Recognition | Part One

“He can't really be dead, right? Maybe Anya did some demony-magic or something?”

Buffy closed her eyes at the desperation in her sister's voice as they approached the Magic Box. “Dawn, you heard what she said,” she replied, the weight of grief crushing her almost as much as the knowledge that being the Slayer had once again kept her from the side of someone she loved when they needed her most.

“I don't care!” the younger girl snapped. “He's not dead, I know it. He can't just come back and die before I even get to say…”

The door of the magic box rattled open on its broken hinges and both girls looked through the destruction to the emptiness within.

“They aren't here,” Dawn assumed immediately.

“Anya?” Buffy called, making her sister scowl before darting into the rubble. She was back before Buffy had finished calling her name.

“There's no one here. We should check the hospital.”

Buffy nodded dumbly, pain numbing her entire body.

They found Xander and Willow at the ER. Only it was Xander, rather than Willow, who was being treated. Willow was sitting in the waiting room staring catatonically ahead through too-large green eyes, her fingers knotted intently together.

“Will?” Buffy said softly. “Are…are you…?”

The tousled red head moved in a slow shaking motion without looking up. “Maybe not ever again,” she announced in a voice that whispered agony and lingering rage in every syllable.

“Is Xander okay? Did you hurt him?”

“Dawn!” Buffy admonished in a half-hearted hiss.

Willow nodded even more slowly. “I hurt him. They're fixing it. Stitches.”

“Do you know…is…can you…I mean…Giles?” she stumbled.

Willow finally dragged her eyes up to meet the blue-grey ones. There was terrible grief and weariness in them and yet, still, something continued to roil disturbingly behind the clouded green. “Here. He's here…” she said absently.

Dawn made an anguished sound, the memory of her mother's body vivid in her mind.

Buffy didn't know how to react. Her friend looked so much like her old self, but so broken and she'd done such terrible things…and she'd hurt Giles…

Willow blinked, bleakness and hollow despair robbing her face of colour or expression. “I think I killed him…”

Dawn sobbed.

All of the resurgent joy of life Buffy had been overwhelmed by at the cemetery drained from her in that moment, leaving her feeling almost exactly as she had when she struggled out of her grave all those months ago.

“No!” she finally managed in a strangled cry of denial. “No!”

Willow shook her head slowly, unnoticed by either of the Summers women.

When Xander finally limped back to the waiting room, stitched and bandaged, he found all three of his friends pale, grief stricken and lost.

“Hey Buffy, Dawn. See you've met Willow. See, the goodness of red hair…crayon-breaky Willow all back and black-eyed psycho-bitch Willow all gone now.”

The others looked, if anything, even bleaker. Willow's expression didn't change.

Xander frowned. Okay, it was lame, but not that lame…“Guys? Something wrong…? Oh God, who died, besides…” He looked at the redhead. “…y'know?” he added, wincing.

“Giles,” Dawn managed, sliding a look at her sister, who was still staring into the middle distance much as Willow was doing. “Willow said…she said she killed him…”

Xander's eyes widened. “No, Pumpkin. Willow can't even count fingers right now. Giles…he's not…he's upstairs. Anya was here with him, but she went home as soon as she saw me.” He looked pained for a moment then continued. “He's hurt pretty bad, but he's been worse.”

Buffy's eyes seemed to sparkle to life and flick up to his in a nanosecond. “Alive?” she whispered shakily.

Xander nodded. “Of course he is…not that Will didn't try really hard to…” He winced again and looked down at the slender form of his friend before changing his mind about the gallows humour. “I mean, yeah, there's a lot of breakage, but nothing that won't heal.”

“Where?” Buffy demanded, not really listening to the rest.

“Upstairs. Fourth floor. Room One-twenty-one,” Xander told her and then stepped out of the stampede as Buffy and Dawn made for the elevators without another word.

Despite their charge, both girls stopped in the open doorway of the private room as though joined at the hip. Neither breathed as they looked at the apparently dozing, battered form in the elevated hospital bed.

“I told you he wasn't dead,” Dawn hissed.

Buffy, too overwhelmed to do anything else, simply stared. “I should have been there,” she whispered eventually.

“Yeah, you should,” Dawn growled, then her expression softened a little, “except I'm kinda glad you stopped Willow from turning Xander to toast and me into Key-flambé.”

“Giles…” Buffy whispered despondently.

Dawn closed her eyes. She was glad Buffy had once again come to her rescue, but the cost, as always, had been way too high…

“Maybe we…maybe we shouldn't disturb him?”

Her sister was dithering. It was un-Buffy-like. Dawn frowned. “Maybe, but I'm betting he'd want to see us…or you, anyway.”

Buffy seemed almost lost, like a small child. She looked from her sister to the still, bruised form in the bed. “O-okay.”

They moved to the bedside together and Buffy lifted large fingers to hold them in hers.

“Silly girl,” Giles rasped softly, startling them both for a moment, since his eyes were still closed. “Of course I want to see you.”

Buffy's eyes filled, surprising Dawn again. “I shouldn't have left you,” she whispered tremulously.

Giles' mouth pulled into a grin that obviously hurt. “Aren't we a pair? Of course you should have gone.” The green eyes were revealed, settled on Dawn, and he gave her a reassuring half smile. “Dawn is still here, is she not? And Xander?”

“I always let you down,” Buffy persisted. “And Anya dyed her hair blonde.”

Dawn's look clearly said her sister had finally lost it.

Giles chuckled painfully. “You have no need to be jealous of Anya.”

“I'm not! Jealous, I mean,” Buffy retorted, clearly miffed. “I mean…how could I be?”

Giles' good humour subsided and he shifted a little, wincing badly even with the economy of motion.

“Are you…did they say you'd be okay?” Dawn asked tremulously.

Giles smiled at her again and nodded. “I always am.”

It was said lightly enough, but there was a kind of weariness in his eyes that had nothing to do with his injuries. Even Dawn, in her youth, could tell there was a great deal more going on than was being put into words. She let her gaze slip back to her sister, whose eyes were very bright again, then leaned down and very gently embraced Giles before kissing his cheek.

I'm glad you're back,” she whispered. “I missed you.” And then she was gone.

Buffy stood alone. “I didn't mean that the way…I mean…” She frowned.

“I know,” he said gently, trying to save her tying herself in knots.

“You shouldn't do that.”

“Do what?” he asked, ignoring the dull, boring ache in his back and in many of the most severe contusions and the broken ribs.

“Let me off easy.”

They smiled at each other, both knowing that nothing was ever easy, for either of them, and each sharing the rueful memories of Buffy's past tactlessness.

“Of course I'm jealous of Anya,” Buffy finally admitted, still smiling. “I want to scratch her eyes out.”

“She's a dear girl in her way, but she's…well…”

“Xander's?”

“Close enough,” he agreed, a twinkle in his eye. “Though Xander is going to have to pull his socks up if he's to repair their relationship. Anya deserves better than to be second best.”

Buffy frowned again. “Second best?”

Giles nodded. “She has never really been able to compete with either you or Willow on an emotional level. It is inherently unfair of Xander to do that to her. He has to realize that he's a man now, and one who truly loves Anya, and that he must needs put childish things behind him.”

“You mean the Scoobies? Or am I a 'childish thing'?”

A flicker of a smile danced in his eyes. “He needs to recognise that crushes pass and that, while childhood friendships may endure, Anya deserves to be first in his life, not somewhere after his affection for Willow and the half-hearted torch he carries for you.”

Buffy's eyes widened. “Still? And you know about that how? Or…you mean you actually noticed back then…?”

It was obvious that Giles was in a great deal of pain, but he managed a soft chuckle. “I'm not senile yet.”

“So I'm getting from this that there's not going to be any chance of Giles-Anya smoochies any time soon?” she ventured.

“Heaven forbid,” he chuckled again. “We have even less in common than you and I do, and you at least don't broadcast every detail of your sex life, nor do you have an ongoing love affair with my cash register.”

“And as an added bonus I'm not all demony right now, either,” she added, smiling again, before it faded a little. “At least I don't think I am.”

Giles' contented grin faded also. “You're a Slayer, Buffy, not a demon. Not a vampire. The 'One girl in all the world' might have the power of one or the other, but she will always be a human being. That's part of the secret, you know.”

“The secret?”

“The power of the Slayer. Your strength comes from both sides. The supernatural power…the human ability to choose between right and wrong…the ability to love. It's your gift…”

A laugh was torn from Buffy. “Last I heard my gift was death.”

Giles frowned at the pain in her voice then squeezed her fingers.

“Last I heard, your gift was love,” he said gently. “We may not know the reason why you're back, but you're here because you need to be.”

Buffy stared into the distance for a moment, seemingly digesting that. “Love?” she mused, bitterness in her voice. “What would I know about love? Look at my track record with guys…and Dawn, who spent the last six months hating the hell out of me, with good reason. Xander and Willow pretty much fell to pieces and I hardly noticed while I traded my humanity for a few hours of sweaty sex and a chance to behave as badly as he'd let me. What made it worse is I know he cared, in his own way, in between punches and telling me that I wasn't human…that I should choose darkness…because nobody else would want me if they knew what I was…that you obviously didn't…” She rushed on when the atmosphere immediately grew tense. “I think there's something going on with him. I know he thinks I love him, but I don't…I can't. He wants me in the darkness, and all I wanted was to get back to the light. It took me until today to realise that no part of me loves him, and never did. I was trying as hard as he was, to make him into something else, something I needed, wanted…something I thought I'd never have any other way.”

She seemed to change the subject suddenly. “Riley came back, you know. All majorly in- control soldier guy, and married to this girl…they're like Commando Ken and Barbie: the perfect couple. Too perfect for words…” Her face grew bleak for a moment. “Captain and Mrs Light, and there I was, Darkness's whore.” Moisture rose in her lashes. “The way he looked when he found us…like I was so dirty…and Spike…Giles, I felt so dirty…”

“Riley caught you…?”

Buffy's eyes widened when she realised she'd revealed too much. “Kinda,” she cringed, then suddenly realised how hard it was for him to even concentrate right now. “I talk too much,” she growled, then tightened her own grip. “I missed you.”

“I missed you, too,” he smiled wearily. “Prattle and all.”

The tease worked, and Buffy managed to smile again, even chuckle a little as she made a face at him.

“Will the Coven want you back soon?” she asked suddenly, sobering quickly at the thought.

Giles' smile faded. “Perhaps. There was no stipulated time to return, but they will expect me to take Willow back. It's far too dangerous to leave her here before they've had a chance to completely remove the magicks from her.”

Buffy looked alarmed. “Even the good stuff? Won't that hurt her? Isn't it a part of who she is now?”

Giles shook his head sadly. “I'm afraid Willow forfeited that part of her when she chose the darkness, not just to seek vengeance against Warren, but before, to fight Glory, and after, when she raised you.”

“She used evil stuff for that? I thought…”

He nodded fractionally. “I'm afraid so. The darkness was already in her. It may have been so from the time she returned Angel's soul. The spell she attempted opened her to the kind of power and…dangers…of which she couldn't even conceive, then.” His face grew sombre. “Now she can.”

Giles stopped talking suddenly. A nurse came into the room and picked up his chart. He rolled his eyes as she organised his pills and fussed with his bed while Buffy waited. When she was finally gone he sank back into his pillows, his eyes closed, a divot between his brows.

“You don't like hospitals much, do you?”

He opened his eyes slowly and looked up at her reluctantly. “I despise them…with a vile passion. Don't tell anyone.”

Buffy willed her mouth not to begin to wobble. “So how long are you in for?”

He managed a half smile at her lame joke.

“Well, it appears I have no serious internal injuries, apart from some slightly bashed kidneys, though a few ribs seem to have succumbed to the rather strenuous work out Willow gave me, and of course,” he added, indicating his bruises, “the flesh was rather…weak. I assume that as soon as they're convinced that I'm stabilised and unlikely to expire suddenly, they'll release me.”

“Guessing that can't be soon enough, huh?”

“Yesterday would be nice,” he replied lightly, but Buffy could hear the truth of it in his voice. An idea formed.

“What if I could get you sprung sooner by promising to take care of you?”

“Buffy, you have your hands full…”

“Nope. Quit the burger grind…” She paused and grinned. “Go me with the pun.” Then she focused again, the idea taking shape. “And I think Dawn and I are good, finally. If you can get the Coven guys to come for Willow, and maybe Xander if he wants to go with, I can do the Nightingale for as long as you need me to.”

“Spike?”

Buffy's smiled faded. “So very, very over. Besides, he kinda went all vamp on me. Lines really got crossed…not that a lot of it isn't my fault…it is…but I really don't want to go there, ever again…”

“Lines? Buffy what are you talking about? And must you always blame yourself?”

“This time? Yeah, I think so. I did some horrible stuff…out of rage, out of self-loathing…and when I wasn't beating on him, or him on me, I really didn't care about anything. I was letting him…” She shrugged. There was a pregnant pause before she went on. “And it wasn't fair, you know? Like I said before, no matter how bad he is at it, he cares, in his own way, and I used that as much as he used me.”

Giles had closed his eyes again. “I knew I shouldn't have left you. I'm sorry you thought you were so alone. I had assumed that you would turn to Willow or Xander, Tara perhaps…”

The mention of the gentle Wiccan's name made both fall silent, each swallowing and filling the silence with sadness. Their eyes met and grew over bright at the same moment.

“I wish she was here instead of me,” Buffy said softly, and Giles knew that she meant it.

“Some things are meant to be. Willow's flouting of the natural laws required a heavy price. She couldn't know that it would be Tara who would be that price.”

“So you're saying Tara died because of me?”

Giles looked at his Slayer's stricken face. “Not exactly. Tara died because the breadth of Willow's arrogant tampering with those laws upset the natural balance. And that imbalance required a price, which had to be redressed sooner or later.”

“But she did it for me…” Buffy protested.

Giles frowned. “Unfortunately that's not entirely true. If your welfare had been her sole priority, you would not be here, because she would have consulted with me about the consequences of what she was going to do, and not deliberately gone behind my back. In which case I would have prevented the attempt. I could never be sorry that you're here,” he added gently, softening the impact of his statement and returned her relieved smile, “but I know you were brought back against your will, and we know the cost, to you, to Dawn, to those whom Willow has killed or injured, and to poor Tara.” His voice dropped a couple of octaves to a sombre rumble. “Willow hid her activities from me, from Spike and even from Dawn, because she knew that any one of us would have recognised that what she was doing was wrong. The dark forces she called upon were dangerous and fraught with peril on a scale much larger than she appears to be able to grasp, beyond some childish exhilaration at her apparent command of that borrowed power. Any one of us would have stopped her, but she did not want to be stopped, regardless of the consequences.”

Buffy continued to look tormented.

Giles grew impatient, in empathy as much as frustration. “It's no more your fault than mine. I should have realized after she did that spell of Jenny's that she would need monitoring. And after Glory I should certainly have done something about it. Somehow, I kept hoping that the old Willow would prevail. And for the most part it appeared she had. I realized too late that there is no old Willow. There is just…Willow: the same child who used to violate my privacy and my trust to rifle my private files looking for books and spells I forbade her to read, the same girl who performed dark magic with Anya and brought her own alter-ego here, causing an innocent girl's death; the same one, having apparently learned nothing from that experience, who did yet another ill-advised spell, later, just 'to make herself feel better', blinding me, putting Xander and Anya's lives at risk…I should have known, should have prevented this.”

“We both should have,” Buffy said darkly, her tone emphatic. “I was here and I might as well have been in England with you for all the good it did Willow. I should have made her leave after the accident with Dawn. If I had, maybe Tara would still be alive. Maybe they would have had their reunion at the dorm instead of the house…”

“And perhaps she would have been so lost and embittered and alone that she might have spiralled down into her addiction and burned herself out long before now. Willow or Tara…I don't consider either outcome acceptable.”

There was strain in his voice and he'd grown horribly pale.

Buffy panicked a little, realising that her good intentions had gone for naught, once again. “Giles, are you okay? You look terrible.”

“Thank you very much,” he said sarcastically. “You're not exactly at your best, yourself.”

The tense knot in her stomach released and she scowled. “Very funny. I don't care what I look like. I do, however, care if you have a clot or a heart attack or something…” The idea sent cold chills down her spine. “I can't lose you…” She hesitated for a fraction of a second, teetering on an abyss, then plunged headlong into it, holding his gaze with her own. “I…I've never really said it before…” But she was going to say it now and it made her stomach lurch.

“I-I love you, Giles, and I don't want to lose you.”

He blinked and then stared at her, suddenly oblivious to the constricting pain of his ribs, the agony of breathing. It was simple declaration, neither romantic nor dramatic, and yet its impact was more profound than she could possibly have imagined.

Buffy was looking back at him, as disturbed as he was.

“I love you too,” he said finally, gruffly, defusing the moment. “And I expect that I won't be going anywhere for a while.”

“Good,” she replied awkwardly. “Because I'd have to kill anyone who tried to take you away from me again. The Coven people can send someone here to get Willow, like I said before. And maybe when you can actually stand up again, you can follow, if you really think you need to go…as long as you promise to come back.”

They both smiled. “I suppose it's feasible that they could send someone, though I do wish Willow could be accompanied by someone she knows…”

Buffy frowned. “Xander might…but like he said, right now she's not really firing on all thrusters…I don't think she'd really know if we were there or not. And much as I love her…Giles, I'm having a really hard time caring enough right now. She almost killed Dawn twice. She almost killed you. And hey…what's with the 'lose your girlfriend, destroy the world' thing? Some of us lose people they love a whole lot more quietly,” she added softly, her mother's face momentarily in her thoughts before fading as she remembered how little Giles shared of the pain he must have felt after losing Jenny; memories of Angel's innocent helplessness when she skewered him mixing with the sound of Giles' grief as he'd wept outside the warehouse. “Come to think of it, not the first time Willow used magic like this to deal with pain. Oz…Veruca…vengeance spells, 'do my will' spells…déjà vu of the worst kind. I'm thinking cookies and car detailing not going to cut it this time…”

Giles chuckled mirthlessly and shook his head. “No,” he said unhappily. “The Coven will have its work cut out for it. I could feel Willow's pain…terrible pain…when we were joined by the magic…but I could also feel the other, the dance with the power…the addiction to it. The terribly irony is that Willow and Warren seem to have mirrored each other in the most disturbing ways.”

“They did?” Buffy squeaked, surprised, then certain things clicked into place and she nodded. “Yeah, okay, I get that, but how much do you actually know about…?”

“Enough. When she's nervous or worried, Anya talks. She never stopped talking all the way to the emergency room, during the time we were in the ER, and afterward, here, until Xander arrived and she suddenly remembered the unsecured cash in the Magic Box. She shot out of here like the proverbial rocket.”

“So I'm guessing you're pretty much caught up on the details of all the badness, including the stuff I was telling you about…?” she asked uncomfortably.

He rolled his green eyes up to meet her blue-grey ones and smiled, half amused, half exasperated. “I knew you were all stupid, but not that stupid. Honestly, Buffy…another vampire…? If nothing else it's terribly…unoriginal.”

Buffy snorted. Right or not, his words cut. “So now I'm not only stupid, I'm unoriginal?”

He actually laughed aloud. “As a matter of fact, yes. I thought you'd have developed a little more taste after your Nancy Ninja boy period…”

Buffy shot him a filthy look for that one. “Yeah, well, Spike got to me in my 'hey look I'm not dead anymore, God I wish I was and still not loving the claustrophobic encore' period, also known as the zombie Buffy period…Zombie Buffy smelling like burgers, looking like a dork and totally not wanting to be the buck-stopper for once in my life. Do you know how much it sucks having bucks coming at you from all over the place?” she asked with typical Buffy whimsy. “Did I tell you how much I hate bank managers, and plumbing, burgers and bills, and dirty dishes at midnight and social workers and nosy teachers and being broke and…?” She stopped mid-umbrage.

Giles returned from wherever he was hiding behind the glazed look to investigate the silence.

“Buffy?” he asked softly as she continued to stare at him.

“What? Oh.” She frowned then looked agonised and apologetic again. “Giles, do I really always make everything about me?”

Giles blinked at the apparent change of topic then smiled again. “Perhaps, sometimes. But you have to remember that there is also an ongoing tendency for others…and the world at large …to make things about you—about who and what you are, whether you like it or not.”

Moisture collected in Buffy's lashes. “I hate that there's so much…that all I seem to do sometimes is talk about my problems, even when all I really want is to…” She sighed. “I'm sorry.”

“People who care for each other are supposed to be able to discuss such things…air their feelings, and so on and so forth,” he pointed out quietly.

“Giles, you've never even aired your singing to me, let alone your feelings,” she retorted. “It's always me with the blah, biddy blah, blah, blah. It always was, right from the beginning. And you with the listening, like you always do, ignoring the garbage, helping with the important stuff.”

“Like now?” he teased, his eyes dancing, despite the strain so evident in them.

“Like now,” she confirmed. “Thanks for coming back. You saved us all.”

“I rather think that was Xander,” he pointed out wryly.

Buffy shook her head. “I don't know how yet, but I know it was you. Thank you,” she repeated pointedly, sharply aware of how much he needed to rest now. “And now, whether I want to or not, I've gotta go find Dawnie, and then we're going to find out how to bust you out of this place as soon as possible.” Her smile and teasing voice drew an answering smile from him.

He still wasn't wearing his glasses, which Buffy continued to find unexpectedly disturbing whenever he looked at her with those incredible eyes of his. Sometimes it wasn't even the eyes…a couple of times just the turn of his head was enough...

It, or perhaps just the joy of having him back, and alive, made her notice things she never thought she'd ever notice about Giles…the cute crinkles at the corners of his eyes when he smiled, the unnerving sensuality of his mouth as it moved…

Her mind drifted back to the first moment she saw him in the Magic Box during the fight with Willow. After the joy, then the relief, there had been a surge of…what? She remembered her breath being taken by the way he sounded, the way he looked and the way her body responded unexpectedly, even shockingly, to his touch moments later. All she'd been able to do at the time was savour the embrace, unwilling to let go until she absolutely had to. There had been no time to even acknowledge those reactions since then, and now she really didn't want to.

He was looking up at her again with those eyes. Of course this time there were bruises and cuts and the handsome face was looking more than a little weary and strained.

She shook herself mentally. It was just too nuts…and yet…she locked gazes with him and let the affect of his unfaltering jade one wash over her. There it was again.
Her skin tingled with the electricity of the moment, her stomach was suddenly beset again with phantom flutters and her face swiftly grew unexpectedly warm.

“What happened to your glasses?” she finally managed to croak.

He actually laughed. “I left them in England. Not really the thing when you're doing powerful magic. Better to have direct eye contact.”

“I kinda like you this way,” she admitted. “Willow was right. You are pretty sexy for an old guy.”

He stared at her for a moment then smiled, his eyes crinkling up as he chuckled. “Wonders will never cease. And here I thought, in that regard at least, the expression 'eiwwww' and I were synonymous in the Buffy lexicon.”

“Of course they are,” she shot back, grinning. “But you're still kinda sexy for an old guy. And Giles…wear more black…you were born to wear black, trust me.”

He laughed again, and drew a sharp breath, colour waning.

Buffy bit her lip, the teasing dying on her lips, the joy dying in her eyes. “It's really bad, isn't it? I shouldn't have made you laugh. I should have left ages ago.”

“It is…unpleasant,” he conceded in small grunts. “And I'm not as young as I used to be, nor am I blessed with Slayer healing…but I am still glad you're here.”

“You think there's maybe a spell where you can borrow some for a while?”

Giles blinked. It wasn't like Buffy to think so laterally or to sound so genuinely concerned. “There probably is, but I'm not subjecting anyone to any more magic after what we've just been through.”

“But…” Buffy began to object, then started again. “Isn't it different when you're not addicted and it's, y'know, 'good magic'?

He smiled at her fondly. “Yes, of course it is. But now is not the time.”

For some reason his gentle patience and good humour undid her.

“Buffy, what it is it?”

“I missed you so much,” she managed, a tremor in her voice.

“And I you,” he added a little hoarsely. “You've grown up, Buffy.”

The giggle was more torn from her than voluntary. “You have no idea,” she told him dryly, though still on the verge of tears. “Not too many other people would put Buffy and 'grown up' in the same sentence. You said Anya told you all the gory details. I'm sure she didn't leave anything out…”

He shook his head ruefully. “I'm sure she didn't either. I'm so sorry, Buffy. If I had known how terribly vulnerable you were…”

She shook her head. “Doesn't matter now. It's not like you're psychic or anything. How could you know, when I couldn't even talk to my own sister about it?”

“Still,” he said darkly. “The consequences…Buffy, Anya seems to think Spike attacked you…?”

Buffy looked away. “Xander,” she growled.

“I think not,” Giles said quietly, again shifting to relieve another aching limb. “Anya is, after all, a vengeance demon again now. She doesn't need to be told, to know when a woman has been hurt or scorned.” He searched her unhappy profile. “What happened?”

“He…he, ah…he wanted…I mean, I'd stopped seeing him, but he really thought I was still…he tried to…”

The muscles in Giles' bruised cheek tightened ferociously, but he allowed her to tell it.

Buffy swallowed and turned back to him. “I stopped him, but he was going to…Giles, it wasn't all his fault…I mean, the whole thing was so weird, so stupid…I mean, based on everything, he couldn't know how serious I was…at first…and then it was too late and he didn't want to stop. It was horrible.”

“The line was crossed,” Giles quoted quietly. “Whatever his perceptions were, there is no excuse for what he did, nor can there ever be.” His voice hardened ferociously. “ He tried to rape you. Nothing, no 'if' or 'but' can mitigate that fact. Do you remember the old adage about playing with fire?”

Buffy nodded sombrely. “Buffy the moth. Always getting burned. Never learning a damned thing.”

Giles looked hopeful. “Can I take it those days are now done?”

She tilted her head, speculatively. “I hope so.”

The momentarily pleased look was chased across his face by disappointment.

“Wrong answer, huh?” she guessed and was suddenly seized by a need to connect, her fingers reaching out and curling around the ones resting at his side again, not least because she knew she should let him rest, but really didn't want to go. “Giles, things are changing and I want them to keep changing. I want it to be over. I want to be done with that part of me, but I'm through making big promises. I'm the Slayer…that side of me is always going to be there…and we both know it's not always exactly my best side…so all I'm promising right now is to try.”

He turned his hand in hers and returned the grip. “I know,” he said softly. “I was just hoping you were going to bypass some of the mistakes I made at your age through not learning that lesson soon enough.”

Without thinking about it, Buffy followed an impulse and leaned down to rest her forehead against the only un-bruised spot on his. “Did I tell you how much I missed you?”

He smiled again, surprised but pleased. “Yes, but I don't mind hearing it again.”

She moved so that her cheek rested against his and moved her arms around his neck. “I missed you so much,” she repeated obligingly, only half-teasing. “And I already set an unhealthy precedent today by telling you how much I love you,” she added fondly.

Giles curled his least battered arm around her shoulders in a reciprocal hug. Buffy, being careful of his broken ribs felt the pressure of it increase at her words and followed another impulse, turning her face inwards to kiss his cheek. Startled, he turned his face to her, so that their mouths were actually brushing each other.

Buffy was suddenly overwhelmed by a desire to press her lips against the soft velvet of his, and was so startled by the impulse that she jumped away, leaving them both bemused and flustered.

“S-sorry,” he stammered.

“No, my bad,” she reassured him.

He searched her face as though looking for something, the scrutiny of his spectacular eyes bringing rosy colour to her cheeks.

“I didn't mean to…I mean, if it grossed you out…” she tried to apologise.

Giles' eyebrows flew up. “I rather thought that was your province,” he was surprised into saying.

“Mine?” Buffy's eyebrows followed suit, in equal surprise, but only for a moment before her mind suddenly seized on something. “Does…does that mean it didn't…?”

His gaze suddenly felt like it was boring into her. “No, it didn't,” he confirmed.

“Me neither,” she revealed, shocking even herself, and heard his indrawn breath.

Suddenly Buffy felt as though she was walking on marshmallows. “I really have to go find Dawn now,” she said in a rush and straightened. “Don't worry, we'll get you out of here, as soon as we possibly can. That I can promise,” she added as she slipped out the door.

A part of Giles longed to go after her, to make her tell him what she meant, and a part of him was far too afraid to do any such thing. On the whole though, most of him was just one big ball of pain. Finally, he closed his eyes, a deep, unhappy crease between his brows, and uttered a single, frustrated epithet under his breath.

*******


Buffy watched Xander as he collected Giles' things.

“Did they say it was okay?”

Giles looked up from his struggle to put on a shirt. “They said it was obvious I needed time to mend, and if I wanted to do it here, that was my prerogative. They're going ahead with the pre-planned strategy for extracting Willow's magic. They don't need me for that.”

“I wanted to go, but she didn't want anyone,” Xander added unhappily then seemed to force himself to snap out of it. “Anyone mind if I pick up something to eat before we go? I haven't actually eaten yet, today. Empty refrigerator. Not too efficient yet with the solo housekeeping stuff.”

They both nodded sympathetically and Giles turned back to Buffy again. “I shall of course have to go home when I'm sufficiently recovered, to keep an eye on her progress, whether she wants me to or not.”

Buffy's brow furrowed. “You were right. She really shouldn't be alone right now…maybe I…”

“She's not,” Giles said quietly. “She is in the best place she can possibly be, with the best people and the best care she could possibly have.”

“It better be,” Buffy muttered and slid off the end of the bed when Giles straightened arthritically. “Ready to go, old guy?”

He harrumphed, making her smile. Then she looked appraisingly at his appearance: a slim figure in the pair of black jeans and loose dark blue shirt she'd bought for him. He'd lost weight since returning to England. He was also struggling to pull on the duster he'd arrived in.

After a beat, Buffy helped him wordlessly, smiling reassuringly when their eyes met, then providing a shoulder to lean on and turning with him when Xander returned from the vending machines munching on a sandwich, and pronounced himself ready to take them home.

The trip home in the younger man's car was uneventful, though painful, for Giles.

When they reached the master bedroom of the Summers house, Giles stopped in the doorway. The room was completely changed. Nothing remained of what he'd glimpsed on his way to the bathroom on the odd occasion he'd visited to check on Dawn during the summer after Buffy's death.

“Dawn and I put all Willow and Tara's stuff in the attic. Mostly this is my stuff, new stuff and guest stuff…in case you were wondering,” she finished awkwardly.

“It's fine, Buffy. I'm glad I won't be imposing on anyone's privacy, but I'm not sure I like usurping…”

“Not usurping,” Buffy said sharply. “I love Willow, but I owe it to Dawn not to have her back in this house after…after everything that's happened. I'll help her find a place, or to move back to the dorm…but not here.”

Giles was surprised, but approved of her priorities. It showed a new level of maturity that she was now able to distinguish between blind loyalty and the obligations of a parent and guardian for her charge's physical and emotional welfare. None of them could predict the outcome of Willow's rehabilitation, even with the Coven's help.

Xander helped him to the bed, before saying his farewells. “I have to get to the site if I want to keep my job,” he apologised and shrugged self-consciously. “I kinda missed a few days lately and annoyed a few relevant people, what with Apocalypse Willow and the Nerds of Doom.”

Giles looked up and nodded. “I'm sorry about that, but you can be very proud of what you were able to do for Willow…for all of us.”

Xander flushed and looked uncomfortable, partly out of pleasure and partly from awkwardness because deep down he didn't feel like he'd done anything. He knew Giles was the real hero, but he also knew that the older man wouldn't want him to make a fuss about it.

“Thanks,” he managed. “But I think there were a lot of heroes. You, for example, and Anya.” He looked sad for a moment then smiled. “I hear she was terrific. Go Anya!”

“She did great,” Buffy agreed. “And she took care of Giles when I had to leave…”

Giles smiled. “Yes, she did. As I said, she's a dear girl when she's not being entirely frustrating.”

A strange look crossed Xander's face. “Yeah, she kind of is…a dear girl I mean …not…well, never mind. Too bad she can't stand the sight of me these days.”

“Give it time,” Giles said gently.

“Yeah, Xand'. You have to give her time. The wedding thing…I know what happened, y'know, with the guy, but it was still way harsh. I didn't think anything could hurt her that much…she's always been so…y'know, clueless…about hurting other people's feelings or knowing when she's driving them crazy, but she really was hurting, a lot,” Buffy told him earnestly.

Xander scowled. “Way to shovel the guilt, Buff. I wish I'd never asked her to marry me in the first place. I never wanted to hurt her…but I never, ever want her to have to go through what…” He stopped suddenly. “Never mind. I have to go.”

Buffy and Giles watched him leave, sadness on Giles' face and consternation on Buffy's.

“I screwed things up, didn't I?” she asked quietly. “I only wanted to help. It's just…
Anya's not here to stick up for herself, so I thought…but I didn't want to make Xander feel bad either…at least…”

Giles smiled at her flailing around. Buffy had never been a master of subtlety. “The most important thing is that you tried.”

She shrugged and motioned to him to take off his coat, helping him when it became obvious that any rotation of his arms or movement of the muscles in his torso was extremely painful. At the same time it occurred to her that someone with broken ribs wasn't likely to be able to bend to remove their boots either.

If Giles was surprised he didn't complain when she automatically moved to lift his leg after hanging the jacket in the closet, and started to ease his left boot off. When she'd done the right one, she straightened and smiled at the discomfort on his face.

“Not used to having someone take care of you, huh?”

Giles cleared his throat. “Not since I was about eleven,” he said gruffly.

“Eleven? What happened to your parents?”

“I was sent away to school. Boarding school,” he told her, his expression becoming surprisingly bleak.

A number of emotions and responses flashed through Buffy's mind, not least outrage for the little boy who'd had his childhood cut so short. In the end, though, there were no words, not least because she could tell he didn't want to talk about it. Instead she deliberately started unbuttoning his shirt.

“Buffy, I think I can…”

“Giles, you can't lift your arms. If you couldn't take the jacket off there's no way you're going to get this shirt off.” When she reached his belt she tugged the shirt from the front of his jeans and undid the last two before reaching behind him and pulling the shirt off by the collar, yanking the rest of it from the back of his jeans. Surprisingly, he wasn't wearing a T-shirt.

“Wow, half naked Giles,” she teased, disguising her distress at the sight of the injuries Willow had inflicted on him. He was a black, blue, green, yellow and purple mess. “They didn't tape the ribs?”

“They generally don't these days,” Giles offered, well aware that the colour had left her face and that her voice had wavered as she spoke.

“Oh. Pyjamas or shorts?” she asked, still trying to block out the extent of the beating.

“Shorts, but if you think I'm going to let you help me get out of these jeans…”

“Hey, Slayer, remember? How do you intend to stop me?” Buffy retorted dryly.

“You wouldn't?” he growled.

For a long moment she managed to look as though she most certainly would, then she smiled and chuckled. “Of course I wouldn't, but you should have seen your face. Like I've never seen a guy without his pants before, anyway,” she muttered, then went red as a beet when she realised what she'd said. “Nurses do this stuff all the time. Why am I any different?” she demanded to cover her mortification.

“If you don't know, I'm not going to tell you. Now be a good girl and draw some tea while I get myself into this bed.”

“Hey, not a cocker spaniel here,” she parried. “Maybe if you can stand up long enough, you can just drop your pants and step out of them. I'll pick them up later. Just be careful. If you hurt yourself again being stubborn, I'll kick your butt myself,” she warned and reluctantly left him to it while she went to hunt for tea.

Giles watched her go before shaking his head, rising gingerly and unbuckling his belt before lowering the zipper and pushing the jeans off his hips so that they slid down to his knees. Except, unlike slacks, denim didn't really want to just slide off. He rolled his eyes and wriggled out of them, his face getting whiter and whiter with each new wave of pain. Moments later he was under the covers, suddenly very glad to be horizontal again.

It took him several minutes to conquer the waves of nauseating pain before he heard footsteps on the stairs.

Buffy set the tray on the side-table when Giles didn't sit up. “You okay? You look like hell,” she told him bluntly.

“Charming,” he retorted. “And yes. I am, now. Which is why I'm rather reluctant to move again.”

“After I found the tea and everything?”

Giles sniffed. “Camomile, Buffy?”

“Sorry, it's all we've got. Willow's or Tara's I guess. I'll get you some English tea as soon as I can,” she promised.

Giles moved a little and winced with pain.

Buffy watched unhappily. “I still think we should find a way for you to borrow some Slayer healing. It's not fair for you to be in so much pain just because...”

Giles scowled at her guilty face. “Buffy, you couldn't be in both places at the same time and even if you had been, it's probable that both of us would be in bed right n…” His voice tapered off and a moment of deadly silence followed as he realised what he'd said, his gaze reluctantly meeting hers until he noted her high colour and the rabbit-in-the-headlights look in her eyes. He looked away swiftly.

Buffy's mind was filled with mind-numbing imagery. It was beyond shocking to even contemplate Giles naked, let alone…with him…in bed even, and yet here she was, contemplating exactly that…in vivid technicolour…wig-o-rama, even. Except that while she should have wanted to run from the room, most of her wanted nothing more than to stay...

She stared at the turned head, the tousled hair and the familiar lines, coming to terms with the overwhelming impulse to touch him. It frightened her. At least with Spike she knew exactly where that impulse was coming from. She glanced down at her groin then looked up, deliberately blocking out all thoughts of the misery that had been her re-born life, not difficult, considering that it was hard to think at all when she found herself once again staring into those eyes.

“Buffy?” he asked softly, in that gentle voice he seemed to reserve for her.

Her mouth trembled. How many times had he nursed her bruised spirit with that voice? How many times had he soothed hurts, restored sanity and held her with nothing more than words and kindness?

She shrugged. “I-it's nothing,” she lied.

Concerned, he reached out and took her hand.

Electricity raced through her and she tensed, shocked by it.

Giles stared at her, very much aware of the sudden tension, both literal and figurative. As he watched her, his thumb unconsciously stroked the back of her hand.

The sensation only heightened what Buffy was feeling, turning warmth to heat and heat to ignition point. She made herself look down at their fingers, Giles doing the same.

For a long moment the silence of the room threatened to suffocate both of them.

Then Giles turned his face to look up at her, searching hers with an intensity that made her cheeks burn and her solar plexus tie itself in knots. He lifted his free hand and trailed his fingers down the side of her face.

Buffy's eyes closed whether she wanted them to or not, and she moved her cheek into the caress.

The atmosphere in the room was beyond incendiary by the time she opened her eyes again and found herself drowning in his. Then, right at the point where she could literally hear her heart racing and feel the struggle in her lungs for air, she managed to pull away.

“I-I have to…um…Dawn, I have to check on Dawn,” she stammered in a rasping voice, and backed out of the room, her mind screaming at the lameness of her one note excuse.

Giles watched her go, the sound of his own heart still hammering in his ears. He wasn't sure what the hell he was doing, or what exactly was going on. All he knew with any certainty was how much he loved her...had always loved her. Until her death, whatever else he'd felt, he'd convinced himself that it had never been anything but what Travers had labelled it after the Cruciamentum; that Travers' later leering and crude suggestions were simply the musings of a perverted old bastard with nothing better to do than come up with ways to harass them.

He stared at the door, the truth forcing its way into his consciousness. The truth was that he'd grown to love her far too fast right from the beginning and Travers had read him like a book, and still managed to get it wrong. Giles had never known how to deal with the connection they had, with the chemistry they shared, the living bond that made him feel more alive than he had for years, when they trained, when she laughed ...

Ultimately, he had simply waited. Waited for it to pass, waited for her to grow up…he didn't know which…until now.

He closed his eyes and drew a ragged breath.

Buffy stood at the refrigerator not really knowing why she was there. Dawn was at school, and she wasn't hungry. Not for food anyway. There was a sudden overwhelming urge to patrol, to hunt, daylight or not, but she was fighting it, not wanting to leave him alone. She'd promised to take care of him, and the new Buffy was determined that promises would only be made when they had a chance of being kept, a resolution appreciated by an approving but sceptical Dawn, who'd vowed to let her know loudly and clearly every time she messed up.

When the door finally opened again, Giles stirred from a doze he didn't know he'd slipped into, and blinked.

Buffy was back with a tray. It smelled glorious after the hospital slops.

“You went out?”

She nodded. “You went to sleep and I needed some air. I didn't go far. I remembered that place you used to go to. Y'know: the little Korean guy with all those blends of English tea? I found three that I remember seeing in your apartment and some of those cooki…um…biscuits you used to keep in the library. Also, for old times' sake, I got…”

“Donuts,” he sighed appreciatively. “There isn't a great deal I miss about this country, but I do admit to missing the jelly donuts.”

Buffy finally smiled again, still too self consciously, and put the tray on his lap when he'd eased himself back into a sitting position, before scooping up the spare pillows and arranging them behind his back and head. She could smell the fresh shampoo and the remnants of the aftershave he'd worn home as she worked. It shook her to realise she had no memory of Spike's scent, only cigarette smoke. Even with Angel, one of the strongest triggers she had was the scent of the stuff he used in his hair to spike it, and the faint scent of wood smoke from spending so much time in front of his fireplace at the mansion. The merest whiff of either was enough to recall his face, his touch, even the sound of his voice…his…

She shrugged internally. Riley, on the other hand, was like Spike. She supposed it was the job, but Riley preferred not to use anything scented. Macho men had to smell, well, macho, she mused acidly as she adjusted the last pillow to support Giles' neck without pushing his head forward.

“Better?” she asked as he eased back.

“Much,” he said softly. “Thank you for this, Buffy. It's very thoughtful of you.”

She smiled awkwardly again. “Kind of a new thing for me, huh? I'm glad you like. I-I didn't really want to leave you, even for a little while, but…” She faltered as their eyes locked.

After an intense micro silence, he finally spoke.

“It's all right. I suspect that if I was fit, I would probably have done the same thing, with far less grace,” he told her ruefully.

“No, you wouldn't. I'm the one who runs away. I'm the one who said: 'Giles, you can't leave me,' and then left you when you needed me most.”

He looked up, surprised, his gaze searching, curious.

“You don't think I ever thought about that…after? Well, I have, over and over, ever since the day I left. I mean…there was just so much…I couldn't do it all…”

“Buffy…”

“No. I couldn't. My life…our lives…were like a nightmare from the moment I turned Angelus. You know what it was like. He destroyed everything. Then Kendra died. Snyder and the police wanted me on murder charges. Mom threw me out of the house…Slayer or not, I was just a kid, and I was alone. I was terrified you'd die, but I had to keep going, like you taught me: be the Slayer, save the world. I hate it, Giles. I hate having to be like that. Everybody thinks I'm so hard.” Her voice cracked and moisture caught in her lashes. “They think I don't care.”

“They're wrong,” Giles said softly. “Else you wouldn't be here now and neither would Dawn. You'd still be in Los Angeles, doing what I was doing in London around your age…running away, avoiding responsibility, being utterly selfish…”

“I thought that was what I was doing, according to everyone when I came back that summer…” she drawled.

He smiled and shook his head. “You came back. You were so young, yet you found the strength to face who and what you were, what you were destined to be, far sooner and with far less harm than I was able to in my youth, despite being several years older than you were, at the time, and supposedly wiser. Buffy, people will always expect far too much from you, far more even than they expect of themselves. It's not always fair, or rational, but it is, unfortunately, true.”

Buffy's eyes grew luminous with the strength of her feelings. “But not you…never you,” she managed in a hoarse whisper, the depth of the revelation clear in her pale face.

He looked up and smiled slowly. “On the contrary. I seem to recall being read the riot act by a friend of yours once upon a time for exactly that. You were rather busy with the reptile mascot of a rather unpleasant fraternity house at the time, I believe,” he added dryly, only his eyes revealing the strength of his feelings.

For a split second she looked puzzled, then found the memory and rolled her eyes at him. “Now there's a flashback I could have lived without. Bad enough with the drugging and snake-boy and snake-boy's pet, but having to remember that I was actually stupid enough to listen to Cordelia Chase…”

Giles laughed softly, absorbing and enjoying the Buffy of old. He was acutely aware of the changes in her, including the years that seemed to have settled on her while he was away. He was even more aware of the way her hair shone, the turn of her head, the glow of her skin, the changing colours of her eyes from the forest to the sky, deepening to summer storm and fading to winter grey as her moods changed.

Buffy had always been old. Even when the others were struggling with the travails of childhood's end, she was dealing with the long lonely road of the Slayer, making choices no adult should ever have to make, facing terrors no human being should ever have to face and yet still managing to make time to do childhood things, to be a normal teenager, just sometimes, no matter how impossible he told her it was.

When she paused to look at him curiously, waiting for him to return from his brown study, her eyes were wide and enquiring yet still with that wizened amusement that was uniquely Buffy's.

“Dime for them,” she teased.

“Inflation?”

“Uh-huh,” she grinned.

Giles grinned back, and for a moment the connection between them was as vibrant and unexpected as a bolt of electric current. It gave both of them breathtaking pause. He saw it in her eyes even before she smiled again, even more widely, and went deliberately and seamlessly on about the various catastrophes they'd survived all those years ago, interleaved with amused commentary about the library, the school, and the adolescent misadventures of their youth that had always seemed designed to drive Giles to distraction.

For her part, Buffy had seen the same in his, despite her gentle evasion, and knew he'd felt it too. On the other hand she was also beginning to see how tired he was and how much pain he was in.

“You should have said something,” she said suddenly, halfway through a sentence, and moved close to him. “I shouldn't be tiring you out like this. You need to rest. I'm so stupid.”

Giles was about to tell her to stop being silly when her fingertips instinctively caressed an errant lock from his now more than slightly clammy brow. He rolled his eyes upward and their gazes locked. Had it been any other woman he would have kissed the soft, slightly parted lips leaning close to his. He could hear the change in her breathing and feel her other hand tighten on his arm and wondered momentarily if she was utterly appalled. In the next moment he knew that wasn't true either.

The look of wonder, of revelation, on her face, in the clear gaze that now held his, followed by the same fear he was feeling, the same hesitancy…the same trepidation, told him all that he needed to know.

“Giles…?” she whispered at last.

His eyes lit when he read the question in hers and the ghost of a smile touched his mouth. After a beat he gave the slightest of nods. He was so tired he could barely keep his eyes open. The whites of both had a pink tint from blood vessels that had simply given up their fight and the lines in his face were grooved more deeply than Buffy could ever remember. Every detail stood out so starkly…

She tried to smile when she realised he was looking concerned for her. “You have to rest,” she said softly, unable to stop her fingertips from caressing his bony cheek.

In spite of his best efforts, his eyes fluttered and began to close.

“Saved…by the bell,” he teased as he started to drift, his words slurring slightly.

For a long moment Buffy stared at him, then let her fingers move from his jaw to that expressive mouth, hovering above it for a long moment before her forefinger finally traced very lightly across its line.

Giles' eyelids fluttered again but they didn't open. His mouth did, however, move against her touch, moulding ever so slightly to the slender fingertip.

Buffy's breath caught in her throat. Her heart slamming painfully against her chest and her hands not quite steady, she leaned forward and kissed his forehead.

By the time Giles forced his eyes open again she was gone.

Buffy wandered through Restfield Cemetery, uncomfortable with being there during the day and more than a little intimidated by each of the two or three funerals in progress. In the dark of night it was easy to forget that what this place really meant, and to whom. As it was, there was nothing for her to do, nothing to take her mind off…well, things she didn't want to think about.

She leapt the back fence easily and picked her way through the back streets, heading for the beach. She hadn't been there since the last time she'd checked on the Fire-demon nests she'd once cleaned out. They hadn't returned in over twelve months. Giles had been certain they wouldn't after she killed one inside the caves. She sighed and whimpered a little.

Giles…

So much for keeping her mind occupied. The beach was quiet, given that it was a week- day and a mild one at that. Not exactly swimming weather. Still, better than sitting in the kitchen at home with Dawn asking questions. Dawn, who had been only too willing to sit with Giles while she went out, had started asking questions from the moment she came in from school and found her sister suspiciously watery-eyed, in the kitchen, trying to decide what to do for dinner that night.

Buffy stopped at the high waterline and sat down in the dry sand, her sneakers making outlines on the damp area in front of her. Immediately, her mind thrust itself back into the past, to memories and images that would make sense of the turmoil she was feeling now…everything, from the touch of Angel's lips on her throat to the feel of Riley's great arms around her after another frantic session of lovemaking. She frowned and reached further… to her first night…with Angel. The wonder, the passion…the anticipation …followed so closely by the pain, the heartbreak and the bewilderment. Her heart was beating faster again. Over and over she heard him say he had to go; over and over she saw him walking away…forever. Another small noise was torn from her, overlaid in her mind with the sound of a chopper taking off, changing pitch and flying out of her life …forever. Plenty of memories of Riley's smile, his jokes, his willing body…which transmuted somehow into the memory of a pale, slender, whipcord form of another, deceptively powerful, taking, plundering, being taken…slowly trying to seduce her into succumbing to her darkest nature…and almost succeeding.

Buffy shuddered at the emptiness of it all, suddenly so lonely she wanted to cry into the wind, or howl into the vast hollowness of her soul. There was simply nothing: nothing to touch inside herself, to hold, to tell her that she had ever loved or been loved truly unconditionally before. Three men had said 'I love you.' Three of them had declared their need of her strength, her companionship, her body…three men had wanted everything she could give them…and more…but in the end none of it had been enough…not for any of them, and not for her.

The afternoon sea breeze strengthened, lifting her hair and caressing her face. She turned into it and sighed. Her body, her life, even her loyalty to her friends: she'd been willing to compromise them all for the sake of love…and yet in the end all she had carried away with her from those relationships was a terrible sense of having given too much and nothing at all…She had failed, because there was so much more they all wanted, so much that she ultimately didn't have, to give. She looked up and blinked at the late afternoon sun, the truth of it in the bleakness of her eyes, despite brilliance of the day.

Other memories intruded then, so clear, so sharp…the smell of tweed, the scratch of it, the faint scent of English tea on warm breath, the sound of exertion in lungs not recently accustomed to it…the touch of his large, gentle fingers …the sound of his voice defying the elements, daring to do the spell, to fight Catherine Madison to save her life… so vivid, so real…as though it happened only yesterday. And the way he'd reeked of whiskey…looked so, so alone, so broken, at the door when Eyghon had returned; how much, she discovered in that instant, that it hurt being isolated from him. It had almost been worse than the helplessness she'd felt after the adrenaline had subsided from fighting Angelus and rescuing Giles from the flames. All she had been able to do was hold him, tea and whiskey, smoke, sweat and cologne all mixed up together with a river of tears. The muffled sobs, both his and hers…all that could be heard aloud of the agony of two battered and broken hearts.

Moisture trickled down her cheeks and she closed her eyes, remembering now why she hated being reminded of the past so much.

There were suddenly too many memories to count, too many images blurring together: from the fragile figure she watched outside the school before she ran away to the silent, gentle one reaching out after Travers had battered them both so badly, to the unhappy stand-off before the fight with Adam, after Spike had played with his mind, to the amazing sense of security and balance in her life once they were reunited after Dracula came and went. She smiled a little at the memory of Giles' blazing temper and the way it had intimidated the detestable Travers, even if just for a few moments when the latter had returned to disrupt their lives a second time. The smile faded when her mind skipped forward to their own blazing row…over Dawn and Glory… Over life and death, she now realized with a hollow, sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. Giles hadn't been simply taking the moral side of right, the hard line for the sake of the rest of the world…

More moisture tracked down her now windblown face. All that uncharacteristic anger and the yelling, the single-minded persistence…

…How the hell had he known? And yet he had. He knew. Somehow, whether prophecy or just plain Watcher's instinct, some part of him had known he was going to lose her that day…that if Dawn lived, she would not.

Oh God, Giles

And then she'd been dragged back…into a world without him in it…a world she hadn't wanted to believe in. She wrapped her arms around herself as the breeze grew even fresher, remembering the moment she'd looked up to see his face in the Magic Box for the first time since her return. Nothing had mattered a damn…until that moment.

She drew her arms tighter, almost as tight as the circle of his that day, and sighed unconsciously at the memory of being enveloped by so much love. She remembered now how much she'd wanted to stay there forever, how precious those moments, when for a few brief minutes she was just someone who was truly, unconditionally, loved.

No destiny, no weight of the world, and no one wanting to lose themselves…or find themselves, in her, no mystical sister waiting for her to fill her mother's shoes and no friends crushing her with the weight of their expectations…

Except that she blew it. She wanted him to be there so badly that she drove him away.

Buffy rested her arms on her raised knees and her chin on them, revisiting, against her will, the pain of his leaving again…as though a part of her had simply been removed…

She smiled bitterly, remembering the emptiness and how her fear of it had turned her into a shrew in her ineffectual but loud attempts to stop him going. And when he'd gone…it had felt like…like there was less than nothing left, no reason to fight, or to care…about anything…

*******


When Giles roused again, Dawn was gone and Buffy was in the chair at his bedside, her head resting near the edge of his pillow, her eyes closed. For a long while he just watched her sleep, studying every line, every tiny nuance of change, catching up, and mourning all the lost time together that he would never get back.

Buffy stirred to the touch of big fingers caressing hair off her cheek. It took several moments to focus enough to know whose fingers they were. Again she turned her face into the caress.

“Hello, sleepy head,” Giles' soft tones murmured.

“Hey,” she managed after a moment or two more of enjoying his touch, and straightened.
“I didn't mean to doze off.”

He smiled knowingly. “How much exactly have you slept in the last few days?”

“Sleep? Yeah, that,” she shrugged. “Some, here and there. Mostly I've been kinda busy,” she added dryly. “I still shouldn't have dozed off. Are you okay?”

“Are you?”

Buffy grew very still. “I think so,” she said softly. “I need some time, but yeah, I think so.”

It was enough for Giles, who moved his head in the faintest of nods and closed his eyes again. The move from the hospital to Revello drive had taken far more out of his battered body than anyone could have guessed.

Flushed with warmth, Buffy watched him, just glad to have him home, and alive. If he slept non-stop for the next few days it was okay with her, as long as he was okay…


*******

The following morning Buffy arrived deliberately late with breakfast. Once the usual chores were done, she had waited until eleven to carry a tray up to the master bedroom, opting for a very light tap before entering. There was no response, so she slipped into the room.

Giles was sitting on the edge of the bed, his arm around his ribcage, breathing hard, sweat picked out on his brow.

“What happened?” she demanded immediately, sliding the tray onto the bureau.

“Nothing happened,” he rasped. “I went to the bathroom.”

“Looks to me like the trip nearly killed you,” she drawled, noting his bluish-white pallor with alarm.

Already frustrated, and in a lot of pain, Giles snorted. “I can always count on your sensitivity and charm, can't I?” he muttered under his breath, forgetting about Slayer hearing.

Taken aback, Buffy scowled ferociously. “Well, I'm sorry that my career choices have put a crimp in my more feminine aspirations. Axes and swords not exactly the fashion accessories du jour and killing things every night…I deal the only way I can…you know, sanity and all that,” she retorted, her voice getting louder and louder.

For a moment his own eyes grew bleak, and then they flashed emerald as he shouted back: “There's still nothing in the bloody handbook about being so bloody obtuse!” grunting with pain as his ribs shifted slightly.

“Like I ever even had a handbook. And obtuse?” she retorted, anger spiralling up in spite of the fact that she knew he was just bad tempered because of the pain. “I'll give you obtuse! You try being me for a while. My whole adolescence was spent either watching my parents' relationship disintegrate or killing things on a nightly basis…and oh, let's not forget all that oh-so-sensitive hand-to-hand and weapons training, not to mention the good stuff: who to decapitate and who to stake, which ones to strangle and who has to be chopped up to stay dead…really great for developing that sweet, soft, girlish side!”

The logic only irritated Giles more. “When have you ever even noticed anything that was going on when it didn't involve you?” he roared back before he could stop himself.

Silence descended on the room.

Buffy stared at him ferociously, her heart pounding in her chest. So he'd finally said it, too. “Why are you…no, I know why you're grumpy…but what did I do to make you so mad at me?” she asked hollowly.

He was breathing with difficulty. “Nothing,” he hissed.

“I don't understand.”

“Th-then think about it,” he suggested acidly then gasped involuntarily at the pain in his ribs.

After a beat Buffy's face grew bleak. Nothing…too many times. For a long time neither of them spoke.

Finally, she came to his side and sat on the bed. “How many times is it now that you've been beaten up by the big bad…or…the little bad, or even the 'insane lady Watcher' bad, Watcher mine?”

He continued to scowl ferociously for several more beats then started to laugh, only to suck in a pained breath and grasp his ribs tighter.

“Too many,” he said eventually. “I'm sorry.”

Buffy touched his shoulder. “You stole my line…except a little 'I'm sorry' from me sounds kinda pathetic after, well, everything, y'know?”

She stood up and moved to stand in front of him, seeking and meeting his gaze, her eyes, the colour of clouds now, holding his. Neither of them spoke. For the first time there was no barrier of any kind between them.

Giles reached up to touch her cheek. “Sorrow has many voices. You've already said it many times over.”

Buffy closed her eyes at the touch but opened them again when he'd spoken. Her fingers stroked his hair.

“Love has many voices too,” she said ruefully, a part of her mind marvelling yet again at the clear, unfaltering gaze, “but I haven't been listening for a long time.”

Light came into his eyes and danced there, making him look like he was laughing with barely a movement of the corners of his mouth.

“When did you ever listen enough to hear anything?” he teased.

A smile slowly split her unhappy face and turned it from clouds to meadow sunshine.

“No fairs,” she said softly. “You know me better than anyone I've ever known and I hardly know you at all.”
        
“Don't you?” he asked equally softly.

The silence pulsated for several beats while she searched his face. Finally, she nodded, tracing a vivid bruise under his left cheekbone.

“I'm sorry,” she said again, the words trembling. The atmosphere between them was so charged Buffy was having trouble thinking straight. Instead, she touched the bruise very gently with her lips. The air seemed to wrap itself around them, then and somehow, almost against their will, their mouths found each other.

For Buffy it was as though something finally clicked into place, as though her whole life had been slightly out of focus until this moment. Now, suddenly, there was crystal clarity…

For Giles, reality had suddenly become tumultuous and terrifying. There had always been a certain security in knowing that he was never destined to have anything he wanted, not in terms of career, in life, nor, indeed, in love…Until this moment, as lonely as life was, there was at least continuity and predictability.

Slowly their spirits merged, lips entangled, seeking, claiming, surrendering to each other…

A long time later they parted slowly, reluctantly, Giles incredibly frustrated by his injuries, longing to take her in his arms, and Buffy equally longing to be in them. Instead she slid her fingers into his.

“You never told me you could kiss like that,” she teased breathlessly.

“You never asked,” he shot back almost stuffily.

They were both still slightly stunned and neither was ready to deal with what had just happened.

Buffy shook herself out of it first. “I hated Olivia being at your place that first time. Now I hate her twice as much,” she growled playfully.

Giles focused and looked surprised. “I knew you were uncomfortable…but I really didn't think anything I did was of any interest to you then…”

“That's not true,” she squeaked. “Well, okay, maybe a little. But I always cared…it was just…that day…I wanted to scratch her eyes out. I thought it was just because you chose her instead of me…I mean, you never even did that with…with Jenny Calendar…I can still feel what it was like…I can still feel how much I wanted to smack her…but when you told me to go away…then I hated both of you. God, I look back and realize that so much of what happened that year started right then.”

He squeezed her fingers. “ I don't understand?”

“You told me I had to do it alone…I had to learn to do it without you. So what do you think I did?”

“The Initiative, Walsh…Riley,” he guessed.

“Bingo,” she said dryly. “Look ma, no Giles. I thought I just wanted to show you, because you dumped me, but now I know why I did a lot of the stupid things I did that year. You were mine, not hers.” Buffy's expression grew fierce. “Always mine.”

He actually laughed while he spoke, though his thumb was again caressing the back of her hand. “You had a strange way of showing it.”

“I couldn't show it if I didn't know it,” she retorted then stopped, bemused by the rhyming. “I was clueless. I knew I couldn't bear to lose you. I knew I hated it when anyone got between us, and I knew I definitely didn't want Olivia wearing your shirt, in your apartment, with you. I just didn't know why. Not then. I don't think I cared why. I just acted on instinct.” She shrugged. “I think I spent an awful lot of time just proving to you that I didn't need you either. Poor Riley.”

“Poor Riley?” Giles retorted good-naturedly. “What about poor bloody me?”

She giggled. “Poor Giles, too.” The humour died in her eyes and she touched the bruises on his face again. “Poor Giles in so many ways. I wish I could make it better this time.”

“No magic,” he said wearily, then half smiled. “But tender, loving care will be quite acceptable.”

“You know you didn't get like this through natural causes,” Buffy persisted. “And what was done by magic should be allowed to be undone by magic.”

Giles looked exasperated but didn't persist with the argument.

Buffy silently decided to take that as submission, whether it was or not. He looked bad again, pale and drawn, his bruises stark against the chalk coloured skin.

“You haven't told me all of it, have you?” she asked quietly.

“Pardon?”

“Your injuries?”

“Oh. Those. It's nothing to worry about. I'll heal. I always do.”

Giles…!

He sighed, gave up, and recited a quiet, clinical summary of all his injuries, internal and external.

Buffy closed her eyes about two thirds of the way through. It was like Angelus all over again, and he'd been left to deal with that, alone. Heaven alone knew how he got through it…

God, Giles…

*******


“I just want to know how Giles is.”

“He's asleep.”

“Can I see him?”

“Not while he's asleep.”

“But it's the middle of the day.”

“Yeah, and there's hardly a part of him that Willow didn't pound to a pulp, remember?” Dawn interjected.

“Dawn,” Buffy growled. “Anya, you can see him, okay? When he wakes up. You want coffee…or something…while you're waiting?”

Anya looked slightly confused by Buffy's seeming change of heart. “I like coffee,” she said tentatively.

Buffy smiled and turned for the kitchen. “Cool. So, how's the vengeance business?”

“Oh…so-so,” she called after her as she followed.

“Did you make any thingies drop off lately?” Dawn asked conspiratorially, bringing up the rear.
        
“N-not actually,” Anya confided. “I'm kind of not taking jobs right now.” She looked up at the ceiling. “Not until I know everything is going to be all right, here…a-and there's the store.”

“Wouldn't it be cool if you could fix it, like Willow did with the decorations for your engagement party?” Dawn mused as they watched Buffy making the coffee, and hot chocolate for her.

“Dawn, no,” Buffy said reluctantly. “Giles said no more magic.”

“Well, of course he would,” Anya said matter-of-factly, not even turning a hair over the reference to her former engagement. “But it might not be entirely wrong, since most of the badness was caused by magic in the first place. Except, Willow shouldn't do spells anymore, of course.”

“That's what I told him! Um, I mean, Giles says it's wrong. Magic isn't meant to be…” Buffy stopped before she got any more muddled. “Anya, you know a lot of spells, right?”

Dawn looked hopeful, Anya nonplussed.

“Of course I know a lot of magic. Even before I was a vengeance demon I was very good at it…why?”

Buffy shrugged. “Giles is majorly in pain and he so doesn't deserve that. We need to get him healed, the faster the better. Slayer here…got the moves and don't know how to share.”

Anya looked from one to the other. “We could fix him,” she said excitedly. “He wouldn't be all tired and hurting any more.”

Buffy was trying not to get her hopes up. “So…so you do know a way we can do it?”

“Of course…well, I mean I know someone…but yes, I believe we can do it.”

“Giles isn't going to like it,” Dawn said darkly.

“Yeah, well, it's not like he got that way through natural causes. And he can yell at me later with his not-in-pain voice while he's standing in front of me in his not-in-pain body,” Buffy growled.

“Hey, no problem. I'm just saying he's going to have a cow…”

“Better that than getting a clot and having a stroke or something,” Buffy muttered. “Anya, just find out what we have to do…”



* * *


Part Two