Once Upon a Watcher

Buffy Summers sat by the fire and rubbed her arms unconsciously. The room was no longer cold and the red gold flames from the kindling were radiating the kind of heat one usually sat back from.

She stared into the dancing flames, fascinated by their blue, sometimes green, hearts, unable to make herself do anything else. Nothing would ever be the same. For the first four years he was her Watcher, Buffy had barely given him a thought at Christmas apart from the obligatory card and small gift, but the emptiness of this Christmas without him had been almost unbearable.

The clock began to chime. It was midnight. Dawn was asleep, the others out. It was true…it had been worse without him there for her birthday. He had been at all her birthdays since…

A frown formed between her brows. When he didn't call for either the previous Christmas or her birthday, it had hurt, but when there had also been a no show at Xander's wedding despite Anya's express invitation, they'd all been surprised and a little hurt. Now he was away from them yet again and no one seemed to be able to catch him on the phone at his new flat to find out why. In the end Buffy had swallowed her pride and contacted the Watcher's Council to find out what was going on, only to be told that he'd been assigned and was, until further notice, un-contactable.

Buffy lowered her head to the arms folded on her raised knees. More than anything else in the world she wanted to hear his voice break the warm silence of the living room; drown out the lonely crackling of the fire. A small sob escaped her. She didn't know why she wanted him back so achingly badly, only that his complete disappearance made her feel like she'd been cleaved in two, that she was truly, irrevocably alone. To her very core she wanted him there, to hear him, whimsical or cranky; to see him, grumpy or boyishly pleased, to feel those protective arms just once more…

Spike's words about them echoed back at her. She looked up, blinked and dismissed them again with a wrinkle of her nose, but her eyes grew very still and very bright.

And then she blinked again, and swallowed, the frown deepening as she thought about that embrace. Giles had never held her like that before she died, never allowed himself to reach out…even to touch her hand. She shivered a little. She hadn't wanted him to release her, not ever. It was the first and only time since she had discovered that she was the Slayer, that she felt truly safe and loved…

God, she wanted to hear his voice again…

Buffy got up slowly, ignoring the fire's whimpering pleas for more fuel, and moved to the telephone.

*******

The jumbo landed without drama, despite the snow flurries blowing across the airfield and the wind-chill factor of the thirty-knot gusts, almost strong enough to close the runway they were blowing across.

Buffy exhaled as the plane slowed and the roar of the reverse thrust faded before they began a sedate taxi to their gate. It crossed her mind to be worried about whether her father would be there on time to meet her or not, but not enough to stop her thoughts from drifting back to the reason she had enlisted the Scoobies to patrol for her, Willow to watch both Dawn and Xander, and had convinced her father to finance a return ticket to London, England. It, of course, helped that he had been in the UK for six months working on a business deal. She scowled. Her father should have married his business. He'd spent more time on it than all the years she'd been alive…and dead, and alive…

She chuckled at her own wry silliness. He had sounded almost exactly the same, yet strained somehow, almost haunted, despite his efforts to be cheerful and excited about the prospect of seeing her again. For her own part, seeing Hank again was a side benefit. The real reason, the real purpose of this visit, was to find the missing half of herself, to find out what was so important that he didn't even call…

The terminal was bustling and there were many family members and friends waiting outside the exit doors when Buffy finally cleared British Customs and thrust her luggage cart through them. Amid the sea of faces she could see none that resembled Hank Summers, but she wasn't trying very hard, more interested in not getting bustled and knocked by the other passengers exiting with her, and in keeping her overnight bag from sliding off the suitcase it was perched on.

“Buffy!” a voice eventually rose out of the din. She looked up from rescuing the errant bag once again.

Her father. Only he had aged shockingly, at least from her point of view. She didn't remember him having any grey hair before…and there was an aura of fragility about him that belied his still solid build.

“Dad,” she managed, plastering on a smile. “Long time no see. No…um…y'know…this time?”

He frowned for a second, then got it. “Oh, no. Marisa couldn't leave her job in New York and six months is a long time…”

Buffy's eyes flashed a wry gleam. “Last one I remember was Louise. You doing them alphabetically now?”

At the look of pain that lanced across her father's face, Buffy decided not to ask what had happened to Louise. Instead she moved forward and dutifully put her arms around his neck and hugged him, surprised to feel the fervour with which he returned the salute and the stark difference between this embrace and the last one she'd been given. .

“It's good to see you,” he whispered near her ear.

“Me too,” Buffy responded, too surprised to think of anything more appropriate. It seemed to be enough for Hank.

He took over the pushing of the trolley and its recalcitrant cargo. “C'mon, let's get you home.”


*******

Buffy looked up from the book she was reading, curled up in a very expensive armchair by a gas fire in her father's luxury apartment. It wasn't quite Hyde Park, but only a couple of blocks from it. Her father seemed to think proximity to Hyde Park was quite the status symbol. She half smiled to herself even as she looked for the source of the noise she had heard.

As bad as he looked, Hank had actually been a lot more like the man Buffy remembered from her childhood, the one who used to take her to Ice Shows, the one she'd loved so very dearly. They had spent the past week getting to know each other again. By day Buffy made calls, investigated leads, even took an early train to Bath one day, trying unsuccessfully to locate Giles, and in the evenings she went to movies, theatre, restaurants and sometimes ate dinner in and watched the late movies, all with her father. It had been one of the most soul-restoring weeks of her life, despite her concern about Giles. She had seen Hank visibly come alive again over the course of it. She smiled again. He had actually turned off his beeper and diverted his calls to his service on most of those nights. They had even found and decorated a Christmas tree with newly purchased decorations. Buffy had been decidedly impressed with Harrods.

My dad, she thought wryly.

There was that noise again.

She rose and made her way toward the door, unsure why she didn't just call out to her father to see if it was he making the noises. When she reached it, she finally opened her mouth to call, just as the lock rattled one more time and the door flew open.

“What the…?” she demanded as two burly men burst into the room, one broad and neck-less and the other tall and way too buff for his cheap suit, which fit in all the wrong places. But they didn't fight. They simply moved, one to each side of the door, like some 'B' grade movie, while another individual entered the room.

Buffy's Slayer senses screamed. The guy looked human, but her senses knew better.

“Where is he?”

“Where's who, lame-O? Didn't anyone ever tell you that if you knock, people actually open doors?”

“Where is he?” he repeated.

Buffy put her hands on her hips. “Who?”

The newcomer, just a few inches taller than her, but built like a tank, narrowed his beady violet eyes.

“The debt must be repaid,” he said simply.

She rolled her eyes. “Dad!” she called, finally. “Visitors!”

It was some time before Hank Summers reluctantly emerged from the kitchenette.

“Cyrelle. I wasn't expecting…”

“No,” Cyrelle growled, rolling his eyes at his companion. “They never are. You have not fulfilled your side of the bargain.”

Her father cringed a little, Buffy noted, watching his body language closely.

“It wasn't my fault. I-I didn't know…I didn't know what he was when I made that deal. I didn't know.”

“A contract is a contract,” Cyrelle recited, the laziness of his tone impressing upon both father and daughter his extreme lack of caring.

“Contract?” Buffy demanded.

Cyrelle looked from one to the other. “She's a little young for you,” he said finally, a gleam in his eyes.

“What contract?” Buffy repeated, this time in a tone that wouldn't be ignored.

“I-It's not important,” Hank stammered, ignoring Cyrelle's leering. “I had some business dealings with the creat…man Cyrelle works for. Why don't you go start dinner, honey?”

Buffy scowled. “Because a: I don't cook, b: you're not going to deal with Huey, Dewey and Louie on your own, and c: I'm not some dime store novel maiden swooning all over the place. Will somebody PLEASE tell me what's going on, before I start breaking heads?”

Hank's eyes widened and the two henchmen started to laugh.

Cyrelle looked down his rather unfortunate nose at her. “Mister Summers had a business agreement with my employer. He has not fulfilled his side of the agreement.”

Hank was looking very pale and fragile again, and his hands were trembling. “I-I…Buffy, things have taken a turn for the worse with the business. I needed investors and there just weren't any…the markets…”

“So you got money from a loan shark?”

Hank shook his head. “Mancor Industries made a fine offer. It solved almost all of my problems.”

“Then what…?”

“I had to sign two contracts. I found out months later that the head of Mancor industries isn't…he's not…” He looked up at Cyrelle and swallowed. “The second contract was to provide certain collateral if I couldn't keep my part of the first contract.”

Buffy was starting to feel antsy from the screaming of her Slayer senses, and decidedly spooked by the terror in her father's voice, eyes and body language.

“So there was a legal contract for everyone to see, and another one nobody else knows about?”

Hank nodded miserably. “He's not human,” he said, as though if he didn't get it out then, he never would.

The hackles rose on Buffy's neck and a shiver went down it. “Not…Human? You mean like, he's a Chihuahua or something?” she asked warily.

One of the henchmen almost blew a blood vessel in his neck trying not to laugh.

Hank cleared his throat and cast an uncomfortable glance at Cyrelle. “No. He's a… Well, he's a demon. I know you're going to think I'm off my rocker…”

Buffy didn't know whether to laugh or cry, literally. All her mother's resentment of her father's insulation from dealing with the badness that was their lives and now this…

Finally, she shook her head. “I know all about the demons and the vampires and the darkness,” she told him dryly and produced one of her hidden stakes for effect. “It's kinda my specialty.” Hank looked confused and the henchmen suddenly looked uncomfortable. “What do they want?”

Hank finally met her gaze and held it. “Me,” he said simply.

Cyrelle reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a document, letting it unfold as he flicked it around for her to see.

Buffy stared at the pulsating seal and sneered. “I knew you guys were 'b' grade movie material. Hokey, guys. Can you get any hokier?”

“The loan was secured,” Cyrelle persisted. “Mister Summers must come with us now.”

“And if he doesn't?” Buffy demanded, moving forward aggressively.

“He will die now,” Cyrelle said simply, his smooth baritone darkening just enough to send a shiver down her spine.

“Die…right…now? Here? And if he goes through with this…what happens to him?”

“He belongs to the Overseer.”

Buffy was about ready to kill something. “And what will this 'Overseer' do to him?” she demanded, her patience at an end. “And this time tell me all of it. I'm sick of playing twenty questions with you.”

“The Overseer has a quota. Your father will help fill that quota.”

“I have to go with them, Buffy,” Hank said quietly. “The contract says that if I try to break it, I'll die. But where they're taking me, I don't get to come back.”

“He is now the property of the Overseer and Mancor industries.”

“No,” Buffy growled, “he isn't.” It took her only a couple of minutes to deck the henchmen, aware that they were bleeding green instead of red as she turned to Cyrelle.

“Still want to take him?” she drawled.

Cyrelle looked irritated. “Even if you kill me, he's still dead. He signed the contract. If he has not submitted himself by the designated hour on the designated day, he will die.”

Buffy paled several degrees. If there was ever a time she needed Giles' knowledge and ability to research a situation…but there was no Giles.

“Who the hell is the 'Overseer'?” she demanded angrily.

“Buffy, sweetheart…” her father protested faintly.

“Summers, your bimbo is getting boring.”

“Bimbo?” Buffy snorted and in a matter of seconds had spun, delivered several kicks, two punches and a knockout blow. The recovered henchmen ran.

“M-my God, Buffy, have you been taking classes?” Hank gasped.

Despite the severity of the situation, Buffy almost laughed. “Long story, dad, but I'm guessing not nearly as long as the one you're about to tell me…”

While their visitor remained unconscious on the floor, Buffy secured the apartment and joined a disconsolate Hank on the couch.

“I have to go with them, honey. It's one of those drop-dead-on-the-spot deals. No execution. Even if you fight them off until the deadline, I still die.”

Buffy frowned. “So what made you believe them? I mean, this all had to sound like garbage to you.”

Hank looked up slowly. “I-It did…before I saw…I saw one of them. Buffy, it was horrible, but it was no Animatronics toy and no latex face mask.”

“Oh, preaching to the converted,” she drawled. “But seeing one creepy-crawly wouldn't have made you believe you could just drop dead from signing a piece of paper.”

Hank looked away. “No. But seeing a guy I worked with for eight years just vanish from his chair at work…” He made himself look at his daughter. “He…ah…he was the one who made the connection, helped me out when I needed the money fast. I-I didn't know…I mean, he didn't really believe…”

Buffy put a hand on his arm. “It's okay, dad. It's all a bit much to believe at first. You should've seen mom the first time she saw…” She stopped, biting her lip, but at Hank's startled look, continued. “There's a lot more you don't know about me, apart from basic things like my grades, did I graduate and how old I am,” she told him dryly.

“You're coming of age soon,” he said quietly, apropos of nothing really.

“Came of, dad, months ago. Came and went. Not exactly the celebration of the century. No mom, no you…no…” She shook her head. “Never mind. The thing is: mom and I have known about the badness for a long time…years even. Mom went into denial at first. It's kind of complicated…”

Hank rubbed his hands over his face. “Like now…like my life. I didn't stay away from you and Dawn because I wanted to. I almost lost the business, and when I saved it with that loan I thought I was going to be able to make everything up to you both…then the markets took a nose dive and I had to work ten times as hard to try and pay back that money…”

“That's it? That's the reason you didn't come to mom's funeral? Your stupid business?”

He looked up, startled. “No…no,” he admitted. “That was different. Buffy, I can't…funerals…I just…I can't handle them, never could.”

Giles could, Buffy thought sadly, remembering how much it helped having his large, solid presence shadowing her and Dawn, never crowding, but always there.

“And after…afterwards Cyrelle started visiting, reminding me that I was behind, that I had to find a way…I'm sorry, Buffy. I'm sorry about all of it. I just…I don't know what I'm going to do…”

Buffy moved to shake the unconscious figure on the floor awake. He came around groggily.

“So, how about you take me to see this boss of yours?” She asked.

Cyrelle sneered. “The Overseer does not give audiences to trollops.”

Buffy lifted his short, two hundred and fifty pound frame off the floor, one hand around his throat, the other rammed into his crotch.

“So, bozo, you want to explain that to me again?”

Cyrelle's fearful violet eyes narrowed. “You…you're the Slayer?”

Buffy squeezed everything a little harder, noting that for a hefty little creep, he was still a very 'small' fellow.

“And I'm guessing you're a demon. Pleased to meet you. Now answer my question before I change your name to Cyrette and make you sound like Sydney Greenstreet at the same time,” she growled, almost cutting off his air supply now as well as the blood supply to something else.

When he started to turn green, she released his throat enough for him to let out a piercing squeal, prompting Buffy to release his crotch.

He was breathing heavily when he looked her in the eye. “Bitch,” he hissed. “If you want the Human to survive you had better bring him with you.”

Buffy shook him hard before dropping him heavily onto his feet. “Just remember who you're calling a bitch, pink eyes.”

Cyrelle snarled. “Be at Nelson's statue tomorrow, at four. No later.” And then he was gone. Buffy wasn't sure he'd even used the door. She turned to find her father staring at her.

“Um, dad?”

“You didn't get that strong from working out,” he said dazedly.

“Kinda,” she said awkwardly. “Working out, and killing demons and vampires.”

“H-how long?”

“Since my first Watcher came for me, when I was fifteen…”

“Fi-fifteen? All that trouble…the school…?”

Buffy nodded. “You're a lot quicker than mom, I have to give you that,” she added dryly. “I'm the Slayer. The one girl in all the world…yadda, yadda….” Even as she was drawling the words a pain that was almost physical lanced through her.

Where was he?

She collected herself and faced her father. “Sorry. But yeah, your offspring is the Slayer: mystical defender of all that's good against the forces of evil, etc, etc.”

Hank blinked. “Like Superman?”

Buffy laughed aloud. “I'm not an alien, dad, and I'm so not immortal.” But even as she said the words her heart contracted with pain. “I'm really your kid, only with some extra powers, and way too much responsibility for way too long.”

“Powers? X-ray vision? Can you fly?”

Buffy snorted again in spite of herself, then shook her head, still amused. “Major strength, reflexes, focus.” She touched a bruise by her mouth then held up a scratched arm where fine lines were showing minor bleeding. “And Slayer healing. By morning I'll be all pretty again.”

Hank shook his head. “It's not possible. My kid is the Slayer…”

She frowned. He didn't say that like it was new. “How do you know…?”

“Once I found out demons were real, it wasn't that hard to find out the rest. There are places …especially in L.A. Vampires, demons, good and bad, all of it…and the most common topic between those critters when they're socializing? Either the Slayer, or something called Angel Investigations. Last time I was out trying get information a really ugly, annoying little guy was telling a story about how the Slayer stopped the world from ending.” He lifted his gaze and his eyes bore into hers. “He said there were rumours that she didn't survive, but was brought back from the dead a few months later…”

After a beat, Buffy nodded slowly, her face pale and her eyes clouded. “I…I had to choose…Dawn or me. I chose me. Willow…Willow brought me back months later, using dark magicks. It was kind of a rough ride.”

“No,” Hank said softly, shaking his head. “Vampires and demons…a person can see them, believe that they exist…they're other life forms…But magic? Resurrecting my daughter from the dead? A death, by the way, that nobody bothered to tell me about,” he added angrily. “No. You're friend is not God. She had no right to tamper with the natural order of things.”

“Funny, I sorta said the same thing,” Buffy mused almost bitterly. “But I think she thought there wasn't anything natural about it. She thought I'd been trapped in hell. At least I'd like to think so.”

Hank was shaking slightly, trying to come to terms with the real breadth of what had been happening to his daughters whilst he had been trapped by his own ambition, stuck in Los Angeles, and anywhere else he had to go to drum up business to survive. The Spanish and Italian connections had failed, and so had Rio and Hamburg. He knew in his heart, though, that he could have tried harder, even to find just a few days…

“Buffy, I'm sorry I wasn't there. I…this is still all so unbelievable, and it's way too late. But I want you to know I've always loved you, honey. Both of you.”

“The Ice Show,” Buffy said softly, her mind full of images of Giles, of everything that had happened on her eighteenth birthday. “You never told me why you didn't come.”

Hank looked away. “Can't blame demons for that,” he said, his voice cracking. “It was business. Kayla wanted me to ask one of the junior partners to handle it, but it was…”

Buffy's eyes flashed. “It was your call, and the male ego, among other things, dictated that you had to be the one,” she guessed bitterly.

“Something like that,” he admitted bleakly.

“Kayla?” Buffy added in an almost jeering tone. “I remember her. I was right… alphabetical bimbos.”

“Buffy!” Hank stood, angry, but without a defence. “Judge me all you want, but leave them out of it.”

“Oh, I did all my judging these last four years,” Buffy told him bitterly. “When I was holding Dawn while she cried because she missed you at Christmas, or on her birthday, or because you missed another one of her growing up milestones; when you didn't come for my eighteenth birthday, and then never explained, when you didn't even call after mom died, not even after Giles tracked you down and sent word. And again when I was standing alone with Dawn at the funeral…”

She stopped for a moment, knowing, with a stab of real pain, that wasn't strictly true, then continued. “And again when I came back from the dead and everything was a mess. No dear old dad to the rescue. How do you think Dawn felt about you not caring enough even to want to check up on her?”

“If anyone had bothered to tell me you were dead I would have moved heaven and earth to…” He trailed off.

Buffy watched him, her eyes full, her mouth trembling. She'd never seen him as disconsolate or helpless before and somehow, his refusal to make excuses or blame his girlfriends for his failures made her realise that he was just a person…a very human person, with flaws and failings, but one who still had a heart, and who, underneath it all, was still the father she remembered. At that point she understood much better why he'd aged prematurely, why the grey hairs, the lines that were never in his boyish face before.

“We're going to see the Overseer tomorrow, aren't we?” Hank asked while she was still deep in thought.

She went to him, sat down and put her arms around him, closing her eyes when his engulfed her.

“It's going to be okay, Daddy. We'll make it okay,” she whispered, and let herself be lost for a time in the memories of childhood and the security of a father's embrace.


*******
“I'm not sure that old lady is going to recover from seeing us go poof,” Buffy growled in a low voice when they blinked and looked around, finding themselves in what was almost certainly a demon dimension.

Hank was too stressed to laugh, but he managed a weak smile. The old woman had been feeding pigeons around the statue, and had come into view at exactly the wrong moment.

Buffy stared at the wide, square body of Cyrelle as he walked in front of them, unconcerned about watching his back. With the relevant demon senses, he would probably know they were going to try anything before they did.

“Blue trees and green sky. Silver flowers and red water. Kind of tacky…like Star Trek…the original kind, wouldn't you say?” she drawled.

Cyrelle shrugged without turning, disappointing the Slayer. “It's not my world. I never heard of a dimension called Star Trek. What demons live there?”

“Little ones in gold shirts who can't keep their zipper closed and green ones with pointy ears, oh, and big tall ones with bumpy heads…no wait, that was later.” Buffy sighed, her clever reply shot. “This place is giving me the creeps. What does the Overseer need my dad for if there's nothing here but psychedelic scenery? No, wait. Please tell me this Overseer isn't trying to get back to the Human world…tell me he's not a totally ugly, really anaemic dude with a face full of teeth, a thing for blood and an allergy to sunlight?”

“He is not,” Cyrelle said, again, without turning.

A few minutes later they seemed to go almost 'between'. Buffy couldn't explain it, even to herself, but one moment they were in a grove of horribly yellow trees and the next they were in an equally tacky room.

Cyrelle seemed to melt into the background as a door closed behind them. One Buffy couldn't remember passing through.

Moments later the room filled with a presence, though no corporeal being appeared. “Why do you come here, Slayer?” a disembodied voice asked, more in her head than aloud.

Buffy looked around her, not liking the sense of suffocating presence all around her. “Because this man deserves a chance to pay his debt. Because I want to know what you're going to do with him?”

“He is nothing but refuse. His life is forfeit. It is mine.”

Buffy swung to look at her father, who was turning white before her eyes.

“NO!!” she screamed. “Take me instead.” Hank fell to the ground, gasping and jerking as his body spasmed. “Tell me what you're doing to him, then take me instead!”

“Take you?” the voice repeated, as though not quite grasping the idea of self-sacrifice. “I cannot. The energy of a Slayer would destabilize my world…”

Buffy, on the ground now, trying to help her father, took a moment to digest that while dragging him into her arms. “Are you trying to tell me you eat the energy of human beings to power…this place? Like, you're a kind of furnace, or power station or freaking Enron or something? Do people here have shares in you or something?”

“His life is forfeit,” the voice insisted, ignoring Buffy's facetiousness.

“Yeah, yeah,” Buffy growled, barely controlling her panic, “but why don't we, for the sake of argument, wait until we've finished this discussion before killing him?”

She looked all around her at the silence that followed, then down to watch the colour return to her father's face slowly.

“You heard me,” she insisted. “Take me, instead. If you're a demon, you've gotta get brownie points for taking the Slayer off the streets.”

There was silence for an interminable time.

“Very well,” the voice said at length and in the time it took for his last syllable to fade, Hank was gone.

“What did you do with him?” she demanded frantically.

“Be still. He has been returned whence he came. You are forfeit in his place.”

Cold dread lanced through Buffy. The relief that her father was safe, and somehow, she knew he was, was now replaced with fear, and with the pain of knowing she would never find Giles, that she might never see him again, even if she lived beyond the next few minutes...

“What do I have to do?”

“That depends on you.”

Buffy wheeled around, her eyes narrowing as she stared into Cyrelle's violet ones. The presence was fading from the room. “Why do I have the feeling that I've been set up?” she growled, her Slayer senses doing a jig. Those senses hadn't been more than normally aggravated by the almighty Overseer. Cyrelle, on the other hand, managed to tilt the machine every time he came near her.

“You do not disappoint,” a voice said, though Cyrelle's lips didn't move.

Buffy rolled her eyes. “You're another thingy dude like the Overseer…only you're actually here and he wasn't... Actually here, I mean. You just hitch a ride with stupid, here?” she asked, pointing at the now glazed eyes of the demon, standing like a wound-down toy.

“You belong to me now.”

“Man...er…thin air…of few words,” Buffy retorted, more bravado than real calm, then freaked as she found the reality around her melting, to be replaced by a large, mansion-y looking entrance hall. It was as alien to her as the Overseer's acid trip, but at least it was human…hopefully.

She looked around. Black and white tiled floor, really, really old…as in antique-y. Carved wooden cabinets, some with glass doors, filled with what looked like porcelain figures and fine glass figurines; a chandelier, like something out of Phantom of the Opera, and a huge, winding staircase, surrounded her.

“Wow. Big day for the clichés,” she said aloud.

When nothing answered her but the faint echo of her own voice, she turned slowly to check out the front doors. They were huge, heavy and looked decidedly locked. Before she could step toward them, a voice halted her.

“Welcome.”

She wheeled. It was a cross between a predatory growl and a throaty baritone. She swallowed.

“Are you working solo, or are you another taxi cab for one of those no-actual-body guys?”

The figure on the staircase blinked and tilted his huge head. He hadn't seen anyone in a very long time, Human or otherwise, but those who had seen him in the past…those whom the Overseer had sent to him…had all been too horrified or too self-conscious to look him in the eye. All had been swiftly taken away again. Yet this slip of a girl was holding a conversation with him as though he were some local she'd met on the street.

“I have no name.”

Buffy heard the question in his tone. “Buffy. Buffy Summers,” she told him, wondering how that was possible. “So what do people call you?”

He looked away. “I generally try not to hear what they call me.”

“What is this place? Why was I sent here? What are you to the Overseer?” she demanded, her patience worn thin by everything that had happened to her, the distinct lack of explanations and a sudden over overwhelming surge in her need to see Giles again.

“Patience,” the creature growled and descended the rest of the stairs. He walked as an animal might if it were raised to stand on its hind legs, as though his knees bent the wrong way.

When he reached her, he towered over her, her brow only reaching the bottom of his sternum.

Buffy expected him to smell all doggy or horsy or at worst, like the hyena cage at the zoo, but despite the fawn coloured hair that seemed to cover his body and face, the huge jaw, triangular, canine ears and fairly stunning canine teeth, he smelled of herbs and the soft fur on a puppy's head.

He was dressed in jeans with a heavy belt, boots, and a heavy, black collared shirt buttoned two from the top.

“Well, you dress better than most demons I've known,” she said, looking up at him.

He seemed to smirk for the barest moment before becoming serious again, staring down at her with surprisingly soft brown eyes. “You have been sent here to keep me company. The Overseer needs me, needs my services, but I get… I haven't been able to work lately.”

“So why doesn't he just kill you and get someone else?”

The creature's eyes grew melancholy. “I'm told there is no other who can perform the tasks I perform. He can punish me, and rage at me, but he cannot kill me until he finds a replacement. Since none of those things worked, he decided, once again, to try to address the problem, in his usual ham-fisted manner.”

Buffy frowned. Something about the creature was wigging her, way beyond any normal wiggins, but she couldn't put a finger on it.

“You don't exactly look or act like the regular kind of demon I fight. Are we in your dimension?”

He shook his head slowly. “We are in Yorkshire.”

“I'm still in England?”

“Back in England,” he corrected and raised a hand before she could ask more questions. “We're a long way from civilization and no, we are not allowed to leave.”

“Great. I'm so going to kill my father when I get back.”

When?” He made the word a question.

Buffy made a face at her captor. “When,” she repeated stubbornly then froze, before raising her eyes very slowly. “Tell me,” she said very slowly, “that they don't actually want me to marry you, or mate with you and make Super-Slayers, or something equally ookie?”

He had been watching her with something approaching admiration for her lack of fear, poise and ability to make light of a serious situation. Now his face dropped. “No. Nothing as foolish as that,” he told her softly, unable to prevent her from seeing the hurt in his eyes.

There was regret in hers for a moment, but she was too angry with the Overseer, her father and life in general, to linger on the thought.

“Look, tell me what I'm supposed to do. How can I do anything here if I don't know what Mister 'where's-my-body' wants me to do?”

“You are here to be with me. No more, no less.”

“Um…I think we've already been this way.”

The creature shook his head. “A companion,” he growled. “Will it appal and revolt you so much to be a companion to one such as I?”

Buffy sighed a heavy, frustrated sigh. “Get over yourself, already. I've been way past appal and revolt,” she growled. “You're a teddy bear compared to some of the guys in my past.” She reached up unaffectedly and touched his cheek with the back of her hand. “And you're warm, which has to be a major plus. So can we move on to where I sleep and whether being your companion is going to eventually involve shared bodily warmth? I so don't want to have to kill you.”

He blinked. There was strength in her voice, though her tone was dry, and yet there was a sense there that given reason to, she would most certainly kill him.

“As I said. You are here to be my companion. The Overseer believes that if I have a companion I will…” He paused for a long moment, as though talking about himself was utterly foreign to him. “That I might cease to have nightmares, to be so restless…so… lonely.”

“Let me guess: he expects bringing me here to increase workplace performance and output from you?”

Again the creature looked nonplussed for a moment, then nodded.

“Just great,” she growled, her eyes widening when her stomach followed the words with a loud growl of its own. “Food,” she announced suddenly.

“Food?”

“As in I'm hungry and thirsty and if I'm going to be stuck here, I should know where to go to find it when I need it.”

“Would you not prefer to see your rooms first?”

Buffy's curiosity overcame her hunger. If she was going to be stuck here for any amount of time it was reassuring to know she wasn't going to have to sleep in his bed, or at his feet or on the stupid kitchen hearth like Cinder-freakin'-ella. “I have rooms? You mean like a hotel suite?” She gestured and he led the way.

There were, indeed, rooms. A large door opened into a sitting area furnished with antiques, but with a woman's presence in mind. There was soft rose and grey carpet, matching rose and cream drapes, furniture definitely looking like something boudoir-ish out of a period novel and a huge cream bowl of open, and half open, pink roses on the small table by the sitting chair. They were unexpectedly real and fragrant.

Beyond it she could see a bedroom through an open door. Inside there was huge bed with an equally huge patchwork quilt. More antiques, porcelain figures, and long, heavy cream drapes patterned delicately with blown pink roses and soft green leaves, covered the bedroom windows. There was also a bathroom. It had been modernised, tiled in grey tiles, with a replica cream coloured antique vanity, a shower over a matching cream coloured antique bathtub with legs, and shiny pewter-look fittings all round.

Someone had really attempted to cater for a woman's needs. There was an assortment of unopened items on it from shampoo to cosmetics, even feminine hygiene products. Those made her chuckle in spite of the ludicrousness of her situation.

“Something is wrong?” he rumbled from the bedroom.

“Good ears,” she muttered. “No. Someone was pretty thorough, though.”

“We are a long way from anywhere. Your needs had to be accounted for,” he explained patiently. “Are the accommodations acceptable?”

Buffy strolled back out. “Not really,” she said honestly. “But they're okay for a prison…actually they're kinda pretty,” she conceded, picking up a priceless shepherdess figurine and wandering over to the drapes.

The creature watched her open them with one hand and stare out past the grey, unwelcoming weather, to the endless moors beyond.

“It is supposed to be a prison, isn't it?” she asked, his sensitive ears detecting the first faint note of despair in her voice.

“It was made so.”

“Where did you live before?”

His shoulders drooped. “I do not know.”

“You don't remember?” He shook his head. “Did you get hit on the head?”

His eyes grew amused and his lip quirked. “Not to my knowledge.”

“Then why…?”

He shook his head again. “All I know is that I am here now.”

“And you don't want to know…?”

For a moment he looked at her with such bleak despair that a lump rose in her throat.

“Some days my heart is so sore with yearning that I feel as though I might die…and yet I know not that for which I yearn.”

Buffy flicked a glance toward the moors again. “Freedom?”

“Perhaps,” he said softly.

She translated that as: 'Close, but no cigar.' He still looked like someone had just shot his mother. Her stomach rumbled.

“You think maybe we could find some food now?” she asked, and rubbed her arms. “I don't suppose this place has central heating?”

“Food yes. Heating, I'm afraid not. I will light fires for you early today, but they will take time to warm the rooms.”

Buffy sighed then gestured to the fireplace in the sitting room. “Go ahead. Don't let me stop you.”

The creature stooped and lit the pre-laid fire with matches from the mantle. “The brass bucket here contains fuel. It is not ordinary wood. It will last as long as you want it to.”

She frowned. “Magic?”

“If you want to call it that,” he said cryptically, and moved toward the door. “You said you were hungry.”

They lit three more fires on the way to the kitchen, Buffy doing the last one herself.

When they reached the big room with its flagstones, heavy overhead beams, huge wooden table, big antique stove and chimney, big central work area, with, Buffy noticed, modern ceramic cook top set in it, and the view beyond the window to what looked like a thriving herb and vegetable hothouse, despite the bleak weather out-of-doors, she actually sighed with pleasure.

The creature looked at her sharply as she looked around, colour seeping into her chilled, pale cheeks.

“You like it?”

“It's warm,” Buffy conceded, and moved closer to the wooden stove. “Why is it so warm?”

“The stove is always on. It provides hot water to keep the pipes from freezing in winter and the herbarium warm all year around.”

“That's all?”

“My understanding is that this is a very old house and that aspect of it must be respected. However, wherever modern convenience, like power, water, bathroom facilities and such like could be added discretely, the previous occupants did so.”

Buffy frowned. “Previous occupants? I know you said we were in Yorkshire, but I sort of thought this was like a Dracula's castle deal. Like, if I ever get out, and then come back, it'll be gone.”

“The house is neither an illusion nor a trans-dimensional artefact,” he said simply. “It was, and it will be when we're gone. There is food there, and there,” he added, pointing first to a modern refrigerator and second, to a large pantry.

Buffy opened the refrigerator door. “So, you do your own cooking, shopping?”

The creature made a rumbling noise that might have been a chuckle. “Before you came this was not here. Before you came food was provided. When I was hungry I would come to this table and there would be food.”

“That sounds like a deal I could live with,” Buffy told him. “Why the fuss for me?”

Again the creature withdrew a little into itself. “Not just for you.”

“Oh,” Buffy realised. “You didn't like it? Not…the food,” she guessed, “the other.” He nodded. “Nothing homey about fast food,” she agreed, taking an apple and a piece of cheese from the refrigerator. “Must be a bitch to be alone all the time, with nothing to do, no one to talk to. Are you ever going to tell me what you do for the big O?”

He blinked at the change of subject. “If you really want to know,” he said quietly and extended an arm toward the door.

They went through several rooms to a den, Buffy mourning the temperature drop from the warmth of the kitchen to the relative chill of the rest of the house. It was going to take a long time for those fires to heat the place up…

The den was large, with dark carpet, big heavy, ebony writing desk, port wine coloured heavy drapes and weapons on the walls. Buffy, however, didn't focus on any of those things. Her eyes were for the bookcases. So many bookcases, all full. The sudden connection to the library, to Giles, to his book-laden apartment, shook her. She couldn't stop her eyes growing very bright.

“You…you like books?” she asked as he brought yet another fire to life.

He rose and straightened before tilting his head and looking at her. “Of course. This is where I work. I research…I provide knowledge, information, locations, methods… whatever the Overseer requires…”

Buffy looked at the books: everything from demonology to accounting, geography, anatomy…even theology.

“So…this Overseer…not a God, huh?”

The creature's eyebrows rose. “Trans-dimensional demon. They cannot exist here, or between, in bodily form.”

“So what's the what? Why are they here? What do they need research for and why was the Overseer going to eat my father? I don't buy that energy story.”

“He would have been consumed…his life energy would have been utterly consumed, and then one of them would have taken his body.”

“So why the money thing? Why not just take whatever bodies they want, at will, after the first few. I mean they get the bodies of a few hulky demons or bouncers or something, then they can go kidnap all the fresh bodies they want…”

He curled his lip into an amused half-smile. “This is not a horror movie, and they are beings, not snarling, brain-sucking monsters. The financial organization exists. It is a registered business. The money finances many of their terrestrial activities. Magic can do many things, but it cannot provide everything. Believe it or not, their purpose here is not to kill human beings, but to keep their own world from dying, by any means necessary.”

“Weird,” Buffy said, still assimilating the information. “So are they evil or not?”

The creature made the chuckling noise again. “In terms of this world, probably, but insofar as the primary motivation is the preservation of their world at any cost, philosophically, probably not.”

“Okay. I think I'm going for evil, here. I hear what you're saying, but they were going to kill my father and they've imprisoned me here, for like, eternity.” Buffy cleared her throat when her voice cracked. “And they've probably killed a lot of other loan defaulters already. Besides…that fake, 'between' world deal I was taken to? Trust me, anyone who could deliberately make a place that tacky…so very evil.”

His lips curled up even more. He could see the fear and the pain in her eyes, but still she made jokes, her strength as palpable as her vulnerability…

“Perhaps you would like to sleep now?”

Buffy shrugged. “I'm not tired.”

He could feel the tension in her. “Then perhaps you would like to sit for a while by the fire? It might be restful to read, or play chess, or perhaps you would like to start a tapestry or some small trifle of embroidery?”

It was Buffy's turn to laugh. She wasn't sure if it was a nervous laugh at the absurdity of it all or mild hysteria setting in.

“You really don't know me too well, do you?”

He tilted his head. He wanted to know her. He wanted to know why in some rooms her eyes were blue, in others green…and when she looked out the windows at the bleak weather, they were as grey as the clouds themselves…and he wanted to know how she came to be so strong and why her spirit felt so old…why she could seem so childlike and yet have such iron self-control and courage seemingly beyond measure.

“I do not, but there is plenty of time.”

A slow look of revelation, turning to horror, passed over her features. “No! No there's not!” she cried. “I'm going to get out of here. I'm not spending the rest of my life playing parlour games with a giant, walking stuffed toy!”

He watched her shake with anger, her eyes flashing, with a heavy heart. Nothing that free, or that lovely, should ever have been caged…for any reason.

“I am sorry,” he said simply, turned and left her alone.

When she recovered from the irrational sense of abandonment that followed, Buffy took herself upstairs to her rooms…and her fire. After a little poking and a few more pieces of fuel it flared wonderfully to life, reminding her of the fireplace at home and her mother's penchant for lighting it each Christmas in Sunnydale, regardless of the weather. It was a small step from there to memories of asking if Giles could spend that Christmas with them, of his face when she asked him to help her with Angel. A wave of weariness washed over her, but not enough to obliterate the memory of his face, nor the sure knowledge, with the ease of hindsight, of what it had cost him to help her…

Her next, barely conscious, impression was of being carried, the way her father used to carry her when she was very small…the way he carried her after all those early ice shows, from the car to the house, when she was so happy and so tired she could barely keep her eyes open.

She woke to a much brighter day, the drapes slightly parted to allow the sunlight in. She was in her bed, snuggled under the covers. Her boots and her jacket had been removed. With less alarm than she might have expected, she realised that he must have carried her to bed. She must have fallen asleep by the fire…

He was in his den, or study or library or whatever. It had taken her, by process of elimination, some time to work her way through the house looking for him. He looked up slowly from the huge old volume he was studying with a magnifying glass, the equally huge, bony, clawed fingers holding the lens awkwardly, lacking the dexterity to hold the small piece by the handle.

“Morning.”

“Good morning, Buffy,” he said softly.

A shiver went down her spine. She had no idea why, only that it had to do with his voice…or something.

“You…you came back, last night?”

His eyes glistened with amusement. “You would have caught a chill.”

“I thought you said the firewood would last as long as I wanted it to?”

“And so it would, were you to keep adding it. The enchantment is not on the fire, it's on the fuel, to make an endless supply from the bucket.”

Buffy rolled her eyes. “Wouldn't it be easier to just put a whammy on a couple of pieces of the stuff to make them burn forever?” she growled.

“A grand plan, were there such a spell. I will mention it to the Overseer,” he told her, unable to keep the chuckle from his voice.

“You put me to bed?” she finally blurted.

He nodded again. “As I said, you would have chilled, perhaps become ill. I made you comfortable, and I watched until I was certain you were settled.”

“Watched?” Buffy asked uncomfortably.

“I sat in your chair, and I waited until you were in a peaceful slumber…then I went back to my books. Have you had any breakfast?”

“Um, no. I was kind of more interested in how I got to bed.”

“And now that you have solved that mystery, shall we go and find you something to eat?”

He was getting harder to resist. The more patient he was, the more Buffy found herself wanting to do as he asked.

“Fine. Feed me,” she said finally.

In the end they made breakfast together. It turned out that he hadn't eaten either, nor slept, instead working all night on his latest, and very overdue, assignment. He didn't tell her so, but the redoubled effort was mostly to take his mind off her.

“This kitchen is weird,” Buffy muttered. “Whatever I want is either in the refrigerator or the pantry. Let me guess…magic?”

He ran a claw around the edge of the bowl of pancake mix and touched it to his tongue. “Enchantment, magic…or science so far advanced we don't recognise—”

“Enough, already, Spock,” she growled and stuck the wooden spoon in his surprised mouth before turning to the heated frying pan and pouring the first batter into it. “How are those eggs going?”

He removed the spoon, looking daggers at her for a moment, picked up a spatula and leaned over to the back element on the cook top where his cast iron pan was happily sizzling away. He poked at the eggs and the bacon while Buffy produced perfect pancakes. By the time they were done the kitchen was also filled with the aroma of toasted fresh-baked bread, fresh ground and percolated coffee and the merest hint of tea.

They set their cooking before them on the big table, and Buffy sat back, surveying the feast.

“Giles always said I never ate enough. He should see this.”

“Giles?”

He watched Buffy's face go from flushed amusement, after the heat of cooking, to wan sadness.

“A friend. I came over here to find him,” she said quietly. “And now I never will.” She watched her companion pour tea quite deftly, considering his digital impediments and felt her heart turn over. It even smelled the same…

“Isn't there anything I can call you?” she asked suddenly.

He frowned in thought for a long moment before focusing on her. “Choose something.”

“Me? God…” She stopped, her mind furiously searching for something that fit him. Nothing even remotely did, outside of Rex or Rover…or Chewie, or possibly even Vincent, she smirked to herself, but decided not to go there. “I don't know why, but I can't think of anything I'd feel comfortable calling you,” she told him.

The creature shrugged. “It doesn't matter, until I find out what my true name is.”

They ate their breakfast in silence and then he helped Buffy clear away and do the dishes.
She looked up halfway through them.

“My friend…the one who's missing…he had a name.

“Giles?”

“No, he h-has another name. I never called him by it, but I think it would suit you. And somehow, I don't think he'd mind you borrowing it.”

The creature finished drying the frying pan and set it down on the counter before looking at her expectantly again.

“His name was…*is* 'Rupert,' she said finally, then promptly dissolved into silent tears and turned back to the sink. Somehow the fears, terrors and dreads of the last couple of days had found purchase in that one tiny slip. It took her some time to recover, the fact that she had finished all of the dishes and wiped the bench top, stove top and sink down before her tear ducts and her emotions were under control, not lost on her.

The creature had continued to wipe up and put things away until they were both finished and Buffy finally looked up at him again. His gentle eyes held hers.

“I would be honoured if you would call me Rupert, at least until your friend returns,” he told her.

Buffy half smiled, not entirely convinced that it wasn't the worst mistake she'd ever made. Being reminded constantly that the man she l… Her thoughts came to a screeching halt. She swallowed hard, blinked, then ignored herself and the surge of confusion and adrenaline that 'almost-thought' had caused. Instead she resumed the previous train of her thoughts. She really wasn't sure she wanted to be reminded constantly that she might never see Giles again, or that he might be missing…or dead…somewhere.

“So…what do we do now, Rupert?” she asked, barely keeping her voice from cracking.

“Normally I would work for a number of hours before pausing for lunch, then work again until late, sleep and then…”

Buffy held up a hand. “I get it. Okay. You didn't have a life. So what's the deal? Can I go outside? Work in the garden? Walk out there…outside the grounds…?”

“On the moors,” he supplied. “You may do all those things, but no matter how far you go, you will find yourself back here. It is the way the enchantment works. We cannot leave.”

“Joy,” she muttered. “If Giles were here I bet he could find a way to break the spell, or at least get us out of here.”

Rupert's lip crooked up in amusement. “Then I wish he was here, too. You care for him a great deal?” Buffy nodded silently. “He is a lucky man. I think perhaps he doesn't know how lucky,” he said almost wistfully.

Buffy's gaze flicked up to his, as though she might see beyond his words, but she found only sadness and perhaps even regret in the large, expressive eyes.

“It doesn't matter,” she said finally. “I'm never going to see him again, anyway. As long as he's okay…if he's okay, it really doesn't matter any more…”


*******

The days passed slowly. Sometimes Rupert walked with her, sometimes, when it wasn't raining or sleeting or snowing, she walked alone, but roaming the moors became the only way to stop from going insane. There was nothing to hunt, no vampires to fight, and every day the walls of her invisible prison grew a little tighter.

Buffy found herself sitting every evening with her co-captive talking quietly about whatever came up, just for the comfort of listening to his voice, most times. She even played chess with him, and learned canasta, discussed demon and vampire texts and argued world affairs...admittedly her 'world' being pretty much confined to Sunnydale or, at best, what her own country was doing, rather than any useful knowledge of what the rest of the planet was up to…which didn't stop her putting up spirited arguments or defences against his often devastatingly well constructed criticisms and observations. And eventually she even began to help him research, rather than have enough time to brood and become any more claustrophobic or frustrated than she already was.

When Buffy discovered that not only could Rupert hold a sword, he was proficient in several versions and a number of other weapons, and had a workout room where he maintained levels of fitness and dexterity to counter the pretty much sedentary confines of his prison, she immediately instigated training sessions. They fenced, sparred and worked out together, Buffy fascinated by the creature's ability to wield weapons with his ungainly 'hands' and to manage and affect the kind of balance required on his totally weird legs.

Each day, however, started almost exactly the same way.

“You are going to get fat,” Rupert teased.

Buffy set the platter of breakfast down on the table and made a face at him. “There's nothing to do here except eat and train and read books. The moors are fun enough the first twenty-five times and twelve directions…now it's like Ground Hog Day.” The creature looked puzzled. “Movie…film … Bill Murray?” She sighed when he just looked dazed. “Pop culture. A story about the same day repeating itself over and over until the um…hero…of the story does something to break the…spell…to start time going again.”

“Ah,” he said. “You are feeling trapped again.”

“Don't you?” she asked peevishly.

He looked down his impressive nose at her. “Constantly. However I find distraction where I can.”

“Except before I came. The big “O” didn't seem to think you were finding enough distraction then.”

His head dropped and he sighed. “I have been here a long time and in all that time I have had no identity, no hope. The only thing I have,” he said, putting a large hand on his heart, “is here. The ache sometimes is almost beyond bearing. Sometimes I feel as though there is someone else inside of me…someone crying…at other times someone clawing and fighting to be free.”

“Of this place?” Buffy asked sympathetically.

He shook his great head. “Of me,” he said simply.

There wasn't much she could say to that. “It might just be your subconscious dealing with all that repressed rage and frustration…you're so calm all the time…it has to go somewhere,” she suggested.

His eyes danced, as they did when he was amused, even though he couldn't really smile, at least not in a way that didn't look totally intimidating.

“Perhaps,” he conceded. “I only remember how unbearable the silence, how sore my heart with longing, and how difficult it became to concentrate on anything…even eating, for a time. Despair is a terrible thing and an impossible enemy to fight.”

“You talk like a period novel,” she teased. “Giles would love…”

Rupert watched her face change from amused affection to bleak unhappiness.

She cleared her throat and started again. “Giles would love you.”

He made a noise that Buffy recognised as his equivalent of a chuckle. “I will accept that as a compliment, but I rather think he would prefer to share his affections with someone such as yourself.”

She looked away. “Giles was…*is* the best…he was always there when I needed him. Always. But Giles and emotions: majorly un-mixy things. Except for getting angry a couple of times…with good reason…there was no sharing. There was a lot of cleaning of glasses, a lot of tea drinking, and some weird 'gluck gluck' noises according some quarters, but sharing of affections…of feelings?” She sighed. “I think he would have preferred having teeth pulled.”

“He is in your thoughts a great deal,” Rupert observed softly.

Buffy looked up slowly. “He's the reason I came to England. He's the reason I'm still alive and the reason I still want to live. I just want to be able to tell him that. Most of all I want to know that he's okay, not rotting in some prison or secretly being held by the Council, or buried God knows where…” She stopped, mortified to have blurted out her most secret fears and unable to continue the thought of a dead Giles. “I want him back,” she whispered.

The creature blinked sadly. “Would that I could give him to you, but I can no more bring him to you, than lead us out of this place…”

“Maybe that's what we're doing wrong,” Buffy said suddenly. “Maybe it's not about escaping, or beating the system. Maybe we have to join it, at least long enough to do an end run around it…”

“I do not understand,” he said bemusedly.

Buffy finally smiled. “Not yet. But you will.”


*******

“Is there any point to all this?”

“Not really,” Buffy admitted. “But it's fun…right? Anything to stop from going insane from the sheer tedium is a good…and besides, I may have lost everything else, but I don't see why I should miss out on Christmas too.”

Rupert shifted, less than enthused about untangling the long strands of lights, and paused to watch the slender figure sitting amidst piles of ornaments and tinsel and looking like a small girl, flushed and pleased with her Christmas preparations.

“Is the tree satisfactory?” he rumbled, casting an eye over the large Douglas fir that had appeared in due course after he focused his attention on wanting it. His captors had been unusually magnanimous of late, and he suspected that the diligent attention to his resumed duties probably accounted for most of their goodwill.

Buffy grinned. “Most satisfactory,” she confirmed. “It's like the food…exactly what I-we want. You picked the tree, didn't you?”

“It is the one I visualized, although I cannot tell you where I remember it from.”

“Does that mean you're getting your memory back?”

He shook his head. “I have many 'memories' …fragments of things, knowledge, half-remembered experiences. I simply have no context for them.”

“Like what?” she asked curiously.

“A Douglas fir in a very large, draughty room on Christmas day…splendidly dressed, but with only me…and a couple of servants to appreciate it. The smell of whiskey…and burnt sage…the face of my mother…then much later, when she was…” He stopped, his eyes bleak. “Never mind. Sufficed to say I have the education and knowledge of a university professor, the weapons and fighting skills of a soldier and a sure knowledge…” His eyes were again very far away. “…A sure knowledge that I came from somewhere…somewhere that has nothing to do with any of this…”

“You miss your family?”

He looked at her with almost startled eyes. “N-no. I don't think so…at least, I miss…God I wish I knew what I miss. Perhaps I simply miss me. The man I really was…”

“Man?” Buffy asked, surprised.

He paused to consider the unexpected slip for a moment, and to let his mind again savour the memory of the woman he knew, somehow, was his mother.

“Man,” he said softly, inclining his head fractionally.

“Wow…so we're getting into Hans Christian Anderson stuff here…real Grimm's Fairy tale territory,” she observed, letting her nerves run away with her mouth.

He looked up at her and blinked, the gleam of amusement finally trying to peak out again through the misery.

“One kiss from a fair maiden?” he teased. “I might turn into a toad.”

In spite of the unexpected tension, Buffy giggled. “I like you better cuddly,” she told him, her expression softening. “We'll find out. Somehow, we'll find out who you were. Any spell can be broken. We just need to find out how…”

They spent a long time decorating and trimming their tree. When it was done Buffy inhaled with satisfaction.

“I can't believe they gave us a real tree. I love that smell.”

“If they are so moved they will give what we ask for,” he told her, pleased to see several packages appear beneath the tree.

Buffy watched the blinking lights and sighed over the red, gold and green ornaments and spirals of tinsel glittering in the soft half-light of the fireplace. It was exactly the tree she used to dream about as a little girl. Every year her family would decorate their fake spruce with the same miscellaneous box of assorted, colourful, but unremarkable decorations, and every year she would go to sleep visualizing…this.

“It's beautiful,” she whispered. “Like a real Christmas.”

More packages appeared beneath the tree, only the wrapping was strikingly different.

Rupert cast her an amused glance. “Done your Christmas shopping, I see?” he teased.

Buffy shrugged. “They're major eaves-droppers. I was just thinking…but it's okay. It was what I wanted.” She thought, but didn't add: 'for you.'

Have you given any thought to dinner?” he asked gently.

“Kinda. I was thinking about what the others are doing…what Giles might be doing.”

Rupert understood exactly how she was feeling. “Perhaps you'd feel better if we work on dinner?”

She shrugged again.

“Goose, perhaps?”

“What?” she giggled, in spite of herself.

“Christmas goose?”

“Oh. Eieww…I think.”

He shook his head. “Actually it's rather good. I suppose you want a turkey or some such?”

She frowned a little. “Well, mom always made pork roast or sometimes beef…”

“Well those are fine choices also. Shall we have chestnuts? Or eggnog? Or brandied custard to go with our pudding?”

Buffy giggled again. “You know discussing Christmas fun with someone who kind of looks more like he should be out stalking deer or hunting down wildebeests or something is just…” When he looked worried, she hastened to add more. “No, it's okay. I just meant: it's all good, Rupert. You're making it not so bad.”

He relaxed again, visibly.

She continued: “if we're going to make a fun Christmas we should have the lot…everything you want and everything I want, including the goose, with your favourite stuffing. And I want lights and decorations and Christmas cookies and…”

“Traditional Christmas pud', still in the cloth, brandied custard, egg-nog, some vintage cognac and lots of chocolate for Buffy,” he added, amusement in his voice.

Her eyes flashed and grinned broadly. “How did you know…except…Christmas pud? And what cloth?”

He shrugged. “You'll see. And I just did. You like jelly donuts too.”

Buffy's insides fluttered. That was weird.

“So do you,” she added warily. “And you like really crunchy new season's apples.”

He nodded. “Have you thought any more about this escape plan of yours?”

Her brow creased again. “A lot. But I didn't think I should talk about it too much. The walls have ears…and all that.”

“Ah. Well, perhaps we should…er…go for a walk later?”

“It's snowing…oh…yeah…I'd like that,” she switched awkwardly when the penny dropped and continued to improvise. “I've never made a snowman.”

His eyes danced with laughter. “Then perhaps you should collect a few accoutrements for your prospective creation, and we'll take our constitutional now, before the sun sets.”

Buffy wasn't sure what accoutrements were, but she found the cliché carrot and when she thought about them hard enough, some large black buttons for eyes. She remembered a scarf on the coat stand, which had been there since she'd arrived, and a little brooding over battered top hats while she was putting her own coat and boots on, saw one hanging on the stand when she went back downstairs. The one thing she was going to miss about the place was the service…

Most of their energy went into the production of the snowman, just beyond the grounds.

Buffy had no idea how much physical labour was involved in making a life sized snowman. The sun was sitting on the horizon, its red skirts a serious flutter amongst the ever-present clouds when they finished the body, including sculpted arms holding it's own belly.

Rupert showed her how to pack the snow hard to form the ball for the core of the head.

“Couldn't we just make it and then lift it on?”

He shook his tawny mane. “It's own weight would make it fall to pieces before we could lift it onto the base.”

They moulded and sculpted together for another hour, until there was very little light left.

“You could wish us up a torch,” Buffy muttered, trying to give her snow-person an expression that looked a little less Friday the Thirteenth.

“I'm afraid I'm not entirely sure about the teeth, and I don't need to wish for a flashlight,” he rumbled, amused, and turned a light, drawn from his jacket pocket, onto her work.

Buffy made a frustrated squeak of a noise. “Okay, so the teeth really aren't working,” she capitulated, staring at the manically homicidal expression on the snowy figure looking back at her, and pulled the carefully cut out and placed check-cloth smile off her snow man.

Behind her, Rupert was snapping twigs. Moments later he'd fashioned an innocuous, even quaint twig smile for the figure and Buffy had wrapped the scarf around its distinct lack of neck before handing Rupert the battered top hat. He set it at a jaunty angle, then, when they'd stepped back a little, turned his flashlight on their work again.

Buffy was glowing and red-cheeked, like a small child, strands of long blonde hair escaping from the ponytail she'd tied it back in, eyes sparkling with the success of the exercise.

“You really haven't ever done anything like this before?” he said softly.

She shook her head. “It was never that kind of a life…except maybe going to the Ice Show for my birthday…when I was young. The rest of the time my parents were both always working, or fighting…or both.”

“It's a good snowman,” he pronounced. “You see he's rather proud of himself already.”

She smiled. “And this is a good thing?”

“Indeed. The other one would have given even me nightmares,” he teased.

Buffy poked out her tongue. “I thought I was being…innovative.” She thought of something. “Do you suppose anyone will mind that I destroyed that tablecloth to make those teeth?”

He made the low chuckling noise again. “I think perhaps they're a little too busy to care whether you're vandalizing my things. You're shivering. Now might be a good time to talk about what we're going to do…before the frost comes.”

“There's going to be frost?”

“Can't you feel it in the air? The temperature is dropping fairly swiftly.”

“All I can feel is how cold my nose and my feet are…and how wet I am,” she muttered. “And you know they can probably still here us out here. Listening in from another dimension isn't exactly James Bond stuff…even I know that.”

“Even so,” he sighed. “We have to talk, and I know that when I'm out they pay less attention than when I'm inside. It is as though they're so confident of the spell that they think they can relax, because I'm going to be so busy going nowhere that I won't be doing anything else.”

“How do you know…that they pay less attention?”

“They never hear or act on wishes out here. They've never appeared out here, not even just a voice. And once I fell and twisted my leg…it took them two days to come to my aid, obviously because they'd noticed my absence from the house. Fortunately for me…and them…it was late summer at the time. They were most solicitious once I was back in the house, but it was a long two days…”

“Maybe it isn't that they pay less attention, so much as something out here makes it much harder for them to listen to us. I wish Giles was here. He's so good at these kind of things.” Her eyes slid to the snowman. “I wish he was here…”

Rupert, only a couple of feet away, moved to her side and slid an arm around her shoulders. “If we escape, I'll help you find him,” he promised.

Buffy leaned into him, resting her brow against his left breast, despite the dampness and the snow on his black greatcoat.

“We have to get out,” she said into the woollen fabric. “I have to know what happened to him…I have to tell him…”

Rupert curled his great arm more tightly around her, holding her against him as she shivered with cold.

“I know,” he said softly.

*******


Rupert made eggs Benedict for breakfast the following morning, smiling at a yawning Buffy as they sat down together. When they were done she announced her intention to help him with his work for the day. They worked together solidly for a couple of hours, Buffy finding volumes and opening them to the correct pages, as well as using his typewriter to record references and information he was going to need in his latest report.

“Why do they need so much information about Nebraska…and how exactly are they going to benefit from the twenty year history of 'Stanthorpe Inc.'? Near as I can tell it's a tin pot little family company going nowhere.”

“Indeed,” Rupert agreed. “However their financial difficulties make them a prime target and whilst they may be far from solvent at this juncture, their infrastructure and resources are considerable. In fact, their main problem is that they've overreached themselves in setting up the company, eating into their capital past the point of viability.”

“Whatever,” Buffy muttered. She got the gist, but business and economics and the rest were Anya's thing. “So they're great organisers and lousy business men…what does our Overseer want with a transport company?”

“Not a great deal,” Rupert admitted. “What they want is the twenty-five percent share the company owns in an east coast utility company which supplies power to three states.”

Buffy rolled her eyes. “Fine. Why do they need a power company? I thought they got their power from, y'know: people juice. They were going to suck my father dry…”

He sighed. “The utility company owns a number of mines and is a majority stockholder in at least one shipping company.”

“And?” She prompted.

“Well, they don't care about the coalmines, which are the majority, but one of the other mines happens to also have a seam of high grade beryl, which they do want.”

“Okay, I'll bite. Who is Beryl and why do they want her?”

He ruffled her hair. “It's a mineral. And before you ask, I don't know why they want it, only that they do. It's no doubt part of their intricate web of trade throughout the world, providing a component in some other transaction, somewhere.”

“Okay, they're non-corporeal here. I'm guessing nothing from here can exist wherever they actually come from and vice-versa…so why all the trading?”

“Very astute of you. They are accumulating wealth with which to trade with other demon dimensions to acquire the raw materials they need to sustain the energy requirements of their own world. There are several demon dimensions which have elements of both worlds…intersection points if you will…whose inhabitants are able to travel between both worlds and from whom these creatures acquire vast quantities of the materials they require to sustain their own world.”

“So why don't these guys go do all their fancy trading on those worlds instead of wheeling and dealing high finance on Earth? What made us so lucky?”

“The currency of trade,” he said cryptically. “All funds raised here are converted into shipments of jadeite, or star sapphires, which are peculiar to this dimension but very attractive and valuable in a number of others.”

“Which…is…why the need to make a lot of money…” Buffy realised. “So juicing loan defaulters really is just a sideline?”

He inclined his head. “And a deterrent to convince others to repay their loans and the interest in full.”

“So one way of getting their attention would be to research huge sources of the gems? Cut out the middleman, right? Any of your books about gemstones? Or mining?”

Rupert looked bemused, but thought a little before rising to go and climb the ladder to the highest shelves on the northern wall. When he returned it was with only two volumes.

One was a detailed book about New Zealand and the other a geological text.

Buffy looked at them sceptically. “That's it? You know schist and granite don't really qualify as gemstones,” she told him, poking at the faded geological text. “And since when is New Zealand a gem capital of the world?”

“Since it is one of the best known sources of jade…” he offered, deadpan.

By the time they'd scoured the texts, Rupert had narrowed the search to Burma and Imperial Jade, in the geological text, despite its age. The other book was effusive about fiords, glaciers, hot springs and New Zealand's assortment of weird and wonderful extinct and still living critters but apart from a page and a half of the usual tourist spiel and photos of Maori carvings of New Zealand green stone, there was nothing solid that they could use. They returned to the geology book.

“We really should consider the consequences if we tell them about this place. It's wide open to exploitation, situated as it is in the north of the country and away from the scrutiny of the rest of the world.”

Buffy frowned as she read over his shoulder. Mogaung really didn't deserve to become the focus of the Overseer's attention, no matter what kind of place it was, or what kind of government the country had, but they had to find some way of escaping and if they tried to fake the information and they of the 'no bodies' found out, the consequences could be unspeakable…and there was always her father to worry about…

“You are hinting that this Mogaung place in the article isn't exactly…entirely…on the up and up, right?” she guessed. “So if we tell the Overseer… Wait a minute, how come, if they're looking for jade, you haven't already told them about this joint?”

Rupert looked sheepish, but made a silencing gesture, which Buffy read, and followed him out of the room. Once they were beyond the grounds he spoke.

“I tell them as little as I possibly can. Just enough to keep them believing that I'm doing my job, but compromising as few places or individuals as I possibly can,” he told her. “If I had told them about Mogaung they would be virtually running the country by now.”

“Are you sure they aren't already?” Buffy drawled.

Rupert looked surprised. “You do know something about world affairs?”

She rolled her eyes. “I read. Not all Americans think the world ends at the Mexican and Canadian borders or the west or east coast.”

“I'm impressed,” he said dryly.

“Just tell me what you think we should do,” she grouched.

“I think I should investigate Mogaung as extensively as possible, so that we have some idea what we're getting ourselves into before we try to formulate a plan of action.”

“So in the meantime we can still have our Christmas?” Buffy ventured.

For a moment he seemed nonplussed then the amusement returned to his eyes. “Down to the last chestnut,” he agreed.

“Cool,” she said happily, then sobered. “How do I help?”

“Do you know how to tame a computer…? I think I can get them to give us one, much as I hate the blasted things…”


*******


Buffy and Rupert surveyed their Christmas table with satisfaction.

“I like the red candles,” she sighed. “The crystal candle sticks are really working there too.”

They looked at each other and then at the banquet of traditional food.

“But the food is wonderful!”

“But the food…!”

Each said in unison, and Buffy giggled while Rupert snorted softly, his eyes dancing.

“Is it going to be enough?” Buffy asked quietly as they took their seats.

The creature knew exactly what she was referring to. “It's plenty…more than I've ever given them before…more quality, more variety…much more.”

“Then we have to convince them we're their only hope of getting into the area. How do we do that? I'm sure they've got plenty of henchmen like Cyrelle who could do their handiwork, or they could transport a taxi-body to Mogaung for one of them and do it all themselves.”

“Remember, they cannot exist here in real time…even using a corporeal body…they're simply don't exist in the same time space. And Cyrelle, himself, has all the subtlety of a jackhammer and the intellect of a cantaloupe. He'd be more likely to start a war than to successfully complete any commercial negotiations,” Rupert explained. “It is possible they might want to go through contacts like your father…people in large companies, high places, who owe them, but if they want to remain entirely covert, as they have done thus far, they are unlikely to want to recruit from businesses and places of power which might ultimately either leak or use information against them.”

He offered a curious Buffy a cracker to pull. A moment, and a loudish snap later, she was looking in her half for the prize, on his advice. It was a child's plastic gold ring with an acrylic green 'stone' in it. “An omen,” she smiled, sliding it onto the ring finger of her left hand.

Rupert stared at it for a long moment then offered a second cracker, which they pulled before he found his own treat: a small pencil sharpener.

“Wow,” Buffy deadpanned. “A pencil sharpener. That's right up there with the little plastic animal of no recognisable genus Dawn got out of her favourite cereal box just before I left...”

“Piffle,” he agreed, “but at least this is practical.”

“Exactly…not a word synonymous with 'fun', Rupert, babe.”

Rupert tilted his head to one side, his eyes clearly twinkling. “I'm a babe?”

Buffy looked up, the laughter dying in her eyes as swiftly as it had bubbled up. “You should carve,” she said quietly.

Rupert didn't know what he'd done wrong, but he proceed to carve portions from each bird and joint of meat on the table.

“Something is wrong?” he finally asked when, halfway through his own plate, he realized that she had barely touched hers.

Buffy shook her head. “Not really. You just reminded me of someone.”

“Ah,” he said. “We will find him.”

“I wish I could believe that, but Giles wouldn't disappear like that…not so completely …so scarily. Not without saying something first…even if it was just some kind of message…”

“And you don't believe he left you one?”

She shook her head, looking suddenly bereft, her mouth losing its stubborn tension and her eyes growing very bright.

Rupert studied her for a long moment. “You love him,” he said simply.

Her eyes shot up to his. “Of course I…I mean he's my…he's a friend…my best friend.” But she looked anything but convinced of her own words.

“You love him,” Rupert repeated gently. “It's in your voice, your eyes. As I said before: he's a very lucky man.”

Buffy shook her head again. “No he's not. I never told him…even once. He left because I was so awful…”

He frowned. “Surely…” he began.

“Oh, no…don't get me wrong,” Buffy interrupted. “He was right to go. I couldn't deal…letting him do it all because I didn't want to…leaning and using…”

“You are not so, now,” he observed, and began to eat again.

“I've learned a lot…a lot has happened. He came back…and he saved us all…and it felt so good to have him back, but he had to leave again…had to take W—someone with him, to make them better, teach them stuff…”

“And?” Rupert asked, sensing an unfinished thought.

“…And to go home. His home. He's happy here in England…his home; happier than he'll ever be in California.”

“You underestimate yourself.”

Buffy snorted. “More likely I overestimated myself. If I hadn't spent so much time angsting about how I came back…what I thought I was…he might not have left. He doesn't need me…all I do is complicate things and stop him having a life of his own.”

Rupert shook his great head and put his fork down. “Whatever it is you think you've done, if he has a heart, he already loves you…” As I love you

The unspoken words hung in the air.

They stared at each other for a long time before both went uncomfortably back to their meals.

Only when Buffy rose to bring dessert from the kitchen, did she speak again. “Any luck getting a computer?”

He shook his head. “I suppose a computer with internet access was a little too much to ask for, considering the opportunities it presented.”

“Like they couldn't stop us from communicating with anyone. These are the people who invented the 'Yorkshire treadmill'. Going around in circles on a computer couldn't be that much harder for them.”

He shrugged. “I suppose, but the opportunities for me to extend my research are such that I would have expected them to at least try to address the issue.”

“Have you checked the den today?”

Both of them looked at each other then turned simultaneously and headed for his den.

The new computer was the latest and best as far as Buffy could tell. The only thing was, Rupert had left things out of his order. It didn't have a printer or a scanner. There was, however, a modem. It took them some time to check out the contents of the hard-drive and familiarize themselves with the internet software, neither of them particularly adept at either, before they were able to log on to the account provided. As expected, any effort to send an email to anyone produced only error messages, no matter how many different ways they tried, despite the browser working perfectly.

“Great, we can visit any porn site on the net, but we can't talk to anyone,” Buffy growled, dragging a hand through her hair in a harried fashion, after yet another failed attempt, this time using a newly created online account.

Rupert, looking over her shoulder, straightened and turned without speaking, to prowl the room.

“We'll keep gathering the information about the gems but in the meanti—”

Buffy looked around just in time to see him crash to the ground.

“Rupert!!!”

When she reached him, he was sprawled on the floor, on his face. She rolled him over but found him a dead weight, awkward despite her Slayer strength.

“Rupert? Rupert, can you hear me? Don't leave me here. I'll go insane here without you. Please, come back!” she cried, even though all she really wanted was for him to be alive.

Despite her fevered caressing of his brow and shaking of his shoulder he didn't move and it was becoming difficult to detect any breathing.

“Rupert!” she cried again, then looked up. “Is this what you want? Are you just going to let him die? You've probably given him a heart attack!” She shook him again, hard, and lifted an eyelid. He was out cold, whatever was wrong with him. In desperation Buffy unbuttoned the first few buttons of his shirt and laid her head against his chest. His pulse was thready and very rapid.

“No!” she cried, trying not to panic, but continuing to shout nonetheless. “You can't have him. If you did this to get my attention, you've got it! What do you want? Whatever it is, you have to tell me! He doesn't deserve this! You hear me?”

By the time Cyrelle appeared, Buffy had drawn Rupert's head onto her lap.

“Is it dead yet?”

Buffy looked up at the stocky creature. “What do you think, stupid? Do something or I'll make you sing like Celine Dion. And I'm guessing your bosses wouldn't even be *that* kind if he dies because you were too slow…”

“What am I supposed to do?” Cyrelle demanded irritably. They bring me here like I'm supposed to know what to do…Do I look like I have a medical degree?”

“Then find someone who does. Either bring them here, or take us to them.”

“I can't do that. They won't do that. Besides where exactly am I supposed to take *him*…the local vet?”

“If you have to,” Buffy growled. “If he doesn't survive they'll lose their researcher and I'm sure *you'd* make a peachy replacement…*not*. How long, do you think, before your ass is grass when they realize what you've cost them…? How long can they go without more sapphires and jade to trade to keep their crappy little world alive?”

Cyrelle looked as though he could cheerfully have throttled Buffy if he wasn't so intimidated by her.

“Wait,” he growled and vanished. Moments later he was back, looking sour and putting a hand on Rupert's vast one. Buffy realised immediately what he was doing and clutched at his shoulder as they started to fade.

All three of them went 'between' again, Buffy finding herself in the emergency room of a British hospital. She looked around frantically when she realized Rupert was gone.

“What have you done with him?” she demanded, jumping up to face the demon, only to find an old lady who was sitting next to her quailing at her aggression. “Sorry,” she said uncomfortably. “Not you.” She started to pace, wondering why she was still there at all. If Rupert were there, somewhere, he was probably being dissected by now, not helped. “Cyrelle!” she hissed through her teeth, but there was no answer. Her next thought was the payphone. She sprinted for it, but had no coins, nor a phone card, to operate it.

That led to her racing back to reception. The Nurse couldn't find any record of any patient named 'Rupert' being admitted, and suggested that he was still being examined in casualty, or waiting to be warded, since things were busy and there was a two-to-four hour delay in getting the new admissions processed. Buffy's eyes lighted on the phone at the young nurse's fingertips. She explained with as much pathos as possible that she was an overseas visitor with no money, no wallet and no papers and that she absolutely had to contact her father to bring all of those things to the hospital. The young woman was sympathetic and after a furtive look around to make sure no one more senior was in view, pushed the phone towards Buffy and told her what to do to get an outside line.

Three attempts got Buffy only a disconnect signal. Without letting the girl at the desk know, she dialled her home number, the international dialling codes memorized after regular calls to Dawn, while staying with her father before Cyrelle's arrival. She didn't realize how tightly she was holding the receiver until it started to make sounds like plastic threatening to disintegrate. She relaxed her hand as the strange collection of sounds of international dialling came to an end, and the silence was followed, finally, by ringing. Her heart moved to her mouth. There was no way it was going to work…

“Hello?”

“Willow?”

“Buffy!! God, where are you?? Are you okay?”

“How is this possible?” Buffy demanded. “They won't let me talk to anyone. I should be getting a disconnect signal…”

“To do that they would have to do some kind of spell. Don't you remember, Buffy? When I put all those wards on your house…even on the phones and Dawn's computer and everything?”

“So you're blocking their magic…or whatever…with your own? Still power-girl, huh?” she asked, ecstatic to be talking to a familiar voice again.

“That'd be me,” Willow confirmed, a smile in her voice. “Where exactly are you?”

“In a hospital somewhere. Probably Yorkshire. That's where I've been all the time, in an old mansion on the edge of the moors. It had a spell on it to stop Rupert and me leaving…”

“Rupert?”

“Long story. And I have to find him. Have you heard from Giles since I left?”

“You mean he's not…you didn't find him?”

The crashing disappointment in Willow's voice gave Buffy her answer. She closed her eyes, willing herself to put aside the pain of that until she'd found Rupert and gotten them both out of the hospital and preferably out of the country.

“Will, you have to help me. Call my Dad. He knows everything. Tell him I think I've escaped and that I'm in a hospital…” Buffy paused to look down at the paperwork the Nurse was working on and read off the upside down letterhead to Willow. I don't know if I-we'll be here when he gets here. There's a possibility we'll be sent back to the mansion before…”

“I'll get on it right away, Buffy. He'll be there as fast I can get him to you. I wish we knew where Giles was. He could help with this.”

“Speaking of helping with this,” Buffy added, looking at the helpful nurse and turning away to speak quietly. “Do you think you could do something to stop this call going on the hospital's phone records? I don't want to get anyone in trouble and I'm pretty sure the hospital staff aren't supposed to let people make international calls at work.”

“No problem,” Willow confirmed. “And Buffy…don't let them take you away again,” she added, fear and worry evident in her voice.

“I'll try,” Buffy promised wryly, “but I can't exactly argue with guys who have no form or substance. Gotta go now. I have to find someone.”

When she cradled the receiver, Buffy found her hand trembling. She looked around the room swiftly. No sign of Cyrelle. Either he was wherever Rupert was, or he was being kept away, so as not to make a scene, maybe. Buffy kind of thought that the appearance of Rupert in the ER…or Casualty…as it was called there, would have made a big enough scene all by itself, but there was no sign of any disruption in the large hospital emergency ward and waiting area.

She thanked the little nurse effusively then melted into the background, wishing that it wasn't quite so busy. The number of staff and patients coming and going made it impossible for her to sneak into the treatment area. She'd already been intercepted twice, leaving her even more frustrated about where Rupert was and whether he was okay. Suddenly all she wanted to do was cry. What was it with everyone she loved being taken from her all of a sudden? When her legs got rubbery she sat down hard on one of the moulded plastic seats.

She was still there, head bowed, when her father arrived two hours later.

Buffy looked up at the sound of her name, tired, depressed and frazzled.

Hank smiled at her, his expression one of profound relief, fear still evident in the strain around his eyes, but there was real joy on his face as he came to her.

Buffy rose and threw herself into his arms with the same vigour as that with which he was gathering her up. It was some time before they parted again.

“I don't understand why the Overseer let this happen,” Hank told her, finally. “It makes no sense.”

“Well, it was either do something or let their Ace Research guy die,” Buffy pointed out. “And they didn't exactly plan to let me come too. I just wish I knew where he was.”

“It's still strange that you haven't been sent back,” Hank pointed out.

“I'm guessing they can't read me here. I think they thought it was safe because they'd put a spell on the place, or me, to stop me communicating with anyone…except Willow warded the phones at home, so…”

“Well that might explain why they haven't come for you yet, but it doesn't explain why no one is guarding you. I'm starting to think maybe they can't reach you here at all. Something is definitely wrong. I mean, where the heck did Cyrelle go?”

“Frankly, Dad, right now I don't care. I just need to find Rupert before they vivisect him or something. Grand Central Station is quieter than this place,” she added, looking across at the entrance to the treatment area. For once it wasn't crowded with people or gurneys, or more frustratingly, orderlies or doctors, coming and going. Best of all there didn't seem to be anyone official there to intercept her if she tried to get through again.

Without any more prevarication, Buffy marched through the swing doors and started checking examination cubicles and gurneys, her father trailing behind and explaining to all comers that his daughter was distraught about her injured boyfriend and that he would take her back out as soon as she'd seen him and reassured herself that he was alive.

They were running out of cubicles when Hank asked a harried intern who was trying unsuccessfully to stop Buffy going any further, whether he knew if there was a patient named Rupert in the treatment room.

“You have to leave,” the young man told them, lines deeply etched from the corners of his eyes to his mouth, and dark circles under those eyes. “You're not authorised to be in here.”

“I'm afraid she's not going to be stopped,” Hank apologised, continuing the boyfriend ruse. “She loves the guy. I can't stop her, but if she finds him and he's okay, she'll probably go right away, especially if he tells her to.”

“Well, she'd better be quick,” the intern growled. “Security is on its way.” At the miserable look on Buffy's face and the frustration on Hank's, the younger man relented a little. “Look, there's a Rupert two beds down, but she might be disappointed. At any rate, she's going to have to hurry.”

Buffy ran, careening around the screens to get to her friend, terrified that he might already be dead, or gone.

She slid to a halt, freezing as she laid eyes on the bed and its occupant.

“WHAT…?” she squeaked.

“What the…?” Hank exclaimed as he arrived.

But Buffy was too stunned, too numb to react for a moment. Then she walked forward slowly and touched the sleeping figure's arm, brushed his cheek with the backs of her fingers.

He stirred against the pillows that propped him up, his green eyes fluttering opening after a couple of beats.

“Buffy…what are you doing here?” he asked in a croaky voice.

“What am I…?” she gobbled. “What are you doing here? How did you get here? Where have you been…?”

His eyes closed again. “Where I've been is a very long story. What I'm doing here is recovering from almost not being revived. I was rather hoping they'd be a little quicker. My head is about to explode.”

“What are you talking about and where is Rupert?” she demanded, about to burst into tears, overwhelming joy crashing into crushing disappointment and distress, and threatening to amalgamate into one huge migraine.

“Rupert?” he managed, obviously exhausted.

Buffy swallowed tears and the overwhelming desire to throw herself into his arms. “Rupert: fairy tale guy…hairy, no name, big teeth…?”

After a few moments in which a number of expressions crossed his handsome, but pale face, the figure in the bed laughed without opening his eyes. “Well, the teeth are a little smaller now…”

Buffy grew very still. Suddenly it all made perfect sense…except it had been right in front of her face and she hadn't seen it…like a lot of things over the last few years...

“Where have you been, Giles?” she whispered helplessly. “God, I missed you so much.”

He looked up at her. “To hell,” he said quietly. “They came up with the perfect solution…the perfect prison.”

“So when Rupert said he felt like someone was inside him crying…trying to get out…that…that was you?”

Giles looked away. “I…he…had no memory of you…but I was still there inside…a part of the creature which couldn't communicate with anyone. I knew who I was and that I was in all likelihood trapped there forever… It was a cruel spell…to make me a prisoner more or less in my own body. I'm sorry...”

Buffy's eyes filled with tears. “God, Giles, please don't…It's just…Rupert…I've lost…I feel like I've lost a part of me…even though the truth is I've got another part back. I've missed you so much…”

He turned back to look at her as she inched closer to him. “Don't cry for me, love,” he said softly as she leaned down to rest her brow against his shoulder and his arm curled around hers.

“For both of you,” she qualified in a tremulous whisper. “I loved him too.”

A tremor went through Giles. “He's not that far away,” he reminded her.

“You…you remember everything?”

“I do now. Everything.”

She pulled away and looked at him, her eyes searching his.

“Everything,” he reiterated and used a thumb to wipe moisture from her cheekbone.

Buffy let herself fall into his dear, familiar gaze, wanting to say a hundred things yet unable to form even a syllable.

When the moment became too intense and the air between them impossibly thick, Giles withdrew his fingers. “I'm sorry I couldn't warn you about my plan.”

“Plan?” she managed, just, in a hoarse whisper.

“To get us out of there. The rubbish about the gems was a ruse to keep them occupied with trying to stay one step ahead of us while I worked on a simple compound to make it imperative that I be brought to a real hospital. I knew that if they had to move me back to this world quickly, they would have to release me because they couldn't present Rupert to the medical community. Nor could they send Cyrelle to any medical facility with me, because of *his* appearance. I was counting on the urgency of the situation, your insistence and your refusal to be left behind.”

Buffy worked through that. “So, you're telling me you poisoned yourself to get their attention and didn't tell me so they wouldn't read me, and so my reaction would be genuine…? You could have died! There was no guarantee they'd respond or do anything…at least not fast enough to save you!” she told him histrionically. “How could you do that?”

He looked up at her wearily.

Buffy's heart contracted at the haunted look in his eyes. “Did they say whether you were going to be okay or not?” she asked, letting it go.

Giles nodded. “Eventually. They want me here for observation tonight, but I'm not certain that it's a good idea to stay. They need me enough to come looking for me and I don't want them to find us again.”

Buffy slid her hand into his. “How did they find you the first time?”

“I don't know, exactly. Cyrelle and his men came for me at my flat...rang the doorbell for God's sake. One moment I was punching the snot out of a demon, the next I was…somewhere else, surrounded by the most vile coloured scenery.”

Buffy rolled her eyes. “Been there, done that. But why did they turn you into Rupert?”

“I flatly refused to help them in any way. I didn't know at that point that they could read me. I suppose it didn't take them long to realize that if I didn't know who or what I was that I would be far more malleable. Unfortunately for them it didn't quite work the way they thought it would. I'm presuming the form was arbitrary and came from the mind of someone else from this world. I assume you saw the resemblance?

Buffy nodded, wondering when Giles had time to notice such things. “I liked Rupert better, though.” Her face grew grim again. “Are we safe?”

“I honestly don't know. Perhaps. At least while we're here. If they could take us at any time, I'm sure they would have already…or at least they would have taken you. They can't reach us here and they can't send Cyrelle…at least they can't send him and maintain their low profile.”

“So…if I get us out of here…does that mean Cyrelle will be able to come after us again?” she asked, her fingers tightening around his.

Giles lifted her hand and rested it on his chest. “I would assume so.”

Buffy frowned. “Then we have to talk to Willow…or the Council…or someone who can stop them…” Her eyes widened suddenly. “Oh, God!”

“Buffy? What?” Giles demanded, alarmed.

“I escaped and broke the agreement…will they kill my father now?”

He didn't know what to say to that. “Where is he?” He asked finally.

Buffy turned around. Hank was nowhere to be seen. Without hesitating, she let go of Giles' hand and raced out into the main casualty room. Hank was there, in animated conversation with two burly security guards, obviously trying to delay them. She raced back to Giles.

“You remember that thing you did to get to Sunnydale so you could rescue us from Evil Willow? Can you still do that?” she demanded.

“What?” Giles squinted. “You mean teleporting?”

“Yes,” Buffy said urgently. “I really don't want to have to fight the security guards my Dad is stalling, but I'm not letting them take me away from you now.”

Giles shook his head slowly. “Not without the coven. It might be best if you simply wait for the guards to arrive, let them see us together and then agree to leave, calmly and rationally. They're not here to bully patients and their families, only to maintain the peace.”

“I won't leave you again,” she repeated a little desperately and took his hand again.

Giles smiled at her. “Just for a little while,” he told her.

Moments later Hank and the security guards arrived.

As anticipated, the senior one explained why Buffy couldn't stay in the area and asked her if she would return to the waiting area until her friend was warded.

“I told them you were just worried about Rupert,” Hank explained, “and that now you've seen him you're probably going to be okay to wait a while to see him again.”

Buffy's hand tightened almost painfully on his, but Giles watched her nod obediently before reluctantly letting go and following them out of the area. Feeling horribly alone, he slid down a little and closed his eyes, hoping it wouldn't be much longer before he was moved.

In the end it was another hour before the young nurse who'd helped Buffy quietly came over and informed them that Giles had been sent up stairs to a private room…one that they'd apparently been instructed to give him.

*The Council*, Buffy guessed. *Finally*.

Hank closed the door behind them as Buffy rushed to Giles' bedside. He knew a pang of jealousy at the obvious closeness of the pair, as Buffy sat on the bed and touched the other man's face tenderly.

“You see…that wasn't so bad,” Giles told her wearily.

“It was way worse,” Buffy grumbled mock-seriously. “So when are you out of here?”

“In the morning…if I'm cleared by the attending physician. Apparently they're very pleased with the results of the tests they've done, and quite chuffed with their success.”

Buffy turned to her father. “Dad, you have to call Willow. Tell her Giles is going to be okay and that we're staying with him tonight because it looks like the Overseer can't reach us here for some reason. And tell her she has to find a way to stop the Overseer from taking Giles away again…or me…or hurting you.”

“Blood,” Giles said suddenly.

Buffy turned back to him again. “Huh?”

“You said the Overseer didn't want you for absorption…that you weren't…suitable. If your blood types are compatible, you need to give your father some of your blood, to at least make him temporarily unacceptable.”

“Giles, we may be in the right place for it, but the doctors here aren't going to do a transfusion just because my father and I want to share.”

He frowned for a long moment. “There's a spell,” he said.

Buffy scowled. “There's always a spell…there are too many damned spells!”

“Of course there are,” Giles muttered, then spoke several simple sentences in Latin.

Each of them staggered, Hank sitting down hard in the visitor's chair and Buffy only just making it back to the bed.

She shook her head then held it. “What happened to spell books and candles…and potions and all that other crap Willow needs to make a spell work?”

Something flashed in his eyes then Giles snorted dismissively. “Not every spell requires the blood of the innocent. And not all magic is about ritual and ceremony. A lot of good magic is simply about understanding it and using it correctly and wisely.”

“You know a lot of magic?” she asked, wondering exactly how deep her Watcher really went.

“More than you ever want to know about,” Giles admitted. “With luck, your father will now be highly unacceptable as fodder for the Overseer…at least for a while.”

“Thanks,” Hank managed, trying to ignore the throbbing at his temples and the tingling in his fingers. “I have a hum-dinger of a hangover though. Are you sure it worked? Is Buffy going to be okay?” he rushed on, realising how pale she was, for the first time.

“Yes, fine,” Giles growled impatiently, too aware of Buffy's body pressing against his hip as she sat next to him on the bed. “Perhaps you could make that call to Willow now?”

When Hank was gone, they turned to each other simultaneously.

“I can't believe I found you.”

Giles smiled.

Without warning Buffy leaned down and brushed his mouth with hers.

His bemused eyes searched hers, startled but pleased.

“Love's first kiss,” she explained, tracing his jaw. “I wanted to see if you were really going to turn into a toad. I'm glad you didn't. I like the handsome prince version so much better.”

“Bollocks,” he said, but he was grinning and flushed.

“Is that what you say to all the girls who love you?” she teased.

His hand lifted to cup her cheek, his thumb brushing it tenderly. “You have so much ahead of you, and you're so very young…are you so very certain that…?”

He was silenced again by Buffy's mouth covering his, except this time he responded. The kiss was tender and searching, both of them giving themselves to it, before drawing back with some trepidation in their eyes, wondering how exactly the other was going to react. For the longest time they just looked at each other.

Buffy spoke first, her voice tremulous. “I was so scared that you were dead or somewhere bad, when you were missing…and I miss Rupert,” she added nonsensically.

Giles shifted a little against his pillows. “You don't have to, you know. He's not really gone. He'll build a snowman with you again, and eat fattening breakfasts…and continue to try to help you understand Yeats' poetry and to improve your horrid chess game,” he teased. “ I promise.”

She sighed heavily, her eyes glowing with love. “I know. I really do. It's just…I miss him. And a part of me wants to talk to him like I used to…I want to tell him about everything that's happened…and that he was right…about you…about how much I love you.”

Giles smiled tenderly. “In away you are, love. I'm sorry you feel like you've lost a friend, but the reality is that you've only lost his face. And I'm honestly not sorry to have my knees back around the right way and full use of my facial muscles again…not to mention all of my memory.”

At that Buffy finally chuckled and relaxed a little. “I guess I really do like you better this way,” she told him, sliding down to snuggle into his side, her head resting on his shoulder.

Giles kissed her hair and drew his arm tightly around her, ignoring his pounding head and the continuing nausea, as joy washed over him from head to toe tips.

Buffy lifted her face enough to kiss the point of his jaw then, before snuggling down again.

When Hank returned to inform them that Willow had already taken care of everything, he stopped mid stride and mid-sentence at the sight of his daughter curled up, asleep, in the arms of a man whom even he realised she loved dearly, but whom he knew very little about. Giles was asleep too. Summers studied the face of the man who'd won his daughter's heart. He was far too old for her…old enough to bring out the parent in him…make him want to sock the guy, good looking as he was. It was, however, an honest face, with a jaw that spoke of strength and stubbornness, and even in sleep it was obvious that the man adored the girl in his arms.

He wanted to ask them a thousand questions, to warn Giles not to hurt his daughter and tell Buffy he was sorry…but he also didn't want to disturb either of them after their ordeals. Frustrated, but content to wait, after all that had gone before, he sat down in the visitor's chair to watch over them both while they slept on.

When the first light came through the window, Hank woke to find Buffy gone and Giles fast asleep. It was obvious that someone had been in…the bed had been remade and tucked in.

He blinked and pulled himself out of the chair, annoyed that he'd fallen into such a deep sleep. Buffy was not in the hallway. Beginning to worry, he was about to head for the elevator to check the hospital kiosk, when she emerged from a public bathroom looking disgruntled but combed and straightened.

“Everything okay?”

Buffy rolled her eyes up at him. “Night nurse came and told me I had to move. She gave Giles something to stop his headaches and nausea…something he'd asked for hours ago…when he was *actually awake*,” she added crabbily. “And she told me not to sit or lie on the sheets any more.”

“Are you going to tell me about him?” Hank asked, when she'd finished grumbling.

“It's a long story, Dad,” she sighed, running a hand through her hair wearily.

“We've got a lot of time,” he pointed out patiently.

It took Buffy about an hour to tell the whole story, from Merrick to Evil Willow, over kiosk coffee, brought back to the room. Incidental details, like Dawn's true nature, made it difficult to keep her father focused on the subject at hand, but eventually he sat down, flabbergasted.

“You know it's impossible…however much you think you love him. He's my age…well, your mother's age. When you're my age, he'll be in his seventies, for God's sake.”

Buffy's eyes grew very bright and she came to his side, put her hand over the one he was resting on the arm of the chair. “Dad, Slayer, remember? I don't have to worry about things like that. I'm pretty much going to be on borrowed time if I manage to make *twenty* five. It's way less fair on Giles than it is on me. He'll be the one left behind, not me.”

Hank's face went from consternation to bleakness. “No…you can't. I'm not going to bury you, Buffy. You're young…you deserve love, passion, children…life, not vampires, demons and…and…”

“Death,” Buffy filled in. “And I'm with you a hundred and ten percent…trust me,” she added dryly, “but it can't be like that. Destiny is a bitch that way…ask Giles. He didn't want his any more than I want mine, but we both had to face the fact that neither was going to go away.”

“If I can get you away from him…from all of this…would you be safe then?”

“You don't get it,” Buffy said gently. “The only reason I'm still alive…the only reason I was ever safe, was him. You can take me as far away from Giles as you can, but you can't outrun destiny. There'll still be evil and bad guys, only without Giles I'll make a mistake one day and evil will win.”

Hank's eyes went to the striking man asleep in the hospital bed. “Why?”

Buffy's gaze followed, and she couldn't help but smile a little as she watched him sleep.

“Because it was always meant to be…except I didn't know that until I lost him. Do you know what it's like to find out that you're not whole without someone? That they're already a part of your soul and you didn't even know it?”

Hank stared at her. “No,” he said sadly. “I don't.”

Buffy paused for a moment, shocked. “Not even Mom?”

Hank shook his head honestly. “I did love her, and I think she loved me, but…”

“Well I do,” she said quietly. “I know right down to the bottom of my soul how it feels. I can't lose him again. I never want to hurt him again and I never want to be apart from him again…ever.”

He watched her return to Giles' side, without saying a word. There was nothing he could say. Buffy's face, eyes and voice told him more profoundly and more eloquently than any words exactly how much she loved this man, and how futile it would be to try and intervene in a bond as deep as theirs obviously was…


*******

The rental car slid to a halt outside of the impressive façade of a grand old Bath home that had long since been converted into equally impressive flats. Hank Summers got out first, moving around to help his daughter assist their companion from the rear seat.

Buffy unlocked the door of Giles' flat and then helped to get Giles inside and into the big armchair in the living room.

“But how?” she asked, continuing a conversation from the car.

Hank raised his hands in a 'how should I know?' gesture. “Willow said that you didn't need to know the details, only that we're all safe now and that 'power-girl' was on it. She did mention that someone called Wesley gave her a lot of information about the Overseer and his dimension.”

“Then we shall have to thank both of them,” Giles said, his voice still a little strained. “Willow may have found a way to balance things…she has rather an extensive understanding of everything…all things…balance and counterbalance…these days. I would assume she has made it very difficult for them to influence or even access this dimension in any way, even through a de facto like Cyrelle. The fact that we're still here attests to her success, whatever she did.”

“Well, whatever it was, I'm just grateful to still be here,” Hank told them fervently. “I'm sorry I can't stay longer, but I have to get back to London. At that moment his pager went off for the eighth time that day. He shrugged, hugged his daughter and shook hands with Giles, holding the other man's gaze for a long moment.

“Don't hurt her,” he said eventually. “At least not any more than I have.”

“Never,” Giles assured him and Hank knew it was the truth.

Buffy watched her father slip out of the front door again and was glad he'd promised to visit Dawn within weeks. She needed to see him as much as Buffy herself had, and it would do them all good to work through all the issues both of them had with their absent parent over the years. When it closed, she turned to Giles, suddenly a little shy.

“You know, in the fairy tales they get to live happily ever after.”

Giles smiled back at her. “I don't know how long 'ever after' will be, for either of us, but I don't see why we shouldn't have a jolly good stab at the 'happily' part.”

Buffy tilted her head to one side, considering the man she'd always thought of as too old and too British…every nerve ending in her body attesting to the fact that he was neither.

“How did we not know for so long?” she asked softly.

Giles lifted an eyebrow. “We?” he teased.

Buffy reddened, partly at her faux pas, partly because of those nerve-endings. “I don't know why I was so blind,” she muttered. “I wasted so much time…are you mad at me?”

“I have been, a hundred times,” he admitted. “But, no, I'm not mad at you. You had to grow up and you had to make your mistakes, however foolish. I wish I could have saved you a lot of that pain …but sometimes our pain is all we have to shape us and make us who we are…”

She gave him a dry look. “Very poetic. Bottom line: not buying the pain thing. Pain is pain. It isn't a life changer…not the way you mean it. A life-ruiner maybe.

“Oh, most certainly,” he agreed, “but in the end it also makes us who we are, for better or worse. Adversity is tried and true character builder.”

“Adversity sucks,” Buffy announced glumly. “And I think I proved that isn't necessarily true. I've had adversity up the…well, anyway, it never did much for my character…I mean: not exactly percepto-girl here, and most of my really big relationship decisions…the word 'moron' comes to mind...”

“You're being too harsh on yourself,” Giles told her. “You weren't exactly an average teenager with average issues and problems, if you recall.”

Buffy snorted. “Why are you sticking up for me? The person who got the most hurt by my great 'character' suckage was…you.” She swallowed. “Giles, I really, really, didn't know back then. I think I might have had brain damage or something,” she proposed dryly then sobered. “I have to be honest with you: when I was with Angel…I really thought I would die if he left me…until he did…and even then it took a long time. And Riley…I really thought I could make…” She shook her head. “Never mind…now there was another really lame Buffy exercise in futility…” Her brow furrowed suddenly. “Except…except that's when I think I first started to realize. It all started falling apart way before the vamp-tramps. I think it really started back when I started comparing him to you. Like, when I had to start choosing between the two of you…there was no choice…only you.” Giles smiled at her and Buffy smiled back. “Except I was still too stupid to realize why. And then everything happened…and then I was back, thanks to Willow…big yay for me…” she added glumly. “It felt *so* horrible…so bad. I'm still waiting for someone to explain that to me, by the way,” she digressed rather pointedly, before returning to the issues at hand. “The thing was, you left again, which we've now established was a good thing, but at the time…major, catastrophic pain of the 'let's be 'self-destructive Buffy'' kind…hence, Spike.”

“Oh whom we shall not speak at this time,” Giles interceded firmly, meeting her eyes and lifting himself gingerly out of his chair.

After a beat Buffy nodded: “not a word,” she agreed. “I'm not sure what the word would be, anyway,” she added, her tone dry but her eyes more than a little haunted. “All I know is that part of my life is over. It should never have happened. There are things I did that I wish someone could burn out of my brain with a hot iron or something, so I'd be punished, but then I wouldn't have to remember any more that I was ever that horrible.”

“We all do appalling things at some point in our lives, Buffy. The fact that you recognise and accept that you did them is far more important than wallowing in self-pity over them.”

Buffy wrinkled her nose and set her mouth in a straight line. “Easy for you to say. And I do not wallow.”

He raised an eyebrow as she came to him an d looked up.

“Well, maybe a little,” she conceded, looking sheepish. “Does anyone ever call you 'Rupert'?” she added unexpectedly, obviously trying to change the subject.

His eyes grew warm and his lip quirked up. “Ethan, on occasion…and Olivia, when the mood took her…otherwise very few…although my mother was fond of the name…”

“Well that figures. *Parents*,” she drawled. “My mother likes 'Buffy'. I rest my case.”

Giles couldn't help the chuckle. “Mother really was fond of the name. It got me a lot of beatings in the schoolyard until Ripper was born, but she thought it was a grand name and that I should be proud of it…”

Buffy's eyes grew bleak. “He liked it.”

“Don't fret yourself so,” he said gently. “I'm here. I just don't look like a badly drawn St. Bernard any more…and best of all I remember who you are and why I…” He stopped, reddening.

The inaccurate analogy made Buffy smile, and his almost-statement made her eyes flick up to his again, searching them.

“Why you…what…?” she prompted softly.

He shook his head. “Some things are better left unsaid.”

Buffy scowled. “I think I like Rupert better after all,” she growled.

It made Giles smile again. “All right. I was only going to say that being myself again has its advantages…such as having all my memories of you…and how very much I…I…” He ducked his head, unexpectedly, yet typically, tongue-tied again.

She stepped close to where he stood. “Me too,” she said softly. “So much, I feel like I'm going to burst if…if…”

Giles looked up slowly, and down into the lovely eyes, his cheek dimpling after a moment of intense mutual scrutiny, and his fingers reaching out to take her face in them.

“I love you so very, very much,” he whispered.

Buffy's eyes lit and she smiled back at him. “And they lived happily ever after,” she said contentedly.

“Indeed,” Giles agreed lovingly, his head bending to hers. “You do know what comes next…?”

There was a small chuckle and the soft sound of someone saying 'Duh' just before the two figures merged and became one…


* * *