Destiny's Doorstep | Part One

"And you're sure Willie's information is correct?"

"As sure as you can get about a snitch who happens to be a demon."

Giles turned the car off the highway and onto the road to Breaker's woods.

"I don't like being away from Sunnydale overnight, much less several days."

"Don't worry so much. The guys will handle it. Xander's not leaving 'til we get back and they have a contact number for Angel in case there's a real emergency. He'll come."

He flashed a surprised look at her before returning his attention to the road.

Buffy smiled. "He called me. He's having a tough time letting go of the letting go. He's got a cell phone now. He gave me the number. Anyway, worst case scenario: Oz will come in the van and get us."

They passed the entrance sign for the woods and wound their way through the park until Buffy pointed out a campsite not far from the river that ran through it. Rambler's creek was too big to be a creek, too small to really be a river, but it flowed strongly and picturesquely through the park and for some distance after that, before deteriorating to a polluted trickle as it passed Sunnydale and emptied into the ocean.

"Here?" Giles pulled the Citroen off the narrow road and brought it to a halt in the shade of a large tree. "Why here? It doesn't really have the right ambience for—"

Buffy rolled her eyes and opened her door. "Since when do demons worry about ambi—whatever? Willie says they're going to be here, and that's all that matters."

Giles watched her walk past the hood of the car, all his senses telling him that something wasn't quite right, then got out and followed her toward the sloping river bank. Buffy had stopped just below the crest of it and was waiting for him.

He opened his mouth to speak as he drew level with her, then closed it again, staring.

Buffy grinned.

"But…" He turned to her, a silly grin spreading across his face. "I knew there was something not quite right about all of this."

"I knew you'd be suspicious, but there was no way you were going to guess. Giles, a lot has happened this past year. A lot has happened these past weeks," she added wryly, "but you never seem to get a break. The rest of us, well there were times…you made sure of that, so we thought it was about time you had some quality fun."

"Then Willie?"

"Not even in the picture."

"The demon gathering?"

Buffy smiled again, enjoying herself. "Not," she confirmed as he slipped past her to get to the water's edge.

"They're the best we could do at short notice. One of Cordelia's old college boyfriends borrowed them from UC Sunnydale for us."

Giles was running his hands over their smooth lines. "How did you know?" he asked.

"Something you said, when Faith first came, about the Watcher's retreat. You don't remember?"

He laughed. "You do?" he returned.

Buffy laughed then too. It was doing her ravaged soul good to see him so relaxed and so boyishly excited about something. It had been a long time since she'd seen him truly happy.

"Yeah, I remember: Long walks at twilight…I love a good kayak…There haven't been too many times when I've seen you really excited about something, besides, well, work, so I tend to remember them."

He looked at her for a long moment, surprise, and something else, in his eyes then he walked back to where she was standing.

"It was your idea?"

"Well, yeah, but the guys were all for it. Everybody helped. Cordelia got us the kayaks, Xander got your sizes for the wetsuit, helmet and stuff and Willow and Oz brought the boats up here for us. It's your turn to have a real vacation, Giles. I know you didn't get one last summer, because of me—"

Giles raised a hand. "Thank you," he said, warmth and emotion suffusing his gentle voice. "I don't quite know what to say. Nobody's ever done anything quite this spontaneous…quite so thoughtful for me before." He looked back at the two kayaks. "Are you sure you want to do this with me? I don't ever recall you mentioning an interest in water-sports before…"

"I'm always up for new adventures. And any adventure that doesn't include vampires or demons is good with me at the moment."

"And me," Giles agreed fervently, and then fell silent. He had a sense of wanting to say something else but didn't know what.

Buffy searched his face, wondering if something were wrong. Before she could ask, however, he smiled uncertainly and spoke again.

"What's say we set up camp and get the kettle on, before we do anything else?"

She smiled back. "Sounds like a plan."

*******

It didn't take them very long to put up the small modern tents with their composite frames, or to pull the rest of the gear from the back seat and the trunk of the car. By the time Giles returned with the last item, the cooler with the food and drink in it, Buffy had a fire going and his trusty, blackened, camp kettle set on two rocks in the middle of it.

By mid-afternoon they'd had tea, eaten pre-made sandwiches and washed up and Giles was showing signs of boyish impatience to be out on the water.

Buffy couldn't help smiling to herself as she levered herself into the wetsuit Xander had picked out on his shopping trip with Cordelia, and left stowed in the kayaks. She zipped it up. It was extremely tight, and extremely flatteringly cut to hug one's curves in all the right places. She made a mental note to thump Xander when she got back and picked up her helmet.

Giles was down by the water, bending over the kayaks, probably doing a last check before they went. Buffy watched him for a long moment, unused to seeing him in anything but suits, or shirtsleeves and suspenders. It was therefore a shock to discover that he had legs and a butt. A nice butt, covered in heavy, dark blue latex, and long legs, also covered to the knees in latex.

Then he straightened and turned. The wind had caught and ruffled his usually immaculate hair and he wasn't wearing his glasses. His face was relaxed and suffused with colour and he was grinning. His wetsuit was also…tight.

Buffy almost didn't know him. And her stomach certainly didn't, considering the strange things it was doing. She ignored it and grinned back at him, walked down to the boats.

She couldn't know the picture she made standing on the rise in the sun, the blue and hot pink panelled wetsuit caressing every curve of her feminine figure and the wind lifting the ends of her hair and flicking them around.

"Ready?" he asked.

She nodded.

"All right. Safety first. Don't panic if you roll. Use your body weight to right yourself again, or in the worst case scenario abandon the kayak, but it isn't advisable if you can possibly help it. Try not to get separated, though since Rambler's creek is almost devoid of white water that shouldn't be a problem, and if for any reason you should, stop and wait for me to find you."

Buffy nodded. This was the Giles she knew and yet…She cleared her throat. "Okay, anything I should know about driving this thing?"

"Have you ever rowed or paddled anything before?"

Buffy didn't answer immediately. She was watching the animation and the pleasure in his eyes as he spoke. She couldn't help it. He was like a completely different person, like a boy again, almost.

"Buffy?"

"Oh. No, nothing. I've seen it done on T.V. The olympics, stuff like that, but that's all."

Giles tilted his head a little, his hair lifting in the strengthening zephyr. "Are you sure you want to do this? You seem a little…distracted."

She wanted to say: 'It's you. Did I ever really know you…Did I ever really look?' But she didn't. "I'm sorry. I was thinking about…stuff. Of course I want to do it." She pulled her hair back and secured it with an elastic hair ring that had been around her wrist, put her helmet on and pushed the stray strands under it. "How do I look?"

Giles put his own helmet on and did up the chin strap. "About as silly as I do," he told her good-naturedly.

He was right. Rambler's creek was wide and deep in places, and it moved swiftly despite its sedate appearance, but there were no rapids. Buffy watched him closely, deliberately paddling half a boat-length behind so that she could learn from him and was able to pick up the basics in about half an hour.

She didn't have his ease, or clean movements through the water, but she could now keep abreast of his kayak and enjoy the scenery a little instead of concentrating so much on her form.

Every now and then she saw him look across at her, sometimes watching her kayaking, sometimes seemingly just looking for a moment, then turning swiftly back to his paddling.

They stayed out until almost dusk, Giles turning them back up-river in good time to make it back before the sun set.

Buffy pulled her kayak up on the bank then took off her helmet, pulled out the ponytail and stretched.

"I can take a lot of that kind of adventure," she purred, relaxed and glowing from the warmth of the afternoon sun and the exertion of returning against the current. "No surprises," she added contentedly.

Giles pulled off his helmet, mussing his hair even more. "I know. That's what I love about it. It's not about shooting rapids or adrenaline. It's about peace, and meditation. The sounds of life, of the hull, the blades cutting through the water, the myriad scents of summer, the warmth of the sun…"

He stopped. Buffy was smiling at him in a way he'd never seen before. "I'm sorry," he said sheepishly. "I didn't mean to wax poetic...it's just…it's been a long time…"

Buffy wondered what made him stop. Wondered too, why she'd never seen this side of him before. Wondered if, perhaps, she'd always been too busy, too full of her own problems to ever notice.

"It's okay, Giles. I enjoyed it. I really did, and I want to do it again. I've just never seen you so relaxed. It's nice."

He laughed a little, unsure why he should suddenly feel relieved. "I haven't felt this relaxed in…years." He looked down at the kayaks. "We should do a dawn paddle tomorrow. There is nothing on earth to match being on the water at dawn."

Buffy nodded. Anything to keep him this way. Anything to keep the sparkle in his eye, the smile on his face.

"Sounds great." She looked at the horizon, the last arch of red fire threatening to slip below it. "What's for dinner? I'm starving."

"Well, actually, I thought you might like to practise your culinary skills."

"Giles, I don't have culinary skills. I have slicing and dicing skills, water boiling, toaster and microwave heating skills, and that's about it."

He smiled again and unzipped his wetsuit. "Then it's about time you got some. Even if it's just a simple omelette or that canned chilli Xander insisted on packing."

Buffy, way too surprised by her reaction to the chest revealed by the open wetsuit to think about it, said 'okay,' in such a meek a voice that Giles looked twice at her, then chuckled and shook his head.

"Good," he said. "But I wasn't serious about the chilli."

She focused. "Um, yeah. Eggs. As long as they come with instructions."

"Done," he said, and started up the rise, peeling the top half of his wetsuit off as he went.

Buffy, walking behind, watched the muscles in his pale back ripple as he flexed to shake off the sleeves and wondered why she kept being surprised that there was a man under all that tweed.

When she finally emerged from her tent in jeans and an outsized sweater, Giles had lit a gas lantern, rebuilt the fire and was hunkered down heating a frying pan.

He was dressed in clothes Buffy recognised as birthday gifts from Willow, Xander and herself.

Giles' clothes had always been a source of amusement among them, and during their discussions about what to get him for his last birthday Xander had proposed the radical change of look. There was major disagreement about what to change it to, but in the end they'd settled for as casual as possible. Willow had pointed out that Giles and 'casual' were almost an oxymoron, and that it would be fun.

It would have been if they'd ever seen him wear them…

She wished Willow could be there now to see him in the long-sleeved denim shirt and jeans. He had rolled the cuffs of his sleeves up two turns while he worked.

"They look good…the clothes."

Giles looked around and smiled. The top two buttons of his shirt were undone and his beard was starting to show. "Th—Thank you. I always meant to wear them, but the occasion never quite arose before."

"So," she said, hunkering down next to him. "Omelette?"

"Right," he said, pointing. "Eggs, bowl, whisk. We'll do one at a time. Crack three eggs into the bowl and whisk them until I tell you to stop." He turned to drop butter into the hot frying pan, then turned back when Buffy started 'whisking.' It sounded more like paint scraping. He rolled his eyes, got up and knelt behind her.

"Didn't Joyce ever try to get you into the kitchen?" he asked near her ear.

"Tried," Buffy admitted and felt the bemused breath he exhaled, on her neck.

"Look," he said, and closed his hand over hers, "like this," and began beating the eggs so that she could feel the motion. His hand was warm and firm, and Buffy could feel him leaning against her back.

The silence began to stretch, only the sound of the whisk against the stainless steel and the crackle of the fire disturbing the night.

"Got it?" he asked, his voice a couple of levels lower than normal. Then he let go.

"Got it," she confirmed breathlessly, and demonstrated vigorously.

He moved away and awkwardly handed her a pepper pot and a small packet of herbs. "Not too much of either. Seasoning is a matter of subtlety. You do like tarragon?"

Buffy shrugged. "Is that like oregano?"

Giles laughed, in spite of himself, the tension broken. He lifted the pan off the flames. "No, it's not like oregano. Just mix it and then bring it here."

He showed her how to keep the omelette from catching on the bottom, how to tell when it was done. When Buffy slid it onto the plate he brought, without miss-hap, her eyes danced with delight.

"Wow, I did it. Mom would die. It's not so bad, this domestic stuff," she told him happily, then lost a little sparkle. "It's a whole lot more fun than some other stuff I could name. Let me do the other one by myself. Here, eat." She handed him the plate back and a fork.

Giles took it graciously and sat on a rock close to the fire to eat. He was almost done when Buffy joined him with hers. She'd repeated the process perfectly, as she did most things.

"Good for you," he said quietly.

Buffy tasted it and looked up. "It's good," she said, shocked.

He laughed. "Of course it's good. I'm for another cup of tea. You…?"

Buffy screwed her nose up.

He thrust a hand into a basket of bits and pieces. "Willow sent something called 'Mocha Mix.' She said it wasn't the same, but at least it was instant, whatever that means."

"That," she said. "I'll have that."

By common assent they wandered down to the water's edge with their drinks. It was a cool summer evening with a little moonlight, a few night insects and the occasional rustling of small creatures in the undergrowth. More insects skipped across the water, their progress lit by the glow of the half-moon, as Giles picked up a stone and threw it casually up river.

On impulse Buffy followed suit, only the plop of the rock hitting the water telling her where it landed.

"It's beautiful," she said softly. "And so…"

"…Peaceful?" Giles finished. "Yes it is." He turned to her. "It's balm for an injured soul. Let yourself enjoy it."

Buffy was looking up at him. "That's kind of poetic. Sometimes you can be…poetic."

He laughed. "Command of the language isn't necessarily poetry, Buffy, but thank you anyway." He gestured with his teacup. "I never expected this. I expected—"

"Demons R Us, I know," she said softly. "I'm sorry about that."

He looked down at her again. "Oh, no. Don't be sorry. I can't tell you how wonderful …how much I…it's been so long…"

"How long is it, exactly, since you last had real down time?" she asked, having heard the wistfulness in the last few words.

His green eyes flashed uncomfortably in the firelight. "Oh…uh…I'm not exactly sure. It doesn't matter, really."

Buffy bit her lip at the sadness that came into his eyes. "I'm sorry I reminded you of her," she said softly. "I didn't mean…I meant like a real vacation."

He sighed. "I know. It's all right, truly. Sometimes memories just catch one unawares."

"Tell me about it," she muttered.

Giles shot a look at her. "Are you all right?" he asked, then his eyes gentled. "Has 'horrible' made its presence felt yet?"

Buffy giggled. It stifled the pain. "You've been talking to Willow."

He looked down at his feet. "I was worried about you."

She looked out at the river. "And I haven't been talking?"

"Well, yes."

"Sorry. It just seemed easier to pretend it wasn't happening. And horri…" she swallowed. "And horrible is a long way off yet." She turned and looked up at him. "Tell me it gets better."

They turned and started to walk back. "Eventually. I won't lie to you, Buffy. There are still times…but by and large, yes it does get better."

As they approached the campsite Buffy looked up at the expanse of milky way standing out in sharp relief against the velvet blackness of the night sky.

"Look at that. Stars. I can't remember the last time I saw stars. Real stars. Hey, there are bluish ones, and yellow ones…and look, there's a red one."

"Wing light on a light aircraft."

"Oh, right. I don't suppose you know about stars too?" she asked as they sat by the fire again.

Giles looked up and pointed. "Ursa Major," he said. "And there: the two quadrilaterals, that's Sagittarius. And there's Polaris, the North Star, and that 'w' near it, is Cassiopeia."

Buffy leaned back on her elbow. "I like that bright one up there," she pointed.

"That's not a star."

"What now? A Jumbo Jet? The Starship Enterprise?"

Giles chuckled and lay back, folding his arms behind his head. "A planet. Jupiter."

Buffy squinted up at the sky. "You're kidding. I found a planet?"

He smiled, then it faded. There were so many things she'd missed out on. So many things she should have had as a part of a normal childhood.

"You've never stargazed before?"

"Are you kidding? In Los Angeles? And my nights are kind of busy these days, or hadn't you noticed?"

"Point taken. Look," he pointed.

Buffy looked up instinctively and just caught sight of a particularly bright shooting star.

When she didn't say anything he looked up at her face. She was still looking up at the sky, and there was moisture on her cheeks. He pulled himself back onto his elbow.

"It will get better, Buffy, I promise," he said, very gently.

She turned to him, her cheeks glistening in the moonlight. "It's not that. I just…I've never seen one before—a shooting star. I always wanted to when I was small, but it just never happened."

"You don't have to be a child," Giles said intuitively.

"Doesn't matter. It won't come true anyway. Slayers don't get wishes." She met the green eyes and held them. "And neither do Watchers. Or hadn't you noticed?" she asked, her voice suddenly harsh.

"You're wrong," he said softly and waited until the blue eyes found his. "Over three years … Demons, hyenas, witches, vampires, robots…Angelus, Faith, and an Ascension—and you're still here…"

*******

She didn't recognise where she was, only that it was below ground, and she could hear water running. She was being carried. And, she suddenly realised, she had no feeling below her neck. None. It was as though she was caught in some kind invisible vice, or like her neck had been broken…

Her heart rate soared with her anxiety level as she struggled to make her body move. It was more terrifying than any monster had ever been. They passed into another area and she was placed on a cold, metal table and left there, alone. Somebody turned off the light and slammed the door shut. She heard the bolt slide home. And the sound of the water was louder…

So helpless, so alone…

She could feel the panic rising…God, somebody help me…Mom! Darkness closing in, suffocating…footsteps…Angel, where are you? Somebody help me…Oh God, what is it? Please…Giles! Giles, where are you? Somebody help me, please!

She's coming…

Buffy screamed.

And woke drenched in sweat, her sleeping bag twisted around her and her hair in her eyes.

The water was peaceful in the pre-dawn light. It soothed her jangled nerves and lulled her into a sense of security again. She dabbled her feet, enjoying the sound. For early summer the water was ridiculously cold, but the exercise was silly enough to be fun…and a good distraction.

Watching the sun peek over the horizon and the changing colours of the advancing dawn had an even more soothing effect. Balm for the soul, Giles had called it…Buffy smiled to herself, then jumped at the sound of a stick breaking behind her.

It was Giles. She ducked behind the overhanging strangler fig whose roots she'd been sitting on and hid. He obviously thought she was still asleep, and had come down to the river barefoot and dressed only in as yet undone jeans, with a shaving kit and a towel.

It wasn't fair to embarrass him, and it wasn't right to spy. Buffy closed her eyes and butted her head against the tree, annoyed. Then she peeked again. He was shaving. He wasn't in bad shape for his age. A little soft around the middle maybe, but then even Angel missed out on the washboards…

He half turned suddenly, reaching for the towel to remove the last of the shaving soap on his face and looked straight at her tree. Startled, Buffy stepped backwards, caught her foot between roots and belly-flopped into the murky, algae tinted shallows around the fig.

Giles was there in seconds, offering a hand, pulling her out, lifting her onto dry ground.

"What the hell where you doing?" he rasped as he put her down.

"Chill, Giles," she snapped back, annoyed. "I've been here for an hour. You've been here five minutes. Do the math."

He subsided a little and Buffy immediately felt contrite. It was obvious from the look on his face that she'd given him a fright.

"I'm sorry," she said softly. "I wasn't spying. I had another nightmare…a bad one. A—And I didn't want to embarrass you."

Giles suddenly remembered his pants, turned his back swiftly and did them up. "I'm a little old to be embarrassed about my figure," he said wryly, but didn't turn back.

Buffy made an exasperated face at his back, then grinned suddenly. "Don't fish for compliments," she teased. "I was thinking more of your 'shrinking violet' variety embarrassment," she added cheekily and ran past him, and up the grassy bank.

She looked over her shoulder as she made the crest, expecting Giles to be back at the river where he'd left his gear and probably shaking his head, and shrieked when she saw him right on her heels, took flight and sprinted through the camp.

He caught her less than half a meter from her tent, lifted her into a fireman's carry in one swift movement and headed back towards the river.

"Giles, think about this. This is me, the Slayer. Do you really want to do this?"

"Funnily enough, yes," he replied, the devil in his voice, and extended his stride.

Buffy, who could see under his arm from her vantage-point hanging over his shoulder, saw the river coming fast.

"Giles, this could get painful," she warned, trying not to laugh and trying not to think about the feel of his warm, bare skin.

"Noted," he grunted, lifting her off his shoulder. "But for whom?"

Buffy found herself sailing through empty space and landing in much deeper, much colder water.

She gasped at the temperature, shrieked and thrashed and swore. Then she stopped and shook her hair from her eyes.

Giles was laughing. Not just a small, controlled, Giles chuckle but a full-blooded belly laugh. It was amazing the difference it made. If the others could see him now they still wouldn't believe it was Giles.

He was waiting, his gear under his arm, when she climbed out, her shorts and tank top drenched all over now and her hair hanging like rat's-tails.

"I'd offer you a hand," he said virtuously, trying to keep a straight face, "if I thought it wouldn't be used against me."

"Think again," she growled, and fell into step with him as they turned for the camp. "You won't know when, or where, but I'll get you, you'll see."

Giles looked down and saw the mischievous grin and the dancing eyes, and relaxed. "Forewarned is forearmed," he observed good-naturedly. "Breakfast—"

"Not in this reality, buster," she shot back.

Giles' face was the picture of innocence. "Fair enough. I was only going to offer to cook this morning. Perhaps you'll feel like bacon and hash browns tomorrow morning."

"I'll have a double helping," she said pointedly, and ducked into her tent.

When she emerged, finally, dressed in jeans and a floral shirt, Giles was tending the delicious aroma coming from his frying pan. He was dressed, brushed and combed and, denim or otherwise, she could feel that the old Giles was back. And was a little sorry.

"No dawn paddle?" she asked curiously.

He looked over his shoulder. "Tomorrow morning. I thought you might have had enough adventure for one day. Besides, I've never walked this part of the woods. Recreational activity was fairly limited on the retreat last year."

She brought a plate to the fire and hunkered down next to him. "Is something wrong?" she asked quietly.

He lifted bacon and hash brown onto her plate. "What makes you think there's anything wrong?" he asked guilelessly.

Buffy let it go and started on the food. Giles was a terrible liar.

"You said you had a nightmare last night?" he remembered a moment later, even sounding like the old Giles.

She nodded and swallowed a mouthful of bacon. "Horrible. The most horrible in a long time."

"Portent? Angel? Faith? Bad food?"

"Bad food, maybe," she mused. "I've never been paralysed before. I didn't like it much."

Giles eyes grew serious and he straightened. "Paralysed? I think you'd better give me the whole thing."

Buffy described the entire sequence, right up to the last face she saw, then slipped into a brown study.

"Buffy?"

"Oh, yeah. I was just thinking about the face I saw just before I woke up. I guess it was a She-demon, but I've never seen one like it. Not on the street, or in your books. And she reeked of…"

"Death?"

"No, cookies. That's freaky. A weird, scary nightmare with running water and cookies. It has to be the omelette…or the tarragon," she posited.

Giles made a noise in his throat. "There's nothing wrong with my tarragon, but your dream does worry me. If you remember anything else, I want to know about it."

"Why?" she asked, wolfing down the last of her hash browns.

"It follows no previous pattern of yours. You also called for everyone who might protect you and no one came. In most of your other nightmares at least one of us has been there, for better or worse. Also there wasn't a single familiar item or moment in the whole sequence as far as you can tell. I don't like it."

"But the cookies?"

Giles shrugged. "Hunger pangs."

Buffy frowned. "I don't think so, but you're wigging me a little, worrying like this."

Giles put down his spatula and turned himself toward her. "Nothing's going to happen, I promise."

"But…worry…you, remember?"

"And I will continue to do so for as long as my intuition tells me to, but I won't let anything happen to you, Buffy, I promise."

Buffy hugged herself. "Good, because I don't think I could stay sane if it happened again."

"She was that horrible?"

Buffy shook her head. "No, the paralysis. I can't do it again, Giles, even in a nightmare."

"Forewarned is forearmed," he quoted himself. "Whatever your dream means, we'll be ready."

*******

Buffy hopped nimbly from rock to rock, a few paces behind Giles, who gave every impression of knowing where he was and where he was going, despite what he said earlier.

They'd been walking and climbing for over half an hour and apart from Giles pointing out birds and Buffy's observation that some clouds marching up on the horizon looked like cauliflower, which Giles hadn't even dignified with a reply, they hadn't spoken.

Buffy decided it had been kind of nice, walking through the forest, then doing the mountain goat thing on the granite outcrop, without having to make conversation for the sake of conversation.

Near the top of the knoll the rocks finally gave way again to grassy ground. She jumped down several seconds behind him and blew out a relieved breath.

Giles turned. "All right?" he asked.

"Not a problem," she replied, trying not to breathe any harder than her Watcher. "When did you get so fit?"

He looked wry. "After the…well, shall we say the 'candy' incident, I took things in hand, rather."

"Funny," she said, negotiating the crest of the knoll, "I didn't notice, I mean I don't remember…I mean you never said."

He smiled tolerantly. "There's no reason why you should," he pointed out, and continued over the rise and down the other side.

Buffy frowned. It explained why his previously lean, almost skinny frame had suddenly become so solid. She hadn't realised before how little interest she took in him outside of school, or slaying, particularly since Jenny Calendar had died. She wondered how much it had to do with her often enforced preoccupation with her own life, and how much to do with any withdrawal on Giles' part after the trauma of Calendar's death, among other things…

She kicked a rock. It seemed like any time Giles made any kind of grab for happiness something was around to stomp on it. Three times, at least, he'd had a chance with the computer teacher, only to have it snatched away, first by Eyghon, then Angel turning, and finally, worst of all, Angelus.

Giles had reached a small creek bed at the base of the knoll and was waiting for her to catch up. Buffy looked at him as she approached, and wondered where it came from, that strength to just go on…

The pain, the emptiness where Angel used to be yawned like a cold, bottomless chasm that she was frightened she might fall into and never get out of again. She shivered at the thought of it, swallowed the wave of pain that came with thinking his name, and wondered how the hell Giles had survived. It wasn't as though there'd been anyone there for him…after.

She scowled. It wasn't like it was easy to get him to open up, or even to relax enough to laugh, most of the time. She knew in her heart, however, that her own problems, and Angel's, massive as they were, had taken up nearly all of her time since the Computer teacher's death. Knew too, that her mind had been anywhere but on Giles, even when he probably needed a friend as much as she did.

By the time she was halfway down the slope she was biting her lip, remembering the days after Eyghon. Remembering those weeks after Calendar's death, the things Xander had said about the summer she ran away and what she'd put Giles through, what Angelus had done to him...

She took a deep breath as the memories came faster, and more cruelly. She saw his face when she came back from Los Angeles; heard his voice when he talked about his nightmares about Jenny's death while she fished for information about Angels' return. Saw his eyes when he found out she'd lied to him about Angel, and again when he had to tell her about giving her that drug…

"Took you long enough," he observed when she finally reached the tiny brook.

"Sorry," she said softly. "Doing some heavy duty thinking."

"Ah. Nothing too heavy, I hope," he said, and jumped, or rather stepped, over the pebbled stream.

Buffy rolled her eyes. "You ever have one of those deep moments when you realise that you've really screwed something up and there's no way you can go back and fix it, even though you really, really want to?"

Giles looked over his shoulder for a moment, then turned back the way he was walking.

"Yes," he said.

Buffy rolled her eyes again. Way to go, Summers, she thought exasperatedly and lengthened her stride until she came abreast of him.

"Stupid question," she said apologetically. "It's just…there's something about this place. All I seem to be able to think about are the things I should have done, wish I'd done, which is stupid, because it's way too late to—" She turned her gaze back to the forest floor. "Well, it's way too late, anyway."

"If you're talking about Angel, I don't think the outcome would have been much different, regardless of your choices," he said gently. "Even if you hadn't—if he hadn't turned, he would still have chosen to let you go in the end."

"I wasn't—talking about Angel, that is, but you make it sound way too romantic. There's nothing romantic about getting dumped," she grumbled.

Giles looked at her sideways. There were still occasional moments when Buffy was far more like the sixteen-year-old who'd bounded into the library that first day, than the young woman she was now.

"In time you'll understand, and when you do, you won't judge him quite so harshly."

"If you mean I'll understand that he still loves me and that leaving me, and Sunnydale, so I can have a life and a future, is like, the ultimate sacrifice and how noble he is, then I already got it, thanks. Got it, and don't want it. If he was going to go, he could have at least left me a good mad to get through it with," she said pettishly.

Giles stopped then and turned to look at her, annoyed by her facetiousness, then closed his mouth again when he saw her face.

"Would you like to hike up to the lake, or down to the campgrounds?" he asked instead. "If I remember correctly they have a cafeteria and a small souvenir shop, plus er…amenities."

Buffy looked up at him fondly. He was cute when he was embarrassed. "Amenities would be nice," she mused, then gestured at the forest, with its dappled light, endless green and quiet rustlings, "but I really don't think I want to give this up just to go to a decent john."

He smiled and she saw, with satisfaction, the approval in his eyes.

"Right. Good. The lake it is," he said, still smiling, and turned about forty-five degrees to the right of the direction they'd been going.

It took them almost an hour of hiking in companionable silence to get there, enjoying the filtered sunshine, the zephyr that had sprung up again, carrying the myriad scents of the forest and the sounds of the trees rustling and the various birds calling to each other.

It was on the few occasions when their progress flushed something from the undergrowth, however, that Giles enjoyed himself the most. Brightly coloured birds took flight several times; they disturbed a fairly nonchalant rabbit, and now, a startled and distinctly annoyed squirrel.

It wasn't the animals that delighted him. It was Buffy's face when she saw them, her undisguised pleasure at such simple things, in such contrast to the cynicism and bitterness of her earlier observations. It was one the things he loved about her: that unlike so many others, Buffy had never completely lost the innocence of spirit that set her apart from the likes of Faith, or any number of others he could name from his past…

She was watching the squirrel abuse them from the safety of a high tree branch and laughing softly.

Giles smiled to himself, pleasure glowing in his eyes. After the attempted murder of Faith, and Angel's departure, he had begun to believe that this part of her had been lost to them all, forever.

Buffy turned to speak to him, saw the grin and smiled back. "What?" she asked.

"Balm for the soul," he quoted softly as the squirrel bounded down the tree and disappeared into the undergrowth.

She tilted her head a little, thinking about that, then her smiled widened as he moved off and she fell in at his shoulder again.

The lake, a natural catchment area, shone in the morning sun, a brilliant blue green beneath the summer sky. A light breeze barely rippled the surface and water birds floated sedately here and there, dotted the shores and occasionally took off in varied and graceful flight.

They broke from the trees and crossed a narrow grassed area scattered with fallen branches and rocks, dropped their backpacks, and came to a halt at the western shore of the near-pristine body of water.

Buffy closed her eyes against the warmth of the sun shining across it and breathed deeply. The air was almost painfully clean and sharp, leavened only by the tang of mud and water mixed with the scent of pine needles and crushed grass. So clean, so untainted…

Giles roused from his peaceful commune with their surroundings. He was almost certain he heard Buffy make a small, distressed noise. He turned and searched her profile. Her eyes were still closed but a single tear had squeezed through the thick lashes and was trailing down the side of her face.

He looked out across the lake again, frowning, reluctant to invade her privacy. Then he heard a second, equally small noise and swallowed hard.

A moment later he silently closed his hand around hers without turning or moving. After a beat, her fingers closed around his, their grip tightening until it was almost painful.

Giles looked sideways at her face again, then. There had been so much heartache in her life these past couple of years he couldn't begin to guess what she was struggling with, only that the battle was well and truly joined.

They stood there for a long time, until finally, Buffy let go of his hand and drew her arm across her face.

"Is Faith going to die?" she asked softly.

"Possibly," he answered, surprised, but unwilling to lie to her.

"Does that make me a murderer? Does that make me like her?"

Giles put his head back and closed his eyes. "You will never be like Faith, Buffy. Evil is not made by circumstance, it only fosters and cultivates the potential that's already there. Many more people have faced far worse than Faith without succumbing to the dark side of their natures."

Buffy frowned and sniffed, watching a small frog slither and slide down the muddy bank, trying to get to the water. "But it was bad for her."

"Yes it was. But if a child in a playground has no toys at home, nothing of its own, and out of rage turns on its companion, to smash its every possession, every…toy, to inflict pain upon that companion just to relieve its own injured feelings, how do we judge that child?"

Buffy looked up at him then, considering. Then she nodded and looked away. "After Angel…I felt what she felt. I wanted to kill her, and it scared me, Giles. I don't want to be like her," she whispered.

"Then don't," he said gently. "It's that simple. Don't be Faith, be Buffy."

She studied him again. He was staring across the lake, his face flushed from the exercise, his hair woolly and his brow shiny with perspiration. "Is that how you did it?" she asked perceptively. "Don't be Ripper, be Giles…?"

He nodded silently, without turning.

The torment faded from her eyes and she exhaled slowly before bending to pick up the frog and setting it gently in the water. It kicked, making a tiny splash, and was gone in seconds.

She turned to stand up and found him watching her. She shrugged self-consciously. "More balm," she explained, and they both smiled.


*******

Giles looked up from the pan he was tending over the fire at the sound of footsteps. He watched Buffy climb the gentle rise from the river barefoot and rubbing her hair with a towel after a bathe. The baseball shirt and shorts and the lack of make-up made her look just about the age she was the first time he ever saw her.

"Hungry?" he asked as she approached the fire.

"Starving. She sat down next to him, close to the flames, and put her feet even closer. "Do you know how cold that water is? What's with that? Did somebody cancel summer without telling me?"

Giles smiled and shook his head. "The river is spring fed. It's always cold."

"Tired?"

She shrugged. "Big day." Her face dropped. "Big month…you?"

His face suffused with warmth. "It's been…fun."

Buffy grinned. "Fun? You? Really?"

He grinned back and nodded. "Thanks to you."

"Me…? Well, yeah…but the others…they helped, with the planning, the getting—"

"I hadn't forgotten," he said softly. "But I wasn't talking about that. I was talking about the company."

Buffy coloured unexpectedly and tilted her head. There was something in his tone, casual though it was, that caught her off guard. She found herself looking into the gentle green eyes.

"It has been fun," she agreed. "Being together…what happened to that? We used to be good together: training, routine patrols…the occasional shared slay-age. How did we lose that?"

"You grew up…Life grew…difficult," he said softly.

Buffy closed her eyes. They both knew exactly what he was talking about. "I know I totally suck as a friend," she said quietly. "Mom didn't raise her little Slayer to be the care and share girl. You must have been so disappointed in me, so many times…"

"At times," he agreed, and waited until she opened her eyes again, held them as he spoke. "Disappointed not in who you are, but in some of the choices you've made. I'm very proud of who you are, who you've become, Buffy, but…"

"I know. You know that stuff I was wishing I could change before? Almost all of it was about you," she admitted. "I never realised how much the Angel thing took over my life…my…everything…"

"Love does tend to do that," Giles observed, moving the pan away from the fire and putting it aside.

"Yeah, but there's more than one kind of love…and the more I think about the last couple of years, the more I don't want to think about the number of times I forgot that. You guys were always there for me, even when I didn't deserve it…I mean, really didn't deserve it…"

She stopped suddenly and looked up, finding and holding his gaze again. "I'm sorry," she said quietly, her eyes saying what words could not.

After a moment Giles smiled a little and nodded. "As hard as it is to believe, I was once your age, Buffy," he said gently. Then his mouth curled whimsically. "Even harder to believe might be the fact that I was a far worse case than you believe you ever were…"

"Not worse," Buffy corrected, her voice suddenly very serious. "Different…We've both tried to fight what we are, who we are…and hurt people along the way: you had Eyghon, I had Angelus. We both lost people because of those mistakes…and we both have to live with that." She stood up, moved away from the fire. "I know all that, but it doesn't change anything. I've still blown the bitch meter way too many times."

Giles raised a surprised eyebrow. "Interesting metaphor. I haven't heard that one before."

It was so gentle, so Giles-like it pierced the tension and Buffy laughed, at first.

He looked up when the chuckle turned to an undignified sniff, caught her eye and rose when she turned away. He went to her and put his hands on her shoulders.

"Friends?"

She turned slowly beneath his hands and smiled damply. "Always." Her face crumpled. "Why are you always so good to me?" she whispered and put her arms around him, burying her face in his shirt.

Above her head Giles closed his eyes. After a beat he returned the hug for a few moments, before taking her shoulders and easing her away, looking down into her eyes.

"There have been damn few things in my life that I've loved, Buffy. And those I have, I cherish."

Buffy's surprise was comprehensive. She was moved beyond words, staring silently up at him.

He smiled then and touched the tip of her nose. "Now do stop being silly and help me salvage dinner."

She smiled back, then looked down at the half-cooked sauteed vegetables and made a face. "Maybe we should order in?"

Giles snorted. "Fine, you find a phone and I'll break out the antacid."

Buffy made a face at him and they both laughed. "Okay, it's my turn," she conceded, bending and picking up the pan. "How do I fix this?"

"Put it back on the fire," he suggested dryly.

Giles watched as she turned the rather unhappy vegetables into a very large, very…busy…omelette, drawing the line at Buffy's suggestion that they might as well use up the chilli as well.

"I'm going to have indigestion for days," he muttered as they tidied up afterward, having washed their plates down at the river.

"It wasn't that bad," she retorted, wiping the dishes and putting them away. "I can't remember that last time I ate so much."

"Nor can I."

"Then it was okay?"

He half smiled. "It was edible."

Buffy threw her dish towel at him. "Just for that you can make breakfast in the morning."

He picked the cloth off his shoulder with two fingers and dropped it on the cooler before looking down his nose at her in mock disapproval. "There isn't anything left for breakfast."

Buffy narrowed her eyes pointedly then went and sat near him, warming her cold hands by the fire. "What are we doing tomorrow, anyway?"

"I thought we might take the kayaks down stream to that glade where we saw the deer browsing and hike through that area. If memory serves there's a rather spectacular gorge and some very old trees…and if we can locate it, a rock hollow with some very old cave paintings."

"Boy you really did the research thing on this place last year, didn't you?"

He shrugged. "I really didn't want to be away. Since I ultimately had no choice in the matter, I saw no reason for it to be a complete waste of time."

"I thought you were all excited about that Retreat? You packed enough stuff—"

Giles opened his mouth to speak, closed it again, until he'd abridged the truth into something he could actually tell her.

"Of course I was interested, but as you well know being away from Sunnydale at any given time is fraught with problems. I had a responsibility to all of you. I should never have gone…"

Buffy shrugged. "We handled it…Angel helped…" she stopped, closed her eyes. She hadn't thought about Angel all day. Now his face filled her thoughts, his voice caressed them. The pain pierced her like a blade. She shuddered.

"Buffy?"

"N…nothing. You couldn't have stopped what happened, Giles. Nobody knew Spike was coming back, or that he'd go after Willow."

"Nevertheless," he reiterated darkly.

Buffy touched his arm, but neither of them spoke.

A few moments later he looked up at the night sky. "A perfect night," he said almost to himself.

Buffy looked up. It truly was spectacular. "I think I'm going to sleep out here," she decided suddenly. "Everybody talks about sleeping under the stars. I should do it at least once, while I have the chance…"

They looked at each other. Both knew she'd inadvertently alluded to something they had both struggled to deal with since her death at the Master's hand. She'd broken an unspoken rule, and accidentally opened an old wound.

"It's not going to happen," Giles said quietly, forcefully.

She turned to look at him, surprised at the vehemence of his tone.

"Giles, we both know you can't be there all the time. If it is going to happen nothing either of us can do will change it."

His eyes locked with hers. "I promise you for as long as I am with you, I won't let you die. Whatever I have to do to keep you safe, I shall. I give you my word."

She smiled at him then, her eyes bright with emotion.

After a beat he shifted. "I suppose if we're to be up before dawn for this paddle we should think about turning in," he added brusquely.

Buffy watched his discomfiture with a combination of amusement and affection.

"So when was the last time you slept under the stars, Bookguy?" she teased as he started to get up.

He looked back at her, a strange, almost startled look on his face. "Oh…not for years, really," he managed, and got to his feet.

"Well, you could bring your stuff out here too. I mean it's not going to be any fun if I see a shooting star…or a UFO or even a wing of flying demons…and there's nobody here to say 'Hey, look at that!' to."

He stared at her for a long moment, as though trying to make up his mind about something. "All right," he said eventually. "But before you start yelling 'Hey look at that!' at all hours of the night think carefully about the temperature of the water down there."

"Stuffy," she shot back and scrambled to her feet. "And don't think I've forgotten about that. I still owe you one, big time," she warned.

Giles watched her go to get her sleeping bag from her tent, his momentary amusement fading quickly, leaving a troubled, almost despairing look in his eyes.

Despite her plans, Buffy was asleep within half an hour of Giles seeing to the fire for the night and both of them settling in their sleeping bags.

He smiled to himself. She'd gone to sleep in the middle of a sentence, somewhere between wondering whether there was really any point to a Slayer attending college and whether or not her mother had remembered some shoe sale somewhere…

An hour later he was still wide-awake. Eventually he sat up and stretched a kink out of his back. Buffy was curled up in her sleeping bag, less than four feet away, her face turned toward the fire so that it was bathed in its soft glow. She was so peaceful it hurt. He hadn't seen her so relaxed, so untroubled since…

He swallowed. He couldn't remember when…

Now more than ever he questioned the morality of asking children to take on the role of Slayer. For all the physical superiority with which they were endowed, nothing could prepare them emotionally for the relentless horror of confronting their own mortality over and over at such a tender age, the loneliness or the burden of responsibility that was their lot.

Of course he forgave her all her flaws, no matter how deeply they cut sometimes. It was little enough repayment for what had been required of her, what she'd endured these last three years…

He watched her move restlessly, then relax again.

…Three years of wiping away all trace of childhood. There was something very old about her sometimes, especially when she was troubled and those blue-grey eyes looked deeply into his. Angelus, too, had taken a permanent toll, the cherubic innocence of the girl whose biggest ambition had once been to make the cheerleading squad had been replaced by planes and angles, and a facade which revealed precious little of her inner-self.

He smiled again, remembering that face as it glowed for a few precious moments with perfect happiness, set free by a silly parasol. Then, as vividly as if he was there again, the moment she first entered that room replayed itself in his thoughts, and his breath caught, as it had then.

A moment later his face darkened and he suddenly slid down into his sleeping bag, curled up and pushed his head roughly into the jacket he'd rolled up for a pillow.


*******

Buffy finished brushing her hair out, rolled up her wetsuit and pushed it into the backpack she'd brought her clothes in, shoved the helmet on top. When she emerged from the bushes it was to find Giles already changed, his gear already stowed in his kayak.

She watched him for a moment as he stood casually throwing pebbles into the water. He was wearing the jeans again, but she'd never seen the shirt before. The soft grey suited him, as did the open grandfather collar, but it was so un-Giles she was completely distracted, so that when he turned to look for her and spoke her name she jumped in surprise.

"Ready to go?"

She nodded. "New shirt?"

He looked down at his chest. "Oh, yes. Suggestion from someone unimpressed by my taste in clothes," he said, amused.

Buffy was surprised at how much she disliked the idea of someone helping him buy clothes. "New girlfriend?"

Giles looked at her sharply, surprised by her tone. "Good God no. Sales assistant in
a clothes store. He was bored and I bored him even more."

She giggled then. "He?"

He grinned back. "Poor chap really wanted to be in the fashion department where several strapping young men were looking for pants and got stuck showing me business shirts for work instead."

"So you let him pick your shirt for you?"

"Something like that. Why? Do you dislike it?"

Buffy shook her head as a cloud passed over the sun. "I like it a lot. It's just so un-you."

He laughed then, and started to walk. "Un-me? What did you expect? Tweed? Saville Row? Here?"

She scowled and fell in at his side. "Well, no, but you know what I mean."

He sighed. "Of course I know what you mean. But no one likes to be predictable. My life has changed…almost too much…in these last twelve months, Buffy. I've changed, and I find that I no longer want to conform to other people's expectations of who or what I should be."

Buffy jumped over a moss-covered log and Giles stepped onto it before jumping off the other side.

"You're talking about the Council, aren't you?" she guessed.

He looked down at her. "In part."

She looked up to question further, saw his expression and subsided.

The day went surprisingly quickly. The gorge was spectacular and Giles was unexpectedly good fun, taking her teasing about his lack of agility and declining years with good humour and a surprisingly quick wit, giving back as good as he got.

"I hope this rock art is worth it."

Giles climbed onto another boulder and extended a hand. "Any part of your own history is worth your attention, Buffy."

She took his hand, and allowed him to help her onto the granite platform. It was the second or third time he'd made the same instinctive gesture and Buffy had found it oddly comforting. There was an inherent loneliness in the self-sufficiency of a Slayer, which made his unconscious attentions the more touching.

"Is that it?" she asked, pointing to a cave mouth in a jagged cliff ahead of them, with her left hand, not yet wanting to free the right still being held loosely in his.

"Not that one," Giles said, scanning the surrounding area. "But it isn't much further. The one we want is more of an eroded overhang than a true cave."

A drop of moisture hit Buffy between the eyes. She looked up. Where there had been occasional drifts of cloud passing over the sun during their hike, the sky was now a menacingly blue-black colour, the wind was rising and the drops were falling faster. Then, before either of them could comment, the heavens opened.

Drenched within seconds, Giles seized Buffy by the waist, swung her down the other side of the granite boulder and jumped down behind her, caught her hand and started to run toward the cave.

It was large and bare, but at least it was dry. They were both literally streaming by the time they came to a halt, their hair plastered against their scalps and water still running off the legs of their jeans.

"Well that was uncalled for," he panted. "And more than a little unexpected."

Buffy looked up at him and scowled. "Almost Hellmouthy," she muttered. "There was barely a cloud when we left…God, you're wet."

Giles started to laugh. "H—have you looked at yourself?"

A moment later Buffy joined him. She was still laughing when she tried to sit down. "Oh…eieww!"

Giles sobered "What?" he demanded

Buffy looked up sheepishly. "Everything…everything is wet…and squishy. Giles, turn around."

"Why?"

Buffy tilted her head and raised an eyebrow.

After a beat he turned red and wheeled around.

"What are you doing?" he demanded when he still hadn't been invited to turn back several minutes later.

"Wringing everything out. You should be doing the same thing. We don't know how long we're going to be here."

"Hardly," he said in his most stuffy librarian voice. "Can you get a move on? I think rigor mortis is setting in."

"Now," she called a few seconds later.

"Are you sure you don't want to tumble-dry as well?" he drawled as he turned, then stopped.

Buffy's jeans, socks and shoes were spread over the one outcrop of rock in the cave and she'd wrung out her T-shirt, which now hung on her like a damp nightshirt, to her thighs.

He cleared his throat and turned away again. "Buffy…"

"Oh, come on, Giles. I wear less than this at the school pool. Do you want me to catch pneumonia? Do I want you to catch pneumonia?" She looked through the cave mouth to the appalling weather outside. The wind had increased in strength and was driving the rain before it now. The temperature had dropped at least ten degrees since mid morning, five of them in the last ten minutes. "It's getting colder. You can't stay in all that wet gear, and you know it."

Giles turned slowly and sat down without looking at her. "I can and I will. Leave it alone, Buffy, and dry your clothes."

Buffy sighed, beginning to shiver. "Very funny. I bet you have matches, but there's zip in here to burn, even if there was away to get rid of the smoke."

She made a couple of attempts to start a conversation but Giles suddenly seemed more preoccupied with the contents of his pockets. And he was so wet. Tiny rivulets of water from his hair still trickled down his temples and off his jaw when he moved, and he was making puddles where the water was dripping out of his shirt and jeans.

A mostly silent half an hour passed before he got up again, and, as though he'd planned it, squished over to the cave wall and began poring over the strata visible in the dull light.

Buffy looked up from rubbing her chilled legs and frowned. "What are you doing now?"

"I…I noticed some interesting mineral formations. It…it passes the time."

"And talking to me doesn't? When did I get busted to sub-rock?" she asked, wondering what happened to their earlier easy camaraderie.

"Buffy, don't be ridiculous," he muttered.

Buffy decided that her backside was numb enough and chilled enough from the rocky ground and took herself over to Giles' fascinating discovery. The mountain and Mohammed, and all that, she thought.

She was less than a foot away from him when he realised she was there, jumped like a cat, then turned back to his 'discovery.'

"Sorry," she said and looked up at him. He was as red as a beet, and for the briefest moment before he realised she was looking at him, had looked as bleak as she'd ever seen him look.

"God, Giles, I really am embarrassing you…I'm sorry." She reached out at the same time to touch his arm in apology but he withdrew it before she could.

"You're angry with me—?" She stopped when he shook his head and turned it further away, still pretending to look at rocks.

"I—I'm not angry with you Buffy. I think…I think we'd best try and hike out of here. I…I suggest you get dressed."

Buffy's eyes narrowed. Hiking back through the rocky gorge, or over its numerous creek beds in this weather was dangerous and stupid. And Giles wasn't stupid. She watched him picking a stone out of the wall with his pocket knife. Every inch of him screamed tension, and his colour was still high enough to use his face as a rescue beacon.

She was about to ask him what was wrong when the knife slipped and he yelped. In seconds she was there, taking the slashed hand in one of hers and examining the damage. She was about to pronounce it un-stitch-worthy when she felt him tremble.

And it all suddenly made sense. She released the hand and looked up at him very slowly, and was hurt when he refused to look at her.

"I'm sorry," she said softly. "I…I didn't mean…" His gaze finally, reluctantly met hers, taking her breath.

"It's all right," he said thickly. "I'm the one who should apologise. I don't want you to think—"

But Buffy was still staring into the gentle green eyes, trying to process her own response to the desire in them, to understand what was happening. She was aware now that she should have backed off minutes ago, that she should have dressed and given him space to recover…that he needed her to…but she didn't want to, and she didn't know why.

"Talk to me," she said softly. "Is it me, or just the moment?"

He looked away, shame returning the colour, which had ebbed slightly, to his face in a rush. "I'm sorry," he whispered.

Buffy studied his face curiously for a long moment, trying to answer her own question, and found herself noticing things she'd never really noticed before…
How green his eyes were, the cute brown patch in one of them, the distinctive crease on his forehead, the way his hair tightened into curls as it dried after being wet, making him look different…younger, somehow.

And then, impulsively, she did what she'd wanted to do for the last several minutes.

He trembled again as her fingers trailed along his jaw, touched his mouth.

"How long?" she asked, watching his eyes close as her hand reached to brush stray curls off his brow. And wondered what the hell she was doing…

He stepped away, and opened them again. "I didn't…I didn't know until you told me Angel had left you," he replied, barely above a whisper. "And then you walked in to that room…"

"At the Prom? But you didn't even ask me to dance…"

He nodded uncomfortably. "I didn't want you to know…ever. I almost lost your trust once…I…I couldn't bear to lose it again."

"My trust? Giles, I'm in a cave with you, in my underwear. That should tell you something," she teased, trying to ease the tension in the air.

He half laughed, but it didn't reach his eyes. "Which you did because you trusted me not to react this way," he said sadly.

Buffy's eyes grew very bright. "I'm not that noble," she said softly. "I just didn't think of you as a man. Period."

Giles did laugh then. "Very flattering."

Buffy shrugged. "We've been together so long, I guess I just think of us as furniture. We just…go together."

Giles faced her and sighed deeply. "Yes…yes we do, I suppose. But you'll never be furniture to me, Buffy." A stillness came over him then. He hesitated for a moment, then laid the backs of his fingers against her soft cheek with a gentleness that almost broke her heart. "I could never hurt you."

It was Buffy's turn to tremble. It frightened her. All those weeks of grieving for Angel had left her hollow and empty, disconnected…and now, suddenly her body was responding to the touch of a man she hadn't even thought of as a…man, until these last few days.

She raised her eyes to his. "All this time…how could I not know?" she whispered.

He was looking at her with a combination of surprise and tenderness. "Know what? You couldn't know what wasn't there to be known. There is a difference between caring for someone and…"

"I know. You were in love with Jenny…and I was, well…with Angel."

He smiled at the simple honesty of her statement. "I have always loved you," he told her.

"You mean like Quentin Travers said—?"

Giles shook his head. "His interpretation, and his alone. I never wanted to be your father, Buffy…you already have a fine one of your own…I was content to be your Watcher, your mentor, your friend…

"But he was right…when he said you loved me?"

Giles nodded. "Dearly," he whispered. "Too much to watch you die to satisfy some damned stupid ritual for the satisfaction of old men so far removed from the real world—"

Buffy raised a hand. "I get the picture. I don't want to talk about them. I want to talk about what's happening to us."

Giles raised an eyebrow. "Us?" he whispered.

"Well, that would include you and me…which would be us," she babbled.

"Buffy?"

She shut up and looked into his eyes again. "Giles, something's happening here. I'm not even pretending to understand it…and…it really doesn't make a lot of sense to me…but it's there and I can't pretend it's not."

"Remarkable," he said whimsically. "I couldn't have described it better myself." Then suddenly his breath was taken from him, her fingers experimentally touching the small, damp area of chest exposed by the open top buttons of his shirt.

"D…Don't," he whispered.

Buffy removed the hand. "You're so warm," she said softly, her eyes a long way away for a moment. Then she was back, looking up at him again. "I never saw you before…not really."

Giles looked down at her. "Which was as it should have been," he said gently. "And still should be, if it weren't for my sudden rush of adolescent clumsiness."

She frowned. "Why?"

"Buffy, you're eighteen years old. I'm old enough to—"

She held up a hand. "Don't…say it. You're not. I know I've ragged on you in the past…today, even, and once upon a time I even meant it…but the truth is, in every way that counts, you're not."

He smiled and shook his head. "But I am…and there's still Angel," he pointed out.

"Oh…yeah…him. I rest my case," she said uncomfortably. "Tall, cold and gone…can we not talk about him?"

"Precisely," he said.

"Huh?"

He raised an eyebrow at her.

Her face dropped. "He's a non-issue. Okay, he's a painful non-issue…but it's over and I really don't want to…"

"You're shivering," he said unexpectedly.

"Well, duh, Giles. I'm soaking wet, it's cold and getting colder and we've been standing still for I don't know how long…"

"You'll catch your death."

"Any more cliches?" she drawled. "And I think 'we'll catch our death' would be entirely more accurate."

His shirt was plastered against his skin and he was shivering too.

"If I go right over the other side of the cave couldn't you at least wring out your shirt?"

He chuckled again, then sobered and shifted uncomfortably. "It wouldn't matter at this point if you were up that tree outside," he said roughly. "I just can't seem to—"
A small noise escaped his throat. "Buffy...!" he whispered hoarsely, as her fingers began to undo his buttons.

"If you won't do it yourself and it makes no difference where I actually am…" she said and undid the next one and the one after.

Giles swallowed and stood very still, trying not to shudder as her fingers grazed his skin over and over.

Then she was done. She looked up slowly. His eyes were closed, his jaw clenched and his breathing was a little ragged.

Then she was dragging the sopping shirt off his back, wringing it with vigour, until a small pool of water had formed on the floor, then hooking it over a jutting piece of composite rock in the cave wall, about a foot above her head.

When she turned back Giles was gone. Startled, she turned almost a full circle, and found him sitting against the wall across the other side of the cave, in the shadows, elbows on his knees, head in his hands.

She watched him for a long moment. He was so different…he'd changed so much in the last year and now here he was, barely recognisable, dressed in nothing more than blue jeans and boots, his hair curly and wild, books and tweed nowhere in sight. Even six months ago it would have taken a tire iron to get Giles into a pair of blue jeans.

A surge of affection overtook her, shaking her. Her lips parted in surprise. Of course she loved him. She'd always loved him…he was a part of her, would always be a part of her. The memory of her reaction to his touch came back to her then.

It was so new, so…well, scary. There was still an ache in her soul where Angel had been, a bruise on her heart the size of Mexico…and a part of her still leapt at the thought of him. And now, suddenly, she was having feelings for someone else…for Giles?

Giles hadn't moved. He looked alone and miserable. Buffy bit her lip and turned. When she finally approached him she was dressed again in the damp jeans and wet boots.

He didn't lift his head until he realised she'd knelt alongside him. His eyes searched her face, took in her appearance. The hint of a smile warmed his eyes and softened his mouth.

"Are you okay?" she said softly.

He nodded slowly. "Fine, now. It's amazing what enough guilt can accomplish," he said ruefully.

"I'm sorry…about before. I really didn't mean to put you through that. At first it was just stupidity…then, I don't know, I felt something…I should have gone." She coloured brightly. "But I…I wanted to stay," she looked up and locked gazes with him. "I wanted to touch you."

He stared back at her. "I know," he said gently. "And, God help me, I wanted you to. It's just…"

Buffy sighed. "I know…weird."

He gave a crack of laughter. "Not the word I would have used, but appropriate, I suppose," he said almost bitterly and closed his eyes. "The word I had in mind was…impossible."

A spark of something, anger perhaps, flared to life in Buffy. In three years on the Hellmouth she'd learned that nothing, but nothing, was impossible. Before she could stop herself she reached out and lay her palm against his cheek.

He leaned into it, without opening his eyes, almost as though he was stealing the moment. His face was smooth, but warm, even in the cold of the cave, and his breath was warm on her fingers. Then her eyes slid to his mouth, and before she could stop herself she was leaning forward and covering his lips with her own.

She felt the tremor of surprise ripple through him, the momentary freeze, then his mouth was softening, shifting, claiming hers. He drew her, unresisting, into his arms, his seemingly endless kiss exquisitely tender, unbelievably exhilarating and more shattering than anything she had ever known; she wanted to stay there forever, lost in the moment, safe, secure, loved…

And then Giles was lifting his head, breathing hard. "Oh God," he rasped, trembling, drew her against him, her damp golden head beneath his chin, and held her tightly.

Buffy could hear his heart thumping beneath her ear as she nestled her head into the warm flesh of his chest. Warmth from his torso, his arms, suffused her being, became part of her in a way she'd never known before. She trembled, felt his arms tighten around her.

Giles kissed the top of her head, then rested his cheek against it. "Why?" He whispered.

Buffy leaned up and kissed the base of his throat, heard the low noise he made and closed her eyes. "Because we had to know…and because I wanted to."

He exhaled raggedly. "You do know how impossible—"

He was silenced when Buffy's fingers covered his lips. "Not now. Impossible is for later…for out there," she said softly and raised her face to his again, her blue eyes reaching into his soul.

He looked down at her with eyes burning with the strength of his feelings, but made no move to kiss her again. "Not here," he whispered. "Not like this."

She smiled at him and nodded, slid her hand around his nape and drew his head down to hers. He allowed the kiss only until he felt Buffy begin to relax, instinctively beginning to open her mouth to his, trying to part his lips.

She blinked and looked up at him when he drew back. "Giles?"

He brushed a flushed cheek with the backs of his fingers. "I meant what I said," he told her softly. "Not like this…"

"I don't…?"she began, searching his eyes for answers. Suddenly her eyes grew very bright. "Giles, this has nothing to do with…do you really think I could do that to you…?" They narrowed. "If you do you're begging to be hit again."

He shook his head. "Not intentionally…but you mean too much to me to let you do something you might regret, something that might come between us later." His voice deepened by several levels, hoarse with emotion. "And I couldn't bear to lose you…"

Buffy swallowed, emotions and thoughts tumbling around in a confused jumble as she looked at the dear, familiar features she'd taken for granted for so long, and felt fear in the pit of her stomach. She had changed things between them, perhaps irrevocably, already. An hour ago he was just Giles…safe, secure, there…

She nodded finally, her face pale. "You're right. I'm sorry." she said softly, and stood up, moved to the cave entrance, shaken to her core.

"It's stopped. We can go now."

He stared after her for a moment, closed his eyes, then rose and went to retrieve his shirt.


*******


Buffy dragged her kayak onto the bank, stowed the paddle and straightened. Giles had already started up the slope. She frowned. He seemed almost in a hurry, not even bothering to unzip his wetsuit, and only removing his helmet on the crest of the rise.

She threw her own helmet in her kayak and started after him. He was nowhere to be seen when she reached the top of the bank. Reluctantly she took her backpack to her tent. When she emerged in a dry t-shirt and jeans, his damp clothes were draped over the sides of his tent.

"Giles?" she called tentatively, but loudly. There was no answer. A little unnerved, she went to the entrance of his tent. "Giles?" When he didn't answer she stooped and looked inside. It was deserted, his wet boots standing upside down against one corner of it and his backpack propped upside down against another…

She withdrew and looked around again. The car was undisturbed, and so was everything else. The fire hadn't been set and even the kettle sat idle on the box of pots and utensils. She supposed he could be off somewhere answering nature's call, but he'd had plenty of time for that. The only other alternative, barring foul play, was back at the river, which didn't make a whole lot of sense…

He was sitting on the bank, not far from the strangler fig, looking out over the water. She bit her lip. He looked incredibly alone, almost despairing. There was profound pain etched in normally reassuring profile.

Buffy was about to go to him when he drew his knees up, rested his elbows on them and covered his face with his hands.

She didn't know anything could hurt as much as the words Angelus had used to tear her heart out on her seventeenth birthday. She turned away, pale and shaken, went silently back to the campsite. In a daze she built a small fire and put the kettle on.

There was no point in starting dinner…

The kettle was just beginning to boil when Giles returned. Buffy watched him, and the effort he made to appear relaxed and unconcerned, hurt and anger combining to smoulder in a corner of her mind as he hunkered down next to the fire.

"Good show. I could use a good cup of tea," he said briskly.

Buffy filled two mugs in silence and handed him one before looking up at him. "Giles, do you want to go back tonight?" she asked quietly.

He looked at her sharply. "Why? Is there something you'd like to be back for?"

She stared at him for a moment, hoping he'd talk to her. When the green eyes continued to stare back inquiringly at her, she nodded.

"Yeah," she capitulated flatly. "Something on at the Bronze. I forgot I promised Willow."

"Then by all means," he agreed, maintaining the calm expression with supreme difficulty. And when he saw the hurt she couldn't hide in the grey-blue eyes, put down his mug with a less than steady hand and went to get his keys.


*******

Buffy waited three days, hoping somehow that Giles would contact her, talk to her at least, but there was only silence. By late afternoon on the third day, she was on his doorstep. She wasn't sure what she wanted, but doing nothing was driving her insane. All her dreams since their return had been about Angel, but all her waking thoughts were about Giles…

She looked up at the ornate door. She knew a part of her was still waiting for Angel to come and carry her away, to need her so badly he couldn't live without her…to love, and cherish her forever…

But a part of her wanted what she'd had in that cave; wanted to feel that warm, that wanted, secure, safe again. She closed her eyes. Maybe she wasn't being fair to Giles after all, maybe…

She knocked on the door, before the rest of her could turn and run.

Giles took some time to answer. He was in slacks and a black polo shirt and he looked like hell.

"Buffy? Trouble?" he asked, and opened the door to let her pass.

She stopped by his desk. "Giles, don't."

Silence answered her.

She turned slowly. "Please…?"

"Why are you here?" he asked quietly.

"Well if you can't work that one out," she snorted, " then maybe I shouldn't have come."

He closed his eyes. "Why did you come?" he repeated.

Anger and confusion burned in Buffy's eyes, her cheeks flaming with frustration. "To see you…to talk. We have to talk…about what happened…don't we?"

He shook his head slowly, then turned away. "We both know what happened. And we both know it was just a moment…an experiment, as you said. I took advantage…there isn't anything else to say."

Buffy moved in front of him again. "How can you say that? I kissed you. There was… There was mutual kissing…"

"Buffy, I know you're not that naïve," he said impatiently. "And I know you're still more than half in love with Angel, so don't patronise me. There is a vast difference between wanting someone, and simply wanting the hurt, the loneliness to go away."

The colour drained from her face. He was exactly, agonisingly right. And then, in one blindingly clear moment, she knew he was wrong. She blinked, then flushed, but he spoke before she could.

"For that reason, and because of what happened, I've decided to leave Sunnydale," he was saying. "You don't need me to watch over you any more and Willow is more than capable of any basic research you might need. It's time I moved on," he added, clenching his fists to still his hands.

Buffy's eyes widened alarmingly. "Leave? You can't leave!"

"I'm sorry," he said softly.
"But…"

"I can't stay," he said wretchedly. "For the first time in my life I've found something I have no defence against. It isn't right, Buffy. And I can't stay here and not..."

"You can't go. You promised me…Giles, please!" she cried. "Don't leave me…"

He closed his eyes. "I'm sorry," he whispered.

She looked up at him, pale with shock. "Giles, I love you," she told him, knowing in her heart for the first time that it was the truth. "Don't go. Don't you leave me too."

His eyes filled with moisture, but he held her gaze. "I must," he said tremulously. "I can't love you, Buffy and I can't stop loving you. What kind of future—what kind of life could I give you? I'd be no better than Angel would—"

She made a distressed noise. "This is me we're talking about," she shouted. "The Slayer, remember? When did I get a future, a life?"

"Don't talk like that," he snapped. "Everything you've learned in the last three years, not only from experience and from me, but about the value of friendship, of loyalty has given you that future, that life. Do you know how many Slayers have failed to reach or pass their eighteenth birthday? You have, and you will have the life you deserve. And you will have it in the measure you deserve…full and rich and unencumbered by the undead and foolish old men."

"No," she retorted. "You can't go. You promised me…you said you wouldn't let me die…"

He closed his eyes. "I'm only a man, Buffy. I would have done everything in my power to keep you alive, but we both know that I can't guarantee your safety, even if I stay."

The vulnerability in her face transmuted into anger. "There were never any guarantees," she said bitterly. "There was just you. And now there's no you. Fine. I have to patrol."

Giles looked up, startled, but the door was closing. His face creased in frustration and rage and he lashed out, knocking his favourite lamp from the desk and uttering a particularly vivid obscenity before collapsing into the chair.


*******

It was actually too early to patrol. Willow was surprised to see her, but asked no questions when Buffy stepped into the hallway and she saw the girl's pale, tear-stained face.

Willow's room was warm and familiar. Buffy sighed as she settled on the bed. The anger had dissipated, leaving only hurt in its wake.

"I need to talk to someone, Will. And it's way too weird to talk to Mom about, or pretty much anyone. I don't know what to do."

Willow sat opposite her. "Angel?"

Buffy shook her head. "Giles."

Willow frowned. "Is he all right?"

Buffy shrugged. "He's leaving."

"Leaving? You mean he's taking a holiday?"

"No, I mean he's quitting Sunnydale. He's quitting me."

"But…he can't…I mean, he would never—!"

Buffy looked her in the eye.

After several beats Willow's eyes widened. "Oh," she said. "But…why?"

Buffy shrugged again. "I kissed him."

"You…kissed Giles?"

"It just…" Buffy paused. "No, wrong. It didn't just happen." She looked up at the other girl. "Did you ever have one of those moments where you knew you had to do something…and that it was exactly right, even though it seemed totally weird at the time?"

Willow blinked. "Strangely, yes," she said dazedly. "Xander. But…you and Giles?"

"Are you saying it's too gross?"

Willow scowled. "No, of course not. Giles is actually pretty hot, especially, well, lately. It's you…you aren't…I mean—"

Buffy sat up straight. "Willow? You have a crush on Giles? And what about me?"

"No, I do not. I already learned my lesson. All my stuff is for Oz, but I can appreciate the scenery like anyone else…and Giles is good scenery. And, about you, you don't…you never…Buffy you've never seen Giles, not like that. Why now?"

"You think it's because of Angel?"

"I think you need someone right now," Willow said carefully.

"No argument there," Buffy conceded. "And I'll even give you that up until now it was all Angel…so much I thought I was going to die without him. Willow, I still think about Angel, but it doesn't hurt like that now. What hurts…what makes even my hair ache it hurts so much, is seeing him in pain…I don't want him to go."

Willow blinked again. "Giles?"

She nodded.

"Do you…do you want him?" she asked hesitantly.

Buffy's face screwed up automatically. "Eieww," she said…then realised she didn't mean a word of it.

Watching her friend's changing expressions, Willow tilted her head to one side and lifted one eyebrow.

Buffy shrugged. "I don't know…I wanted…before I kissed him…we were talking and we were soaking wet…and I realised that I wanted to touch him…His face," she added exasperatedly when Willow's eyes bulged. "I just…he looked so miserable, so lost…"

The other girl straightened. "You aren't kidding are you? You really do have feelings for him." She fixed Buffy with a pointed stare. "Don't hurt him, Buffy."

Buffy glared back. "Oh yeah, you're real reassuring."

"I'm serious. I know how much he cares for you, even if I didn't exactly know it was like…you know…now. If he loves you he deserves to be loved the same way…like with me and Oz. There can't be any doubt. All your stuff…especially your heart, has to be for him. There can't be Angel…there can't be 'eieww'. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

"Of course I understand. I didn't know you had such a big thing for Giles, but I get it, okay?"

"It's not a thing. I love Giles the way I love Xander, or you, and I won't see him hurt again. I don't want to watch him suffer again, the way…"

"…I made him suffer," Buffy finished. "I know. First Jenny, then Angelus, then running away, then Angel. The list goes on. I know. I can't change that…" she said, a tear rolling down a pale cheek, "but you'll be happy to know that it hurts like hell."

Willow touched her arm. "I'm not trying to hurt you, Buffy, truly. I just want you to be sure…really sure…before we try to stop him from leaving."

"That's just it," she whispered. "I am sure. I know. I knew the moment before he told me he was leaving. It was like I finally got the whole thing. When Angel left I felt so alone, so lost, but it was still him and me, each of us in one piece, except for my heart…which is still in intensive care."

The other girl nodded, remembering.

"This…with Giles…it's different. It's like he's the other half of my soul…the other half of me…when he said he was leaving I felt like I was being ripped in two…I love him, Will, and it scares me to death." She turned away, then turned back again. "And yeah…I do…want him…but not like…" She ran hand through her hair, rolled her eyes then closed them. "I'm not having this conversation. This is nuts."

"No," Willow said gently. "It's love. You want more. That's a good, Buffy."

Buffy thought about that for a moment. "You're right. If I was with him, I'd never want to leave," she said softly, and closed her eyes. "He can't leave me, Will. I'll follow him…"

"That would be stalking," Willow said dryly. "We—you have to talk to him. You should know Giles by now. He'd never do anything to hurt you. This must be eating him up."

"But, why? He didn't do anything to hurt me. It was right, wonderful, not—"

"Because he's Giles. You've been the most important thing in his life for so long, in a 'responsibility' kind of way…as well as loving you without you know, loving you, that he's probably totally wigged about crossing the line." Willow thought for a moment. "Maybe if you think of someone else," she mused. "Like, if someone told you Principal Snyder was hitting on Harmony—"

Buffy's face screwed up. "Could you have picked a more barf-worthy example?"

Willow shrugged. "And…?"

"I get your point. Even if I heard it was Mister Nichols, that hot new history guy who was checking the place out before graduation…you know, before starting next semester, it'd still be eiagggh, and he's not only a little younger than Giles, he's way buff. So, okay, why?"

Willow looked at her. "It's called responsibility and trust. Parents give them the responsibility of us, and we trust them not to…well, cross the line. Those guys just aren't supposed to date students, even legal ones, and on top of that Giles is…was…your Watcher. It's kind of the same thing."

"But he's not any of those things any more…besides which we're talking about me here, not Sandra Dee…You can see Sandra Dee and Mister Pointy…? Not. Besides which if they can trust me to vote, send me to war…if I'm old enough to die for my country…" Her eyes narrowed. "And let's not forget my night job, shall we? Then I'm old enough to choose who I love."

"Buffy, I'm not arguing against you here. I'm just trying to help you understand."

She sighed. "I know," she said softly. "So what do I do?"

"Did he say when he was leaving?"

Buffy shook her head.

"Then we've probably got some time. It's not easy when you've been as settled as Giles has, to move on. There's a lot to do first. You going to patrol tonight?"

"Have to," Buffy sighed.

"Then go ask him to go with you. Tell him you don't want to go alone. That if he's leaving anyway you'd like it to be like old times, just one last time. You know what I mean. Oh, wait," she opened a side drawer. "I know it's way soon, but…are you…did you stay on the…you know…after you stopped seeing Scott, or do you need…?" She held up a small brightly-coloured packet. "You don't want anything else to go wrong if…"

"Uh, yeah, I'm good…I thought…y'know, college and everything. Optimism, that's me," Buffy shrugged uncomfortably, then chuckled and slid off the bed. "You're a lot sneakier than I remember, Willow Rosenberg."

"Only with the strongest motivation," she retorted virtuously, then grew serious again. "You guys are more than family. I want the best for both of you. Talk to him Buffy, and don't forget to listen…and make sure you don't hurt him!"

"Willow!"

*******


It took a long while for Giles to open the door. His eyes widened in surprise. "Buffy? Has something happened? Are you—?"

She shook her head. "I just…I'm sorry I got mad before, but I really should patrol. I was kinda hoping you might come with me…like we used to, one last time."

He searched her face, then nodded silently. "Come in, while I get my coat."

Buffy was surprised how quickly he acquiesced, but said nothing.

It took him only seconds to snatch a jacket off the hook then disappear down the small hallway alongside the kitchen and return with his weapons bag. They were out the front door again before she could even begin the small speech she'd been working on since she arrived at his door.

"Where did you plan to go?" he asked as they headed down the street.

"I thought I do the spiral…starting with town and—"

"Yes, I remember when we invented it, " he said dryly and quoted: "You pick up each of the cemeteries, and check all the hot spots, in an expanding spiral until you finish at the docks. A long night."

She shrugged and looked up at him as they walked. His 'look' had been changing for a while. She liked the new jacket. The dark, mottled antique-looking leather over the dark shirt suited him and, as was often the case now, he wasn't wearing his glasses.

"If it's really going to be the last time…"

"I didn't come with you to debate the issue," Giles snapped.

Buffy stopped and turned to him. "Then why did you?"

The green eyes grew bleak. "For the same reason you gave: one last time…"

"Does it really have to be?" she whispered. "I know why you think you have to go, but if I feel the same as you, isn't it okay…aren't we okay?"

"How I wish it were that simple," he said softly, and began to walk again. "But it isn't. And we both know that."

Buffy followed and fell into a sullen silence at his side.

They completed several passes of the town centre and headed toward Shady Hill cemetery without incident and without conversation. They were passing one of its several mausoleums when the first vampire made its appearance.

Buffy was a couple of yards in front, annoyed by Giles' reticence and deep in thought, and was surprised from behind. She reacted violently, kicking and struggling as the creature emerged from the shrubbery, wrapped a great arm around her neck and lifted her off the ground. She dragged at the arm as the vampire bent its head to bite, but was unable to shake him off.

In moments Giles was there, stake raised, but the vampire heard and swung around so that he came within inches of staking Buffy instead. Unnerved, he took a couple of steps back and drew out his cross, stepped forward again and thrust it in the huge vampire's face.

It reeled back, but didn't let go. Buffy had stopped struggling now, her colour all but gone. Desperate, Giles roared with rage, lunging again so that it turned instinctively to avoid the crucifix, seized his opportunity, and drove his stake violently into the centre of its back.

He only just managed to catch Buffy as she collapsed in the cloud of dust, swore as a long, rattling breath told him that she was going to be all right and wrapped his arms around her.

She drew in several painful breaths and opened her eyes, then closed them again when she realised where she was and nestled closer, the thump of his heart and the warmth of his body both soothing and disturbing at the same time.

"That was stupid," she managed in a hoarse whisper, without looking up.

"Yes it was," he agreed unsteadily. "You were distracted and I almost lost you…if you'd been alone…"

Buffy pulled back enough to look up at him. "I'd be dead. If you hadn't come I'd have been even more distracted…and if you were gone…" She reached up and touched his cheek. "If you were gone, I wouldn't have cared."

"No, you mustn't," he whispered, closing his eyes as her fingers caressed his jaw. "You have so much to look forward to, Buffy. College, a career…" He paused to breathe raggedly. "Romance, a family of your own, children…"

"Oh yeah," she drawled, half amused, half annoyed, her voice still rasping a little. "You can baby-sit while mommy's out slaying vampires, tell them bedtime stories about the Master and Darla …and Angelus. Get real, Giles."

He looked down at her then. "But you should have it all. You deserve to have a future the same as any other child—"

Buffy's eyes hardened. Her hand went to the back of his head and pulled it down to hers. There was no resisting her strength, though he tried, until the tender lips touched his. Her kiss was hungry, demanding, angry and over quickly. She let him go and turned away.

"I haven't been a child for a very long time," she told him coldly. "The Council saw to that. If you're going to reject me do it honestly. Don't hide behind my age."

Giles made a noise in his throat and reluctantly put his hands on her shoulders, turned her slowly.

"No defence, remember?" he said despairingly and cupped her face with gentle hands, drinking in the beautiful features, the eyes looking up at him with such love, and more, in them.

Buffy's heart pounded in her chest, waiting, hoping, and when his head finally bent, almost exploding with anticipation. His mouth covered hers, gently at first, caressing, questioning, until she answered him passionately, vigorously, her arms curling around his neck, his sliding around her as her mouth merged with his. The hunger this time was in the giving, rather than the taking, both of them wanting to tell the other what words could not.

And when her lips parted, Giles instinctively lifted her off the ground. He crushed her against him and, in a gesture of surrender, opened his own to her, before gently taking control and slowing her passionate plundering to a slow, erotic ballet of intimate sharing, of infinite tenderness, before, finally, both pulled away, breathless, trembling.

He set her down unsteadily, stepped back. Buffy opened her eyes slowly, looked up at him, flushed, glowing.

"My God," he whispered hoarsely, "I thought I knew what it was like..."

"Giles?"

"To love some one. I've never felt—"

"Sure you have: Jenny…"

He half smiled. "Yes…funny, romantic, endearing…" he said absently. "But not…"

"Like half your soul belongs to someone else," Buffy finished quietly.

Giles looked down at her, stunned. "Yes," he agreed dazedly, cupping her face with a gentle hand again and brushing her cheek with his thumb. "Exactly…" Then a slow, tender smile lit his face. "You've grown up at last."

Buffy slid her hand over his. "But why me? I'm not funny, romantic or endearing… I'm annoying, unpunctual, self-involved and disobedient," she recited.

He chuckled. "It doesn't matter," he said softly. "Your spirit touched mine a long time ago. I see a mirror of my past in you. I see you struggling with all the same issues, the same pain…and I see you doing it with more success, more dignity, more sense than I ever had. You've always had my admiration and respect for your tenacity and strength, where I simply opted out…And, since…since the Cruciamentum, I have come to love you more each day you continue the fight…each day you choose not to walk away."

She smiled. "Rosy kinda glasses you're wearing there," she teased.

He shook his head, his eyes smiling back. "Oh, I'm well aware of your many…flaws. One accepts that you are, and have by and large been, a royal pain in the arse at times, simply because you are young and there have been…certain pressures," he teased back and bore her slap on his arm good-naturedly.

"Not so young," she said softly and leaned against him again, felt the tremor that went through him. "I think about the last few years and I feel about a thousand years old."

He drew an arm around her. "It's been a very long journey for both of us. I only wish you hadn't had to embark upon it in the first place." He chuckled into her hair. "If it were Hollywood, you know the Slayer would be some strapping young male in his mid-twenties with unlimited prowess with weapons—"

"And women," Buffy added, smiling into his shirt, "not to mention brilliance, cool, and great clothes."

Giles sighed and closed both arms around her. "Someone should have suggested it to the Watcher's Council a very long ago."

A noise caused both of them to turn.

A second vampire, possibly a companion of the first, had appeared.

"Buffy, no!" Giles called out when she pulled away from him and chased it into the night. He swore and raced after them

He had just sighted her, only feet behind her prey, when the vampire vanished without warning. Buffy stopped in her tracks, looking in all directions, swinging around, disoriented.

Before Giles could call out, however, a demon appeared. It was humanoid, though its arms, legs and neck were disproportionately long and its distinctly scaly, cerise hue was off-putting enough to avoid serious comparisons. He took off again, wishing it was thirty feet, not thirty yards, to reach them.

He hadn't seen Buffy's face drain of all colour, or the fear in her eyes as the demon approached her.

She forced herself to move into a defensive position, ready to fight, despite the paralysing effect of seeing a spectre of one of her worst nightmares before her.

"You're mine, Slayer," the creature hissed in a distinctly feminine, distinctly
crone-ish voice.

"Get some new material," Buffy snapped, fear heightening her irritation. "You demons get lamer and lamer."

The demon laughed, its eyes glowing. "It has wit."

"Yeah, I'm just full of…wit," she finished awkwardly.

The demon laughed again and began chanting something.

Buffy's eyes grew wide and she opened her mouth to scream…

Giles, who was still running, almost tripped over, startled, when the area lit up like a Christmas tree. He slid to a halt, still yards away, and stared at the blue flames leaping twenty feet in the air in front of the demon, where Buffy had been standing. His heart imploded and his gut twisted into an agonised knot.

"Buff-y-y!" he screamed, a feral, terrifying cry of agony, and started to run again.

The demon was still chanting when the flames suddenly withdrew into themselves until there was nothing left...

The creature turned slowly to face him as he ran headlong towards it, and laughed again, its glittering blue-white eyes dancing with amusement and satisfaction.

"The Slayer is no more," it announced, when he was less than ten feet away, and vanished.

Giles let out a frustrated roar and turned for the place where Buffy had been standing.

He dropped to his knees, oblivious of the huge ring of black residue he was kneeling in. With a shaking hand he picked up her necklace, with its half-melted silver crucifix. Her rings, too, were scattered about. He collected them slowly and put them in his pocket, unable to think or feel anything. He was so numb, so deep in shock he didn't notice the rain beginning to fall.

For long minutes he stared at the damaged crucifix, unable to move, to think, even to breathe properly. Eventually, though, he staggered to his feet. A part of him knew he had to do something, though he wasn't sure what.

Some time later he found himself outside Willow's house, unable to remember why, or how he'd got there. It had stopped raining, but his hair was wet and his clothes damp. He was still standing in the street, staring at the house when Oz's van rolled to a halt opposite.

"Giles?" Willow called as she slid from the passenger's side.

He turned awkwardly and squinted into the glare of the streetlight.

She drew a startled breath when she got close enough to see his white face, the glazed, traumatised eyes, and put a hand on his arm. "Giles, talk to me. What's wrong?"

But he couldn't. He just stared at the gentle, familiar face, his hands trembling, his green eyes filling with moisture.

Willow blanched. "Oz!" she cried. "Hurry."

By the time he reached her she had both of Giles' hands clutched in her own, almost too afraid to ask. And was even more terrified when Oz put a silent hand on her right shoulder.

"We should take him home," he said softly.



* * *


Part Two