Don't Give Your Heart | Part Three

“Where are they?”

Graham looked around nervously. He didn't like the Englishman or his creepy demons. He'd have far preferred to do the search with just his own guys and without the annoying company.

“Looks like they've departed the scene, sir!” he answered.

“I can see that, you twat. If that little sod, Edof, is with them, your bloody machines should pick him up…correct?”

Graham winced. “Correct, sir!” He turned to a subordinate and gestured to him to check the infrared tracking.

Upstairs, Belinda Harris pushed all the Chinese food cartons into the trashcan and wiped the table over.

“Did you hear something, dear?” she asked over her shoulder.

Harris senior belched and rose to shuffle over to the window, careful not to spill the can of beer he'd just opened, and opened a bloodshot eye.

“Just more friends of the boy's. Looks like he's going to a fancy dress party. When's he going to get a real job?”

“That's nice, dear,” she said absently, pouring a glass of red wine from a cardboard cask. “Alexander has to find out who he is first. He's a sensitive boy.”

“He's a lazy-assed slob who doesn't even get out bed until midday. How the fuck is he going to get a job?”

“Language, Henry,” she replied, slowly draining the glass as she dropped into her favorite armchair, found the remote and pressed 'play'. “Shift work, I guess. Some people are just made to it…”

“Well, the weirdos are all gone now,” he rumbled and returned to his chair before they both fell silent in rapt attention to the small screen and the behemoth wrestlers on it.


*******

“Okay, I give up,” Buffy muttered, bemused, as she helped Xander carefully carry Giles up the steps into the apartment building in front of which they'd parked.

“Oh…this is Tara's place. Her non-collegy place,” Willow explained, following close behind. “Nobody else knows about it. Her family thinks she lives on campus, so nobody knows except, well, me…and now you guys…so don't tell anyone, 'kay?”

Buffy rolled her eyes as they edged toward the stairs inside.

“Oh…second floor. Room s-seven,” Tara piped up.

Xander and Buffy looked up the long flight of stairs, to the first landing and the dogleg to the next one.

“I don't suppose there's an elevator?” Xander muttered.

By the time they reached the door of the apartment and Tara hastily opened it, Xander looked on the verge of a coronary. Buffy's colour was high but she wasn't breathing hard.

They took Giles straight to the double brass bed in the middle of the room.

Buffy fussed until he looked somewhere near comfortable and covered, bloodied shirt, socks and shoes removed, before turning to Willow, and Xander who was still heaving for breath.

“I have to get back there. I almost had him. You have to put me back.”

Willow looked at Tara. “We have to put you back,” she corrected. Moments later they had made a rudimentary circle and started preparations while an impatient Buffy fretted and fidgeted, washed up, and even used Tara's first aid kit to bathe all Giles' wounds while she waited.

********

“Have you found anything yet?” Ethan demanded as they made their way up the street slowly in military vehicles.

The solider looked up. “Nothing of note, sir. A number of vampire signatures and pheromone trails for several demons not matching your description, sir!”

“Blast!” Ethan snarled. “Tell me about these demons.”

“One Fyarl demon, two Thrasher demons, a Moglii and a Sentrian Trans-Morph.”

“A what?”

“New one, sir. This is only the second time we've had one on scanners…maybe even the same demon. It took three months of research to identify the species. Apparently they don't usually leave their own dimension if they can help it.”

“And that dimension would be…?”

“The same one your boys, there, come from,” Graham said over the commando's shoulder. “Sentrian demons and their ancestors have been prey for those guys since the dawn of their time. They evolved the ability to morph as a defense, like cuttlefish and stuff, here, frightening stuff with their colours. Sentrians morph into scary or useful stuff to stay alive, but they can't hold the shape forever, not for more than an hour usually.”

Ethan's eyes went from getting rounder and rounder, to narrowed and suspicious. “What do they look like in their real form?”

“Sorta like a little gnome,” the younger soldier offered without looking up from his equipment. “But we've only seen a drawing. Or Riley saw it. He got the ID from some old guy with a lot of demonology books. Can you believe that? People actually write books about this crap.” He laughed aloud.

Graham looked uncomfortable. Riley was a particularly sore spot and the damned slayer and her cronies an even bigger one.

“Never mind that,” he said roughly. “Concentrate on the mission.”

“Just find it,” Ethan snapped, and tapped on the window of the vehicle. The driver opened a sliding panel. “Yes, sir?”

“I want details sent to these two addresses to confirm that they're clear.” He gave the boy both Buffy's home address and the one for Giles' flat. “After that we have to find Rosenberg's address and someone has to check the college.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And when I find Edof, I'm going to break every bone in his tiny body, and feed him to the Druul,” Ethan snarled. “Follow the morph's signature.”


*******

Buffy picked herself up and looked around. Willow had gotten damned close. Her spell had put them…her…back in the flat, in Giles' loft. He was still curled up on the bed, unmoving. It had probably been too much to ask to pick up exactly where they had left off…except…now she had no idea what to do next, or how to help him.

For just a moment the enormity of it threatened to overwhelm her. If she had lost him…

A moment later she closed her eyes. She knew where she had to try next, and Willow obliged.

His back was to her. She could feel the waves of pain emanating from it and the tension that filled the silence of the small office.

“Giles,” she said softly, and watched his bent head lift, but not turn. “Giles…I'm sorry…I-I had to go…before. Ethan was on his way.”

She drew an apprehensive breath when his shoulders stiffened.

“It's not just that,” she admitted. “I'm sorry a-about all of it. I know I've never told you. The truth is, I didn't know what I was doing to you, not really. Please, please, believe that. As young and stupid as I was, if I had known…” she closed her eyes for a moment. “If I had known how much I was hurting you…”

When she opened them he was still sitting at the desk, as though unwilling…to move, or perhaps to risk being hurt again.

“I understand now,” she whispered. “I know about Angel. I know all of it. I know…” She paused, looking down, a surge of emotion preventing her from getting the words out. “I know why, even though I loved him so much, he's gone, and you stayed. I know why it was so hard to decide to even start seeing Riley, and why I've been trying way too hard to make that work. What I wanted from him, he and I could never have…”

He sat very still, but said nothing.

Her heart began to beat faster. No! she thought desperately. You have to listen. We were so close to…

For a terrified moment she didn't know what to do. This was beyond her ken. She didn't know how to handle it. She couldn't hit it, stake it, pound it into the ground or pretend it wasn't happening…and that was all she had been doing…for a very long time. Her eyes dilated at that realization.

She stared at the back of his bent head. She didn't even know how to say the words anymore. And what she had been able to say hadn't been enough, anyway. Almost, but not quite, and she didn't know what else to do…

Her mouth trembled as his head lowered again, as though defeated by the silence.

It was more than she could bear any longer. She swallowed and moved slowly toward him.

He flinched when she slid her palms onto his shoulders. He smelled, predictably, of books and Earl Grey tea and tweed…a combination that twisted her heart with memories.

Buffy squeezed the broad shoulders reassuringly, but he didn't speak. Nor did he move when she rested her cheek against his crown, but she could feel the tension in his body.

Then she realised why. He was fighting to stop himself from trembling.

She drew her arms around his neck, crossing them over to hug him from behind, the hug soon becoming a hold, as he began to shake in earnest. She held him tight, as her own emotional control wavered and shook. He made a noise, a tiny noise, but Buffy knew he was weeping and soon so was she, for him, for all of it.

It poured out of him. Not only the past she had seen, but also all the horrors of what the Weyre had done to him: the pain, the terror of the violation of his most private places, the agony of the attempts to take what he would not give…did not give.

She continued to hold him, and grieve with him, until they were both exhausted and silence closed in around them again.

“Let me love you,” she whispered tremulously, near a warm ear, sorrow catching in her throat.

She felt him swallow then heard a sigh, but the sound came from a distance away, not from the circle of her arms.

Buffy looked up. “Let me love you, Giles. You don't have to stay in here. You don't have to be alone any more. Neither of us do!”

For the longest time, there was only the unsynchronised sound of their breathing. Buffy refused to let him go, and he seemed content for her to hold him.

Just as she was beginning to despair, the fragile Giles in her arms, still recovering from the horrors of his ordeal at Angelus' hands, and the trauma of her own betrayal of him, sighed a long, jagged sigh.

There was so much in the sound, all of which Buffy now understood, now carried with her…

She closed her eyes again, despairingly, and buried her face in his hair, waiting for his rebuff.

It didn't come. The silence stretched until her nerves were almost screaming. And then she felt it…fingers sliding over one of the arms that were still locked around his neck, closing around her slender forearm, and squeezing gently before simply holding on.

After several beats Buffy realised she was holding her breath, and released it slowly, before lifting her head from his silky hair.

“Giles?” she whispered, terrified, and electrified, at the same time.

“Buffy?” a still-disembodied voice whispered back, a fragile sound, sending a current down her spine.

She struggled with a surge of emotion. “I'm here. I won't leave you. I promise.”

“Buffy…” it whispered again, brokenly, much closer this time.

She straightened when Giles unexpectedly lifted his head and spoke.

“Oh, God…” he managed, in a barely recognizable voice.

“I know,” she said soothingly, despite the rioting of her insides, and covered the hand that was still holding her forearm. “I know…”

The big fingers squeezed tighter.

Reality suddenly and jarringly shifted and Buffy found herself in Tara's big double bed, holding a curled-up Giles in almost the same way as she had been holding the dream-Giles. The others were all looking on anxiously.

For a shocked moment, she sat, paralysed. This wasn't at all how she expected it to happen. He was supposed to be…well…not fine…but not like this.

“Giles…?” she whispered, as the others watched in silence.

There was no answer.

“It's over. You're safe now. Everyone's going to leave now, so you can have some privacy,” she added, looking at them meaningfully, a plea in her eyes.

Too terrified to get her hopes up, Buffy waited until they all turned and filed out before shifting to where she could see his eyes, his face, as soon as the door closed behind them.

She was back, but was he…really?

“Ethan can't hurt you,” she said softly. “Nobody can hurt you now. Talk to me, Giles,” she begged.

Oh, God, please talk to me!

“Buffy…” he finally managed, as though he was clinging to that one thought.

“I'm here,” she reiterated, taking his face in her hands, trying not to notice the reflex cringing of his battered body. “Stay with me!” she demanded, holding the sea-green eyes, trying not to cry at the fear, the horror in them even as he struggled, her heart aching for him as he battled, yet again, to defeat the darkness.

The trembling worsened and moments later his eyes began to close.

“No!” Buffy cried, lifting his face in her fingertips. “No! Don't leave me!”

The dark-lashed lids opened again for a moment, soft eyes focusing on her face, their depths filled with a melancholy sadness that made her eyes prick with tears.

Then she realised what she'd said, and what he must think of her.

“You don't understand!” she cried as they started to close again.

Panic seized her. She didn't know what to do. There was nothing left to tell him…no…

She drew a sharp breath.

“You can't leave me,” she told him, this time in a definitive voice, “because…” she moved her mouth to his. At first his lips were unresponsive, but as she poured more and more of herself into the salute, he began to respond, just enough for her to be moved to redouble her efforts.

She slid her arms around his neck and continued to make love to him, before finally pulling back when she realised that he'd stopped trembling.

Their eyes met, and Buffy realised that the semi-catatonic glaze had gone from the beautiful sea-green ones now staring so deeply into hers, as though searching her soul.

“Is it…are you…?” she stammered, her fingers automatically reaching up to touch his face. She tried again, almost too frightened to hope. “Giles?”

The crystal-clear gaze glistened as he nodded slowly.

“Pain?” she whispered, when he still didn't speak.

He nodded again, a ghost of a smile in his eyes now, despite the strain.

Her fingers wandered to his brow, stroking it gently again, as she had when he was unconscious. He closed his eyes and leaned into her caresses.

Buffy shivered and raised her face to find his velvet mouth again, this time brushing her lips softly against his, first; tasting, offering, hoping, waiting…

Then his weight shifted and Giles was kissing her. She clung to him as he dragged her closer, both their mouths fighting to show the other the depth of their need, their desire, their hearts…

He was trembling again, only this time for a different reason. And, Buffy discovered, so was she.

When they parted again his eyes searched her face, alight with hope, delight, need, his mouth trying to pull into a smile, but still weighed down by the pain of his wounds, both physical and emotional.

Buffy smiled back, tenderly, raising fingers still trembling with the intensity of her feelings, to trace those sensual lips.

“You told me: 'Never give your heart where it isn't wanted…'”

Giles' lips parted, and his eyes widened at the memory of his own words, a shadow of fear clouding them.

“I-if I give you mine…c-can I keep yours…please?” she whispered.

For a moment he stared, stunned. Then a slow-growing smile grew into an almost beatific radiance, his eyes glistening as he nodded just as slowly.

Lost as she was in his reaction, it took Buffy a very long moment to smile back. When she did, her face seemed to burst into a glow to rival his. She reached out, unable to resist caressing his cheek again, then moved at the same moment as he did.

Their hug was more than a simple embrace…more than a tearful reunion. It was an intertwining of souls, of hearts.

For just a moment they touched. Neither knew how, or why, but for one blinding moment their minds touched again, and in an instant each knew the other's heart and soul…and that they would never be apart again.

Within the warm refuge of each other's arms, both of them had finally come home…


*******


Graham deployed his men around the park, ready to move in, professionally and carefully.

“Wait!”

The commando rolled his eyes and straightened impatiently. “Yes, sir?”

“I thought I told you to wait for me.”

“Just didn't want the Hostile to escape, sir. Thought you'd be pleased to interrogate him once we had him under control.”

Ethan blew out an irritated breath. The only thing more irritating than an American, was an energetically enthusiastic, youthful one.

“Well, hold your positions and don't let him escape. He's mine.”

“Yes, sir,” Graham muttered and gave a signal.

Ethan and two of his Druul henchmen strode into the little playground.

A small demon was swinging on one of the swings.

“You little pissant!” Ethan said as soon as he was close enough, momentarily forgetting his earlier suspicions. “Whoever you're waiting for isn't coming.”

Edof grinned. “Ah, but he is. I was waiting for you.”

Goaded, Ethan lunged forward to grab the demon and reared back when he was suddenly confronted by a multi-limbed, scaled beast with a maw the size of hippo's but filled with needle-sharp teeth.

Adrenaline pumping, and shaking with both fear and rage, Ethan motioned his bodyguards forward, but the creature suddenly vanished. It took several moments for both Ethan and the Druul to realise that Edof had morphed into a tiny, furry creature and vanished into the undergrowth.

Ethan roared at the commandos to get up to him, which they did at pace when Graham yelped a confirming command.

“Find that little bastard, now! He's here, somewhere. Use that bloody scanner of yours. That's what it's for!” the Englishman spat with controlled violence in his voice.

Graham set them to the task and the park became a frenzy of activity.

Edof watched them from his perch in a nearby tree, happy in the form of the nearest thing in his dimension to a bird: a small reptilian creature more reminiscent of a bonsai pterodactyl than a sparrow.

He chuckled to himself, and would have grinned, if his beak had permitted, smug in the knowledge that each time he morphed, the scanner would have to re-calibrate for several moments before it could adjust for the changes, particularly the lack of pheromones in many of the reptilian and insect forms he took.

He also knew they wouldn't leave while he was still registering on the Initiative's scanner, and he could keep them busy for hours, or at least until his objective was accomplished.

By the time the commandos had turned in his direction, he'd morphed again, this time into an insect no terrestrial would recognise, scampered down through the tree bark to the ground, shifted to serpentine form and slithered out of sight again, heading for Ethan Rayne and his henchmen.

Rayne was skulking by the playground equipment while the Druul foraged semi-uselessly, ironically, forbidden to leave their posts as his personal bodyguards.

Edof worked his way around to the Druul farthest removed, and morphed into the largest, most viscous creature he could manifest; the only guise in which he knew his people could reliably defeat a Druul, in the right conditions.

Screams filled the night as they clashed, Edof's multi-limbed, teeth and talons nightmare tearing the stinger-wielding arthropod to pieces as the Commandos raced to where the battle raged. Shots were fired, even before Graham was able to give the order, but Edof had gone, back into serpent form, already through the nearest bushes and out of sight.

Ethan was beside himself, fear compounding his rage. “You fools! Without the Druul we're done! We can't take the Slayer without them!”

“So send for more, asshole,” one of the commandos muttered and the others snickered.

Graham agreed, but glared at his men, who subsided again.

“Very funny, pillock,” the Englishman snarled. “For your information this species doesn't leave its own dimension. It took all my own connections, and a significant amount of your military's resources, to recruit the six we had, and the bloody Slayer has already torn two of them apart with her bare hands.”

“Jesus,” muttered another commando, and Graham went a little pale, looking the remaining Druul up and down and considering his chances, unarmed, against even one.

“Sir, the Sub-T is moving towards the northern end of the park!”

Graham looked to Ethan.

The Englishman's nostrils flared. “Don't just stand there looking at me, grunt! Get it! NOW!”

“MacKenzie! Keep calling it this time! I want updates every thirty seconds!” Graham panted as they sprinted toward the north end of the park.

He received them, until they were within just metres of the Hostile.

“Sir, it's vanished!”

The commandos slewed to a halt and milled, confused.

Doubling back, beneath their feet, Edof smiled inwardly as he cut through the dark loam as though it was butter. It wasn't one of his favourite forms: the Botleth worm, though it was the fastest subterranean form he knew. For one thing, the aftertaste of dirt stayed with him for hours, and for another he didn't like the claustrophobic snugness of being underground.

It took several minutes to reach the playground again. He heard MacKenzie call his re-
emergence as soon as he broke through and transformed into the giant, multi-limbed Rogarra again.

By the time the soldiers responded to Ethan screaming histrionic orders, however, the last Druul had lunged and almost found it's target with its lethal stinger, only to be side-stepped and seized with a multitude of talons.

Ethan swore as a chunk of oozing yellow carapace hit him in the thigh and slid down his pants, leaving a sticky, foul-smelling stain.

He was still berating the Initiative's best, as Edof, transformed now, into a sleek, whippet-sized feline no cat-lover would recognize, bolted from the park and into the row of residences across the street. Once he had reached the roof of one of the houses he sat smugly for a few moments, flicking his tail as he watched Ethan rant at the soldier boys, who were already walking away, leaving the red-faced Englishman completely alone.

The small demon waited long enough to see Rayne realize his vulnerability, and panic, bolting after them, before bounding away, sniggering to himself as much as his carnivore's mouth would allow.


*******


Everyone filed back into the room, almost creeping, until they realised that Buffy's expression was calm and relaxed. She was holding Giles' hand, or rather, he was holding fast to hers, almost like an anchor. She smiled at them as they surrounded her.

“I think it's going to be okay,” she said softly. “He's asleep…he was exhausted.”

“Th-then he's back?” Willow ventured in hushed tones. “Really back?”

“In one piece?” Xander added.

Buffy nodded silently.

“A really battered, fragile, going-to-take-a-long-time-to-heal piece, but yeah. I think he's
going to be okay. He needs to see a doctor about the physical wounds…the ribs, the bruises, his head, and stuff, but I'm not sure he can face strangers right now.”

Willow's eyes grew very large and bright. “Poor Giles.”

Buffy's seemed to do the same, almost in sympathy with the other girl, but her expression was distant when she nodded again…as though the reality was beyond the explaining of it.

“We-we can't stay here. I should be out there, dealing with Ethan, so I can take Giles home. He needs to be home; somewhere that feels warm and safe and familiar.” She frowned and looked up at Tara. “N-not that your place isn't really cool. It's nice. Real nice. It's just…not…”

“Home,” Tara said softly, and half smiled. “I understand.”

Willow frowned in thought. “Y'know, we could, maybe get Angel and Wesley to help. I know they would…a-and then you could stay with Giles, and—”

Buffy was shaking her head. “No,” she said determinedly, brushing Giles' temple with the backs of her fingers.

“But—” Willow began, pausing again when Xander laid a hand on her arm, his eyes on the suddenly haunted expression on Buffy's face.

“No,” he said softly. “We'll deal with it. It's our problem. I think, maybe, the past should stay in the past.”

Willow looked from one to the other. “Oh,” she finally said, then frowned. “I guess…
except we don't know anyone else who can kill demons or kick Ethan's butt…a-anyone who isn't in Iowa, that is,” she added awkwardly.

Buffy looked up slowly and blinked, as though realising for the first time that there were still issues to be resolved.

“If Edof isn't back soon, I'll have to go,” she said quietly. “I don't know if Riley will even come back at all…now.”

Xander blinked. “He's in Iowa? Since when?” Something occurred to him. “Uh-oh. Fight, huh…?” he asked without thinking.

Buffy looked away, but didn't respond.

“I don't think so,” Willow said softly. “Are you going to call him?”

Busy stroking Giles' brow, the Slayer nodded silently, but didn't look back.

It was Xander's turn to look consternated. His dark eyes flicked from one to the other before he opened his mouth to ask the question, only to be interrupted by Tara yelping and jumping when something warm brushed by her leg.

Everyone looked around.

The strangest looking silver-mottled, black, cat-like creature had somehow gotten into the building. Tara opened her mouth to exclaim, when it morphed into a familiar figure.

“Edof!” they all yelled at once, except for Buffy.

“Don't do that!” Willow scolded. “You nearly gave me a heart attack!”

Edof smirked as Xander asked how it went.

“The threat is nullified,” he told them, “for now. Rayne will have to find refuge somewhere. He has many connections among the legions of Chaos, but I doubt you'll see him for a very long time. He's already been a guest of your military once, and believe me, now that he has failed them, he does not want to go back there again.”

The tension seemed to flow out of Buffy then, leaving her visibly limp when she looked up at the others, her hand tightening protectively around the one she was holding.

“Let's go home,” she said softly.

A slowly expanding expression of delight spread over the small demon's face.

“Home…” he whispered.

*******

Giles tolerated the journey, borne only by the lone Xander in his borrowed vehicle, and sharing the back seat with Buffy.

He had acquiesced without argument to the suggestion to sit in the back where he would have more room for his battered limbs and ribs, but when Buffy sneaked a peak at him as she moved to slide into the front seat, she changed direction and climbed into the back with him.

Little was showing on his handsome, but ravaged face, but the rigid posture, the clenched fist stuffed down by his right pants leg, and the fact that, with the whole seat to himself, he'd scrunched in one corner, told a very different story.

Buffy slid across and touched his face, immediately syphoning off some of the tension, then gingerly eased herself into a position where she was curled up in the crook of his arm. It closed immediately, almost convulsively, around her. She nuzzled her cheek into his breast as she offered him her hand, and felt it engulfed by his free one, clenched tightly and held all the way home.

Xander, stealing occasional glances in the rear view mirror, bit his lip several times and swallowed before focusing hard on the road, while he could still see clearly enough to drive.

At the flat, Giles allowed him to assist Buffy to help him walk the short distance from the car, into the terrace, and down to his front door.

Out of habit more than anything, they waited for him to unlock it, himself. When the door handle turned, Buffy flicked a grateful, but speaking, glance to Xander.

He managed a forced smile, and brought his hands together. “Okay, guys. Got everyone home in one piece, and now I have to get back to the old ball and chain. You two kids try not to have TOO much fun without me,” he added, nervous energy making him bounce a little on the spot.

“Th-thankyou, Xander,” Giles managed, without looking up, as much as he'd managed in a sentence since he'd woken again.

Xander stopped bouncing and cleared his throat, before tentatively sliding a hand onto his friend's shoulder.

“Take care of yourself,” he said hoarsely, wheeled and strode away to his car.

“He'll be okay,” Buffy said softly, as they both watched him disappear. “He just cares about you. We all do.”

“I know,” he whispered, and squeezed the shoulders he was probably leaning too much weight on, had it been anyone but Buffy, his eyes just crinkling at the corners as he looked down at her with a weary, almost-smile.

Buffy smiled back, then reached in and flicked on the light before they moved forward. She kicked the door closed with a nasty crack after Giles had eased himself in.

He closed his eyes, a pained expression endearingly reminiscent of old times, on his face. “Tell me nothing broke?” he asked, the faintest hint of teasing in his voice.

Buffy looked back and wrinkled her nose before smiling up at him. “Nothing important, anyway,” she said cheerfully, as they worked their way around to the foot of the stairs, and enjoyed the grumpy grunt she got in reply.

When they reached it, Buffy slipped away for a moment, to his ancient stereo, only to discover a small metallic purple and silver Discman and speakers sitting on it. She recognised it: Willow's. Still, whatever was in it would be something he liked. When it started, she was surprised to find that it was Sarah McLachlan.

Giles was leaning on the stair rail when she reached him and slid her arm around his waist again.

He looked across to the player and down at her curiously.

She shrugged. “I never realised before how big and quiet this place is when nobody else is here…how—”

“Empty?” he whispered.

She met his eyes, just for a moment, a lifetime passing between them without a word. A moment later they turned by mutual assent, and started up the stairs, Buffy bearing almost all Giles' weight as they took one step at a time.

He was gasping for air at the top and nursing his ribs, despite her support.

“Xander is going to see Doctor Phipps…you remember her? The one who didn't ask any questions when we took you to the ER with those Tras'zi claws still in your arm, because we couldn't get them out? You know...with all the little hooks in the—”

“Yes…I know the ones,” he finally grunted, halting her rambling.

She smiled self-consciously. “Anyway, you need to see a doctor, and we need one we can trust. We all think she knows a lot more than she let on, so he's going to see if she'll consider making a house call.”

“All…all right,” he managed.

Buffy could hear the reluctance in his voice, but it would do for now. “C'mon, let's get you into your own bed. You can shower later. Right now you need to rest.”

He allowed her to sit him on the bed, even to remove his shoes and socks, but a large hand covered hers when she started on the shirt buttons.

She dropped her hands and looked up at him. “I can do this.”

“I-it's all right. I will. Y-you need to …Riley…” he whispered.

For a moment, she just looked at him, her heart swinging wildly between sorrow that he still had such doubts, and love, because, despite everything, he was still thinking about her…

Then her expression gentled.

“I'm not going anywhere.”

The jade green eyes searched her face, still bright in their weary, bloodshot homes.

Buffy leaned forward and brushed his mouth with hers, very tenderly, before starting on the buttons again and holding his fragile gaze. “I'm already home.”

He stopped her again when the buttons were undone. “R-really need a shower. Feels like…like I've been dunked in egg white…a-and rolled in the dirt.”

“Eieww!” Buffy exclaimed then chuckled. “Nice imagery there, Rupert.”

Giles snorted, then unexpectedly touched her cheek, smiling when she looked at him curiously.

“Oh,” she said a moment later, and smiled. “I'm glad I got to meet him, sort of. Rupert was a pretty good guy…kinda like you.”

Still a little self-conscious, Buffy helped him up and they made the long trip to the bathroom, again primarily dependent on her ability to support his full weight. She helped him to sit down on the john to rest, acutely aware of the pain he was in from the jarring of his injuries, and his rasping breaths.

“I hope this is going to be worth it. Maybe I should get something to make a step…um …for the tub,” she offered uncomfortably.

Still struggling with the pain, he shook his head without raising it.

“Go… Be f-fine. I…I…can…” he managed.

The gesture made her finally realised how stupid she was being. Instinctively, she put her arms around his shoulders and rested her brow on the top of his head for a long moment.

“No. We'll do this together,” she said softly, and felt him begin to move. “Together,” she repeated, and lifted her head.

He looked up at her, clearly conflicted about the pace with which everything was happening.

In reply, Buffy gently stripped off his open shirt, before straightening and removing her own guts and blood-plastered blouse before he could say anything.

Giles' lips parted and he swallowed at the heretofore-unseen vision now before him.

“Up,” she said briskly before either of them could think too much about it, and eased him to his feet, once again using almost all her own strength, until she had steadied and released him.

He swayed as she undid his belt and zipper and dropped his pants, before sitting him down again and dragging them off.

Giles watched her go back to the tub without looking at him again, then dragged his palms over his face, overwhelmed. His instinct was to find a dark corner and huddle in it…and never come out, and he didn't know how much longer he could resist it.

With the shower blasting at a comfortable temperature, Buffy removed her own shoes and pants and went back to Giles, but stopped short, shocked to see how distressed he was again. After a beat, she moved decisively.

“Giles, we don't have to do this,” she said softly, kneeling in front of him when he didn't respond, and putting her hands comfortingly on his knees.

“I…I'm sorry. Y-you shouldn't have to…” he said softly.

“Shouldn't have to?” Buffy repeated, and pulled his hands from where his brow was resting against them, and held them close. “I don't want to be anywhere else, or do anything else. I meant what I said, before,” she finished, almost angrily.

He finally lifted his head, the question in his startled…and puzzled…eyes.

Hers softened immediately, and she slid her fingers into one of the big hands.

“Let me love you…” she reminded him.

He drew a sharp breath, and Buffy knew that he was remembering.

“Buffy…”

“We can do this,” she said, before he could argue, rising and bringing him to his feet, “together.”

At the tub, she sat him on the rim.

“Swing around,” she ordered. “I'll help.”

Buffy supported his back and helped him lift a trembling leg, and then the other, as he slowly shifted his weight and twisted his body so that he was facing the water.

In a moment she was in it with him, helping him to stand, supporting him as they moved into the blast of steaming water.

She jumped when he gasped unexpectedly and took a few moments to realise that it was the first time a lot of the cuts, grazes and contusions on his battered body had been wet. He made an angry noise of pure pain, then blew out a breath between clenched teeth.

“I'm guessing this isn't a good time for soap?” Buffy asked, trying to keep the trembling from her voice, and the tears from her throat.

“N-not really,” he hissed through the same clenched teeth, ignoring her half-hearted attempt at humour, and drew away from her. “But…n-no choice.”

She bit her lip and picked up the bar, intending to hand it to him, but one of his fists was clenched against the pain, the other arm bracing his weight against the wall.

Silently, she moved forward and began to wash his tensed back, ignoring the lathered soap running down into the wet, dark blue briefs. By the time she'd moved to his arms and shoulders he was shaking from more than just pain. She stopped, acutely aware of the small choking sounds coming from his throat, but lost as to how to help.

And then she was moving again to catch him as he slid bonelessly down into the tub, enfolding him automatically in her arms and holding him as he wept, both of them saturated by the water that continued to blast onto them, heedless of the drama below.

When he grew quiet and the trembling stopped, Buffy rose enough to turn off the now barely tepid water, without losing contact with him.

There was no conversation, no negotiation as she took over and calmly and efficiently got him out of the tub and back onto the pedestal, before finding a big towel and systematically drying him, also without invitation or conversation.

He looked resolutely away as she worked, as though he could pretend he wasn't there, even when she dried his hair like a small child, not even flinching at the pain of her rubbing where Ethan had struck him on the head.

When she was done, Buffy towelled herself down impatiently, ignoring her nakedness to bring him to the washbasin, where she found toothpaste and a brush for him.

He took them silently and used them mechanically, dropping them in the hand basin when he was done.

“Not your best piece of filing there, Book-guy,” she observed dryly, breaking the silence at last.

He didn't answer.

“I like it though,” she added. “Spontaneous, different. These things are of the good. Now we're going to get you spontaneously up to bed and some decent rest.”

He didn't speak, choosing only to turn and momentarily draw her against him. He rested his chin on her head, the utter bleakness of his expression unseen as she lay against his breast.

By the time Buffy had all-but-carried him back to the loft, he could barely walk.

“No…” She stopped him from sitting on the bed. “Wetness,” she reminded him, running her forefinger across the dripping blue stretch band across his lean hips. “Wait.”

Silently, she put a shoulder back under his arm and turned her face away again.

“Drop 'em and get in,” she ordered, not turning until she felt him do as she ordered and heard the compression of the innerspring mattress.

“I know you had something at Tara's place before we left, but if you want a drink, or something to eat…?” she asked, unconsciously smoothing the quilt over him.

The eyes that opened and looked up at her when she mentioned the word drink, spoke volumes, both about how much he wanted a *drink*…and how much he didn't.

The Sarah McLachlan CD downstairs had started again from the beginning. As the singer's voice faded at the end of the first song, Buffy interlinked her fingers with Giles' again.

“You like her?” she asked lightly. “Not really what I was expecting.”

“I like…this…” he said, almost embarrassed, and winced again in pain as the second track became audible.

Buffy lifted her face and focused on the words. She knew the tune: 'Possession'.

She simply hadn't bothered to listen to the words before…never had time…

By the second chorus the tears had come. By the end her eyes were closed and her head down.

As it faded, she looked down at Giles, found his gentle gaze watching her.

For the longest time their eyes held, and then she was moving around, slipping off her own wet things before sliding under the covers and into the refuge of his arms.

In the warmth and security of the big bed, they curled up as though inside each other, shielding one another, and held each other through the night.

When the sunlight played across them in the morning, they were both surprised to find they'd slept undisturbed, all night, and were still curled up exactly as they had been the night before.

At the same moment, they became aware of their nakedness, moved to draw apart, and at the same instant, came back together.

“It wasn't a dream,” Buffy sighed into his chest as his arms tightened ferociously around her again.

“No,” he said hoarsely into her hair. “Y-you're not…frightened?” he asked carefully.

Buffy froze. “Are you?” she asked.

He looked up at the ceiling, resting the point of his chin on her crown. “Terrified,” he croaked.

Buffy shifted, drawing herself up, side-by-side, to look into his eyes.

Giles watched her with a racing pulse, and a problem he couldn't exactly hide, but she wasn't reacting to it, or leaving his bed, and she didn't speak.

Instead, her tender mouth moved to gather his, speaking to him on a level no words could touch. After a moment's hesitation, he kissed her back.

For long minutes they merged into one, discovering, teaching each other, until, finally, Buffy pulled back.

“Still scared?” she whispered.

But she didn't need a response to see the answer in his eyes. Her fingers traced the deep lines the last days had carved from the corners of his eyes to his mouth.

“Me too.”

The phone shrilled downstairs.

Buffy rolled her eyes. “Probably the guys checking in. I'll go,” she said, and slid out of bed, pulling a shirt from his tallboy as she left.

By the time she'd reached the phone, she had put the striped business shirt on and mercifully terminated Ms McLachlan's marathon night.

Giles was on the landing when she answered it. A powerful need to answer nature's call had prompted him to test his legs. So far he was doing a great deal better than the previous day. He was about to say something to let Buffy know not to panic when she saw him up, when she spoke.

“Riley?” she yelped in surprise.

A sense of dread settled over him.

“Well, hi,” she said, smiling. “I thought you were doing the home, hearth and nostalgia thing for another two weeks at least?”

Her face wreathed in smiles. “You didn't have to do that…” she was saying.

Giles closed his eyes.

Unaware that she had an audience, Buffy listened to Riley's teasing with enjoyment mixed with sadness. She didn't want to hurt him, but she was going to have to soon. He was so sweet, but she'd known since her long ago heart-to-heart with Willow that he wasn't the one, despite the fact that she hadn't yet recognised who was.

“…And I couldn't wait any longer. Buffy, I missed you so much. I came back to…to …ask you…” The young soldier hesitated. “Well, it's not something you do over the phone anyway.”

Buffy swallowed hard. She'd picked a great time to zone back in on the conversation again.

“Then, don't,” she said, a little more urgently than she would have liked. “I was going to wait until you got back…but some things have happened. Everything's changed.”

Giles lifted his head and opened his eyes again, afraid to breathe.

“No. No! Nobody died. No end of the world stuff. It's me. I've changed, Riley. What we've had together…it was special…and it was good…but I know now that I was being…wait, let me finish, please! I was being so unfair to you. I thought I was over Angel…no, it's nothing to do with Angel. No, I swear. He's still in Los Angeles. Hasn't been anywhere near here. Will you listen to me? I thought I was over all the baggage, that Parker had put everything into perspective, and that I was ready to move on. I wasn't. All I did was make walls. And then you came along and it was easy. I shut out everyone who could hurt me, who loved me, and it was just us…” Buffy hesitated, looked at the receiver then put it to her ear again. “Riley, are you still there?” There was another pause, then: “I'm *so* sorry. I thought it was all of the good, that I was having a normal relationship. I wasn't. I was having a fairy tale. You know, Slayer-gets-normal-life kinda deal.”

There was a long silence while she listened to Riley speak. “I know,” she said, pain in her voice. “And I love you too…”

Giles sat down on the landing before he fell down.

“…but I'm not in love with you.”

His green eyes widened, colour rushing alarmingly back into the face that had just turned white.

“Riley, I care about you. I always will, but I'm not in love with you. I never was. That's what I'm trying to tell you. I loved Angel so much…there was only one reason I was able to let him go…only one reason why breaking up with him didn't kill me…”

“No, God. Riley, stop it. I know you have vampire issues, but Angel is not an issue here. He stopped being an issue a long time ago. I just didn't realise it for a very long time.”

Moisture rose in her eyes at the pain in the boy's desperate voice, as he demanded to know who it was who had taken her from him.

“It's…Giles.”

Giles stared.

She closed her eyes when, after a stunned silence, Riley launched into the inevitable tirade.

“Riley…RILEY! Riley, shut up!” she said, when he'd worked himself into a real state.

“First of all, I've always loved him…no, not like that, potty brain. I just didn't realise I'd fallen in love with him until now. No, it's not. It's real, it's painful, and I have no idea what's going to happen next. Even if, for some reason, I wake up and everything that's happened in the last few days turns out to be just a dream, I can't be with you any more. Not knowing what I know now. Not feeling what I feel now. What? Yes, I'm sure. I love him, Riley. With every part of me, everything that I am, everything I have to give him. No, I haven't felt like this since before Angel turned. I haven't let myself feel anything for so long. What? No, it's not your fault. I just…I was so scared of being hurt like that again.”

Giles' eyes grew very bright in his now flushed face.

“Don't, Riley. Please, don't. You're a wonderful, sweet guy and you gave me a chance to be happy without being scared all the time. I'll never forget that. No, it doesn't matter. Of course he can hurt me. Don't you understand? I love him so much…it doesn't matter. Besides, he could never hurt me as much as I've hurt him. Not in a million years. No, Riley. Don't come…stay with your family. No, I wish you didn't have to be hurt…but there's nothing to talk about. I'm sorry too, but I can't change the way I feel. No, please don't come. You're in the best place you can be right now. Stay there. Me? I'm…I'm here. With Gi…Rupert. Some major stuff has happened. I know Graham will fill you in eventually, but I need to be here now, and if he wants me to stay, I'll be staying here, with him.”

There was another long silence before Buffy hung up the receiver with a trembling hand and broke down in tears.

Giles immediately struggled to his feet, made his way stiffly down the steps and across to where she was standing, and gathered her into his arms.

Buffy turned and buried herself in them.

When she was calm again, she lifted her head. “You heard? How lo…?”

“All of it,” he said hoarsely.

“I had to hurt him, Giles. He was so hurt…”

He nodded. “And you…?”

She nodded back “It was horrible. But I had to.” Her soft greyish eyes, almost blue as they rolled up to meet his, glistened. “I had to.”

Silence stretched, and the connection between them burned.

Then her arms moved around his neck and his drew her hard against him as their mouths met again in a kiss that held nothing back, knew no secrets. They were both breathless when they finally parted.

“This is the part where you're supposed to sweep me into your arms and carry me to your bed,” she said playfully, though her voice was still less than steady.

Giles guffawed. “Yes, right. Sweep you into my arms and watch us both sprawl like a felled tree across my floor,” he growled, holding up his hands to show her how much they were shaking from the effort he'd already made.

She grinned back at him, then reached up and kissed his lips. “In that case, we'd better settle for breakfast in bed.”

He kissed hers back greedily and then groaned against them. “Bugger and damn,” he muttered.

“My sentiments exactly,” she agreed, a shiver of desire rippling down her spine as she spoke. “But we have plenty of time, now.”

His eyes looked into hers, the tiniest of gleams dancing in their soft green depths, as they turned for the stairs, Giles necessarily leaning heavily on her shoulders again.

Leaning back into him, Buffy smiled back, warmth spreading through her at his aura of happiness and pleasure.

Above her head, Giles' weary, pain-etched face softened into unfamiliar territory, love, peace, and real joy lighting it, as he dropped a contented kiss on her hair.

“…All the time in the world.”


* * *