A Christmas Gift

The Summers house was quiet. It was late and Buffy hadn't yet returned from patrolling. Dawn had gone to bed, though not without an argument.

Willow stared at the screen, not really seeing the old Jimmy Stewart version of Bell, Book and Candle and absently played with her sleeping lover's long blonde tresses, spilled loosely as they were, around Tara's shoulders.

None of them talked about it, but they were all worried about the Slayer. Truth-be-told they were all worried about each other and the future, but most of all Willow was worried about Buffy. She was the one who brought her back and now she was watching her disintegrate…

A door slammed. After the adrenaline subsided she eased herself up, turned off the TV, and headed for the kitchen knowing that it had to be Buffy since the door had been locked, but still wary enough of the Hellmouth to wonder what else could have come in the back door.

When she peeked in, it was to find that it was, indeed, Buffy.

Buffy, who had lost weight she could ill afford to lose, whose eyes were even more hollow and bleak, whose whole body spoke of resignation and defeat and who looked so painfully lonely that Willow blinked away tears. Experience, however, had taught her that now was not the time to try to help.

Post-patrol was the most sensitive time, the most painful time for Buffy. She blamed being hyped after the slaying, or being edgy from trying to avoid Spike, or angry because she had run into Spike, but never mentioned the real truth. Actually pretty much none of the others, perhaps not even Buffy herself, consciously, suspected the real truth…except for Willow.

Not long after she had moved back into the house she had gone to the bathroom in the night and passed Buffy's door, stopping at the sound of the cries coming from it. She had peeked in, envisioning demons coming in the window, or Buffy with a broken leg after falling, maybe while changing a light bulb, or something equally scary.

What she found was Buffy in the throes of a nightmare, whimpering like a small child, obviously frightened and obviously alone in her dream-state. She did not call for any of the gang, nor did she call for her mother. She didn't call for Dawn or her father, nor Angel or Riley.

She was calling for Giles. Over and over, miserable, disconsolate, lonely cries that broke Willow's heart. When the cries stopped she woke Buffy and sat with her for a long time before asking her about the nightmare, though without mentioning Giles.

Buffy had described the dream in detail: how she had become Spike's woman, how she hated herself and her life, but stayed with him because she felt so dirty, so disgusting, that she didn't deserve to be with anyone else. She went on to describe the beatings, the sex that went on for hours, the fights afterward…and the pain.

The detail staggered Willow. She had only ever known the healthy, alive Buffy to despise Spike for what he was: a soulless killer with no compunction about manipulating or selling anyone out for his own gain. Even now, despite his apparent affection for Dawn, Willow knew he'd sell the rest of them out in a minute in exchange for a way to get his chip removed.

They all knew something had happened between vampire and Slayer, and that it had made Buffy even more miserable and withdrawn than she already was. The nightmare, however, was extraordinary for the implication that Buffy really had grown to believe that she didn't deserve anything better.

Willow had held her hand, despite the strength of the Slayer's silently desperate grip, the whole time, and had waited for her to mention Giles.

But she never did.

After that night when she wasn't dealing with her own, Willow made a point of listening for Buffy's nightmares and discovered that they were persistent and repetitive, at least in part. Almost every time she would eventually hear Buffy calling for Giles, sometimes in terror, sometimes with keening loneliness, sometimes in pain, but there was only ever one name on her lips.

Willow withdrew from the kitchen door and went to sit in the living room. Tara was still sleeping soundly. She liked the smell of the pine needles and the dancing of the Christmas lights on the tree Dawn had insisted on having. For a long while she sat in the darkness watching them, wondering if there was anything that could make Buffy Summers happy again…anything at all.

She swallowed hard when her eyes lighted on the picture of Joyce on the mantle with its tall, tapered candle, put there by Dawn for the season and burning as it did every night since December first. Willow closed her eyes. She couldn't give Buffy back her mother, and she couldn't give her back heaven…and there was so little else she could do without magic…

If she had the money she would have gone out and bought a ticket for Buffy to go to England, or one to bring Giles home…well, back to Sunnydale. But there was no money. Hadn't been any for a very long time. Even the money Giles had given Buffy had been almost swallowed by bills, the balance hoarded for future ones.

She hesitated then, a new thought startling her. What if Giles didn't want to come back? What if he had made a new life and didn't want Buffy coming over there, either? Some time ago, when the rest of them were all having a maudlin attack of missing their friend, Buffy told them that she thought he would be glad to be back there, that he had made friends and looked up old ones. She had added quite harshly that they should stop worrying about him and be glad he was happy without them.

The idea so rocked her that she got very little sleep before climbing out of bed again not too long after daybreak.

“Will, what happened to you?”

Willow blinked sleep from her eyes as she wandered into the kitchen. “Couldn't sleep,” she said non-comittally. “You?”

Buffy shrugged. “Just my usual crappy self. I'm fine. Want some?”

Willow looked at the cereal Buffy had just poured into a bowl. She had never adjusted to the notion of candy in breakfast cereal and wrinkled her nose now.

“I think I'll just have toast and coffee,” she decided.

“Please yourself. I wanted raisin bran. This is what you get when you let Dawn do the shopping.”

She dug in and put a spoonful in her mouth, shrugged again and kept eating.

Willow watched her, well aware that the old Buffy would have had plenty to say about her sister spending their money on crappy, expensive breakfast cereal. This Buffy, however, ate the stuff silently, her expression almost blank, her eyes somewhere distant.

“The others still asleep?” she asked.

Buffy nodded her head without looking up from the bowl. “It's kinda early. Dawn is enjoying not having to get up for school. I haven't seen Tara yet. You know, you two have really taken this estrangement deal about as far as it can go. When are you really going to get back together? I mean, at least you guys have a chance for happiness…you shouldn't waste it.”

Willow blinked. It was true, she longed to be back in their bed again, sharing it with her lover, but so much had happened and she'd let everyone, but especially Tara, down so badly that it wasn't up to her to make those choices. She would continue to sleep on the trundle bed in Dawn's room until Tara did make that choice. It was enough for her that they went to college together, sometimes studied together, and sometimes even watched TV or went out for coffee together. It was kind of like dating all over again: slow and painful, but with its own charm and moments of genuine fun, despite everything.

“I don't know,” she said quietly. “It will happen when Tara is ready for it to happen. I'm just glad we've made it this far. It's more than I deserve.”

A cloud passed over Buffy's currently grey eyes. “You deserve it, Will. It's been harsh, but you're doing it. You're hanging in.”

Willow looked away. She knew there were occasional nights when Buffy hadn't come home, when she had come in the next morning while Willow and Tara were making breakfast, spoke to no one, ate nothing, and explained nothing about her absence, her torn clothes, her bruises or her swollen mouth, her eyes red-raw from crying.

She sighed. Buffy was having a tougher time with her demon, but Willow knew that almost all of her own strength came from Tara, that if Tara hadn't come back after she had finally managed to claw her way through her first two torturous weeks of total abstinence from magic, that she, too, would have gone back…wouldn't have had the courage or the desire to do anything else. Tara was everything…without her she wasn't whole, or alive. She looked back at her friend.

Buffy wasn't whole, or really alive, either, but she didn't appear to know what was missing. Willow suspected that the reason she kept going back to Spike was as much about trying to fill the void as it was about the vampire.

“I'm not so sure about that,” she said quietly. “You can hang on too, Buffy. I know you can. If you want to.”

Buffy looked up, her eyes almost green now, and stared intently at her. “*You've* got something to hang on for, Will.” Then the eyes slid away again, back to the cereal.

“And you don't?”

The Slayer paused, the spoon almost at her lips. “No…I don't.”


********

The house was quiet. Willow, standing in front of the mirror in her old room and brushing her red and gold locks, paused.

Dawn had gone to spend the day with friends, Buffy had gone to the store to train alone and it was one of two days a week when Tara had classes and she didn't, or vice versa.

She stared at her reflection for a long time. The eyes that stared back at her were tired and unhappy. The woman in the mirror bore little resemblance these days to the girl Willow always expected to see. She sighed heavily and started brushing again.

*Mirror, Mirror on the wall*, she thought bitterly. Not more than a beat later she froze, drew a sharp breath, her eyes widening. Of course…

It was a simple, verbal spell. She could do it with her eyes closed…

Willow actually began to shake with the enormity of that one small step. Eventually she decided it was worth risking everything for…that they were worth risking everything for, and gathered herself.

She leaned forward and splayed her fingers against the glass, said the words softly then stood back and watched the mirror cloud.

For a long time the mists roiled before they finally started to clear.

She caught herself smiling the moment she saw the familiar figure, then sniffing as the sense of loss threatened to overwhelm her. Other than Xander, and even if she hadn't thought about it much lately, no one had meant quite as much to her as Giles. He had been there for her, especially in high school, in a way that even her parents hadn't since she was little.

He was making tea, which made her chuckle and sniff even harder. She watched him assemble a tray much as he would have in his old apartment in Sunnydale, carry it to the small sitting room. Her breath caught as she recognised small bits and pieces from the apartment, almost lost in the sort of understated elegance of the room he was in.

Where the old flat had been an eclectic riot of collected Giles-ness with bits and pieces of his life all thrown together, all representing a part of who he was and so very much him, he seemed lost in the new place. It was elegant and kind of historical, like even the fireplace was kind of antique-y and the furniture was old, but sort of 'don't touch me' kind of stuff. By comparison, Giles' lamps, books, and his case of medals seemed as lost as he amid the formality.

Somehow watching him sitting there alone reading a book and drinking his tea was almost more heartbreaking than if she'd found him in the arms of a new girlfriend…or an old one. He looked older, more tired, worn. It was a peaceful scene but Giles didn't really look peaceful, or happy.

She continued to watch until he finally rose and took the tray back to the kitchen, the spell following as he turned off all the lights and headed upstairs to bed. She was about to end it when he reached his bedroom.

Willow liked it. It was a lot bigger than the loft and kind of stuffy and old with its dark furniture, like the rest of the apartment, but it was warm and bedroom-y. Even though she didn't need to, Willow held her breath when he stopped in front of his dresser and looked in the mirror.

His eyes were so sad, so empty. The last time she'd seen him look like that was after Buffy died, during that short time when none of them were certain Giles was going to survive his Slayer's passing. She remembered how frightened they'd all been, until one day he simply started acting like Giles again and they'd all gradually relaxed…until he decided to go home.

Her brow knitted together when she realized there was a bottle on the dresser as well. She thought he was leaning forward to pick it up, but he'd picked up something else. At first she couldn't see but eventually he shifted and she saw what was in the picture frame in his hand.

She recognised the shot. It was from their last Christmas together, before Joyce Summers' death. Anya, flushed with the novelty of her first camera, had taken rolls of film and driven everyone crazy showing them the piles of pictures, mostly of inane things like the food, the presents, Xander's butt, Giles' left ear, the angel on the tree, over and over again.

This was a candid shot by the Christmas tree, one of a more successful series Anya took of everyone opening their gifts. Giles was sitting on the sofa next to Buffy and had just opened her gift, a new wallet, if Willow remembered correctly. She was grinning at him, obviously pleased with his response.

She could only guess that he'd asked Anya for it during one of those interminable 'look at my pictures' sessions, though she'd never seen it in his Sunnydale apartment. She pursed her lips together. He must have had it blown up and framed after he left.

Suddenly he put it down again and picked up the bottle, unscrewing the cap and swigging straight from it.

Willow scowled, until she saw the trembling hand and realised that his reflection was struggling with overwhelming emotion. After several more swigs he thumped the bottle back down with complete disregard to the probable value of the furniture and threw the cap alongside it before stomping off to his bathroom.

She ended the spell, and found herself shaking, not only from the first taste of magic in weeks, but from the depth of the pain she'd just witnessed. She bit her lip. Something had to be done and she was going to do it. Her trembling worsened.

But not alone…

*******

“You shouldn't have done it,” Tara said, steel in her soft voice.

Willow held her gaze. “I know. But it was for Buffy. And I'm here aren't I, telling you right away…I mean, as soon as you got home? I won't lie. It felt good, but this time I was in control. I ended it, and I knew I had to tell you. Will you help me to help them?”

Tara sighed. Willow was right. Every other time she'd fallen off the wagon she'd tried to hide what she done. This was the first time she'd come straight to her and confessed. Not only confessed, but asked her to help.

“He's really that unhappy?”

Willow nodded. “I've never seen him that miserable…except maybe when Buffy died. He kind of hid how he felt after Miss Calendar died, even though we knew he was hurting.”

“I don't know if meddling in their lives is going to fix anything. We might make it worse. What if they aren't ready to deal with this yet?”

Willow looked bleak. “If there was any way I could have gotten you back sooner, I would have done it.”

“Yes, but they aren't…” Tara trailed off and frowned. “Are they?”

A number of expressions played over the gamin face, including a frown. “I don't know about Giles. I know he loves her more than anything, but he'd never let it show if he liked her…that way.” At that point the frown turned to revelation and surprise. “But as weird as it sounds, I'm pretty sure now that Buffy is in love with him. She doesn't know it, but she is.”

“Then if he doesn't love her that way, and you awaken that in her, you'll break her heart,” Tara pointed out.

Willow's frustration showed. “I know, but you haven't seen her lately…”

“Yes I have.”

The green eyes flashed up, surprised again.

Tara nodded. “I've seen everything you've seen. I know she's falling apart. I know she's only keeping it together for Dawn. Why are you so certain all that pain is about Giles? Couldn't it just be about being pulled out of heaven? Or about hating herself for going back to Spike?”

Willow nodded. “All of that. But not just…Tara I've heard her. She has these dreams…nightmares…sometimes, almost every night. I-I've been keeping an eye on her since the first one I overheard. She calls for him, Tara. Night after night.”

Tara's eyes widened. “Then he is a major part of the hurting, but it doesn't mean she's in love with him. It even sounds…”

“I know, but Watcher and Slayer…special lives, you know. I don't think details matter much when you've been dead twice, or when you've been through as much as Giles has.”

“I can find out,” Tara said softly.

“What?”

She looked up at Willow. “There's a spell…I can find out if they're meant to be lovers, or if…”

“…if Giles sees Buffy the way he sees me and Xander,” Willow finished, new hope in her eyes.

She shrugged. “And Anya and me. Although we both think he's pretty cute.”

Willow's eyes widened, then she giggled. “Tara!”

Tara giggled too. “Don't have to want to buy to admire the merchandise,” she teased. “Giles is one of those guys who will be sexy when he's seventy-five.”

The redhead grinned. “I know. I wish he would sing more.” A frown appeared. “You know, it's weird, but Buffy never did hear him sing.”

“Singing is not going to solve their problems,” Tara said dryly.

Willow pfft-ed, then smiled again. “I know that. It's just…weird. We've all seen him perform except her.”

“Well, we'll soon know if there's maybe a reason for that. Help me assemble everything. Are you going to be okay to just watch?”

Willow nodded. “N-no problem. I just want Buffy to be happy again.”


*******

Tara waited until Willow's mirror spell took effect and they could see Giles, and then began her own, using cherished objects of their owners: Mister Gordo from Buffy's room and Giles' most favourite sword. He'd left all the weapons, but Willow knew it had broken his heart to leave the antique behind with the others.

It took several minutes to finish the incantation, Willow checking several times to make certain Buffy was still close by. Just as Tara reached the penultimate lines she opened the door and called to Buffy as planned.

“What's up, you…?” Buffy began as she walked in the door but the last words of Tara's spell froze her as they froze Giles on the other side of the mirror. For several long moments Giles remained poised over the bookshelf he was dusting and Buffy stood staring at them both.

The crystal Tara had laid on the dresser filled with colour: soft flesh coloured mist swirling with cobalt blue.

The two witches watched closely as the two colours mixed, blended and suffused the whole crystal with the most vivid, gorgeous purple.

Willow looked to Tara and discovered she was smiling a little incredulously.

“Wow,” the gentle Wiccan said softly.

Willow smiled a little at her friend's awe. “Wow?”

Tara finally realised she was being watched. “Look,” she enthused.

“I take it that means purple is good?”

Tara giggled and nodded. “If the colours hadn't mixed we would have known they were never meant to be together. If they had mingled but stayed pink and blue we would have known that they cared about each other, maybe even loved each other as friends or family, but look at it.”

Willow looked at the glowing crystal. It almost seemed alive, the purple was so vivid, so intense.

“Um…I take it that this means they both…I mean this is really, really, getting into the too much information area, right?”

Her lover's smile widened. “Uh-huh. It means whether they realise it or not they're not only in love with each other, they're meant to be together.” Tara's smiled vanished and her voice dropped. “Kind of like us. And I miss it…I miss you…so much.”

Willow's face lit up like a rosy angel in the soft glow of the crystal. “You…you mean it? Oh God, Tara, I've missed you so much. I love you so much.”

Tara drew her slender friend into her arms. “I know…almost as much as I love you,” she added playfully, and then: “It's cold at night in that big bed on my own.”

Over her shoulder Willow's green eyes, despite their joy, flicked to the frozen figure in the mirror and the sudden realisation that every night for a very long time had been a cold night alone in bed for Giles.

She pulled away gently and turned to look at Buffy. “If they love each other half as much as we do, we have to help them. We just have to.”

“I think you're right,” Tara agreed, frowning a little and saying the 'undo' phrase for the spell, which immediately made the image in the mirror vanish and Buffy unfreeze.

“…guys?” the Slayer finished, as though there had been no break at all.

“We just wanted you to be the first to know that we're officially back together,” Tara improvised, taking Willow's fingers in her own.

Willow squeezed hard and grinned at Buffy. “You were right. Chances for happiness don't happen every day…I mean they hardly happen at all…so really, they should never be wasted and a person should do everything they can to help two people they love find that happiness if they can't do it by themselves—”

“I think Buffy understands, Sweetie,” Tara told her pointedly, grinning to soften the hint.

“Oh…oh, I'm babbling,” Willow burbled, too happy to be abashed, but took the hint nonetheless, except for one parting blurt. “But if you love some one enough, you can't just throw it away.”

“So we aren't going to,” Tara added in a rush, amused at her girlfriend's enthusiasm and a little exasperated. It was going to take considerably more subtlety to work out the best way to help Giles and Buffy. The only thing she knew for certain was that there would be no magic used to awaken them. That they had to do that part for themselves, no matter how much Willow wanted to help.

“This is so cool,” Buffy squealed with genuine enthusiasm.

For a moment Willow felt like it was the old days, when they used to talk about everything and get enthused about the silliest things.

Buffy really grinned for the first time that Willow could remember since Giles had gone back to England again.

“I really mean it, you guys. You can't waste what you two had. Some people never get loved the way you two love each other…and some people blow it big time. I'm glad you're not…some of those people who blow it big time,” she finished awkwardly.

Willow rolled her eyes, still smiling. “We almost were. At, least I almost was. I was so stupid.”

“Oh yeah.”

“Totally.”

Both of her friends affirmed simultaneously.

The redhead wrinkled her nose at them. “Feel the support in this room,” she teased.

They all laughed and went downstairs happily, the spell and the face in the mirror forgotten, just for a short, breathtakingly normal, happy time.


*******

Xander watched Buffy working out with the awe he'd felt since the first time he'd seen her stake a vampire. She wasn't cut and she had no real muscle definition to speak of, but her tiny, lithe frame seemed to be a constant explosion of energy, her reflexes extraordinary for a girl who hadn't seen the inside of a real gym since high school and who wasn't on speaking terms with sports. Not to mention having been dead a couple of times…

He shook his head. Anya was in the midst of her second full inventory since Giles left, and he was waiting to drive her home. It was more fun to watch the Slayer train, than Anya counting sheep's eyes or ram's testicles. He winced a little at the thought.

Eventually, after beating the training dummy senseless, Buffy took a break. “Bored, Xand'?” she grinned.

He blinked. Buffy was smiling. Then he grinned back. “I'm beginning to hate this place. At least before we used to do stuff together. Now when I'm here all there is to do is watch Anya count stuff or intimidate customers into buying stuff they don't want.”

“Or watch me train,” she teased.

“Hey…no fairs. Got a lady of my own now.”

Buffy's eyes flickered and Xander saw momentary bleakness in them, but it was gone quickly. “Yeah,” she countered, “but since when has Xander Harris been able to resist a good ogle?”

He pretended to be outraged. “That's so not fair. And don't tell me you didn't know what effect you were having on a hormonally overloaded teenager with all those come hither outfits of yours when we were in high school,” he shot back.

For a moment she looked almost surprised. “Hey, I just wore the fashions. That's what high school was about, wasn't it? Either being 'in' or being 'out'. Didn't do either of us much good in the end, in or out.”

Xander smiled a little. “You noticed that huh?” He'd always wondered if Buffy had even noticed how tough it had been for him at Sunnydale High.

She looked sad. “Yeah. I noticed a lot of things. I just never had the luxury of doing anything about most of it.”

The smirk slipped from Xander's face. “No, I guess you didn't. The dying, and the killing and the psychotic boyfriends kinda got in the way there a little bit, huh?”

“Just a little,” she said softly, affection for the only 'brother' she'd ever known, lighting her face. “Did I ever tell you I love you, Xander?”

He laughed. “Yeah, only at all the wrong times. I'd have given anything to hear you say that when we were sixteen.”

“Poor Xander,” Buffy whispered, not laughing now. “I really didn't know what to do, you know. I didn't want to hurt your feelings, but there was this dark broody guy already, and I couldn't lie to you…”

“Yeah, you could,” he said good-naturedly. “You could have told me I was Superman and you were Lois Lane. I'd have believed anything if it would have got me you…except, I guess you were Superman and I was Lois Lane,” he finished sheepishly.

“More like…Jimmy Olsen,” she told him gently. “Slayers don't get a Clark Kent. They get dark broody guys and jealous macho guys who go all testosterone and either wanna kill things or let vampire hoes suck on them.”

Though he chuckled, Xander's eyes filled with sympathy. “Hey, don't forget Parker Abrahms…poster boy for assholes everywhere.”

“You had to remind me,” she growled and rolled her eyes, her good humour dissipating. “And God forbid we should forget Spike, my dark soul twin, at least according to him.”

Xander's eyes flashed. “Don't ever say that,” he snapped. “I know Spike's been doing the puppy thing and making everyone think he's all domesticated and trustworthy, but he's not. He needs us…he needs you…while that chip in his head. If someone said they'd take it out tomorrow if he killed us all first, he wouldn't blink.”

“Not Dawn,” Buffy said dully.

Xander hesitated. “Even Dawn,” he said eventually, “once the bloodlust was back, and if it was a choice of Dawn or what's best for old Spike. You'll never be like him, no matter how much he says it. No matter how dark a place you're in right now, everything you've done since I've known you has been about saving lives, helping people, making things right. What's Spike been about all this time?”

“Aside from obsessing about me, and acting like he cares for Dawn? Killing, torture, taking me down, eating people, selling us out to Adam, trying to break all of us up…” Her voice faded, the expression on her face making it clear she was remembering something painful. “I didn't think I'd ever see him like that again,” she said very softly, more to herself than to him.

Xander looked puzzled. “Bad hair, leather, cigarette…I don't get it?”

Buffy shook her head. “Not Spike. It doesn't matter. Nothing matters any more. Not really.”

There was only one other 'he'…except if she meant *him* that sound of hopelessness in her voice was more ominous than he thought. He tried to put it together for a few more moments, and in the midst of the memory of Giles stumbling upstairs to bed and managing to land a t-shirt on his head along the way, he got it. Him.

“It wasn't his fault,” he told her. “Of all of us he had the worst year and the most reason to listen to Spike.”

Buffy hung her head. “I know. It was my fault. Willow tried to tell me. I think even he did a few times, in his own way. I just…so much was happening and he didn't want me…”

Xander's head tilted. “Didn't want…? Have you been listening to Spike too much? Since when has Giles ever not wanted you…okay, so that could have been phrased better…but you get my drift…when has he ever not cared about you?”

“Since Hugh Hefner,” she muttered, then raised her voice and shot back: “Since he went back to England, *permanently*.”

He winced. “Well there is that, except I think it killed him to go. He'd do anything for you, Buff, including letting you go.”

“He wouldn't stay for me,” she said dully and unexpectedly resumed her pummelling of the workout dummy.

Xander swallowed at the ferocity of the pounding and jumped back when its head flew off and rolled across the floor moments later.

“Now there's a button I shouldn't have pushed,” he muttered to himself under his breath.


*******

Giles listened to the general chatter and the clink of silverware against fine bone china and sighed inwardly as he sipped at his cabernet sauvignon. If Alan, Alan junior, Gilbert and Corin didn't stop arguing about the sodding test cricket soon he was going to start a conversation about vampires or regurgitating Algoth demons. On his other side the women, Helen, Sophie and Tessa, were deep in a conversation that seemed to switch constantly between palaeontologocial digs in central Australia, the raising of adolescents, the pro's and cons of producing one's own compost, the cost of meat and even one or two quiet whispers about how good looking he was.

He smiled to himself. It was nice to know that in some quarters he wasn't viewed as old, infirm or beyond the occasional ogle, but it felt incredibly strange to listen to such normality and realise how utterly foreign it was to him.

The other drawback, of course, to attending a dinner party solo was being seated at the end of the table with the women on one side, the men on the other, bar the host at the head of the table with his good wife on one side and his adult son on the other. The one saving grace, aside from meeting again with old friends and making one or two new acquaintances, was that Alan had shown some class and had not tried to match him with any one. He'd been to four dinner parties and one anniversary celebration at a top class restaurant since his return, and had found himself required to entertain an unaccompanied female on each occasion. The unsubtle part was that each was single, the right age, with similar interests and equally as uncomfortable as he to be placed in the position they were in.

The chatter at the table was, momentarily, halted by Alan rising from his chair and tapping his glass with a spoon.

“Everyone, I just wanted to welcome Rupert home and to wish him all the best in his latest endeavour. We've missed you, old man.”

Giles raised his glass. “It's good to be home,” he lied. “It's been a long time and so many things have changed.” He paused and looked around before smiling. “And some things have blessedly remained the same.” It seemed to please his host, so that he relaxed again and took another sip of the superb wine.

The professor of archaeology resumed his seat and smiled back at his friend privately concerned that this was not the same man who had gone off to the United States five years earlier. This Rupert Giles seemed to have withdrawn, grown a little harder, and yet a little more worldly in his time away. Certainly he was no longer the uncertain Rupert, so torn between the worlds he moved in and the need to assume a roll he didn't naturally fit into that he'd become stammering and almost shy to compensate. This Rupert Giles gave the impression that he'd become comfortable with his role, with who he was, was glad to be home, and yet was desperately unhappy.

Alan Scott-Hodges frowned. He was of course, going to do nothing, because it wasn't his place, but it saddened him, nevertheless. He cheered himself a little by observing to himself that he had never known Ripper to be without female companionship for long, or without the ability to attract it at will. His friend would soon find something, or someone, to cheer him up…

*******

Willow and Tara allowed the glass to darken.

“So it wasn't a fluke.”

Willow pulled her gaze away from her own reflection. “I think we both kinda knew it wouldn't be, but at least we can be certain now. He's not even trying to find someone, not even for a dinner date.”

Tara nodded. “The biggest problem is how to help without money. Besides, I'm not sure sending Buffy to England, even if she could go, or coming up with some way of making Giles come back here, would work or even be fair to either of them. It's putting them in a really difficult position and whichever way it goes it's going to cost a lot of money.”

“Money!” Willow exclaimed. “I hate money. Everyone's always so worried about money. Anya never shuts up about it!”

Tara touched her sleeve. “I know you want to make things better, Sweetie, and we'll work it out, I promise, but money isn't really the issue. It's just something else we have to consider.”

“Giles would come back if he was the only one who could help with something…like… like another apocalypse. Anything short of that and he's going to be all like, 'Buffy has to learn to do these things by herself, without relying on me,' you know?”

“He's right,” Tara said softly, “but what he doesn't understand is that she doesn't realise why he's so important to her. The only way she can make sense of the feelings she has for Giles is to view him as some kind of-of…”

“Alfred to her Batman? Q to her James Bond? Merlin to her Arthur?”

Tara laughed. “There's a serious flaw in your metaphors, but yeah, something like that.”

Willow thought for a moment then laughed too. “I guess neither legend nor pop culture have produced too many female superheroes.”

Tara frowned. “That's not exactly what I meant. Think about it: Buffy gives the orders. She doesn't take them, even from Giles. We know for a fact that she's hidden probably ninety-five percent of her problems from him, and then her reaction to him leaving...”

Willow's eyes widened. “And Giles with the drinking…after Spike did that to all of us…so not a the reaction of an Alfred or-or…a-actually he spent our entire Freshman year so not acting like, you know, the father thing, about Buffy.” She frowned for a moment. “I should have realised. He was way too pissed about Riley and Professor Walsh. He was really hurting and Xander and I…well, never mind. It doesn't matter now.”

Tara touched her arm. “You couldn't have done anything for him then. If he had feelings for her back then it must have been even tougher with Riley around. Someone like Giles wouldn't have taken long to realise Buffy really didn't have any deep feelings for the guy, which was always going to be worse than if he just had to get used to the idea that she'd finally found true happiness.”

Willow blinked. “You know, you really do see things the rest of us don't,” she told her lover and grinned widely. “I love you.”

Tara grinned back self-consciously. “I love you too.” She paused thoughtfully. “I think we've got to make both of them realise how they really feel and find a way to make them want to get back together again.”

“Well, if they were both here I'd consider locking them in a room and letting them work it out, even if I had to keep them in there a week.”

Tara's expression grew thoughtful and her eyes slowly lit as an idea took form.


*******

Buffy stalked through the cave complex, her 'spidey' senses on highest alert, fairly crackling with the intensity of the concentration of dark forces, whatever they were.

The sea caves were cold and dank, but she kept moving. Somehow it was imperative that she find the evil and root it out…more imperative than usual…apocalyptic imperative, in fact. She snorted. *Not imperative enough for Giles to be there for it…*

She stopped. She hadn't thought about Giles in days. She snorted again, half-heartedly. Typical. She could almost hear him describing the demons, telling her how to kill them, telling Xander to shut up, Willow and Tara to pay attention. She could almost see him glare at Anya when she inevitably piped up to ask for another raise or to complain about the inventory.

Suddenly her bottom lip was trembling. It was stupid remembering. He was gone. It was over. She didn't need a Watcher anymore, right? Ironic, considering the Council's proprietary interference the previous year, that she was now totally alone…

A noise brought her out of her painful reverie and she focused again, choosing a left turning out of three options, and following deeper into the caves. Iridescent blue algae or fungus, or something, grew on the walls and partially lit the way, complimenting her sharpened slayer senses. She didn't look too closely at it, because it was pretty in a very un-pretty place, and her experience was that, close up, anything that grew on rocks in dark places was usually gross.

More sounds helped her focus in on the source, and she made another right, then left turning, beginning to get just a little claustrophobic, despite the good clearance above her head.

“A little company wouldn't hurt right now,” she grumbled, surprised by the sound of her own voice.

The sounds weren't far away now. There were voices, periodic growling, and suddenly, the sound of someone in pain. She broke into a run, dodging half-imbedded limestone and assorted obstacles in the sandy floor of the caves.

She turned another corner expecting to see the nest, but there was nothing there, except…

Buffy bent to pick up the twisted object half buried in the sand. Glasses. She turned them, staring at the broken lenses…very familiar glasses.

She closed her eyes for a moment. *Now* she was going to do the 'everything reminds me of him,' thing? She was so over that, she reminded herself. Nobody knew how much she'd missed him in those first few weeks, how much everything reminded her of him, to the point of the ridiculous. At one point she even got choked at the sight of a parked motorcycle just because Giles liked them enough to get a periodical about them. She looked at the frames again.

They were similar, very similar to his. Someone was in trouble and they wore glasses like Giles'. She broke into a run again as another cry echoed through the caves. It even sounded like him. A tremor went down her spine as she rounded a corner. She was being an idiot. He was in England, far away, safe and rid of the burden of having to watch over a Slayer who didn't want to be, and who got killed way too much.

By the time she slid to a halt in the mouth of a very large cavern there were tears in her eyes. She wasn't sure how they got there or what the hell they were for, but she didn't have time to think about it as several huge, griffin-like creatures looked up at her. They weren't griffins though, more like winged doggies, of the nasty kind. One turned and bared its teeth at her.

*Great*, she thought. *Flying Rottweilers. Oh, joy…*

Beyond the creatures a group of humanoid demons were gathered around something. They were chanting, which accounted for the voices and one of them was periodically raising and lowering something violently, resulting in the cries she'd heard.

“Nice doggies,” she muttered, edging her way into the cave. “Hope you've had dinner.”

The 'dog' that had been watching her growled again, alerting the others.

“Oh crap.”

Buffy assessed her options in a split second. She could retreat, she could fight and get seriously julienned by those teeth and claws, or she could make for one of the torches on the wall and try a little arson.

Within moments she had reached a torch and they had closed in around her.

“Bad doggies!” she cried and thrust the burning torch at the face of the first one to lunge at her, trying to set its fur alight.

“Bad human,” it snarled in reply. “You don't belong here.”

Buffy was so shocked she stopped trying to thrust the stick into its eye. “You're hurting someone!”

“Since when do you care?” a second, mangier creature growled.

“I'm the Slayer. I care. It's my job.”

The third one laughed in a spitting, snorting, doggy sort of way.

“What's so funny?” she demanded as the cries of their victim grew louder.

“You. You haven't cared about anything for a very long time, not even yourself.”

“Just what I need. Talking demon dogs. What's next? Vampire cows?”

The lead 'dog' flicked a glance at the torch in her hand, his huge black eyes reflecting the flames.

“You wanted to walk through the fire…more like whimpered around it up to now.”

“What are you?” Buffy demanded, not liking how much it seemed to know about her. Another cry rang out. “And what are they doing?”

“Why ask me? Why don't you look for yourself?”

Buffy looked from one creature to another, surprised when they separated to make a path for her. When she reached the group in the centre of the cavern she was shocked to realise they weren't demons and their victim was heart-wrenchingly familiar.

“Giles!” she cried, as a hooded figure stepped forward and thrust a sword through him. He screamed and kicked both when it went in and when it was drawn out, but there was no blood. When the figure stepped away he was sagging, spittle coming from his mouth and his breath was being drawn in huge, ragged gasps. Before he could recover, a second robed figure stepped forward and caressed his hair before ripping off his shirt and taking his ring. He watched it back away and began to weep softly.

Buffy tried to run forward, to stop whatever was happening, and found herself stuck, as though up to her neck in gum or something. Nothing she could do would free her.

The third and fourth figures stepped forward together. The smaller one painted his cheeks and his nose red, drew on large clown eyebrows and produced a big hoop earring from somewhere, while the other looked on wordlessly.

When they stepped back, he finally looked up at them all, his eyes sad and reproachful then fearful again as the first figure began the routine all over again. His scream was even louder this time as the sword plunged violently into his chest.

“No!” Buffy screamed, despite the surrealism of it all. “Giles!”

He did not look up. He sounded like he was in agony, but again there was no blood, no guts…just terrible pain.

She fought again to free herself from whatever spell had been put on her, cursing and struggling as it held her even harder.

And then it occurred to her that in fairy tales and the like, these kinds of traps were often like Chinese finger puzzles. Relax, and they let go.

She looked across at the slumped figure and strove to relax. She needed to get to him. Forgotten was the fact that he shouldn't even have been there, that he wasn't even bleeding after being run through twice. All that mattered was getting to him…

With a superhuman effort she bit down on her lip and stayed very still, moving only when she felt the oppressive weight lessen around her feet. Very slowly, she put one foot in front of the other until after a torturous few minutes she'd reached the group, just as the smallest one was about to plunge the sword in again.

She grabbed the figure and threw it on the ground with force, so that the sword flew out of its grasp. Blindly, Buffy followed, beating it and beating it until the hood fell away and a flood of blonde hair spilled out.

Buffy gasped as her own eyes looked up at her through rapid swelling, her own mouth trying to move despite the split lip. Finally, it managed one word.

“Bitch!”

A sob was torn from her as she staggered away. Then she turned to the others, dragging back their hoods. Willow, Xander, Anya…

“No!” she cried again, wheeling and lunging toward the figure hanging from the stake he was tied to in the middle of the cavern. “Giles!” Her fingers touched his skin, but the sound he made was more painful, more agonised than anything she'd heard before.

“Giles!” Buffy sat up, breathing hard, looked around and saw her room. For a few moments it sank in that it was a nightmare, that it wasn't real...and then it really sank in.

He wasn't there. She burst into tears.

For the first time since her return she didn't just weep; she sobbed, wracking, choking, cleansing sobs, on and on until she couldn't cry any more.


********

Giles lifted his head from working in the shop's ledgers, tired but with a sense of accomplishment after hours of effort. Something was in the work out room. Vague, muffled sounds, but nevertheless noises that shouldn't have been there.

He crept towards it, the Inigra Stone in hand, glad of its granite weight, and made a mental note not to keep *all* the weapons in the work out room in future. It didn't cross his mind that it wasn't his decision any more, or that he shouldn't even have been there, as he crept towards the familiar room.

He opened the door just a crack, the familiar scents of Buffy's perfume, leather, the faint tang of human effort, and the slightest hint of the varnish he and Xander had used, still lingering in the air.

It twisted his heart, the degree to which he'd missed all of it. He squinted, trying to see in the half-light of evening, after the brightness of his lamp.

The figure did flips across the room before hitting the pommel horse and somersaulting over it, then went through a series of pseudo-martial arts exercises, growing faster and faster with each repetition.

He would know that figure anywhere. His heart began to race and his throat filled as she continued to move lithely around the room, practising every move they'd ever done together, picking up and using, then putting down various weapons as she went, until finally she returned to the pommel horse and stood silently before it.

He held his breath as she took hold of it and pushed upwards until her legs rose straight up in the air, her body firming to hold itself in perfect symmetry. In the subtle light and shadows and the silence of the room, the stillness and the balance with which she held herself was haunting.

Giles swallowed. She'd had nowhere near that kind of focus even long before her death. And it had been his fault…*All his fault.*

“Oh God, Buffy,” he whispered.

But it was loud enough. She had heard him easily with her Slayer hearing. Giles saw her legs sway, knew her left shoulder was collapsing. He lunged across the polished floor to try and catch her as she fell in slow motion.

“Buffy!”

But he didn't make it and the silence as she smashed into the mat-less floor was more agonised than if she had screamed. He fell, still in motion, to his knees, and slid to a halt next to her, extending his hand to touch her cheek, to tell her he was sorry…but the moment he touched the lifeless face, she was gone.

“Buffy!!” He sat up in the old antique bed, covers falling away, sobbing almost angrily, wrapped his arms around himself and rocked.

“Buffy…”


*******


Frightened, Willow pulled away from the mirror. “Are you sure we're doing the right thing?”

Tara turned, her eyes sad, but untroubled. “All we did was prod their subconscious. The rest they did on their own.”

Willow wrinkled her nose. “You make it sound like lancing a boil,” she complained.

Tara smiled. “Exactly,” she said.


*******

Buffy looked up at the sound of muffled footsteps.

“Whatcha doing?”

“Slaying vampires. What does it look like I'm doing?” she shot back.

Dawn rolled her eyes. “Who are the gifts for?”

Buffy finished arranging her not inconsiderable booty around the tree. “Everyone,” she said simply. “I want this Christmas to be happy. Really happy.”

Dawn watched her, not fooled. “You okay?” she asked finally.

Buffy nodded silently. “You aren't allowed to grope or shake your presents. Takes all the fun out of it.”

Dawn shrugged. “Not going to be much fun without…without mom or…or Giles,” she finished with difficulty.

“Willow and Tara are back,” Buffy reminded her, swallowing the rock in her throat. “We'll have fun. You know how much Anya likes Christmas, and you always have fun with Xander.”

Dawn looked away. “Yeah, but it's way better if everyone's happy. Christmas is supposed to be happy.”

“Hey,” Buffy objected, indicating all the gaily-wrapped parcels. “I'm with the Christmas spirit, here.”

The younger girl's eyes flashed. “You bought presents. I recognise the wrappings and the ribbon from the Magic Box. You got Anya to do the wrapping.”

“And where's the bad in that?” Buffy demanded. “I so suck at gift-wrapping. It's hard enough choosing things that people like.”

“It's supposed to be fun,” Dawn reminded her. “Which requires the mouth to be actually fighting gravity there, not cooperating with it…you know, for a person to not look like someone just died.” At that point she couldn't help flicking a glance to the mantelpiece even though that wasn't what she meant.

“I'm trying,” Buffy said stubbornly and got up. “I'm making hot chocolate. You want?”

Before Dawn could form a reply Buffy had left the room. “Yes!” she finally yelled out, and looked at the tree. There were new ornaments on it she didn't recognise. She examined each of them and discovered that they all had names. There was one for her, for Buffy, for Willow and Tara, Xander and Anya. And there was even one for mom, and, finally, a beautifully carved wooden one with 'Giles' written on it.

Sniffing, Dawn dropped to her knees and looked at all the labels on the new gifts. There was one for everyone else and four for her from Buffy. There was also a tiny wrapped box marked 'mom' that made her hands shake, and another marked simply 'Giles.' She put all the packages back where she found them and got up slowly.

Then she saw it. Buffy had added another candle and a picture of both of them, next to her mother's, in her small shrine. In the picture Buffy had her arm around her shoulders and both of them were smiling. At first Dawn was angry, but the anger quickly turned to tears when she realised that her sister had simply wanted to reunite them all for Christmas. Her breath was taken by the significance of the gesture, given Buffy's previously repressed emotional state.

“Dawn, chocolate's made! You want marshmallows or not?” Buffy's voice boomed from the other room.

“Not!” she yelled back, smiled to herself and headed for the kitchen.


*******

Giles reached his apartment and closed the door behind him, glad to be back from the hustle and bustle of Christmas shoppers. It was all vaguely depressing, watching mothers cajoling small children to smile on Santa's knee, listening to canned carols in every store and live ones on street corners. He sighed as he sat down in his leather armchair. It should have been very pleasant and warming, as should the seasonal trimmings everywhere. As a child, and even as a thuggish young man, he'd always had a soft spot for Christmas in England. Even in Sunnydale he'd yearned for the cold and the tradition of a British Yuletide, yet now he was here it all seemed so…

A little while later her got up to make tea, well aware of the real reason for his sadness and unwilling to think too much about it. He left his bags of shopping on the coffee table. It wasn't until he came back and tipped them out while sipping his tea, that he remembered his earlier melancholy.

The packages and gifts spilled onto the table, most of them mailing sized. There were English toffees for Xander, a pocket organiser for Anya, an antique charm bracelet for Dawn, lockets for Willow and Tara because he wasn't sure if they'd be together again or not, and for Buffy, who was never on time, whether she was still speaking to him or not, a beautiful silver watch, the value of which he'd never tell her, for fear she would never wear it.

He turned it over as he put the tea mug down and stared at the words he'd had engraved on the back, his mouth clamping into a straight line as his eyes grew brighter and brighter.


*******

“If Anya asks for Good King Wenceslas one more time, I'm going to scream!” Willow hissed.

Christmas Eve was cold and brisk, which was just as well, because Buffy had lit the fire in honour of her mother, who felt that it wasn't Christmas without one. They had spent the day playing games and attempting to make Christmas fare. They'd all made a gingerbread man, and had all pitched in to make the nog, though Dawn had been left out of the tasting after the magic ingredient had been added, using the brandy left over from the previous Christmas, found in the back of the cupboard with the flour and sugar canisters during the baking session.

After that Anya had insisted on games and despite all expectations they had been played in good spirits and uproariously good humour.

Willow had been surprised to see even Buffy join in on one or two. She seemed a natural at UNO and was a happy flop at Monopoly, amused by her frequent trips to jail and her sister's refusal to sell her a 'get out of jail free' card.

By evening they had all consumed far too much gingerbread, Christmas cookies, nuts, chips and candy. Nobody wanted dinner so Anya, who had been reading up about Christmas since it was going to be their first without any adults present, suggested singing Christmas Carols. Willow and Xander had promptly burst into a rendition of Jingle Bells in memory of the stolen moments of their childhood, when they would lock themselves in his room after watching the Snoopy Christmas special to get away from his family, pool their meagre collection of secreted Christmas fare and sing Carols together until her mom came to pick her up.

Hanukah did not fall at Christmas this year, but Buffy had agreed to Willow's Menora being lit symbolically. Dawn had been fascinated by both it, and the history of the Jewish celebration.

Willow, Tara's arm around her, watched the Slayer now, quietly joining in the rendition of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer that Xander had started up over the top of his girlfriend's repeated demands for the dreaded Good King Wenceslas, to which no one could remember the words anyway. Instead he'd circled her waist and drawn her close, silencing her objections with a Christmas kiss. When she spluttered he'd pointed to the ceiling.

Dawn had placed Mistletoe everywhere. It had earned the young Summers two kisses on the cheek from Xander and much gratitude since he'd got to kiss every woman in the house at least twice, and *not* on the cheek…

Voices rose and vied with each other in fun, Tara and Dawn's clear, sweet tones, Buffy and Willow searching a little and a lot for the key, and Xander's voice just plain loud and pleased with himself. Anya was scowling and not joining in.

Willow looked at her friends and realised two things. One, it was the first time they'd all been together without any kind of conflict, evil or undercurrent, since Buffy died, and two, it was still painfully clear how alone Buffy was. Xander had curled his other arm around Dawn, and she and Tara were still holding each other contentedly. Buffy, on the other hand, stood alone. She had rosy cheeks from the nog and seemed in good spirits, but her shoulders were down and she stood slightly apart, and alone, as she sang.


*******

Giles paid the cab driver and picked up his bags. The place was in darkness, which was to be expected. The key Buffy had given him when her mother died still fitted the lock. He didn't know whether to be pleased or angry about that. If he'd been turned they'd all be in danger. Vampires might need an invitation, but demon henchmen certainly didn't.

He closed the door behind him and slipped quietly into the living room. His previous trip back had revealed the hiding places of the Summers bed linen so making himself up a bed for the night wasn't a problem. After putting all his gifts under the tree, he straightened and noticed the pictures on the mantle for the first time. The candles had almost burned completely down. A pang went through him at how much this tiny family's lives had changed, and how unfairly.

With a sigh he moved silently to the kitchen. Blast the heavy airline bookings anyway. Who knew that you had to book three months in advance to get a seat for Christmas? He was bloody lucky to have got the seat in Coach, but it wasn't what he planned…sneaking about in the night like this.

He'd just assembled a snack and a blessedly hot cup of tea when a noise made him straighten and turn.

The night owl jumped and squeaked, then squealed and sprinted across the kitchen, threw herself into his arms. For a moment both held each other as tightly as the other.

Then, when they parted, Willow grinned up at him. “You came!”

Giles smiled sheepishly. “I wasn't aware that I'd given any indication that I would be anywhere near Sunnydale anytime in the foreseeable future.”

The Wiccan had the good grace to turn bright red. “Um, well, we were all wishing you were here,” she managed, but to no avail.

“Willow?” he said severely.

“I'm clean, Giles, I swear,” she told him, her eyes large and without guile. “It wasn't magic…not really.” She saw Giles' eyes narrow and hurried on. “Buffy's been hurting bad. A-and it was because of you…I mean…I heard her…with the dreams…calling out your name and everything. I asked Tara to help me and we just…she made it easier for you guys to see what you really want…who you really want, but I swear we didn't do anything else.”

Giles blinked at this breathless revelation. “Last time I heard from Dawn you were in serious trouble, Willow. Are you sure everything's all right?”

Willow nodded, her eyes growing moist. “Almost,” she said honestly. “It's so hard, Giles. I almost didn't make it. I couldn't without Tara.”

He smiled again, relieved and pleased, and drew her back into his arms for another hug.
“I'm so very glad,” he told her. “Tara loves you. We all do and we were terribly worried about you.”

“And we've been terribly worried about you,” she mimicked.

Giles released her and smiled again, a little self-consciously. “I'm a grown man and I can take care of myself. You don't have to worry about me.”

Willow's expression changed from amusement to a cross between 'resolve face' and 'who do you think you're kidding?'

“You're here, aren't you?” she said quietly. “And I bet you haven't exactly been burning the midnight in old Blighty.”

He tilted his head, trying not to smile. “Not exactly,” he agreed then turned to put the kettle on. “Tea?”

“Thanks.” She understood that he didn't want to expand that conversation. “Hungry?” she asked, opening the refrigerator.

“Actually, yes, but it's a little late for…”

“Leave it to me,” Willow told him.

A short time later they were sitting at the dining table with their tea and a half a box of donuts left over from the previous day. Xander had brought them for everyone, but they'd all been sampling the Christmas fare way too much, except Buffy, who'd been very quiet, and who behaved almost weirdly when Xander offered her the jellies first, knowing they were her favourites.

Willow watched Giles demolish a blackberry jelly and reach for the strawberry, and grinned to herself. Sometimes it was almost painful how much she missed the old days of 'all-nighters' at the library, just the four of them, or five with Cordelia, working as a team. She sighed. So long ago and so far away…

“Willow?”

Willow looked up at him. “Sometimes I just miss…” Her eyes slid to the donuts.

“Old times?”

She nodded, and when her eyes met his, realised that he missed them too.

“We move on,” he said simply. “And we make new memories.”

“Yeah, sucky ones,” she said almost tersely, her large green eyes rolling at the thought of the years since graduation.

“Perhaps,” he conceded, “but not all of them.”

Willow shrugged. “Not all of them,” she agreed, then changed the subject quietly. “She needs you, you know.” His expression clearly said he wished it was so, but that it was a forlorn hope. She touched his arm. “Trust me,” she said, in a voice much older than her years.

Giles held her gaze for a time before finishing his tea and quietly collecting everything to take to the sink. She followed him there when he turned on a faucet to rinse up. They washed and dried silently. When they were done Willow smiled fondly at him.

“I can't believe you're here,” she said softly and hugged him again. “Merry Christmas, Giles.”

Giles reciprocated the hug appreciatively. “Merry Christmas, Willow.”

They parted and she touched his arm again. “It's going to be fine, you'll see.”

This time he didn't smile. “Perhaps,” he said.


*******

When they were small they used to creep downstairs to peep at what Santa might have brought, and later, when they still felt the magic, but didn't believe, they still crept downstairs, too excited about what mom and dad might have left under the tree in Santa's good name…

Buffy, up with the dawn as she so often was these days, yawned as she emerged, chilled, from the bathroom in her tank top and grey sweat pants, and almost decided to go back to bed for another couple of hours. Dawn hadn't made an appearance yet, and the house was as still as the proverbial night before Christmas.

…Except that old memories were suddenly vivid in her mind. The magic of finding the booty under the tree, the fun of finding ways to wake mom and dad…mom's ability to be in three places at once…making breakfast, opening gifts and bringing coffee to dad… She closed her eyes for a moment, wishing so hard that she could just hear Joyce's voice one more time, wishing fervently out loud that her girls would sleep even just a couple of hours longer *next* Christmas.

The grey blue eyes opened again and she headed for the stairs. If for no other reason, she was going to go and light a new candle for Christmas day. Mostly, though, she just wanted to see her mother's face again…

The house was still in shadows, the smell of pine was everywhere and there were indeed more gifts under the tree, but when Buffy arrived at the living room she saw and noticed none of it. Her eyes were riveted on the couch and a Christmas wish not even she could believe had come true.

For a long time she couldn't move. She was fighting an impulse to run, another to scream and scream at him for leaving her, and yet another to throw herself into his arms and stay there forever.

Eventually she moved to the sofa and looked down at the sleeping figure, a lump forming in her throat. She couldn't have spoken if she wanted to. For some considerable time she just watched him sleep. She had never seen him sleep, even though once they'd technically slept overnight in the same room at Xander's. She half smiled at the memory of his grumpy morning persona, then her face dropped again.

So much had happened since then. So much had changed…

Ignoring her goose bumps and shivering from cold morning air, Buffy knelt alongside the couch still barely able to believe he was real. He was snoring very, very softly, but enough to reveal how tired he must have been and how deeply he was sleeping.

Hesitantly, but almost as though she couldn't help herself, she reached out trembling fingers to touch his tousled hair. Real. His hair was soft, and silky to the touch. She stroked it very lightly, pushing his tawny locks behind his warm ear very gently, surprised how peaceful he looked despite the crow's feet at the corner of his eye and the vague dark circle under it. It was as though sleep spirited away all the badness and somehow cleansed the soul for just a little while. It also struck her forcefully how rarely she'd ever seen Giles look at peace…or truly happy, for that matter.

He moved a little when she let the backs of her fingers brush over his cheek, making her jump, but didn't wake. Buffy removed her hand, suddenly unwilling to interrupt his small escape from the harsh realities of life. Instead she rested on her heels and watched him, aware that her emotions were close to the surface but content to simply have him back, whatever might come later…

Later turned out to be about five minutes and a loud voice away.

“Buffy what are you…?”

Dawn stopped, her interest in the tree, her presents and her sister's presence in the room without her, forgotten. A riot of things went through the teenager's head. Excitement and joy that Giles was back, curiosity and wonder at her sister's silent vigil, and the sure knowledge that the two of them didn't need her there right now.

By the time Buffy looked around, Dawn was gone. When she turned back to Giles, his green eyes were watching her curiously.

For an eternity they held each other's gaze, Buffy feeling almost as though she could fall into those achingly familiar jade windows…Then, as though drawn, she was stroking his hair again, his face, tracing the lines in it with great tenderness.

Giles watched her, astonished, not only by her actions, but at how thin she was, how very lost she looked. He didn't dare move, didn't want the moment, or her touch, to end.

When she finally grew self-conscious and her fingers fell away, he allowed himself to smile very gently. “Hello,” he said softly.

The now grey-green eyes filled, but did not look away.

It was his turn to extend a hand, gentle fingers brushing the droplets from her lashes, before tracing the soft skin over a too-sharply defined jaw. Her gaze wavered, but held.

When he finally smiled a little, trying to reassure her, he saw her lip begin to tremble. “Tears on Christmas day? Not on my watch,” he admonished gently, trying to control his own emotions, and realising at the same time that the rest of her was trembling as well, from the cold.

At the word 'watch' Buffy seemed to withdraw again, her expression shuttered, and Giles' heart sank. He had more than expected a cold shoulder on his arrival, possibly even anger, after the way he'd left her. Now it seemed that he'd shattered the fragile beginnings of a possible reprieve…barging through gossamer maybes with all the subtlety of the proverbial bull.

“I've missed you,” he told her finally, his voice still gentle.

The cool withdrawal fell away like a broken chrysalis.

A moment later she was in his arms. Their embrace was fierce and possessive, Buffy clinging with an uncharacteristic ferocity, and still shaking.

Giles could feel how cold her skin was. He released her enough to lift his blanket in invitation, with one arm, revealing that he was wearing a t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms to keep warm, himself.

Buffy hesitated, then moved wordlessly onto the sofa, curling up in his arms and burying her head in his chest as he drew the blanket around her, enveloping her in a blissful cocoon, his own radiating warmth driving the cold from her bones and his presence temporarily driving the ever present pain from her soul.

He closed his eyes. If this were a dream, he wanted it to last forever, but it wasn't a dream. Whatever he had hoped to achieve by leaving her, this broken Buffy was not it. He kissed the top of her head and leaned his cheek against her sweet-scented hair, wondering how it could have come to this.

Why had not one letter, one phone call included the information that his Slayer was now little more than a shadow of her former self?

He drew her even closer, as though somehow he could shield her from whatever demons were ravaging her now. She'd ceased shivering and was snuggled tight against him, her fingers wound reflexively into his shirt, cheek pressed against his chest. Long minutes passed before he felt her body relax and heard her breathing deepen and slow and knew she'd drifted off to sleep.

Somehow it meant more than any protestation of love or forgiveness…this silent declaration of absolute trust. It told him more than he could have ever hoped, and yet still left him with the nagging doubt that it might mean nothing more…

With a silent sigh he drew the cover more tightly around them and nestled his cheek more comfortably in the silky hair, content to be with her just this once...


*******


Willow and Tara emerged to find Dawn coming out of the bathroom.

“Merry Christmas!” they chorused.

“And how,” Dawn agreed fervently. “Bet you don't know what's under the Christmas tree!”

“Bet I do,” Willow teased.

“Not this. I went down stairs like, about sunup, and guess who was sleeping on the couch?”

Willow's eyes widened. She wasn't expecting that. “I-I know. He came in late last night. Didn't want to disturb anyone.”

“Yeah, well, I didn't even get to say hi. When I went down there, Buffy was already there and it looked pretty intense.”

“They weren't fighting?” Tara asked, alarmed.

Dawn rolled her eyes. “Not that kind of intense. Although they weren't y'know, doing anything, exactly.”

Tara frowned for a moment. “Oh…*oh*,” she said finally.

But Dawn was tired of waiting. “Well, he should be up now. It's Christmas morning and I want to see what 'Santa' brought,” the younger Summers declared, and headed for the stairs. “You guys coming?”

Willow and Tara looked at each other, then bolted after her.

They all reached the bottom of the stairs in a rush, realised how they must have looked and collected themselves before turning toward the living room. When they reached it, they stopped. None of them spoke. There was something incredibly moving about the two people curled up together on the couch as one, both sound asleep…a peaceful slumber, free of nightmares and loneliness.

“Looks like I got my Christmas present,” Willow finally whispered.

Tara slid an arm around her waist. “I hope so,” she smiled, but there was concern in her eyes.

“Huh?” Dawn grunted predictably.

Willow gestured toward the kitchen. “I wanted Giles to come back because Buffy needs him,” she explained when they gathered in the other room.

Dawn blinked. “Oh. I just wanted him to come back because I miss him. You seriously didn't think there was anything disturbing about the two of them like that?” she asked dryly.

Willow produced a fusion of 'resolved face' and a scowl. “When was the last time your sister slept like that?”

Dawn shrugged. “How would I know? She has her own room. I only know when she's making with the smoochies in there with someone…or if there's nightmares.”

“Nightmares?” Willow prompted.

Dawn frowned. “All the time…oh,” she realised, “you think that's why the 'Lost Weekend' look? I was gonna say something about those circles under her eyes, anyway. They make her look scary and sick sometimes.”

“And you haven't mentioned these nightmares to anyone, because…?” Tara asked gently.

“Because they're nightmares. Everybody has them. Buffy's always had nightmares. She's just been having a lot more lately. Oh…I did bad, huh?” she realised sombrely.

“It's okay, Dawny,” Willow told her. “I think everything's going to be okay now Giles is here.”

Dawn looked at the door, an uncomfortable expression on her face. “You guys don't really think they like…*did* anything in there, do you?”

Tara guffawed.

Willow turned bright red but shook her head. “It was way cold last night. Sharing bodily warmth, that's all. Besides, they looked so cute,” she finished, unable to suppress a smile.

Dawn rolled her eyes. “Now can we wake them up? It's Christmas. If they sleep much longer Xander and Anya will be here and you know what Anya's going to say if she sees them like that.”

“You guys go and start breakfast,” Tara told them. “I'll think of something.”


*******

Giles and Buffy jumped at the same moment, a door slamming somewhere in the house still reverberating along now-frayed nerve endings. A moment later they both realised where they were sleeping and with whom.

Giles felt Buffy tense and relaxed his embrace immediately. “Merry Christmas,” he said gently.

She shifted to look up at him for a long moment, then scrambled up and fled.

He watched her flight with sadness before gathering up his clothes, shoes and shaving gear and heading for the downstairs bathroom. When he emerged, showered, dressed in jeans and new lambswool sweater, shaved and considerably more awake, he realised that he wasn't alone moments before he found himself besieged by multiple embraces. The place smelled like pancakes and bacon and coffee. He would have thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere if he hadn't been so concerned about Buffy.

After returning a chorus of 'Merry Christmases' he finally stepped back. “It's good to see you all again too,” he told them, “but right now there's something I have to do. Save me some breakfast before young Dawn demolishes the lot.” Before any of them could object he was bounding up the stairs.

The last time he'd been upstairs in the Summers home, Buffy had been rather the worse for wear after drinking with Spike and he'd parted with a considerable amount of cash without ever being certain he was doing the right thing. Now he hesitated outside her door, unsure of himself, and her…

Last night seemed almost like a dream now. Certainly when he'd been wakened to find her right there, watching him with such intensity, it had seemed like all his dreams were staring back at him in one pair of sad blue-grey eyes, a feeling not lessened by the sensation of holding her close, safe in his arms for a few precious hours.

He almost changed his mind, ready to pretend none of it had happened, and to carry on with Christmas as though nothing had changed. Instead he rapped on the door before he could change his mind again.

“Come in,” a voice said reluctantly.

Buffy was sitting in the centre of her bed, knees drawn up, arms folded on top of them, head on her arms in a tight, defensive ball.

“I wanted to see if you were all right,” Giles explained, smiling gently. “I'm not entirely used to having that kind of effect on women.”

Buffy almost smiled back, lifting her head enough to look back at him properly. “I'm sorry,” she said and couldn't stop her gaze from sliding away self-consciously.

“Was it really so terrible?” he asked, again with gentle humour.

“No…really no,” she insisted, as though shocked that he would think that. “It's not…I mean…it's me. I shouldn't have…it's not fair to you.”

A divot formed in Giles' brow. “Buffy, what's wrong?” She was pale and it was obvious that there was something very wrong.

“I…Giles, I'm not human any more.”

“You don't have to be so hard on yourself,” he reassured her, misunderstanding.

“No. I'm serious. Spike can hit me. He can't hit anyone else, but he can hit me. I'm… Giles, I came back *wrong*. I'm something…I don't know what, but not something you'd ever want to be with.”

Giles swallowed a lump in his throat. “My God, Buffy…you must never think that I wouldn't want you...I never stopped…” He halted, aware that he'd revealed far too much, and changed tack. “Whatever this is, we'll work it out. Are you certain Spike wasn't pretending to be pain free in order to manipulate your feelings for him?”

Buffy paused for a moment. “No. He could maybe pull it off once…but not that many…” Her voice trailed off when she realised what she almost revealed to him.

Giles' frown grew dark. “How many times did he hit you?”

Buffy shook her head. “It's wasn't like that…exactly. I hit him a lot too. I don't know what's happening to me. I beat on Spike so hard a building fell down...and I still didn't feel anything. It's like…I was a blank, except for this pain that never stops.” She stopped suddenly, as though struck by a revelation.

“Buffy?”

She shook her head quickly. “Nothing.”

Giles moved towards her, but stopped when he saw her flinch. For a moment he was caught between anger and hurt. Then he made a choice and continued to moved forward.

Buffy cringed into an even smaller ball as he sat beside her.

“Whatever the reason Spike's chip isn't working on you, we'll find it,” he repeated. “And until then you must remember that you are Buffy Summers and you are a warm, loving human being, regardless of what an amorously obsessed vampire might try to make you believe. And if, indeed, the spell *has* caused something about you to be changed, I promise you we'll find a way to make it right.”

He turned his body on the bed, to face her. “Even if there's something missing, you are still you. Remember that. Losing anything…a leg, or a kidney or a toe does not make you any less the Buffy Summers I know and…care for.” Something occurred to him then. “In case you were thinking it, it can't be your soul. You still love your sister and you still care about your friends. And I cannot forget how much like the old Buffy you were when you were Joan,” he added gently. “Whatever this is, I don't think the essence of what makes you, you, has changed, love. And I promise you I won't leave until we know what it is and how to make you yourself again.”

Buffy's eyes widened, not least because he had called her 'love'. Giles never used endearments to anyone, especially her. “You…you're leaving again?”

Too late, he realised his mistake, but would not lie to her. “I'm not going anywhere, any time soon,” he reassured her, “but you must remember my home, my flat, *is* in England now. I can't change that overnight.”

Uncharacteristic tears welled and overflowed as Buffy watched his face for any sign that he was uncomfortable or giving himself an out to escape from the dirty, dark thing she believed she had become.

“There's something I didn't tell you,” she said coldly, not recognising her own need to test him. “When I was having that pummel-fest with Spike…we…I had sex with him.”

The blood left Giles face. He swallowed hard, as much to stop the shock from closing off his throat as anything else.

“Did he…?” he managed hoarsely, wanting to stake the vampire with his bare hands.

Buffy shook her head. “Spike's a lot of things, including a major pig, but he's not a rapist. At least…not…that I know of…” she finished awkwardly, remembering too late his history with Angelus. Then she raised defiant eyes to his. “It was me. I wanted to feel something…anything…to make this emptiness go away…and he was offering…I mean, he's been offering for a long time…so I finally took him up…well, just took him, actually.”

Realisation filled his chest with pain and his eyes with regret. “I'm sorry,” he whispered.

Buffy wasn't looking at him, staring instead at the quilt. She shrugged. “You left. Everybody leaves me. *Everybody*,” she said vehemently. “Stupid thing is I thought you were d…” She looked up as she spoke and froze.

Giles struggled, but couldn't control his emotions or the pain of knowing what she'd allowed herself to become in his absence. He'd been repressing so much, for so long. Moisture escaped his long lashes.

He'd been so certain he was doing the right thing and he'd been so very wrong…

Buffy stared at him as he sat there struggling for some semblance of his usual British reserve, while she tried equally as hard to stop her own hands from trembling.

Aside from the Eyghon incident, she had never had to face the humanity of this man, to see the face of his pain. Even when he was so angry with her for hiding Angel, she had only seen the anger…she'd been too young to truly understand the rest. Buffy bit her lip. She'd been too young to understand a lot of things over the years; things that were only too painfully clear now.

“You really, really don't want me,” she whispered. “I'm not who I was before I died. I'm not even human…I'm not even clean. You deserve more.”

“What if I told you I didn't want more?” he asked unexpectedly, ignoring the self-loathing in her voice.

Buffy stared at him with startled eyes. “Want?”

His head tilted a little, almost in amusement, though his insides were behaving abominably.

“I have always loved you, Buffy. I've always loved what you are, your strength and your ability to endure and to overcome, your cheek and your laughter. I think I've been waiting for a long time. And I'm not sure I want to wait any longer.”

“W-waiting for me to love you?”

“Waiting for you to grow up,” he corrected softly.

“Oh,” she said awkwardly. “Because I was going to say I always loved you, Giles. Well, maybe not when you told me I had to go out and get killed…with, you know, the Master thing…but you know what I mean, right?”

He managed a smile. “Yes, I know what you mean. You loved me in that quaint 'he'll be there whenever I need him' way of yours, which requires little or no effort on your part, but a great deal of foolish heartache and disappointment on mine,” he recounted ruefully.

Buffy looked down. “I told you that you deserve better.”

He smiled again. “Perhaps. But as I told you, I don't want what you think I deserve, you silly girl. I…” He suddenly became self-conscious.

She watched him with a degree of warmth and tenderness she hadn't felt in…well, ever.

“Shall I tell you something weird about my nightmares?” she asked quietly, to rescue him. Giles managed to convey a yes without speaking, looking both relieved and curious.

“You're never there. And every time, no matter what the nightmare is about, whether I'm fighting giant vamps, or trying to dig my way out that box, or stomach-regurgitating demons are trying to digest me, or this house is chasing me and trying to squish me flat…whatever bizzaro thing it is, I always want you. Not mom, not even dad. Not Riley or Angel, or God forbid, Spike. Every time, it's you. Her eyes locked with his.

“It's you.”

Giles stared. It seemed like it was all he was capable of, as the world seemed to bend around them and block out all else.

Buffy felt the first warm rays of hope. His eyes were so not making any secret of the feelings he was too stunned to articulate.

Eventually he made himself move, a trembling hand reaching out as it had once before, and cupping her face.

“Still a miracle,” she teased very gently, trying to break the tension.

He chuckled softly and nodded. “More than a miracle…more than anyone has a right to ask you to be,” he told her, his voice growing husky with emotion.

A moment later she was in his arms again, aware that there was nowhere in the universe she want to be as much as she wanted to be there.

Giles held the precious form fiercely close and exhaled a lungful of fearful anticipation before lowering his head to kiss the blonde crown.

In response Buffy lifted her face to his.

He looked down at her, aware that the world had shifted on his axis, that things had changed forever…and that neither had ever looked more beautiful than she did right now.

She searched the dear, familiar features, the overwhelming love in them taking her breath away, and knew that the aching void she'd been consumed by had already been filled. Whatever else might come in the wake of Spike's revelation, she knew she would not be facing it alone.

Buffy swallowed and touched his cheek, as though to tell him silently that it was all right. He leaned a little against her fingers, closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them again, a glow in them, and found assent in hers.

His head lowered very slowly, very tentatively, until their mouths were almost touching. Then the velvet lips brushed her soft, sweet ones for the first time.

Neither of them were prepared for their reactions to the tender salute. Giles was shocked at the power she already had over his body, now that he had revealed his heart to her, while Buffy was still struggling to reconcile the warm flood of love and desire she felt for him with the cold violence of her couplings with Spike, or the fruitless struggle to find satisfaction or even warmth in any of them.

When he saw the flicker of hurt in her eyes, Giles immediately released her, and Buffy felt a pain akin to bereavement at the loss.

“Did I do something wrong?” she asked with a fragility that frightened him.

“Lord no,” he told her. “I-I thought I had. You looked so…”

“No,” she shook her head. “Not you. I was thinking about before, how awful it was compared to…” She stopped, stunned, and touched his mouth again, as if to confirm the reality of that kiss. “God, Giles, I can really feel it…I love you *so* much…”

He didn't need to speak. His eyes spoke for him, shouting out his joy, his love and the flame of his desire as he kissed her fingers and grinned back at her before bending his head again.

This time the kiss began as it had before, but continued, each mouth reaching for the other, exploring, adoring, sharing as they never had before, all that they were and all that they had to give each other.

When they stopped this time, it was because they were afraid they wouldn't be able to, if they continued much longer.

“Christmas,” Buffy said breathlessly.

“Quite,” Giles said ridiculously, flushed adorably for a man of his experience. “Dawn wants to open her gifts…and there's food.”

“Food is good,” she agreed, put her arms around his neck, and kissed him again.

“Food is very good,” he managed when they finally parted. “I think we should get some of whatever that is that smells so good, before Xander gets here.”

Buffy giggled at his breathlessness. “Good idea. I always thought he'd grow out of it, but our Xand' is still quite the human vacuum cleaner.”

“Quite,” Giles agreed, knowing that he'd become as inarticulate as a schoolboy and not giving a damn as he stole another kiss.


*******

Dawn saw them first. “Incoming!” she called, a tad too loudly.

Tara and Willow stopped their small French-toast production line to look up. “You think you might make that a little louder and let Xander and Anya know too?” Tara teased.

“But they're not here yet…oh,” Dawn realised sheepishly. “They wouldn't have heard me.”

“Hey Dawny, gotta love that early warning system, guys,” Buffy teased as they entered the warm kitchen with its delicious smells.

All three sets of eyes were conspicuously drawn to the couple's rosy faces and their cute attempts to look casual.

The difference in Buffy already was stunning. She was going to take time to regain the lost weight but the colour in her face and the ill-concealed joy in her eyes lent a radiance and a vivacity of life to the Slayer that none of them had seen since before Joyce had passed away.

Willow swallowed hard. “Merry Christmas, guys,” she said in a voice thick with emotion.

“Merry Christmas,” Tara added, smiling gently, her eyes bright, and hugged Giles and Buffy in turn.

“Speaking of which…” Dawn reminded them.

Giles and Buffy ate breakfast in a hurry, determined to enjoy the pancakes and the French toast and all the other delights before being hustled into the living room by an uncharacteristically kid-like Dawn just in time for the arrival of Anya and Xander.

Fortunately Tara had had the forethought to restart the fire and the room was as warm as toast. Giles fore-bore another crashing hug from Anya and shook hands with a stunned, but pleased Xander when they came in and saw him sitting with Buffy. Then everyone settled quickly to appease the ever more excitable teen, dying to open her gifts and not displaying even the barest rudiments of patience.

Therefore it was Dawn who was eventually elected to give out the gifts and who fell to the chore with gusto. Soon the room was a sea of wrapping paper, tissue, laughter and gifts. Hugs and kisses were exchanged with monotonous regularity but no one tired of the exercise.

Eventually Giles was given a heavy package that was marked 'To Giles, love Buffy'. He took off his glasses and looked down at her curiously, but she only gestured for him to open it. He slid the spectacles into his breast pocket and proceeded.

Inside was a small replica, not of a modern American monstrosity, but of a British dream machine…a vintage Vincent motorcycle. He looked up, grinning.

“How…?”

Buffy shrugged. “It was either that or a book or a sword, or something demon-y. I've read your mags one or three times to relieve the boredom of all night research. What? I was desperate, okay?” she told him when he looked dubious. “They're British, for a start, and you have a habit of doodling comments next to pictures you really like. It wasn't difficult.”

He coloured cutely. “Something I can see I shall have to train myself out of now,” he mused aloud and coloured even more when Buffy giggled, though he was looking at her adoringly.

Xander and Anya didn't notice, too engrossed in thanking each other for their gifts, and Willow and Tara were busy discussing lunch.

Dawn rolled her eyes and put the last gift into her sister's hands. Buffy was already surrounded by gifts of perfume, scarves, CDs and a sweater she'd had her eye on for a long time. The small package was from Giles and was so well wrapped it took some time to open. Buffy opened the small velvet box inside.

It was beautiful. She loved it, and looked up to tell him so as she was putting it on, catching a flicker of disappointment in his eyes before he replaced it with a grin. She looked down at the gorgeous silver time piece and took it off again, fingering the silver filagree and trying to understand what she'd missed. Finally she turned it over and found the inscription on the back.

All my love always,

Giles


Her fingertip traced the words. It had to have been done back in England. She slipped it on again and threw herself into his arms, hugging him hard.

“I love you too,” she whispered in his ear. “It's beautiful. Thank you.”

They parted slowly, and Buffy kissed him, not on the cheek, but a kiss that silenced the room, particularly when he proceeded to kiss her back.

“You're welcome,” he said breathlessly when they surfaced, his eyes dancing as he grinned lopsidedly.

“Um, something's changed, here, hasn't it?” Xander asked almost fearfully.

“Nice kiss,” Anya drawled.

“Oops.” Buffy looked around at everybody and shook her head. “Depends how you look at it. The truth is nothing's really changed. It just took this long and a little help from our friends, for some of us to understand some things,” she admitted ruefully and turned to Giles, smiling radiantly at him. “I'm not good at saying things, and I'm worse at seeing things, like you all don't already know that, but nobody could have given me a more precious Christmas gift than the one I was given last night,” she told them, touching his cheek.

Giles cupped her cheek again and smiled back lovingly. “Given *us*,” he corrected. “Merry Christmas everyone.”

Willow and Tara were glowing and Dawn had wrinkled her nose, despite the sentimental look in her eyes. Anya was grinning dopily and Xander was looking at everyone as if the world had gone slightly crazy. Then he looked at Giles' face again and slowly began to understand. It was going to take some getting used to…like, anyone in the universe but them…he sighed. But it was them and whether he liked it or not, they belonged.

“Merry Christmas,” he chimed in with all the others as Buffy shifted to rest against Giles. She nestled in the crook of the Watcher's arm with an ease and a rightness that made Xander sigh. They were looking at her watch together and Giles was explaining its workings and how he hoped it would make her less tardy in future. There was laughter in Buffy's eyes as she kissed his chin, that suggested that Giles' hope was in vain, but Xander didn't think either of them really cared at that moment.

He smiled to himself then looked at the radiant faces of all his friends, and his fiancée, before catching Willow's eye as she turned from watching Buffy and Giles. They grinned spontaneously at each other and Xander, watching the elfin face glow with happiness and satisfaction, thought back to all that had happened since they defeated Glory, and realised just how good it was. “Merry Christmas,” he said softly to himself.

Merry Christmas…”



* * *