buffy's warm hand closed around him, Giles suddenly had to reach for control, the waves of pleasure and exaltation crashing through him, far out of proportion to the caress.

The small, intimate contact, this time, symbolized so much more than just a lover's touch.

Slowly, wantonly, she began to pleasure him, revelling as much in his sighs and groans as he had in hers, until, eventually he growled low in his throat and touched her hair so that she looked up.

“I can't last much longer if you keep doing that, love,” he said between short breaths and felt her move to straddle him. However, instead of taking him immediately, she bent to kiss him tenderly again.

Giles found her hair with both his hands and returned the kiss with enthusiasm.

“I love you,” she whispered, and drew him with her to roll unexpectedly, so that he was above her. “Make love to me.”

Suddenly he understood. He found and touched her cheek for a moment before letting his fingers slide down to find her soft breasts again, brushing and caressing each one, then leaning down to kiss her lingeringly.

As their mouths merged once more, one of his hands slid down to find her centre, and he drew himself to it. As his tip caressed her, Buffy's legs curled upward and closed around his hips. The kiss deepened and grew even more intense as he began to move into her, very slowly.

The silence of the room almost sang around them as they were reunited, the moment far less sexual, far more the rejoining of two souls who should never have been divided.

When they were finally and completely one, they broke the kiss together, Buffy gazing up at him adoringly, Giles staring down at her dark outline against the blur of the bed, wanting so badly to see her and sighing with frustration when he couldn't.

“It's all right,” she whispered and touched his face. “My beautiful Rupert.”

At that he snorted and finally smiled. “I'm the one who's supposed to be blind, love,” he chuckled.

Buffy's eyes grew very bright. “Maybe, but I'm the one who couldn't see these last few years.”

She moved beneath him to draw him even further into herself. “I'm glad I'm cured now, though,” she growled, and groaned when he responded by starting to move slowly.

“As am I,” he whispered in her ear.

She slid her hands down to his hips and groaned again. “Oh God…it's been so long…I want you so much…”

Giles shifted his knees as her legs curled upward and her pelvis ground into his, and enjoyed the feel of her hands trying to pull him even deeper as their pace steadily increased.

For all that he couldn't see her, the scent, the taste, the feel of her, the sounds of her pleasure still drove him to distraction. He could hear the urgency in her groans, feel her desire surging beneath him and rose to meet her, until their passion became a wild thing, each holding nothing back, giving everything to the other, their cries reverberating through the apartment until Giles, riding an incredible edge for some time, felt Buffy shudder and convulse beneath him.

“Oh…oh, God, Giles…Giles!” she screamed, writhing frantically.

The sound of her voice, the avalanche of sensations, carried him with her, so that both rose, arched, and twisted in a frenetic, endless explosion of ecstasy, waves and waves of it carrying both of them far beyond any level of passion either had ever known before.

When it finally began to fade and they came to rest in each other's arms, neither spoke for some time, instead simply holding each other tightly as their breathing returned to normal.

“Giles?” Buffy whispered when he finally lifted his head.

“I…I don't know love. I swear there was no magic, nothing—”

He was silenced by the touch of her fingertips against his lips.

“I never thought there was,” she told him softly. “It was just…My God…I've never…”

Giles kissed the silky fingers and leaned down to brush his lips across her brow, missing slightly and brushing her lashes, her nose instead, so that she chuckled.

“It was very special,” he told her, “but it wasn't magical, or even extraordinary. It was simply…us.”

“Us…together…?”

“Us…together…focused as never before on simply wanting…needing…loving each other.”

Buffy reached up and kissed his mouth. “Is it okay if I need you like that…a lot…from now on?” she smiled, when she pulled back.

He kissed her back, very accurately this time, and nodded. “I'm making it mandatory,” he grinned. “Absolutely mandatory…”


*******

“Maybe they're asleep?”

“At seven o'clock in the evening?”

Xander shrugged. “Well maybe they're…” His face screwed up. “Oh, really, really, bad visual place…”

Willow rolled her eyes. “Hit the knocker again before I hit you,” she growled.

Xander was so surprised he rattled the knocker extra hard and jumped back a moment later when the door was actually answered.

“Giles, man…hi,” he stammered, surprised to see the big ex-Watcher standing there, almost looking at him.

“Xander? Who else is with you?”

“Hi, Giles.”

“Hello Mister Giles.”

“Yeah…”

“Ah,” he said. Willow, Tara and Anya. I should have known. Something catastrophic occurring somewhere?”

Xander looked him up and down. “Only the way you put that shirt on,” he drawled. “Are…are you going to let us in, because we've got a lot to tell you. Willow's found something.”

Giles' fingers immediately went to the buttons on the dark blue collared shirt, found the problem and began realigning button-holes, while making a mental note to put all his polo shirts where he could get to them in a hurry in the future.

“Yes, yes, come in, all of you. Buffy is just upstairs. Make yourselves comfortable.”

While Tara and Anya picked their way into the living room Xander and Willow watched Giles confidently find the stairs, undoing his fly and pulling out the shirt to finish the buttons as he trotted up to the loft.

“He really is going to make it,” Xander said softly.

“Yeah,” Willow smiled. “He really is…”

A half an hour later Willow had given them an outline of what she'd found.

“And you really believe that I was almost killed by a woman who waited sixty years to be raised?”

Willow nodded. “She died in Somerset in nineteen-forty, right in the middle of the war. This Tarquin guy was the love of her life. They were supposed to be married. It made the society pages because she was kind of you know, aristocratic, and he was like, rich, but all his family money came from smuggling and stuff. A-And he even looked kind of like a pirate…all eyebrows and black hair and blue eyes and even a scar—”

Giles cleared his throat. “Willow…”

She stopped guiltily. “Sorry…its just really interesting after some of the research you guys have had me doing…I mean sewers, corpses, power gri…oh.” She stopped again, aware that the green eyes were glinting with unspoken exasperation. “Anyway, the records show that he was a Captain in the British Army and he also died in nineteen forty, but earlier, on leave in a small, Cornish seaside town not far from the family estate. Cause of death was listed as inconclusive, except for him being hypovolemic and having an unidentified animal bite on his neck.”

“Vampire, all right,” Buffy muttered, leaning against Giles' arm. She was wearing his sweater again, this time with a pair of his silk boxers underneath, her legs curled up on the sofa next to him, and still looking sleepy. “So some vamp turns Tarquin in 1940; he rises and he wants his sweetie to join him, but something happens to stop him?”

“Cause of death for Charlotte is listed as Consumption.”

“Consumption of what?” Xander asked.

“Tuberculosis,” Giles clarified darkly. “Therefore she was very ill for some time before Tarquin was turned.”

Willow nodded. “It could be one of those sad things like Buffy's friend Ford, who wanted to be a vampire so he could live forever.”

Buffy's brow creased. “You mean he might have deliberately gotten himself turned so he could turn her? He should have researched better first. Takes an awfully long time for a vampire to be ready to sire another vampire, not to mention the demon part…”

Willow nodded. “The records from the sanatorium she was in when she died, don't mention anything about bite marks or hypovolemia. They just say she died of consumption.”

“So how did she get to be here, in Sunnydale?”

“That was the easy part. All modern records, all readily accessible,” Willow told them. “Plus, the Cemetery's records show that the crypt was paid for by a man named William T. Blood…”

“Bloody hell,” Giles muttered.

Buffy scowled.

“It, oh, and Customs records…they also show that the corpse was shipped here legally by sea from Britain by a Tarquin Peveril, a wealthy Cornish businessman who deals in rare antiquities. I checked the shipping company's records. He travelled with the body.”

Xander's eyes widened suddenly. “William T. Blood…doesn't that sound awfully familiar to everyone?” he asked, pleased with himself.

All five sets of eyes slid toward him. Tara and Anya giggled.

His eyes immediately narrowed. “Okay, you all got it already. So I was still back with the consuming thing,” he muttered. “Sue me.”

“Consumption,” Giles corrected.

“Whatever,” Xander said defensively. “But I want to know why Spike is suddenly helping English vampires emigrate with corpses of their dead girlfriends…” He paused thoughtfully for a second. “Oh, wait, that brings us back to the obsessive, unnatural, un-dead love thing again, right?”

“Yes, I'm sure he's doing it purely out of the evilness of his heart,” Giles drawled.

“Well, what else?” Xander demanded, put out.

“Money, obligation, bribery, blood, cigarettes…” Giles listed dryly.

“Guys,” Willow interrupted, waving her hand at them. “I'm not finished. I've got an address for Tarquin. There's also one listed for Spike, but I don't think it's worth bothering with.”

Giles' head turned in her direction. “Oh?”

She nodded. “It's the address of the Crawford Street mansion.”

“Oh,” Giles repeated flatly. “And Tarquin—?”

“Living in a penthouse apartment in Los Angeles, according to the records.”

“What say we give the mansion a try anyway?” Giles said thoughtfully.

Buffy straightened. “Might be worth a look. Spike likes it there, and those vamps at the cemetery to collect Charlotte must have been local goons he recruited for her boyfriend. He'd have had to set up headquarters somewhere. If Lover boy wants me this badly, he's going to be around here somewhere, if only to co-ordinate. He's got the Déciperi stashed somewhere too, if Giles' books are right. If Spike is really his lieutenant, the odds are they're together somewhere.” She turned to Willow, “That reminds me. Any progress on how Charlotte managed to stay so well preserved all these years?”

“Magic is definitely involved,” Willow told them, looking at Tara. “We could check Giles' books…”

Giles straightened. “Xander, Waltham's chronicles and Volume four of Lowenstein's Collected Works…”

“Got it,” the younger man replied, already on his way.

Nobody said anything when Xander returned with the books and seated himself next to the ex-Watcher, who was deep in thought.

“Lowenstein's first. Find the chapter on the correlation between fairy tales and black magicks.”

Xander turned the pages then looked up, nonplussed. “Enchantments and curses in Folklore and Fairy Tales?”

“Read,” Giles commanded.

Xander began to read.

When he was done the girls looked at each other and Buffy snorted. “Snow White?”

Giles shook his head. “Out of twenty two odd examples from works from just about every part of the world, you choose that one?”

She smiled. “I wanted to be her in my third grade school play.” The smiled vanished. “I was a bunny,” she growled, “complete with little fluffy tail.”

“An adorable bunny, no doubt,” Giles replied, amused, “but if we could focus on the issue at hand? Willow…?”

“Well, yeah, I think she would have made a very cute…oh.” Willow stopped when she realised he was frowning. “I mean, yeah, maybe one of those spells…”

“Oh, hey,” Xander said suddenly and dived a hand into his pocket, pulling something out and handing it to Buffy. “We found that at the cemetery.”

She turned the ring in the light. “Ring, Rupert. Heavy, silver, old…a man's ring, maybe,” she said and placed it in his hand.

Willow recited some words in a language none of them recognised and a letter: C.

Giles' head came up as he fingered it idly. “My love…my life…my heart… ” He translated. “C…Charlotte? A gift, perhaps?”

“He must have given it back to her…after the spell maybe,” Buffy mused, watching the expression still playing across Giles' face from when he'd recited the words of the inscription. “I mean…the sanatorium wouldn't have left it on …after.”

Giles focused again. “Quite right,” he agreed. “But there would be no point to the spell, if she was allowed to die without being turned. It's a fine line, but she has to drink the vampire's blood before she dies.”

“So she had to have been turned,” Willow allowed, “but the medical records, the death certificate…they don't help and there was a war on…there's no way to find out.”

“Yes there is,” Giles said grimly. “We can ask Spike.”


*******

Buffy watched everyone file out after they had demolished a huge supper, replete with multiple hot chocolates, mochas, cake, cookies and stacks of sandwiches assembled by Xander, using pretty much all the food left in the refrigerator.

She closed the door and turned. “The guys did good,” she said, frowning when she saw Giles sitting quietly in his armchair, lost in thought.

He roused when he felt her arms slide around him. Buffy rested her face silently against his hair, and he reached up and stroked her cheek.

“They've done a wonderful job,” he finally agreed.

“But…?”

He closed his eyes. “I can't help worrying,” he said quietly. “Vengeance is far more complicated when it involves any kind of passion.”

Buffy shifted to sit on the arm of the chair, drawing his head over to rest against her breast and letting her arms rest around his shoulders. “I like it when you worry about me, but you don't need to, you know. He's just another vamp.”

“No, he's not,” he declared in a tone that brooked no argument. “At least, not if our surmise is correct. If he has indeed been waiting all these years for his true love, demon or otherwise, he is going to be far more dangerous even than those Déciperi he raised to visit his vengeance upon you.”

“I'm the Slayer. He's a vampire. Do the math, Rupert,” she admonished. “The Déciperi, I'm not even going to try to second guess. Vamps or not, anyone who can make you see things that aren't there…” She stopped when he tensed, swore silently to herself for her insensitivity. “I'm sorry,” she whispered, and tightened her embrace.

“Don't be,” he whispered, closing his eyes, sliding an arm around her waist and drawing her even closer. “It's important. If you are to confront them in the morning, you must remember not to accept anything you see on face value. Nothing.”

“I can do this, Rupert. Nothing is going to happen. I won't let it. You—you don't have to go back there if you don't want to…” she added tremulously. “I-I know now that asking you to go back there last year was…”

He suddenly pulled her, unresisting, off the arm of the chair and into his lap, crushing her close, and resting his chin against her hair.

“Of course I'm going with you. And I don't care about the past, any more,” he said hoarsely. “Leave it be. I did far worse than anything you've done, love, when I was your age…before…after, with far less justification, by and large. I can never have those years back, any more than you can, and there's no point trying.”

Buffy nodded against his chest. “I just wanted you to know…”

He dropped a kiss on her hair. “I already do. Be careful tomorrow…”

She sat up and looked at him. “I will, if you will,” she proposed.

“Buffy…”

“I'm serious. If we're going to do this together, we're going to get through it together. I'm not going to lose you again…not because of some stupid vamp's long lost love, and not because I can't protect you.”

Giles exhaled for a long moment. “Xander and I will back you up. We will take no unnecessary chances but we will be close by at all times. And that is my final word on the subject.”

For a long moment Buffy stared into the soft green eyes, just loving them, loving him, then she slid off his lap and took his hand, pulled him out of the chair.

Her expression grew tender when his head tilted to one side curiously. “If we're going into battle in the morning, then it's time we went to bed,” she told him.

“Exactly. Need your beauty sleep. First sensible thing you've said,” he replied gruffly.

Buffy grinned as his arm slid around her shoulders and they headed for the stairs.

“Who said anything about sleep…?”


*******


Crawford Street had changed very little since their last visit during the nightmarish events of Graduation, despite the bright morning sunshine.

By necessity, Buffy lead the way, backed up by Xander, with Giles at his elbow, followed by the three women.

“I'm going through the front door. Giles, you guys check the perimeter and come in through the courtyard,” she ordered and disappeared inside.

Giles opened his mouth to object, then closed it again, aware that he had little control over the situation, despite the lights and shadows and various shapes that swam across his vision now. Instead, he instinctively pulled in the direction of the courtyard.

“Well, come on,” he demanded impatiently, Xander scuttling to keep up.

Willow turned to the other two girls. “We should follow Buffy. Anya, watch our backs. Tara and I will at least try and cover Buffy's. C'mon.”

Inside, Buffy reached the spot where Acathla had stood so long ago, and a chill went down her spine. So much had changed since then, but the pain and the memory of all those events, and the consequences of them, were still stark and cruel in her mind. She made herself scan the area, looking for signs of habitation.

Angel's couch was still there. Her eyes narrowed. There was a dirty cereal bowl and spoon lying on it. Her nose screwed up: Weetabix and blood. Yuck! And on the side table next to it: a bloodied mug, an open bag of herbs, some half burned candles. Her eyes flicked toward the side room Angel had held Giles in. The curtains were drawn.

Of course it didn't necessarily mean anyone was home…

There were only cold embers in the fireplace, the dirty dishes looked as though they'd been sitting there for some time and the place was as silent as a tomb…until the sound of soft steps told her that the others had arrived.

Buffy looked over her shoulder to confirm it and smiled back when Willow gave her one of her little trademark waves before the two Wiccas, armed with large stakes and holy water, split up, each moving to cover her flanks.

As she reached the small room, she spied the guys crossing the courtyard in which she'd fought first Angel, and later, Faith, so long ago. It was obviously deserted. After a shiver she finally smiled a little to herself. Giles was practically dragging Xander. They came through the glass doors just as she drew the curtains back.

There was nothing there but a chair and some cord, both on it and on the floor in front of it, and a pair of smashed, twisted spectacles on the floor. Another shiver went down her spine. She frowned and turned to speak to Willow then stopped and turned back to stoop and pick up the glasses to show her, only to be jolted by the sight of an empty room.

Games. Somebody wanted to play games

She blew out an unnerved, irritated breath, motioned to the others and headed for the next room, where she found Spike fast asleep on what was left of Angel's old bed.

…At least he was, until the morning sun hit him and he leaped up like a startled gazelle, cursing and using epithets Buffy had never heard before.

“Stings a little, huh?” she asked, amused, when he stopped jigging amid his own smoke, and all three girls got a look at the vampire, dressed in nothing more than tiny red boxer shorts.

“Trollop!” he scowled. “What are you doing, sneakin' about, disturbin' a man's rest?”

“One, you're not a man; two it's ten in the morning…rise and shine, sleepy head,” she smirked, “and three, you made your bed, lie in it. Where are they?”

“Where are who, for God's sake?” he squinted from the shadowed corner to which he'd retreated.

“The Déciperi.”

“Don't know nothin' about no bloody foreigners.”

Buffy hauled the window curtains back even further, so that his feet started to smoke.

“All right, all right, they're down stairs in the cellar. Cow.”

“Big with the names today, aren't we? Want to try for another one?” she asked, watching him jig as the light began to really burn.

“Sorry…all right?” he yelled, obviously in pain. “Sorry…! Just drop the bloody curtain before I fry or you're not going to find out anything bloody else, are you?”

Buffy let it down just enough to keep him locked in his corner. “So if they're down there, why are you up here?”

Spike made a face. “Bloody obvious, isn't it? Somebody had to stand guard…and guess which wanker was elected to do that…? Bleedin' creepy lot. Turn a bloke into a gnat or what all in the blink of an eye, they would.”

“So you're scared of them,” Buffy summarized.

“Sod off,” he retorted. “And how about one of you tart…er…ladies,” he corrected, “handing me my bloody pants? A man's naked here, and all you lot can do is ogle.”

Buffy burst out laughing and looked over her shoulder at the approaching Giles and Xander. “Spike, you wouldn't know a real man if he smacked you in the head with his library book. Willow. Keep Brad Pitt, here, in his corner. I'm going down stairs.”

“W-What about that T-Tarquin guy?” Tara ventured.

Buffy stopped mid-turn and mid-thought and spun back to the vampire. “Yeah, what about him…Tarquin Peveril…your boss?”

Spike grew sullen. “Never heard of him,” he muttered.

She dragged the curtains completely down with a flourish and waited as Spike slowly began to smoulder all over.

“Bitch! Bloody bitch!” he shouted. “'Es not here, all right? I don't know where 'e lives, except it's not bloody Sunny-friggin'-Dale. He sends word then he comes and goes at night in his fancy BMW, the ponce,” he spat, his face creased in pain. “ 'Ay…!” he growled and held up a now flaming hand. “You want me to barbeque?”

Buffy scooped up one of the curtains. “That would be my first choice,” she drawled as his shirt caught on fire, and threw the heavy velvet fabric over him. “But not right now.”

“Trollop!” A muffled voice shouted from somewhere in its writhing folds.

But she was already on her way over to Giles. “I'd better do this alone. We don't know how strong these Déciperi are going to be or what they could throw at us…and if big bad Bill the Bloody over there is frightened of them…”

Giles reached out a hand, the sword on his back rattling in its scabbard, and found her arm. “I know,” he said quietly, “but Xander and I will go with you anyway.”

Buffy turned to Willow. “You guys stay here and keep an eye on our little spot fire over there. Find out what else he knows about Tarquin…I don't care how.”

“We could seduce him,” Anya offered.

“Hey!” Xander objected.

“Works for me,” a muffled voice offered from beneath the curtains.

Buffy rolled her eyes and looked to Willow, who, along with Tara, was still armed with a wicked looking stake.

“I'd stick with peek-a-boo if I were you,” she said dryly.

Willow grinned. “Good idea. I'd rather seduce a Fyarl demon,” she said in a deliberately loud voice.

The cloth stopped moving and a white head popped out, only to immediately start smoking again.

“Now that hurts, Red,” he told her sulkily, noticed the smoke from his hair and ducked back under the curtain, with another mouthful of muffled invective.

“Prat,” Giles muttered, feeling ominous signs of the onset of another headache as he turned with Xander to follow Buffy's receding footsteps.


*******

Giles knew from the moment Buffy opened the cellar door that they were definitely in a place of magick. He could smell it, almost taste it in the air.

'Buffy…?” he whispered and waited for a moment until she turned, climbed back up a couple of steps and touched his arm to let him know she was close. All of them had excelled themselves in their consideration of his condition; so much so he hadn't the heart to point out that he was well aware of their presence long before they ever touched him.

“Be careful,” he told her worriedly. “Sorcery. Darkness. I can feel it. It's everywhere.”

“Bad?” she asked, already knowing the answer.

He nodded. “Be careful, love.”

Fingertips brushed his cheek and then her scent and her warmth were gone. He listened intently to the sound of her receding footfalls on the stone steps with a sense of terrible foreboding.

Buffy paused at the bottom of the long flight of steps, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the darkened room, Mister Pointy at the ready.

When they did, it wasn't to find a circle of old crones huddled around a pot, or vividly imagined super-vamps, or ghosts waiting. The blood ran out of her face and her heart began to race.

Across the room, a figure sat slumped in a chair, hair plastered against his brow with sweat and blood, and his striped business shirt half unbuttoned, hands tied behind him.

Buffy looked back swiftly. Xander and Giles were almost on the last steps. She looked forward again. The figure in the chair hadn't moved. She went to it, stepping around the broken spectacles on the floor, and touched it with Mister Pointy.

He sat upright and blinked, his soft green eyes red-rimmed and blurred with pain.

“Jenny…?” he whispered.

Buffy blanched and wheeled around again. Giles and Xander were still on the steps. She turned back to the chair. “Giles?” she asked, her voice coming out in a croak.

“You're not real…they make me see things I want. You're not…her.”

Tears pricked her eyes, despite the logic that told her this wasn't real. After a beat, she moved behind the chair to undo his hands, heart breaking at the sight of the grotesquely bent and snapped fingers, before swiftly breaking his bonds.

When she came back around to face him again he lifted his head, cradled his left hand painfully and looked into her eyes. “You're not real. She's not coming. She hasn't got time…has to save the bloody world…again.”

Buffy took the tortured face in her hands, and choked as the heat of it warmed her palms, the sweat made her fingers damp.

“I am real,” she told him, 'but you're not.”

He blinked again. “He tortured me for hours…for pleasure…” A look of intense hurt came into his eyes. “You never came…”

She caught a sob in her throat and almost choked keeping it from escaping.

“I'm sorry,” she whispered, then forced herself to step back.

He continued to look at her, the hurt burning into her soul.

“You're not real,” she repeated, as though trying to convince herself, as well. For a long moment she hesitated, torn between instinct and emotion.

And then, without warning, she lunged wildly at him.

“You're not real!” she shouted, plunging the stake into his heart before she could waver again, her sobs even louder than his agonised cry of 'Buffy!' the echo of his voice still reverberating around the cellar as both he and the chair turned to dust and she crashed to floor.

Moments later Xander and Giles were at her side, lifting her to her feet. Giles was trembling, and she knew why. A part of her wanted to bury herself in his arms, but she couldn't afford the lapse. Instead she touched his cheek.

“I'm okay,” she said softly, still trembling, herself.

“I'm not,” he said harshly but didn't try and touch her.

Buffy blinked, but said nothing. She had to stay focused.

“Where are they?” Xander asked, looking around the seemingly empty cellar.

“You tell me,” she muttered, trying to gather her wits while continually scanning the room for trouble. There was very little in the expansive basement aside from rows of wine racks at the other end, candles and herbs, rune stones, spell markings on the walls and floor, and traces of blood here and there.

There were no signs of trap doors, or secret compartments in the walls. Buffy was about to turn and say so a few minutes later when she stopped searching and frowned deeply instead, as something almost tangible finally penetrated the haze of distress that still lingered.

A tentative exploration with the fullest extent of her Slayer senses, as Giles had taught her to do so long ago, immediately detected trouble. She opened herself fully, reaching out with everything she had, and felt every nerve ending in her body suddenly electrify.
She shuddered and looked up.

The cellar door was closed.

“So what do we do now?” Xander asked, as the two men came back from checking between the wine racks, Giles at his elbow.

“We find them,” she replied hoarsely, fingering Mister Pointy with shaking hands, her eyes filling with tears as she walked ahead of them.

They were almost at the steps when she heard the sound of steel scraping and wheeled just as Xander lunged at her, plunging the stake into his heart, before whirling and stopping the downward thrust of Giles' sword by blocking his arm with one of hers, and spinning to kick the weapon away.

“How could you know?” he cried in a painfully Giles-like tone of bewilderment, as he staggered.

“I'm the Slayer,” she shot back, landing a punch to his face before he could react and causing him to expose his chest. “It's my job to know.”

She sobbed and drove the stake into him with such force that she stumbled and fell when he turned to dust, hitting her head and jarring her knees on the stone floor.

A moment later the cellar door flew open, its hinges smashed, and Giles and Xander flew down the stairs, Giles with his sword drawn, right hand on the younger man's shoulder, and Xander with a poker from the fireplace.

“Buff!”

“Xander?” Giles demanded desperately when the younger man moved away from him.
Xander, what is it? Where is she?”

“Buffy…?”

When Xander touched her arm, she finally rolled over in slow motion and sat up painfully, wiping dust and grime from her palms, her face chalk white, her eyes frantically seeking the sightless green ones over the boy's shoulder.

“I'm okay…sort of…” she said tremulously, searching Giles' face intently. “It's over. They're dead.”

“Are you certain?”

Rupert looked awful. Buffy realised then that he must have heard everything. Her eyes narrowed. And he had a headache

“Certain, how?” she asked, straining with her Slayer senses to confirm the evidence of her eyes as she got to unsteady feet and went to him, only to stop mere inches away, suddenly unable to bring herself to move any closer.

“Certain that they weren't just more illusions?” he qualified. That the real Déciperi aren't elsewhere?

More tears trickled slowly down her face as she looked up at his. “I don't think so,” she managed. “C-Can you still feel any magick happening down here?”

Giles tilted his head, ignoring the growing throb at the back of his head. “You're right. It's gone.”

Xander, watching the tense interplay, and not missing Giles' trembling hands or Buffy's pale, strained face, finally decided to speak.

“Wow, Giles, I didn't know you were in touch with your inner mojo like that,” he teased, though the admiration in his voice was unmistakable.

Giles suddenly looked self-conscious. “I don't talk about it much,” he admitted reluctantly.

“But you're good at it—?”

Giles closed his eyes. “Very good. Once, long ago, I was far too good at it and people got hurt…people died,” he forced himself to say. “Which is precisely why I have endeavoured to avoid direct participation in it wherever possible, ever since.”

“Eyghon,” Xander said sombrely, remembering, and wishing he hadn't decided to try and help after all.

Giles nodded.

Buffy finally touched his arm, her fingers sliding around it, almost defiantly, once the contact was made. “That's why you know so much…and why you lied about it when you saved me from Amy Madison's mother?”

He nodded again, reluctantly, and covered her hand. “I never wanted you to know the truth,” he confessed.

Xander watched their fingers finally wind together and hold on to each other tightly, and swallowed hard. “We shouldn't stay here,” he said softly, a few moments later.

Giles' head tilted in his direction, then nodded. “We need to interrogate Spike. He should be able to at least tell us how to find that Peveril bastard before he can try anything else,” he proposed as they started to move.

Xander brightened. “Will there be hitting? I volunteer for any and all Spike hitting…”


*******


“I told you, I don't know.”

Buffy pushed his arm further up his back.

“A little higher, pet. It isn't quite there yet,” the vampire drawled.

Buffy obliged, finally eliciting an expression of discomfort from the pale face.

“All right, that'll do it,” he grunted. “But I still don't know where the wanker lives. What do I look like? A bloody telephone book?”

With an exasperated noise, Buffy added an extra twist to his wrist, satisfied when he gave a true gasp of pain.

“It stops if you tell us what the deal is with Charlotte and Tarquin and what your part in all this is. If not, we see how much more it takes to break it.”

Spike grunted again as his wrist came close to snapping. “All right,” he gasped again. “What do I care anyway? He's not going to pay me now that I've lost his bloody pets.”

Buffy let go grudgingly and watched him rub his arm, and then the wrist.

“I knew him from London. We had some times back in the late fifties. Then Dru decided she wanted to go back to Europe again and Tar didn't want to go. Couldn't leave his Charlotte for five bloody minutes.”

“So…why? Why not turn Charlotte right away? Why put a spell on her and leave her all these years?” Willow demanded as Tara and Anya looked on avidly. The three girls were riveted.

Spike's face screwed up. “Oh please…we're not talkin' harlequin bloody romance novels here, people. Tar's Sire cast the spell the moment he turned her. Y'see old Tarquin was made by a goddess named Siobhan. Any of us would have been happy to take a turn with Siobhan, but not that one, and of course that made her want him all the more. Don't get me wrong, whatever he was when he was alive, he was still a demon and a bad bastard, but flawed, you know, lettin' too many of his old qualitites get in the way. Obsessed with bloody Charlotte 'e was and he spent years trying to find a way to undo the spell.”

“So why didn't he just kiss her?” Xander muttered.

Spike scoffed. “Because that's the bloody fairy tale part of the story, Einstein. Besides, he had his hands full with Siobhan. All he could do was wait his chance to find a way to wake Charlotte and take her away. When he found out there was not only a Hellmouth open here, but a Slayer, he knew this was where he'd find his answers.”

“And I did,” said a deep, rich voice from the doorway.

Everyone turned. The tall, broad figure was swathed in a heavy black cloak, the hood of which he pushed back the moment he stepped out of direct sunlight.

“I found them all…”

He was stunning. All of the women stared, his vivid blue eyes magnetic beneath the black brows, in the strong face, with its prominent, straight nose and stronger jaw. His hair was short and dark, in crisp waves. Anything less like a vampire they had yet to see.

“Wow, and I thought Angel…” Willow whispered.

“I wonder if he likes orgasms,” Anya mused, only to have Xander's hand immediately cover her mouth.

Giles frowned at the momentary silence. “Spike mentioned someone called Siobhan,” he asked. “There was a particularly vicious Master named Siobhan, made in County Kilkenny in the early sixteen hundreds, but so powerful she swiftly established domain over most of Eire, and later the whole of what is now called the United Kingdom…”

“That's 'er,” Spike piped up. “Right bitch…but not any more. Tar fixed 'er good and proper in 'er sleep with a bloody great whitewood carving of a unicorn's head. From 'er own collection of dross, no less. Bloody priceless, it was.”

Tarquin stared at the older man, ignoring Spike completely. “She was magnificent,” he said, “but ultimately just another obstacle to be overcome.”

Buffy, who'd moved close to Giles, scowled and spoke for the first time to the being that had tried so hard to kill her, and whose obsession had almost cost Giles his life.

“Sounds like true love to me,” she drawled.

The blue eyes regarded her with amused contempt. “The Council and its obsession with scrawny little girls,” he drawled. “Don't try to provoke me, Slayer. It won't work. I know who you are, what you've done and what you're capable of and I'm not going to play by your rules.”

Anya and Tara sighed, transfixed by his lilting accent and his charismatic presence.

Willow scowled.

Buffy's expression hardened. “Funny that. Your assassins are dust and so is your girlfriend,” she pointed out harshly, “…and, oh, look…I'm still here.”

“Sarky cow,” Spike muttered.

Her eyes narrowed. “You going to tell him how well you guarded his toys, Spike?”

Spike shot a look of pure hatred at her. “Tattle-tale,” he sneered, then turned a hangdog expression towards his former employer. “It's the bloody Slayer, man…and all her little helpers. It wasn't my fault. I-I was outnumbered and overrun on me own.”

Tarquin turned to Giles as though Spike wasn't even in the room. “You are the Watcher?”

Giles straightened and drew his shoulders back.

“I am,” he confirmed, not bothering to qualify the statement. A gleam came into the soft green pools. “Why? Do you want my Slayer to slay something for you?” he drawled, turning his head pointedly in the direction of Spike's voice.

Tarquin laughed softly. “Courage and magic are not enough without your eyes, old man.”

Giles jerked, almost lunging forward reflexively, touched on the raw and barely able to stop himself from reacting. Buffy, however, caught his arm, and he steadied, lifting his head and thrusting his chin out.

“You've lost it all,” he growled. “You have no business here, now.”

“Oh, but I do,” the vampire said silkily, a steel thread of hatred in his tone, the shadow of pain in his eyes. “Sixty years I waited…and your little harlot ended it all in a few seconds.”

“Oh yeah?” Buffy shot back as Giles' had slid over her shoulder, silently refuting the insult. “Whose ho woke up on the wrong side of bed, trying to kill everyone in sight? If this love of yours was so damned eternal, why weren't you there for her, Romeo?” She smirked deliberately. “What? No Prince for Snow White? Too busy polishing the BMW?”

“Witch!” he spat.

Buffy's eyes flashed and she flicked a glance at Willow. “Nope, that would be her.” They moved to Tara. “And her. Guess again, asshole.”

Anya giggled.

“You will die,” he said in low voice so full of rage it was more violent than any scream or shout.

“Yeah, Slayer,” Spike sneered, moving up behind the cloaked figure, curtain still wrapped around him.

Xander laughed aloud. “What are you gonna do, Spike? Flash her to death?”

The blond vampire's nostrils flared and he pushed out his chest, the curtain falling to the floor, forgotten. “That's it! Kill 'em!” he told his companion. “Kill 'em all.”

Anya, Tara and Willow moved close together, Anya finding a cross from somewhere in her coat as the others raised their stakes.

Xander automatically stepped in front of them.

“What are you going to do, Peveril?” Giles asked quietly. “Kill every single one of us by yourself? Your lapdog there has been neutered.”

“'Ay!” Spike objected.

“You're alone,” Giles continued. “Against the Slayer.”

“Ah, but perceptions can be deceptive,” the charismatic vampire murmured and abruptly vanished, leaving the half-naked Spike boggling.

The temperature of the room dropped about ten degrees in a matter of seconds, the air suddenly pervaded by the smell of burned herbs and sulphur.

Willow and Tara lost all colour. “Buffy…!” Willow gasped.

Giles' fingers tightened harshly around her hand. “Sorcery,” he hissed. “Trouble…bad trouble.”

Buffy's mouth went dry. “Oh God, I should have known. In the cellar…that…it wasn't the Déciperi,” she guessed unsteadily. “The bastard planted a diversion. Giles, get everyone out, now!”

“No,” he said immediately. “Do what must be done, but trust in us to do what we must, as well.”

She squeezed the hand back, pulled his head down and kissed him hard before turning to Xander, who immediately came to Giles' side.

The younger man watched Buffy move toward Spike as the girls joined them.

“What are we going to do?”

“Keep her alive…” Giles whispered. “Willow, Tara, with me. Xander, Anya, watch Buffy's back…and everyone, be careful!”

When they got close, Giles said something to Tara, who darted back into the living room and returned with the herbs and the candles moments later. At that point they seemed to go into conference and Xander roused himself, shepherding Anya across to join Buffy.

“What do you know about it?” Buffy was demanding as they arrived.

“Sweet Fanny Adams,” Spike snorted, pulling up and fastening the jeans he'd grabbed while everyone was preoccupied. “Bastard's left me hanging out to dry, if you haven't noticed.”

“My heart's breaking,” Buffy snarled. “Where are the Déciperi?”

“How the hell should I know? I thought they were in the basement. Turns out I had the bejeezus scared out of me by some hack bloody vampires having a right old time at my expense.” He sighed. “Wish I had a fag.”

Three sets of eyes suddenly grew very wide.

Spike rolled his at them. “A bloody smoke,” he translated irritably. “I need one. Now.”

The room was getting colder.

“Make a decision, Spike,” Buffy growled. “Either you leave and don't come back, or you help…or my personal choice: vampire flambé. Choose.”

Spike snorted. “Don't be ridiculous. If I leave and he wins he'll have those bloody sorcerers of his turn me into a parsnip or something. And if I help him, and you win, I'm dust anyway.” He frowned. “And if I help you and he wins…bloody hell, what's the use. My arse is toast. What do you want?”

“Just…stay out of it,” Buffy told him. “Watch for trouble and don't make me have to take time out to stake you.”

“Deal,” he said. “What else am I going to do, anyway? I can't even throw anything at people, except bloody insults.”

But Buffy was already turning away, trying to stretch out her senses, beyond the murmur of demon energy that was Spike, and the cold dread that was the sorcery pervading the air.

Xander watched her go towards the living area. “Anya, stay here and keep Spike company. I'd like to know you're safe. If he gives you any trouble, kick him where it hurts.”

Anya scowled “Don't I get a stake, like the others?”

“You're not going to give her a weapon,” Spike objected, horrified at the idea.

Xander grinned and pulled his spare from his belt, under his sweater. “Don't kill him unless he gives you a good reason. Buffy might want to interrogate him again later.”

Anya took the piece of wood and grinned happily while Spike scowled. “I have a stake now. Okay, Xander, you can go. Giles said to watch Buffy's back. We'll be fine.”

Xander laughed again at the look on the vampire's face then turned, shivering as the temperature of the room continued to plunge.


*******

“Giles, I don't know if this will work,” Willow said nervously as she arranged runes, herbs, and candles around a firepot they'd found in the cellar and moved back to complete the circle.

“Are we missing anything?”

She shook her head, then realised that there was something. “Uh…no. There was a lot of stuff down here. I found most everything we need. It's just…”

“We can do it without the books, Willow,” Giles said gently. “Between the three of us we should be able to remember it all.”

Tara looked from one to the other. “I can't,” she said uncomfortably.

“You are familiar with—?”

“I-I am…a little, but I can't do it. L-last time Willow and I tried…it didn't work,” she answered evasively. “You do it…you're both…strong.”

Giles smiled reassuringly. “It's all right,” he told her gently. “I'm sure Willow and I can handle it. Now…the opening lines…”

He began a practise recitation in Latin, with Willow filling in or correcting as they went, until they came to a passage where both fell silent. Willow looked to Tara, whose eyes widened when she realised what she wanted.

Then the young Wicca seemed to find some kind of centre in herself and closed her eyes before reciting several stanzas very clearly, Giles picking up the spell and chanting with her after the first one, Willow after the second. The three of them completed the run through together.

“Excellent,” Giles told them, his voice deepened by his concern for the three upstairs. “Thank you, Tara. Are you sure you won't help us?”

“I can't,” she repeated.

He nodded. “When we do it, we'll do it together, Willow, just like that…that way there'll be no mistakes. Light the pot.”

When it was done, Willow moved back to her position in the circle as Tara moved out of it, closed her eyes and joined hands with Giles, trying to ignore the freezing cold and the increasing smell of sulphur and herbs, undiminished by the scent of those she had broken up and thrown into the fire pot.

*******

“Buff?”

Xander scanned the whole area. It was deserted. “Buffy where are you…?” he yelled.

There was no answer, except for a smell that got steadily worse…like something had died and had been left in the sun for several days. He tried to keep looking, until he started to retch, and was forced to withdraw swiftly to the terrace, only to have the doors slam closed behind him as he heaved. Nothing he could do had the slightest impact on opening them again. Even the glass refused to break.

He swore, punched the wall, and swore again, then took off to find another way in.


*******

Buffy stared.

“You're not him,” she whispered. “You're not…he isn't here.”

Angelus smirked and walked towards her. “You'd like to think that, wouldn't you, little girl? You'd like it all to be that easy…”

A man's low-pitched gasp of pain made her whirl and her heart jump to her throat.

“You didn't think I'd spent all those long hours just playing with Rupert's fingers, did you?” he drawled behind her. “It would have gotten awfully darn boring, I can tell you…”

Buffy closed her eyes against tears. “You're not real. You're not even them. You're just another stupid vampire, playing games.”

“And him…? Poor Rupert?” Angelus asked in the obsequiously solicitous voice she remembered so vividly, and hated so much.

“I won't look,” she said through her teeth. “He's not real. You're not real.”

Another scream, this time of unadulterated agony, forced her eyes open. Giles was sprawled on the floor, his shirt pulled back to his wrists, and Drusilla was standing over him with a burning iron.

“This is fun,” she grinned, eyes flashing, her voice completely insane.

“Stop it!” Buffy sobbed, able to smell the singed flesh, to hear Giles' choked whimpers of agony as the wound on his back still hissed. She turned.

Angelus spread his hands, his smirk widening. “Why? We're not real, remember?”

The anger boiled up, laced with hurt and rage. Buffy lunged at him with her stake, but found herself stumbling through thin air. She stopped, straightened, turned. It was all gone.

A tweed-clad figure walked towards her from the fireplace.

“You didn't really think it was going to be that easy, did you?” It asked.

Buffy looked up into the beloved face, different, younger…almost exactly as he had been the first time she ever saw him.

“What do you want?” she whispered.

“The Slayer, of course,” he said matter-of-factly, taking off the old, large-framed glasses and polishing the lenses with his handkerchief. The soft green eyes flicked up and locked onto hers.

Buffy's fists clenched. It had been so long since those eyes had looked at her like that…and they weren't even real…

“You are so dead,” she whispered, shaking with rage.

“How perceptive of you,” he drawled. “However, if you are referring to an impending condition, I believe that would be you, my dear.”

“No,” she retorted. “Not me.”

“But you should know by now how fallible you are, little girl,” he whispered, the sound of dripping water behind her suddenly.

She swung around to see herself face down in a pool of water, in the dress her mother had given her for her sixteenth birthday…

“She isn't me,” she said, swinging back, then blinked. They were in Giles' apartment, and his clothes had changed. There were roses, candles, and champagne chilling in a bucket on his desk. He was looking at it and smiling to himself.

It took a moment, then she realised what it was.

“No!” she cried as he headed for the stairs, a look of such expectation, such joy shining in his face. “No…” she whispered…and closed her eyes when the silence was shattered by the sound of the bottle crashing to the floor.

“You've had such a busy time,” a voice said behind her. She turned. “You've managed so many spectacular screw ups in such a short life…”

She blinked. “Why you…?”

“Only fitting, don't you think, little girl…the dead impersonating the dead? You killed me just as certainly as if you broke my neck yourself… You took everything and you gave him nothing…”

Something suddenly niggled at Buffy's subconscious, even as her eyes blazed with passion. “I gave him everything I had to give!” she shouted back. “I was a child…I gave him…gave the Council…my childhood, my freedom, my future… My life!

Jenny's laughter mingled cruelly with the sounds of utter grief.

The sounds were coming from behind Buffy. She wheeled and saw Giles, smudged and bruised, sliding down the living room wall, his coat thrown on the floor, hair singed, hands burned, Angelus' sketch of Jenny crumpled in them. The sound of his grief was almost unbearable. The knowledge that he'd suffered it alone, even more so…

Buffy closed her eyes and whirled back. “It won't work,” she declared, her voice shaking almost as much as her hands, but there was no one there.

“Why don't you fight…why all these games?”

“Fight a scrawny little kid?”

She whirled again, that niggle igniting into a flame as she came face to face with Angelus once again.

“You!” she hissed. “It was you all along…what did you do with him? Is he dead?” she demanded.

Angelus morphed into a dashing figure in a British military uniform. “Tarquin?” The broad shoulders shrugged. “He became an unnecessary inconvenience…but his obsession was useful to us.”

“If it wasn't him, who the hell called you?” she demanded.

The figure morphed back into Giles.

“You do understand that your time is over?” he asked, in that heartbreakingly familiar tone he used to use when he was trying to teach her something and she was distracted.

Buffy gazed at the handsome face, the wide, patient eyes, the ear with the piercing she'd hadn't once managed to notice before he'd started singing and wearing his earring again.

“My time has only just begun,” she whispered, drawing out a stake and uncorking a bottle of Holy water. “It's yours that's over…”

She moved swiftly, the Holy water finding its mark before the Visthi had time to react. It screeched as it burned, morphing through every face it had shown her, as well as her those of her mother, father, Xander, Willow, Oz, Ethan, Riley…all interleaved by a dozen different kinds of Giles, including the Fyarl demon, the boy musician, the Watcher who'd betrayed her, and the one who'd loved her too much to let her to fight the Master alone…

“Must have been a long time since you felt pain,” Buffy observed harshly as she closed on its staggering form. She plunged the stake into its heart…just as it morphed into her Giles…looking exactly as he looked before he went down to the cellar.

She sobbed as the sightless green eyes widened and his mouth tried to form words, only to have everything around it crumble to dust, leaving a dirty orange brown skeleton for a few moments, before it, too, disintegrated into dust.

“That's one,” she muttered, shaking, and drew a sleeve across her eyes before suddenly finding herself back in the mansion again. “How many more…?”

“Buffy!”

She whirled, stake raised, as Xander almost fell down the last of the outside steps and burst into the living room through the main entrance. He raised his hands.

“It's okay, it's me. Really. You vanished and then something did an imitation of really, really dead, and I got locked out…but you're back now—”

Buffy hadn't lowered the stake.

“Buff?”

He didn't like the way her hand was trembling, or the almost greenish cast to her tearstained face.

“It's me. Really.”

“How do I know it's you?”

“I guess you don't,” he said, suddenly calm. “I guess you won't know unless you stake me…I can tell you all the most personal stuff I know; how much and how long I was in love with you, how hard it was to say no when you tried to seduce me under that stupid spell…”

“Don't trust him, Buffy!” a breathless, panting voice said behind her.

She half turned. “Giles?”

“It's not Xander,” he said. “It's one of them.”

“They know so much…H-how do I know?”

“Because I'm telling you…because Willow and I cast a locator spell to find out what you were up against…how many…and one, possibly two of them are in this room right now.”

“H-how did you get up here on your own?” she demanded.

“He didn't,” Willow stepped out from behind him. “I helped.”

Buffy's eyes went back to Xander, looking both calm and terrified at the same time, his dark eyes searching her face, looking so…

She raised the stake higher. “How do I know? How do I know you both aren't Déciperi?”

“I can't help you, Buff,” Xander said helplessly. “Short of letting you kill me, I don't know how to prove it to you. You're the Slayer…”

“He's playing you,” Giles pleaded. “Listen to me, Buffy. It's an illusion…it's not Xander. If you don't kill him, he's going to kill you.”

Xander spread his hands as Buffy took a step towards him.

“Giles, I have to know for certain,” she said over her shoulder. “I can't do this again without knowing for sure. I can feel one of them in this room…I know there's one of them in this room…how do I know who it is?”

“I can't help you with that. I can tell you what we've been through together, how much I love you…how much I need you…but I can't make that choice for you,” he said softly. “Use your Slayer senses. You have to choose…and you have to take responsibility for that choice. This indecisiveness is exactly what they want.”

“Oh, God, Buffy…” Xander whispered. “Don't…”

He seemed so real, so alive, so terrified…

She half turned back to Giles and Willow, took a shuffling step in their direction.

Giles' eyes were looking over her right shoulder and his hands were clenched into tense fists of frustration. “I can't do this for you,” he said desperately and heard her take another step toward him, heard her sob softly. “I'm sorry I don't have the answers, love. I'm sorry you must choose alone. You can do it. I know you can,” he told her as calmly as he could. “You can do this. You're not a child any more…”

He cocked his head at the sudden rustle of movement and then lunged forward at the sound of Xander screaming, intermingled with the unexpected sound of racking sobs.

“Buffy…!”

A shocked Willow wordlessly grabbed his elbow and took him straight to the crumpled heap on the floor before backing away, pale and stunned.

“Buffy?” he called, and clutched her tight when she launched herself into his arms. “I'm here,” he whispered hoarsely, tightening his embrace to try and still her trembling. “I'm here.” He was still holding her when Xander came stumbling through the terrace doors.

“What happened?” he demanded. “I couldn't get in. I yelled, I screamed, I banged on doors. Nobody heard me…? Nobody even saw?”

Buffy drew herself reluctantly from Giles' embrace. “Xander?” she whispered. It was a question and a plea.

“I believe so,” Giles confirmed softly.

She scrambled to her feet and launched herself at him, hugging him hard.

Xander instinctively hugged back, then his eyes widened.

“Oh God, you killed me again, didn't you?” he asked, ridiculously…so ridiculously that she couldn't help laughing and crying into his shirt at the same time.

At that point the others began to arrive. Tara, staring in stunned surprise, and slipping her hand automatically into Willow's as Giles spoke softly to the redhead, and Anya who was still menacing Spike with her stake, until she saw Buffy and Xander.

“Hey…nobody said anything about her touching Xander! No touching Xander!”

Buffy and Xander looked at each other and started to giggle again as they separated.

“I love you, Xand,” Buffy whispered damply.

“I know,” he whispered back, touching her fingers before turning to placate his girlfriend, who was still looking daggers at the Slayer.

Buffy smiled at him fondly then shook her head. “He's all yours,” she assured the insecure ex-demon, with genuine feeling. There was only one person she wanted right now…one person she would ever want…

As though he knew, Giles moved up behind her, guided by the sound of her voice, reached out, found her shoulders and squeezed them gently.

“Did…did I really get them all?” she asked softly.

“According to the spell there were two, and Spike, and something not quite…something Willow couldn't identify, in the same room as us…and the Déciperi. You were alone, you and…?”

Buffy nodded. “There was me…and there was the leader. H-He was Tarquin too, and Angelus, you being tortured…” she whispered, her voice shaking with pain, “a lot of people, plus there was one other…H-He must have been Xander too…and Drusilla…the other one…”

Giles cleared his throat and tightened his grip. His head was splitting. “Then Willow was right. The other indication was probably just residual energy…the whole place was charged with it. They needed a great deal of power to maintain their illusions.”

Nobody saw the relieved expression on Tara's face before her eyes dropped to her shoelaces.

“So…it's over?” Xander asked hopefully. “Is it me, or is it actually getting warmer in here?”

“I-I think it's over,” Buffy offered tentatively.

Willow and Tara looked at each other. “We can't feel anything…Giles?”

“Nothing,” he confirmed, his fingers tightening on the slender shoulders. “I think perhaps it's time to go home…”

Buffy shivered. “Can't we do another spell, or something to be sure? I really need this to be over.”

“Of course it's bloody over,” Spike muttered irritably. “You think I wouldn't know if one of them was still here?”

“You didn't bloody know they weren't here in the first place,” Giles retorted.

“I knew there was something in the cellar,” Spike said sulkily. “And big mojo on the place…enough to make my skin crawl. I'm telling you it's over. There isn't even a sniff of a spell left on the place, leave out any more bloody vampires.”

“You could be one of them…you all could,” Buffy suggested a little wildly.

Xander spread his hands. “Yeah, but Buff, staking all of us…not an option…unless, of course, you want to start with Spike…”

Buffy didn't answer. “Giles, I'm scared,” she said softly. “I can't tell what's real and what isn't anymore. How…how did you?”

“Not the same,” he said softly. “Back then, Drusilla and the others weren't trying to conceal anything from me…after they got what they wanted…”

“Giles,” Willow interrupted gently, “the casting downstairs…it's still…it should show if there are any more of them.”

When they had all spread around the perimeter of the spell circle, Willow exhaled with relief.

“Spike was right,” she said. “They're gone. See…there's Spike…and here's that thing…see, you can only just see it…so it's not a vamp…That's funny, it's down here now.”

She looked around at all of them. “It's like it's something, but not…like maybe something in transition.”

Giles tilted his head in thought. “Your theory about residual energy could still be the answer,” he said thoughtfully, unaware of the tension in his face, or the tightening of the hand still resting on Buffy's left shoulder. “With all of us together it could easily be concentrated down here. “What…what if the spell is just picking up Buffy's extraordinary Slayer energy, for example?”

Willow frowned. “I never thought of that. Buffy's powers aren't exactly regular stuff. Maybe…yeah, it could be… It would explain the first indication, you know, when Buffy was upstairs, before, and then we came…”

Tara flashed her a startled look then swiftly looked down again before anyone saw.

“I think I want to go home now,” Buffy whispered grimly, trying to block out a sudden vivid memory from long ago, when Xander brought her back, after the Master killed her.
She closed her eyes. It didn't bear thinking about.


“Good idea,” Xander seconded, just as grimly, and Willow nodded.

Spike looked from one tense face to the other and wondered what the hell was going on. “Care to fill me in, team? I seem to be missing something.”

“Shut up, Spike,” Willow growled as they began to file up the stairs.

Tara, bringing up the rear, watched them go with a mixture of concern and relief before half smiling at the bickering that had begun despite, or because of the tension.

“You're really starting to annoy me, Red.”

“Like I care.”

“That's bloody nice, that is—”

“Watch your mouth, fang boy…”

“Yeah, Spike…”

“If you don't mind, my head is about to implode. Will you all please shut up?

“Yes, Giles.”

“Shutting up, now.”

“Sorry, Giles.”

“My heart bleeds, Watcher…”


********

Giles and Buffy stumbled wearily into their apartment, both grateful to have been delivered to the door by Xander, despite the tight squeeze, and both still half amused by Buffy's description of the look on everyone's faces when she had automatically volunteered to sit on Giles' lap to make more room in the convertible.

The amusement, however, was tempered by the events of the day, and the moment the door closed, the facades fell away.

“You're head's worse,” Buffy said softly, touching his brow when she turned and saw the knotted divot in it, then frowning when she realised his hands were trembling, and not from relief or distress this time. She ushered him to the stairs and leaned into him as they climbed slowly.

“I'm fine, love,” he said in a strained voice.

“Yeah, and I'm the Queen of France,” she muttered.

“France has a President, and not a pretty one,” Giles retorted, in a frail imitation of his usual repartee.

“So? My point still stands. You're not fine, either. Pills?”

“No, and don't fuss,” he growled almost nastily, surprising Buffy as they reached the landing, just before he used a particularly blue expletive and began sliding bonelessly to the floor.

She caught and held him, shifted his weight with the ease of Slayer strength, and half-carried, half dragged him the last few steps to the loft. It took some wriggling and some heaving, but she managed to shift his weight over her shoulder enough to turn and flip him onto the bed, in a laden wheat-bag sort of way.

Terrified, she found a pulse, and checked his eyes, before removing his shoes, pants, jacket and shirt. His pulse was strong and his pupils were fine, but his colour was awful.

Could anything else go wrong…?

She shook her head as she rummaged through his side drawer for the smelling salts she knew he'd had almost since he'd arrived in Sunnydale. It was over. Tarquin was dead. The Déciperi were dead. She had to stop being paranoid…but the knowledge that whoever raised them was still out there, left her with an unshakeable sense of dread.

The smelling salts weren't there. She turned back to Giles, whose colour was improving already, and rested her fingers against his throat for a moment before slipping downstairs to the bathroom.

Moments later she was back and leaning over him again.

“G…Good lord…”

Buffy watched him move his head from side to side as he coughed and spluttered after she'd waved the bottle under his nose.

“Remind me to throw those bloody things out,” he muttered then grabbed his head, gasping.

“Giles!” Buffy cried, panicked.

“Pain,” he choked. “And I can't…can't see anything. Black. All black.”

“Tell me what to do!”

He gasped and rubbed his temples shakily for several moments longer before his breathing began to slow and he lay back on the pillow again.

“M-my God,” he said hoarsely. “That…that…I hope that's not going to happen again. I thought I was going to be violently ill, in the midst of a stroke and about to arrest all at the same time.”

Unwilling to crowd him on the bed, Buffy slipped her fingers gently into his open palm. “I'm sorry,” she said fearfully, and held up the bottle with the other hand. “Maybe it was the smelling salts…?”

His fingers closed around them. “No. It's definitely radiating from the back of my head, even if the whole damned thing felt like it was going to explode there for a moment. Besides, after all these years I should already know if I'm sensitive to bloody smelling salts.”

“Giles, are you sure we shouldn't go to the hospital? Skull fractures aren't like broken arms…it-it still scares me.”

Giles pulled her down alongside him, and she obligingly curled into his side, her head on his shoulder.

“No hospital,” he said softly. “If you hadn't been able to wake me, then yes, by all means have me shipped me off to the ER, but I should expect these sort of reactions if I'm to go on being silly.”

“You mean like doing too much…like today?”

“Oh, yes…exactly like today,” he agreed, pain still in his voice. “ I rather think old Jorgensen would have had a lot to say about today.” His arm tightened around her and drew her closer. “They were trying to entice you to kill someone you love, because they knew it would destroy you. I was terrified they were going to succeed.”

Buffy shuddered. “I never thought of it that way. It would have worked…There's no way I could survive killing anyone…especially not any of you guys. I'd have let them kill me…”

“I know, love. Why do you think I was so frightened?”

“You? Scared?” she said doubtfully.

He laughed, but his voice dropped almost to a whisper. “Terrified. And not for the first time…I don't think there's been a single moment when I've sent you out to patrol, or to fight evil somehow, that I haven't been scared to death…”

Her arm slid over his chest and tightened around it. “I was scared to death today. I haven't been that freaked in a long time, and I didn't like it. I almost lost it, when I had to choose between you and Will, and Xander…”

“I know,” he said sombrely. “They knew, as Spike discovered, that the only real way to fight you was through your head and your heart. But it's over now. Do you want to tell me how you knew it was Xander?”

Buffy closed her eyes. “It was something you said. You said I wasn't a little girl any more. The Déciperi …all of them…kept insisting over and over that I was—a scrawny little girl, I mean.”

Giles exhaled a long breath. “Well done, love.”

“You thought it was something else?”

He hesitated for a moment. “I was…unjustifiably, obviously…concerned that you might have chosen to spare me simply because of…us, though, admittedly, a part of me was hoping it would help sway you in that instance.”

Buffy's eyes filled. “I wanted to, so much, but I couldn't. They were using us…you…to hurt me most of all. That's why I had to know for sure…because for a while I was sure it was you…and I didn't know if I could kill you again…”

Giles turned then and gathered her fully into his arms, disturbed by the sudden overwhelming fragility emanating from her. It was rare for Buffy to be other than in control, even hard, in order to survive the kaleidoscopic tumult of, and the relentless number of additional disasters that had beset, the Slayer's short life to date. All of them, himself included, had, perhaps unfairly, come to automatically expect unwavering strength from her, simply because…well, because she was Buffy.

“It's over,” he said gently as their bodies automatically entwined and she buried herself in the safe haven of his arms. “Time to think of other things.”

“Your head…” she remembered suddenly as she lifted her face to kiss his chin.

“...Is a pain in the bloody arse,” he muttered, “but unimportant right now.”

“No, I mean, before…you said it was all black again. You couldn't see anything, not even your funny shadows—”

Giles' puzzled frown cleared. “Well I couldn't, for one truly horrible moment. I'm sorry I didn't mention it, but it did pass. I can see my little shadow theatre perfectly well now, thank you, pounding head not withstanding.”

Buffy kissed him very gently. “You should sleep…give your head a break. I know neither of us will sleep tonight if we take a nap now, but a little post slayage snooze is probably the best thing for both of us at this point.”

He kissed her back, and pulled her closer. “You'll get no argument from me.”

“Now there's a change,” she teased, giggling into his chest hair when a large hand slapped her rump affectionately.

*******

Buffy blinked sleep from her eyes and looked at Giles' clock. For a moment the time didn't quite register. It didn't make sense. And then she realised the phone was ringing.

“Hello?”

“Buffy, it's Willow. Cordelia called. Angel and Wesley finally went to that address in L.A. You know, the one I found for Tarquin Peveril…?” There was a small pause. “I forgot to tell you. I called them about it before we all came to see you,” she admitted sheepishly.

“Good idea,” Buffy said groggily, turning to see that Giles had rolled over, despite being disturbed by the phone, and was almost asleep again. “So what did they find?”

“That's the good part…I think. Tarquin is definitely the one who called the Déciperi to wreak vengeance on you…you, know, for killing Charlotte right when he was going to get her back. Cordelia says should see his place, Buffy. There are old pictures of her everywhere, and an oil painting in the living room. She was really beautiful, like, movie star gorgeous, even with one of those really old hairdos, like, from when my grandmother was our age.”

Buffy sat up straight, wide awake now. “How does Angel know for certain?”

Willow's sigh was audible. “The stuff, it's all still set up exactly the way its described in both the Codex and the Black Chronicles. Oh…Wesley says to tell Giles he's got the book with the spell Tarquin used to wake Charlotte. He says it's one the Watcher's Council has never seen. It's really, really old. I can't wait to see it…oh…where was I? Oh, yeah, the apartment. There's a big bunch of dust on the floor near the offerings. We're guessing the Deciperi appeared when he called them and pretty much zapped him right off. Wesley says it was probably to establish dominion over the dark forces here, right from the start. Angel thinks that if they had killed the Slayer, it would have marked the beginning of the end.”

“Again?” Buffy muttered cynically.

“Kinda,” Willow confirmed. “But Wesley says it was definitely Tarquin who awakened them, so at least we know now that it's over.”

Colour flooded back into Buffy's face. “It is, isn't it?” she asked, relief shining in her eyes. “Will…?”

“Yeah, Buff?”

“Thanks…”

“Anytime,” Willow said softly, the smile almost audible in her voice. “How's Giles?”

Buffy frowned and looked down at him again. “Sleeping now, but his head was bad when we got back. He won't go to the hospital, though.”

There was another pause and then a 'resolved face' tone of voice. “If it gets bad again, Xander and I will come over and help you carry him, if necessary, to the ER.”

Buffy grinned again. “I'll hold you to that. I think he's going to be okay, Will. It…it just scares me when he's in so much pain.”

“I know. It's like that when you love someone.”

“Yeah, but before it was always me that was in pain. This is different.”

“Of course it is,” Willow said warmly, “because it's real.”

Buffy grinned. “Did anyone ever tell you you're an incurable romantic?”

There was a snort at the end of the phone. “Go be with him,” Willow chuckled, and hung up.

Buffy watched her lover sleep for some time before sliding silently out of bed. She paused for a moment when she remembered that she'd shed everything, to sleep in nothing but the hi-cut white lacy undies she had on. It was, however, surprisingly mild in the apartment, for the time of year, and she had to get to the bathroom, and soon…

She got as far as the kitchen on her return journey before it occurred to her that they hadn't eaten since breakfast and that it was now mid-evening…not to mention that her stomach was growling pretty spectacularly.

And low blood sugar would not have been helping Giles' headache any…

Twenty minutes later, still sleepy-eyed and tousle-haired, she climbed the stairs with a tray laden with tea, fruit, rolls, pate, brie, diced cheese, ham and pickles, and a packet of potato chips she'd found by accident. It wasn't the Ritz, but it made a nice picnic.

“Giles…?”

The figure on the bed didn't stir.

“Hey! Yo, gorgeous…!” she prompted, raising her voice.

His eyes flickered and his shoulders rolled back.

“I brought dinner.”

He pushed himself up on one elbow and squinted, before his face wreathed in amused smiles.

“Bloody hell, who are you feeding? The Russian Army?” he teased.

Buffy almost dropped the laden tray, but settled for her jaw instead.

Giles…?

He blinked…and then he stared fixedly for a long time; long enough to scare her, his mouth open slightly, as though in shock.

She was about speak when he closed his eyes again and dropped his head. A shiver went down her spine and she hastened to slide the tray onto the bedside cupboard. Before she could step towards him, however, Giles looked up again.

“Don't move,” he whispered, his soft green eyes looking into hers. “Just…just let me look at you.”

Buffy's breath caught in her throat and her heart almost jumped out of it with renewed excitement as he drank in the sight of her.

He half smiled, his eyes glowing despite the amassing moisture that he was studiously ignoring.

“You are so beautiful…and I've missed you so much…”

His joy and his tears were infectious. Buffy blinked moisture away and stepped towards him, barely able to believe that his eyes were following her every movement, not simply staring, unfocused, in her general direction.

“How…?”

He shook his head and opened his arms, crushing her when she flew into them.

“I don't know. I'm sure that attack earlier had something to do with it. Just as I'm certain Jorgensen will explain it to me in long and involved detail, when we can arrange to see him,” he said into her hair, his voice trembling with emotion, “but, right now, I don't give a rat's arse as long as it's permanent.”

Buffy pulled back then. “And I don't give a rat's arse if it is or it isn't. You're stuck with me until you're old and decrepit, no matter what he says.”

He laughed, his eyes roaming hungrily over every square inch of her face. “I thought I already was…old and decrepit?”

Buffy smacked his arm without force. “Don't make me grovel again about that. I figure you've got at least another thirty good years left in you yet,” she added mischievously and squeaked when his hands closed around her waist and swung her onto the bed, rolling so that his body was arched over hers.

“Is that right?” he drawled, settling between her unresisting thighs. “In that case I think I should start putting them to good use.”

She looked up at him, flushed and glowing, and smiled even more widely when the green eyes found hers.

“I can't believe it,” she whispered, touching his face and losing herself in their depths.

“Neither can I,” he said softly, his large hand caressing the hair away from her brow before he bent and captured her lips, kissing her with an unbridled passion, unmatched since the first time they made love.

Buffy slid her arms around his neck, losing herself in their need for each other until he finally lifted his head again.

“What?” she prompted, when he didn't say anything.

“Nothing,” he said quietly. “I just wanted…needed to look at you again.”

Touched, she kissed him again and shifted to try and move her body even closer to him, her warmth brushing against his boxers.

“Must be a good view,” she teased, feeling the strength of his response to her, and the intensity of her own, to his nearness.

“Oh yes,” Giles said softly, the colour of joy suffusing his cheeks, making his eyes sparkle with life when he recognized the passion blazing in hers. “At this moment I can see all my dreams…my whole future, and everything I shall ever want, right here, in front of me…”

The blue-grey eyes grew very wide with emotion.

“Everything…?” she whispered, trailing her fingers down a stubbly, flushed cheek.

For a moment he simply drank in the depth of the passion in those smoky depths.

Then there was a momentary movement or two, something being thrown, and a little giggle, followed by a chuckle, just before a pair of frilly white knickers flew through the air and joined the black satin boxers on the bedside lamp.

A few moments more and the laughter transmuted to swiftly to passion…and, finally, to two groans of ecstasy, reverberating through the loft as two became one.

“Everything,” he confirmed as they rose to each other and Buffy cried out his name as though nobody else in the universe existed...

“…Everything.”


* * *