Destiny's Doorstep | Part Two

It took only minutes to get to Giles' apartment in the van. They waited while he unlocked the door and followed him inside where he stopped after a few paces, lost and bewildered.

Willow bit her lip and guided him, unresisting, to the sofa, where he sat down bonelessly after a gentle push from her.

She took a big hand between the two of hers once again. "Giles," she said softly. "Giles, please, I'm frightened…"

He looked up swiftly then, the ravaged green eyes finally focusing, softening, then filling with sorrow. "Willow…Willow, I'm sorry," he managed and drew the small crucifix from his breast pocket with a trembling hand. "Buffy…She's…"

Willow's face crumpled. "No…" she whimpered. "No…she can't be…she's the Slayer…and you—" A sob caught in her throat and she pressed his other hand against her cheek.

Giles' shock-blanched face filled with colour, his eyes with tears. "There was n…nothing I could do. She was gone so quickly…" he whispered and closed his eyes.

"Gone?"

"A demon…conjured an inferno of…of…flames." He lifted the trembling hand with the crucifix in. "This…these…are all that were left…All I have left of her."

Willow watched him hold himself rigidly, trying to control his grief. Reluctantly, she let go of his hand, barely able to control her own.

"It's all right, Giles. She told me. Buffy came to see me…before…and we talked."

He raised the gentle green eyes to stare at her. "She…told you?"

She nodded, tears tracking down her cheeks. "She loved you, almost…almost as much as you love her."

"It got her killed," he said tremulously through his teeth. "I got her killed. Stupid bastard…I should never have let her see…"

"No!" Willow said immediately, almost angrily. "Don't ever think that. What if this happened anyway? This demon is obviously very powerful a…and specifically targeted the Slayer. What if you never told her? She would have died never knowing how much you love her, or how much she really loved you." She grasped a forearm. "I watched her wake up, Giles…watched her finally get it. She always loved you. She just didn't know it. She…she said you were the other half of her soul."

He closed his eyes and choked down a sob.

Willow's hand tightened on his arm and her voice wavered, but she continued to talk softly. "I've never heard her talk like that…I mean…our Buffy…y'know?" But it hurt too much. She couldn't go on.

Giles' head had dropped and he was weeping silently, despite his struggle to maintain control. Instead she put her arms around his neck, and held him. She felt the jerking spasms of his grief as the last vestiges of control were knocked out of him by her gesture and sobbed, clutching him closer as the horror and the reality of what happened slowly but surely consumed them both.

In the kitchen, Oz turned to a half-set tray, dropped the unopened bag of cookies in his hands and swore, ignoring the moisture glistening in his eyes.


*******

"Willow, you can't do this on your own. You have to wait and let Giles take care of it."

"No. He's been through enough…more than enough. Isn't it enough? Everything that's happened to him since he came to Sunnydale? What could someone like Giles have done to deserve all that…that…crap!"

Oz put his hands on her shoulders. "Xander is right. You can't do this for him. You'll only make things worse. She'll be angry that he didn't come, and he'll blame himself for not doing it. Deep down you know he has to do it. All we can do is be there for him afterward."

"…And for her," Xander said quietly. The shock hadn't worn off. Even now he kept expecting Buffy to bust in, Giles' door swinging wide, Giles complaining again about manner-less youth. It was all almost surreal: the phone call from Oz, the numb, aching trip over, helping Willow take Giles upstairs…and now….

"I'm going to do it," Willow insisted. "So don't—"

"No, you're not."

Giles came downstairs slowly. He was still pale and drawn, but he'd changed his clothes.

Willow recognised the denim shirt and jeans and pressed her mouth into a hard line to still it when she realised why he was wearing them. The memory of Buffy's happy face when she was describing the camping trip almost brought her undone, but she resolutely banished it by deliberately thinking about big, slimy frogs instead.

"The only person who can tell Joyce Summers her daughter is dead is me. It's not only my responsibility as Buffy's Watcher," he said softly, finding and holding Willow's gaze. "It's my duty in every way that counts."

Willow nodded slowly, her eyes filling with tears again, in spite of her monumental effort to hold them back. The frogs had long since capitulated.

"I'll go with you," Xander said quietly, opening the door. "The guys will wait here for us."

It was six thirty in the morning and Ravello drive was as quiet as a country lane. The Citroen slid to a halt out the front of the neat suburban house and the two men walked slowly across the grass to the front door. Somewhere inside a radio was playing.

Xander rang the doorbell then stepped back, and behind Giles' right shoulder.

Joyce Summers was dressed, but hopping on one foot trying to force the other into an attractive high-heeled shoe. She smiled.

"Oh, hello…Mister Giles…it's early. Don't mind me. I don't think Buffy's up yet."

They watched her put her other foot down and straighten, then look up, puzzled at their silence.

"Buffy's not…here…is she?" she asked, looking from one pale face to the other.

Xander shook his head. "Can we come in?"

Joyce backed up, almost tripping over her heels, and let them pass, but they only took a few steps before she put a hand on Giles' arm.

"Tell me!"

He took the hand in his. "You already know," he whispered, and tightened his grip as she sagged.

"When? How?" she managed, straightening again, and pulling away to turn and face him.

"Last night…very late…I was patrolling with her," Giles said quietly. "There was a demon…It had powers beyond anything I've seen before…I couldn't stop it."

Xander could see the blood vessel pulsing in the older man's temple, hear the strain in his voice and laid a comforting hand inconspicuously on his back.

"Couldn't stop what?" Joyce's voice was shaking, but there was a thread of rage in it now, among the tears.

"The…" Giles stopped, emotion clogging his throat, moisture blurring his vision. Reluctantly, so very reluctantly, he drew Buffy's jewellery from the shirt pocket he'd transferred it to and held it out in a trembling hand. "It's all I ha…all there is. I'm truly sorry," he whispered.

Her gaze moved from his face to his hand, then back to his face again. "There's nothing? I can't even…I can't even bury her?"

Giles shook his head, his hand closing convulsively over the necklace. "Nothing."

Her face crumpled. "Oh God…Oh God…" she sobbed. "You killed her. You finally killed her. You were supposed to watch over her, to protect her. Where were you? Where were you when she needed you?"

Giles looked away. "I'm sorry," he rasped. "Truly sorry."

Joyce sobbed a long, wracking sob. "Get out," she hissed. "Just get out."

He ran a hand through his hair, stepped toward her. "Joyce, let me h—"

The slap rang through the house but Giles didn't move a muscle, despite the finger marks standing out lividly on his cheek.

"Get out," she repeated.

Xander's hand moved to his shoulder. "Go home, Giles," he said softly. "I'll stay here." Giles turned his head to argue but he continued. "She needs time. I promise I won't leave her alone, even if she hits me."

"I won't hit you, Xander," Joyce said unsteadily. "But I want him to leave."

Xander coloured. "Sorry Mrs. S. And thanks, I think." He bent his head toward Giles again. "Just go. Willow and Oz need you. I'll be fine."

After a beat Giles nodded and started to turn.

"Wait!" Joyce stepped toward him and thrust out a hand, palm up.

Giles looked from it, to his clenched fist, the hurt in his eyes turning to anguish as he slowly raised the fist over her palm and opened it, the necklace and the rings falling silently onto the soft skin. Then he wheeled and strode away without looking back.

Xander watched him go, then cleared his throat, his dark eyes filling with moisture that swiftly overflowed onto his unshaven face.

"He loved her, you know," he said quietly. "Nearly as much as you do."

White faced and trembling, Joyce repressed another sob and straightened.

"I know," she said.

…And slid bonelessly to the floor.


*******


Oz looked up when the door opened and raised a warning hand.

Giles came softly around the sofa, his haggard face softening at the sight of Willow asleep on Oz's lap. He looked up again and met the younger man's concerned gaze, nodded silently and padded away.

Slowly, mechanically, he laid a breakfast tray and made hot drinks, shoved English muffins in his toaster. His mind was as numb as his body. Somewhere, vaguely, he wondered if there was any point…if there was ever any point. His whole life seemed to have been one long procession of failures, bereavements and chaos. And what had been the point? To come to this…more people hurt, more suffering…

He placed the steaming mugs on the tray, threw the muffins on a plate, picked it up and padded silently back to the living room.

Willow, however, was awake, sleepy and tousled, but awake. She watched Giles put the tray down with large, tender eyes.

"Is…how is she?"

He looked up slowly. "As you would expect," he said quietly, his fists clenching reflexively. "Xander stayed with her."

Willow saw and frowned. "Giles, talk," she said softly.

He shook his head. "She had a right to be angry," he whispered. "I would be, in her place."

Oz was watching him silently. "Depends who the target was."

Willow looked at him, but Oz maintained his steadfast gaze, staring into the bloodshot green eyes.

Giles finally looked away. "Your breakfast is getting cold," he muttered. "You'll excuse me…bathroom…"

They watched him disappear down the small corridor before Willow turned to Oz again. "You think Mrs. Summers was mad at Giles?"

Oz nodded slowly. "Big time. You know Giles. He wouldn't leave Xander to do his job unless—"

"Unless staying was only going to make things worse," she finished and leaned her head unhappily on his shoulder. "I miss her so much already, Oz."

He leaned his head against hers as she started to weep again. "I know, baby," he sighed. "I know."

It was more than half an hour before Giles reappeared, his eyes red-rimmed and even more bloodshot than they were before, and turned into the kitchen.

Willow found him filling a glass with ice, his hands still not quite steady. When he didn't turn or speak she left wordlessly and returned with his decanter and another glass. She divided the ice between the two tumblers, poured scotch into both, restoppered the cut glass bottle, picked up the glasses and looked up to find him staring at her.

She handed him one and raised her own to her lips, closing her eyes against the pungent taste as she swallowed. It burned as it went down and her cheeks flamed. When she opened her eyes again Giles was watching her, raw emotion glistening in his eyes. He took her glass gently and put it on the cupboard with his own empty one.

"Y…you shouldn't drink alone," she managed, her voice wobbling at the end.

He brushed a flaming cheek with the backs of his fingers. "And you shouldn't drink at all," he said gently.

Willow's face crumpled and she put her arms around him, rested her face against his shirt. "Giles, what are we going to do? I miss her already."

He exhaled jaggedly and wrapped his arms comfortingly around her. "For now? Survive…" he said hollowly.

"…Just survive."

*******


The room was dark, and rank. Water was running somewhere…well, maybe not so much running as trickling…

Rousing slowly, gingerly, from unconsciousness, Buffy blinked several times but the veil of darkness remained. Her head was pounding. Very little light was reaching wherever it was she'd found herself. She tried to sit up and failed.

Alarm was quickly supplanted by panic when she realised that it wasn't physical bonds holding her down, but a complete failure of her body to respond to her commands. Effort after effort failed to rouse any response. The only things she could feel were the tears trickling down her face as she threw her head from side to side in rage and terror.

"Help me! Somebody help me!" she cried out before her better judgement over-rode the blind panic. With a great deal of effort she forced herself to breathe, to close her eyes and focus on otherwhere. Giles' face immediately filled the void before her.

The tears began again. Where was he? Was he still alive? She sobbed. If he was alive he'd find her, but he obviously hadn't…

And then the door was opening. For a brief moment Buffy revelled in the light that flooded into the room, then terror over-took the relief once more. Into the radius of her vision had come the demon from her nightmare, stopping only when it reached her side.

"You're finally awake, Slayer. I'm disappointed you aren't larger…or stronger…the more impressive to make my victory."

"Strong enough," Buffy shot back.

The demon laughed. "I think not. You don't like my spell very much, do you? I find it more useful than shackles or chains. Slayers are such ingenious little creatures, always getting away, always finding ways of escaping their true destinies…"

"Whatever," Buffy growled, trying not to scream, and thinking fast. " But you forgot a couple of things: how do I get to the john and who gets to feed me while I'm like this? It could get really messy in here, really fast."

The demon snorted. "Who said I was going to keep you alive long enough for any of those things to be a concern?"

Buffy closed her eyes, her heart rate off the scale. "Whatever," she said again. "But I need to go." It was a fine impression of casual, considering she how close she was to uncontrolled hysteria.

The pale bluish-white eyes flashed with irritation. "Old, very old…you could have come up with a more original feint, Slayer."

The blue-grey eyes opened and Buffy turned her head toward the strange-looking demon, hanging on grimly against the panic. "Feint, huh?" she said faintly.

The creature sniffed, then shrieked as moisture dripped off the table onto its foot.

"How dare you!" it roared and jumped back. "What kind of Slayer are you? You have no pride, no dignity. I cannot present you like this…you will not do that again or…or…"

"Or what?" Buffy retorted, all ready regretting her impetuosity. It was disgustingly uncomfortable already. She might not have been able to move even a hair below her neck, but it was uncomfortably apparent now that all other sensation was undiminished. "If you're going to leave me like this it's going to get a lot worse whether either of us likes it or not. Think about it."

The demon made an unpleasant noise in its throat and began chanting. After a few beats the room filled with an eerie blue light. When it faded seconds later Buffy, who hadn't stopped struggling against her body's inertia, suddenly sat up.

She sobbed with relief, rubbed her face with her hands and pushed her hair back roughly.

"Don't even contemplate escape, Slayer," her captor warned. "You can clean yourself there," she pointed to an old, grubby door with the word 'Men' printed on a small sign in the middle of it. "But there is no way out. You are mine, now."

Buffy sniffed…chocolate chip cookies. The aroma had crept into the room after the demon and now filled it. She looked up suddenly.

"Giles!" she exclaimed, her mind beginning to work again as the terror subsided. "What did you do to the man who was with me? Where is he?"

The demon made a face. "He is of no consequence. He thinks you are dead. They all think you are dead. To the outside world you are no more."

All the colour drained from Buffy's face. Giles, her mother…the others, all grieving. Her heart constricted at the thought of her mother, all alone, mourning her loss. And Giles…She closed her eyes. Not again…oh, Giles…

"Why…?" she whispered. "Why did you do that to him?"

"Because your reputation precedes you; you and he. And I will not fail. Nothing must interfere with this ceremony. If he believes you are dead he will not pursue...no one will."

"I'm going to kill you," Buffy promised through clenched teeth.

The demon laughed and turned on a clawed foot. "I will return to prepare you to be presented. Be ready. Be clean."

Buffy watched it depart and exhaled with relief when a bank of fluorescent lights flickered into life overhead moments later. She looked around the room carefully. There were no windows, only the one bathroom, and, apart from the dusty metal work-bench she'd been left lying on, there was almost nothing in the way of fittings or furniture to help identify where she was being held, just a lot of trash scattered on the floor.

She slid off the wet bench, screwed up her face and made a disgusted noise, landed with her feet apart, rolled her eyes and headed for the exit door. Not too many doors could hold her in, or out.

A bruised heel and a skinned knuckle later she limped to the john. Not just the foot she'd unsuccessfully tried to kick the door down with, but every muscle in her body ached from fighting whatever spell the demon had used. By the time she pushed open the bathroom door her legs were aching and she was trembling almost uncontrollably.
.
When the door closed she leaned against it and closed her eyes. Reaction to the relief of escaping the claustrophobic terror of being paralysed rose and manifested itself in gulping sobs that didn't cease until she almost broke the doorknob off. Eventually the trembling ceased and she slowly collected herself enough to focus on the room…and escape.

The restroom was disgusting. It reeked, the urinal in the floor was corroded and stained and most of the fittings were damaged or burned with cigarette butts. She turned on a faucet half expecting the water to be turned off, but it ran clean and clear.

She frowned. The clues weren't making too much sense. Why would a deserted factory or warehouse still have power and water connected? Why only a men's restroom…unless the employees were all male…and cookies? Was she even still in Sunnydale?

She was about to divest herself of the soiled jeans and underwear when the bathroom door rattled and then flew open.

A small, harassed, goblin-like demon, almost identical to the one she remembered peddling the books of ascension before his terminal meeting with Faith, stood in the doorway and threw a pair of black jeans at her.

"Thanks…I think," she said, surprised.

He scowled. "Don't thank me. It wasn't my idea. Just don't do anything disgusting in them…I don't have another pair."

"They're yours?"

"Of course they're mine. Haven't you ever seen a well-dressed demon before?"

"Rarely," she admitted. "Clothes aren't really that big with you guys…except," she pointed at him, "you guys. It must be really important to 'Queen Yellow'…this ceremony thingy…" she fished.

He shrugged. "Kolki didn't always look like that. I remember when she was one of the most powerful Earth demons in the fifth realm…twenty five feet tall and as gold as fort knox…but that was before…"

Buffy tried to keep a straight face. "She screwed up?"

He looked over his shoulder. "Tried to stage a coup…and got busted. She's stuck here in that form until she finds away to make atonement to the Mage who transformed her and dumped her here as punishment. I'm guessing that a Slayer might be the ticket…"

Her face dropped. Whatever else she'd been, she'd never been a sacrifice before. "A…coup?" she asked, trying not to show any fear.

"Yeah," the demon confirmed, obviously a seasoned gossip. "Tried to take over a whole demon kingdom in the fifth realm but her magic wasn't strong enough to defeat the other Mage…She's nuts…" His eyes went wide with alarm at his gaffe. "But don't tell her I said so," he added hastily.

Buffy held up the jeans. "You got it," she promised. "You'd better go, though, before they get suspicious."

He half smiled, nodded self-consciously and backed out, the door swinging closed as Buffy watched him turn.

She exhaled and looked at the jeans. About a size and a half too big…

…But bliss, nevertheless when she was finally cleaned up and dry again. She looked at her own three-quarter length white pants and expensive briefs, now rinsed and hanging over a cubicle door, with regret. More allowance down the drain…

She turned and caught sight of herself in the one, filthy, mirror in the room and saw the fear and the misery in the blue eyes staring back at her.

"Giles," she whispered. "Where are you…?"


*******


It was one-fifteen in the morning when Giles sat bolt upright in his bed, his eyes wide with surprise. He'd been asleep for less than an hour.

Willow and Oz had stayed until he more or less threw them out about mid-afternoon. Willow was so tired…and Oz had to play at the Bronze that evening. Xander had returned about the same time with the news that Joyce was coping, barely, and that Hank Summers had arrived at lunchtime, having dropped everything and driven down from Los Angeles.

Giles slid out of the bed and strode down stairs in his old blue and white pyjamas, to find the boxes of books he'd brought home from the library.

It took more than three hours of searching boxes, and pages, to find what he was looking for. He stared at the entry for a long time, oblivious to the drops that had trickled from the corner of his eye, along his nose and onto the page.

And then, suddenly, he was galvanised into action. It took only seconds to take the stairs in threes. He pulled on the jeans he'd left on the floor, along with a thick white cable knit sweater and the running shoes still on the floor with the pants.

Sunnydale's streets were almost deserted as he guided the Citroen around them, windows wound down despite the chill in the air. An hour later he still hadn't found anything. The place was filled with aromas and odours but none even vaguely resembled cookies…

A half an hour later the car slid to a halt outside Xander's house. The boy had been born and raised in Sunnydale…

Moments later Xander came running out, still tousled and blinking sleep from his eyes.

"Giles, what?" he demanded as soon as he slid into the passenger seat. "My mother is still ranting about the phone call."

Giles handed him the book and started the car.

"Okay. Blue fire doesn't necessarily kill people…and?"

"And Buffy had a nightmare, while we were up at Breaker's woods. It involved a demon, paralysis, somewhere underground, water running and the aroma of cookies…baking, one would assume."

"And this means…what, exactly?"

Giles rolled his eyes. "You know very well that Buffy's dreams are often portents of future events. I was so beside myself when she…died…it didn't occur to me to question the events. But now…take her jewellery: most of it wasn't even damaged, none of it was hot when I picked it up…And there were no remains. I can't believe I've been so bloody blind."

Xander put a hand on his shoulder. "Giles, don't get your hopes up yet. I mean, hell, if you're right, I'm there, a thousand percent, but it's too early for all these pieces to fit together, let alone spell out what you want to hear."

The older man's head dropped a little. "I have to believe it," he said softly. "Now, is there a place anywhere in Sunnydale that might match all the elements in Buffy's nightmare?"

Xander slid down in his seat and closed his eyes. "What if the demon just happens to smell like cookies?" he asked a few moments later, without opening his eyes.

"Then we're screwed," Giles retorted.

Xander's eyes flew open. "Expanding our vocabulary, I see," he observed dryly.

"If you want to find out how much just keep wasting time," Giles warned darkly, put the car into gear and headed for Sunnydale's modest cluster of industrial estates.

Xander, who knew from experience when the librarian had been pushed too far,
closed his eyes and went back to contemplating Buffy's whereabouts.

"There's a cookie man in the Bell street Mall…makes them right in his little shop, " he said eventually. "There was a place on Lake drive that used to specialise in home baked stuff: cakes, pies, cookies. I used to ride my bike over there just see what other moms used to make for their kids, but the old lady who ran it died. It's a Radio Shack now. And there's that new place on Birch. Kind of like an ice-cream and cookie boutique. Their cookie dough ice-cream is to die for…"

"Xander…"

"All right!" he snapped. "You get me up in the middle of the night and you expect me to solve riddles too…I'm trying!"

Giles sighed. "Perhaps the water…and I think perhaps her description was more indicative of a basement than a cave or some such. She wasn't lying on the ground."

"Well, there's Rambler's creek on the east side, a lot of storm water drains…except it's not raining, and the fountain outside the Kelly street cinemas still runs."

Giles harrumphed. "I don't think I know those."

"They were closed about eight years ago when the owners went broke…too much competition from the multiplex in the mall. Oh, and there are about five fountains at the Sunnydale zoo…can we count the Sunnydale sewer system as well?"

"Why not?" Giles muttered irritably. "And why not Aunt Mabel's bird bath while you're at it?"

"Okay, and Ian Brennan's, Lois Isaac's, and Mrs Hasham's bird baths. Happy now?"

The Citroen suddenly pulled over, brakes squeaking as it lurched to a halt. Giles smashed his hands down on the steering wheel.

"If this is too boring or too difficult for you, then go home," he said through his teeth. "But don't waste my time."

Xander looked up at the familiar profile, expecting to see a ferocious visage, but there was no colour in Giles' face, and his expression was bleak, tortured.

"I'm sorry," he said softly. "Let's move on to the third element: a basement. Unless it's a private home we're talking deserted or vacant building. There are three in town that I know of. There are also at least three different churches and one synagogue that have been empty for as long as I can remember. I've checked most of them at one time or another on patrol with Buffy. And I don't take that much notice of factories and stuff but I remember a furniture place closing down right before my dad was due to go to an interview. There was also a really neat place on Monroe…They used to sell clothes at the door for half what they cost in town."

"I gather they manufactured said clothing on site?"

"Yeah, until the authorities busted them for using illegal immigrants as sweat-shop labour. The place is deserted now…although there are rumours that it's about to be turned into a frozen food processing plant."

Giles looked down at him for a moment.

He shrugged. "My Dad…"

"Any others?" Giles prompted, pulling the car out onto the road again.

Xander started to shake his head, but his brows drew together suddenly. "Where's the wind been from lately?" he asked.

"Off the ocean, primarily," Giles replied, puzzled. "Why?"

"Well, Amory's—that's the shirt factory—Amory's is like two streets over from Cookie Heaven…the cookie and ice-cream place. That's not very far in a straight line, if Amory's is down-wind."

Giles face cleared a little. "Perhaps," he said carefully. "Can we fit running water into this picture anywhere? And what's the fastest way to Monroe…er…street from here?"

"Next left," Xander said quickly. "And I don't know about water. Maybe its something we haven't thought of yet. I mean, Buffy did dream it. It might not matter, or it might be something unusual. We'll know if we have a shot when we get there."

Giles turned to him, eyebrow raised.        

Xander looked sheepish. "If we can smell cookies…"

The eyebrow relaxed and he half smiled as he made the left turn. "You're doing fine, Xander. If it's not the right place, we'll just keep going until we find it."

Xander grinned, then frowned, looked in the back and around his feet. "Weapons. Giles, we do have we do have weapons, right?"

"In the trunk, where they always are." There was irritation in the older man's tone.

Xander slid down in his seat. "Oh yeah, I forgot about those. Sue me," he muttered. "It's not like I ride shotgun in this thing every day, you know."

Giles sighed, and kept driving.

The building was boarded up, the parking lot gates chained. The sun, however, was clearing the horizon…just…making their task easier.

They worked their way around the building, the worse for its volumes of graffiti and broken windows, looking for egress.

"Giles," Xander said suddenly, waving his stake as he turned the corner to walk along the back of the building, and putting his nose in the air to sniff.

Giles grinned raggedly. He could smell the freshly-baked cookies as if the oven were only feet away.

"Good lad," he said, shifting his crossbow from one hand to the other. "Let's get in there."

The back of the building yielded yet another locked door, this time on the loading dock.

"D'ya think two of us might make one Buffy?" Xander asked, staring at the keyhole-less wooden door.

Giles snorted. "Perhaps two-thirds of one," he conceded.

Xander waved a leg. "Ready? When I count to three."

On the count of three their boots smashed into the door. It didn't fly open dramatically, as they planned, but they made an impressive hole in it. In seconds Giles had reached in, found, and undone the slide bolt on the inside.

The empty, main shop floor seemed cavernous in the dull light filtering down from the high, broken windows, all fittings and infrastructure removed. The two men moved quickly to the stair well, bolting down the steps two and three at a time, until they reached the basement.

Xander put out an arm when Giles would have gone on, holding him at the bottom of the stairs.

"I don't know about you, big guy, but I don't want to be toasted or trans-located or melted or anything else you can do with blue fire. We want to get her out, not join her, okay?"

Giles put his hand on Xander's shoulder. "I know," he said roughly…I just…"

Xander nodded and looked down the hallway that led away from the stairwell, with its three doors on each side. "Pretty basic," he said softly. "Let's go."

There were several storerooms, a plant room and two offices. The plant room was deserted, and the offices stripped bare. One of the storerooms had actually been used for storage, cartons and bindings still scattered across its floor, wooden pallets still stacked in one corner. And there was a dark hole in one of the external walls large enough to fit a man…or a demon through.

"Not yet," Giles said, when Xander would have gone through. "We haven't finished here and I don't want to leave you alone unless I have to."

Reluctantly, Xander nodded.

The second room was still full of small tables, each of which was equipped with out-dated sewing machines of different sizes and types. It seemed deserted when they flipped on the lights, but Xander pointed to the restroom on the other side of the room.

"Why only a women's john?" he muttered as they opened it.

Giles shrugged. "Perhaps the workers in here were all women."

Xander checked all the stalls. It was empty, but there was a constant sound of water running from several faulty cisterns.

"Behold the running water," he announced. "Am I good or what?"

Giles shook his head and held the door open for them to exit.

"This must have been the sweatshop," Xander guessed on the way out. "No windows…jeez."

"One more," the older man said somberly as they came back into the hall.

Xander's nerves and patience, however, were at their limit. "You take it. It has to be checked, but I'm going back to that hole. It's still our best bet. If she's in trouble—"

"If she's here at all," Giles snapped irritably. He knew he couldn't be in both places at once, but… "All right, but if I don't find anything I'll be right behind you." He handed Xander the crossbow and a clutch of bolts and took back the stake. "Take no unnecessary risks."

Xander nodded. "Go!" he barked, and turned the other way.

Giles ran. The third room was locked and it was by far the heaviest door. It took him five agonizing minutes to pick it with the lock pick from his wallet, carried there constantly since Buffy's mother had tried to immolate her on a pyre of books less than a year earlier.

From the refuse and remnants on the floor he could tell the new room had been used as a cutting room. It was deserted but for a single metal cutting table in the middle of it and the fainter sound of the water running in the faulty cisterns. He crossed to the men's restroom, which seemed to back onto the others, slid the stake into the belt of his jeans so that it rested against the small of his back, and tried the door.

It wasn't locked. He pushed it open roughly and froze, his blood running cold when he saw the clothes hanging over one of the cubicle doors, the fractured mirror.

"Buffy…" he whispered, and began checking each stall, any elation at the knowledge that they were in the right place wiped out by the sheer terror at what those clothes might mean, what might have been done to her because he'd been so bloody stupid, taken so damned long…

He put his head around the last one, expecting it to be as empty and dank as the others, and stopped, his heart hammering.

She was crouched on the cubicle, a shard of glass in one hand, poised, like a knife.

Alive…!

"Giles!" She dropped the glass and leaped off the pedestal, overjoyed, then stopped very close to him when she saw the look on his face. "What?" she asked, frightened.

He touched her hair with a shaking hand as though to confirm the reality of her. "You…they didn't…hurt you? They…" he swallowed. "Your clothes…?"

For a moment she was puzzled, then her eyes grew very bright and she reached up and touched his face. "Nothing happened," she said softly. "The demon wouldn't take her paralysis spell off me…so I peed on her foot, that's all."

He made a strangled noise and dragged her into his arms. "Jesus…I thought…I was so…" he stammered almost incoherently.

She snuggled into his sweater. "I'm sorry I scared you. I knew you'd come. We have to get out of here, though. This demon chick, Kolki, is really serious about offering me as atonement to some Mage so she can get her real, majorly large body back and go home to the fifth realm or something weird like that."

"Kolki?" Giles repeated, still without colour. "The Earth demon Mage, Kolki?"

Buffy leaned back a little. "That's the one. I thought I was toast in her stupid fire, and then I woke up here way later."

He closed his eyes, trying to focus. All her wanted to do was go on holding her. "We have to go and find Xander before he finds Kolki."

"Xander is here?"

"I needed help with the clues from your dream. He knows Sunnydale far better than I. I just hope he didn't go too far down that tunnel. Come on."

They were half way across the storeroom when they heard a noise in the hole. Within seconds the noise became a yell and moments after that Xander burst from the tunnel, several assorted bipedal demons in hot pursuit, his crossbow bolt-less.

Together Buffy and Giles took them on, Giles providing either distraction or restraint so that Buffy could stake them, lacking something better. One strike to the heart… With a wooden stake it was still effective, but messy.

A startled Xander joined them just as Giles swung the last demon around by its white mane and Buffy knocked it senseless with a kick to the head, almost knocking the Watcher out as well, its large skull crashing backward into his jaw. She leaped forward as the pair crashed to the ground, staking the demon and shoving it off Giles before pulling his momentarily dazed form into her arms.

She touched his chin, where a bruise was already forming, pushed his hair off his brow. "Giles? Are you okay? Giles?"

He opened his eyes and smiled ruefully. "No," he said, his eyes gleaming as they gazed into hers. "But I will be."

She grinned back at him. "Good," she said, her meaning as clear as his, and trailed her fingers down the uninjured side of his face. "Can you stand…because I really don't want to be here when Kolki finds out that her passport home has just been cancelled."

A throat cleared behind them. "Uh, guys, I'm with Buffy. I hate to break up this fascinating little er…scene but if we shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth, if you get my drift…there are probably more of these guys, for one thing and—"

"Okay, Xander. We've got it," Buffy told him as she helped Giles to his feet. "We're coming."

The librarian steadied himself and shook his head. "I'm fine," he said, before she could ask. "Let's go."

When they reached Giles' car without incident all of them felt almost cheated.

"This is so weird," Buffy muttered, closing the passenger side door. "It was too easy." She put her hand on Giles' forearm. "Let's get out of here, before the sky falls in."

Giles turned the engine over just as a voice cried 'wait!' in a strangled tone.

Buffy stared. The little demon whose pants she was wearing was scuttling toward them.

"Run it over," Xander cried from the back seat.

"No!"

They both looked at Buffy.

"He loaned me these pants. He's okay." She started to climb out of the car, but Giles put a pleading hand on her arm.

"Let him come to us," he said quietly.

Buffy understood. She'd already ignored him once at a terrible cost. She sat down again and covered his hand with her own.

"Slayer! Take me with you!" the demon panted as he reached her door, a small overnight bag under his arm. "I saw what you did—from the tunnel. I don't want to be a scapegoat, or a chew toy or a fireball…I just want to go to Atlantic City."

Xander laughed. "Atlantic City?"

" 'To each his own'," the demon replied, annoyed. "Take me with you…now, before Kolki finishes summoning the Mage. You don't want to be around when he gets through with her again."

"So that's where she is. Okay," Buffy decided for all of them. "Get in. But we drop you in town. After that you're on your own…and in return I get to keep the pants."

"Done," he said happily and scrambled in with an unhappy Xander, who slid right over and up against the other door.

They stopped outside Xander's house, having left the demon at the bus depot without incident. Giles and Buffy got out with him.

"If your mother is still upset, call me and I'll talk to her for you," Giles told him.

Xander grinned sheepishly and nodded, then turned to Buffy. "God, Buff, I can't believe you're alive. You've got more lives than a cat," he told her, his voice breaking at the last.

"It's okay," she told him and stepped into a bear hug, squeezing just as hard he was. "I screwed up majorly chasing that second, decoy vamp. I should have listened to Giles."

The duel guffaws made her pull back, look up at both their faces. "What?"

Xander laughed and scuffed moisture from his eyes. "Did you hear what you said?"

"I never actually thought I'd hear you say it out loud," Giles admitted, still chuckling.

"Oh, very funny, guys. Xander go get some sleep. We've got people to see and it's not going to be fun. Apart from the good, which is my breathing body, Mom is going to go ballistic."

"Too late," Xander muttered, then subsided when Giles glared at him.

"Why too late?" Buffy demanded, looking from one tense face to the other. "You aren't just talking about grief stuff are you? It's too late now. Give, Xander."

But Xander's eyes deferred to the older man.

"Let it go, Buffy. Sufficed to say she wasn't best pleased with my inability to protect you. If I had wanted to you to know, I would have told you myself," Giles said, glaring at the younger man again.

Xander glared back. "She hit him," he said defiantly. "You should know, since she's going to be royally pissed when she finds out you put her through all this basically for nothing, and she's probably going to blame Giles again, like she blamed him for your summer jaunt last year."

Buffy turned to Giles. "Mom hit you?"

He looked away. "It was the grief," he said quietly. "You can't blame her, Buffy. She's had so little control over events since you came here…"

"Xander?"

"What he said," Xander said quietly, respecting the older man's decision not say any more.

Buffy went to Giles. "I'm sorry," she told him. "You don't have to go with me—"

He smiled and touched her cheek. "Of course I have to go with you. Don't be a goose. Forewarned is forearmed. I shall duck this time…"

Buffy giggled and put her hand over his. "Promise?"

He nodded.

Xander cleared his throat once again. "Would somebody mind telling me what's going on here? I'm sensing more sub-text than a Xena episode and its starting to creep me out."

Reluctantly Buffy let go of the hand and looked up at deferentially to Giles before turning.

It was the older man's turn to clear his voice. "I'm going to trust your discretion, Xander, much as the idea terrifies me, when I tell you that Buffy and I have some issues to work through. Events have conspired to change our relationship…"

Buffy rolled her eyes. "What His Stuffiness is trying to tell you is that we may or may not be falling in love and we're still working it out so keep your mouth shut, okay?"

Giles closed his eyes as though pained.

Xander blinked, but seemed un-surprised. He swallowed. "Okay. I can deal. It's not really news to me, anyway. I always figured the only one totally in the dark was Giles, at least until the Prom anyway. It was written all over his face that night, boy, I'm telling you. Before that it was like, is that light bulb over Buffy's head ever going to come on, or did someone sell her a dud? You had it written all over you, Buff, even when you were picking on him."

Giles opened his eyes again, and Buffy looked confused.

"And Angel fits into this theory how?" she drawled.

"Lust," Xander announced. "Well, sorta," he amended when she scowled. "I mean, first love and all that, but it was just that…a romance. You and Giles…that's kind of like fusion…like you belong…"

Giles and Buffy looked at each other, then at Xander again.

"And you aren't totally wigged, why?" Buffy asked warily.

Xander laughed. "Sure I am. Even the old guy here beats me for sex appeal…I'm shattered…but I can live with it." He grew serious again and looked at Giles. "A year ago and I'd have tried to punch you out, but now…now I can't see it any other way. I want to belong to somebody the way you two belong to each other, to be that 'not alone.' And you just don't throw something like that away…not ever."

"My God, they've all grown up," Giles muttered, his eyes tender, his expression bemused.

"Thanks," Buffy said, moved, her eyes glowing. "I love you, Xander."

He turned red and grinned back. "You had to wait until now to tell me that? I love you too…both of you. Go home and go to…er…um…well, go rest, or something. I'll see you 'round."

They watched him cross the road to his house before turning to each other again.

"So, are you still leaving Sunnydale?"

Giles looked down at her and smiled though his eyes were troubled. "Not for a while, it seems. Willow first, and then your parents, I think."

"Parents? Plural?"

"Oh lord, I'd forgotten. Yes, your father is here."

"Well there goes the truth as an explanation," she sighed. "On her own mom would buy it, just, but dad'll just try to have us all committed, come after you with a shotgun, and send me to college in Belgium or somewhere…probably with nuns."

"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," Giles sighed, and started to turn her toward the car.

Buffy, however, was unmoved. Instead she found and lifted his hands to her face, her eyes seeking and holding his, finding in them a perfect reflection of what she was feeling.

She closed them when his fingers did her bidding and gently cupped her face, waiting until the strong velvet lips touched hers again. When they did Buffy shuddered at the strength of her love, the intensity of her desire, and sank into him as they engulfed each other in the stolen moment of future promise. As the kiss lengthened her hands moved from his chest to his hair, feeling the softness of it, delighting in the small intimacy.

Then she groaned as he lifted her off the ground and crushed her against him again, his mouth trailing across the side of her face and down her throat, before they both stopped, flushed and breathing hard.

Buffy grinned at him. "You look like a kid caught making out in the living room," she told him and kissed his nose.

"I feel like one," he complained and kissed her mouth roughly. "If only you weren't such a wanton hussy."

She kissed him back. "And will continue to be if you don't put me down soon."

He loosened his grip and she slid down, enjoying his involuntary moan and shudder as her hips slid briefly over his before she touched the ground.

"Feels like I'm not the only wanton hussy," she observed dryly and smiled again when he turned crimson. Then she took pity on him. "Come on, we have people to see. Hopefully you'll be in a more…presentable…condition by the time we get to Willow's."

"Yes, let's hope," he said hoarsely as he followed her to the car, a part of him not wanting any such thing, the rest almost horrified at the speed at which things were moving and changing. For now, however, it was enough that she was alive and that she loved him as much as he loved her.

Willow's house was quiet and peaceful. Buffy grabbed Giles' hand and led him around to the French doors, rather than disturb the house or give Willow's parents a coronary. She peered in without releasing his fingers, able to see the other girl still fast asleep.

"She's asleep, but decent," Buffy whispered. "You should wake her. If I do it I'll scare three year's growth out of her."

"Buffy, don't be ridiculous. I can't go into the girl's bedroom like a prowler…what if one of her parents should walk in?" he objected strenuously.

She rolled her eyes and tapped on the glass. On her third attempt Willow stirred, then sat up. She blinked several times before she focused on the pair outside her windows, standing close, their hands linked, peering in at her.

She was out of bed in a flash, flying to the doors, unlocking them.

"Buffy…I can't believe you're alive," she sobbed, enveloping her with an over-wrought hug and receiving one back. "I thought nothing was ever going to be the same again," she added as they parted.

Buffy grinned lopsidedly. "Me too. Until Giles came charging to the rescue."

Willow turned to him, her eyes bright with emotion, and joy for his sake. "I can't believe you did it…you got her back," she said and threw her arms around his neck too.

Giles smiled and returned the hug briefly before the excited Willow again turned to Buffy, still trying to assimilate the girl's survival, their presence in her room.

"How?" she demanded. "I can't stand the suspense. You were dead…and now you're…not…"

"I was made to believe she was dead," Giles explained quietly. "Blue fire is a demon magic exclusive to the Earth demons…It is immensely powerful and exhausts the Mage who uses it, for a significant amount of time…but with its energy they can burn and manipulate matter or trans-locate items, including Humans."

"Research…" Willow said hollowly, tears spilling down her flushed face. "There should have been research. We should have…we could have known about—"

Giles brushed the moisture from her cheeks. "Don't," he said softly. "None of us, least of all me, was in any fit state to think clearly. It was fortunate that I remembered Buffy's nightmare as soon as I did, which in turn motivated me to research the incident itself."

Willow smiled at him. "However you did it, you're a legend, Giles."

He rolled his eyes, then grinned.

"Xander helped," Buffy added.

"Xander too? Was I the only person not in on this rescue?"

"Hey don't look at me, " Buffy complained, "I was the rescue-ee, remember?"

Giles shook his head. "Nobody knew until I realised I couldn't search all of Sunnydale alone. I know precious little about the place compared with you or Xander. And I couldn't call, or come here at that hour for obvious reasons."

Willow made a face. "It doesn't matter. Buffy is alive…and you two are together."

"Are we that transparent?" Buffy grinned.

Willow shook her head. "Probably only to me." She thought of something. "Jeez, Buffy, could you have hurt him any more?"

"I had a lot of help," the other girl shot back mock-petulantly, and looked up at Giles. "But I've been making it better ever since."

He smiled tenderly at her. "Much," he agreed.

Willow grinned, almost able to feel the aura around the pair of them. "Yes!" she exclaimed happily.

Buffy grinned back, then sobered. "Mom…Giles we have to go tell mom."

"About Giles?" Willow was surprised into exclaiming.

"No way…at least, not yet. We haven't been home yet. We dropped Xander and came straight here. Sorry Will, but we have to love you and leave you."

"Are you kidding? Go! Your mom needs you. I'll see you later."

Buffy walked up to the front door reluctantly, carefully doing the pre-Breaker's woods thing with Giles and wondering how she was going to remember to be that Buffy around him when all she wanted to do was…

The door opened.

"Buffy!" Joyce Summer's colour waned alarmingly but she reached immediately for her child. For long minutes no words were spoken, the only sound the quiet weeping of mother and daughter.

"You're alive! How? What?" she finally sobbed, still clutching Buffy as though she were a rag-doll.

"A deliberate illusion," Giles said quietly. "A demon with an agenda and some powerful magic. I…I remembered last night that Buffy had a nightmare recently involving a demon, which might or might not have been prophetic. It was in such detail that Xander and I were able to extrapolate her whereabouts and—"

"You found her," Joyce whispered, her eyes glistening with moisture over Buffy's shoulder. "Thank God you hadn't worked out what to tell the police yet. How—?"

Buffy shifted and faced Giles, circling the older woman's waist with her arm. "Found me, saved my life," she confirmed, proud of her mother's composure after Xander's dire predictions. "Where's dad?"

Joyce looked away for a moment. "He got a call. He had to go back to Los Angeles. He…he promised to be back for…for the memorial," she said wretchedly.

Giles watched the pain lance across Buffy's face, the hurt that lacerated the blue-grey eyes, and struggled to quell the urge to sweep her into his arms and carry her away.

"He loves you very much, Buffy. Xander said he dropped everything to come here to your mother," he said very gently.

Buffy looked up, searching his eyes for the comfort she knew she'd find there, and smiled back at him, though the hurt did not subside.

Neither saw the look Joyce gave both of them. "Why don't I take you upstairs soon, honey?" she intoned pointedly. "You can take a nice hot bath while I call the gallery and tell them I'm taking another day off. I'm sure Mister Giles has more than enough to do…"

Giles turned his head then, and stared at her, his eyes narrowing. "Indeed," he agreed, then let his gaze return briefly to Buffy. "If you need m…anything, you know where I am."

Buffy watched him go with a sensation of almost physical pain, wanting to run after him, to never leave him again. Instead she turned to her mother when the door closed and smiled brightly.

"About that bath…"

********


After a restless night, and an early morning, Giles attempted to busy himself with a little basic housework. It was mindless and time consuming, but it completely failed in its purpose, which was to take his mind off Buffy and her future.

Were he even a decade younger, he'd have married her out of hand and silenced all critics. But it worried the hell out of him that he might be as big a thief as Angel would have been: stealing the best years of her life, with little or nothing to give back except…except the kind of love he'd never expected to experience in his lifetime…

He banged the lamp back down on the desk and swept his polishing rag in way too-big arcs across the rest of it. That she wanted to be with him was more than he ever expected, more, probably than he deserved, he told himself, but it wasn't enough. Joyce was going to go for the jugular…Hank Summers would in all likelihood indeed be brandishing a shotgun, and Buffy herself would have to adjust to a backlash she might not yet even realise was inevitable in such situations.

Such situations…she was nineteen in January. Nineteen…he sighed. In two years she'd be twenty-one. He straightened suddenly. Perhaps

At that moment the door flew open. Only one person he knew regularly abused his front door to that degree. He turned. She was wearing the white blouse, a favourite of his, in fact the only one, jeans and new sneakers. He approved. He spent as much time worrying about the damage she'd do to herself and her spine in all those two-inch boot-heels and platform shoes while she was out slaying, as the actual slaying itself…

He blinked and focused, having processed all those thoughts in about half a second.

"Buffy," he said softly and smiled. "I wasn't expecting your mother to relinquish you for at least another few days."

She tilted her head to one side. "Not exactly you," she teased, looking at the furniture polish in his right hand and the cloth in his left.

He put them down on the table. "Passed the time," he admitted and paused awkwardly.

Buffy smiled. He wasn't sure what to do next. He was adorable when he was at a loss.

"We have to talk," she said gently. "You up for it?"

He laughed unexpectedly. "Careful what you ask for," he said softly.

Buffy's eyes widened and she laughed out loud. "Giles!"

He smiled back at her. "Yes," he said, "we have to talk, but not here. I suggest we take a nice drive somewhere, perhaps even a picnic if you like. I went shopping yesterday after I left you."

"Passed the time, I suppose?" she guessed dryly.

"Something like that."

"Why can't we talk here?" she asked suddenly.

His head tilted then and he fixed her with a meaningful stare.

"Oh. Um…okay. I thought you older guys were better at…"

Giles folded his arms.

"No? Okay, well I'll just go pack a basket or something while you finish your housework," she said quickly and scuttled for the kitchen.

After a beat Giles smiled and shook his head, then went upstairs to change.

It was another of Sunnydale's endlessly beautiful, sunny days. Giles took the Citroen beyond the city limits and turned onto the highway before either of them worked out how to open the conversation.

"Giles?"

He looked at her for a moment. The tone was almost one of dread.

"What is it, Buffy?"

"Are…are you leaving? Is that what this is about?"

She sounded truly frightened.

He reached out and took one of her hands in his. "I would have told you that at the apartment, Buffy. Why didn't you ask me before, instead of upsetting yourself?"

"I didn't think of it until I got in the car," she said quietly. "And then I didn't want to know…only it hurt too much not to…does that make sense?"

"A great deal," Giles sighed. "I have no intention of going anywhere," he told her categorically. "And I'm sorry I ever contemplated the idea. I made you a promise, and I should have remembered that instead of bowing to my own weakness."

Buffy squeezed his hand. "And us? Where are we?" she asked, almost timidly.

"I can't speak for you," he told her softly. "But I think you deserve to know that I love you more than I can say…more, I suspect than even the poets could say. Too much to ever hurt you, too much to leave you ever again, and far too much to allow any mistakes to be made with regard to your life and your future."

She let go of his hand. "No," she said suddenly, the fear back in her voice. "I can't go back to the way it was before…Giles, you can't ask me—"

He sighed again and pulled the car over to the side of the road, gliding it patiently to a halt, putting it out of gear, and turning it off it one smooth movement.

He turned to her, took her face in his hands. "Will you stop being terrified every time I say something," he admonished tenderly. "Why are you so sure I'm going to leave you?"

A tear rolled down her cheek and over his fingers. "Everyone leaves me, eventually," she observed, without a trace of self-pity in her voice. "I'm scared…because I want y—because I want to be with you so badly…that you'll go too." She rubbed her cheek briefly against his palm. "It seems like the things I want most are always the things I'm not supposed to have."

He made a noise and drew her against him. "No matter how long I have to wait, I promise you I won't leave you again. Do you really think I could go, and leave half my soul behind?"

"Wait?" she asked uncertainly, somewhere under his chin.

"You're nineteen in January. After that it's only two years until you turn twenty-one. If you're still certain about us…about me, in two years time, I will ask you to marry me."

She sat up, drew back. "Giles—"

But he lifted a stilling hand. "Until then, I'll be here, whenever you need me. Unofficially I suppose we will be engaged…but until you make that final decision there is to be no pressure on you from anyone…about us…or about the future."

"But...mom?"

Giles sighed. "It's going to be difficult, and I may even get hit again, but I will discuss it with her, and I will be honest with her. The rest is up to your mother."

"And if she hits you? Or threatens to remove body parts with a kitchen knife?"

He trailed his fingers across her cheek, brushed her bottom lip with his thumb. "If she refuses out of hand to understand, or chooses to be adversarial, I will step away. I won't leave you," he added quickly when her eyes widened. "I'll be here, but not…I'll wait, and when you turn twenty-one, I'll claim you, regardless of what anyone says or thinks…"

"She doesn't know you, this you. She only knows Ripper, and this guy who sends me out to fight demons and vampires and keeps me away from her." She sighed. "The really sad part is she dreams about guys like you. I mean, not stuffy British librarian types, but someone who actually cares about what's right…who might actually be there forever. And she can't see it, can't see that's you."

He was moved by her evaluation, and rueful about Joyce. Ethan still had a lot to answer for with regard to that malicious candy…

"Neither will she probably ever see it. She's no more attracted to me than I to her, despite what happened last year. Your mother is a beautiful, intelligent woman, but you either love someone or you don't, and I've never felt that way about her, nor has she about me. Which is why she'll never see what you think you see."

"How do you know she doesn't have feelings for you?"

"I did wonder," he admitted. "Until you developed telepathy and became so ill. We talked…really talked, for the first time since it happened. There wasn't anything…no connection whatsoever, between us. We were like strangers, except in our concern for you. I can't say I was really surprised. Neither of the personas created by that bloody candy were real…they were exaggerations of the most irresponsible aspects of our adolescent personalities, with all our better instincts blocked so that we wouldn't interfere with the Mayor's sacrifice."

She laid a hand against his cheek. "Not all of them. There was enough of you left to help me when I needed it, and even when I didn't."

"If I remember correctly he—I—just wanted to impress you…or just wanted you," he mused ruefully. "I try not to think about it too much. I wouldn't have put it past that character to try it on, eventually, though… not one of my better moments.

"You mean one of Ethan's better moments," Buffy muttered. "I owe him so much pain."

Giles laughed again. "And I intend to be there to see him paid in full."

Buffy loved to see him laugh. It made him almost…beautiful. It wasn't something she could explain, even to herself, and a part of her was silently observing how corny she was getting, but she loved it nevertheless.

The soft green eyes looked down at her then and saw the love, the tenderness in hers.

Buffy's hand slid to the back of his head and gently drew it, unresisting, down to hers.

When Giles finally lifted his head, Buffy leaned against his shoulder. "I guess we should go do the picnic thing now," she sighed. "Either that I'll do something you'll regret…or enjoy…then regret."

Giles gave a bark of laughter. "Now you're getting it," he said good-naturedly.

"Giles…" she said as he started the car.

"Yes, love?"

"Don't make me wait too much longer."

He closed his eyes for a moment. "Not any longer than I absolutely have to," he replied, and put the car in gear.

"You've never done that before," she said suddenly, as the car gained speed on the paved road.

"What?"

"Called me 'love'. Called anyone here 'love' like that. It's nice the way you say it. Not like some of mom's arty friends. When they say it all over the place, it just makes me want to stake them."

He chuckled, then leaned down and kissed the top of the head that was still resting against the point of his shoulder.

"I'm not fond of endearments as a rule, particularly the way they're bandied about here, without feeling or real meaning," he admitted. "I don't know why I said it, but it felt right, and I did mean it, with all my heart..."


*******

Giles knocked on the familiar door, feeling vaguely like a man waiting to go to the guillotine. Only he'd been to the guillotine…and he hadn't liked it much then, either.

It finally opened. He knew Buffy would be out patrolling for at least another three hours, so he wasn't surprised to see Joyce Summers looking at him curiously.

"Tell me there's nothing wrong," she said immediately.

"There's nothing wrong," he said obediently. "I was hoping, however, that we might be able to talk. There are some things we should discuss."

"About Buffy?" she ventured, not yet offering him entry.

"Yes, about Buffy," he confirmed, the merest hint of impatience creeping into his voice. "It's important."

"I daresay," she retorted, and finally opened the door wide enough to let him in.

They sat in the sitting room with a distinct air of boxers sizing each other up.

"Thank you for seeing me," he said, as he settled into the armchair she offered.

She looked him in the eye. "I'm sorry I hit you," she said with genuine regret. "But you should have protected her. You were there for God's sake. All this time you've expected me to happily release her to your care at all hours of the day and night…and then when…"

"I understand," Giles interrupted. "And I do try…it's the only thing I care about…her safety. If she hadn't been distracted…" He stopped, too late to rectify the slip.

"Distracted?"

He sighed again. It was as good an opening as any even it was a result of stupidity.

"It's connected with what I came here to talk to you about. Something happened recently…Things have…" He looked up in a burst of courage and met her curious gaze directly, colour burning in his cheeks. "Things have changed between Buffy and me."

Joyce's face grew taut with alarm. "You haven't…you didn't—?"

"No," he said swiftly, and without taking offence. "There was simply a recognition and an acknowledgement of feelings neither of us has admitted to before."

"How long?" she asked, all expression now wiped from her face.

"I have always loved Buffy, but I didn't know I was in love with her until the night of the Prom…another moment of recognition." He saw the tell-tale relief chase across her face and sighed inwardly. "She would never have known how I felt…but for a recent moment of clumsiness on my part. One thing women have over men is a superior ability to hide any evidence of their...uh…feelings," he observed ruefully, then sobered when he realised she wasn't smiling. "Nothing happened, except that Buffy has subsequently discovered that she also has feelings for me."

"Well that explains one thing," she muttered, sounding more than a little shell-shocked.

"I'm sorry?"

"Why you were leaving. Buffy told me the night you brought her back. She said that was why you'd started patrolling with her again. That it was to be your last, together. It was the one thing I just couldn't understand: how, after all this time, after all the two of you have been through, that you could think of just leaving like that, leaving her with nothing, no Watcher, no mentor, no real support." She frowned in thought. "Were you leaving because you love her…or because you don't?" she added, surprised at her capacity to hurt back.

Giles, whose head had lowered while he was listening, looked up, startled. "Because I love her more than anyone or anything I've ever known," he whispered, the words jerked from him. "Because nothing on God's earth would ever induce me to hurt her."

Joyce closed her eyes. "I knew that part," she said quietly, colour coming back into her cheeks. "I've always known you wouldn't hurt her. I just didn't expect…I didn't see…"

"I know," he said softly. "Neither did I, Joyce. I spent all evening at the Prom in abject terror for her safety, far more than I ever have before, without knowing why. And then she walked into the room…and in the best tradition of romantic clichés, it really was as if I was seeing her for the first time."

Her eyes opened then, and searched his silently.

"I can't change that, and in truth, I don't want to," he went on. "All I can do is be completely honest with you before any decisions…any choices…are made, because right now, in this, at least, you do have as much choice, as much right as Buffy or I."

He let his gaze lock with hers and continued. "I know what a bastard the slaying has been, how helpless you've always felt, but there was nothing I could do to change that. In this, however, you do have a choice, which I will respect, with one proviso: should Buffy still want, when she turns twenty-one, to be with me regardless of your wishes, I intend to marry her. All I want is to love and protect her…and to see her happy. She probably hasn't told you this, but Slayers frequently don't reach even their eighteenth birthday. It is my intention to ensure Buffy will have a long and happy life…or I will die trying to make it so."

Joyce finally blinked, her colour high now. "You know what you're asking? You know what kind of future…if she has a future…you could be offering her? How is it going to be much better than what that vampire was offering her?"

"Angel is not alive," Giles said gently. "He knew he had nothing to offer. And he can never guarantee not to hurt her." His eyes grew bleak with memories for a moment. "Indeed, no one has hurt her more. I, on the other hand, am very much alive, and I've already promised you I will never intentionally hurt her…ever. I cannot categorically promise her old age, nonetheless I can do all in my considerable experience to keep her alive, and I can adore her for every moment she does have."

Joyce looked away. "Why? Why Buffy? She's still not much more than a child—"

"In years," he agreed. "And at times, deliberately, in behaviour. A need to prove to herself that she could still be ordinary…or normal, if you will. But in experience she's older than either of us. She's always tried to protect you from what she was, but so many things have happened to her…So many decisions, so much in pain in such a short life."

"Killing demons and vampires? Running away…?"

He shook his head. "Too many things; things we couldn't tell you before. Being… Being killed at sixteen by a powerful vampire and then revived…struggling to come to terms with her mortality. Having to choose between killing the man she loves and the safety of everyone she cares about. And, prior to that, watching Angelus murder people she cared about without being able to do anything to stop it, living with the knowledge that she had the chance to kill him much earlier and didn't…that it was because of her that he turned. And last year…coping with Angel's return, and worse, betrayal by you, by me, by Faith…You know she tried to kill Faith…to save Angel?"

Joyce swallowed, pale again, and trying hard to grasp what he was saying, the depth of what had been kept from her.

"Why…why are you telling me all this now?" she whispered, a thousand questions on the tip of her tongue, a hundred nightmares in her eyes.

"Because you deserve the truth, and because in deciding her future, Buffy deserves to be judged for who she really is, not the child you perceive her to be."

"You…you said I judged her?" she almost whispered.

Giles sighed. "It wasn't a criticism. You at least, have the comfort of knowing you were being manipulated by a demon. I, on the other hand, chose to follow the Council's orders. It is a mark of how extraordinary Buffy is that she cares for me at all after what I did..."

"I didn't know about Faith," she whispered. "I didn't really know about any of it…and you still haven't answered my question."

"Your question?"

"Why Buffy? She's nothing like…"

The green eyes darkened. "Must she be? I loved Jenny, very much. She will always have a small part of my heart…but as Buffy herself pointed out to me…she is the other half of my soul. Can anyone ever truly answer 'why?' I only know that I can't live my life without her, even if it means waiting for her to come to me…for two years if necessary," he finished pointedly.

Joyce stood up suddenly, walked around the room. "This is still crazy. You're an—"

His eyes narrowed and his face grew bleak. "…Old man?" he finished bitterly.

She stopped and looked at him, her expression softening a little for the first time. "I was going to say 'intelligent' man, but perhaps I was mistaken. You're not old, Rupert. Damn it, you're barely middle-aged, but can't you see the problems the two of you would be facing? Do you really want to face the prospect of small children when you're fifty?"

He straightened then, and, after a beat, smiled to himself. "I hadn't thought of that," he said softly.

He looked up at her, but she'd seen the sudden delight on his face and shook her head when he opened his mouth to speak. She was sorry now that she'd tried to hurt him earlier. It was obvious that what he felt for Buffy was far more than even he realised, and certainly far more than she'd given him credit for.

She exhaled wearily and came back to sit opposite him.

"You're probably not going to understand this," she began carefully.

His heart sank.

"But I'm not going to stop you…from seeing her."

Giles' eyes widened in startled surprise, and he started to speak, but she continued.

"I wouldn't interfere in any college romances, and I won't interfere with this, but I will ask you one thing. Do exactly what you said you'd do: wait until she's twenty-one before you ask her to commit her whole life to you. Give her that long to find out if you are who she thinks you are, if she's ready for the kind of life she'd be taking on."

He looked at her with new eyes, admiration in them. "You are aware that there will, inevitably, be talk, that in all likelihood you, yourself, will have to deal with—?"

Joyce shook her head. "I've never given a damn about other people's opinions before and I'm not about to start now. Buffy will have my full support regardless of what is, or isn't, said. Her happiness is all I've ever cared about. If you are the key to that I have no right to stop either of you, and if you aren't, and you hurt her, I'll tear your heart out myself."

He grinned. "Thank you," he said softly.

"For what?" she asked, puzzled.

"For proving that true class is hereditary," he told her with real admiration and not a little awe.

She looked at him with both pleasure and amusement. "My daughter came back from the dead, Rupert," she pointed out. "After that nothing is ever likely to faze me again…unless, of course, I do have to tear your heart out..."

Outside, poised to put her key in the lock, Buffy's head shot up and she blinked, startled by a sudden crack of male laughter.

Then, after a beat, she grinned and opened the door…


*******


"Where were you all day, anyway?"

"Strange as it may seem, I do have a life, Buffy. There were errands to run, bills due, and the car to be serviced, if you must know."

Buffy scanned the area for any sign of activity. "Yes, I must. I cancel with Willow to come and see you and you're not there. I waited for like, two hours and three sodas, and you were still a no-show. I was kinda worried, among other things. So I decided to go with Will after all."

Giles looked down the row of headstones as they passed. "I could have been lying in a gutter somewhere, mugged, or ravaged by a pekingese," he told her in an aggrieved voice, the effect of which was more than a little spoiled by his laughter, "and you went off drinking mochas without so much as a—"

He was silenced by the impact of her elbow in his ribs.

"I really was worried. Don't do that again," she said softly.

"Do what?" he said, rubbing his side.

"Be somewhere without me…without at least leaving a note."

He stopped and turned to her, surprised. "Are you still so unsure of me?"

She shook her head. "I've never been so sure of anything in my life. I think…I think it's this being in love stuff. Being away from you…it hurts, and I hate it. Like last night when you went home. And not knowing where you are, if you're okay…its, well, scary. Being in love with a live, breathing person sure has its draw-backs."

"I did promise to meet you to patrol, didn't I? You could have waited until I didn't show up before panicking," he pointed out.

"Who said I panicked?" she demanded.

"Willow, who called shortly after I got home to find out why you didn't show at the coffee shop the second time. Were you out looking for me?"

She shrugged. "Stupid, I know."

He touched her face. "No, it wasn't. I'd have probably done the same in your place. I should have guessed you'd come, but you did say you had the day planned…"

She made a face at him. "An hour with Willow for mochas. What was I supposed to say in front of my mother? No, Giles I don't have anything to do tomorrow…How 'bout I come over to your place and we—"

"Buffy!" he chided, from habit, but his eyes were gleaming. "I knew I should have stayed at home."

She walked into his arms and fitted herself against him.

"Yeah, you should have," she purred and revelled in his involuntary growl as he lifted her and crushed his mouth against hers. She responded willingly, sliding her arms around his neck, her desire making her demands as forceful and frenzied as his, her mouth roving as his did, to his ear, his jaw, his throat, stopping only to groan as his lips found the base of her own throat.

"Giles…" she moaned softly.

He loosened his grip and she deliberately held herself hard against him as she slid down very slowly, unable to stop a small gasp of her own before her feet touched the ground.

She gasped again, when, without warning, he swept her off the ground and carried her toward the side-access to the cemetery.

"Um, Giles…?"

"This is the third bloody cemetery with no sign of activity, and there's no one remotely likely to rise tonight. We're going home," he said in a desire-blurred voice.

Beneath his chin, Buffy smiled. "Home is good," she agreed and undid several of his shirt buttons, sliding her hand inside and letting her fingers explore the contours of his chest, enjoying the feel of his body shuddering and responding to her touch.

"Lord," he groaned as he approached the car. "I'm not sure how much of this I can stand if we're actually going to make it home."

"I can stop," she offered, playing with his chest hair. "I didn't know chest hair could be sexy," she added absently, and moved her head to kiss the spot just above his sternum.

"Christ!" he exclaimed and put her down, then as though he had no choice, he swept her into his arms again and kissed her until they were both breathless.

It was Buffy who slid a hand into his jacket pocket and held up his car keys. "Now," she whispered and smirked, "before you have a heart attack."

He waited only until she turned toward the car before slapping her on the backside and opening his door.

"Ow…!" she exclaimed, then turned and grinned seductively, mischievously. "Again…?"

He made a strangled noise and rubbed her derriere for her briefly where he slapped it, before forcing himself to slide into the car and open her door. She was alongside him before he turned the ignition on.

"That was nice too," she told him as the car turned over, all the cylinders performing together for once, despite the engine being cold. The service had been a success. He was about to say so when her hand rested on his thigh.

He attempted to put the car in gear, forgot the clutch and clashed the gears violently, jumped, swore, then did it properly, breathing hard, though her hand still rested, almost comfortingly, mid thigh, as though it had no other intention but the need for contact. He moved the car onto the road and accelerated to the speed limit.

"You want me to drive?" she offered and giggled.

He scowled at her, despite the gleam in his eyes. "Not likely," he shot back and immediately regretted it as the fingers instantly began to trail upward.

"You sure you don't want me to drive?" she repeated as she ran out of thigh, her heart pounding in her chest at her own effrontery as she let her fingers move over the strained denim with just enough pressure to force another strangled noise from him.

"You, woman, are not playing fair," he breathed hoarsely.

"I know," she said smugly, resting her head against the point of his shoulder, "but you do have two hands, at least until the next turn…"

He looked down at her for a moment, smiled and shook his head, before being forced to return his attention to the road.

Almost physically aching with the intensity of her own desire, Buffy didn't know whether to pout, swear or laugh. Trust won out in the end, however. She remained where she was and returned her hand to his thigh, the contact oddly comforting.

The drive was mercifully brief anyway. Giles was actually travelling at least ten miles an hour over the speed limit most of the way, well aware that Sunnydale's finest pointedly avoided most of their usual routes at night.

When they reached the door to his apartment he turned and faced her. "Thank you," he said softly, and smiled.

Buffy, who'd contented herself with catching and holding his hand as they left the locked car and crossed to his apartment, looked up at him curiously.

"For this," he explained, unlocking the door and looking around the little porch. "This is the last time we'll stand here simply as friends, and I wanted you to be absolutely certain, in your heart, before you cross that threshold, that you have no doubts, no—"

Her fingers covered his lips. "We're home," she whispered.

He closed his eyes for the briefest moment and kissed the fingers before lifting her and carrying her inside, pausing only to turn the deadlock before continuing up the stairs.

When they reached his room he set her down again, but reached out a staying hand when she kicked off her shoes and would have begun removing her top.

Instead he gently drew her into his arms and kissed her, tenderly, lingeringly, without the urgency of passion, but with so much love she never wanted it to stop. Eventually, though, they both lifted their heads and he smiled at her. It took her breath.

Then, very gently, he took her blouse by its waist and drew it over her head, paused for a single, stunned moment, then reached down, and with the lightest of touches, undid her jeans.

She trembled as he slid his hands over her hips, pushed the jeans down and lifted her physically out of them, until she was high enough for him to kiss the small place between the curve of her breasts.

Buffy gasped, burying her fingers in his hair, unable to stop the small cries as his lips moved to worship every line, every soft curve, slowly, almost unbearably.

"G…Giles!" she moaned, when his mouth finally closed gently over flesh straining to his touch, drawing his head closer, his hands tightening on her buttocks as her legs lifted and closed around him.

And then suddenly the tender breast was freed and he was looking up at her, his eyes blurred with desire, glowing with love.

She smiled down at him, bent her head and kissed him hard, felt him respond, urgently, wildly, gradually allowing her to slide down until they were at eye level before he lifted his mouth from hers.

Flushed and dishevelled, she moved slightly so that she was hard against him, her legs wrapped tightly around his slim hips, and they both groaned. She grinned. "There you go, being a hussy again," she teased, then slid down unexpectedly.

Breathing raggedly and silently striving for control, Giles watched her curiously as she undid the rest of his shirt buttons and pulled it off, then closed his eyes against the surge of almost overpowering desire as she undid his jeans and let them fall to the floor.

"Nice," she said, letting her fingers trail across the smooth black fabric before looking up at him again.

He laughed in spite of the effect of what she was doing to him, kicked off his sneakers and stepped out of the jeans. "My underwear or my…disarray?"

"Both," she smiled, stepping back into the circle of his arms, sighing as his hands swept down her back and rested on the soft curves of her behind again, pulled her close. "When did you change to briefs…especially sexy black ones?" she breathed, kissing the point of his chin.

"How do you know I ever wore anything else?" he shot back and lifted her again so that she fitted against him in an almost unbearably perfect melding of bodies, of need.

Buffy forgot the question and groaned as wave after wave of desire washed over her, moving so that he groaned and trembled and crushed her even more tightly against him.

"Giles…" she whimpered, and kissed him again, felt him turn and move them toward the bed.

It was soft and luxurious and smelled of the myriad small things that were his scent. She stretched after he somehow, effortlessly, ended up with her new lace underwear in his hand, and watched him drop them on the floor without taking his eyes off her.

"Are you still up for it?" she teased.

"Be careful what you ask for," he repeated mock-dangerously, and stepped out of his underwear unselfconsciously.

"Nice," Buffy repeated.

He tilted his head, bemused. "You keep saying that," he grinned, drinking in the miracle before him.

"You keep surprising me…"

He looked down at himself and raised an eyebrow. "I do?"

"You do…and now you're annoying me. What's wrong with this picture?" she demanded mock-petulantly and indicated the bed.

He chuckled and stretched out alongside her. "I gather you missed me," he said softly. "Come here."

It wasn't what she expected, being drawn into his arms and held close, feeling the heat of his body against hers, the strength of his desire, and most of all so much love that tears pricked her eyes.

"Hey," he said, when she suddenly buried her face in his chest, lifted her back a little. "Buffy, what is it?"

She blinked the moisture away and looked longingly into the beautiful green eyes. "I love you so much," she whispered.

He pushed the long strands of blonde hair behind her ears, leaned forward and kissed her soft mouth very gently, then drew away.

Buffy was surprised to see his eyes glistening. "Did I say something wrong?" she asked, suddenly frightened.

"No…God, no," he replied immediately, brushing the droplets from her cheek. "It was just…I never expected to hear you say those words," he confessed. "And I want you so much I was afraid I'd frightened you…"

"It's not…You can't frighten me," she told him. "Not ever." She looked away.
"It's…He never did tell me…I don't…I don't know if I was…if I can make you happy."

Giles made a noise in his throat and took her in his arms again. How could the stupid bastard have been so insensitive, so cruel?

"Christ…Don't you know that it doesn't matter what he thinks? Don't you know how beautiful you are…how wonderfully spontaneous and impossibly sensual? You've already made me happier than any man deserves to be…even when you were driving me to distraction!"

She giggled and dislodged more tears. "Hey…who's been driving whom?" she retorted, reached down and touched him for the first time, heard him groan and felt him arch involuntarily.

She sighed. He was so…warm.

"Buffy!" he hissed as she repeated the caress, only longer this time.

She smiled at the effect her touch was having on him. "Yes, my love?"

He made a low, animal sound of pleasure. "If you keep doing that I won't be responsible for what happens next," he breathed.

She dutifully withdrew her hand. He let her go and rolled onto his side.

For a long moment he just looked at her, then reached out and began to caress her, beginning with her face, her throat, his fingers electrifying every nerve in her skin. Buffy groaned softly and lay back slowly as he continued.

He smiled as her eyes closed and her sighs turned to moans, growing louder and longer with every new place he stroked and caressed. Until, finally, his fingertips trailed down her inner thigh, making her gasp with pleasure, then cry out as they paused to touch her for the first time, brushing lightly, briefly, but enough to make her whimper when they deliberately moved away to trail down the other thigh.

"Giles…" she begged, without opening her eyes, arching slightly and delighting the adoring eyes watching her.

He obliged, his own control wavering as she moved beneath his touch, gasping and crying out his name over and over.

And then she opened her eyes and looked into his, longingly, lovingly.

"Please…" she whispered.

In reply he leaned forward and covered her mouth with his and felt her arms slide around his neck as he shifted himself carefully over her, a small part of him still terrified of frightening her, of ruining everything. Then he was drawing himself up onto his arms and lifting his head to look at her.

She relinquished his lips reluctantly, looked up and directly into the green eyes gazing down at her, as blurred by desire as her own, and something else. She took his face in her hands.

"Don't be scared," she whispered.

He laughed to stop himself from weeping, his eyes growing very bright.

"You are so beautiful," he whispered tremulously, bent his head, and kissed her very slowly, trembling as he brought himself to her…gasping as she cried out against his mouth and they both arched against the overwhelming tide that gripped them as they were finally joined.

And then Buffy's arms were sliding around his chest and her hips were shifting beneath him until he was so deep inside her they were truly one flesh, one body…

One soul…

And then Giles froze. She leaned back and looked up at him as he fought for a moment, for control, his teeth eventually drawing blood from his bottom lip before he was able to move again.

"My God," he whispered shakily, still trembling, then bent and brushed her lips with his.

She kissed him back tenderly before gasping and shuddering as he slowly began to move inside her.

And when she lifted herself to him, crying out and moving against him, they were both lost in the ecstasy of each other, their cries blending and finding rhythm with the escalating power of their love-making. As Buffy's grew more urgent, Giles bit his lip again and moved to meet her demands, striving to bring her to a place his instincts told her she'd never known. For long, glorious minutes he simply worshipped her with his body, and then suddenly, she opened her eyes wide and looked straight into his.

"Oh God…Giles!" she gasped and began to move frantically beneath him.

Exultant, he let go of his battered lip and chased her.

"Giles!" she screamed again as she began to lose control of her senses, and lifted herself to the power of him, her legs closing almost too tightly around him as he caught, and joined her, and they rose together in a final, earth-shattering explosion of passion.

When the fire finally died away they were both left dazed and overwhelmed. When Giles didn't move Buffy finally opened her eyes. She wanted to see him anyway, to look into his eyes to tell him how much she loved him.

He was still holding himself up on his arms, but his head was bowed.

She reached up and caressed his hair. "Giles," she whispered, the word itself a caress.

He looked up very slowly, almost reluctantly, his eyes blurred by tears.

Buffy's heart wrenched. "Giles…?"

He smiled unsteadily. "It's all right, love," he told her tenderly. "It's just me…I didn't think…I didn't believe I could ever be this happy…"

"I love you," she said unsteadily, her eyes glistening, put her arms around his neck again and hugged him hard. He shifted his weight to his right arm and wrapped his left around her, holding her close for a few moments, before he was forced to lower them both back to the bed.

He kissed her hair, her brow, her nose and brushed her lips, then drew away, reluctantly parting himself from her at last, and instinctively looking around.

For a moment Buffy wasn't sure what he was doing, then her eyes widened.

"Uh…Giles…"

He grinned, his eyes still glistening. "Yes I know," he told her, sliding from the bed. "Give me a moment." He came back with several perfectly laundered linen handkerchiefs.

"I hate this part," she muttered as he joined her again and punched his arm when he chuckled.

When they were comfortable again, curled up together under the luxurious bedclothes, Buffy's head in the crook of his shoulder, their bodies a tangle of arms and legs beneath the quilt, she finally ventured a question.

"I didn't know," she said softly. "I mean, I knew…but I didn't know it could be like that…you waited for me, didn't you? You did it all for me?"

He drew her close. "It's part of being in love…part of loving you." He chuckled softly. "And I didn't exactly make any noble sacrifices as I recall."

She slid her hand down and caressed him, this time only eliciting a contented sigh, then let her hand rest against his chest.

"Not that I recall," she agreed. "In fact if you'd enjoyed yourself any more we would have needed a box of handkerchiefs," she told him mischievously then suddenly rolled on top of him.

"Shameless hussy…" he grinned. "Shall I tell you how annoying it is…how easily you can do that?" he added, and slid his hands up the sides of her body and very slowly down over the soft curve of her breasts. "Though the benefits will always outweigh the annoyance a hundred-fold."

She sighed blissfully, bent to kiss his mouth then wriggled down through his hands and back under the quilt, out of the evening chill, moulded herself against him and rested her head on his chest.

"Tell me if I get too heavy," she said sleepily.

He stroked her hair and smiled contentedly.

"Never…" he said softly.



* * *