My Family and Other Nightmares




“Is this it?”

Giles nodded. “I'm still not sure this is a good idea. They can be rather…overwhelming. I'm just thankful Richard is probably God-knows-where on his honeymoon or his post-honeymoon, or whatever…”

“That's sweet. You didn't tell me he was getting married. Do all Gileses marry late?”

Giles winced a little. “No, no. Only me…well, if I ever do. Father was, um, twenty-seven, if memory serves, and Richard was nineteen the first time he decided to…”

“The first time…how many times exactly has Romeo tied the knot?”

He winced again. “Um…well, actually…five times, including this one. Richard isn't…well, he's not exactly…however Ben has been er…happily married…to Susan, for I don't know how many years and they have three very…interesting…children.”

“And Richard's mother was your father's sister?”

Giles nodded patiently. “My aunt. And Ben's mother is my father's younger sister. They married the Harper brothers. Ben's father was a good man, but my father thought he was a prat. We don't discuss Richard's father…”

“But your dad was fond of her…Richard's mother?”

Giles guffawed in spite of himself. “Maisie? I'm told my grandfather almost had a heart attack when they found out she was…um…expecting. Her boyfriend was only about twenty-three at the time and had only been seeing Maisie for a few months. She was rather…let's just say that Maisie, at almost 30, made Harmony Kendall look like an Honours student. She had a good heart though, rather like her son, twit though he is.”

That, Buffy understood. “So back then they had to get married anyway?”

“I'm afraid so. It was considered the right thing to do…for the man to take responsibility for his actions…for the woman to give the child a name…and a father, whether there was any love there or not. Either way I have to admit to being related to Richard…”

Giles rang the doorbell.

“Oh my God, Rupert!”

“Hello, Susan.”

The slightly scary-looking middle-aged woman smiled, not entirely benignly, looking Giles' jeans and earring up and down. “You look…wonderful…even if it does look like you've been channelling Richard again. How long has it been?”

“Too long,” Giles said charmingly as they followed her through to the living room. “Buffy…Ben's wife: Susan. Susan, this is my S…” He clamped down on his errant tongue. “Um…my…”

Susan's eyes narrowed and then flicked to Buffy who was looking particularly youthful and radiant, even slightly tanned, after spending a lot of time hiking with Giles in historic areas near his home, in lieu of patrols. “Rupert?” she said in a tone that would and did make grown men quiver.

“Um, yes, Susan...?” At her pointed look he tried again. “Buffy is a-a friend, from California…”

Buffy, highly amused by the ability of the older woman to intimidate Giles, decided there was no way to dig him out of this one. She'd assumed that all of his family would know about her. Now he was left with the truth, or trying to explain a disturbing friendship with a former student at the school where he used to work. As weird as it sounded, she realised it would be far simpler and far less complicated if she and Giles were in a relationship and didn't have to mention Slaying or Sunnydale High at all. After a few minutes silent debate she slipped her hand into his, entwining fingers before moving to lean intimately against him, aware of the startled tension in his frame as she did so.

“It's okay, Rupert, I think Susan has eyes. She can see how irresistible you are.” She smiled confidingly at the other woman. “He's just shy.”

Susan's eyes were flashing dangerously. “And what school do you go to...er…Buffy, was it?”

*Meow*, Buffy thought, both amused and annoyed. “Actually I've been working gal for some time now, most of it with Rupert…and some freelance. I have an orphaned sister to think about, so finishing college is out of the question. We're in the process of finding a new school for her right now.”

Susan gobbled a little, and subsided, obviously bemused by the unexpected reply and the mature tone.

“S-so how long have you two…?”

Giles cleared his throat, and Buffy struggled to keep a straight face as he grappled with the situation. “We…we're…we've been together for a-about…sixth months?”

“Eight months and five days,” Buffy lied smoothly. “But we've known each other for years.”

A youthful voice floated down from upstairs. “Mum! Nick's being disgusting again!”

“When isn't he?” Susan growled under her breath. “Have you done your homework?” she yelled.
There was a muffled but indistinguishable reply, then silence. She smiled at Buffy and Giles with the manic look of the harassed parent. “Can I get you a cup of tea?”

They were all sipping their tea in less than comfortable silence when the front door rattled open and a man about Giles' age came in.

“Susan, I'm home…Oh good lord, another one? I thought you were in Bristol with your…”

“Ben!” The tone could have cut through steel.

The man stopped suddenly, dragged his boggling eyes from Giles and Buffy and focused on Susan. “Yes dear?”

“I'd like you to meet Rupert's friend, Buffy Summers. Say hello to Rupert, dear.”

“Uh…hello Buffy.” Ben squinted. “Rupert? You've been spending too much time with Richard, haven't you?”

Giles sighed, took his glasses from his breast pocket and put them on. “Hello, Ben.”

“Ah…there you are,” Ben grinned. He touched his ear. “I don't remember this. New?”

“Not…exactly,” Giles told him. “Something from my younger days.”

“Ah,” Ben repeated. “Oxford. We didn't lay eyes on you for several years, in fact. That's when you spent time with Richard?”

Exasperated, Giles ran a hand through his hair. “So how are things in the dental world?”

It worked. Ben prattled for the next twenty minutes about the difficulties in getting a good assistant, the molar that was so impacted that it broke into three pieces when he was trying to extract it and the small child who bit him during an examination then howled so much when he swore at it, that its mother threatened to sue him for traumatising her little angel.

By the time he was done, Susan had motioned to Buffy and the pair of them had escaped to the kitchen.

“Why did your husband think Gi-Rupert was Richard?” Buffy asked as Susan put the kettle on again.

Susan smirked. “You might say there's a…family resemblance…at least physically. I'm not sure there's really anyone quite like Richard, when it comes right down to it. So what do you do, Buffy? You're a very pretty girl, and so…slim…a model, perhaps?”

Buffy snorted trying to stop a giggle. “N-not exactly. Let's just say my field is more in the way of…uh…martial arts.”

“Oh, really? Which one?”

“I specialize in self defence. Multiple disciplines,” Buffy scrambled. “And a little fencing, crossbow, knife throwing…battleaxes…” Buffy let the word trail off and bit her tongue to still the giggles at the twitching of the nerve in Susan's cheek as she laid the tea tray.

“Mum, when's dinner…? Hel-lo…”

Both women looked up as a spiky haired, dishevelled looking youth somewhere in his early twenties ambled into the room scratching his head.

Buffy smiled at his openly wolfish expression and wriggled her fingers. “Hi.”

Susan rolled her eyes. “Nick, this is Rupert's girl…lady friend, Buffy Summers.”

“Wow, old dull-as-dust Rupert's been taking lessons from Richard,” he grinned, still looking at Buffy as though she was a centrefold. “If old Cousin Rupert's too tired to take you out and show you the sights, I'd be more than happy—”

“…To go and clean your room up before the cockroaches revolt.”

Nick snickered. “I thought they were already revolting.”

“No, that would be you,” his mother drawled. “Now go and tell Michael that dinner is going to be delayed…though probably not too much longer. I expect Cousin Rupert is catatonic by now…or ready to cheerfully garrotte your father.”

“He asked him about work, didn't he?” Nick deadpanned, and winked at Buffy. “Still, can't feel sorry for anyone with a girlfriend like Buffy…”

Susan snorted. “Out!”

Nick laughed, grabbed an apple and took a big munch as he sauntered back out of the room.

Buffy wondered idly if Giles was adopted…


*******

“You could have warned me.”

“About what? I told you they could be rather…overwhelming.”

“I bet Susan eats razorblades for breakfast.”

Giles couldn't help a chuckle as they headed home to Bath. “You can't really blame her for being a little sensitive about Ben's contemporaries all seemingly keeping company with women half her age.”

Buffy wrinkled her nose. “Why do people always have to mind everyone else's business, like it's somehow a commentary about them…when it really doesn't have anything at all to do with who they are, how old, or whether they're still attractive or not?”

Giles blinked. “That's rather perceptive of you. Just as well that she doesn't actually have anything to worry about with us or I suspect she'd be in rather more trouble than a cat in a kennel.”

Buffy giggled. “That's a new one.”

He shook his head. “Very, very old one, actually.”

“Yeah, well, you're right. If she thinks she's tough, she hasn't seen a Slayer when she's ticked. ”

They both chuckled, Giles nodding ruefully. “I'm sorry we ended up being invited back for dinner. Almost as sorry as I am that bloody Richard still hasn't managed to tie the knot.”

“You should have seen your eyes bug out when Ben said you should help with the new plan.”

“There technically *isn't* a new plan. Ben was passing the buck. Nick told me what a hash his father made of his attempt at a stag night, and of course later Ben recounted the complete catastrophe *Nick* made of the whole thing.”

“Are you sure they're actually, y'know…Gileses?” Buffy asked doubtfully.

Giles grinned. “Unfortunately, yes.”

“So are you gonna help Ben?”

He rolled his eyes. “One could hope that Richard and his, um…fiancée, elope from Bristol,” he sighed.


*******

Buffy and Giles arrived for dinner at the Harpers a couple of days later to find a telltale pall of smoke curling out of one of the windows. A near-psychotically smiling Susan answered the door and ushered them in with barely a 'how nice to see you again' before leaving them with her nonplussed niece while she sprinted back to the kitchen.

Abi looked at Giles and then pointedly at Buffy and sighed. “I thought you were the smart one.”

Giles lifted an eyebrow. He hadn't seen Abi since she was about nine, but she was still her father's daughter, and, it appeared, as fey as her grandmother. Alongside of him, Buffy wondered idly if there were *any* normal people in Giles' family.

“Lovely to see you again, Abi,” he said finally. “You've grown up. Um, I'd like you to meet Buffy. Buffy Summers: my cousin…second…cousin, Abi Harper : um, Richard's daughter.”

Buffy and Abi faced off, the younger girl's expression pretty much not leaving anything to the imagination.

“Hey,” Buffy said when it looked like the silence was setting in for the duration. “Nice country.”

“You're American.”

Giles rolled his eyes and waited with some trepidation for Buffy's retort.

“Uh-huh.”

Giles looked at Buffy as if she'd grown two heads and she smiled at him sweetly, a 'later!' look flashing in her eyes.

She turned to resume her conversation with Abi looking like butter wouldn't melt in her mouth.
“So…where are you from?”

Giles closed his eyes. It was going to be a long evening…

However, before anyone could reply, Susan reappeared, looking even less happy, and apparently unaware that there were now dark smudges on her temple and nose, or that her hair seemed to have had fingers raked through it one too many times.

“I-is there a problem?” Giles asked, trying not to be seen sniffing the less than promising smells coming from the kitchen.

“Ah, yes. The, ah, oven malfunctioned, and dinner is rather…um…ruined,” Susan managed, still looking as though she might implode any moment.

“We could have fish and chips,” Abi proposed helpfully.

“How much were you able to salvage?” Giles asked in a kindly voice.

Susan coloured, but kept her poise. “The pan survived.”

Giles worked for a moment, but managed to maintain a straight face. Even he knew about Susan's cooking.

“Look, when's Ben due home?”

She was looking more and more tightly wound. “About an hour.”

“…Or there's always curry. But I don't like curry,” Abi's voice interjected, several miles behind the rest of the conversation.

They all ignored her and Giles turned back to Susan, trying to look sympathetic.

“Shall I help?”

Susan sighed. “I thought you'd never ask.”

Buffy looked from one to the other, startled, then realised if she didn't make a move quickly that she'd be left alone to hold a conversation with Einstein's daughter.

“I'll help too,” she said quickly, wincing when Abi's voice chimed in with a chirpy 'me too'.

Within twenty minutes, Giles had disposed of the cremated corner roast and opened every window to clear the fumes. He'd also taken stock of Susan's refrigerator, freezer and pantry before marshalling his troops. Buffy had been put in charge of the salad, which he knew she was very good at, and Abi had been sent to the grocer's to buy eggs, unaware that Giles' impromptu menu didn't actually have eggs on it. And Susan, looking slightly less homicidal now, was peeling, chopping, slicing and dicing everything he asked for.

When Ben walked in the door, late, over an hour later, sumptuous aromas were coming from the kitchen and most of his family and guests were sitting in the living room either watching television or sipping glasses of his best Australian Cabernet.

“Hello all. Any catastrophes today?”

“Ben?” Giles rose from his chair to meet his cousin. “No, no…I think everything has gone just about as per…usual,” he said nonchalantly.

It wasn't technically a lie. Nothing that had happened…including Susan's culinary disasters, or grating her fingers, Nick burning his tongue on a stolen morsel from a tray he didn't know was just out of the oven, or even Abi bringing home French bread instead of eggs, which, ironically, was put to good use by Giles, who was on a roll, menu wise…was out of the ordinary for this family.

At that point, Susan emerged from the kitchen in unnervingly good spirits, as far as her husband was concerned. Ben's eyes widened when she actually smiled, and then he became convinced that she was a pod person when she asked him if he'd like a glass of wine.


*******

“Did you see Ben's eyes when Susan brought those hot cheese bisc—I mean scones—in? They just kept getting bigger as everything came out, like when Susan put your French onion soup in the centre of the table. But I especially liked the stunned look when she came back with the Paella.”

He shook his head. “Such as it was. At least she keeps a decent pantry. We'd have been lost without all the tinned veg and never-used spices…”

“And tomorrow night's chicken. Not exactly traditional, but it went down well…and gave Susan a major happy,” Buffy observed, used to lots of seafood, not chicken, in her paella.

Giles chuckled. “Susan is a dreadful cook. She tries, but her talents lie elsewhere.”

“Wow with the subtle there, Giles,” Buffy teased, “unlike the majority of your relatives. I think I'm getting scared about this new stag party. If Ben and Nick made such a crapola job of the last one, what makes you think you can stop them doing it again?”

Giles shrugged. “If I have to, I'll knock their heads together. Also, neither of them will be allowed anywhere near the finances, or any negotiations or bookings required to execute this thing properly.”

Buffy chuckled. “Well, okay, but I'll still be keeping an eye on you. When did you say we have to go and pick this 'Richard' guy up from the train station?”

“About eleven. I think it's probably best if we all go to lunch, so that you have a chance to er…
acclimatize…yourself to my cousin before we find ourselves back in the fray. Richard is not Susan's favourite person. Abi is apparently still angry with him about the age difference, among other things, and Richard, and everyone else for that matter, still isn't quite over the last stag night. It's probably a good thing that his young lady decided to continue on to her own home and preparations for the wedding. I have a feeling that adding her to the mix at this point would be rather…incendiary…”

Buffy, thinking about the changes in her own father in the last few years, and his youthful string of girlfriends, knew exactly what Abi was feeling but refrained from saying so.

“In that case why don't we use the time for something a little more fun than entertaining cousin Richard?”

“Hmm…?”

“Well, we're supposed to be 'together', remember. You think cousin Richard is going to buy that for very long, knowing you as well as he does? Especially if you start stuttering and stammering again when he starts asking you hard questions about us.”

Giles gradually turned an unpleasant shade of chartreuse as exactly what kind of questions Richard would typically be asking, man-to-man, about Buffy, sank in and settled uncomfortably in the pit of his stomach.

“What…what exactly did you have in mind?”

Buffy lifted an eyebrow. “Well, for a start you can't go that colour. The idea of us doesn't really make you that sick does it?” Her own expression had darkened as she waited for his answer.

“I should have thought I would be better asking *you* that question,” he was stung to retort.

That surprised her. “Me? Why?”

He gave her his best 'irritated' stare.

The penny dropped and she subsided guiltily. “Yeah, well, way younger then, remember? Actually, I've had a lot of time…and reason…to think about it. Spike actually thought…I mean, after you left, when I was miserable…he asked me about us…”

“He *what*?” Giles cleared his throat, not happy with having yelped that out. “What the hell business did Spike have…what exactly did you say?”

Buffy blinked at the midstream switch. “Um…not. I told him there wasn't anything, of course.”

“Oh, right,” he said, suddenly very interested in the glasses in his right hand.

“Like I said, it gave me a lot to think about,” she continued, dryly. “It's not like you're not really hot-looking for a guy your age…”

Giles snorted. “Yes for a geriatric…”

Buffy rolled her eyes. “Oh, please. When I was in high school you were 'old'. Hell, back then even George Clooney was old. Now George Clooney is…oh, *yeah*…and you're…well, you're…” She trailed off, looking into his eyes. A moment later they broke eye contact, both of them turning pink. “What I'm saying is if we're going to keep up this pretence around your cousin we'll have to look like we mean it.”

Giles twitched a little when Buffy covered his hand with hers. She giggled. “See what I mean? You've gotta relax, and at least pretend I'm not repulsive,” she teased.

He straightened then. “You know how lovely you are, so stop being ridiculous. It's not…I don't…” he stammered in spite of himself, then stiffened in shock when Buffy leaned up unexpectedly and captured his lips with hers. Except, somewhere between the thought that he should push her away and the action, he'd drawn her into his arms and was kissing her back. It went on forever, neither of them apparently being ready to stop. When they finally surfaced again and faced each other, both were matched for high colour and discomfiture.

Buffy blinked. “Um…”

“Yes…”

“Giles…?”

“Mm..?”

“Nothing. Except…I don't think we're going to have a problem convincing cousin Richard.”

“No. None whatsoever,” he agreed.


*******

The train was forty minutes late and when it finally disgorged its human cargo, there was no one even vaguely resembling Giles' cousin Richard anywhere to be seen. It wasn't until the platform had cleared, and was almost deserted, and Giles and Buffy were about to give up and go and check the arrival times of the next few trains he might be on, that someone emerged, with extreme caution, from the last carriage.

“Richard,” Giles muttered, startled, when he turned and saw the figure alight and look around warily.

Buffy turned, saw the tall figure several metres away then looked up at her companion, and continued to look back and forth several more times. “I thought you said he was your cousin, not your twin brother?”

“Don't be ridiculous,” Giles growled. “We're nothing alike. Richard thinks he's still nineteen and behaves accordingly.”

The distance between them all had now narrowed to little more than a couple of feet.

“Rupert. Fancy meeting you here. Who's the pretty, then?”

Giles cleared his throat. “Richard. It's been a long time. I see you haven't changed.”

Richard chuckled, looking at Giles' snug-fitting designer jeans, round-necked grey sweater and darker jacket, not to mention his diamond stud earring and excellent haircut.

“I see you have, though. Looks good on you…just like this lovely bit of…”

“Richard!”

But Richard was devoting his full attention to Buffy. “Hello, sweetheart. What exactly is a sweet girl like you doing with old Rupert? Must be more interesting catches out there than a dead boring git like him.”

“Richard!”

Buffy, still trying to shake the shock of the resemblance, despite the warnings, stared at the adolescent-wannabe. “You're kidding, right?” She blurted so convincingly that Richard's eyes narrowed.

“That good, huh?”

“Better.” Buffy smiled like the cat after the proverbial cream and moved in close to lean against Giles, strangely pleased when his arm automatically, and distinctly protectively, closed around her.

Richard's gaze shifted to Giles and his grin widened again. “You old dog. Who knew you still had it in you…?” Then his eyes flicked back to Buffy again. “You should have known him back in the day…legendary 'e was. There was this one time with these three…”

“Richard!!!”

“Is that all you're going to say to me, Ripper, old mate? Not like you at all…as if any of this is anything like you, lately,” Harper added absently.

Giles cleared his throat. “Richard Harper, I'd like you to meet Buffy Summers. Buffy, this is my cousin Richard.” His eyes flicked up contemptuously to his…distracted…cousin. “And how is Gina?”

Richard looked down uncomfortably. “Ah. She's…well, she's…I dunno. She went home a coupla days ago after a slight, um, miscommunication, yeah, that's it…with some acquaintances of mine. We, ah, sort of found ourselves without a motor. Not exactly planned. Gina was not best pleased and took the train home an hour later. She's sort of…well…not really talking to me right now.”

Giles started to grin widely then killed it in the split second it took Richard to look up again. He cleared his throat.

“Well, um, that is a shame. In that case I don't suppose Ben will need to proceed with the plans for the stag party, then?”

Richard shuddered. “Gawd help us. Look, Ben's a good man, as you well know, but he's also a bloody prat and that lad of 'is is a right pillock. I'd rather go to a bleedin' Tupperware party than go through all that again. Look, Gina'll come around. It was just a bit of a shock and all, you know, what with strange men chas—I mean escorting—me out to the car-park, and relieving me of our new motor. All I want is a few beers with some mates, and a quiet wedding. Nothing fancy, nothing…splashy.”

“Nothing that would get you noticed by the people who no doubt still require payment of the interest on that vehicle they repossessed?” Giles guessed with, judging by Richard's expression, pinpoint accuracy.

“No, no. It's not like that. It was strictly on the up and up. I've just fallen on hard times, is all. And Gina, my sweet darlin', has expensive tastes.”

Giles shook his head. “How much do you owe the sharks?”

“Five hundred quid,” Richard muttered sulkily.

“Fine. I'll take care of the debt on one condition.” Buffy looked up at him, surprised. “You let Ben do your stag night if Gina comes around.”

Both Buffy and Richard boggled.

“Wot?!”

“You heard me.”

“But why?” Harper whined. “It's only going to—”

“Nick told me Ben's never been best man before and that it meant a ridiculously great deal to him. And if you remember when we were children, Ben was always last and was never picked for anything, either at school or family events. It was always one of us and little Ben sulking for days afterward.”

Richard grinned crookedly. “Yeah, little Ben. He was fun to beat u—er—muck about with when we were kids.”

“Exactly,” Giles growled. “No stag party, no payment of your debt.”

“You always were better at the biff, Rupert. Never understood why you wasted it on books and museums.”

“Pillock,” Giles muttered under his breath. “All right, come on, both of you.” He looked down at Buffy. “I think you've already had quite enough acclimatisation after all.”


*******


“You're here. Oh…joy.” Susan stood aside to allow Giles and Richard entry behind Buffy.

Richard moved so that Giles was between him and Susan. “Long time no see, Suze,” he added by way of greeting, but without slowing down.

“Don't call me that,” she hissed between her teeth as she closed the front door.

Once everyone had settled on the couch and chairs in the living room, Susan stood in front of both men.

“To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Well, due to a little bit of financial embarrassment at the moment, I was hoping Ben might…sort of…well…let me stay here for a few days,” Richard explained in his most persuasive voice, followed by his most winning grin.

“*Here*?”

Everone winced at the piercing sound.

“Um…yeah,” Harper ventured bravely. “Sorry. But I promise to be good. And Rupert's here to keep me in line…”

“Arghhhh!” Everyone blinked and watched the harried housewife march out of the room, slamming the door behind her.

Giles turned to Buffy. “Well, that went well.”

“Not nearly as well as it's going to when Abi finds out,” she reminded them dryly. “I don't think bonding will be on the agenda, at least not anywhere near as much as, say, tearing asunder…”

The two men turned to each other. “Bloody hell,” they said in unison.

“I'm not staying here,” Richard followed up immediately. “Not that I don't want to spend time with Abi, but not if I have to have her on one side, Madame Lash on the other, and both of 'em goin'
'ammer and tongs at me the whole time. Bloody Susan would put me in Nick's room just to torture me…”

“Well you're going to have to,” Giles pointed out, “since you are without…means, or digs, of your own. There's no room in my flat and you hate Bath anyway. Besides, you have a lot of things to do, not least patching up an engagement, before you can start getting choosey about your accommodation.”

A little while later Susan returned, tight-lipped, with a tea tray. She owed Giles a big one and knew it, but even the thought of Richard in the house for more than a couple of hours was, well…it was just too much. Besides, he was a continual reminder of what Nick's future might be if he didn't soon find a direction in life.

Giles took the tray and poured for everyone as Susan seated herself in her husband's chair and steepled her fingers.

Richard finally broke the silence. “S-so how's Abi been, then?” he ventured gamely.

“Perfectly fine…up til now. Although it should be said that she would prefer a mother who has actually been on the planet longer than she has…”

Richard snorted. “She's already got one of those, gawd 'elp us. Be good for 'er'. 'Er and Gina can go shopping together…they probably like the same clothes, same music…they'll probably bond just like that,” he said, snapping his fingers with a flourish.

“I seriously doubt it,” Susan said dampeningly. “Abi has a very poor opinion of your taste in women, Richard.”

Richard was unsquashable. “Yeah, but she'll get used to it. And it's not like she's going to be living with us or anything…”

Susan scowled.

“I think perhaps I should drive you up to see if you can make it up with Gina this afternoon,” Giles proposed, trying to defuse things while there was still a chance.

Susan looked from one to the other, surprised, and then asked with butter-not-melting concern: “Is something wrong?”

Richard shrugged, trying to look nonchalant. “Just a little tiff. She's probably breaking 'er little heart for me already. Rupert's right. I should go up there…especially if there's a free ride in the offin'.”


*******

“…And we'll take care of that little debt of yours on the way,” Giles finished as they climbed into the hired Mondeo.

Richard's eyes widened. “Not bloody likely…I mean…I'll take care of it, thanks all the same.” He stuck out his hand.

Giles paused, key hovering near the ignition, and looked down his nose. “Put several hundred pounds in your grubby little paws? I think not. If you want me to get your car back and get the nasty debt-collectors off your back, you'll let me handle it.”

“Yeah, and when they knock your block off because they think it's me trying to pull a fast one…?”

Giles considered that for a moment. “Right, you can come with me. Buffy?”

“I'm in,” she grinned as the car sped away.

Harper looked from one to the other, convinced they were completely mad. For a start, Rupert lending him five hundred quid, just like that…barking, absolutely barking. He smiled to himself. Still, good old Rupert…

When they emerged from the 'office' of the loan shark, in a derelict building, some time later, Richard still hadn't lost the stunned mullet look, mouth open and all. His 'financier', Billy, had decided he wanted the entire contents of Rupert's wallet instead of just the payment for the car loan, and it looked like they were all for it. Harper wasn't entirely certain he knew what happened next, except that Buffy seemed to be everywhere and Rupert seemed to shed years in seconds.

The two of them working together had to be seen to be believed. All four of Billy's gorillas ended up sprawled all over the room in varying stages of consciousness and Billy himself was hiding under his desk…from a little girl no less.

“Where'd'you learn to do that?” he demanded.

Buffy looked up at him. “Rupert taught me,” she said, straight-faced.

Giles was trying not to laugh, and pulled his features into a serious expression as Richard turned. “Buffy also happens to have a remarkable amount of natural talent,” he added dryly.

Richard eyed Buffy's flushed, glowing skin and rumpled hair. “More talent than you could shake a…” His eyes fell on the unused stake in her right hand.

“We get the picture,” Giles said tersely. “Now, what's Gina's address?”

Richard made a face and turned to his cousin. “The parents live in Surrey. I'll show you where…unless you want me to drive…?”

“No,” Giles said a tad too quickly. “No, it's all right. I'll drive.”

Richard gave him a filthy look and subsided.

When they finally rolled to a halt outside of a tidy terrace with an equally tidy, tiny front garden and a lime-green Panda parked out front, Richard suddenly seemed reluctant to proceed.

“Um…it might be better if we went to the local and I call her on me mobey…ask her to come down and have a chat, like.”

Giles raised an eyebrow and Buffy rolled her eyes.

“Don't tell me…how old exactly is this girl?”

“Eighteen,” Richard muttered into his shirt, then straightened. “And the ligh' of my life…”

Giles made an incredulous sound. “Don't forget how well I know you, Ricky. Save that rubbish for your conquests. Does this poor girl really love you…or have you just spun her enough of that drivel to put stars in her eyes?”

'Ricky' leered artfully over his shoulder at Buffy. “You're a right one to be preaching to me, Rupert boy. Look at your bit o' fluff…all shiny and dew fresh…not to mention the number of sweet young things ol' Ripper deflo—”

“Buffy is twenty-three years old and perfectly capable of choosing her own destiny,” Giles interrupted swiftly, his voice raised enough to draw a sharp look from Buffy and more eye-rolling from his cousin. “At eighteen your fiancée is not much more than a child. Has she even finished high school yet?”

“Course. She's an apprentice 'air stylist, she is. And talented with it. Says she's going to have 'er own salon one day, and all.”

“Well, it still behoves you to at least meet her parents and declare your intentions,” Giles pointed out shortly.

“What he said,” Buffy agreed. “You're supposedly going to be with this woman for the rest of your life…and parents come with the package.”

“Already met them,” Richard said sulkily. “Peg's a sweet girl…she likes me…but old Reg reckons I'm not good enough for his little darlin'. Last time I collected Gina for a night at the dogs, 'e threatened to shove a cricket stump up me—”

“Yes, all right,” Giles cut him off again, ignoring the stifled giggle from the back. Call her.”


*******

Buffy sipped her ale and watched the two men with her, fascinated by the uncanny physical resemblance between two people who couldn't be more different. Richard, the overgrown teenager and fashion-reject, and Giles, the intellectual who'd grown comfortable enough with himself to dress the way he wanted instead of the way he thought he was expected to...for which Buffy said a small, silent thank you…on all counts. He was turned in profile, lecturing Richard about responsibility and consequences, the diamond stud catching in the light above their table and his slightly longer hair brushing his collar as he moved his head. She was still getting used to the lack of glasses, and noticing for the first time the planes and angles of his face, the intensity of the green of his eyes and exactly how expressive that eyebrow was. In that brief confrontation back in her Freshman year, with 'Hugh Hefner' Giles, only two things about that visit remained burned into her memory…Olivia wearing his shirt, and those eyes…without the obstruction of his glasses. She hadn't even been able to process it back then…but it was now painfully clear that she had issues she didn't even know she had…issues she still had now…especially after that kiss…

Giles made an impatient sound and turned to her, caught her bemused expression without really knowing what it was for, and smiled. “Sorry, love. Can I get you another…?”

For a moment Buffy was transfixed by the tenderness in the smile, the voice…the eyes, and the sound of that word on his lips…that word aimed at her… Then she remembered that it was a game and
deflated swiftly. “No, no…I think I'll just work on this one,” she said far more cheerfully than she felt.

“Ricky?”

They all turned. A long-legged girl in a denim jacket, an amply filled lime coloured 'toob' and a microscopic skirt above a pair of sixties-esque clogs was approaching their table. Her hair was a shade of red not found in nature, streaked with yellow-gold streaks and spiked so that she looked as though she'd put her finger in a power socket. When she waved, a dozen bangles rattled hello as well.

A few paces from the table she stopped dead, her mouth dropping open. “Who—what…?”

“Gina, my darlin', meet my cousin Rupert and his lady love, Buffy Summers. All, this is my fiancée, Miss Gina Beresford.”

The girl coloured on cue and giggled before looking from one man to the other several times. “You look like twins, not cousins,” she decided. “Ricky's prettier.” She gestured toward Giles. “But 'es not too shabby neither.”

Buffy figured out her intent and smiled. “Not too shabby at all,” she agreed, her eyes dancing when they caught Giles'.

Gina suddenly looked around them as though checking for something then fixed Harper with a hard stare. “Are those repo' geezers still after you…or 'ave you come down because you've got our little Manny back?”

It was Richard's turn to colour. Buffy looked completely confused and Rupert was leaning forward, Ripper-like. Before they could ask who the hell he'd managed to lose, Harper cleared his throat.

“The car. She named the car. Red and white, see. Man' United…get it?”

Buffy didn't, but Giles was easing back into his seat and looking mollified, if exasperated, so she decided whatever it was, wasn't entirely bad.

Gina was rolling her eyes. “What's the matter with them?”

“Rupert's just back from America. Buffy's an American girl,” Harper told her. “And I've paid me debt…Man—the motor will be back in my hands well in time for our honeymoon…” he added with an ingratiatingly little boy grin, and a distinct lack of credit to Giles for the financial reprieve.

Gina's face lit up. “Really?” She squealed and slid onto Richard's lap.

Their companions looked on as the happy couple got reacquainted, mesmerized as though by a train wreck, as it dragged on.

Buffy wondered fleetingly if anyone had ever got their tongues in a knot doing it for that long and that…enthusiastically, then looked up at Giles, shocked to find herself imagining…She halted her thoughts, feeling her face burn, presumably beet-red now. At least if anyone noticed they'd think it was about what Richard and Gina were doing, not…

Giles cleared his throat loudly. And again. The pair finally came up for air.

“Oh, sorry,” Richard smirked, not really sorry at all. “Terrible thing being parted from someone you love…”

“Yes, must have been a dreadful forty-eight hours or so,” Giles agreed, deadpan. “Does this mean the engagement is back on again?”

Gina and Richard looked at each other and Gina grinned, flashing her ring finger at him.

Buffy squinted, trying to focus on the tiny stone. Perhaps a rose diamond, she speculated generously, then acknowledged her common sense and settled for 'a pink stone'.

“I knew it,” Harper gloated. “I knew you weren't gonna let me get away that easily…”

Gina giggled and kissed his nose.

Buffy resisted the temptation to make a barfing noise. “Um…since we're all agreed that the wedding's back on, shall we leave Richard here to catch up with…um…Gina? It's kinda late and…uh…Rupert still has a long drive…”

Giles looked at her with an expression of gratitude akin to worship. “Yes, yes. We do have rather a long way to go. I'm sure Richard can find his own way back to Ben and Susan's.”

Richard barely looked away from his fiancée as he waved them off, the cause of his distraction more than evident.

“No points for guessing what they'll be doing an hour from now…or sooner, if Richard has his way,” Buffy muttered, then went red when she remembered who she was talking to, and put her head down further as they headed out to where the car was parked.

Giles looked at sharply at her, saw her discomfiture and smiled to himself. “No doubt,” he said, but kept his chuckle to himself. He was still digesting his reactions to Richard and Gina, and trying to sort them all out. In between the general disapproval, distaste and irritation, it had affected him to see a reflection of himself…albeit a berk-like version of himself…kissing a woman not much older than Buffy was when they first met…

*An eternity ago*…his mind added wistfully.

Even then, child or no, Buffy had been old compared to most girls her age. Gina *was* a girl, little more than a child herself, and she deserved better than Richard Harper and being wife number five of God knows how many eventually…

He looked at Buffy again, wondering why his mind had made such a strong distinction between the two women. He thought of Buffy and the choices she'd made, the road back since defeating the First for the second time, and the years that slaying, and life and death, and heartache had put on her, and wondered what she would think if she knew that, for just a few seconds back there, he'd imagined himself kissing her just as Richard was kissing Gina. He flushed with warmth and dismissed the thought immediately, before it could cause any more problems, unlocking the car as soon as they were close enough to use the remote.

They drove in silence, both engrossed in their thoughts. Finally Buffy spoke, needing to drown out her own thoughts, if nothing else.

“So, now that it's back on, what are you going to do for the stag party?”

“Something that doesn't involve pipe smokers, twisting balloons or a drunken Susan leaping out of a fake cake.”

Buffy boggled. “Susan?”

“Susan,” Giles confirmed. “Nick's incompetence extended to using his mother as an emergency substitute for a missing stripper.”

“I don't really want to ask about the rest, do I?”

“Not really,” Giles agreed. “This time I'll find two or three good choices for everything and let Ben choose from each. Hopefully he will enjoy this effort a lot more than the last one. I suspect if I can keep Nick's avaricious little hooks out of the project, things will go rather more smoothly.

Buffy was watching his jaw move in profile and the late sun catching his hair as the flow of air from his barely-opened window flicked the slightly longer locks around.

“You're better looking,” she said, apropos of nothing.

“Pardon?”

“Than Richard,” she qualified.

He shot her a quick look. “Well, thank you,” he said, at a loss.

Reddening again, she stuck to her guns this time. “I just decided. I mean Richard is…”

“A prat,” Giles provided succinctly.

“Probably,” she agreed. “Whatever that is. Thing is, he does look just like you under the boofy hair and the juvenile persona. But he's not you and he's not nearly as…he doesn't have…well, I just thought you should know I like you a whole lot better and you're way smarter and *way* prettier than he is.”

Giles rolled his eyes and chuckled. “Since he didn't finish high school and has spent a not insignificant amount of his adult life either involved in petty crime or behind bars, I should certainly hope so.”

“He is a lot like Ripper, though.”

“Ripper? How would you know about—?”

“Candy, remember?”

It was Giles' turn to redden. “That wasn't a true representation of my real adolescence. Ethan made certain *all* the adults in the town would be out of commission by enhancing the spell so that we would all lose not only our adult inhibitions but any sense of right and wrong. Even at my worst I wouldn't have beaten a man…and an older one at that…half to death over some stolen clothes. That police officer spent a week in hospital after that incident,” he added darkly. “Nor did I even know Ethan when I was sixteen…and he was the one who christened me 'Ripper' in the first place.

“So you weren't really 'out of control guy' when you were sixteen?”

“If you remember, I told you I ran away when I was twenty-one, got involved with Ethan and petty crime and raising demons…among other things. If I *was* 'out of control guy' as you call it, before then, I never would have made it to Oxford in the first place. ”

“Sounds like plenty to go on with right there,” Buffy interjected dryly. “Okay, so what were you like at sixteen?”

“Introverted. Studious. Resentful. Angry. I did what I was told, endured boarding school, achieved both the grades required of me and the excellence demanded by my 'other' training schedule, during vacations.”

“So…no Ethan, no girls, no drugs…not even cigarettes?”

He sighed heavily. “At sixteen? No…at least I'd tried them…cigarettes…and I'd been drunk at least once in the dormitory, on someone's smuggled Johnny Walker, but no, I wasn't the lout Ethan created with the Band Candy spell, at least not then. I did petty crime when I ran with Ethan; I did a lot of things, good, bad, unforgivable…all of which I now own, and most of which I regret. I'm not proud of that time, but that person is not who I am now, or who I was before.”

Buffy stared at him, remembering a seventeen year old girl lost in Los Angeles. “You became someone else to escape who you really were,” she said softly.

Giles actually took his eyes off the road to stare at her for a long few seconds before Buffy waved at the windscreen and he focused again on what he was doing.

“I didn't want to be a Watcher. I didn't want a destiny. I was young and full of dreams and ambitions that had nothing to do with the Council and vampires and sending teenage girls to their death.”

“Let me guess: guitar guy in that photograph Xander found…you wanted to play in a band?”

“I did play in a band,” he said, smiling a little. “But yes, I did have ambitions, like many others my age, to be the 'next big thing', when I was a young man. Moreover, I wanted to choose my own destiny. The idea that my life was a commodity over which I had less than no control simply overwhelmed me, eventually, along with the workload, the lack of sleep and the dea…a few other factors.” Something seemed to occur to him then. “What photograph…and how did Xander…?”

“Oops.” Buffy had forgotten that Giles was never told that they'd rifled his things or that Xander had showed her the Xerox he made of that photograph for, he said, blackmail purposes should he ever been that much trouble with the Watcher. “Um, well, we were just trying to find a way to fight Eyghon… anything. We didn't mean to invade your privacy…if it helps, Xander said you keep some mean banking and phone records…”

“Then you knew I was in a band?”

“Nope. I knew you were in that photograph. Now I know you really were in a band. Did you sing?”

Giles blinked at the turn the conversation had taken. “At times, yes. Some songs in our repertoire suited my voice better, some Philip's, and occasionally even Dierdre's.”

“So did Ethan sing?”

Giles laughed aloud. “God, no. Ethan couldn't carry a tune in a bucket and he'd never had the time or the inclination to learn an instrument. He supplied the heckling and the recreational…um… activities …afterward.”

“Those I already know too much about,” she said dryly. “But I still don't believe you created it all by yourself….Eyghon, I mean.”

Giles closed his eyes for a moment. “That, I must take responsibility for. None of them would have known the demon even existed if I hadn't found it in my books and involved them all…” He trailed off.

“Yeah, and did involving them all include a gang pow-wow and you telling them they had to try it, or did you just tell Ethan because you thought it sounded cool, and he did the rest?”

He shot her a speculative glance, eyes narrowed.

She didn't miss it. “I've had a lot of years to think about that stuff, you know, in those annoying times where your brain won't relax…like right before you go to sleep. I figured that one out for myself eventually, a long time ago.”

“I would have thought my personal history would be the last thing you'd thought about in the past few years…”

Buffy looked surprised, but conceded the point. “Now that's low…but fair. Of course there were issues: mystical sisters suddenly appearing, mothers dying…the world coming to an end periodically, my sabbatical from the land of the living and then the recall to end all recalls, including the fun subterranean entrance…Willow's whacky…not to mention homicidal…magickal adventures, your big disappearing trick…stuff like that…”

“Yes, yes. Point taken,” he growled.

“But,” she continued, “I *did* think about you, mostly while you were gone, true, but never let it be said that I didn't think about you, or miss you, or need you…” It was her turn to trail off.

Giles had deliberately not taken his eyes off the road. “And I you,” he said quietly. “And yet only one of us seemed to want to do anything about it at the time…or ever, for that matter.”

Buffy's lips parted in surprise. It was a long moment before she cleared her throat. Giles had never given such a clear opening before to anything this close to the heart…

“Um, don't hold back there, Giles. You're going to have to spell it out for me. I know the Spike thing sucked butt on so many levels, and we've talked about the badness that was me when we were fighting the First. I already admitted that it was beyond stupid to let Spike loose with the First still basically ready to use him as a weapon at any time, even if he didn't exactly volunteer… And I didn't even argue with your point that everything that was bad between us then was basically about me forgetting somewhere between you guys kicking Evil Willow's butt and Spike becoming an issue again, about us being…us. ”

“Exactly. We've been together for so long, and yet not even when Angel returned did it ever occur to you that I might have some feelings with regard to issues concerning you…concerning us. I simply didn't matter…even when it came down to choosing between my wishes and the safety of everyone around you…or being with the pretty vampire of the day. Nothing ever changes, Buffy. In all the time you've been here in Bath we haven't had a single serious discussion. Even talking about the final battle descends into Lord of the Rings analogies and jokes about Sunnydale being flushed down the—”

“Maybe I wasn't ready to talk about it.”

Silence stretched for several long moments.

“But I was,” he said finally, remembering the kiss. “I need to.”

More silence.

Buffy's expression had shifted from defensive irritation to shocked epiphany. “That's it, isn't it?”

Giles finally allowed himself to look quizzically at her.

“I just don't see, do I? I never get what other people need, because I've spent so long being too busy with what I need, what the world needs…what the Slayer needs. I just don't look anymore. I've gotten hard, Giles. Maybe the First Slayer was right: maybe Slayers really are supposed to be alone…so they don't hurt the people they care about, so much.”

“She was wrong,” Giles said with conviction. “Is she why you forgot what made you the most successful Slayer ever?”

Buffy shrugged. “Why am I always the one who gets blamed for splitting up the group? News bulletin: college, and Giles telling me I have to do it by myself, and everyone getting new lives. Story to follow: a Witch's slow spiral down to world destruction and other fun stuff, with a side journey into the death and life of a Slayer, followed by…surprise, surprise…*everyone* telling me I had to do it *all* by myself, from raising my teenage sister alone to the plumbing, the bills, a job, Slaying…and joy, everyone even saved the dishes for me when I got home. But hey…I learned to be at one with my post-traumatic stress…and sometimes even at two…” she said sarcastically. “Even if it was *way* the wrong 'two' after the piece de resistance: the Watcher vanishing trick…”

“Are you done?” Giles asked quietly.

“Not even started, but it sounded good, so the defence will rest before it gives both of us a migraine.”

He resisted the temptation to smile. “I grant you all of that, but you're not on trial here…it's not about you.”

“You know I keep hearing that, too… When did I ever want it to be about me? Did you not hear me in high school telling you over and over how much I didn't want it to be about me? And what was I told? That it was all about me… 'The One Girl' …yadda yadda, tradition, responsibility, destiny…blah-de-blah-blah. A-a-nd yet…was never about me: Buffy Summers. It was only ever about the Slayer, or the daughter, or the sister, or the student…be this, do that…slay this…don't have a life…don't…care.”

Giles closed his eyes. She was right on every count, every level, and yet she was still missing the point entirely.

When he hadn't spoken for several seconds Buffy looked up saw him staring straight ahead, at the road, his expression bleak. She knew instinctively that it wasn't about what she'd said. It was about what she didn't say.

“Tell me,” she said finally.

That made him glance at her, surprised.

“Tell me,” she repeated.

He cleared his throat. “I'm not sure I can. If you don't have it in you to recognise…I'm sorry, Buffy.”

She recoiled as though slapped. She really didn't have the answers. She closed her own eyes, only to be beset with the image of his face as they argued and the door closed in his face, and her own words echoed back to her. At the time she'd been angry, sleep deprived and…and hurt; it still hurt…like crazy…remembering that he'd walked away, not once, but twice. It didn't matter that she'd given her blessing the second time, knew it was imperative to get Willow to England, and that it was the right thing to do, to let him go…back to the life he'd made for himself. But it had still hurt…and the flicker of resentment and anger that had smouldered ever since, had suddenly been fanned into an inferno by his alliance with Robin Woods: an alliance against her; not against Spike…against *her*. Her eyes widened, and she looked up at him again.

“You never really were against me, ever, were you?”

She saw his expression move from stony-faced, to surprise, to an emotion she couldn't identify, before he spoke.

“No…I never was.”

“I should have known that, shouldn't I?”

He nodded silently.

Her fingers touched the hand resting on the stick shift. “I'm so sorry,” she whispered in a voice haunted by revelation.

Giles didn't speak, instead taking her hand and putting it on the shifter, before covering it with his own.

Finally, he cleared his throat, his voice thick with emotion. “What do you know about weddings?”

Buffy blinked, then understood. She brushed moisture from her eyes and leaned against his shoulder. “Not nearly enough,” she told him. “But I bet you could Google some best man stuff on that new computer of yours…”

Giles' lip quirked upward. “When did you learn to 'Google'?”

“Dawn showed me…in Rome. I needed information about…well I needed information, and she was busy. She told me to Google it…then she had to explain that it wasn't a rude expression involving eggs…”

The air remained charged. He didn't laugh. He didn't even grin, but Buffy saw the flash of amusement in his eyes.

“So you learned?”

“I learned. And I even found out, eventually, that I was about to make another huge mistake, which fortunately I'd had more than enough experience of…so I got Dawn a room on campus and came here, instead.”

“So this means I can depend on you to research this assignment for me?” he deadpanned.

“Computer girl at your service,” she grinned into his sleeve. “Ben's going to be the greatest Best Man who ever lived…always provided, of course, that Richard and Gina make it to the altar…uh…is there going to be an altar? Can ex-criminals get married in a church?”

“They're villains, not vampires, Buffy. If a minister agrees to marry them, there's no law against it, written or unwritten.”

“Okay, so…church wedding. But under no circumstances am I jumping out of any cakes for Stag Night Mark II.”

“Why ever not?” he teased.

She rolled her eyes. “Because I'm fussy about who I share my…stuff…with,” she mugged, then her expression changed. “Also, I don't do small spaces anymore…not ever.”

Giles' sudden grin also faded for a moment, his eyes darkening before he cleared his throat again. “I've decided that since Richard doesn't actually have a lot of…real…friends to make useful numbers at a get-together, that it would be more of an excursion than a party…”

“Sounds like a plan. So where are you taking him? See, I don't think the National Gallery or Westminster Cathedral…or even the British Museum…would light Richard's fire, somehow…”

He chuckled at last. “Very perceptive. No. I've actually already arranged that part. ”

“Is it a big secret?”

“Not between us,” he said easily. “I inherited membership in a gentlemen's club in London. I've also got connections in several rather more…colourful…shall we say…clubs up there. He will have a night to remember…in terms that he can thoroughly appreciate…and which will hopefully seem to Ben…and Richard…to have been all Ben's idea, when I'm done.”

“Okay, my lips are sealed. A Gentleman's Club, huh? Is it one of those 'no women, nobody with really dark suntans' kind of places?”

“It was once. It still doesn't allow women, but no longer matters how dark your 'suntan' is or what language you speak, although since there are very rarely any invitations to new members it's not often an issue.”

“So you like this 'gentlemen's club' stuff? You smoke cigars?”

Giles paused for a moment, remembering the last time he'd smoked a cigar…about year after he'd given up smoking…and how close it came to causing him to start again. “Used to once, a long time ago.”

“Back when you smoked cigarettes?”

“As a matter of fact, yes. A good cigar, for a smoker, is as pleasurable as gourmet food or fine wine. And to answer your earlier question: it's been a very long time since I had a chance to indulge in any 'gentlemen's club stuff', but whilst I was working at the museum I very much enjoyed a weekly retreat to a quiet corner of the club: by the fire in the winter; near the window in the summer, a cigar, and even occasionally a cognac or a fine single malt…and sometimes even good conversation with even better company.”

Buffy was watching the light in his eyes as he recalled what was obviously a good time in his life, and realised with a jolt that there'd been precious few of those for a lot of years.

“Sounds like you miss it,” she said softly.

He came back to the present and looked a little sheepish. “Sometimes I get a little nostalgic… everything seems better in hindsight, I suppose…but it was a different time for me.”

“But one with a lot more Giles highs…maybe even 'Watchers' Retreats in the Cotswolds' kind of happies?”

Giles looked surprised that she'd remembered. “As a matter of fact, yes. And now that you've mentioned it, I'm going to show you the Cotswolds…once this business is over.”

“Count me in,” she agreed, remembering how much he'd glowed when he was talking about that Retreat…so long ago. As far as she knew he hadn't attended a single one since the day they first met in the Library. It would be fun to see how pretty it was…but she wasn't so sure about the kayaking. What she was sure of was that for the first time, she really wanted to get to know this man…who he really was, what he loved and, well, what exactly made him…Giles.


*******

“Give it back!”

“Why should I? I'm not paying for landing on something when you quite obviously counted wrong!”

“Mum, Richard's cheating again!”

“It's Cousin Richard to you, and both of you stop bickering. Roll your own dice instead of lying there like stranded seals and there won't be any reason to argue.”

Both players made faces at Susan Harper, who hadn't looked up from the newspaper she was pretending to read, whilst timing dinner. She was determined to prove that she could roast beef with the best of them if she wasn't being harassed in several different directions at once.

“I saw that.”

Michael rolled his eyes.

Richard looked startled. “When's Ben getting home, again?”

“About an hour and a half. And Rupert and Buffy are arriving about half an hour after that. Hopefully by then one of you will be bankrupt and my living room floor will be tidy again.”

“Never thought I'd actually be looking forward to planning one of me own weddings.”

Susan's eyes rolled up before she closed them and shook her head. “Abi has gone to visit Janey and the baby. She said she doesn't know when she'll be back.”

“That'll be fun for her, then,” Richard said without looking up from counting his turn. “Bugger!”

Michael smirked. Richard was in jail again, for about the seventh time in the game. Then he thought of something. “You don't let dad swear in front of us.”

“We have to make allowances for your cousin,” Susan said acerbically then aimed a look of withering censure at her in-law, who just grinned back and smoothed his hair behind his ears before starting to count Michael's turn for him.

“Bugger!” Michael yelled when his double-six turn also resulted in a swift ride to jail.

His opposition chuckled. “What's the matter? Don't want to do a bit o' stir with your cousin, eh?”

“Michael, if you swear again in this house I'll move Cousin Richard into your room with you and ask your father to put the trundle bed up…for you.”

The older Harper smirked. Michael's smug look disappeared and he scowled darkly at his mother's bent head.


*******

“Are you sure Buffy's going to be all right?”

Giles chuckled as he pulled the Mondeo away from the house.

“It's you Susan wants on a spit, not Buffy,” Ben muttered from the back.

“Yeah, Mum doesn't bite…much,” Nick snickered.

Richard rolled his eyes. “Yeah, well, is it my fault Gina decided to have a night out with her girlfriends somewhere instead of taking Susan's offer of an old fashioned Hen's Night?”

“Richard's right. Let's face it…is there anything more boring than a bunch of women sitting around playing party games and giving the poor bride-to-be Tupperware and teaspoons?”

Ben snorted. “Shut up, Nick. Doesn't matter how much you brown-nose to Richard, he knows…we all know…you're the berk who bolloxed the bookings…and the catering…”

“…and the stripper,” Richard added, still miffed.

“… last time,” Ben finished, shooting an irritated look at his cousin. “Just be grateful you've been invited at all, my boy.”

“So where exactly are we going? You and old Rupert have been entirely too secretive for my liking.”

Richard half turned his head. “You're just dirty because you aren't cashing in on this one…nobody wanted the services of the world's worst party organiser. Your dad's got more sense than to let history repeat itself. Bleedin' pipe smoker's conventions,” he muttered.

Ben puffed up a little and grinned.

Giles picked up the thread. “I think you'll find Ben's made some wonderful choices for tonight. You will enjoy yourselves. What you won't do is mention a word about any of it to Susan, if you know what's good for you,” he told them dryly.

Harper gave his son a gratuitously gloating look.


*******

“Whoa…now this is what I call entertainment,” Richard beamed when they descended the steps to the club Ben had chosen from Giles' carefully selected list. Giles spoke quietly to the very large guard, who ceased staring at Nick as though he was on the top ten most wanted list, when the name of the party was mentioned. After a few more quiet words, they went in, astonished at the decibel level behind the closed door.

They wove through tables to the one reserved for their group, Ben watching Richard, whose silly, drooling grin was nearly as wide as Nick's. When the latter two sat down without taking their eyes from the stage, Ben hissed at Giles in a stage whisper:

“How on earth do you know people in places like this?”

Giles smiled to himself as Harper sat down . “You don't want to know. First round?”

“Cheers,” Richard said, still mesmerized by the glistening, undulating female form a few feet from him on the laser-lit stage. “Pint.”

“Two,” Nick mumbled.

“Guinness,” Ben added.

Giles made his way to the bar and was paying for his order when someone tapped him on the shoulder.

“Rupert!”

Giles turned to face a balding, middle-aged figure with a slight paunch, wearing a very expensive suit and Italian loafers. “Mark! It's been years.”

Jaded grey eyes crinkled into a grin. “That it has, Ripper me old mate; too many years. Last time you were in here was for Ethan's thirtieth.”

Giles' expression grew both rueful and distinctly sullen. “Ancient history.”

If Mark was surprised, his wizened face showed little more than a flicker of the slate-coloured eyes. “Haven't seen Ethan since. What's he up to?” he asked, well aware that he was poking at a sensitive spot.

“As far a I know, he's enjoying an indefinite retreat in the Nevada desert,” Giles replied silkily, finding himself craving a cigarette without knowing exactly why.

As though reading his thoughts, Mark produced a pack and offered one.

Without thinking about it, Giles accepted the smoke and the light that followed, drawing back and allowing the toxic fumes to permeate his psyche; to draw him back to another reality…one brief moment where he touched freedom before it flittered away from him again like a frightened butterfly, leaving him standing there, left behind…alone.

“You look good, Rupert. Life treatin' you well?”

Giles looked his companion up and down. “Not nearly as well as it appears to be treating you, Nobby.”

“Leave off. You want to talk ancient history…”

“So you've turned over a new leaf and the nightclub business is booming?”

Mark's eyes narrowed. “Doing fine, thank you very much. And what's the Ripper doing for a crust these days? Last I heard you were gathering dust in some bloody museum or other.”

Giles drew deeply again on the filter-tip. “Same thing I've always done.” Something was off. He couldn't exactly feel it, not the way Buffy could, but something was subliminally wrong, and it was jangling his nerves. His eyes swept the room as his friend lit a smoke of his own. One by one he picked them out.

“Interesting clientele,” he drawled.

The other man's head shot up. “The usual crowd. We don't have much trouble. Leon takes care of any…problems.”

“You're sure…?”

Mark shrugged. “They all leave here in one piece. After that they're on their own.”

Giles put out the cigarette, his looking saying it all, before he slid into the crowd.

Mark 'Nobby' Sangster watched his old friend suavely introducing himself to a slender blonde before slipping away with her minutes later. As he expected, Ripper was back less than fifteen minutes later, still flicking dust from his sleeves, eyes already searching the room again, finding and settling on a tall, pale brunette. He put out his own cigarette and caught his barmaid's eye.

“Double Scotch, Mindy,” he said darkly. The barmaid nodded and scuttled off to find his personal bottle. There would be hell to pay later, but he knew better than to get in Ripper's way when he was pissed…or hunting.

Giles returned some time later, after working very hard to entice the brunette into the ladies room before staking her as she attempted to give him a love bite he wouldn't soon forget, only to see Nick allowing himself to be led away by a frowsy redhead. His intuition pricked, but he wasn't certain. The redhead was wearing contemporary fashions and looked considerably younger than the others. With a glance at Richard, who was chuckling at Ben's happy discomfiture whilst a voluptuous dancer bent over to allow him to stuff a five pound note somewhere interesting, Giles took off after Nick.

The pair were out the front trying to hail a taxi without success when Giles reached them. “Not staying for the rest of Richard's evening?”

“Ah, Rupert…this is Leah. We're just going to find a spot of dancing somewhere. Leah's a mad keen dancer…likes the Bee Gees, she does.”

Giles' eyes narrowed. He studied 'Leah' closely. She certainly was pretty in a youthful sort of way, with flashing green eyes and scarlet painted lips. Her skin was alabaster pale, but not unusual for natural redheads. He followed the line of her long neck to the base of her throat. She was wearing a gold chain but it didn't disguise the pale silver scars.

“I don't know, Nick. I think Leah might actually be planning more on dinner, rather than a show.”

Leah's eyes flashed. “Who are you?” she demanded. “Nick's taking me out for a good time and if that includes dinner, that's fine by me.”

Nick looked from one to the other. Something was going on. Rupert sounded like he had issues with Leah and Leah's tone was halfway between flirtation and contempt.

“Who am I?” Giles drawled, smirking. “Let's just say I…*Watch*…things…things that might require attention by my associate…who is rather partial to making a…*Slaying*.”

Leah's eyes widened. “Let's go, Nicky. I think your grandfather is trying to spoil our night.”

“Cousin,” Nick corrected instinctively. “And Rupert wouldn't stop…Hey!”

Giles had darted out a hand to grab Leah's wrist as she attempted to slip away.

The redhead squealed as smoke curled from the Watcher's strong grip, then vamped.

Nick visibly jumped, his jaw dropping. “What the…? Bloody hell!”

Giles changed hands, releasing his right one to reveal Buffy's silver cross and chain and the cross shaped burn on Leah's forearm, but Nick only got a split second look before the vampire began to struggle, roaring at Giles before vamping out and using her super-strength to wrench herself away from him.

Nick watched, dazed, as his erstwhile date and his musty old cousin fought each other. It wasn't pretty. Neither of them seemed to know the meaning of the words 'fair.' Whatever Leah was, she was bloody strong, and it was all Rupert seemed to be able to do to find ways…dirty ways…to combat her brute strength. It wasn't until she had the older man pinned down and was giving every indication that she was going to actually bite him, that Nick roused himself enough to grab her by the hair and pull her off.

At that point Cousin Rupert uncorked a small bottle and threw the contents in her face as he scrambled to his feet. Again the smoke…and Leah scratching at her face, trying to get off whatever was burning it.

“No, wait…What..?!” Nick shouted as Rupert followed up by pulling a wooden stake from his coat and slamming it into Leah's chest just as a cab finally pulled up. She disintegrated in a cloud of dust and both men coughed as the taxi immediately squealed its wheels and fled the bizarre scene.

Leon grinned widely at Giles as Nick and his cousin came down the steps to the door of the club, still dusting themselves off. “Nice work, Mister Giles. Couldn't've done better me'self.”

Giles continued to brush off his pants and shake his sleeves. “Perhaps you should have,” he growled at the bouncer as they passed him and pushed the door open.

“Rupert, mate, where've you been? I think Misty here wants to have my baby,” Richard grinned dopily and stuck another five pound note in the band of the sequinned panties of the voluptuous, semi-clad bottle blonde sitting on his lap. A more than half-drunk Ben was stealing glances from across the table at the almost-certainly augmented chest jiggling as the nymph in question giggled.

Nick surveyed the glasses on the table and the view of Richard's companion and looked pained. “I'm going to get a drink,” he grumbled and nodded when Giles put in an order for a Scotch.

Ben watched him go through a squinted eye. “I thought he disappeared with that…that…go-go dancer.”

Giles pulled up a chair. “He almost did,” he said cryptically and cast an eye over Misty, who was looking from him to Richard and back, obviously confused.

“It's all right,” Richard said jovially. “That's me smarter half. 'E won't bite…'e only looks like me,” he added, already sniggering at his own joke.

A moment later Giles was satisfied that the flush of colour in Misty's cheeks, the un-affected heaving of her spectacular bosom indicating breath, and the faint sheen of perspiration on her otherwise perfect throat absolutely precluded her from the ranks of the un-dead.

He sat back, accepted the glass Nick put in his hand and watched as the younger man put beers in front of the others and introduced himself to their guest with his usual enthusiasm. Giles half smiled. Nick was unsquashable, or at least not for long. He supposed he would have to explain sooner or later, but he was grateful that the boy wasn't making a fuss…yet.

“Great party,” Ben said suddenly, raising his glass.

Nick shot a glance toward Giles before smiling tolerantly at his inebriated father and raising his own.

Richard struggled to drag his attention from the curves set so perfectly at eye level, to finally raise his own.

“To Ben,” Giles said unexpectedly, raising his own nearly-empty whisky glass.

“Ben,” Richard echoed happily, tilting his empty pot at his suddenly sickeningly smug cousin.

“Yeah.” Nick tilted his as well, sliding yet another glance toward Rupert. “Cheers, Dad.”

        
*******

“That's not how you spell vampire.”

“Sure it is…I mean, it's how it's supposed to be spelled…you know, the proper way.”

“If it's not in the dictionary, you can't have it.”

Buffy rolled her eyes and wondered for the dozenth time what Giles was doing. Whatever it was had to be infinitely better than playing games with Susan, the Scrabble Nazi, and watched by Abi, who'd returned early. Buffy suspected that Janey probably wasn't any fonder of Cousin Abi than her father, Ben, was.

Susan finally looked up from her dog-eared dictionary and smiled evilly. “Not there. Take it back.”

Buffy removed her points bonanza and settled for making the word 'vamp'…of the human kind from the 'v' already on the board, rather than hold things up any longer than necessary, and drew her new tiles.

The older woman's competitiveness was only exceeded by her impatience. She grinned smugly as she made the word 'post' by building on Buffy's 'p'.

Buffy added another moderately scored word to the other side of the board, and sighed, wishing Giles was there. She sat up a little when she drew an 'x', her first major value tile, only to subside again when all the other letters turned out to be one pointers.

Susan then spent forty-five minutes agonizing over her next word to finally settle on funny, with the 'y' on a double letter score, a fact which seemed to please her nearly as much as winning the lottery. The gloating was worthy of an eleven year old triumphing in a schoolyard scuffle.

Buffy pointedly ignored her and stared at her own rack of letters. Something was playing at the edge of her consciousness…a word Giles was prone to dropping into conversation and which the letters in front of her were calling to. Not only that, but they were demanding to be set around the word 'post', meaning they would cover the, currently, only usable triple word score on the board. There had been a tense but silent battle between both women to be the first to find something long enough to reach it. She looked from the letters to the board and back again a half a dozen times before his voice intoned the syllables in her head.

Susan watched with widening eyes as Buffy laid an 'e' and an 'x' in front of the vertical word 'post' which she'd made earlier. The problem was, the 'x' now lay on a double letter score she'd had her own eye on. Her jaw clenched.

“That's not a word,” she snapped.

“I'm not done yet,” Buffy pointed out serenely.

Susan's expression went from startled to fuming as the younger woman went back for more letters from her rack. One by one they were laid: u,l,a,t, and finally 'e', to cover the triple word score.

“You…you…you can't. Post was my word…you stole my word!” she shrieked idiotically in a high-pitched, strangled squeak.

Abi finally leaned over from her tabloid magazine and peered at the board. “Actually I think that's a real word. I think I heard David Attenborough say it once, on telly.”

Susan glowered.

“'Expostulate',” Buffy pronounced, Giles' mellifluous tones once again whispering it in her ear. She shivered a little imagining the small puff of breath on her earlobe as he formed the 's' sound.

The older woman's nostrils pinched, casting sideways glances at her own thirty point lead as Buffy calculated her score.

“Double letter score for the 'x'. That's sixteen, plus twelve for the rest: twenty eight. Triple that: eighty-four…”

Buffy enjoyed the sight of the colour rising in her nemesis's face as she held her next thought for several moments, then showed her empty rack. “And fifty more points for using all seven letters. Total: one hundred and thirty-four.”

Susan's eyes bulged and her jaw clamped. “Very…nice, dear,” she managed, looking utterly manic. “Would you like some tea?”

Buffy stared straight back at her, undaunted. “Tea? Shouldn't we be doing something a little more adventurous than tea tonight?” she asked, ignoring the fact that *Scrabble* wasn't exactly burning up the town, either. “I mean, does anyone really think the guys are drinking tea…?”

“Yes, and Elizabeth and Phillip will be here shortly, and they're bringing the corgis…” her companion conceded ill-temperedly. “All right, Ben's been saving a bottle of beer for a rainy day…or there's a quarter of a bottle of amaretto in the living room cupboard…with the Christmas brandy.” She glowered at the game board again. “To hell with it, we'll have the lot. Abi, get some glasses…”


*******

Giles sat back in the lovingly-polished antique brown leather arm chair and drew slowly on his Monte Christo. Ben and Nick had gamely attempted to do justice to their cigars before surrendering and settling into their own chairs with snifters of fine cognac, lost in a fugue of inebriated contentment.

Richard happily alternated between his B and B and a fat Cohiba, whilst keeping up a steady patter of self-satisfied commentary on his evening, Misty's sterling qualities, and his intention to have 'the best honeymoon yet' with the magnificent Miss Gina Beresford.

The evening continued to be a success, not least because they'd been able to convince Richard that Misty wouldn't enjoy being asked to leave a Gentleman's club, not to mention the fact that Nick hadn't made any attempt to find out what exactly happened outside the nightclub, even though Giles knew that the occasional puzzled glance from the boy meant that he would be doing a lot of explaining later.

“So what's the story?”

Giles was jolted from his pleasant oasis of peace by the one voice he'd just decided wouldn't be heard from any time soon.

“About what?” Ben inquired sleepily.

“About Super-Rupert, the monster killer,” Nick drawled, alcohol blurring his voice a little, but not disguising the growing resentment in it.

Richard sat up with a jerk, then looked around furtively before slumping back down in his chair.

“Super Rupert? Nick, you've had too much brandy,” his father decreed, snickering.

“She wasn't human,” Giles said quietly, ignoring his cousin.

“Apparently not,” Nick snorted, “since she'd fit nicely into a Dust-buster about now, assuming she hasn't blown halfway across London.”

Giles sighed. “Now really isn't the time.”

“Course it is. You fight like you've been doing it all your life…like a commando….an…*old* commando, but still.”

Giles raised an eyebrow but continued to contemplate his drink. “I *have* been doing it all my life. But now is still not the time.” He looked up when he was answered by silence.

Nick looked into the green eyes for a long moment, then shrugged, his gaze sliding away. “Later, then.”

Ben opened both of his eyes fully for a moment. “Does anyone have any idea what the hell they're talking about?”

“Nah,” Richard muttered, almost too quickly.

Giles studied his look-alike cousin with narrowed eyes.

“Perhaps it's time we moved on. It's been a very pleasant evening, but I think we've all had enough for one night. I'll drive, since I've limited my intake to one an hour, for just that purpose.”

Nick sat in the front with Giles but couldn't contain himself any longer.

“You a copper or something? Private dick?”

“Something,” Giles said calmly. “I've trained for almost all of my life to fight creatures like the one you saw.”

“So…what was it?”

Giles continued to stare at the road. “Things that go bump in the night. Think about it, boy. How many living things do you know that can only be killed with a stake through the heart…or fire, or—”

Nick guffawed. “Leave off. There's no such thing as vampires.”

“Oh, really?” Giles drawled back. “And all your prospective girlfriends morph into monsters and turn to dust when someone stakes them in the heart, yes…?”

The younger man froze, then cleared his throat loudly and fell silent for long moments.

“All right, then why doesn't everyone know they're about, then?”

“Because they prefer it that way,” Giles pointed out. “But there is someone who is born to fight them…well, actually there's rather more than one now, but that's another story. For thousands of years, there has only been one. I, and my father before me, and his mother before him, have been trained specifically to watch over the one…chosen.”

“Like the only ones…? Like our family is something real special?” Nick asked eagerly, coming to life again. “Can I be one too?”

Giles almost smiled. *God forbid…*

“No, not the only ones. And no, it's not for us to choose,” he said gravely. “You might not have been chosen for the same reason your grandmother wasn't, or Richard's mother,” he added, metaphorically crossing his fingers against the white lie.

“Gran said you were chosen and I wasn't, because I was too thick, like mum.”

Both Giles and Nick jumped. Ben's soft snores continued in the background.

“You know?” Giles finally managed.

Richard shrugged. “Yeah. I overheard stuff when you ran away from Oxford. Gran filled in the gaps. Buffy, right? After she took care of my…'little problem' shall we say, I figured you'd finally managed the brass ring. You always were the only useful one in the family. Probably because you weren't a bleedin' Harper.”

Again Giles tried not to chuckle. He had to admit that for a complete prat, Richard was still the most pragmatic of the Harpers.

Nick squared his shoulders at Richard. “Oi…Don't knock the Harpers…they produced me, after all.”

Both the older men snorted at the exact same moment, then Giles cleared his throat.

“I think Richard simply meant that I had more opportunity than he did…or your father for that matter. The line now runs through the Giles family, ergo it was only to be expected that it would most likely continue through my father, rather than his sisters.”

“Probably would've helped if they had half a brain between them,” Richard observed. “How does that work, anyway? There's your dad, stuffy and all, but obviously a brain the size of a football…and then there's Maisie and Eloise. It just doesn't add up…”

“Genetics,” Giles offered. “They took after Alicia Tindall, my great-grandmother. Remember, my—our—grandmother, Laura Tindall, introduced the line to the Giles family when she married Grandfather Giles. The Tindalls had been watchers for about seven generations before that, but only my Grandmother carried the line, through her father, Simon Tindall.”

“Yeah? Dopey cow too, was she, this Alicia?”

Giles expression was halfway between mildly pained and nasty indigestion.

“I wouldn't say that exactly. From all reports Alicia was a lot like Abi. As a matter of fact Abi is quite like the portrait of Alicia that used to hang in Gran's house.”

“Dopey cow,” Richard and Nick affirmed in unison.

Giles closed his eyes briefly in a pained sort of way, before returning his attention to the road. “I'm sorry you had to find out about the girl that way, Nick, but it was far preferable to have you in one piece and asking these questions, to the alternative.”

“You mean with all my blood sucked out, like?”

Giles rolled his eyes. “At the very least.”

“So is London full of these things?” Richard asked. “Like am I going to have to wear really big ties or carry sharp sticks or something from now on?”

“Not really,” Giles admitted. “There's no active Hellmouth here at the moment, so activity is low. However, it is always prudent to be prepared if you're going to be on the streets after dark. A small, sharp stick, well concealed, is never amiss.”

Nick leaned forward. “Hellmouth? Sounds cool. What is it?”

“It is most definitely *not* 'cool',” Giles retorted. “It's a portal to the demon dimension, and all manor of evil is attracted to it, from all parts of the globe. It's not somewhere you want to be.”

“You sound like you know a lot about them,” Nick persevered.

The Watcher's eyes grew distant. “We lived on one in Sunnydale for seven years, give or take.”

“We? We who?”

“Him and Buffy, that's who,” Richard piped up. “There's something funny going on with 'er.”

That sent Nick's mind skewing off in ridiculous directions. “You dirty old…!”

Giles' left hand reached out and fastened itself around the young man's throat, eliciting a squeaked 'sorry,' before letting go.

“Buffy and I have only recently become 'involved'.” Well it was true enough, though not strictly in the sense the others would assume. “Until then, we simply worked together as Watcher and Slayer, as chosen by the Council of Watchers, to fight enemies such as you saw tonight.”

Nick's brow furrowed in concentration, and perhaps consternation. “But…but that would mean Buffy was like twelve or something when she started…slaying.”

Giles made an exasperated sound. “Buffy was called at the age of fifteen and I was sent to her after her first Watcher was killed, to train her, guide her and provide her with everything she might require to fight the forces of evil. She was sixteen. And if you tell anyone any of this, I will personally come and point out the error of your ways…do I make myself clear? Both of you? Richard, is Ben awake?

There was a moment of silence and then the sound of soft snoring.

“Give it up, Ben,” Richard advised, poking him in the ribs. “You 'aven't been asleep for the last ten minutes at least.”

Ben opened one eye, then the other. “You don't seriously believe all that lot?”

Nick thrust his head back against the headrest and stared at the roof. “You didn't see him fight that bit of vampire skirt, and you didn't see her disintegrate when he shoved that stake through her chest. Trust me, it's got to be true. Besides, Richard's seen stuff too.”

Ben sat up and stared at his cousin. “Why didn't you say something before?”

“What? They were assisting me with some personal business. At the time I wasn't to know they weren't just black belts in Ty Kwan or Kung Fu or Fo-bo or whatever it's called.

“Kung Fu, Tae Kwon Do, and I believe the last is supposed to be Tae Bo, an infomercial exercise program,” Giles translated distastefully. “I trust that you heard what I said about keeping this to yourself, Ben?”

“Yes, I can just see me telling all my patients that my cousin kills vampires for a living and wasn't it lucky that he was there to apparently impale my son's pickup and disintegrate her like Marvin the Martian in a Bugs Bunny cartoon?” Harper retorted in a gradually rising, mildly hysterical voice.

“Well, it was and all,” Nick said defensively. “You should have seen her when she changed. She would have sucked me dry in a minute. You wouldn't have me here now if Rupert hadn't saved the day.”

Ben slumped in his corner. “There are some things we just have to bear,” he muttered.


*******


“Really, Buffy…”

“Yeah, yeah…I know. Don't mix your drinks. How was I to know that...uh…well, more than one…possibly several…amaretto shots after two glasses of beer was going to be a bad thing? And I didn't have that much Christmas brandy…”

Giles watched her place the improvised icepack back on her head. He suspected that the headache was more likely a result of the periodic, and violent, throwing up she'd been doing, starting with the sojourn on the side of the M4, on the way home, and continuing into the night. He knew from experience that one's head could go from perfectly fine to feeling like it had been blown off after the effort thrust on one in expelling the toxic contents of one's stomach, particularly after an unaccustomed binge.

“No comment,” he said, trying not to smile.

“I heard that smirk,” she growled. “It's not like you look all crispy fresh and sparky either, bucko.”

“You've spent entirely too much time around Xander,” he muttered, well aware that his eyes were red and that he was looking well overdue for his bed. To be expected at three-thirty in the morning, after the kind of evening he'd had.

“So how did your night go? I meant to ask earlier…but I was kind of busy being nauseas and decorating the bushes.”

Giles helped her as she slowly tried to sit up.

“Rather well, all things considered.”

“Things?”

“Um, yes.” He suddenly looked a little awkward. “There was some…business…that had to be dealt with. Unfortunately you weren't there, so it fell to me to take the situation in hand. Anyway, Nick knows…he saw…and now so do the other two. I believe they understand the gravity of the situation, or at least how insane they would sound trying to convince someone else…” He cleared his throat again. “They won't say anything.”

“*Nick* knows?”

Giles winced. “Um, yes. He was leaving with a young woman, who…”

“Never mind. I can fill in the rest,” she sighed. “So…you took out a vamp on your own? Way to go, Giles.”

He looked sheepish. “Several, actually. They were working the nightclub we were visiting. Not overly challenging, given their usual arrogance: all of them assumed immediately that I was a doddering old fool, completely unaware of their intentions.”

Buffy put down her ice pack suddenly, the headache momentarily forgotten. For some reason it annoyed her greatly that Giles and 'old and doddering' should be thought of in the same universe, let alone the same sentence, and that surprised her even more. Despite the red eyes and the weariness he looked really something in those clothes…something definitely *not* old.

“Yeah, like you look like you're on your last legs,” she retorted and stood up, wincing as her head throbbed nastily, then frowned, making it hurt more, when she finally noticed some things. “I thought you said you were fine?”

Giles raised an eyebrow in question.

She came to within inches of him and touched a cut near the corner of his mouth, and then traced several grazes on his cheek, his forehead and his throat, where vampire fingernails had torn the skin.

The spontaneous gesture was so unexpected that Giles froze, swallowing when he felt her breath on his chin.

“Y-yes, well, I, um…just a few grazes. Nothing to worry about,” he managed, trying to maintain a calm exterior.

The air throbbed with tension. Even through her hangover, Buffy was aware that a line had been crossed; that things were never quite going to be the same again. She stepped back, just a little, and looked up at him, taking in the deeply flushed colour and the intense darkening of his normally bright green gaze.

She could smell his cologne, his breath: a vague mixture of mint, cigars and alcohol, and the remnants of earlier exertion, strong, male and…stimulating. She lifted her hand again, this time tracing his jaw very slowly. Then, tentatively, almost as though waiting for him to deny her permission, she moved her forefinger to his lips, tracing them even more slowly …not least because her hand had begun to tremble.

His eyes continued to darken, but there was no disapproval, or distaste, in them.

“Buf…”

Shakily, she pressed a fingertip to the errant lips. “No. No talking. Talking always gets us into trouble. Actions are better. And it's past time I did the acting…” She frowned. “That's not what I meant…I –”

It was Giles' turn to touch a finger to her soft lips. “I know what you meant,” he said softly, only too aware of the desire in her eyes, the question in her slender fingers. It was time.

Time he stopped pretending; time they both stopped running…from the truth.

When he bent his head it was with the knowledge that hers was automatically tilting back, her lips rising to meet his. They both trembled as he drew her into his arms, their mouths merging into one, seeking and finding that truth…and delighting in it.

Buffy's heart was pounding, her body alive with the pleasure of just touching him, and more, the excitement of feeling him respond, feeling him love her back…feeling it in a way none before him had ever made her feel. The wave of desire, so powerful it shook her; the sense of belonging, need, joy…

As confused as it all was, she recognised and embraced it. She knew what that crazy avalanche of sensations made when they were mixed together and baked at the right temperature…

Finally, Giles lifted his head, his cheeks flushed, eyes flashing as they searched for reassurance, confirmation…only to meet hers doing exactly the same thing.

They chuckled a little and flushed even more, before both speaking at the same moment.

“How long h-have you—?”

“How long—?”

They paused again, half smiling at each other.

Then Giles spoke first. “There's been…something…for a long time…but nothing I would have even admitted to myself until…”

“Until…?”

“Until you were taken from me…until I thought I'd lost you,” he said quietly.

Buffy paled a little. She'd figured he had just discovered those feelings…here, in England, as she had. With some effort, she managed to hold his gaze and to tell him honestly:

“I didn't know until just the last little while…I wish…” She stopped and then started again, revelation in her eyes. “I've been stupid, and blind. This feeling…these feelings I have…they're not new…hence that first kiss…but I never understood. All that time back in Sunnydale, and in Rome, when I was so lonely…I realize now it was because I couldn't have you…wouldn't let myself even consider…not even when Spike put it into actual words. Not even after that, when everything felt a hundred times worse. Even then, I still didn't realize it *wasn't* just because you weren't there to be my Watcher, to take care of me. I didn't understand that the truth was that it was because you weren't *mine*… because I'd lost any chance… I was all alone, in every way possible…and it was my own fault. In the end it didn't matter what I let myself do, because the only thing I ever wanted was gone.”

Giles' mouth tipped open a little. The revelation had been so long in coming, and he'd been so convinced that she would never get it, the fact that she'd tumbled it all out in just a few seconds, at once astonished and delighted and confused him. Then he pulled himself together, instinctively reverting to his infuriatingly practical self.

“You do know that this won't be in any way easy…for either of us?”

She smiled slowly at him. Giles couldn't help being…Giles. “Easy? Us? Oxymoron, Rupert. We don't get to do easy, ever, remember? Mm…'Rupert'…I like the way that sounds when I say it. I don't know why I ever thought I wouldn't.”

“I like that you like it, but don't feel too badly. The name 'Rupert' has been terribly 'uncool' for far longer than you've been alive. It made school life more…interesting.”

“Yeah, I guess. Funny though, how it sounds fine…just because it's your name. 'Rupert Giles…'” she said, just to hear it again. “Do you have a middle name?”

“Thomas, after my father,” he confided, amused.

“'Rupert T. Giles.' That works.” She sobered a little. “Is he…?”

Giles shook his head. “Thankfully he's been retired for several years. Lives in Somerset…a place called Shepton Mallet. You'd like it, I think.”

“Is it far from Bath?”

He shook his head. “Not far at all. I'll take you to see him, once this wedding business is over.”

“I take it he wouldn't be very interested in going to his nephew's fifth wedding?”

Giles grinned, relaxing at last. “Father isn't interested in anything Richard does…not since Ricky was sent up for receiving stolen goods for the third time, a few years ago, anyway. Richard looks too much like a Giles and behaves too much like a Harper…it's a poor state of affairs, as far as father is concerned.”

Buffy smirked. “Understandable.” She wanted nothing more than to be back in his arms again, but she wanted him to set the pace, to be as sure as she was, about what he wanted. After a short silence, she spoke again, because she had to say something.

“So…we're good?”

Giles, however, simply held her gaze. “I don't know. Are we?”

Buffy blinked, then grew serious. “If you feel the same way I do, then…yeah, I think so.”

“And how exactly do you feel?” he asked, deceptively softly.

Buffy wasn't sure what he wanted, but tried gamely. “Like my life finally doesn't suck. Like nothing will ever compare to that feeling a few minutes ago, when we both knew…and we both knew we knew.” She coloured and looked sheepish for a moment, then pressed on. “I love you…I think maybe I've always loved you. I guess it just had to be defined in different ways for a long time…for obvious reasons…but it's always been you.”

Giles was silent for a long few moments before he spoke, with careful consideration. “Angel?”

Buffy looked away. “Angel was my first real love…my first desire, but he wasn't the love of my life…else there couldn't have been Parker, or Riley…or Spike. All of them…*All* of them were about me not wanting to be alone, or lonely or hurting. Deep down I thought it all was about missing Angel…not being able to be with him. I was so stupid.”

“On the contrary,” Giles said softly. “I think there was a great deal between you and Angel; that given different circumstances—”

“Oh, yeah. Like him having a pulse, for one,” she interrupted ruefully.

He nodded. “Given different circumstances you might have had a good life with him. But ultimately there can be no 'other circumstances'. He is what he is…and what he once was, neither of which was ever right for you. He knew that, and, ultimately, after much mourning and pining, I think you came to understand it, too.”

She blinked back moisture and nodded. “When he brought the amulet…at first I was so…but I knew. By the time he left, I knew it wasn't him anymore. But I also knew it wasn't Spike. I cared for him…I did…for what he tried to be for me…but it wasn't him, either. That's why…well, that other stuff in Rome…playing with fire again. At least this time I got out before I got burned…or got anyone else burned.”

“I'm glad you did,” Giles said softly. “In more ways than one. That path was more dangerous than you can imagine. I was afraid for you.”

“But you didn't say anything.”

“I learned back in Sunnydale that it wasn't my place any more, to say anything at all,” he pointed out, though not without some sting in the words.

Buffy winced, but held his gaze. Finally, she nodded.

The light in his eyes acknowledged her admission, before he moved on. “I did, however, send Andrew to keep an eye on things,” he confessed.

Her eyes widened. “I thought you were just trying to get him out of your hair. You sent him to spy on me?”

Giles raised a rather intimidating eyebrow.

Buffy subsided. “Okay, so yeah, I needed a minder…I still can't believe that's why you sent him to annoy the crap out of me for all those months. You do know that he's telling everyone you were training him to be a Watcher, right?”

It was Giles' turn to look startled. “He what…?!” He cleared his throat. “Never mind. If he wants to pretend that running errands and delivering messages is tantamount to being trained as a Watcher, let him have his little fantasy. As things stand he's going to be far too busy to be doing much fantasizing for a very long time.”

“Yeah? What did you do with him?”

“I reassigned him to our office in Minsk, which was having a dreadful time getting office staff. When he's not freezing his…well, anyway, he'll be largely in charge of running the office in the absence of the two Watchers there, who are flat out recruiting and training whichever eastern bloc Slayers ask for our help.”

“Phones, files and paperwork…not too mention snow…” she grinned. “That should keep him out of trouble for a while.” A moment later, her eyes grew very warm. “Hey…” she said softly. “Thanks…for worrying about me. For Andrew, even. Believe it or not, he helped a lot, especially with Dawn, and he did make me think a lot about what I was doing… Your work again, I guess, huh?”

Giles nodded, eyes twinkling. “You have no idea how relieved I was when you said it was over… almost as relieved as I was to see your face again after you landed at Heathrow. I missed you so terribly, you see…”

Buffy nodded, eyes wide with trying to hold back her feelings. Their embrace was spontaneous and emotional…and then they found each other again, their kiss demanding and passionate, claiming each other in a way words never could…


*******

Buffy turned the little grey mare to follow the big pinto down the embankment, winding through May bush and field maples until Giles stopped Otto and allowed him to drink from the cool, babbling stream. The mare moved up alongside and Buffy allowed her to put her own head down.

“You know, I think I like the farm better than the apart…flat. It's so beautiful and peaceful here. I feel like someone filtered the air…and the sound…even the sunshine…just for me. I bet even the water tastes like it's never been touched by anything.”

Giles understood what she meant but his expression was a little rueful. “It certainly should be, but in this day and age of dumping and irresponsible farm practises one can never be entirely certain. Still, Otto is enjoying himself and has never seemed any the worse for his visits here.”

“How did you ever leave all this? Compared to Sunnydale this is so…” There was sorrow in her eyes, and regret. “When we were kids we never really thought about what it was like for you. I mean… you were there, so you must've wanted to be there, right? And you were an adult…free to do what you want…not being told what to do by anyone…” Her expression grew incredulous as she absorbed those memories. “God we were dumb,” she said, shaking her head.

Giles smiled. “I always said you were all idiots. A fact which you all continued to impress upon me right up until I left. You were also the bravest, most wonderful group of young people I've ever met…or am ever likely to meet. The world would have been a far poorer place without the three of you…and Cordelia, Oz, even Anya and Tara…dear Tara, and young Dawn.”

Buffy smiled back. “Is it bad that I don't really want to go back to Ben and Susan's again? I know we have to, because of the wedding and how excited Ben is about how well things are going, but I'd much rather stay here…just the two of us. I know you want to take things slowly and I've loved every minute of all the things we've been doing together…include these rides, but I'm greedy, Giles. I want more of you to myself. I don't even want to share you with Otto and Molly, here.”

The tender eyes grew in intensity until they were burning smudges of forest green. It didn't need words for Buffy to know what he was thinking and feeling . She shifted in the soft English saddle, aware that she was thinking and feeling exactly the same things.

“Trust me,” he said softly, his voice as seductive as those eyes.

Buffy nodded. She always would. Then a bird began to pipe at a ridiculous volume. The moment had passed. “So,” she grinned mischievously, “does this mean we still have to go to Ben and Susan's?”


*******


“He's late.”

“Only about an hour…and forty minutes or so…” Nick shrugged.

“If I was Cousin Richard I could think of a lot better things to do than listen to dad waffle on while mum shoots death's daggers at me every five minutes,” Michael muttered, still pretending he was paying attention to the geography text book in front of him.

Giles sipped quietly on his cup of tea, staying right out of the Harper family sniping, and looking down occasionally to watch Buffy doze against the point of his shoulder.

“He could have at least called,” Susan snarled, aware that her painstakingly prepared Osso-bucco was in peril of either going the way of the corner roast or congealing into a dried out mess if they didn't eat soon.

“I have to admit I was actually looking forward to meeting this Gina Beresford person, if only to see what kind of girl would be stupid enough to fall for Richard's line of guff,” Ben added, bending to cuff the back of Michael's head as he came back into the room. “Where's Abi? Not interested in meeting her new stepmother? I thought Richard said Gina wanted her to be a bridesmaid.”

“She said she'd rather run naked through a herd of Elephants,” Susan informed them, not noticing everyone's mildly perplexed looks.

“And the elephants are probably very glad that she's here and they're…there…wherever they are. So where is she, then?”

Susan looked annoyed. “Upstairs, in her room.”

Ben rolled his eyes. “Booking her safari, no doubt.”

“The question,” Giles said quietly, “is where are Richard and Gina?”

“If there's a God, they've eloped to bloody Majorca,” Ben muttered.

“Bristol, more like,” Nick sniggered, just as the doorbell rang.

Everyone looked at each other, until eventually Ben, with a long-suffering look, got up just as Buffy roused.

“Hello, all,” Richard greeted them with patently false cheer and no Miss Gina Beresford in tow. “Sorry I'm a little late. There's been a kind of a…well…setback, of sorts.”

“Where's Gina?”

Everyone looked to Susan, never one to labour a point, when it was someone else's.

“Well, she's obviously not here, and my dinner is probably ruined,” she shot back ill-temperedly.

“That's the thing, see…Gina's sort of, well…not coming.”

“Is she ill?” Buffy asked, a little more sympathetically.

Richard coloured almost as much as Giles did when he was truly embarrassed. Enough to make Giles' eyes narrow.

“Something's wrong,” he said, also without censure.

“What's the matter, then?” Nick cajoled cheerfully. “She do a scarper with some tosser who knew more about hairdressing than you?”

“She's gone back-packing on the continent, if you must know,” Richard revealed petulantly. “With some prancing seven foot Icelander named Arne. 'Arne' for God's sake! Met the pillock on the train the night me car was repo…er…anyway, she decided after due consideration and numerous threats from her dad, that an 'oliday with 'Arne' was infinitely preferable to becoming Mrs Richard Harper.”

Ben and Susan struggled to choke down giggles. Michael was rolling his eyes but Nick was subdued. Giles suspected that Nick had probably been stood up more times than he could count.

“Presumably Arne has some redeeming qualities?” Susan asked mischievously.

“How would I bleedin' know?” Richard snapped. “She was already gone when I went to collect her. Reg was all over it. Smarmy git. Said she was in good hands. How would he know? He could be an axe murderer for all they know. Just because Peg thinks he walks on water.”

“Why would they be happy to let their daughter go on a back-packing holiday with a complete stranger on the eve of her wedding?” Buffy asked, confused.

“Well apparently it's perfectly fine if you're a student at Oxford, speak three languages, look like some movie star I ain't never heard of and invite the lady's parents to come and visit your parents in their summer house in Bordeaux,” Richard nanced.

“Oh God, my dinner!” Nobody really took any notice of Susan sprinting for the kitchen.

“I'm terribly sorry, Richard,” Giles told him.

“Yeah,” Ben agreed grudgingly.

“Maybe it's better to find out now, than after…well, you know…” Buffy offered.

Richard almost smiled. “Yeah, well…thanks.” Then he flicked a look toward the kitchen door and the smoke curling under it. His eyes widened. “You know, a few drinks down the local, with my family…”

The Harpers were all at the front door before Giles and Buffy had even blinked.

Then Giles sniffed and Buffy followed Richard's gaze, her eyes also widening. “Beer is good,” she decided and pulled Giles by the hand, out his chair and over to the door.

Ten minutes later, Susan emerged to find the sitting room empty.

Abi, however, was now standing on the lowest stairs. “Is that dinner ready?”

The house reverberated with the sound of Susan's exasperation, followed closely by a door slamming and a plaintive voice.

“Shall I help, then?”


*******

“Do you think Richard's going to be okay?”

Giles closed the door and turned on the lights of the flat several hours later. “He'll survive. He has four times before. I don't see why he won't again.”

Buffy shrugged. “I guess.”

“Believe me, he will,” Giles cajoled engagingly. “Besides, it would never have lasted. It never does with him. He likes the game too much.”

Buffy moved closer and looked up at him. “We're going to last, aren't we?”

He stared searchingly into the grey-green pools. “You tell me,” he said brusquely, surprising her again.

Buffy looked at him speculatively. “We've had seven years to do it wrong, and to get it right. And we're still together…still…us…after everything that's happened. Is it okay to tell you that I finally understand *why* and that I want to be a part of that 'us' until the day I die…that I love you so much it hurts…but that I can't answer that question? I can tell you how I feel…and I can tell you what I want. But I figure the rest we have to do together, and find out when we get there.”

For a long moment he just continued to look at her, then smiled very slowly. “I think that will do just fine,” he told her, and drew her into his arms.

When she emerged, rosy-faced and rumpled, from the kiss, she leaned back. “Then can we move on to the part where I get to appreciate a little more than just what a great kisser you are, and how cute your butt is?” she teased, sliding her fingers inside his shirt and immediately delighting in the sensation of stroking the soft hair sprinkled over the warm, solid contours of his chest.

Giles coloured a little, even though he didn't look in the least embarrassed. “I think perhaps something could be arranged,” he murmured, and kissed her again, very thoroughly.

Then he raised his head and grinned rakishly, before sweeping her off her feet, and carrying her, giggling, upstairs, the last sound heard, that of his boot kicking the bedroom door closed behind them…


* * *