Bridges

Rupert Giles paused in his perusal of a particularly old manuscript and removed his glasses, not to pursue a nervous habit of wiping them with his handkerchief, but to rub his eyes and to roughly massage the space between his brows. The reading was mostly a ruse to avoid having to make conversation with Wesley, but there was a secondary purpose. It was the eve of the anniversary of Jenny's death. The pain, which Giles' had thought was safely locked away in the darkest, farthest reaches of his heart, where it couldn't hurt, couldn't suffocate him as it had it in the early days, had found purchase in the uncontrolled kaleidoscope of his memories of her.

He would have to go back to the book, or leave. If he couldn't focus his thoughts on the monotony of the tome, the grief would betray him. He'd been truly close to damned few people, or even family, in his life. He put his glasses back, the slightest tremor in his hands, and picked up the heavy volume. He was thinking too much.
And her face was back again…

She had truly filled the necessary emptiness of his life for so brief a time that there were moments when he doubted his own memories. Wesley moved restlessly and looked at his watch. Giles looked up.

"Buffy should've been back fifteen minutes ago," the younger man sulked. "She promised."

Giles sighed. "In point of fact she said she'd do her best, which isn't quite the same thing. And let us not forget vampires can be damned inconsiderate sometimes," he added dryly.

Wesley made a face. "Very funny. I don't actually see why you're still here. You know you can't interfere and I have everything under control."

Giles raised an eyebrow. "Yes, well." He was actually beginning to worry about Buffy himself, but he wasn't going to let the other Watcher see that. "Since you are concerned, I'll keep you company until she comes back. Meanwhile I'm actually trying to identify something I saw in the local paper today." He folded the Thursday newspaper so that the article in question was face up and pushed it across the desk toward Wesley.

Wyndam-Price picked it up diffidently and began to browse the vandalism article without enthusiasm. When his eyes lighted on the symbol in one of the pictures however, they dilated alarmingly and he swallowed convulsively. "I…I know this," he stammered. "This is very bad."

Giles rose and came around the desk. "What do you mean you know it? I've spent over an hour just trying to find a reference to this symbol."

Wesley shifted almost guiltily.

Giles' eyes narrowed. "There's something you're not telling me. If this has anything to do with Buffy's patrol tonight—"

Wesley shook his head a little too urgently. "No, no, it's just a routine patrol, er, for the most part."

Giles stepped up to the other, placing himself intimidatingly close to Wyndam-Prices' three-piece suit. "For the most part?"

"Yes, well, as I said, it's primarily a routine patrol of the cemeteries, the wharves and the vicinity of the Bronze. I, uh, also instructed her to look for any more examples of that symbol, but not, er, because of that article."

Giles' patience was wearing thin, and Buffy still hadn't returned. "Come on! Out with it, man!"

Wesley swallowed again. "It's the mark of Taelustrus. The council informed me several days ago that the cult of Taelustrus was active again, and to be on the look out for any signs of activity here. The demon Taelustrus supposedly rises every hundred years and feeds on the offerings of his disciples who all hope to then be elevated by Taelustrus to a new level of existence, leaving their worldly bodies behind and effectively becoming immortal themselves. Thus far there have been no documented cases of success in this area but rather an abominable record of dead cultists found the morning after the so-called 'Night of Transcendence'. In their hundreds, sometimes, actually."

Giles grabbed a handful of expensive vest and lifted the other man almost off his feet.

"If anything has happened to that girl because you—"

Wesley reefed himself away from the other watcher. "I say old man, steady on. Are you sure the council's interpretation of your relationship with this slayer was accurate? It seems to me you have rather more than a father's attachment to the girl," he huffed.

Giles leaped forward angrily, but Wesley side-stepped quickly. "You disgusting little toad. I should knock your teeth down your throat," he rasped angrily. "My relationship with Buffy is none of your business, nor is there any veracity in your snide accusations."

Wesley had the good grace to flush violently. The truth was that for all his pompous airs, affectations and witless naivete, he was not a stupid man. Deep down he'd already recognised that the bond between Giles and his slayer went far more deeply than even the council realised. Recognised also that there was a kind of inviolable integrity about their relationship that he felt threatened by and, were he to be honest with himself, quite frankly envied.

The library door flew open and both men turned. Buffy was breathing heavily and her brow was cut, yet again, and the seam of her blouse was torn up one side.

"Hi guys. What's news?"

Giles sighed a long, deep sigh and Wesley looked extremely uncomfortable.

"You're late," Giles pointed out mildly, allowing his gaze to slide to his fellow Watcher.

Buffy shrugged. "Patrolling on my own gets kinda busy sometimes. I found a nest. Six against one is hard work."

Giles snorted. "Six? Buffy, that's the kind of risk I associate with Faith, not you. You have more sense than that!"

She shrugged sheepishly. "Yeah, usually I do, but I found another one of those symbols on the door of an old, disused church. It looked real quiet through the windows, so I went in to check things out. They were in the choir loft. It kinda rained vampires for a while." She peeked but Giles wasn't smiling.

"And the symbol?" Wesley ventured timidly.

"It was exactly the same, drawn in blood. There was another one in the middle of the floor, but not much else. And the only residents seemed to be that nest of vamps, which I, um, cleaned up."

"It doesn't make sense," Wesley muttered distractedly. "Why would the cult begin apparently consecrating the area and then allow it to be taken over by vampires?"

"Two things come to mind," Buffy offered. "One, they made a good meal, or two, Taelustrus is recruiting vampires these days."

"Both possibilities," Giles agreed. "But the whole thing seems a little too obvious."

"A red herring?" Wesley wondered.

"Perhaps. Or possibly a calling card."

"Calling card?"

"Mm. We know how fast news travels among the underworld denizens. What better way to announce that you're in town…or perhaps open for business?"

Buffy frowned and tilted her head toward Wesley. "But I thought he said the disciples of Taelustrus were warm, breathing people. Why would they bother announcing themselves to all of demondom?"

Wesley looked smug. "Good point."

Buffy gave him a violent look and turned back to Giles, who was rubbing his brow again.

"I don't know, Buffy, not yet. Our friend here didn't see fit to share his resources with me, therefore thus far I only know what you know. But one simple answer would be that they're simply trying to warn off the competition. Warm, breathing people are after all also vampire food."

"I'm going home," Buffy announced. "This conversation is going nowhere. Giles, when you know something let me know and I'll try and fix the problem. Until then, I've gotta get some sleep."

Outside in the cold air Buffy hesitated. It was obvious that there was something wrong with Giles, something intense, but she respected his privacy too much to ask in front of dork boy. It hurt her to see him in pain. Giles had suffered way too much in the last twelve months. More even than she had. At least Angel came back, she reminded herself, then shivered. And nobody ever tortured me

She was still standing there, seized with indecision, when Giles let himself out, the keys to the Citroen jangling as he closed the exit door and turned.

"Ah, Buffy."

"Yep, me. Still here," she agreed, swinging her arms in an ineffectual attempt at casualness.
"Is there anything I can do for you?"

She smiled in spite of herself, then grew serious again. "You've got that backwards," she told him quietly.

That gave him pause, then he looked at her for a long moment. "Thank you," he said softly, "but I'll be fine." His eyes said otherwise, and hers agreed, but they turned together and walked to his car in silence.

He unlocked the driver's side door and pulled it open, pausing only when Buffy put a hand on his sleeve. Again she searched his gentle eyes for reassurance and again recognised the deep pain behind the twinkle of affection lighting them as he looked back at her. He patted her hand and slid into the vehicle.

Buffy watched it rattle down the street feeling as though she was letting him down somehow, but absolutely clueless as to what else she could have done.


*******

Buffy, Willow and Xander more or less crashed into the library the next day after school let out, in high spirits about the impending weekend, disturbing both watchers, who looked up from their intense research with matching dazed looks on their faces.
"Find anything?"

Giles snapped out of it first. "A little. The cult was first known to have existed in 1698, when twenty-eight people were found dead in a disused church in Vienna. Also found was a sacrificial stone covered in blood, but with no sign of a victim, beast or human, and of course, that symbol." He nodded toward the photocopy they'd made of a more detailed drawing of the cult's symbol. "There were no marks on the victims, no obvious cause of death."
"So no vamps?"
"Apparently not."

"Anything else on this sacrificial stone thing? If we know what they're looking for maybe we can get there first."

Wesley came to life. "Our thoughts exactly. Only actual historical documentation of this particular cult is sketchy at best. However we will continue to search the records for any details on the blood offerings. Until then I'm afraid we're on our own."

Giles decided it was time he got a grip on things. "Until we know more about this situation, we go on as normal. Normal patrols, due care, vampires, demons etc. Understood?"

"Understood," Buffy agreed cheerfully and turned to go.

"Us too," Willow added redundantly, and was backed up by Xander, who followed both women out of the room.

"I wish Faith hadn't fallen ill just at this time," Giles muttered, watching them depart as noisily as they'd arrived.

Wesley looked at him sideways. "I will not allow Faith to consort with the others until the spots have cleared up, and fortunately she doesn't wish to be seen, even by the undead, covered in chickenpox."

"Buffy had chickenpox when she was seven," Giles observed.

Again Wesley looked at him sideways. "Glad to hear it, but I wasn't aware that Watchers were privy to that kind of personal information about their slayers. Is there anything else you haven't told me, files you haven't handed over to me?"

Giles shook his head, refusing to rise to the bait. "Only my friendship with Buffy and her mother. One does strike up the oddest conversations during long nights in the field. I remember once we spent an entire evening in a marble crypt debating the merits of paper towels over dishcloths. God knows why. Terminal boredom, I suspect.
That, and the insidious power of the advertising industry."

Wesley reached for the next dusty volume in his pile. "I rather suspect that this, also, is going to be a long night, so we'd best get stuck into this research. I have a rather unpleasant feeling about those sacrifices, and I don't usually have intuitions about things at all."

Giles' neck prickled. If someone as singularly obtuse as Wesley could sense danger…


*******


Restfield Cemetery seemed to be remarkably peaceful. Buffy fiddled with her stake while Xander laboured over his turn at twenty questions. It had been some while since they'd gone out with her at night, but Willow refused to countenance the idea of Buffy going alone again.

Buffy was glad that activity was low, but bored nevertheless. "What do you think Wesley's cult wants as a sacrifice?" she asked suddenly, interrupting Xander's query as to whether Willow was Rockerfeller or a cabbage.

"Could be anything," Willow opined. "An unblemished lamb, a first born son—"

"We're talking demons here, not Passover."

Willow poked her tongue out at the other girl.

"A vestal virgin?" Xander added almost wistfully. Both girls rolled their eyes. He straightened. "No seriously, isn't that the stereotype occult sacrifice?"

"That, and headless chickens."

Buffy made a face back at Willow. "Yeah, but it's so corny."

"How about the fatted calf?" Willow offered helpfully.

"Laconis liked babies," Xander recalled unhelpfully.

Buffy shivered. "Oh no, not again." Visions not only of the poor little babies, but the memory of Giles and her mother doing rather more than eating chocolate, made her shiver again.

Giles…

She closed her eyes. How could she have forgotten?

"Buff? What's wrong?"

She opened her eyes and looked at Xander. "Today is the anniversary of Miss Calendar's death."

"Giles," Willow said softly.

"Giles," Buffy repeated, only to have the moment shattered by the headlong rush of three aggravated male vampires. It took her several minutes to despatch them; the last with help from Xander and Willow who had it pinned against a headstone. She looked at her watch.

"Time we went home, troops. History test tomorrow."

Xander groaned. "I knew there was something I forgot."

"I'll help you study. Who needs sleep?" Willow offered cheerfully.

Xander groaned again.

They split up in the main street of town, Xander going home with Willow in a valiant attempt to at least fail respectably in his history test.

Tired to the bone, and not looking forward to the test any more than Xander, Buffy checked in with Wesley by pay phone and headed for home.


*******

When everyone was settled for the start of the history test Willow and Xander looked at each other, and then at the empty seat Buffy should have been in.

"I thought for sure she'd be here," Willow flustered.

"We both did. Maybe she overslept."

"I thought we decided she skipped morning classes to study for the test?"

Xander shrugged. "So, we were stupid. Who new? If she isn't here by the time we've finished the test we'll skip chemistry and go see Giles."

"…Not—!" Giles looked rumpled, and tired. The night had brought too many nightmares and precious little sleep. He also looked ferociously angry. "Why wasn't I told earlier? Why hasn't anyone noticed she was missing?"

"Let's see, Mrs. Summers is in Los Angeles on a buying trip for her gallery, Wesley is stupid and we did happen to notice," Xander retorted.

Giles had dialled Buffy's home number and was waiting for it to ring. "I'm sorry, Xander, but this is not like Buffy. She reported in by phone last night, said she was finished for the evening and was going straight home to get in some last minute swotting for a history exam, I believe it was." There was no answer on the phone. "I'm going over to her house to look for any clue as to where she's gone. You two go over to Faith's apartment first and find out if she's been there. I don't care if you have to yell through the door. Then check all the places you young people frequent in town, even ones she hasn't been to for a while. If there's no sign I will rendezvous with you at Angel's."

"Maybe we should go there first?" Xander blurted artlessly.

Giles shook his head. "Things have changed too much. And she intended to take that test today. I think he's going to be as worried as we are. Now, off with you. The sooner we get started, the sooner—"

"The sooner what?" A supercilious voice demanded.

Giles rounded on the other watcher. "Your slayer is missing," he pointed out coldly.
"And we don't have time to stand here and debate the issue with you."

"Impossible. She finished her patrol without incident last night, reported in and went home."
The others were on the way out the door. "She made that call," Giles said over his shoulder, "but what happened after that is anyone's guess. If you want to make yourself useful I suggest you go back over the route of last night's patrol and see if you can find anything that might tell us what happened to her."

"But…But shouldn't someone be here in case she calls, or comes back?" Wesley called as the door closed.

"That would be me, apparently," drawled Cordelia's voice behind him.

He turned, immediately flushed and became flustered.

Cordelia, sent to return reference books from her last class, had come in early enough to realise that Buffy's absence from the history test was not planned and to pick up the gist of the watchers' exchange.

"Go on, do as your told. I'll stay here and monitor Giles' phone, watch the library and wait for her to turn up. Thanks to certain people I have no life anyway, so I may as well have no life here, where it will annoy you, as elsewhere where it will only annoy me."

Wesley made a pained face, grabbed his briefcase and slipped out the door.

Cordelia smiled briefly to herself, then let her gaze fall on the telephone, the amusement fading slowly in the deserted silence of the room.

There was no sign that Buffy had been home at all. Giles replaced the spare key under its rock, still contemplating the undisturbed bed, the crucifix hanging on her night stand, the missing bag of slayer's equipment, the tightly locked up house and knew in his heart that she hadn't made it home.

He drew his other hand from his pocket and stared desolately at the simple cross, then put it back and strode away.

He stopped briefly at the phone booth Xander said she'd called from and found nothing there either.

Frustrated, he rushed back into his car to head for Angel's and slammed the door too hard, pulled his seat belt across only to find that it wouldn't reach. He tried to ease it out but it wouldn't release. Anxious to go he pulled again but it refused to be shifted. "Damn!" He hauled on it, continuing to swear under his breath until he was flushed and bothered and finally gave up on it. He turned the ignition and slammed the Citroen into first, the gears screaming their objection to his neglect of the clutch. When it finally went into gear it lurched backward violently. He took his foot off the accelerator immediately, crashed the gears into the right gate and sped away, his chest heaving from exertion and rage.

"Please don't let it happen again. Not again," he pleaded. "Not again."

Willow and Xander were already at the mansion when he arrived. Xander's blue convertible stood outside it. Inside the three sat in sombre silence. They rose as one, hope on their faces as he walked in.

Giles shook his head. "Nothing."

"I don't understand," Angel said agitatedly. "It's not like her. If there was something she had to do, somewhere she had to be, she would have told someone." He turned to Giles. "She would have told you."

"Or you," Giles conceded, staring over the vampire's shoulder. It was still difficult to look him in the eyes, difficult to look at him at all without remembering. "Something has happened to her. I think we all know that. The question is what can we do about it?"

Angel frowned. "Willow and Xander say the only thing going on right now is this cult you're researching. Could that--?"

"We're forgetting the obvious here," Xander butted in. "Buffy is a Vampire Slayer, remember? You wouldn't happen to have heard anything on the grapevine about unusual vampire activity, or partying, now would you?"

Angel turned a cold stare on him. "If it was vampires, I'd know by now."

Xander looked away, unable to meet those eyes, but for a different reason. Angel's tortured human eyes wore his soul in them, so great a contrast to the dead emptiness of the demon Angelus' sneering evil ones that they almost physically smote Xander with the weight of his own guilt.

He swallowed. "Yeah, well, they might be new in town. And you…you aren't exactly in the groove any more," he conceded quietly.

Angel somehow found his gaze again, his own softening slightly. "No…No, I'm not. But I would still know." Then he turned back to Giles. "Is there any way we can find out more about this cult, assuming they are the ones who have her?"

Giles looked worried, his tired eyes getting redder and more blood shot as the day wore on. "I don't know. It would have helped if there had been survivors of previous 'nights of ascension', but all the articles we have report none found alive. We shall have to get back to my books, and perhaps Willow can go on the web. It's all we have left."

"Almost," Angel added. "There are a few people I can talk to—"

"Uh," Willow gestured over her shoulder at the shuttered windows, "daylight."

He smiled at her. "There are other ways to get around. Don't worry."

"Other ways?"

He pointed toward the ground. "You'd be surprised where I can go."

She couldn't help smiling back. "Well, that's okay then."

Giles interrupted, turning at the same time for the door. "Let's go, people. We've got a lot of work ahead of us."

By the time they reached the library Wesley was back and Cordelia had gone home.

He didn't wait for them to ask. "Nothing," he reported to the three sets of eyes boring into him. "I went over every inch of the territory I commissioned her to patrol last night. I found nothing on the ground; no sign of trouble anywhere except for some damaged masonry where the altercation with the vampires took place. There wasn't even one of those blasted symbols to be found."

Giles collapsed into a chair and covered his face wearily with his hands, while Xander and Willow immediately booted the computer.

Wesley sat down quietly next to Giles. "Did that large vampire chap have anything at all that might help?"

Giles lifted his face from his hands. "No. Not really, but he is going to make inquiries."

Wesley looked confused for a moment. "Make...?" He paused as Xander pointed toward the floor. "Oh, I see. Well, I'd better see what more I can find in our books, hadn't I?"

Giles found a tiny, weary smile. He nodded. "Give me half."


*******

The world was red, and fluid and mildly nauseating. It shimmered and grew brighter, the receding red leaving a dull, greenish glow behind it. Her stomach turned. Now it also smelled very bad…

Buffy blinked her still unfocused eyes and shook her head. It was a mistake. Someone had replaced her head with a high-speed hammer drill. The last thought she could recall was about Wesley. That was it: she had called in. He'd been a dork as usual. She had cradled the phone and turned—no she didn't turn. She didn't turn. Physical sensations were penetrating the haze of her concussion now.

She looked around as far as it was possible to do so. She was alone. Her arms hurt too. So, for that matter, did her wrists, her ankles and her back. Although she was slumped on the floor against a wall, her wrists and ankles were manacled to a running chain that was bolted to the wall. The bolts were new. There was no way Buffy was going to work them loose. Her nose pinched. Part of the smell that periodically made her retch was coming from a large pan simmering on a gas ring.

She almost smiled. One didn't usually associate stew-pans and gas rings with the occult. The relief was brief. The rest of the room was decorated in runes and symbols, a few of which Buffy could identify, most she couldn't. There were no windows in the room, and, she realized, there was nothing, absolutely no sound outside of the gentle simmer of whatever was in the pan. She closed her eyes. Being in danger was always frightening, but fear never mattered before, not while she was able to fight back. Now it did. As her head cleared her unease grew. Her watch was gone, and there was no way to tell what time it was. She tried hard to focus on a plan of attack for when her captors eventually returned, but panic was an unfamiliar companion and she didn't know how to fight it.

Just as she was contemplating the stupidity of prolonged, frenzied pulling on the chains and the damp stickiness now oozing from under the wrist manacles, the door opened. The chain clanked against the wall and Buffy suddenly realized, stricken, that she wasn't even on her feet, let alone prepared to attempt any kind of defence.

To her amazement the visitor was not a demon or a ghoul, a vampire or a monster. It was a petite middle-aged woman in a red robe, carrying a bottle of water and a paper cup.
"Who...?" she croaked.

The woman smiled. "You can call me Eva. I brought you some water. We're pleased that you are awake."

"Why are you doing this to me?" she demanded. The woman's matter-of-factness was creeping her out. "What's going to happen to me?"

"Geoffrey is coming. Drink your water. There's much to do before tonight. You have to be prepared. We must begin the Preparation Rituals for the offering in a little less than an hour."

Buffy didn't like the sound of that at all. She drank only for the sake of maintaining her strength. Satisfied, the woman let herself out again without another word as the empty cup fell to the ground.

Forcing herself to run escape scenarios to try and keep calm, Buffy barely noticed that her body had curled itself tightly into a foetal ball.

The silence was suffocating; the only sound to be heard the bubbling of the now boiling contents of the pan.


*******


When the library door opened, everyone jumped and Willow made a small squeaking noise as a menacing looking cloaked figure burst in.

"Sorry." Angel threw back the thick, dark cowl of the cloak.

Willow gasped. "Angel!"
.
"Duh." Xander teased and grunted as Willow's elbow imbedded itself in his stomach.

Giles had risen and stopped little more than a couple of feet from the vampire. "Anything?" he demanded.

Angel nodded. "Not what you might want to hear though. First of all there is no demon Taelustrus. This so-called cult is just that; a Human cult."

"But my books—the mass deaths?" Wesley stammered.

Angel shrugged. "There is no demon. Fifteenth century or twentieth, people are just as easily manipulated for power and profit. The promise of immortality is a powerful enticement. They want to believe, so they do."

Willow's mouth was open. "You mean somebody started a fake cult in the fifteenth century and people have believed it was real ever since? Enough to die for it?"

"Something like that," Giles answered. "And I rather suspect that makes them infinitely more dangerous. What's worse is we're not really equipped to deal with enemies with souls."

"I am," Angel growled.

Willow got up and walked over to him, put a hand on his arm, covered immediately by his, then turned to the others. "Whatever we do, we have to do it together. Giles is right. We can't kill people, except, I guess in self-defence, maybe, but if we stick together maybe we'll be strong enough. It's not up to anyone on their own, not even Angel."

There was general agreement, even from Wesley, but Giles remained silent, unnoticed by all except Angel, who said nothing. Later, when Willow and Xander resumed their computer search and Wesley went home to get some of his own books he followed Giles, who had slipped out to his office. He found the older man slumped in his office chair, an old newspaper article in his hand.

"It's too dangerous to involve the rest of them," Angel said softly. "But you can't do it on your own."

Giles raised his head, paused almost imperceptibly, then spun the chair around. "Oh, it's you. I was looking at this again. It's the only link we have to the cult's appearance in Sunnydale."

Angel accepted the diversion, but he was staring at the hand crushing the newspaper so tightly that its knuckles had gone white. He was also well aware what day it was.

"Giles, it wasn't me."

Giles searched his face. "Intellectually I know that, but—"

"No," Angel interrupted, "no more buts. Angelus is a demon. I know you know that. He's in there somewhere, but he's not me. You know that too. I'm not even the drunken layabout Irishman I started this existence as. I've lived so long, learned so much, changed so much…But it means less than nothing if even someone like you can't see the difference."

Giles stood up jerkily. "I saw the difference," he said through his teeth. "You want me to forget Jenny, forget the pain…"

Angel closed his eyes. "No. I want you to remember them. But when you do I want you to see his face, not mine."

"God damn it, man, you—" Giles began, itching to lash out, but found himself looking straight into Angel's face. For a long moment he couldn't look away, and he couldn't speak. He had looked into the depth's of Angelus' eyes while he was being tortured, had seen the writhing evil in that one's depths. Now he was looking into the gentle eyes of another. Awareness lighted his own and he made a small, strangled noise, but could not look away.

"I'm sorry," he said softly.

The pity in the words burned into Angel's heart. He tore his gaze away, turned and slammed his fist so violently into the wall that he made a hole, and tore all the skin from his knuckles.

He deserved no man's pity or forgiveness, least of all from this one.

"Don't, Giles. Not for me, not today," he said without turning.

Giles put his head back and closed his eyes. "God. How do you survive? How can you live with the regret, the pain?" The answer was suddenly very important. He sat up when there was no response and looked searchingly at the vampire.

"Buffy," Angel turned and said simply. " Before that, barely at all. And you know what the worst thing is about this curse? It's not the demon who's being punished. It's the man. That's the crazy thing."

"Yes, well, their vengeance would have made a damn sight more sense if they'd just given Angelus a conscience instead of resurrecting your Human soul. But then vengeance has never had much to do with logic." Angel saw the pain in his eyes, though his tone was unchanged. "Of course," he continued, "in that case you wouldn't be here at all, would you? I'm sure a demon, even one with a conscience, would have better things to do than being guardian angel to a slayer. Drowning in self-pity, for example..."

Angel shook his head ruefully. For all that lay between them, Giles still saw things more clearly than anyone he'd ever known, dead or alive. He looked away. "I can't regret my time with Buffy, but even that would have been preferable to what I've done to all of you, and I would trade even that time to prevent what happened."

"I know," Giles said hoarsely, "I've known all along, but even now part of me still wants to throttle you with my bare hands."

Angel swallowed hard "I—"

But whatever he was going to say was lost in the sound of Xander running, then sliding into the office, a printout in his hand. His face was white.

Giles leaped up. "Xander, what is it? What have you found?"

Xander handed the pages to him with a shaking hand. "The…the stupid cult has a web-site. I only said it as a joke, to Willow—that it would so much easier if they had a web-site like everyone else, a—and they do."

He was babbling. Angel sat him in Giles' chair and then turned back to the librarian. Giles, as white as Xander now, handed him the sheets.

Angel screwed up the pages and threw them across the room when he finished. "How can anyone with a soul do this? Are men then any less evil than demons?" he demanded.

Giles wasn't sure any more. "We can't let this happen."

"What if it already has?" Xander's voice shook.

"Then vengeance will find a new definition," Angel said in a terrifyingly quiet voice, his eyes locked with Giles' own, not surprised to find no argument there.

Willow was hunched over her console, weeping quietly, but still working. The others came up silently behind her, and when Giles laid a comforting hand briefly on her shoulder, choked back a tiny sob before trying to speak.

"I'm t—trying to trace this phone number," she stammered, pointing to a post box number and a contact phone number.

"Can you do that?" Xander was surprised into asking.

"Not legally," she admitted. "But I learned a few tricks from a hacker I used to know."

"Brian Thomas? Willow, he's in jail, remember?"

Giles grunted. "Does it matter? Shut-up, Xander, and let her work."

"There!" Willow exclaimed several minutes later when a page of telephone subscriber information finally came up on the screen. She put her finger on the entry they were looking for. Giles already had his pen out and was opening his personal notebook.

The number was in a woman's name, and was for a private residence in a new development on the outskirts of Sunnydale. Giles looked at his watch. "It's just after dusk. Angel and I will go and investigate. I want you two to wait here in case there is the remotest chance they don't have her. She has to be able to contact at least one of us if there is any possibility..."
Xander looked like he was going to argue but the intensity on the other two men's faces silenced him.

They watched them leave, then Willow sniffed again.

"Do you think Buffy knows she's loved that much?"

"No," Xander said softly. "Does anyone ever know?"

"Not usually until something goes wrong or, or, it's too late."

Xander slid an arm around her shoulders. "Exactly."


*******

The hour dragged interminably. Buffy wasn't sure exactly how much time had passed. What she did know was that nothing on God's earth, or at least nothing in that room, was going to get her out of those manacles, nor was there anything within reach that she could use as a weapon, of any kind. She jumped when the door creaked open, adrenaline making her scalp crawl, as if spiders were running over it.

Eva returned, flanked by two large men in matching costumes, identical expressions on their faces. The faces of people with no mind of their own. They were carrying trays with bowls, rune tablets and candles. Eva was carrying clothes, though there really wasn't much to the wisps in her arms.

Buffy, who was on her feet now, tried to centre her weight, ready for any chance of battle, of escape. Eva laid the clothes over the only chair in the room and the men slid their trays onto the cupboard next to the gas ring.

They walked towards her, the men moving to flank her as she tried to lash out, grabbing her arms and holding her as Eva came to a halt only inches from her face. Buffy's eyes widened like a terrified fawn as the older woman cut her own hand and sprinkled her hair with blood. Then she raised the silver, dagger-like blade. It flashed through Buffy's mind that Giles' would have known exactly what kind it was.

Giles… Oh God Giles, find me …please…

The tip of the knife was cold as it played against her brow. Then she gasped as big, rough hands grabbed her head in a vice-like grip…

And then there was only terror and pain.

*******

Giles rattled his car to a halt outside number seven. The last glow of twilight was sliding into night. It was a simple three-bedroom bungalow, almost no garden, half-dead grass and a paved pathway to the front door. There were no cars in the driveway.

"Nobody home?" Angel speculated, his soft, sensuous voice breaking the silence.

Giles shuddered involuntarily, momentarily caught in the past.

"Only one way to find out," he muttered and was annoyed when his voice trembled. He wrenched his door open and got out of the car.

For a couple of beats Angel sat motionless, his dark eyes shrouded by pain, watching the older man walk across the grass, in the bright halo of the streetlight. Then he was out of the car at Giles' side with the same instinctive, fluid grace as a bird of prey.

No one answered Giles' urgent knock and the lock did not yield. Angel shouldered the cheap door open and they split up to search. The house and the basement were deserted. There was no attic. There were a lot of candles, an expensive office and computer set-up, a bookcase full of old and new reference books, and in a strong box Angel had broken like a plastic toy, more money than either of them had seen in one place at one time.

Giles was accessing the computer when there was a rushing noise, feet pounding, something crashing over and smashing then Angel's voice right behind him.

"No-o-o!"

Giles turned and caught him as he fell, horrified to see the steel poker protruding from the right side of his back, the perpetrators momentarily entranced by their own handiwork. A split second later he'd left the vampire on the floor and leapt back, using a punch, kick combination Buffy had been trying without success to teach him, to drive them off long enough to rifle the desktop wildly for something to use as a weapon. Aside from a polished, rose quartz paperweight there was nothing.

He struggled to shrug off the second lunge of the smaller of the assailants and hit the man in the face with the paperweight, so that he careened into his companion, knocking both to the ground again.

Perhaps it wasn't so useless after all.

He had a desk drawer halfway out by the time they regained their feet. In desperation he pulled it all the way out and threw it at them, its contents flying in all directions, including, Giles was horrified to note, a .38 calibre pistol, which landed by the bookshelf.

The smaller man fell unconscious to the floor, but the larger escaped unhurt. Giles lunged headlong for the weapon, hoping to get there first, but was seized, lifted bodily off the ground, and thrown against the bookcase. He shook his head, dazed, then looked up, horrified to see his assailant looming over him.

There was an unearthly roar, then the blur of the cult member's body being hoist in the air. Giles leaped to his feet, winced as the body crashed through a window, retrieved the pistol, then steadied Angel as he staggered from the exertion and the pain.

"Take me to him," he demanded, still in hunting mode. Giles, skin crawling, thumbs pricking, took a deep breath, put his shoulder under the transformed vampire's arm and helped him out the front door to where the thug had landed.

He was writhing on the ground, conscious but bleeding, and had obviously broken ribs and possibly a collarbone in his fall. When he saw Angel's transformed state he almost passed out.

"I didn't know," he whimpered. "Forgive me, Master! Taelustrus forgive me, I did not know you were his servant!"

Angel, barely hanging on, looked at Giles, who shrugged. "How do you know whose servant I am?" he demanded menacingly.

The man cowered. "You are the one whom Eva said would come. You are the Harbinger!"

"Giles?"

Giles snorted. "I don't know what he's wittering on about, there's no record of any Harbinger, but if he doesn't tell us where Buffy is in the next sixty seconds I'll give his orthopaedic surgeon a jigsaw puzzle he wont forget in a hurry."

Angel shuddered with pain, regained control and fixed the man with a vampire stare. He smiled slowly. "You'd better tell him. He'll kill you if I tell him to."

"If you mean the Offering, it's too late. You'll never—" He got no further. In true Ripper style, Giles had driven his boot into the few ribs the man wasn't holding.

When he stopped gasping, Angel, who had reverted to human form, spoke again. "I told you. Tell us where the girl is or I'll let him rearrange you some more."

The man's eyes narrowed as he gasped and laboured for breath. "If you are the Harbinger you must know where to find the Offering."

"If it was the right Offering I would," Angel improvised, struggling through immense pain to stay conscious. "Taelustrus is not pleased with your choice. I have been sent to set things right. Now, tell us where this Offering is being prepared."

Giles shaped his boot at the man's thigh. "No! Please! There's an abandoned church on Twelfth and Mason. There, Eva prepares the way in blood…"

The Englishman's face set like a stone and he carefully lowered Angel to the ground before turning back to the thug.

"Prepare this," he snarled, and drove his boot with force into the man's thigh, before punching him unconscious. Breathing hard, he turned back to Angel and his wound.

Fortunately it was a modern, lightweight, hook-less poker. Without a word Giles seized it and pulled it out cleanly. Angel screamed, then passed out, but the watcher was satisfied that surprise had been the kindest option, even if he did have to half carry, half drag the big vampire to the car.

He drove like a mad man across town to the church in question and slew to a halt, something the Citroen objected to loudly and violently. As he opened his door Angel stirred.

"I'm coming with you…" he rasped.

"You can't," Giles told him. "Cordelia could take you at the moment. Stay here and give me a chance of getting to her. Please." He drew the pistol from inside his jacket and showed it to him.

Angel growled in frustration, flashing in and out of hunting mode in temper then let his head fall back against the headrest. "Go!" he snapped.

Giles took a few seconds to shrug off his seatbelt, shed his jacket, then he was running across the grass to the back of the old building. For a moment he thought it odd that the front was not guarded, but logic dictated that armed guards would probably have drawn too much attention in such a quiet area.

The back doors were locked up tight with deadlocks, but the vestry door was a simple door lock. It took him three minutes to pick it in the dull glow of the security light and get himself into the empty vestry. From the inner door he could see several cult members preparing the altar and the pulpit, while others cleaned and polished the pews ready for the forthcoming ceremony. There was no sign of Buffy, or of the infamous 'Eva.' There had to be more rooms, somewhere…

He slipped out of the small room and slid along the wall to the next door, which lead to what he would have called a 'Sunday school room.' It was devoid of furniture or decoration now, but it was obvious what it had been for. Giles crept across to the door on the other side, only to have to back track as noises came from behind it. Then there was the sound of a door opening behind him as well.

He turned and crouched, the pistol ready to fire. The two young initiates seemed almost mesmerised by the barrel, putting their hands in the air and dropping to their knees. Too late Giles realized that he was being deliberately distracted.

He was struck a severe blow across the back. It had been meant for his head, but he'd moved, attempting to get to his feet. He staggered, but stayed upright as the gun clattered to the floor at his feet. As he teetered on the brink of passing out he reached into himself for the strength to overcome the pain, spun around and on instinct alone, executed his first perfect spin kick, dropping his nearest attacker like a stone. Buffy would never believe him. A second one almost immediately caught him a glancing blow to the side of his head as he tried to retrieve the gun. It broke the skin, which bled, profusely. Adrenaline was now the only thing keeping him going.

He got up, swaying, then reacted in Ripper-like fashion with fists and boots, taking out two before the third king hit him again from behind. Only the fact that he was moving away as the blow caught him behind the ear probably saved his life. He fell to his knees, his head exploding with pain, his face bruised and lacerated, and streaked with blood from his scalp wound, which had also run into his ear and down his neck, to soak into his collar.

One of his sleeves was ripped open from shoulder to wrist and his forearm was slashed and bleeding. He staggered as his attacker came at him again, flick-knife in hand, then he rolled and grabbed the pistol from the floor and came up with it cocked. The flick-knife clattered on the floor.

He was seeing two of everything and the pain was overwhelming, but he had gained the upper hand. He put the pistol to the man's head and propelled him out into the hall.

"Tell me where Eva is," he hissed, but he stayed silent. Giles, aware that every moment was another moment of suffering for Buffy, stopped being Giles.

He pushed the gun barrel into the man's mouth.

"Where is she?" Ripper snarled.

*******

By the time Giles reached the bottom of the basement stairs with his hostage the adrenaline had drained away and his head, his wrenched, bruised back and his arm were throbbing in rhythm with each other.

"Open the door," he hissed.

The room was empty. There was steam near the ceiling and heavy chains hanging from the wall. An empty pan stood on a cooling gas ring. Giles saw none of these things.

He walked to the middle of the room dragging his companion like a sack. Blood was pooled on the floor and spattered around, the air was redolent of something that smelled like a combination of boiled poultry parts and a particularly vile wiccan potion mixed with snatches of floral scent.

"Buffy…" he whispered bleakly. "Where are you?"

His prisoner took advantage of his distraction to try and knock the gun from his hand, only to instantly regret the action as a vice-like hand clamped on the back of his neck and lifted him painfully off his feet.

Giles eyes glittered like chips of ice. "Where have they taken her?"

The other cowered. "To—to Geoffrey, probably, for the preparation ritual. A—at the home."

"I've just come from the house, you idiot," he said dangerously.

"N—no, the f—funeral home. Heaven's Rest funeral h—home."

Giles dragged the man across to the chains and shackled him to the wall. "Why on earth a funeral home?" he demanded.

The other man wavered. He wasn't sure who would make him suffer more, Giles or Taelustrus. Giles slammed him viciously into the wall. He chose.

"When the offering is consecrated in ritual and blood and purified by the love of the Harbinger its life-force must be returned to the earth, where Taelustrus can drink of it, feed on it and grow strong again." Giles was dragging himself up the stairs before the man finished the last word.

Angel was still unconscious in the front seat of the car. The Citroen screeched away, gears clashing.

*******

Buffy stirred and blinked in the bright fluorescent light, then almost passed out as the pain hit her. The back of her head felt like someone had used it as a football. Her forehead burned with the pain of whatever they'd done with that knife, her left arm throbbed from the rough puncture in the bend of it, and her wrists burned. And she was so weak...

All she wanted to do was get up, but it was so hard…

She struggled to focus, to block out the terror, and succeeded enough to struggle to one elbow. Her clothes had been taken and she was wearing some kind of diaphanous, see-through white negligee over tiny white lace lingere. The implications of that horrified her almost as much as her injuries. The room was pure white, but it didn't seem much like a bedroom, despite the fact that she was in a bed, or a least a table made up like a bed. She bore with the pain to turn her head to look around.

Her eyes widened in horror when they stopped at a white, satin draped trolley next to the bed. On it was a magnificent white-lacquered coffin with gold handles, surrounded by white flowers, which looked like they'd been deliberately spattered with blood. Next to it was an ice bucket with a bottle of expensive champagne cooling in it.

There was no doubting whom the coffin was for, but the champagne? Buffy forced herself into a sitting position and reeled from the pain and the nausea. She didn't leap out of bed so much as slither off it, her legs like un-set jello and her head spinning like a demented dervish.

In a tortured pantomime she half staggered, half dragged, half crawled her way past the coffin, toward the only door in the room. She was almost there when it opened.

"Giles!" she cried, looked up and froze.

Standing over her, dressed in pure white, was a tall, powerful half-naked man carrying a champagne flute and grinning with feral glee.

"I'll die first," she spat.

"Please yourself," he shrugged and picked her up with one powerfully muscled arm. She struggled futilely until she almost passed out, but to no avail. He threw her back on the bed and turned to the champagne. Buffy moved to roll off the bed again, but he thrust out a hand and clamped it on her wrist, turning with the bottle in the other.

"Enough of your games. It's my turn now."

Buffy shivered with terror as he popped the cork, and filled the glass. She watched as he saluted her, drained it and smashed it against the far wall.

And then screamed when he turned and tore the negligee from her body with terrifying force…

*******

Angel moaned and stirred as Giles turned into Barton Drive, where he knew the Heaven's Rest funeral home had not long since opened. By the time the car stopped Angel was sitting up.

"Buffy?" he demanded.

"Here, hopefully," Giles replied, the depth of violence in his tone shocking the vampire.
Then he flipped on the light, eased him forward to look at his wound, visible through the rip in his black shirt, and then flipped it off again. "Your wound is healing, as expected. Stay here and wait for me."

Giles was out of the car and gone before he could argue, but Angel had no intention of staying behind. A vampire's accelerated healing did not diminish the pain of the wound, but it did allow him enough strength to get himself out of the car and to follow his friend.

Inside of the home a receptionist in cult robes leaped up to intercept him, but Giles blindly knocked her to the floor without slowing down. He'd opened and closed a half a dozen doors by the time Angel caught up.

"I told you to wait," he snarled.

"Go to hell," Angel retorted. "In there," he nodded toward a door at the end of the corridor.

"How do you know?" Giles demanded as he forced his battered body into a run.

"I know," Angel yelled after him. "Wait!"

Giles heard both the word and the warning but didn't slow in his flight. All he could think of was Buffy, lying broken, silent, cold, like Jenny. All a part of him wanted to do was kill…

He wrenched open the door in time to see a white, frothy piece of fabric billow in the air as it flew across the room and Buffy struggling with a hulk of a man, who was already near-naked and obviously aroused. As he crossed the room Buffy scratched his face and was caught a bone shattering-blow across the face for her trouble.

"No!" Giles screamed in a voice that would terrify the dead and threw himself on the creature.

"Giles!" Angel staggered in as the watcher grappled with Buffy's attacker and when the librarian was thrown across the room, lunged forward trying valiantly to hold him off until Giles could get to his feet.

After a second of struggling with the pain, and a moment to shake the fog from his eyes, Giles dragged himself up again and joined the fray. He had to stop Angel from being throttled unconscious. He tore at the other man's arms, kidney punched and kicked without success. Then he remembered something.

He drew the gun from his pocket and thrust it into the man's face.

The man released a nearly unconscious Angel and reeled backward, not from the gun but from the chain that had caught on the barrel.

Giles looked from the crucifix to the hulking male in the undone white pants. Revealed, it transformed.

"It is a bloody vampire! And there's absolutely nothing to kill it with," he shouted over his shoulder. The gun was useless. Recovering, Angel looked around the room as Giles fended off their foe. Then he went to the casket, closed the lid and drove his palm through it martial arts fashion.

He picked up a long, thick splinter from it. "Now there is."

The big vampire seized his opportunity when Giles looked over his shoulder to see what Angel had. The Watcher went sprawling across the floor after being crash-tackled, and the vampire kept going toward the exit. His escape was blocked, however, by the arrival of Eva, alone, thankfully, and also dressed in white.

She shrieked. "Geoffrey!"

Angel seized the vampire's split second of distraction to lunge forward to drive his makeshift stake into its back, but it turned and knocked the splinter from his hand before crossing with a massive backhand. Angel flew across the room like a rag doll, slammed into a wall and slumped on the floor, motionless.

Giles, silently and unsteadily back on his feet, snatched up the stake as the vampire closed on the exit again and Eva descended into hysterics.

"Geoffrey, oh Geoffrey, what have they done?" she wailed as he loomed over her.

Geoffrey, more interested in cutting his losses, looked at her creamy neck, then at the door. "What the hell," he muttered and bent to bite.

Eva screamed as her partner exploded into dust fragments and then she fainted.

Giles dropped the stake and staggered to Buffy. She was moaning softly and trying to sit up.
There were half-formed bruises over her arms and legs, and a horrible, deep one on her cheek. Blood had dried on her forehead where it had oozed from the symbol cruelly carved above the bridge of her nose, and down her arm from the wound where Eve had drawn the sacrifical blood. What was left of her underwear hung in tatters.

He didn't know what to say, or what to do. After a beat, he reached out and drew the bed sheet around her.

Buffy jumped back like a frightened bird, looked up with traumatised eyes; eyes which leaped at the sight of him. She tried to speak and sobbed, reached out instead to touch his torn sleeve.

"It's all right," he said softly, his voice cracking. "I'm here."

She reached up tremulously and touched the drop of moisture on his cheek with one finger, her eyes filling with tears.

"Giles…" she managed, finally, rested her head against his shirt and clung to him like a small child.

Giles, who knew the soul destruction of violation, swore and drew his battered arms around her.


*******


Buffy stirred as the warm refuge of Giles' arms drained what little energy she had left and she felt herself sliding into unconsciousness. She was about to draw back and say so when she felt his weight go dead against her.

"Giles?" she cried, alarmed, panic driving off the grogginess. The sound roused Angel, who'd been drowsing for the last ten minutes on the floor.

"He's out cold," he told her, easing the Watcher away from the bed and knocking the coffin and flowers off the trolley with one sweep of his arm before lifting Giles and laying him on it. He took his pulse. "His pulse is strong," he said, coming swiftly to her side, "but I have to get him to a hospital."

His eyes widened in horror at the damage done to her, then glittered with pain when he looked into her eyes. "We failed you," he whispered.

She shook her head painfully, looking at the Watcher. "I'm okay," she lied, already losing ground again to her injuries. "We have to help Giles."

Angel nodded, wrapped her more tightly in the sheet and carried her to Giles' car. In a concussion-induced torpor, she watched him stride back into the building, then return, struggling to carry the unconscious Watcher in his arms.

Angel made a poor fist of driving, but he did enough to eventually get them to the hospital and into the ER with a story about Buffy being attacked in an alley and their violent rescue of her, well supported by the visible bruises they all sported.

The ER staff, well used to street violence, particularly at night, got on with it without equivocation, arguing only when Angel refused treatment. He shook his head when the ER nurse persisted after Giles and Buffy had been taken away. His back would heal in time, and he couldn't let them touch him. "I'm only bruised. Just help my friends."

He knew he should've left, but he couldn't. Instead he called the library and told Xander and Willow what happened and asked Willow to bring clothes for Buffy. Less than thirty minutes later they were in the waiting room with him.

"Where's Wesley?"

Xander shrugged. "At the library."

"You didn't tell him?"

"Did you really want us to?" Xander asked dryly.

Angel gave a tired half laugh and shook his head.

Xander smiled half-heartedly. "Truth is he turned into action man. Called the hospital, organised some teacher to cover at the library tomorrow for Giles, and now he's holding the fort, by the phone in case we need anything. Who knew?"

The minutes turned to hours. There had been a lot of sirens. ER was having a busy night. Xander was pacing and Willow was asleep on Angel's arm.

"If there was anything wrong they'd have told us," Angel pointed out.

Xander stopped. "And if they're still working frantically?" he snapped back just as a very tired intern came into the waiting room.

Angel gently eased Willow down on to his seat and stood up.

"Miss Summers would like to see you," the intern told him. "She's responding well to treatment. She's been through a great deal, but she has no serious injuries."

Angel closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them again. "And Mister Giles?" He demanded, before Xander could even frame the words.

"Resting comfortably. He has a heavy concussion, contusions and a hairline fracture of his right shoulder blade, not to mention a long list of minor wounds. We don't yet know if the head injury has caused any permanent damage. He really is very lucky to have escaped more serious injury. We took stitches in his scalp and his arm. We're keeping him in overnight, at least."

"He's conscious?"

"He's coming around," the intern allowed reluctantly.

"Take me to him."

"But—"

"Now!" Angel said in a tone far more dangerous than any shout.

Giles looked pale and exhausted. Angel closed the door behind him, shutting the intern out, and crossing to the bedside.

For a long time he stood silently, watching the rhythmic rise and fall of the Watcher's chest as he breathed, afraid he would not open his eyes, and more afraid of what he might find in them if he did.

Giles' eyes did open, however. He blinked, and focused on Angel's face. For a split second Angel saw blinding terror in them, and his heart constricted with guilt.

Then reality caught up, and, Angel saw, lucidity.

"Angel. Is Buffy—?"

"She's fine…as good as she can be, right now."

Angel's eyes locked with his. "Do you want me to go?"

Giles closed his eyes again. "I want the pain to go away…"

Angel knew he wasn't talking about his wounds. He turned to leave, but the other man's hand closed around his wrist. Angel could feel it trembling.

"Promise me…promise me you'll never again let him come back," he begged.

Angel's back went rigid. Then he turned and took the hand in both of his, his eyes brimming with moisture. "With my life," he promised hoarsely. "With my life..."

Buffy was still in a cubicle in the ER. Her head wound and arm had been cleaned and dressed, she'd been washed and put in a hospital gown, and an almost empty drip was running into her arm. But it wasn't her appearance that brought tears to Willow's eyes as Angel brought them to her. It was the haunted look, the sheer fragility in her eyes.

She tried to grin. "Hi guys."

Willow held up the parcel she was carrying. "I brought clothes." Her voice cracked, but she managed a watery smile.

Buffy smiled back, wincing at the pain in her swollen cheek. "Just what I need to blow this joint." She turned to Angel. "How's Giles? They wouldn't tell me."

Angel swallowed. "Stable. Lucid. I think he's going to be okay."

"I want to see him," she announced.

"Buffy—"

"Now!"

"Not now," said a female doctor stepping into the cubicle. "You're being kept for observation overnight, and the orderly here is taking you up to a ward now. A Mister Wyndham-Price organised for private rooms to be provided for both you and Mister Giles in the event that you might be brought here, and need to be admitted. And you are being admitted."

"Wow, old Wesley thinks of everything. Maybe there's hope for him yet," Xander mused.

Buffy's eyes flew to Angel, but he nodded agreement with the doctor. He turned to the others. "We'll come back in the morning."

She looked mutinous but the orderly looked just as stubborn. She glared up at him as he tucked her back in and the others said their goodbyes and filed out.

"Shame you're not a vampire," she muttered under her breath as he wheeled her out, then had to lay back on the pillow before her head exploded.

She slept like the dead for several hours before the nightmares started and she woke wet with perspiration and shaking uncontrollably. It took several minutes for it to stop. She put the bed light on.

"Damn."

She reached for the bedside phone. "Hello, admissions? I'm coming to the hospital to visit a friend in the morning. What? Oh. Rupert Giles. Can you please tell me what room he's in?"

The jeans and lambswool sweater Willow brought were in her bedside cupboard with her trainers. They made her feel marginally more in control, but only marginally. Standing up kind of set that back, though. She waited for the nausea to pass and for her legs to turn back into legs, then gingerly slipped out of the room.

Giles was in a deep sleep. Buffy crept unsteadily across to his bedside. He was a mess, bruised and battered, his bare, stitched arm lying across his body and the small dressing on his head was bloody.


For a long time she watched him, comforted by his presence; by the small things: the faint herbal scent of his hair, the last hint of the subtle after-shave he wore…she frowned, which hurt. Something was missing… tweed, for one thing, she mused.

For all that, he looked so alone, so vulnerable, so un-Giles-like, in repose.

Two droplets of moisture trickled over her lashes and meandered down her cheeks.


*******

Giles opened his eyes. Someone had wheeled a clanging breakfast trolley past his door. He lifted his arm, winced and the frowned. His watch was missing. He turned to look at his alarm clock and realised it wasn't his bedroom. Luminous numbers on the LED display on the phone told him it was 5.30am. He needed to go to the bathroom, but he wasn't sure he could even move the lower half of his body, much less get out of bed. It felt like he'd done seven of Buffy's workouts without a break, and his head felt like it had been used as a football. Every muscle, every pore of his body hurt.

He scanned the barely lit room for the bathroom door, and stopped on a sudden intake of breath. There was a velveteen armchair in the corner for visitors.

And he seemed to have a visitor: Buffy…

He tried to prop himself up to use the phone, and swore silently at the pain. He squinted at the list of numbers on it, lit only by the luminescence of the LED readout for its clock and radio components. He couldn't focus on the small print without his glasses and they weren't anywhere to be seen.

He looked across at her again and sighed. He had to go to the bathroom, and if he could get out of bed, perhaps he could get Buffy back to her room by himself…

It took several minutes of concerted effort to ease his body over the side of the hospital bed. He'd never been so stiff and sore and his head now felt more like a Halloween pumpkin. Buffy didn't stir as he hobbled to the bathroom fighting rising nausea, nor when he crept back a few minutes later, grateful to find his pants in his side cabinet. There was something terribly undignified about a hospital gown. By the time he got his pants on he knew he didn't have the strength to take Buffy back to her room without waking her, tiny as she was.

He was about to do just that, when he heard the door opening. He turned, his finger to his lips, and then exhaled. "Angel," he whispered, and swayed. "What on earth are you doing here at this hour?"

When he swayed again, Angel helped him silently back to bed. "Looking for Buffy. I came to check on her before daylight and she was gone. I thought she might be here."

"Of course." Giles nodded, easing his legs onto the sheets. "Look, I suspect she hasn't slept much. Will you take her back to her room and put her to bed?"

Their eyes held for a long moment, a question asked and answered. Angel nodded.

Giles watched him lift Buffy as gently as a babe and slip away in that panther-like way of his before letting his throbbing head fall back against the pillows. A moment later he turned his face toward the velveteen chair.

The room was suddenly very empty and very quiet…


*******

The doctor cleared Buffy's head injury the following morning and she was discharged. Xander picked her up alone in his uncle's car. Willow was teaching a class and Giles' attending physician wasn't even due on rounds until two in the afternoon.

When they reached her home, Xander came in for hot chocolate and cookies and filled her in on all the details of her rescue, including the uneasy alliance between Giles and Angel.

"It seems this Eva woman and a number of her cohorts have been arrested on charges of fraud and possession of stolen property. Apparently the police acted on a tip-off about some stolen money in a house belonging to the cult," he said smugly. "Angel couldn't find out anything about that vampire though. Seems he's actually Eva's brother—they came to town together a couple of months ago. Angel's theory is that Eva and her brother were crooks before he was changed, and that the vamp stayed in the sting for the extra benefits, like all that blo…well, you get the idea."

Buffy half smiled and nodded, but her eyes filled with shadows.

Xander looked at his watch. A couple of hours had passed. A new record for him before foot-in-mouth disease set in, he thought miserably.

He stood up unexpectedly. "Buffy, I have to go. I told Willow I'd be back, and I have to be available to bring Giles some clothes if they spring him today."

Buffy nodded uneasily. "Sure. I'll be fine."

Xander looked at her sharply. The tiny voice held nothing of the Buffy he knew. "You want Willow to stay the night?"

She shook her head, even though a part of her was yelling 'of course I do!' to anyone who'd listen.

"Okay, but you should try and rest. Will and I will come visit tomorrow, after the Chem' test. She's been tutoring me. And, well, there are certain people who will be very T.O'ed if I miss another test. So rest a lot and Willow and I will handle things until you guys are better, and Wesley is always there."

Buffy laughed in spite of herself and Xander chuckled. "Okay, so that one isn't exactly top of the confidence charts. Trust me, it's going to be okay. Rest." He smiled at her in a way that was far more reassuring than his speech, and then he was gone.

With reluctance Giles' doctor agreed that he could go home. The concussion had been considerably worse than Buffy's but no worse than any Tuesday night football injury and there had been no complications from it or his other injuries. Giles was amused by Xander's choices from his wardrobe but the thick sweater and his camping jeans were heaven after twenty-four hours in that abominable hospital gown. And they'd taken his pants away again, too…

The apartment was silent and deserted. Xander helped him into one of his armchairs, and offered to make tea, but Giles, looking around the empty room, declined. "You have things to do," he said absently, "and I'm tired."

Xander nodded, worry and a little hurt clearly visible in his expression, and turned to go.

Giles sighed.

"Xander…"

He looked over his shoulder. "Yo?"

"Thank you."

The boy smiled and nodded. Then he was gone, the door closing quietly behind him.


*******

Buffy watched the last wisp of gold fade from the horizon and wondered if Angel would come. In her heart she knew he wouldn't, not while Joyce was away.

It was so quiet, and the house seemed so big and so empty…

She turned away from the window and went gingerly to the stairs, changed her mind, went to the living room instead and flipped on the television set.

"I'm handling this," she told herself, ignoring her head, and began channel flicking. An hour or more had passed when there was a noise, a clatter like a garbage can falling and rolling. Buffy almost jumped out of her skin, leaped up, then a cat screeched and a dog growled.

She stood there a moment, hurting, then she began to shiver, and then to cry. It frightened her how much she was not in control, how much she didn't want to go out and investigate the noise, or to go up those stairs.

Her forehead throbbed. The doctor had said it wasn't going to be bad, that the damage was shallow enough not to leave much of a scar. But there was more than one kind of scar…

The cab took thirty minutes to arrive, and fifteen to reach its destination. Buffy paid the driver and shivered in the cool night air. Her cheek was throbbing and her head seemed to be pounding in rhythm with her heartbeat.

Giles, slumped in his armchair, jerked at the sound of the doorbell, spilling the drink he'd been nursing for the last two hours. Gingerly he put it down and eased himself out of the chair.

Buffy watched the door open, and saw Giles' surprise when he saw her.

"Hi," she said quietly. "Can I come in?"

"O—of course." He closed the door behind her. "I—Is there something I can help you with, Buffy? Are you all right?"

Buffy didn't turn. "Can I stay here tonight?"

It wasn't a question Giles was prepared for. "Here? I'm not at all sure—"

Her shoulders dropped and she turned slowly. Her cheek was still swollen, her face was haggard and the eyes she raised to his were haunted.

"Never mind," she said softly, her hands trembling. "It's okay. Can I call a cab?"

He cursed his own clumsiness and struggled for the right words as she turned and walked toward his phone.

The silence was almost painful.

"No," he said finally.

Buffy stopped. "Why?" She asked, a hint of the old Buffy in her irritated tone.

"Because…" he began, but the words wouldn't come. He swallowed and forced himself to say them. "Because I don't want to be alone either."

She turned slowly. His head was bent and his shoulders were slumped with both exhaustion and embarrassment. Her eyes lighted with both love and tears, and most of all, understanding.

She walked up to him and touched his face. "Anybody would think I asked you to bear my first born son," she teased in a watery voice.

He chuckled in spite of himself, but his voice cracked and he didn't look up.

"When all I wanted was a cup of tea." She put her arms around him. "…And a hug."

He looked down into her face for a moment, surprise and tenderness in his tired eyes. Then his arms were being wrapped around her, a big, warm circle in which she was safe and protected. She rested her head against his breast, and tightened the circle of her own arms, as though she thought they could shield him too.

Giles felt it and smiled, bent his head to let his brow rest against her hair. He did it instinctively, without hesitation, and then closed his eyes against the strength of his own feelings. As a Watcher, he'd forgone family, forgone friendships and, until Jenny, even passion…

He'd stood alone for so long he'd forgotten what it felt like to love and be loved.

It was some time before Giles lifted his head and dropped a kiss on her hair. Then he smiled at his own thoughts.

"Orange Pekoe or Lahpsang Souchong?" he asked mischievously.

Buffy reluctantly lifted her head. "Huh?"

Giles laughed. "The tea," he reminded her and dropped an arm around her shoulders as they both moved stiffly and sorely toward his kitchen.

"Tea?" Buffy wrinkled her nose. "I'd rather drink one of Willow's protection spells."

Giles chuckled again. "Hot chocolate it is."


*******

The night was as hard and as sharp as diamonds, the stars glittering in a clear black sky, the air edged with cold as Angel made his way to Giles' apartment, out of his mind with worry.

Against his better judgement he'd gone to Buffy's house to check on her, unable to bear the thought of her being alone after her ordeal, only to find it cold and deserted. Real fear pricked his thumbs.

He wished there were someone else he could ask, wished that he didn't have to disturb the battered watcher, but there was no one else, and Buffy was missing. Giles would want to know. The apartment was mostly in darkness, except for a dull lamp glow in the living room window.

Angel muttered an obscenity. If Giles had company he would have to leave quietly and settle for finding Xander, or Oz to help him…

From the window he could see that all was peaceful. And then, suddenly, his great body relaxed, the rigid tension melted away, and his eyes lit with relief and affection.

A few moments later a shadow fell across them and they glittered, over-bright in the night air. He touched the fogged window pane without even knowing he was doing it, then swallowed and took his hand away. With a last glance, he rose and turned.

And walked slowly out into the night…

Inside, Rupert Giles was asleep on the sofa, a mug, cups, an empty cookie plate and a teapot on the coffee table before him. His tousled head was back, and his mouth slightly open, but he looked completely relaxed and peaceful, despite his bruises and the dressing on his head. Curled up next to him, her head against his shoulder obscuring her bruise, Buffy looked like a rosy small girl, secure and content, and fast asleep, the crucifix Angel had given her glinting against the white lamb's wool sweater…



* * *