Never Leave Me

“You could at least tell me where we're going. It seems as though we've been driving for
miles.”

“Spoilsport.”

“Why? Because I want to know what kind of trouble you're going to get me into before the fact, for a change?”

“You are Mister Grumpy Pants today, aren't you? Giles, it's your birthday. I actually remembered. I'm actually the only one who remembered…which has to be some kind of amazing event that should be written down somewhere for posterity…or something. Can't you just go with it, for once? I promise you'll like it.”

Giles made a noise suspiciously like a harrumph and guided his new cream coloured MG midget around a sweeping bend.

“Are you sure you know where we're going?”

Buffy folded her arms. “You don't trust me,” she guessed. “Well, I guess I deserve that in about seven different ways.” She touched his arm. “I know I've been a bad friend way too many times, and I know it's totally weird for you that Buffy, of all people, remembers your birthday and not only that, wants you to drive somewhere undisclosed for activities undisclosed with only the promise that it is absolutely, categorically not a surprise party.”

Giles shot her a look, his eyes narrowing. “You promised me,” he said suspiciously.

“And I meant it,” she shot back, her face reflecting the fact that she wasn't sure whether to be amused or offended, settling for a half smile despite slightly overbright eyes, when all was said and done. “Another fifteen minutes and we should be there. You know, I wouldn't do this for just anyone. Actually, I wouldn't do this for anyone except you.”

Giles managed another look, quizzical and a little bit moved.

Buffy smiled back at him. “After you came back, when Willow, *you know*, and then you had to leave again…with her…after you went, I was so lost. Not like before, when I was basically just pathetic,” she hastened to add, her distaste for the memories of life after resurrection clearly written on her face. “I mean, you came back, and it seemed… everything seemed so right and so good…like everything was the way it was supposed to be…and then you were gone again…and it was like nothing was really important or…or even right anymore because…”

Giles stole another glance when Buffy didn't say anything else. She was staring at him, her lips slightly parted, as if stunned by something.

“Buffy?”

“Mm? Oh, nothing. I just… Giles, why do you put up with me?”

“Put up with you?” he asked, amused.

“Well, you and I both know my record for being understanding, or even remotely-realizing-there's-something-going-on, let alone something *wrong*, girl is of the major ubersuck. I know I let you down too many times and I know there's no good reason you should, well, *care*, you know?”

“Oh,” he said quietly. After a moment's reflection he went on. “You're quite right. You've made more mistakes and 'let me down' as you put it, more times than either of us could probably count. And in all likelihood you will again…”

Buffy opened her mouth to strenuously object but Giles lifted his fingers from the steering wheel in a silencing gesture.

“In almost all of those cases I knew why it happened, and while none of those reasons can actually excuse your behaviour, in most cases they were enough for me to know that it was less personal than it was either unavoidable or a product of the sheer stupidity of youthful self involvement.”

Buffy scowled. “You know, you can make it sound all educated and dignified, but it's still a slam.”

Giles' eyes gleamed with amusement. “Not a slam, just an observation of fact. For example, what would you call not even realising that you hadn't told me that Riley was part of the Initiative…or even just that he was a part of your life…or about that fishwife, Walsh, for that matter?”

“Well, it feels like a slam,” she complained. “I think I already established my creds as a sharing, considerate friend…I thought 'ubersuck' pretty much covered it, didn't you? You don't have to rub it in.”

“But I so enjoyed rubbing it in,” he replied, amusement reaching his voice.

Buffy sighed. “I suppose I deserve that too. But can't we be grown ups now and not pick on the formally stupid Slayer?” She straightened, looking out the window. “Oh look, there's the red barrel she said to look for. Take the next turn, right there…”

Giles looked around once he'd made the turning. The rolling green was pleasing after the endless concrete highways and the almost as endless brown of Southern California. He liked Ojai and he liked the area beyond it too. Now they were driving through fields towards green hills. This was anything but what he would have expected from a Buffy-style birthday surprise. He'd been half-convinced right from the moment Buffy announced that she'd organised something, that anywhere, at any time, he would have a gaggle of Scoobies jumping out at him screaming 'surprise' at the top of their lungs. It brought him up a little short when he immediately remembered how much things had changed since their last surprise party. They had lost Tara, and Anya had gone her own way, Dawn was growing up and Willow…their Willow…would be a long time truly returning to the fold as it were, if ever.

“There, Giles, see the farmhouse…you have to turn there!”

Giles turned obligingly, admiring the well-fed mares and foals now grazing either side of the road, or more accurately, track.

“Pull over there, by the barn-thingy.”

“Stables,” he offered.

“That's what I meant…stables.” Buffy smiled and tapped her temple. “Gotta admit there's still some 'Valley' in there, somewhere. I never did Farm-101. Actually, except for visiting my aunt I don't think I ever really went anywhere…even in L.A. I knew there was a reason why going to Northwestern would have been such a cool thing. Pathetic much? I don't get paid enough to be me,” she pouted.

Giles laughed as he parked the car, despite the shadows momentarily in his eyes. “On that we can both agree, however we are now well beyond the city limits and you have managed to keep me entirely mystified as to what you're up to. I don't know whether to be pleased…or terrified.” It worked perfectly as a distraction.

Buffy giggled. “Do you know how hard it is to visualize you terrified? Well, maybe of Anya at inventory time, or Dawn when she wants you to help her with something on the computer…”

He snorted as he got out of the car. “Very funny. So what happens next?”

“Well first of all I give you this,” she said, and drew a small package from under her seat to go with the envelope she'd pulled from her shoulder bag earlier.

Giles took the package as though it might explode, or turn into something evil at any moment.

“It won't bite,” she growled and made her way around to his side of the vehicle. “Wuss.”

“I beg your pardon?” he demanded as he turned it over, looking for somewhere to begin opening it.

“Not everything we touch has to blow up in our faces,” she said, surprisingly gently. “I know I don't deserve it, but trust me this once, okay?”

He looked up then, and the soft jade gaze found hers, both of them lingering for a long moment before he looked away self-consciously and finally finished carefully pulling open the edges of the wrapping.

Buffy watched him on tenterhooks, trying not to notice how snugly the soft fabric of his worn blue jeans fit, or worse, exactly *where* they were faded and worn. Or for that matter, how broad his shoulders were and how long his body was, in the long sleeved light denim shirt that went with them.

Giles lifted the porcelain figure from its tissue paper and held it up, looking at it for a long moment before smiling slowly.

“How did you know?”

“Willow. Lately we've started talking about stuff. Every time it gets…y'know…*intense*, she kinda slides into the painless trivia: how gorgeous the British countryside is, how cute you were riding your horse…You never told me you could ride a horse, by the way,” she added pointedly.

“Is there a reason I should tell you everything?” he shot back, an unintended edge to his voice, despite being quite moved by the thought that went into her gift. He wasn't even sure why.

Buffy looked as though she'd been slapped. “N-no, I guess not,” she said when she'd recovered. “I just…we've been…we are…no, I guess not,” she finished, defeated.

Giles put the figure of a cantering, pied horse back in the box with great care, leaned over and laid it on the back seat of the car.

“Buffy?” he asked gently when he turned back to her, well aware that she was still looking like someone had just shot her dog.

She swallowed. “Why…why shouldn't you tell me things?” she managed, a slight edge of pique creeping into her tone.

He frowned for a moment then tilted his head to one side with a great deal of charm. “Are you sure you don't already know the answer to that?”

Angry, or maybe just embarrassed, red flooded into her cheeks. “No,” she barked, then just as quickly deflated. “Yes,” she relented then shrugged her shoulders. “I know…it's just…look it, when I was with Angel I loved him so much…and then trying to make




things work with Riley…I didn't mean to get so tunnel-visioned…I just…with the slaying and the responsibility and school and mom…something had to give.” She looked down at the ground. “I'm sorry. I-I think a part of me just always trusted you to understand. You were my Watcher…”

She looked up slowly and found his gaze, stared into the green depths. “You were the only one…the only one I never doubted for one minute would always be there…no matter what. You were the one constant in my life and I leaned on that so hard. I was wrong, and sometimes I was bad and I know that now, but back then all I knew was that no matter how bad or how stupid I was, you'd be there.”

There was emotion in his eyes as he spoke. “And then I wasn't there anymore.”

Buffy shrugged uncomfortably. “Things change. I changed. Too much, I guess.”

Giles frowned. “You didn't drive me away, Buffy. I left precisely because I…” He cleared his throat and started again. “I left because it was time for me to go. You know you had no intention of growing up or learning how to be who you're destined to be while I was there to turn to for everything. I'm your Watcher, not your hus…benevolent uncle,” he amended hastily, but Buffy had caught the slip.

She looked up at him a little wildly, her first impulse to make a crack about things Freudian, but she was too rattled…by coincidence…by a subconscious slip that seemed to echo her own confusion? Or maybe by the degree to which she was suddenly noticing how amazing his eyes were in the sun and how boyish he looked, far from demons and monsters and all the stresses and strains that were their lives.

“Well, 'Benevolent Uncle' Giles,” she said with a poise she didn't feel, “it's time for the next part of your birthday.”

Bemused, and more than a little rattled himself, Giles followed her around the back of the stables.

Two horses were saddled with American western saddles, bulging saddlebags, and on the smaller mount, a diminutive dun gelding with a long mane and tail, was a bedroll of sorts. The taller mount lifted its regal head and turned to look at them, one ear twitching at flies as it seemed to stare straight at them. It was a magnificent animal, coal black and glossy in the sunshine, tail carried high, mane long and silken.

“Oh my…” Giles said softly.

Buffy looked up at him and smiled. “Bastian is special. No one is usually allowed to ride him except Elizabeth. He's a 'Barb' whatever that is. She said it was a good thing…”

“Yes…yes,” Giles murmured, mesmerized by the big stud. “One of the foundation breeds of the thoroughbred…”

“Really?” Buffy mouthed, without really having a clue what foundation breeds, or thoroughbreds were, for that matter, except that the latter populated racetracks and other things she hadn't the least bit of interest in.

He shook himself from his brown study and raised an eyebrow at her. “You don't know very much about horses, either, I take it?”

Buffy smiled engagingly and shrugged. “Enough to know how to make them go. Mom was glad my 'horsy' period was short, but she…well, dad…did cough for lessons in L.A. between the ages of eleven and fourteen…in the Dawn free, um, reality, that is,” she added, still clearly uncomfortable with the on-going duality of her history.

“What happened at fifteen?” Giles asked, in spite of himself.

Buffy glared at him.

“Oh,” he managed sheepishly.

“And hormones,” she added honestly.

“So vampires and boys a little too much competition for our equine friends?”

“That about covers it,” she agreed, growing less sunny by the second. “So, Bastian and Max…nice horsies, lunch, gorgeous day…what do you think?”

“I think it's quite wonderful,” Giles told her, genuinely moved. “But what on earth made you…?”

You're surprised,” she said sheepishly. “You should try it from my side. Look, I even missed Dawn's birthday last year. I spend so much time not…” She stopped, frowned. “Anyway, I'm not good at regular life stuff, you know? I screw everything up. Now, death on the other hand…”

“Don't,” Giles said quietly.

Buffy hunched her shoulders a little. “Sorry. The truth is the more I listened to Willow talk about all that time she was over there in England with you, the more I missed you, the more I wanted you here. It made me think…which should also be chiselled in something for posterity…and the weird thing was, the more I thought, the more I started to realize how little, outside of training and research, that I really knew about you. I started conversations about you with Will and Xander, got them to talk. I never knew how much I didn't know…how much I missed…” Her voice cracked. “I didn't even know it was your birthday…until Xander told me. We were talking about how much my birthdays always suck and that last year was the worst, because you weren't there…and he said that it was ironic that we'd never celebrated your birthday when it's so close to mine. I never even knew. Why did I not know?”

“Your calling leaves little room for such things. With all that's happened to you in the last six years, the last thing you needed to be worrying about was an old man's birth date.”

Buffy looked at him as if his head had just fallen off. “Who told you, you were old?” she demanded.

His lip quirked up and his eyes twinkled. “You did. Many times,” he said quietly, “and perhaps my joints, a little, particularly when it rains.”

She continued to stare for a few more moments, the mental gymnastics she was doing clearly visible in her eyes. “Well, you're not,” she said eventually.

“I'm not?” His smiled widened, amusement in his tone.

She frowned. “Uh-uh. I always kind of put you out there, with the grown-ups, when I was at school, because you kind of were. I mean, you were faculty and you took mom's side way too much…and you were always scheduling my whole life…”

Giles watched her mobile features trying to deal with the changes in her perception of him and tried not to smile any more widely.

“But, well, since Riley left I haven't thought of you that way. You're just…Giles. I mean…you're not old. You're…you're you.”

“And who am I?” he asked, unable to resist the desire to prod her psyche, just a little.

Buffy blinked, as though the question had cleaved so truly through the endless layers of her defences, beyond all the masks, the walls and the barriers her subconscious had ever manufactured, that it had hit home without deviation or resistance.

“My Watcher,” she said uncertainly. “My friend…” She stopped again. “I don't know what to call what you are. What do you call someone who's more important to you than anything, who can be like family one minute, and your best friend the next…who makes you feel safe when he's around, but vulnerable…and kinda empty when he's not? What do you call someone you trust with your life and who kinda makes your heart skip little beats of sheer joy when he comes home to save the day?”

“Unrealistic?” he asked whimsically.

But Buffy was staring and swallowing, Spike's words echoing crazily through the suddenly empty hallways of her thoughts. I always wondered about you two… For the first time she understood what he saw. And realised that perhaps the vampire really did see things more clearly than anyone she knew…

The revelation terrified her.

“Um…maybe we should go have our picnic now? I mean, it's a beautiful day and you don't want to spend it all standing here talking to me about stuff. Besides: hunger…” she added, and moved swiftly over to the smaller horse, a bemused Giles following.

They were mounted in moments and, Giles realised with some satisfaction after a few metres, Buffy was quite proficient and reasonably natural as a rider. Despite the western saddle her seat was good and her hands not too heavy, and she knew what to do with her legs. As for himself, the coiled power and sheer robust enthusiasm for life of the stallion beneath him, was magical and breathtaking.

Once they were out of the home yard and out on the rolling slopes, he brought the stud alongside Buffy's mount and they rode together in silence.

Finally, he spoke. “Beautiful country,” he offered.

“Oh, yeah, the best. I love this place. Elizabeth is the school guidance counsellor. We kinda bonded over mutual angsting about problem students.”

“Ah,” he said, pleased to have had one mystery cleared up without having to ask.

“There's a flat area soon if you want to let them run,” she added, as the stud threw his head up yet again and snorted impatiently, making the gelding flinch.

They galloped across the small stretch of grass, the gelding doing an admirable job to stay in touch with the stallion, until Giles reined in a little to allow Buffy to fly past them. When they finally slowed to a walk as the terrain once again became hilly, both were breathing hard, their colour high and their eyes sparkling.

“Wow, I forgot how good that could feel,” she exalted.

Giles held in the stud, which most emphatically didn't want to be held, and kept his seat with style as it danced and pranced. He'd forgotten too. Riding back in Bath had been predominantly a meditative, sedate exercise, and a way of focusing again. This was pure adrenaline and joy…and the sight of Buffy in full flight, as graceful and as fluid a part of her mount as she was of any battle, made him thankful beyond measure for the thousandth time, that she had come back to them just once more…

“Fine mounts,” he agreed, ruddy and glowing as his teeth flashed white in the handsome face.

“Jeez, Giles, don't get too carried away,” she teased, urging the Max down a slope. “You could at l—”

But her last words were lost in the chaos of the dun stepping into a hole and stumbling, unable to regain its balance on the slope, then throwing the unsuspecting Buffy during its desperate lunge and twist, before crashing to the ground.

“Buffy!!” Giles was off in moments, dragging the reins over the stallion's protesting head and dropping them, hoping it was trained to stand, but in no state to take notice either way as he rushed to the crumpled figure on the ground.

The gelding had struggled back to its feet and seemed little the worse for wear apart from a gash on its knee and a tendency to favour its near foreleg. Its reins had also dropped and it wasn't inclined to move anyway.

Giles slewed to a halt on the green grass and came to his knees alongside Buffy, who was groaning, lifted her into his arms and brushed the disarranged blonde strands from her face.

“Buffy? Buffy, are you all right?”

“I'd b-better be,” she growled wheezily, winded. “Since you d-decided to b…be really sm…smart and move me.” The blue grey eyes opened and discovered themselves only centimetres from his face. Her lips parted in surprise at the proximity of his amazing eyes and a mouth that she noticed for the first time, despite her own discomfort, was intensely sensual.

When her wind returned and her back stopped smarting enough for her to focus any sane thoughts whatsoever, she cleared her throat. “I…I'll be fine. Slayer healing and everything…I don't think anything's broken, except my pride and my knee…”

“Your knee?” Giles asked, concerned, shifting her in his arms to look at the torn knee of her jeans. “You're too bloody thin. It's a wonder you haven't broken every bone in your body,” he added roughly.

“I'm fine,” Buffy insisted tartly, then looked up at his bleak expression, finally understanding how much she'd frightened him, and relented. She touched his face, then realised what she'd done and tried to ignore the rush of feelings that followed. Somehow, her fingers against his warm, smooth cheek connected them in a way she'd never have believed possible, made him…there…in a way she'd never imagined or felt before.

After a swift intake of breath, the only noticeable response to her touch, he looked down at her, the green eyes darkening in his otherwise tense, pale face.

“It's okay, Giles. Really,” she added, trying to reassure him. She tried to lift herself a little to prove it to him, prompting him to shift as well to keep hold of her.

Their faces moved so close together Buffy could feel his warm breath on hers.

Above her, Giles could see the faint freckles on her nose and cheeks.

When she finally lifted her eyes to meet his, something overwhelming passed between them. Buffy felt Giles tense, and knew a moment of wanting to flee, but instead found herself frozen, their eyes still entwined.

Giles swallowed, his throat aching and his heart racing. He wasn't thinking consciously, lost in the beautiful eyes looking into his soul, and the procession of emotions they and her touch were invoking.

At that moment a scream from Bastian rent the thick silence and they both scrambled to their feet instinctively, Buffy wincing and using language Giles had never heard her use before, when she put weight on the knee.

The big horse was sniffing the air.

“What's his deal?” she growled irritably, trying not to notice the arm Giles was using to steady her.

“He can smell other horses on the breeze that just struck up,” the Watcher explained and in one motion slid an arm under Buffy's legs and lifted her into his arms.

“Giles?”

When he reached Bastian's side, he sat Buffy on the saddle, allowing her to swing her good leg over as the horse jigged and moved, then handed her the reins, Buffy steadying the beast while he mounted fluidly and settled behind her.

By the time Giles had guided the stallion over to Max and caught up the other horse's reins, Buffy's back was easing a little, soothed by the warmth of Giles' chest. She was painfully aware of every inch of contact between them, and of his subtle cologne… something she would know anywhere, like a signature…something that had always been as much a part of him as tea and wiping his glasses…although he'd spent the better part of the day without them, having pocketed them as they got out of the car.

It wasn't until Giles turned the animals for home that Buffy pulled herself from the small world within the circle of his arms and straightened. “Where are we going?”

“Back. You're hurt and Max needs attention.”

“But…your picnic. I'm getting better by the minute…and look, Max isn't limping any more.”

“The gash on his knee needs attention,” Giles insisted, trying desperately to ignore his reaction to Buffy's body leaning against his, the sweet scent of her hair in nostrils far too close to it…but most of all the poignant feeling of, for once, being able to protect her, hold her, shield her in the circle of his arms, from all the hurts and the…

He let it go. He knew he wasn't really shielding a Slayer from anything, but for once in a very, very, long time it…everything…felt right…or at least felt the right way round.

Buffy looked back at Max, who was dutifully plodding along behind them, seemingly unaffected by his misadventure. “It's not bleeding and it doesn't seem to be bothering him. Do we have to go back right away? He looks fine. If I can handle an hour or two, the horse can too,” she finished dryly.

Unwilling to let her see how much he also wanted to stay, Giles persisted, even though he knew it wasn't much more than a scratch: “Max is an animal and we owe him a duty of care, because he can't make that choice for himself,” he pointed out.

Buffy wilted. He hadn't felt it. He didn't want to spend the time with her. Couldn't get away fast enough…

Giles felt the lithe body leaning against him slump markedly and his expression became bleak, as though he could feel her hurt and unhappiness as acutely as she, herself, did. He looked up exasperatedly at the sky and exhaled audibly.

“The oak tree over there seems to have a lovely clean patch of grass under it. We can rest there for a bit,” he finally conceded and turned the horses toward the great, spreading tree. Max was consuming the soft green grass even before Giles lifted Buffy down, wincing as sounds of pain were torn from her involuntarily.

“We should have gone back,” he said unhappily. “You could be more hurt than you realise…”

Buffy snorted as she tried to unbuckle Bastian's saddlebags. “Six years of getting beat-up, burnt, bashed, stabbed and occasionally shish-kebabbed, not to mention dead every now and then, and I think I know when I need to go visit the nice ER doctors,” she growled. “Can't you just get everything out of the saddlebags?”

Giles rolled his eyes, but complied, pulling out a variety of packages and small boxes from the large saddlebags and undoing the bedroll from behind Max's saddle to provide them with a small blanket.

Buffy made her way creakily to where Max was grazing and retrieved more items including a bottle in a soft chill-pack. By the time the whole spread was unpacked Giles was staring incredulously at everything from finger sandwiches to champagne, chicken and fresh strawberries and a can of whipped cream, to a small flask of tea especially for him.

“You like?” Buffy asked when they settled.

Giles laughed in spite of himself. “It's very impressive.”

“Cool,” she grinned and pulled her hands from behind her back, one of them holding a small mud-cake not too much bigger than his open hand, with the word 'Giles' written in white icing across it and a single candle in the centre of it. “Happy birthday, Giles.”

He sat for a long moment, moved, then accepted the cake still sitting safely in the now open plastic box it had been packed in. It had survived relatively well, only the end which had been 'down' in the saddlebags, slightly squished, though the smallish lettering was a little smudged from leaning against the lid of the box.

They ate with appetite, including all the little, mostly chocolaty, extras that were in Buffy's hamper, Buffy elated that Giles was really starting to relax and enjoy himself. He was leaning forward to lift a strawberry to his mouth with his fork when it dropped off, plopping in the whipped cream she'd insisted on squirting on his bowl of fruit.

Without even thinking about it, she skewered the errant strawberry with her own fork, twirled it in the cream and brought it to his lips, her own mouth open to tease him about not even being able to control fruit, when their eyes met and she realised, once again, what she was doing.

Buffy swallowed nervously half a beat after Giles did. After another atmosphere filled moment, he covered the forkful of fruit with his mouth and slid the strawberry off it, with most of the cream, turning red as he did so. She took the fork away self-consciously and went back to her own dessert, not looking up at him again until they were done.

“Y…” Her voice cracked. “You, um, want some tea?” she managed, holding up the flask.

“Please,” he said, almost too eagerly and took the thermos flask from her, using the cup-lid to pour himself some of the hot beverage.

After about his third sip he noticed that she wasn't eating or drinking.

“Are you all right?”

Buffy shrugged, but winced as she did so, rendering her effort to look casual quite futile. “No worse than after a heavy fight,” she lied.

He frowned. She was pale and pinched around the mouth. “It was a lovely meal, but I really think I should take both you and Max back to where we can find you some expert care.”

He deliberately extended a hand for Buffy to take and pull herself to her feet, which she did, defiantly, but, Giles could see, not without a great deal of pain.

The packing up was a slow process, putting everything back in the saddlebags even more trying. Eventually though, they were on their way, Buffy settling in Giles' arms with far more contentment and…pleasure…than seemed quite right in terms of their current relationship.

For his part, Giles was concentrating on guiding and controlling Bastian, the stallion less than happy about his load, the proximity of the gelding and not being allowed to gallop out his freshness. It was all Giles could do to stay focused on that and not let himself think too much about the warm figure fitted against him and the scent of her, both driving his senses silently to distraction.

When they reached the stables again he dismounted first, before taking Buffy's waist and lifting her down.

She found herself missing the warm strength of his body from the moment they parted, not just because of the rush of cool air on her back, but because it was like a connection being broken. It was disturbing and unsettling. Giles wasn't very, very old and he most certainly *was* a man, two items that Buffy had carefully tried to avoid addressing for a very long time.

He set her down in front of him, very close, and supported her while she tried the knee again. In a way she was annoyed that Slayer healing had made such inroads already. She didn't want him to stop taking care of her…touching her. That thought made her eyes widen.

“All right?” he asked gently.

She shrugged off the disturbing thoughts. “Yeah, I'm fine, Giles. You know…Slayer healing…the one-stop, Slayer repair shop,” she said reluctantly, but honestly, then smiled. “Not that I mind the TLC,” she added, too late.

He'd removed his hands and straightened. “In that case we'll find some attention for Max.”


*******

“I am glad Max is going to be fine,” Giles finally said, to end the silence that had hung between them all the way back to the outskirts of Sunnydale.

“Me too,” Buffy said quietly. “I mean…also going to be fine here, too, and…yay for Max.”

Giles frowned a little. Her voice was uncharacteristically flat.

“Buffy? Are you in pain?”

“Huh? Oh…no,” she said, without elaborating. “No, I'm fine.” She wasn't going to tell him that while all the little nasties had cleared up her lower back was still killing her, and probably would for a few more hours yet, until the rapid healing finally got to the bottom of the deep bruising.

His frown deepened. “But something is bothering you. Are you still worried about Max?”

She looked up at him in surprise. Why was he so worried about her moods all of a sudden? It wasn't like she was doing much other than sitting there…not talking…and trying not to think about the day being over very soon, and not knowing when, if ever, she would have another one like this one, with him…the falling off horses part aside.

“No. Nothing's bothering me,” she lied, then managed a half smile. “Did I tell you that you looked like a god on that horse? I've never seen anyone look like they were part of the horse…literally…even when it was jigging around like it was standing on hot coals, before.”

Giles smiled. “Thank you…I think. Bastian was just very fresh. It would have been kinder to find somewhere to give him an extended run and some good solid exercise, but he's a very, very valuable animal and the risks were too great, as evidenced by your own unfortunate mishap.”

“Unfortunate is right,” she muttered, still frustrated that they were fast approaching the turnoff to take them to the leafy area of suburban Sunnydale and back to the harsh, empty reality of the only existence she'd known since her return from 'otherwhere'.

“Do we have to go back?” she asked, surprising even herself.

Giles raised his eyebrows. “I suppose not. Why?”

She shrugged uncomfortably. “I just…don't want to right now. Your birthday was spoiled by Annie Joke-ley here proving that Slayers walk…they don't drive and they obviously don't ride…”

“I enjoyed our day immensely,” he said, smiling a little. “It's true I would have liked it to be a little longer too…but I did appreciate the thought…and the chance to ride even while I'm over here.”

Buffy managed to smile back a little. “I'm glad,” she said softly, their eyes meeting and holding until something almost tangible passed between them again. Both their smiles started to fade at the same moment.

“I…uh…why…why don't we go to your place while we decide what we're going to do?”

“M-my…? My place?” His own stammer hadn't been so pronounced in a very long time. “I still don't have everything unpacked, you know. Pity the tenant's lease wasn't up sooner.”

“Is it like it was before?” Buffy asked in a strange voice.

Giles paused to work out what she meant. “Well…it will be, when I've unpacked all the books…except perhaps it will be a little tidier…a-and Xander's new shelves, while quite the thing, aren't exactly the same as the old ones. On the whole, though, I've brought back most of my stuff, rescued my furniture from storage…”

She looked up at him then. “If you weren't ever coming back why did you keep the apartment and why didn't you take your stuff with you?”

He stared at the road for a long time. “I'm not entirely sure of the answer to that,” he said quietly.

“It kept you connected,” she offered in a sudden burst of perspicacity.

His brow furrowed. “Yes…I suppose it did.”

Buffy only just managed to stop herself from asking him why that was necessary considering he'd been so adamant about starting a whole new life in Bath, England. What kind of name was that for a town anyway? How about Table, Idaho or Chair, Connecticut?

After stealing several glances at her, Giles wondered what was alternately amusing and disturbing his companion and why she seemed so off-kilter all of a sudden, as though something had unnerved her.

The car slid to a halt in front of the small garage and Giles pressed the button on his key chain to open the door.

“This is new.”

“It was one thing to leave the Citroen out night and day…another altogether to leave an invitation like this on the street for car thieves.”

She giggled. “I guess so…I mean, who'd steal the Gilesmobile?”

“I'll have you know it was a perfectly serviceable vehicle,” he retorted, serious until he turned and caught her eye. They both chuckled and he sighed. “Most of the time,” he added honestly and drove in.

Buffy knew something akin to fear as Giles unlocked the door of his old apartment. A part of her…a suddenly painfully sentimental part of her, really didn't want to see it if it was nothing like it used to be.

“Would you like something to drink?” he asked as they crossed the living area and he slipped into the kitchen.

She looked around, realizing with relief that it felt the same despite small differences here and there. She noted the new appliances and the gorgeous tea-set on a silver tray decorating the spot where Giles' alcohol used to be on the breakfast bar, before nodding and then grinning when he automatically poured her a glass of fresh orange juice…as he had a hundred times before.

“Maybe that's what I missed most,” she mused.

“Mm? Sorry…?” He murmured, pushing the glass towards her.

“Nothing. I'm just glad you're here.”

He cocked an eyebrow at her. “Are you sure there isn't something on your mind?”

Buffy stifled an impulse to laugh. If he only knew…

“I liked it today. It was kinda fun…just doing something that didn't involve, y'know, research or slaying…no dire…well, except for Buffy learning to fly the hard way. It was just, well…nice.”

“I rather enjoyed that part myself,” he admitted, half smiling. “Is that why you didn't quite want it to end?”

Buffy grew very still. “I guess so,” she said finally, frantically trying to think of a way to take advantage of the unexpected opening, and still not sure she actually wanted to. “We should have done more stuff together…before…y'know…”

He studied her flushed face and restless hands and wondered. “Absolutely. I would have enjoyed your company,” he agreed affably.

“But I was too busy trying to be normal teen girl and making an even bigger mess of things. Giles, I just wanted to be like everyone else. I just…it's hard, you know? It's all…so hard…”

The hollow, despairing words went to his heart. He knew exactly what she meant. It was hard to be different, to be Chosen…to have a destiny thrust at you, to know you had no future, that what little you did have could be taken from you at any time. It was hard to be a child warrior and have the weight of the entire world on those tiny shoulders, to go home, alone, unable to share it with anyone. He sighed jaggedly. It was why he hadn't done more to stop her relationship with Angel before it got started. He'd understood only too well what it meant to her to not be alone…just as he'd understood only too well the price she…all of them…had paid for it. If he thought too much about that time his heart still hurt for her, for what it had cost her and how alone she'd been. Even he hadn't really been there for her then, consumed by his own private grief and despair for far longer than he dared admit. Buffy had been a remarkable child…to endure so much in so short a time…just as she was now a remarkable woman, having continued to endure so much…

“I know,” he said softly.

It was Buffy's turn to hold up a silencing hand. “I know you know,” she admitted. “I always have. How do you think I survived? I-if I didn't have you…I would've been just another Faith. Probably a very dead Faith,” she added sombrely, her large eyes rolling up to meet his and to press her intent home. “Someone once called you a 'Stalwart, standing fast', I can't remember who, but that's only a part of it.”

Giles didn't speak for a long time. He remembered exactly where those words had come from, and the way time had stood still as he'd sung them, blessedly ensuring that she hadn't heard a word…or so he'd believed.

“A part…?” he prompted in a near-strangled tone, unable to articulate any kind of rational response.

She nodded, her face a picture of effort and consternation. “Stalwarts are like knights and stuff, holding the armour and the horse and making sure everything is perfect for, like, the king or the champion or whatever.”

A flicker of amusement at her interpretation softened the green eyes as she continued.

“That's not enough to describe what you are…what you were. You…you made it all right. Do you know how much I needed to know that after even the worst stuff you'd be there…in the library, or your apartment…and you always were... Just hearing you…even if it was just to scold me or lecture me…or watching you making tea or cleaning your glasses…I needed it, Giles. I needed you so much. It was like no matter how lonely…” She stopped, not willing to explore that thought further. “I mean, I knew, no matter how bad things were, how alone I was…I was never really alone, because I had you.”

A nerve twitched in his cheek and he half turned away, albeit reluctantly. “I had thought that you'd outgrown me much faster than that…that I was…was simply another research tool, another weapon in your arsenal, to be trotted out when needed and filed away to gather dust when not…”

Buffy was startled by the admission…or at least by the fact that he'd put it into words, rather than what he'd actually said. Willow and Xander had voiced almost the same thoughts several times over the years but in far less gentle terms.

Her eyes grew very bright, glistening with unbidden moisture. “I'm sorry,” she said simply.

His lips parted and he stared at her.

“I never meant…I was just stupid…and I'm sorry. If there was a way to take back all the stupid things I've done to you…to us…I would, in a heartbeat,” she said passionately.

He still seemed mesmerised. “How did y…Buffy, what…? I didn't think you'd ever…”

“Grow up? The jury's still out on that one. Sometimes you just kinda wake up, you know? Like you suddenly see something for the first time…”

“I don't think I understand,” he managed.

She hit him on the chest. “You big jerk!” she admonished shakily, her insides a rioting mess. “Don't you know how hard this is? I'm trying so hard to tell you that I love you…that I think I've always loved you, and all you can do is go all librarian on me! ”

Giles looked as though she'd hit him in the face with a cricket bat. “That's…that's wonderful, Buffy,” he stammered in a strangled voice, “and it's very much appreciated… b-but I've always known that you cared for me.”

“No, you haven't,” she argued, not sure whether he was deliberately misunderstanding or truly oblivious. “You know that I took you for granted, that I needed you, but when did I ever show you that I cared about you…that I-I loved you? There. I said it again. I mean it, Giles.”

He finally breathed, the colour returning to his face, and peace. “I know you mean it, love,” he said gently. “I've always known that you cared for me…you have been known to demonstrate…something about a punch on the jaw to stop me from going out to face the Master… perhaps one of your more vivid illustrations, if I remember rightly.”

Buffy subsided, not willing to push until she knew exactly how he felt. “I didn't want you to die and you wouldn't have let me go on my own.”

Giles' eyes grew bleak. “Perhaps that was the problem. Perhaps if we had combined our forces, Council be damned…if we had worked as one even back then, you might not have died at all…other things might have been different. I should have been with you right from the beginning…”

Buffy touched his hand. “You did what you were trained to do. And you worked so hard…we did kinda notice how often you were wearing the same…if wrinkled…clothes we saw you in the night before, even if we never said anything.”

They both chuckled, albeit almost nervously.

“So very long ago,” he mused.

“Another life time,” Buffy agreed sombrely, guessing what and whom he was thinking about. She thrust that thought aside just as something else occurred to her. “Why didn't you get mad about Spike…me and Spike?” she asked suddenly.

Giles was caught on the hop by the change of subject. “B-because it's essentially none of my business.”

Buffy was surprised. “Since when?”

“Since you're a grown woman and capable of making your own choices a-and your own mistakes,” he expanded.

“I am? I mean, yeah, I am…but understatement much?”

Giles shook his head. “However much I abhor what you did and the fact that he took advantage of you in the first place, while you were essentially still in shock from the consequences of Willow's spell, no one can judge you except…you.”

“So you don't hate me, or think I'm dirty or disgusting?” she asked in a very small voice.

He cupped her face much as he had when he'd come back from England to see for himself that she was alive. “I could never, ever hate you…and you were neither the first, nor will you be the last to love unwisely.”

“Love?” she said bitterly. “I've never loved wisely in my life. I loved Angel and all that brought was badness. I wanted someone to make the pain go away after Willow brought me back and look who I picked for the job…” She sighed a jagged sigh. “And I even thought I loved Riley…just a little bit, but I was just in love with the idea of a real relationship…the normal guy who understood everything about me and loved me anyway…” she finished, looking up and meeting Giles' gaze at the same moment. After a moment of incredibly charged silence, she spoke again, her fingers spontaneously reaching up to caress the line of his jaw.

“The normal guy who understands everything about me and loves me anyway…”

Giles' vivid green eyes were searching her open, vulnerable ones, trying to understand what was happening.

“He said it was you,” she whispered. “He knew.”

A still as a statue, Giles rasped the words hoarsely: “Who knew…what?”

“Spike…he said…he said he always wondered about us.”

“Us?” he almost squeaked.

The absurdity of it almost made Buffy smile. Almost. She took her fingers away. “I'm sorry,” she said awkwardly. “I-I'm sorry.”

Giles blinked as she turned and made for the door, then bolted after her, catching her as she reached out to open it. He turned her towards him, holding her arms gently.

“No, *I'm* sorry,” he said in an emotion-charged voice. “Buffy, do you realise what you're saying? Are…are you sure?”

Buffy's hands returned his grasp, holding his forearms. She nodded silently, not taking her eyes from his.

For a time neither of them moved nor spoke. Finally, Buffy released a hand to reach up and lay her fingers against his warm cheek again.

“Is it really so crazy?” she asked, searching his face, his eyes, for the truth.

He shook his head very slowly. “N-no. Buffy…no…not crazy…and yet, utterly insane. I'm twice your age and…and you deserve so much more…”

The blue-grey eyes widened. “Then…then it's not just me?”

He released her and stepped away. “I've never…I have always loved you. Just not like…at least not until…I think I knew when you walked into the room at the prom…safe, at last. And so beautiful…but it wasn't until I tried to deny it…tried to put distance between us that day you found Olivia and me…that I realised that you were my world…my whole world…”

The revelation winded Buffy. So many things were slamming into place…so many ways she must have hurt him, so many reasons why he should hate her. How could she have been so blind? All this time, the one thing she'd been looking for in all the wrong places, was right in front of her…

She drew a sharp breath as a memory echoed hauntingly in Xander's voice: 'He's out there, he could come along any minute.'

Life, or Fate or something had been trying to tell her in so many different ways and she'd been blind, deaf and stupid…

Before she could speak, Giles moved further away, nervous fingers raking through his hair in lieu of his usual retreat behind glasses and handkerchief.

Buffy swallowed, not sure whether to answer or not, whether he was having second thoughts, or embarrassed or what… But when she caught herself thinking about changing the subject, letting it go…again, rather than facing things, she scowled ferociously, which only made him step back a little more.

She took a step towards him. “You knew even then? How could you stand it…watching me be *so* stupid, watching me do all horrible, dumb things I've done? How could anyone?”

He didn't look up. “I-I just…I already loved you so very dearly, Buffy. M-my romantic notions didn't matter…which is not to say, of course, that I didn't find your blundering along with young Riley or the recounting of your most unfortunate interaction with Spike both distasteful and distressing at times…”

Despite the criticism, Buffy had to laugh. Only Giles could make such an emotional issue sound like a discussion over tea.

“I'm sorry,” he blustered, confused, and finally looked up.

“Don't be,” she managed, getting the giggle under control. “Oh, God, don't be,” she repeated, stepping right up to him and putting her hands on his chest. “I wasn't laughing at what you said…only the Gilesy way that you said it.”

His lips parted and his eyes searched hers, as though he was trying to understand what she was trying to tell him, all the while trying to the ignore the racing of his blood, the thump of his heart beneath her fingertips.

Buffy knew that look. She'd caused it enough times…just by making him totally confused or nonplussed by her various antics.

“You're right…about all of it,” she translated, “but the way you said it was so…”

“Stuffy?” he supplied, trying not to think about the fact that he could all but breathe her in as she stood leaning against him.

She only half stopped the smile. “Um…okay…*stuffy*,” she continued, “that it made me laugh…in a good way. In an 'I love him so much' kind of way,” she added, her voice suddenly growing hoarse as her eyes found and locked with his.

“Love…me?” he said softly.

Buffy nodded. “Scary, isn't it?” she asked shakily, trying to smile but having trouble making her mouth do what she wanted. “My insides are doing the cha-cha and my throat feels like it's got an egg stuck halfway down…that's gotta be love, right? If it's not, I'm going to need some serious therapy to deal with some of the thoughts I'm having right now.”

“Thoughts?” he was jolted into repeating, his own mouth trying to smile whether he wanted it to or not. “D-dare one ask what kind…of thoughts?”

“Now that *would* be daring,” Buffy agreed, in reality stalling for time, having realized that her thoughts weren't exactly rated for the usual Watcher-Slayer sharing-of. “But I'm not sure you want to know how bizarre your Slayer's mind is being today.”

Giles, watching her face flush until her cheeks glowed and her eyes shone, started to relax a little. For once Buffy was the one in the hot seat and something deep down inside of him, something with all the years of experience to know, suddenly felt that everything was going to be all right.

“Bizarre and Buffy's mind have been synonymous for a very long time, love,” he said gently. “Try me.”

The patches of red on Buffy's cheeks deepened almost to a mulberry colour. “That…
sorta…kinda was the thought,” she said awkwardly, in a rush, before she could chicken out again.

He was lost for a couple of seconds, then put it together, colour, in spite of himself, rushing to his own cheeks.

“Oh,” he managed.

“Don't tell me the thought never once occurred to you…?” she retorted defensively when he hadn't managed to extend the thought a few seconds later, leaving her to interpret the silence as shock, or worse.

He jolted out of his contemplation of the possibilities and cleared his throat. “Yes, well, contrary to long held, popular belief, I am a man and you…you have been a very beautiful young woman for some time.”

“Since, like, the beginning?” she asked, unable to imagine Giles having secret horny thoughts of any kind, let alone…

His eyes held hers, amusement back in them. “In a romantic, even a sentimental, sense I should like to say yes to that, but it wouldn't be the truth. I didn't see you…any of you…as anything more than children for quite a long time, which of course you were. It is true that you were a lovely girl…but just that…a girl, while—”

“While Jenny Calendar was all woman,” she finished, unable to keep a slight edge of jealousy from her voice, until she saw the bleak look momentarily clouding his eyes. He seemed to realise and banished it again. “Sorry,” she added.

He shook his head. “Jenny was…she was the first real love in my life. Oh, I'd had plenty of companions, lovers over the years…but I'd never truly been in love…it was a true mystery to me, knowing how to…well…you remember.”

Buffy smiled, jealousy gone. “I remember. You were so cute trying to work up the nerve to ask her out. Tell me you didn't seriously like Monster Trucks?” she added, suddenly remembering.

For a split second he blinked, trying to fathom the seeming change of topic then remembered and chuckled.

“It wasn't the trucks. It was the company. It should have been the worst date I'd ever been on,” he said fondly, “but of course it wasn't…far from it.”

Buffy's brow folded into a divot again. “Do I still need to be jealous?”

“What?” He roused himself from pleasant memories. “Oh, no, of course not. It's been a long time since I thought about her…about those times.” He grew thoughtful for a moment. “I missed her for such a long time.”

Buffy swallowed. “I know,” she said softly. “Do you…still?”

Their eyes met.

“Not any more,” he re-confirmed. “Wounds heal and empty places in the heart are filled by new things.”

The hurt subsided. “New things?” she asked, hoping that she knew the answer.

His fingers brushed her cheek and he smiled. “New things,” he confirmed.

“Well, maybe not so new,” Buffy amended as she leaned her cheek into his touch and her body even more closely against his. “More like soiled goods these days.” Her eyes grew bright with regret. “I'm sorry…if anyone deserves better, it's you.”

Giles traced the bottom lip he'd been secretly entranced by for years as he spoke, trying once again to ignore the warmth of the lithe form pressed against him.

“Hush,” he said softly. “None of that matters. Do you think I spent my youth helping old women across the road or waiting in virginal anticipation for the right girl to come along?” he added, humour in his voice.

“Ripper?” Buffy shook her head, smiling back. “Do I even want to know?”

His look was emphatic. “You most certainly do not. Let's just say we're even, shall we?”

Buffy's expression grew grim. “We both know it's going to be forever before we're ever even. I could spend the rest of whatever's left of my life making it up to you and never come near catching up.” Then she smiled an entirely winsome smile. “But I'm willing to accept charity at this point.” She let her arms slide up and around his neck.

Amused, and astonished at the turn life had taken, Giles finally started to bend his head toward the upturned mouth, to be stopped just millimetres from her face, by the shrill of Buffy's cell phone.

They groaned simultaneously and Buffy reluctantly drew away, leaving Giles rocked at how bereft of her presence he felt as she went to answer the cursed thing.

“We have to go,” Buffy announced flatly when she hung up. “Dawn is at the Espresso Pump with a friend. She says they're being followed, but they don't know by whom. Dawn figures vamps, but she's not sure except that they're 'creepy'. No part of this sounds good,” she added, trying not to think about what had been interrupted and what was at stake.

Giles ran a hand over his face. “No,” he agreed. “What weapons do you have to hand? Mine are in the hall closet…”

They prepared mechanically, silently and with all the economy of comrades in arms who'd been doing the same thing for years. Nor did they talk during the drive to the Pump.

A cursory look around revealed no skulking demons or vampires outside. Eventually they both moved into the coffee shop to find Dawn and Janice squashed into the same side of a booth, with two young men sitting opposite them. The look of relief on Dawn's face when she saw them was enough to tell Buffy that this was no date.

“Hey, Dawn,” she said, her voice rising in a question.

“Hey, Buffy,” Dawn said nervously, smiling in spite of herself as she craned around to look at her companion. “Hi, Giles.”

“Hello, Dawn. Janice. Are you having a good time?” Giles asked quietly.

Dawn's face grew bleak again. “About like I told Buffy on the phone,” she told them.

One of the young men, a slender blond of about nineteen, looked up at them. “In your era this was called a date,” he said obnoxiously. “And I bet even back then it didn't involve parents.”

Buffy's eyes bulged. “Sister…I-I'm her sister,” she gobbled. “And you are so not dating my sister.” She turned to the second, larger boy, brown hair falling in his eyes and a bored expression on his face. “And neither are you, buster. Dawn, we're going home.”

Dawn and Janice made haste to slide out of their seats and the two boys followed.

“That'll be fine, lads,” Giles said carefully. “We can take them home from here. Thank you for giving them a pleasant evening.”

“Go stuff yourself, old man,” the blond sneered and pushed past them, followed by his companion.

When they were out of sight, Dawn and Janice finally relaxed, their pale faces filling with colour. “God, Buffy, I didn't know what to do. They came in just after I called you. We couldn't stop them sitting with us.”

“Are they vamps?” Buffy demanded. “I felt something but it could be anyone in this place…or outside it…”

The younger Summers sister shrugged. “They followed us out of the movies and all the way here. I figured they probably were but…”

“You don't have a stake?” Buffy guessed.

Dawn shook her head. “It's been quiet lately, and I was in a hurry and…”

“You forgot,” Giles finished succinctly.

She shrugged again. “Kinda.”

“Well, let's get you home,” he said dyspeptically, trying not to show how frustrated he was at having his evening with Buffy interrupted.

They were half way to the car when the attack started. The two boys from the Espresso pump were back accompanied by four more companions, all of whom were having a bad face day. Buffy's mood grew decidedly darker as she drew her favourite stake.

Giles drew his and told the girls to stay behind them, surprised when Buffy threw a second stake to her sister. Moments later he was too busy fending off an attacker to stop and watch Dawn holding her own, or Buffy taking on three at once.

It took Giles a well-timed trip and all his strength to finally force his opponent off balance and stake him just as another one attacked him from behind. He threw his shoulders back, trying to dislodge the unwanted load from his back, but the vampire wasn't having any. Giles knew a moment of real fear, aware that if he couldn't get the creature off he couldn't stake it, and that he and his throat were entirely vulnerable until it was removed. He spun around trying to elbow it as it clung to him.

In his peripheral vision he saw Dawn now struggling in the grip of two of them. The subsequent adrenaline rush of rage took hold of him and he threw himself forward with such force that the vampire sailed over his head. A moment later he was punching it hard in the face while it was still on the ground before staking it hurriedly and spinning to see how Dawn was faring.

She wasn't struggling any more and one of the vampires had his teeth in her throat. Giles launched himself at them, dragged the vamp off Dawn's throat and kicked the other away before either of them had time to really rouse themselves from their focus on feeding.

He'd just staked the closest one while it was still on the ground when he found himself showered with dust from behind. He wheeled to find Dawn, stake still raised, at his back.

“Sorry, Giles,” she said ruefully, swaying from what was almost certainly significant blood loss. “He was going to hit you with a rock.”

He caught her as she stumbled. Buffy finished off the last of the remaining two assailants with a vicious thrust, wheeled, saw Dawn's misstep and raced over, followed by a terrified Janice who'd been hiding behind another parked car.

“We should take her to the ER,” Buffy announced, uncharacteristically panicked when she saw the bite marks, as well as how pale her sister was and how much Giles was still supporting her.

Giles shook his head. “They didn't take enough to even render her unconscious. We'll take her home and get something to eat and drink into her and put her to bed. She just needs time to replenish her blood volume.”

“What he said,” Dawn agreed creakily.

“Are you sure?” Buffy fussed.

Giles and Dawn both gave her the look.

“Fine,” she huffed. “Home.” Then she remembered Janice and turned to her. “I…um…you okay?” she asked as Giles lifted Dawn into his arms before she really did lose her legs from under her.

“Oh, just great,” the girl drawled, the effect ruined by the residual tremulousness in her voice. “What is it with you and the creepiness, Summers?” she asked Dawn, but continued wryly, without waiting for an answer: “I think I'm going to go home now and do my homework.” She hesitated for a moment, looking around. “There aren't any more, are there?”

“Not right now,” Buffy confirmed. “But I wouldn't dawdle on the way home. Here,” she said, giving Janice her spare stake. “You should carry one of these from now on. But it's probably best if your mom doesn't find it, okay? Oh, and always aim for the heart.”

Janice looked at her, then at the stake, then at Buffy again. “Eiww,” she pronounced and flounced off but, significantly, didn't give the stake back.


*******

Buffy came downstairs wearily after making Dawn comfortable, to find Giles in the kitchen making hot drinks. She could smell both tea and mocha and smiled to herself.

“What a day.”

Giles looked up as she came in and leaned on the counter. “Indeed…a rather spectacular birthday. Not unlike most of yours, really,” he added dryly.

Buffy gave him a filthy look. “A squib compared to mine. I'll take a fall off a horse and six incompetent vamps over Angelus, Cruciamentums, Fyarl demons, Ethan, Glory, Vengeance demons and all the other fun stuff designed to make my birthdays just a big ol' ball of fun every year.”

“Yes. Sorry,” Giles agreed uncomfortably, almost stuffily, looking away again, pouring his tea and adding cookies to the tray.

Buffy smiled affectionately. He was so adorable when he did that. And he'd been doing it for so long she wondered why she hadn't noticed before.

“I missed you at my birthday last year,” she told him. “Apart from the usual Buffy birthday suckage, it sucked even more than usual because you weren't there.”

He looked up and smiled slowly. “Nice to know I was missed,” he teased then the smile faded. “I really hated not being there, particularly for your coming of age.”

“Why didn't you even call?”

He paused for a moment, as though collecting his thoughts carefully. “Because if I did, I know I would have been back on the next flight. The separation was absolutely necessary, but I didn't want to leave you any more than you wanted me to go. I blocked it out of my mind long before the event.”

“And you did such a good job you never even sent a card,” she grumbled. “You sent Xander and Anya a card and you paid for all their flowers…”

He looked even more uncomfortable. “That was different.”

She frowned. “Different, how?”

“They weren't you.”

The frown cleared. “Oh,” she said uncertainly, then seemed to change the subject. “You know Willow said she'd listen out for Dawn when I was upstairs, because she's going to be studying up there for hours…?”

“Did she, indeed? Does that mean you want to patrol?”

“No, it does not mean I want to patrol!” she shot back at him in a rapid tattoo, wondering if she'd imagined everything that had happened between them earlier, and aware of the delayed reaction of her body to the night's slayage, muted somewhat until now by the concern for Dawn.

“Ah. Then perhaps you should enlighten me?” he suggested, half teasing, half serious.

“I'd rather do that at your place,” she managed almost huskily.

Giles' eyebrows lifted and his mouth once again worked hard to prevent his lips from showing his very real amusement.

“Then you'd best tell Willow we're going and that your cell phone will be turned on if she needs us for anything,” he observed blandly.


*******

“Can I get you anything?” Giles asked as he locked his front door behind him, amusing Buffy, who'd spent years wondering if he'd ever learn to do that.

“When did you start doing that?'

Giles looked at the key in his hand. “Tonight,” he admitted, turning to face her again.

“Tonight?”

“You're already here,” he explained, looking up slowly.

“Oh.” Her eyes widened. *“Oh…”* Unbidden moisture glistened in her eyes.

“A-are you sure I can't get you anything?”

She couldn't *not* smile. He was adorable, and she'd never even noticed before. He was standing there looking as broad and long, and as sexy as he had when they went riding, the denim shirt and the worn blue jeans hugging the most provocative places and angles. For a moment Buffy's thoughts came to a halt as still warm post-slayage embers suddenly roared into a forest fire. A moment later she'd focused again. Everything about him was so aggressively male, yet he was as uncertain of himself as boy, with her.

“You can get over here,” she told him.

“Sorry…?”

“Come. Over. Here,” she enunciated.

He came to a halt about a foot in front of her. Buffy could smell him: the remnants of his cologne, a more subtle herbal scent from his hair, lingering horsiness and the most provocative aroma of male exertion. It was all she could do to stop herself from fidgeting on the spot.

“Buffy, are you quite all right? You seem to have taken rather a lot of colour…?”

She looked up and watched his mouth move almost mesmerically. “More than all right. And it's pretty much not the sun, if that's what you mean,” she added.

He cleared his throat. “Oh?”

She moved toward him. “Yep, I'm just fine…just pretty much back where we were before we were rudely interrupted…”

“Ah,” he said, that impossible mouth threatening to widen into a grin, despite the magnitude of what was happening to them. He slowly reached out and brushed her cheek with the backs of his fingers before trailing his thumb across the tender lips.

“Just as I imagined,” he whispered, fussing a tendril of blonde hair off her brow before cupping her cheek with the large hand and drawing her to him at the same time, so that she was pressed against him.

Buffy quivered with a kind of anticipation she'd never felt before. With Angel there had been desire, mixed with fear and self-doubt, and with Riley there hadn't been much of anything, really...well, except for a really, really lot of sex…and Spike…Spike had almost taken her humanity. In a small corner of her mind she acknowledged for the first time that despite what she thought she knew, she'd never really known what in the hell love…real love…was, until now.

Slowly, almost overwhelmed by the moment, Giles bent his head.

Buffy's heart moved into her throat.

And then his mouth, his masculine, sensual mouth, was covering hers, lips like velvet over iron, moulding and controlling hers for long minutes, asking the question, and hers were melting like butter under the heat of their caresses.

Finally, her arms slid around his neck and she answered not only his questions, but all of her own as they merged into one, each of them somehow channelling years of loneliness, pain, need into the passionate love making of their seeking lips, mouths and tongues.

When they finally parted, they stared at each other, trying to catch up, both uncertain, both…waiting.

Eventually Giles bent his head and brushed her lips very gently before once again searching her face.

:Slowly, Buffy smiled. “It's so…”

“Ridiculous?” he asked, a small part of him steeling for disappointment in spite of everything that had happened.

“Perfect,” she corrected. “So perfect it kinda…hurts a little.”

“Too much?” he asked very quietly, echoing another time, another place.

Despite still looking dreamily content, her eyes finally focused sharply on his. “How can it be too much, when we've hardly…God, Giles, if you feel anything like me you know this is no game…you…do…feel like me, right?” she digressed, suddenly alarmed.

Giles' shoulders relaxed again and his expression softened. “If you mean do I love you to distraction and do I want you so badly I'm in extreme danger of behaving like a callow youth…? Then, yes…exactly like you.”

Buffy reached up and stroked soft golden brown and grey peppered hair behind his ear. “I don't want a 'callow youth'. I want the man who was kissing me before…the one who makes me feel like everything is right and good even when everything else feels bad and rotten.”

He smiled. “I'm still here,” he told her. “In danger of being just a little overwhelmed, but here. I never expected that you would ever look at me the way you are right now.”

“I'm guessing pretty much the same way you're looking at me,” she teased. There was power and passion, and yet tenderness and love in his eyes. *How could he look like that…so powerfully male and yet…able to make her go all squishy inside?*

“Quite probably,” he agreed wolfishly. “The question is: where do we go from here?”

Buffy rolled her eyes. “Déjà vu, much?”

Giles looked sheepish and coloured nicely when he realized what he'd said.

“Very funny,” he growled huskily.

“Um…well, if we don't go *somewhere, soon*, I'm going to have to go and slay *something*, even it it's just your mailbox,” she teased.

.”In that case,” he murmured, deliberately slipping his hands around her waist and sliding them upward, drawing her top with them and revealing the tender breasts beneath.

Buffy gasped in spite of herself. It was one thing to want him so badly she couldn't think straight…but the reality of Giles seeing her…for the first time…was…well, she couldn't find words for what it was…but when she'd recovered from the shock she realized that he was looking at her in way that made her blood boil…made her want to arch her back and invite him to…

She shook herself mentally just as his hands moved up to cup her breasts and to massage them gently, almost reverently.

Buffy groaned, sending a tremor down Giles' spine and making him even more impossibly hard than he already was. With a low noise of his own he swept her into his arms and carried her swiftly upstairs. She groaned again with delight as he deposited her on the bed, following her down and kissing the softness he'd been holding moments earlier, trailing hungry lips and a sensuous tongue all over the tender flesh until she shifted, suddenly, urgently, trying to remove his shirt. Finally, he moved a little, took over, and in a blink it was gone.

Breathing heavily, Buffy studied the wide shoulders and lightly muscled torso and decided that she'd never seen anything quite as sexy as the scattering of tawny hair on his chest. A tremor went through him as she ran her fingers through it, playing with each of his nipples in turn, but mostly fascinated by the feel and the maleness of him.

“God, I love the way you feel…the way you smell,” she said, sounding as though she'd just made an amazing discovery. Then she gave in to her senses and kissed the base of his throat, trailed across to lick one nipple before kissing her way across, with a few diversions to play with the soft hair in her path, to mouth the other one, enjoying Giles' groan as she did so.

A moment later he'd turned her expertly onto her back again. She tensed for one moment when he slipped her jeans off and tossed them aside. Alarmed, Giles paused immediately to look at her quizzically, concern darkening his green eyes.

“It's not you,” she told him, touching his face. “I promise I'll tell you…later...much later. Right now…just…just love me…”

His expression was gentle, reassuring, despite the concern still in his eyes. “We can stop at any time.”

Buffy smiled at him lovingly. “Are you kidding?” she teased and lifted herself enough to catch his lips and kiss him hard.

After a moment to catch up, Giles kissed her back equally as hard, until they again became entangled, and she was arching her body against his. He shifted and trailed his mouth across her jaw, down her throat.

Buffy groaned. Warm, crazy-making lips were tasting her nipples again, lingering for a long while, then trailing slowly down a silken path to her soft, creamy belly, making her whimper, and her body throb with anticipation.

Giles smiled against the smooth skin before continuing over the silky material of her briefs, enjoying the increasing, and insistent, volume of her moans, they, and the scent of her, telegraphing the height of her arousal. Her scent was in his nostrils, his throat and it was driving his body to new levels of desire as he mouthed the warm flesh through the filmy bit of fabric that covered it, just long enough for her to give a strangled, gasping cry of pleasure.

“Giles, please!” she managed in a voice blurred by need.

His response was to slip one finger under the damp slip of silken fabric and brush it over her swollen flesh. Her hips lifted and she gasped a panting gasp, followed by a nearly screaming one when he pulled the fabric back, bent his head and ran a seeking tongue along the smooth, creamy flesh of her groin, before trailing across and finally tasting her for the first time.

Buffy thought she was going to lose it there and then. He was unbelievable…he knew exactly how and where and how to…her mind went blank for several minutes while he drove her insane with his ability to pleasure, to tease, to…she gasped again as the tip of his mobile tongue slid up the sensitive flesh from her opening to her swollen centre and over it before taking it in his mouth with the same exquisite touch that had already brought her so close to orgasm several times already.

“Giles…” she prompted when she couldn't wait any longer.

He knew immediately and exactly what she wanted. There was a movement and a rustle as his jeans and briefs came off together and then he was pushing himself up on his arms, over her. He wanted her so much…loved her so much…and she was looking up at him with the kind of desire in her eyes that he could have only dreamed about, even just days ago. She was so lovely…soft, round breasts with their pale pink peaks…flat, creamy belly…and the soft, dark smudge of hair…waiting. Waiting for him…

Buffy slid her arms around his neck as he lowered his head and took her lips again, their kiss possessive, yet gentle, passionate, yet lovingly tender. When they finally parted to look at each other again, she wasn't sure she really wanted it to end. Then she met the soft green eyes, so close she could see the exact shape of the endearing brown spot in the left one, and each tiny laughter line at the corner of his eyes as he smiled at her.

“Hello,” he said softly.

She smiled back, all the lurking, hurtful shadows of the past falling away in the wake of the wave of love she felt for him then.

“Hello, Gorgeous.”

He chuckled softly. “I think not,” he said ruefully, then trailed his fingers over a still rigid peak, making Buffy tremble. “But you, love, on the other hand, most certainly are.” He covered the goose-bumped breast again with his mouth for a moment, listening to her satisfying response, then moved between her thighs, smiling as her legs curled possessively around him.

“Then it makes two of us,” she breathed as he kissed her throat, her ear and trailed across her flushed cheek to kiss her again. “Love me,” she reiterated when he eventually lifted his head.

Giles needed no further invitation, sliding his hands down her hips and raising them. Buffy strained to him, ripples of pleasure already coursing through her body as she felt him come to her.

Something inside her knew, at last, that it truly was *him*, and only him. She loved Giles more than she'd ever loved anyone or anything. She belonged to him…and he belonged to her. It shook her…the knowledge that she wasn't alone. That perhaps she'd never really been alone…

Even more frightening was the realisation that this love…real love…had nothing to do with pain, or darkness, or hurt. And yet…

They cried out together as they became one, both overwhelmed by the moment and then by their desire, everything else forgotten. All Buffy knew was that she didn't want it to stop…that this was who she was, where she was meant to be.

She revelled in the strength, the maleness of him as he took her, as much as she was taking him. Only this time the strength was in the giving, in the passion, rather than in the taking…or the hurting.

He gave her everything as she rose to him, her thighs hungry for all the power he could bring to their love-making, matching him stroke for stroke, need for need, until they were both crying out, overwhelmed by the eroticism of their union and the sheer need to achieve completion together.

Giles found himself striving to hold back a suddenly overwhelming tide to wait for her, chewing the inside of his mouth as a distraction, while his body trembled with pleasure as it worshipped hers.

Within moments Buffy's body began to writhe beneath his, and he felt her orgasm begin.

“Giles!” she gasped, “oh, God, oh, God…*Giles!*

Simply being inside her had been almost more than he could bear…it had been so long and he'd wanted to love her for such a long time, but now, watching her face in the throes of ecstasy, and feeling her pleasure closing around him with typical, and stunning, slayer strength, swiftly pushed him over the edge to follow her in a thunderous, mind-shattering explosion that shook his whole body, overwhelming any rational thought and making him gasp with the sheer intensity of it.

It was long minutes before either of them could talk.

When Giles finally lifted his head from her shoulder, Buffy smiled rosily at him.

“Hello, lover. Everything still working?” she teased.

“Very funny,” he said gruffly.

“I thought so,” she told him, her grin widening. “Did I tell you how much I love you?”

Giles stopped being huffy and stared into her grey-green eyes for long moments before smiling and shaking his head before adding in a distinctly facetious tone:

“As a matter of fact…”

Buffy slapped his bicep playfully then grew serious. “ I love you so much. I can't believe…I can't believe I didn't know, you know? It's not about the sex…it's never about the sex, is it? I didn't know it could be like this…” She reached out and touched his face. “I love you, Rupert,” she said softly, trying out the name almost tentatively.

Giles smiled lovingly at her. “It sounds good when you say it.” Buffy raised an eyebrow.
“All right. Not that good,” he conceded, aware that 'Rupert' was never going to be a fashionable appellation by the current generation's standards, “but I still like hearing you say it.”

“Rupert,” she said again, experimentally. “I think I can deal with it…but mostly you'll still be Giles, because 'Giles' is the guy I love…the one I want to be with forever…”

Moved, he was about to reply to her statement when his face screwed up a little instead and he shifted uncomfortably.

“And I you, love,” he managed finally, then added ruefully: “except perhaps for the next few minutes. It would seem that it's past time that I moved.”

Buffy looked uncertain. “Oh,” she said, then: “oh! It's been so long I forgot…”

Giles' eyes widened as something else suddenly occurred to him. “Oh Lord, Buffy, you are…?”

Buffy moved, equally uncomfortably, as things got stickier and stickier, her eyes flicking back up to his when he spoke.

“…Protected? Oh, sure. Stop worrying. I just started pretty much everything again where I left off after I…um…got back, so to speak. I have been…protected that is, since…well, college. Not much for the fun of the little foil packages after the 'magic marathon' with Riley,” she explained sheepishly and stroked his chest. “I'm glad we didn't have one. I wanted all of you…I wanted to be a part of you and you to be a part of me.”

His eyes grew bright with warmth and tenderness then he chuckled again. “I'm afraid we have to move, love, or you're really going to get your wish, only not quite the way you hoped.”

Buffy made a noise that sounded distinctly like an 'eiww' and moved at the same time he did, both of them rolling in different directions. When Giles had attended to both their needs with some man-sized tissues, Buffy unexpectedly stood up on the bed and slid her arms around his neck.

They shared a tender, slow kiss that became a spontaneous embrace, each of them holding each other tightly, closely.

“Never leave me,” she begged.

“Never,” he promised brusquely.

She pulled back enough to look at him and touch his face. “I wish I could promise you forever too,” she said sadly. “But I can only promise you everything I've got…I just don't know how long that's going to be.”

“Whatever it is, it's enough,” he said in a voice charged with emotion. “I'm not exactly in a position to offer you that kind of forever, either,” he pointed out grimly. “But all that I am, all that I can give, is yours, and always will be.”

He was watching her face, and frowned when it suddenly crumpled and her eyes filled with tears.

“Don't cry, love,” he said very gently. “Whatever it is, we can handle it together.”

“I'm not crying for me,” she told him almost crossly. “I'm sorry. I've never given you…I-I've never given you...” She sniffed. “Between the Slaying and the family stuff and the scarily bad…thing…that was my love life…my tiny brain never seemed to get past 'Giles will be there' and 'Training bad, Bronzing with Xander and Willow pretty.' God, every time I think about all the time we've been together I wonder why you didn't just go back to England a long time ago.” Her expression grew a little bleaker and she dropped her eyes.

“In your place, I'd have left me. All that time I thought I had it together…I thought…but I didn't know anything. I thought Angel was everything…that it could never be like that again. I never let anything be that important again…not you, not Riley. Nothing; not even when I wanted it to be…” Her voice tapered off as memories overwhelmed her for a moment.

“Spike?” he guessed softly, watching her face show far more than she realised.

She nodded. “…Nothing was, except the Slaying, because, well, it's supposed to be, right?” She looked up slowly. “None of it meant anything…until now.” She traced the laughter lines at the corner of his eye. “Is it…is it always like this?”

“Always like what?” he asked gently, a smile in his eyes.

“Like, you know…that there's no doubt…that you just know that this is where you have to be…that this is the person you want to be with for the rest of your life…that whatever there was before doesn't exist now. That all those times I said 'I can't do this without you!' was truer than I ever understood back then. I called it 'need'…but it had another name…” She leaned forward and caressed his mouth tenderly with hers. “I so totally don't deserve you…but I love you so much I can't even put it into words…well, not pretty ones anyway. Not the way it should be…not the way you deserve it to be.”

Giles let a divot form between his brows. “It doesn't matter anymore,” he told her, returning her salute, equally tenderly. “This is what matters.” He kissed her again.

'But you deserve to…”

“I'm not as bloody noble as all that,” he told her, amused, and caressed a soft breast, making her shiver. “And I have everything I deserve and more already. Don't worry. I remember very well every moment of every incident where you needed your tiny arse kicked…and I also know you…better than you do. So stop flapping like a demented hen, and come here.” He drew her into his arms, crushing her breasts against his chest, and kissed her thoroughly.

Somewhere about halfway through it became far more than just a kiss, and both of them felt it. It flared again into a need to be a part of each other, to know that exquisite moment of fused flesh, shared existence that only true lovers…true soul mates…ever knew.

By the time Buffy was crying out her second orgasm, straddling his hips and impaling herself upon his once again ridiculously aroused member with the same demanding need as his hips were rising to her, they were both stunned by what each could inspire the other's body to do and feel…

And then Giles was following her, lunging upwards in a wholly unexpected and bone-shaking second release, as she plunged and twisted her body in the throes of her own completion.

By the time it was over, Buffy had collapsed on his chest, content to lie there until he completely stopped moving and slid his arms around her. They stayed that way for a long while, drifting into a sex-induced torpor, and finally sleep.

When they woke again, or at least Buffy roused, content and stretching like a cat as Giles continued to sleep beneath her, she grinned down at him, barely controlling a desire to brush the hair from his brow as she would a child. It was as though she could see inside him, looking at his face: so peaceful and unburdened in the refuge of sleep. He was beautiful…

Just as she might have bent to kiss him awake, she realised that once again the lack of tiny foil package meant a really big eieww…and an even worse…and stickier…state of affairs because she was on top, her face screwing up commensurately. There was nothing close enough to grab. She eased the quilt off and carefully removed herself from her lover, squeaking as…things…shifted and it became apparent that either she'd have to find something quickly or make a mad dash to the bathroom…or both.

“Trust you to be the major stud…in every way,” she hissed at the sleeping figure as she stuffed one of his t-shirts where it would do the most good. When she had things under control again she took the soiled clothes downstairs to his clothes hamper in the bathroom and climbed into his tub to get to the shower faucets.

The heat of the water and the amazing events of the day combined to make the hot shower…and her life…seem blissfully surreal…like heaven, in a way. Buffy paused, trying to remember what it was like, only to come to the conclusion some minutes later that heaven was upstairs…sleeping like an angel.

She made a face. Sleeping *like a babe*, she amended, turning the faucets off. *…And that was 'babe' in the hottest way, too*, she added silently, and smiled to herself. For the first time in her resurrected existence, life was better than heaven, and maybe, just maybe, for the first time her gift truly could be love…

Giles' long eyelashes fluttered on his cheeks and he stirred slowly, gradually opening his clear green eyes to stare questioningly at the person who'd woken him, their fingertips caressing his temple.

“Hi,” Buffy smiled.

“Hello,” he grinned back blearily, his eyes lighting up. “Not just a dream…” he whispered more to himself than to her, perhaps not even aware he'd spoken aloud.

Buffy, wearing nothing but another of his white t-shirts, chuckled.

“Nope,” she agreed. “More like a nightmare, but a nightmare who loves you.”

“What…what time is it?” he asked, still struggling to come to terms with the new and wondrous turn his life had taken.

“Late,” she offered, “or early, depending on your point of view. Around about the time I usually do the post-slayage snack thing.”

“Oh Lord, I remember those. Made me long for the days when it was difficult enough to even get a yoghurt into you, let alone…”

“Very funny. Nobody told me back then how many calories a Slayer burns, or that there's no such thing as a fat Slayer.” She paused, smiling, her eyes bright, as his fingers wandered up and traced the outline of her cheek.

“There's nothing wrong with being round…more to love, more to hold,” he told her, letting the fingers trail down her neck and across the creamy curves.

“And that could happen too…if I retire and spend not just my days, but my nights as well, sitting on my duff. Slayer retirement…sounds good. I should have benefits,” she teased. “Do I have benefits…?”

Giles looked at her bleakly, and Buffy caught up, remembering, as he was, the true nature of Slayer retirement.

She kissed his nose. “There's always a first time for everything,” she told him. “I seem to keep finding that out…I mean, hello, twenty-one and still here, so hey, someday we could be watching our grandchildren graduate…maybe even without the snake part…or the vampire part…”

Giles suddenly seemed overwhelmed. “Grandchildren?”

She leaned forward and kissed his lips. “Would you rather have dogs…or maybe cats?”

“Oh…oh, no,” he managed, laughing a little and holding her gaze. “Grandchildren sound…wonderful.”

Buffy grinned. “That's what I thought, too.” After a beat she finally roused herself and broke the silence. “But getting back to post-slayage feasting…I raided your kitchen.”

Giles eyed the tray when she moved it to the bed. “Buffy, this is not food.”

“When did I say feasting had to involve actual food groups?” she retorted playfully, surveying the bounty she'd found in his cupboards. “I can't believe you had all this stuff. What exactly do you need double chocolate chip ice cream and chocolate sauce for?”

Giles rolled his eyes. “Dawn,” he replied, “and, uh…possibly Xander.”

“Chocolate chip cookies?”

“Xander…and Dawn.”

“Dutch Edam cheese?”

He smiled. “For my Slayer…and probably Xander.”

Buffy grinned. “Good thinking. And the jelly babies?

“Um…actually,” he stammered, looking sheepish.

Her smile widened even further. “They're yours?”

Giles smiled back, then nodded toward the tray. “Are you seriously going to try and eat all that?”

Buffy shrugged. “It all looked so great…and I'm hungry. I'm the Slayer…sue me…I have appetites,” she said in mock aside, and traced a line up his shin where one leg was uncovered, under the sheet, and inside his thigh.

“Yes…yes…I had noticed,” he said as her fingers found their mark. He made a noise under his breath halfway between pleasure and aggravation before she reclaimed her hand. “Appetites. Yes, all right,” he conceded. “Just so long as I'm the one to sate them all.”

She poured chocolate sauce all over the bowl of ice cream. “Giles: down with the sating.” She grinned again. “*All* the sating…check. Which reminds me did anyone ever tell you how great you are with…um…the sating? Are all guys your age so…y'know…with the *again*, and all…?”

He snorted. “Hardly,” he said eventually. “Why? Some of your boy lovers come up a bit short?”

Buffy's eyes widened. None of her lovers had the kind of stamina Giles had already shown…well, Spike, but that was the demon, not the man…and that was never really about love…as much as about power and control. If it had been the man, Angel might have been a little more… She paused mentally. Not that long ago thinking about him would have sent a painful pang through her. Now all she could see, or feel, or care about, even as she mused, was the owner of the mocking green eyes looking at her.

“So…that's what it means,” she murmured.

“What *what* means?” He demanded ungrammatically.

Buffy ate another spoon full of ice cream and sauce. “Never mind,” she told him, looking a little like the cat that got the cream.

“Tell,” he said, his eyes glinting.

Buffy dipped her spoon and took another luxurious mouthful before shaking her head.

The gleam became dangerous. “No?” He took the spoon and set it in the bowl, pushed the tray aside, then leaned over and pulled off the T-shirt before Buffy could react.

“Giles…” she growled.

He dipped several fingers in chocolate sauce then slowly and deliberately coated her nipples with it. “Yes?” he replied, just before leaning down to taste his handiwork, drawing a jagged intake of breath from Buffy.

“What are you doing?”

“Why? Do you want me to stop?” he asked, and switched to the other breast, taking all of it in his mouth.

“Oh…oh God, no,” she mumbled between shortened breaths and arching her back for more.

He ladled more sauce onto her chest so that it ran down her cleavage to her stomach then trailed his mouth down after it. By the time he reached her navel, Buffy had eased backward to lie against the pillows. Giles caressed her inner thigh, prompting her to part them for him. She shuddered as he dripped more cold sauce and ice cream onto her now exposed heat, groaning a little as he licked the last of the sauce off her stomach and breasts. Then he looked up at her, the glint almost Machiavellian now.

“Tell,” he repeated.

With typical Buffy logic, and a wicked grin, she refused. “No.”

He trailed fingertips over the soft, sensitive inner flesh of her thigh again. “No?” he inquired and caressed her sauce-covered centre just enough to make her arch and gasp, then took his hand away again.

Buffy groaned. “No fair!” She groaned again when he didn't move. “All right. I…I just realized what it meant…us…everything being so perfect…the past not mattering any more.”

Giles caressed the other thigh, and toyed, in feather light caresses, with the soft folds beneath the chocolate, before pausing again, just as she was moaning with pleasure.

She whimpered and rolled her eyes at him. “I just realized…that the reason why none of it…Angel…any of it, matters any more…is because there's only one thing in the world that still matters to me…” She focused on him, her eyes bright with emotion. “Maybe the only thing that ever *really* mattered.”

“In that case,” he said tenderly, and leaned forward to kiss her mouth lovingly, “I think it's time I had some ice cream.”

Buffy squealed and giggled as he half-tickled, half pushed her back down onto the pillows nipped his way down the inside of her raised right thigh to his target.

He teased and pleasured and removed every last drop of chocolate sauce and ice cream as she writhed and moaned, until, finally, he slid one finger into her over-sensitised channel, trailed his tongue and his mouth back up to the swollen evidence of her desire and claimed it, listening as she cried out in ecstasy, and smiling as she arched upwards, gasping and moaning as he brought her once again to completion.

Floating on a cloud of pure pleasure, Buffy was aware, only just, that Giles had moved up to lie alongside her. She turned so that her head rested on his right breast and sighed with real contentment.

Giles smiled down at her and bent to kiss the rumpled head.

“Never leave me,” he whispered near her ear, a note in his voice that made it far more than an idle tease.

Buffy looked up slowly and smiled at him in a way that moved him almost to tears.

Never,” she whispered back, the unspoken vehemence of the word echoing long after both of them had curled up in peaceful slumber…

* * *