Recognition | Part Two

Anya entered the room with a purpose, but when faced with her friend looking so fragile and propped up against pillows, watching her entry, she halted tentatively a few feet from the bed.

“Buffy…Buffy said it was okay,” she said awkwardly.

Giles nodded and smiled. “I'm glad you came.”

Her face lit up and she grinned back at him. “I'm glad you didn't die,” she told him earnestly.

“So am I,” he said ruefully. “And I'm very glad you were there with me when I was hurt. I think I speak for everyone when I say thank you for what you did, in the Magic shop, and elsewhere, to help. I know you didn't have to, but you did. What you did was very special, Anya.”

She scowled. “Isn't that what humans say to patronize small children?”

Giles chuckled a little but his look was genuine. “Sometimes, but it's usually meant just as sincerely as I mean it now. What you did helped save lives. I'm proud of you.”

Anya's eyes grew very moist. It unnerved Giles a little. He couldn't remember having seen Anya weep. It was one of her few early charms…her remarkable resilience. Nothing seemed to faze her, until the wedding, apparently, and until now…

“You're really proud of me?” she asked tearily.

He nodded again then yelped with pain as Anya rushed forward and tried to hug him.

She jumped back. “Oh, I'm sorry. Is it-are you okay?”

“I'll be fine,” he said through his teeth, several shades paler than he was a few moments earlier.

She looked wretched, frustrated with herself, sorry she'd hurt him and unsure what to do next.

Giles extended an arm. “Gently,” he told her and curled it around her shoulders when she moved carefully back into his embrace, ceasing her sniffling when Giles kissed the top of her head.

“Are you all right, Anya? This seems to be rather more than just concern for my battered person…”

Anya lifted her head slowly, unwilling to relinquish the warm comfort of his embrace just yet.

“There's so much to tell you,” she wailed quietly. “Xander doesn't want me. I don't think I want to be a vengeance demon again…and the shop is all broken. I can't make money when all the stock is smashed…and I don't think Willow can pay for it all. Do we still have insurance?”

“Yes, there's insurance,” he reassured her. “And I think you'll find Xander loves you very much. It's just going to take the two of you some time to sort out all of the issues involved.”

“Really?”

“Yes. I think he loves you a great deal.”

Anya shook her head, grinning widely. “Not that. I mean we really do have adequate insurance on the store? We can get money to pay for all the damage without suing Willow?”

Giles chuckled and shifted uncomfortably against the pillows. “Yes, we can.”

“In that case there's a thousand things I've got to do,” she gushed, real happiness sparkling in her eyes. Then she paused, serious, for a moment. “I really am glad you didn't die,” she told him again, and then beamed.

He watched as she waved good-bye and skipped out of the room. Anya would always be Anya, but she had a warm heart to go with that avaricious soul of hers…


*****


“So?”

“I'm sorry. There isn't a spell. I thought…well why shouldn't there be one?” Anya growled. “There should be, but my contacts say that anything to do with the Slayer is pretty much protected from most kinds of magical intervention. Go figure…I mean, Xander said Giles once disabled her with a syringe.”

Dawn sank into a kitchen chair. It had taken the former vengeance demon two days to find her contact. All that waiting for nothing…

“So…so is there any way we can do it?”

“Of course…I thought of it myself. You don't have to use slayer healing,” she said matter-of-factly. “Vengeance demon, remember? Wishes granted and all that.”

Dawn looked puzzled. “You can do that? I thought you guys only granted wishes to scorned women…or unhappy kids…whatever?”

“I can use the power as I choose,” Anya said defiantly. “Someone just has to make the wish.”

“I wish Giles was exactly the way he was before Willow beat him up!” Dawn said quickly.

Anya rolled her eyes as her stone glowed.

“You couldn't at least have waited for Buffy? I don't think she's going to be very happy about you being involved,” she pouted. “Where is she, anyway?”

“Upstairs, helping Giles.”

“Helping him do what?”

“He hasn't had shower for a few days. Buffy's going to help him make it to the bathroom then wait and help him get back to bed.”

Anya played with her necklace nervously. “In that case I don't think we should go upstairs right now. It might be better to wait and see if they come down.”


*****


“Are you sure you want to do this?”

Giles nodded wearily.

“I mean, it's okay to not shower when you're sick…at least I think it is…I mean they give those bed-baths in the hospital, don't they?”

Giles' nostrils pinched. “You are not giving anyone a bed bath! Buffy, I need to do this. I can't stand another day without it. I'm not a bloody invalid, for God's sake. I'm just…inconvenienced.”

The tension was there again, neither of them acknowledging it but both of them overwhelmingly aware of it.

“Yeah, you're inconvenienced,” Buffy growled. “You're inconvenienced to within an inch of your life. I was worried about you, so I talked to the doctors. They told me how bad all that stuff you told me about really is and why you shouldn't have left the hospital. You never said anything about the risks,” she added accusingly. “If anything happens to you because you're here and not there…!”

“You'll do what?” he inquired silkily. “Take away my car keys?”

“Fine,” she growled. “You want to play it like that, find your own way to the bathroom.”

For a moment there was silence, and then Giles began to move painfully, slowly easing one leg then the other over the side of the bed while Buffy watched. He was wearing short black boxers and more bruises and lacerations than if he'd gone 15 rounds with a grizzly bear. Both were frighteningly vivid against the extreme paleness of his skin.

He slid forward, putting his weight on his arms as his butt slid toward the edge of the bed, breathing heavily and grunting from the exertion. Buffy could see the unsteadiness of his arms, telling her just how much stress his body was under.

“Giles, don't,” she said finally.

He turned his head toward her but continued stubbornly until his feet were flat on the ground and his butt on the edge of the bed.

“On the day you start doing as I ask, you can tell me what to do,” he grunted, using all of his willpower to ignore the pain of his broken ribs shifting, his bruised kidneys and every wrenched muscle, every contusion, every laceration whose scab or stitches were pulling, as he slowly shifted his centre of gravity and pushed up on his battered quads to stand.

Buffy had been feeling every centimetre with him, her eyes filled with moisture, her lips pressed into a wretched line.

“No more,” she begged when he stopped again, trembling, and rushed to his side, snatching the robe from the end of the bed. Within seconds she was doing up the sash and putting his left arm around her neck. “I just wanted you to see that it's okay to let someone help.”

“And I just want you to understand…”

“I know,” Buffy said quietly. “I got it the last two times we went to the bathroom. You hate it. You hate this…depending on me just to get you there. I get it, Giles. If Xander wasn't working I would have— ”

Giles snorted. “I'd rather have you,” he said gruffly.

“You'd rather do it yourself,” she rejoined, finally making him almost smile.

“Yes, well,” he muttered as they reached the bathroom and Buffy opened the door.

“Bath or shower?” she asked, ignoring the grumpy tone.

“Logistical nightmares, both,” he muttered.

Buffy frowned. “We've got a stool you could sit on in the shower, except it's downstairs…but I can get it.”

Giles look resigned. “Next time, perhaps. Just leave me and I'll sort it out. I'll call you when I'm ready to go back.”

“Are you sure? If you fall in here, it's gonna hurt.”

He harrumphed. “I am not going to fall.”

“Okay,” Buffy agreed reluctantly and let him go, watching as he shuffled creakily into the small room, his breathing growing more and more laboured.

“You're sure?” she asked again.

He nodded without turning.

Buffy bit her lip and closed the door. They hadn't even talked about what had happened to them the previous day. Not that she had any idea what to say if they had…

She back-pedalled to lean against the hall wall and wait. For long moments she worried about him staying upright, until the water came on and she sighed a relieved sigh, only to fight against herself about whether to stay and listen for the thump of him falling over, or to leave him to his privacy. The concern won and she stayed.

Giles leaned his forehead against the tiles, his arms supporting his body against the back wall of the shower while the glorious hot water washed over it. Everything had stung or ached at first, but now the heat was invading every part of his torn and broken body and making him feel better than he had in days.

He was rotating his shoulders slowly and carefully when he was suddenly seized with a combination of dizziness and displacement. When it passed, he was in Buffy's shower still, but fully dressed. Startled, he forgot his battered body and leaped out of the shower stall, and the water.

It was only when he was in the midst of shaking most of it off his leather coat that he realised what he was doing and that there was no pain, except perhaps for the usual twinges in the knuckles of his left hand as he squeezed his fist closed.

“What the…?”

After a beat he scowled and swore under his breath.

Buffy looked up as the door opened but before she could get up to make a dash to help him, Giles appeared, fully dressed.

“What…?” she exclaimed. “Where did you get those clothes and why are you wet?”

“I was taking a shower,” he snapped angrily. “I asked you not to do any more magic. I've grown very tired of people I care about disregarding my wishes as if I were…as if…as if I were irrelevant,” he added at a fast clip, but Buffy could hear the pain and disappointment behind the temper.

“I didn't,” she told him. “I mean yeah, we were researching it…you were in so much pain…we wanted to help. We asked Anya to find something…but we really didn't do anything…not yet. And I'm sure Anya wouldn't, not without talking to us first.”

Giles' ramrod straight back lost some of its rigidity.

“You haven't done a spell? Tara is gone and Willow is in England under supervision. That leaves Xander. I would have thought he'd learned his lesson after our little musical interlude.”

Buffy frowned. “I don't think it was Xander. I don't know how it happened…but Giles, you're not hurt anymore.” She grinned. “And you're gorgeous again.”

His eyebrows flew up and, despite his mood, scepticism and amusement overwhelmed the hostility in his eyes.

For some reason it annoyed Buffy. “Well, you are,” she retorted. “You look exactly like you did when I first saw you in the Magic Box, when…”

They both stared at each other.

“Anya!”

*****


“How was I to know she was going to do that?” Anya demanded petulantly.

Dawn looked anything but repentant. “You said you could do it. You wanted to do it too.”

“Of course I did, but not without talking to Buffy first. You are a difficult child,” the other woman huffed.

“Enough!” Buffy snapped. “Will someone please explain to me what just happened? If any part of it involves Dawn doing magic, I'll make your little vengeance tricks seem like nursery games!” She turned to the younger girl. “And you! If you had anything to do with this you're going to be so grounded! There's going to be a McDonalds on Mars before you're out of here again!”

Anya huffed again. “There is no spell or incantation to enable you to share your Slayer healing. I told Dawn. She looked so disappointed that I reminded her that I am a vengeance demon again to cheer her up…”

Giles looked straight at Dawn. “You made a wish?”

Dawn nodded, far less imperious and a little cowed at the ferocity of the flashing green gaze.

“This isn't exactly a vengeance issue,” Buffy pointed out.

Anya rolled her eyes. “It's my ma…power. I get to choose how I use it…mostly,” she finished sulkily.

Giles sighed heavily. “At least it wasn't technically a spell,” he said resignedly and looked at Dawn again. “But you should have waited and spoken to me first, or at the very least, your sister. You had no idea of the consequences of your actions. And there are always consequences…you just ask Willow. You're bloody lucky the worst that has happened so far was that I ended up in the shower fully clothed.”

“Sure I knew consequences,” Dawn replied defiantly. “I knew you wouldn't be all beaten up any more. I knew it meant there wouldn't be any chance you could still die…” Her voiced cracked a little at the last but her eyes were still flashing with defiance.

Giles stared her down until she flinched and became nervous and fidgety, then relented and slowly smiled at her until she smiled back, then turned to Buffy and Anya. “The two of you are old enough to know better. Regardless of method, you were all plotting to go against my express wishes…”

Anya and Buffy looked at each other.

“Yes, but there's a big, big difference,” Anya offered unexpectedly, and remarkably matter-of-factly.

Everyone blinked except Giles, who looked sceptical.

She nodded. “All the other times people disregarded your wishes for their own purposes. This time it was all for you…because we didn't want you to be hurting anymore.”

Dawn smiled, while Buffy looked a little less unhappy but just as annoyed.

Giles stared at Anya for a long moment before shaking his head and chuckling in a helpless sort of way. He'd learned over the years not to try and fight the vengeance demon's logic, especially when she was right.

“Well thank you, all of you,” he managed almost graciously, and flexed his shoulders, this time with ease. “Whatever your reasons were, I can't tell you how miserable I was…”

He paused then, looking from one to the other and realising from the looks in their three sets of eyes that they understood only too well.

“Well, anyway, thank you. I still expect you all to respect my wishes about not using magic until, and unless, I say otherwise. Willow has unbalanced the natural elements and quite likely created chaos in her wake. I don't want anything done by any of us to disturb them further. At least not until we know the outcome of the Coven's attempts to remove Willow's power.”

“Wow, isn't amputation a little severe…even for what she did? I mean there were extenuating circum…stan…ces…” Dawn trailed off self-consciously.

The atmosphere in the room could have been cut with a knife.

“Willow's powers are being removed for her own good,” Giles explained sombrely. “What she did will take all of her courage and resources to overcome but not until she's free of the influence of all the dark magic she's stolen. Even then there's no way to know if she'll ever be the same again.”

Dawn swallowed. “I won't do any magic,” she promised.

Anya and Buffy looked at each other then Buffy shook her head silently at Giles.

“I wont do any casting,” Anya promised, “but you can't count the vengeance stuff. It's my job now.”

Giles chuckled again and nodded. “We can't stop you from doing your job, though I'd really rather you didn't,” he added hopefully.

Anya's head tilted to one side and she looked at him speculatively and with more than a little affection. “You really don't want me to?”

He shook his head.

“But what will I do, with no store and no money? The insurance is in your name!”

“I'll share it with you, or we'll open a new store,” he promised. “If you promise not to curse anyone else.”

“Deal,” Anya said swiftly, already happily doing mental arithmetic.

“Giles, are you really okay?” Dawn asked while they were all still chuckling at the vengeance demon's enthusiasm.

He smiled gently at her and nodded.

She beamed then launched herself at him.

Giles chuckled as she burrowed into his chest, tightening her arms around him, and wrapped his big ones around her. His smile widened when he heard her muffled sob, though the others could see that he was moved as he dropped a fond kiss on the top of her head.

When the younger girl eventually let him go, Anya looked at him with such puppy dog eyes that he gave assent with his and patiently held her, surprised at the strength of her embrace, until she was done, backing away a little self-consciously.

“I um…I'm glad you're here,” she managed. “You…you need to be here, with us.”

Giles looked over her head at Buffy, who smiled back at him. “I'm beginning to realise that,” he said quietly.

Anya looked from one to the other then to Dawn, who shrugged. “So…well, I should go. I've still got inventory to do on the stock that Willow didn't ruin. The magic shop on Davidson is willing to take anything that's salvageable.”

They watched her bustle happily out the front door before Dawn suddenly announced that she was going to her friend, Melinda's.

Buffy watched her go, suspicion in her eyes, but said nothing.

When she turned slowly to face Giles, she surprised a look of utter bleakness on his face. A moment later she thought she might have imagined it, until he spoke.

“You do realize that now that I'm fit again, as it were, I'll be expected to return to assist the Coven in their dealings with Willow?” he pointed out quietly.

Buffy's eyes widened and her voice rose an octave. “When?”

“As soon as possible, I would assume.”

“Can't…can't they handle it? I mean, you know I love Willow, but it's their deal, right…this magic extraction?”

Giles sighed heavily. “Magic extraction might be their 'deal', Buffy, but Willow is our 'deal'.

“Will…will you be gone very long?”

“I don't know.” Giles' tone was getting terser and terser. “The process is difficult and not without its dangers.”

Buffy's gut twisted. On top of everything else he wasn't going to even mention what had happened between them. He was just going to go…like all the rest of them. “Fine. Go,” she said emotionlessly. “Take as long as you want.”

Giles watched her turn and run up the stairs, his jaw clenched. A lifetime of waiting and when it finally happens the timing has to be so bloody appalling…


*****


There was precious little to pack in the Sports bag Dawn had found for him…just changes of underwear and socks, toiletries and the sweater and jeans he'd worn over. Buffy had bought all the other things with his credit card, including the new round-necked, black rib knit shirt, and black jeans he was wearing. All he'd arrived with when he teleported to Sunnydale was his wallet, a Council-expedited visa, his passport and the clothes he was wearing. The expectation was that he would either succeed and return immediately or fail and perish in the attempt, though Travers had insisted on the precautions when informed of the Coven's intention to send him here.

Giles sighed. Things had been strained for last day or so, during which he'd had to book flights, organise Xander, now due in about an hour, to take him to Sunnydale airport, and make numerous phone calls to England to check on Willow's progress and organise someone to collect him from Heathrow when he arrived.

Downstairs, Buffy poked through her freezer unhappily, trying to decide what to do for Dawn's dinner and trying not to think about how empty the house was going to be without Giles there, and trying hard to ignore the ache in her soul that accompanied any dwelling on the fact that he was leaving her again. She slammed a package of steak against the side of the freezer and punched a package of frozen peas, splitting it and raining peas all over the small cabinet. Too many people had walked out or been carried out of her life…too many people had not come back…if he didn't come back either…

Buffy made a noise in her throat, ignored the moisture collecting in her eyes and took out the last package of hamburgers and one of frozen buns. Dawn always loved it when they made burgers together, as they often had, along with waffles and pancakes, with their mother, and later with Willow and Tara. It made things like old times…

Giles looked up when the door opened, from zipping his packed bag closed. Buffy stood just inside it, looking uncomfortable.

“I thought you might want something…y'know…before you leave. It's been a while since breakfast.”

“I appreciate the thought, but I really don't need anything right now,” he replied quietly, watching her closely. She looked pale and drawn, and she didn't seem to want to meet his gaze. “Are you going to be all right while I'm gone?”

Buffy made herself look up at him. The moment she met his obviously concerned green eyes a part of her wanted to run into his arms, but years of insecurity and disappointment held her back. She looked down at the packed bag, her face bleak.

“Sure, why not? Slayage, housework, supervise Dawn, look for a new job…no problem. I've got it all covered.”

Giles frowned, wishing there was time to work out how to make things right. “Will you come to the airport?”

She shook her head. There was no way she was going to watch someone else she loved walk out of her life, perhaps never to return.

“I have to be here when Dawn comes home from school.”


*****


The weeks passed achingly slowly for Giles. Being back in Bath was in its own way soothing and good for his soul, but his heart was elsewhere. He hadn't heard from Buffy since he left. He'd called several times, only to be told that Buffy was either patrolling, gone out to a job interview or the supermarket with Xander, however it was more than obvious to him that on at least a couple of occasions that Dawn was having trouble being convincing.

He sighed and turned his gelding toward the rolling common and gave it its head, and his heels. The animal stretched out beautifully, almost floating, even at the gallop. He leaned down a little more than was good form, to enjoy the ride even more. By the time the long-legged chestnut had had enough, Giles had lost track of time and distance.

Lost in the exhilaration and the solitude of the ride, his mind had wandered back to moments, the memories of which he'd suppressed for weeks, finally daring to go into the hidden corners of his heart to take them out…each of them small pieces of joy snatched between turns of an unfeeling fate. Eventually, he allowed the gelding to slow of its own accord, collecting it only when it dropped into a trot, and forcing himself to put away his dreams again.

All these weeks they'd fought so hard to help Willow, and for the majority of the time she'd resisted…or a part of her had. Consciously she'd been as distressed as the rest of them, wanting it done, over, but subconsciously the same part of her which had been so angry, so incensed, all those months ago in the Summers' kitchen, at his refusal to acknowledge the power she claimed as hers, fought against them. For every part of Willow that wanted to make things right, there was a counterpart which would not relinquish the exhilaration of complete power, of utter control over everything around her…despite the consequences.

His friends in the Coven had fallen away, one by one, acknowledging that they didn't have the strength to go on fighting the breadth of the dark power that had corrupted her soul, or her obsessive fear of what would be left were she to lose that power again.

Only five remained in the fight. He reined in the gelding on the grassy knoll they'd climbed and looked out across the open expanse of grass, before straightening and releasing his right hand to run it through his hair.

Five…and himself. They had to find another way, another solution. The method was sound, but they simply didn't have the power to overcome the darkness within her, without help. And most of the beings he knew who had that kind of power were as evil as the magic to which Willow had become addicted.

He shifted in the saddle in frustration and the gelding stomped.

“Sorry,” he said automatically, then laughed at himself.

He'd gone out without even changing, dressed in jeans, a black shirt and elastic sided work-boots; he hadn't even taken the time to change into his riding gear or to find his cap. He'd been fortunate Rowena hadn't caught him taking one of her mounts out without a cap. He was grateful his old friend had made her stable available to him, and he supposed he'd done the wrong thing, but he'd just needed the breathing space.

Willow's words just kept echoing through his mind: 'You just want this to be done so you can get on with your life! You don't care about me. I'm just an inconvenience …some loose end that has to be tied up! You've never respected me, or my magic. I had more respect from Tara than I ever got from you! I've never been anything but a little kid to you, a-and I still am. You can't expect me to want to go back to being what I was before. You can't! Nobody even noticed me. Not any of you…even Xander, who never once looked at me until it was too late. Or you; you have no respect for who or what I am! A-and Buffy, who just sorta pats me on the head every now and then like…like….
like some dumb sidekick! Even Oz: leaving for my own good, he said. He didn't even ask me what my own good was! Maybe my own good would have been him staying and working things out! None of you guys even know who I am! Tara was the only one, ever!'

She had wept bitterly then. He closed his eyes. Perhaps she was right. Perhaps they only thought they knew who she was…

To him she would always be Willow, with her brilliance and her frog fear, her fierce loyalty, her quirky sense of humour and her childlike sweetness. And that was perhaps the problem. To those who loved her…to those who mattered to her, that was who she was, the girl they all loved. He suspected that part of Willow's resistance stemmed from the fear that without the magic, particularly after that taste she'd had of ultimate power, her real self was never again going to be enough for her...

Sighing, Giles patted the gelding's neck and turned it resignedly for home.


*******


“Hi Giles,” Willow said brightly.

It constricted his heart a little, remembering how often he'd heard her say that, just as brightly, in better times.

“How are you today?” he enquired as she closed the door.

She shrugged. “They're still doing tests on me and the food is kinda y'know British. Don't they ever have salad here? Other than that, I'm fine.”

It was a lie, and they both knew it, just as they both knew there continued to be a wall between them that had never been there before.

“I brought someone who might be able to help you,” he said quietly.

“Oh yeah? Who?” She asked, ungrammatically. “Do I know them? Let me guess…someone from the council? No, wait, maybe you figured you'd try exorcism, since nothing else seems to be working. Is it a priest?”

Giles looked grim. She wasn't that far off. “Not funny, Willow. This is the reason I've been gone several days.” He motioned toward the doorway, and watched as a tiny, bent woman dressed in black shuffled slowly into the room.

“Wow. A long lost relative?” she drawled.

“Willow
…” Giles growled. “Nashan, this is Willow Rosenberg. Willow, this is Nashan, of the Calderash people. She is an elder of the gypsy clan Jenny Calendar belonged to. I asked the Council to use their resources to trace Jenny's late Uncle.”

“Why?” Willow asked, growing uncomfortable under the scrutiny of the dark eyes.

Her voice drew Giles back into focus. “Going back to the beginning,” he said cryptically. “Do you recall your first real experience with powerful magic you were neither ready for, nor strong enough to handle at the time?”

Willow dragged her eyes away from the ancient, infinite windows in the old woman's wizened face, and swallowed. “Y-you mean the curse? The spell to get Angel's soul back?”

Giles nodded.

“But what's that got to do with now? That was a whole different lifetime ago!”

“Was it?” The old woman spoke for the first time, her voice deep, accented and unnervingly familiar.

“I don't know what you want from me,” Willow complained to both of them, a hint of fear in her voice.

The old woman reached out and took Willow's right hand, though not, as she first thought, to read her palm. Instead the wrinkled hand turned the smooth, slender one and placed the young Wiccan's fingers against her own heart, covering them with her old ones.

“Now do you know what I want?” The ancient voice seemed to roar, whisper and keen all at the same time.

Willow's head snapped back as her mind was assaulted with images of every moment of every bit of magic she'd ever done; not just the spells and incantations themselves, but the reasons for them, not just the selfless or the practical, but the dark, selfish and hidden ones; every way she'd found to learn, take, borrow, or steal magic, and finally, the consequences to others…all of them…the ones she knew about…and the ones she didn't.

Giles wanted to rush forward several times when Willow sobbed or cried out at whatever she was seeing, but he forced himself to wait…until she started to scream…and scream…and scream.

The old woman nodded and withdrew as Giles rushed forward and caught Willow in his arms, restraining her as she thrashed and screamed, until she was reduced to gut wrenching-sobs. He didn't even let her go when she had to turn and lean forward to be physically ill and continued to be until she was retching thin air. He stroked her brow and rubbed her back, speaking softly until she relaxed enough to break the cycle and stop the spasms. He silently handed her his linen handkerchief to wipe her mouth before she broke away and went to sit in a chair in the farthest corner of the room.

Giles turned to ask the old woman what had happened, but she wasn't there and neither was the mess. It was as if she never had been, and yet he'd heard no footfall, shuffling or otherwise, nor the sound of the door, which always creaked, opening or closing. Bemused, and a little unnerved, he turned back to Willow and took a deep breath before going to her side.

“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked.

Dark emerald eyes looked up at his, vulnerable, frightened, and for perhaps the first time in years, filled with the clear innocence he remembered in the eyes of the child who had bubbled into his library to volunteer her help during his first week at the school, when he'd still felt very much like a fish out of water.

“Willow?” he asked, aware that there was now a gaping maw where the dark magic was only minutes before.

“Giles…Giles did I…did I really do all those things?” she asked in a hollow, terrified voice. “Was that…w-was that really me?”

“I didn't see what you saw,” he told her gently.

More tears welled up and slid down her cheeks. “I-I'm sorry it was so awful for you when you were b-blind. Have I really been so stupid, for so long?”

His eyes told her, without him having to say the words, but he knew that wasn't what was haunting her.

“Oh God!” The horror distorted her face as things continued to sink in. “All of it's true. I really did all those things…I did that to a human being…I really k-killed him, didn't I? Who am I, Giles? What happened to me? What have I become?”

Giles was silent for a long moment. “You saw what you became, who you were. I believe, thanks to Nashan, that you now have a chance to decide who you want to be from this point onwards. It may be the most important decision of your life.”

She stared at him. “Why are you here? After everything I've done to you… the lies, even stealing from you…” She bit back a sob, “The things I said…and hurting you. I tried to kill you! I hurt you so bad…you should hate me, the way I hated you!” she cried, horror making her voice histrionic. “Why don't you hate me?

The gentle green eyes held hers for a long moment. “You can never truly hate someone you love, Willow. You found that out when you tried to hurt Xander.”

“You love me? No.” She shook her head. “Nobody loves me now.”

Giles' eyes grew very bright. “Of course I love you,” he told her gently, “and Tara loved you dearly. Oz loved you before that, and Xander…and Buffy loves you very much.”

She looked away, shaking her head. “Not really.” She turned back, her eyes clouding, then narrowing. “There was always somebody better than me. Xander wanted Buffy, then Cordelia…and then there was Anya. And with Buffy, when I needed her most she wasn't there…and when she came back there was Faith, and even Faith was more fun to be with than me. And later, Oz wanted to play with another puppy more than he wanted to stay with me…” she added in a haunted voice. She turned back, finding his gaze again. “And you…all you've ever cared about…right from the beginning, was Buffy. You couldn't even choose Miss Calendar over Buffy,” she said sadly.

There was really no answer to that. Giles hesitated before attempting a reply. It was clear from Willow's changing expressions and the roiling undercurrents flashing in her eyes as she spoke that although the wound had been lanced, the healing would still be a long, slow process. She would need time, a lot of time, and commitment, to come to terms with who and what she was, and to take control of her life again.

“I have always cared about you, Willow, just as I do Xander, and Dawn, and Anya…all of you are important to me, and always have been. That hasn't changed.”

Willow was watching him, speculatively, her reddened eyes and glowing nose making her look very young and vulnerable.

“And Buffy?” she persisted.

He sighed a long sigh. “And Buffy,” he added, hoping it would suffice.

She continued to stare at him. It seemed to go on forever, before a knowing look narrowed her gaze. “Oh,” she said finally, simply, breaking the long silence, then let it go, as if shifting to a different gear, her voice growing very quiet and uncertain. “What's going to happen to me now?”

“What do you want to happen now?”

“God, you sound like a shrink,” she complained, sounding, for a moment, almost like herself again.

“Well?”

“I can't have what I want,” she cried despairingly, her thoughts, her heart, a lifetime away. Then she snapped out of it, Tara's face fading back into her memories. “I think I want to go home,” she announced.

“Then you shall,” he said quietly. “Once we know that it really is over, and that you're really well enough to go, we'll make the arrangements.”

Willow nodded, not entirely sure what she was going back for, nor was she certain they were going to let her go so easily. Whatever the old woman had done to her, she had not taken all her magic, as the Coven had intended. Somehow, Nashan had opened her psyche like an infected sore and drained away the darkness, leaving only the real Willow…and the flicker of magic that was hers alone.

It tore at her. She didn't want to tell Giles. Didn't want to take the risk that he might still want the rest…

“She didn't take it all,” she said suddenly, quickly, before she could stop herself.

“What?” Giles straightened sharply.

Willow rubbed her hands over her eyes, in frustration, worry, misery. “She didn't take all the magic,” she repeated in a trembling voice. “She let me keep the part that's really me.”

He nodded, his eyes bright. “I know,” he said very softly. “I can still feel it. But she's done what she came here to do. She's given you back to us. The Willow I talked to after Buffy returned, the one who fought me a few months ago, even the one who opened that door to me, today, wouldn't have had the heart or the courage to tell me that.”

Tears flowed freely and Willow's trembling grew worse. “What am I going to do, Giles? I don't know who I am any more…I don't even know what I'm going home for…there's nothing there…my heart's been ripped out. Oh God, she's gone, Giles…she's gone! What am I going to do?”

Giles took her in his arms again, and this time held her as she truly grieved, for perhaps the first time, for her loss, for her love…

“You are going to allow all of us to love you, and care for you, and you're going to take everything else one step, one day, at a time.” His voice seemed to drop an octave. “And if you have to, one hour at a time.”

There was a note in it that immediately made Willow remember a time after Jenny Calendar died, when Giles, too, was clutching at ghosts, and reaching so hard, so poignantly, for his lost love.

She lifted her head and nodded slowly, painfully aware of the conflict still within her, but with a new determination to overcome it. If he had made it in the end, maybe she could still do it too… somehow…


*******

Dawn prowled around her sister's bedroom, tired of the changes in the older girl since Giles had gone back to England and sick of being told there was nothing wrong.

“Buffy, you've been out every night this week, most nights twice. Can't you just stay in and watch the late movies with me tonight? Would it kill you to do sister stuff with me for once? It's almost like…oh my God, you're not back with Spike, are you?”

Buffy looked up from packing a shoulder bag with stakes. “Dawn, what are you talking about? Why would I be back with Spike?”

“Well, you're never home, you're all edgy all the time and you're miserable for most of it.”

“Don't exaggerate,” Buffy growled.

“Well you are. If you're back with him again you're just pathetic, you know that, don't you?”

“Dawn, just shut up! You don't know anything so just shut your mouth and stop talking, all right?”

The younger girl blinked. “Okay, so you're not with Spike, but something's eating you up. I want my sister back, so spill, or I'll…I'll wear all your sweaters and I'll tell Giles you stopped training!” she threatened.

Buffy's bleak look and ominous silence before turning swiftly away was not what the younger Summers expected.

“Buffy, what is it?”

“Nothing. Look, I'll watch the damned movies with you. Just give me ten minutes, okay? I just need some time.”

That provided just the right distraction.

“Really?” she squealed. “Cool…I'll go start some popcorn, and I think there're some M&Ms left from last time Xander came over,” she added happily, skipping out of the room.

Buffy sighed a long sigh and threw her shoulder bag with force against the wall, the stakes clattering as it fell to the ground.

A phone call, a letter, anything would be better than the silence of the last few weeks. She knew she should at least take half the blame for not having the courage to call or write to him, but…what the hell would she have said? Hey Giles, are you ever coming back? Are you seeing anyone right now, because it's driving me crazy not knowing whether you are or not, or if we're ever going to be something or…Or maybe I just imagined that whole amazing thing that happened to me…to us…before you went away?

She made a patented Buffy whimpering noise of frustration and changed into comfort clothes before schlumping broodily down stairs to join Dawn in sisterly bonding for the evening, determinedly ignoring the sudden flashback to the parallels with her own flight to L.A all those years ago, and the new insights as to how it must have been for everyone else, especially Giles, while she was gone.

At least in this case she knew where Giles was…sorta, she mused as she flopped in a chair in the living room. The first night after he left she'd looked both Bath and Devon up on Dawn's computer…well, Dawn had looked them up for her. It had all seemed so…British…and alien, that she'd lost interest long before Dawn had, though a part of her had acknowledged that if Giles was showing her his home, and any or all of the parts of it that had conspired to made him her 'Giles', she would be more than interested in every statue, stone and cobble of it…

*******

Giles put the key in the door of his flat, stretching his back.

He was halfway through the door when a postman strolled up and said a cheerful good morning. He sighed irritably and then turned, looking perfectly civil and unruffled.

“Morning,” he replied, even managing a pleasant smile.

The postman handed him a heavy package and asked him to sign for it. “Come a long way,” he remarked in a thick Yorkshire accent.

Giles wasn't in a mood to study the package, nodding instead and smiling again. “Thank you,” he added when it didn't seem enough. The other man nodded and smiled back before sauntering off to deliver the rest of his mail.

It wasn't until he'd reached the kitchen and thrown his keys, the package and his sunglasses on the bench-top and started the kettle on the gas cooker that he finally allowed himself to become curious about the postman's observation.

At the sight of the US postmark on the package his heart quickened its pace, unbidden, but his cynical mind reminded him that he was still getting re-directed mail and book orders from the US and that this was likely just another one of those.

There was no return address on the package. He opened it slowly, not wanting his heart to be wrong, not wanting to be disappointed again, and yet in some part of his psyche, already convinced that he would be.

The brown paper fell away leaving nothing but a small box. He ran a hand over the lacquered timber. It didn't seem like something she would do… He sighed and took his hand away. He really didn't want to know…

Two cups of tea, a shower, comfortable clothes and a whiskey later, he finally picked up the box again and, after a long pause, slowly lifted the lid.

Inside was the coffee mug he kept at the Magic box.

Buffy had given it to him during the year she'd returned to him for training to prepare for Glory. It was a novelty mug with custom lettering, like the 'Kiss the librarian' mug Jenny had given him years earlier, but this one read simply: 'Watcher Mine.' It was a personal joke, reminding them both of their early days together when it was common for Buffy to refer to him that way, but he'd sensed then that Buffy was indeed re-staking a claim. He'd been amused at the time, but hadn't thought much more about it, used to her unpredictable gestures, despite their being interleaved more often than not with long periods of apparent and utter lack of interest.

Underneath was a note in Buffy's untidy hand.

“I didn't know what to write,” she'd scrawled and signed it simply: “Buffy.”

He sighed. He supposed if the situation were reversed he wouldn't know how else to sign it either. Then a flicker of sudden enlightenment lit his eyes. Staking a claim

He picked up the mug and smiled to himself. As he tossed the cup in the air and caught it, the smile widened to a grin and he whistled as he went to pack.


*******

Giles slid into the driver's seat of the rental car at Sunnydale airport and threw the paperwork, his wallet and the silly looking little toy donkey he'd purchased from one of the over-priced gift shops in the departure lounge at Heathrow, on to the passenger's seat. He wasn't sure why he'd bought it, except that every time he'd looked up from browsing the magazines, the paperbacks, puzzle books and candy displays the blasted thing had been looking at him. And each time it had prompted the same vision of Buffy laughing at its silly face and kissing its equally silly nose.

It seemed strange coming back alone after all that had happened, but Willow had been so determined that she was going to start her new life as she meant to live it…on her own two feet. She had convinced him and the others, after much discussion and hand wringing, to let her go on ahead, alone.

Even though it should have been a good sign, the fierce independence worried him. She would need them all to maintain a subtle vigil for some time to come, if she was going to get through this period of her recovery. Randall's voice echoed across buried memories and his friend's vivid blue eyes suddenly floated before him, recalling with razor clarity his own tortured climb back from the hellhole that was the aftermath of the boy's death.

The outskirts of Sunnydale drew a conflicted response from him. The surge of anticipation at the thought of seeing Buffy again was tempered by overwhelming doubts about what he thought had happened between them before he left. Would things be as they'd always been? Would she even acknowledge that anything had ever happened…could she? Or was he just a stupid old man dreaming ridiculous dreams?

He reached over and put the donkey on the dashboard. He wasn't sure why he did it, but there was an element of defiance in the act, his face setting in a determined scowl as he put his foot down and turned off to head towards Revello drive.

As the car slid to a halt, Giles forced himself to concentrate on relaxing, staying calm and keeping his errant heart rate under control…until he saw movement behind a tree out the front of the house, and the tell-tale red glow of a cigarette. He was out of the car in seconds and hauling the figure out from behind the tree and a cloud of cigarette smoke, dozens of butts littering the grass.

“What the bloody hell do you think you're playing at?” he demanded, holding the vampire up by the scruff.

Spike, who looked different somehow, didn't struggle, just kept his chin lifted defiantly and sneered at the Watcher. “Back again, are you? Typical. Just when I thought I might have a chance…”

“A chance at what?”

“Nothin',” Spike growled when Giles hoisted him up even higher. “It's all over now, anyway, i'nt it? I don't stand any better chance than the Big Poof or Captain Cardboard while you're still in the picture, do I?”

Giles ignored the sudden desire to grin, even if Spike couldn't possibly know why, and scowled even more fiercely instead. “What the bloody hell are you playing at, Spike? If you know that already, what the devil are you doing skulking around out here? Back to bloody stalking again? When you know full well that she doesn't want to see you any more?”

Spike gave the closest thing to a shrug that a vampire being hung up like a coat hanger could manage. “Soul or no soul, I'm still love's bitch and man enough to admit it, unlike some I could name…” he jeered. “I didn't know you were coming back, did I? I've seen her out nearly every night knocking six kinds of Sunday out of every nasty that crosses her path before she finishes it off. It's obvious she needs one of us, and I figured I had as good a chance as any that she'd take me back, if you weren't going to be around.”

Giles dropped him. “Well, you 'figured' wrong, Spike. I know what you tried to do to her, and even if Buffy doesn't think it was entirely your fault, you and I both know that the bottom line is that if you truly loved her, it should never, ever have happened. Know this: if you ever touch her again, if you ever harm, or threaten harm to her or any of hers, I will personally hunt you down and stake you myself. Do I make myself clear?”

Spike stared for a long, speculative moment at the Watcher before his eyes narrowed and he answered. “Yeah, right. Like I've ever listened to a word you said, old man,” he drawled provocatively, eyes flashing his defiance as he danced backwards a couple of steps after Giles' scowl became so ominous it unnerved even him.

He chose offence as the best defence. “You're a lucky bastard…even luckier that I'm still bloody chipped, that's how much I hate your guts right now, Watcher, soul or no sodding soul! Slayer bitches… doesn't matter whether you hate them or love them they'll still kill you, one way or the other, in the end,” he added angrily.

Giles didn't respond. Spike couldn't possibly know…and there was something unnervingly different about the vampire, not least the burning pain in his eyes before he spoke. Instead, he watched silently as Spike flicked his cigarette, red embers floating off into the night before cooling and disappearing in the darkness then strode off without another word.

Buffy let go of the curtain, uncertain what to do next. She stared through the slightly parted curtain at the lonely figure, her heart already out there with him. But if he wanted to go away again, what right did she have to stop him? She couldn't do that again…this time it had to be about him, not her. If being reminded of her relationship with Spike affected him that much…

She turned, made a small noise in her throat. She could do this. She could say good-bye if she had to…she could do this…for him.

It was several minutes before Giles moved, staring for a few moments at the door before turning back to the car. He was leaning on the hood, staring unhappily at the donkey through the windscreen and trying to decide which hotel to go to, when there was a noise behind him. He heard a door open and close, followed by footsteps…at least until their sound was muffled by the grass. He didn't need to turn to recognise that presence.

“Giles?” A voice said uncertainly.

He took a last look at his small furry friend before ignoring his pounding heartbeat and turning slowly. “Buffy.”

“A-are you back?” she asked stupidly.

His mouth pulled into a reluctant smile of amusement and he nodded. “You've seen Willow?”

It was Buffy's turn to nod, the conversation feeling a little surreal. “She got a room on campus and we helped her move her stuff in. She seems good. Sorta fragile underneath, but solid on the outside, if you know what I mean.”

“I know,” he confirmed softly.

Buffy shifted uncomfortably under his scrutiny. “W-where will you stay tonight?”

“I don't know yet.”

That seemed to deflate her. “When will you know?” she asked flatly.

The hopeful look in his eyes was replaced by sad resignation. “I think perhaps I do now,” he sighed dispiritedly. “I'll get a room at the Sunnydale International.”

Buffy willed herself not to cry as he turned, then suddenly found herself overwhelmed by the need to know. She wouldn't ask him to stay, but she'd let so many others walk out of her life without even a whimper…this time she had to know.

“Hey, Watcher Mine!”

He stopped, but didn't turn back.

Buffy stared at the broad back, a riot of emotion making it hard for her to think, let alone talk.

“Giles,” she managed, the word, almost keened, breaking up and wobbling at the end.

Finally, not daring to hope, he turned, moonlight glistening on the moisture in his eyes.

Buffy stared.

After a moment that seemed like an eternity Rupert Giles found himself catching, and being engulfed by, his slayer leaping in full flight, off the ground and into his arms.

The embrace was fierce and emotional, neither of them willing to let go. Only when a sob finally escaped from Buffy, who'd been valiantly holding them back, did they part enough to look at each other. And then they were lost again, the kiss as inevitable and instinctive as breathing, each of them searching, asking, answering to the urgent needs of the other until there was just a blur, neither of them knowing where one started and the other left off, only that they never wanted to stop. Nor did they, until the security light came on.

“Buffy, is everything okay?” Dawn's voice called out into the darkness.

Reluctantly Buffy drew back and turned her head. “Everythi—” her voice cracked with emotion. “Everything is fine, Dawn. Go back inside. We'll be there in a minute.”

“'We'?” The insistent voice called back.

“Yes, 'we',” Giles chimed in, making a valiant attempt to sound like his normal gruff self, as Buffy slid gently to the ground. “Now go inside like a good girl.”

“Giles!” Came the responding squeal. “I can't believe you came back! Where did you get that car? Why didn't you call? What—?”

“Dawn!” Two voices shouted as one.

“Oh, okay, going inside now. I'll make supper, okay? This is so cool!” The door slammed.

They turned back to each other again, foreheads meeting in exasperation. “Where were we?” Giles growled, too close to real happiness to sound truly fierce.

Buffy lifted her face to brush his lips with hers again. “About here,” she told him, her voice thick with emotion. “I thought you were going away again.”

“I was,” he admitted, brushing hers back. “I was terrified.”

Buffy's eyes widened in amazement, dislodging moisture still caught in her lashes. “You were scared?”

“Out of my wits,” he told her wryly.

They smiled at each other again, before Buffy was moved to speak.

“So was I…I was going to let you go, and it was killing me. Giles, I've never felt like this about anybody before…I mean, before, even with Angel, it only hurt when he hurt me. Now, just being away from you…it hurts so much and it makes me so crazy…and…” She scowled ferociously at his bemused face. “I love you! You hear me? I love you so much, damn it!”

He looked away suddenly, clenching his jaw hard for a long moment and giving Buffy momentary heart failure, until she realized that he was just overcome by emotion and being all British about it.

“Look at me, Watcher mine,” she demanded softly, almost overwhelmed by the rush of love she felt for this man who had been a part of her life, and her soul, for so long.

He turned reluctantly back to her, those eyes burning with the emotion he couldn't quite control, and closed his eyes when she touched his face.

“Buffy…” he whispered, the intensity of it sending shivers down her spine.

“Rupert,” she answered, as though she'd said the name a thousand times before, prompting the green eyes to open again and search hers.

Finally, she broke the silence. “Yes,” she said simply.

He smiled slowly, almost beatifically, then bent his head and kissed her again, very slowly.

When they parted it was as though they grudged every centimetre between them.

“I missed you so much.”

Giles brushed the unaccustomed moisture from her cheek. “Not nearly as much as I missed you, you impossible girl.”

“Me, impossible?” she shot back, though the fierceness was spoiled by her grin. “You are the most impossible man I've ever met!” The grin faded. “You didn't come back.”

Giles didn't answer that. He couldn't, really. Instead he opened the car door and reached in before turning back to her.

“For some reason I thought you might like this,” he told her, adorably sheepishly.

Buffy was enchanted by the funny-faced little toy, grinning at its floppy ears and slightly crossed eyes, before kissing its big nose and cuddling it close. She looked up at him again. “He's beautiful,” she told him, moved. Her cheeks and her eyes were glowing as she put her arms around his neck, donkey dangling from her fingers, and, when he obligingly bent his head, kissed him again. “I already like this way too much,” she purred. “Do we have to go inside?”

Giles looked up at the house and the light in the living room. “Eventually,” he conceded. “Dawn is waiting for us.”

“I guess,” Buffy agreed unenthusiastically. A conspiratorial gleam came into her eye. “You know I haven't patrolled yet, today?”

Giles looked at her quizzically for a moment, then an answering gleam came into his. “That simply won't do. You know you have a duty…”

She gestured down the street. “Well, if my Watcher insists.”

“He does,” he said, gentle amusement in his voice.

They followed a familiar route, bringing back many old memories for both of them. When too many unhappy thoughts intruded Buffy moved close to Giles, almost leaning against his arm as they walked.

He instinctively slid the arm around her and smiled when she did lean against him then.

“I could patrol like this indefinitely,” she sighed happily, looking up at the clear, starry night, a rarity even in Sunnydale.

“I wouldn't suggest it on busy nights,” he replied dryly, well aware that both of them were far too relaxed and happy to be fully alert to any danger that might present itself.

Restfield cemetery produced a rush of nostalgia for both of them, Buffy making jokes about studying for her SATs in a graveyard and Giles' endless supply of pencils, as well as teasing him about the arrival of Gwen Post. She fell silent only when she stopped at a familiar grave. She stepped in front of it and he followed. After a moment she traced the lettering of the name.

“I asked you to lie to me,” she said softly. “It seems like so long ago…”

“A lifetime,” Giles agreed, resting his hands on her shoulders and drawing her back against him.

Buffy stretched up, leaning her head back against his chest and sighing heavily. “Why does it feel like we've already been together forever?” she asked softly.

“Because we have,” he said simply, a soft note of surprise in his own voice at the truth of his instinctive response.

Buffy turned slowly without losing contact with his comfortingly solid form. “We've wasted so much time. I don't want to waste another minute.”

He trailed his fingers down the side of her face and smiled. “Nor I, but it seems that we will have to wait a little longer, whether we want to or not. Your sister will think we've been stolen by gypsies.”

On cue a cell phone rang, its tone muffled. Buffy felt around under her sweater and pulled a handset from her jeans.

“Yeah? No, we're fine. We just needed to talk, okay? We'll be home soon, I promise. Yeah. Bye.”

Giles was looking down at her, eyebrow raised.

“What? I got with the times. I'm a single parent now. Dawn really needed the security, y'know? You of all people should appreciate the major irony here,” she drawled.

“Oh I appreciate it,” he told her, amused.

“In that case do you think you could appreciate this a little bit?” she asked mischievously and leaned up to kiss him unexpectedly.

He growled in reply and drew her into his arms without lifting his head. Once again they merged into one, losing themselves in each other so profoundly and completely that neither of them heard the footsteps approaching. A loud clearing of the throat finally reached them.

“I'm afraid you're trespassing,” an elderly man in a security guard's uniform informed them. “Isn't there somewhere else you'd rather be doing that?”

They both had the good grace to flush and Buffy turned to look at the guard.

“Oh it's you,” he said and looked hard at Giles. “I didn't know it was you. If he's giving you any trouble…”

Buffy couldn't quite suppress a giggle. “Nope. No trouble, Art. He's harmless.” Again a giggle slipped out. “Giles, Arturo. Art, Giles.”

Giles made a noise under his breath, before reaching for the man's extended hand, which only made it harder for her to hold further giggles back.

“Buffy, you need to be around here a little more often,” Art said cryptically. “This place starts to get way too busy, if you know what I mean, when I haven't seen you for a while.”

“How long have you been here?” Giles asked. “I don't remember this place employing security guards…”

“About six months,” Buffy and the guard said almost in unison.

“We had a lot of vandalism. It was cheaper to hire a few of us than to have to keep replacing stuff and compensating the bereaved,” Art explained earnestly. “Well, I best leave you two to your own business. I've got a lot of ground to cover.”

“How on earth does he stay alive?” Giles asked watching the old man head off into the darkness.

“Well, the vandals who haven't been eaten yet don't much care for Smith or Wesson,” she indicated the sidearm on Art's slow moving hip, “…or me, for that matter, and vamps really, really don't like garlic.” Buffy smiled smugly. “Or me.”

“Ah, and Arturo seems rather fond of garlic,” Giles realised, remembering how strongly the old man's breath smelled of it.

“He likes it a whole lot more since I told him that it was good for keeping certain nasty…problems…away,” Buffy observed dryly. “And he already wears his own crucifix, plus the local priest blesses him with Holy water before every night shift. Art knows how to stay out of trouble. He may be an old guy but he doesn't miss a thing. Which is probably why he's made it to seventy-three in one piece.”

“Yes, well, I think perhaps it's time we were heading back to your sister before she calls again to find out what the devil is taking us so long.”

Buffy sighed. “I wish you still had your apartment. I could tell Dawn not to wait up…”

“That's hardly fair…” Giles began, though secretly agreeing with Buffy.

“Dawn doesn't need me to watch her every minute. She's sixteen now. She's even older than I was when you ordered me to face my destiny and go visit with the Master,” she retorted then stopped when she saw his face.

“You were not Dawn,” he said softly. “She's a child, with a child's sensibilities. You were never a child. Even then you had more courage and more strength than any Slayer ever had before you,” his voice hardened, “or since.”

“Flatterer,” Buffy teased, emotion in her voice. “Let's go home.”

The emotion was reflected in his own strong features before a twinkle appeared in his eye. “Flattery? Perhaps, but I did not, however, say that you weren't still frequently quite stupid,” he teased back. “One doesn't have to be a child to be stupid.”

“Oh you really know how to sweet talk a girl,” she drawled, well aware of how oh-so-right he was, as they turned and headed out of the graveyard without further incident. As they walked, Buffy fitted herself to Giles' side again, content to feel his arm close possessively around her.

The house was silent when they let themselves in the front door. They stopped just inside it, both of them turning simultaneously into the kiss, snatching at least one more moment before plummeting back to the prosaic and the mundane again.

They did not hear Dawn pad out in bare feet to investigate a noise and stop for a long moment to stare at the sight before her, quietly congratulating herself for guessing correctly the first time about what they were doing out in the dark by Giles' car. She continued to watch, alternating between teenage squicking and unadulterated joy that the two most important people in her life seemed to have realised for the first time how important they were to each other. When they didn't seem like they were ever going to part, she withdrew to the kitchen.

A part of her was still wrinkling her nose, but more and more she was warming, even thrilling to the idea. This was Giles and Buffy. Somehow they fitted together. She'd never thought about it before, but they did. No other beau of Buffy's had ever sounded as right, as much like they belonged, as Giles and Buffy…Buffy and Giles. And Dawn, who had been personally grossed out by every romantic encounter of her sister's that she'd ever spied…er …accidentally walked in on, she corrected, decided that she had never seen Buffy radiating more contentment and pure happiness than she was in the scene she'd witnessed at the front door.

She paused and frowned for a long moment, then looked smug as she turned to the telephone.

*******


“Hey Buffy is that you?”

Giles and Buffy parted reluctantly. “Yeah, kiddo, we're back,” Buffy managed to call, still lost in the dreamy unreality that was their small cosy world of two.

“Finally!” Dawn yelled back, re-entering the room as though for the first time. “Janice called. She's freaking about the algebra in the math test on Friday. The girl is math dyslexic, I swear. She wants me to stay over and her mom says it's okay. I know Giles just got back,” she waggled her fingers and smiled at him, “but is it okay if I go? I can see Giles all day tomorrow.”

Buffy strove to maintain a straight face. Giles worked over time to remain iron-jawed and not to grin like a Cheshire cat.

“You know I'll probably be checking on you?”

Dawn nodded, looking from one to the other. “I know. Trust is earned, not given out like candy. I remember the talk,” she agreed. “So I can go?”

“Sure,” Buffy agreed solemnly while her insides went into meltdown at the prospects that had opened up. “Take the new bottle of soda and that box of cookies with you.”

Ten minutes later the door clicked shut and they were finally alone. They turned to face each other but fell into an uncomfortable silence instead, each of them waiting for the other to speak.

“So this is going well,” Buffy finally managed. “Of course, if we can't think of anything else to do, there's always your new tea…”

Giles chuckled. “I could do with something rather stronger right now,” he said ruefully.

“So what happened to Hugh Hefner?” Buffy teased, to cover her own nerves.

He smiled wryly. “I left the robe in Bath.”

“I'll buy you a new one,” she growled.

“Bad robe or bad memories?” he asked, moving back toward the living room.

“Do I really need to answer that?” she drawled, following him.

“Um, no,” he conceded, stopping in the middle of the room, as unsure of himself as he had ever been.

Buffy stopped at his shoulder, bemused. “Why are we in the living room?”

He turned so that he was very close and looking down at her upturned face. “Is there somewhere you would prefer to be?” he asked, unable to resist, the deep, sensuous rumble of his voice making the simplest of questions seem almost dangerous.

The unexpected glimpse of this side of Giles, the man, sent a shiver down Buffy's spine as he continued to look at her in a way that melted her insides.

“I can think of a few,” she managed…barely…to retort.

Giles touched her cheek with the lightest of caresses. “So can I…”

Buffy shivered again, her eyes searching his. “Show me.”

He traced her face, let his fingertips slide down her neck, caressing her throat as her eyes closed, and her soft lips parted with pleasure at his touch.

“Are you sure this is what you want?” he asked, an underlying note of real concern in his now decidedly husky voice.

She opened her eyes and reached up without hesitation to draw his head and his mouth down to hers. It started tenderly, her lips revelling in the attention of his strong ones and in the way he took over the lovemaking, shaping and guiding their kiss towards a threshold of pleasure that would change their relationship forever. Buffy let it envelope her, giving her lips, her mouth willingly, losing herself in him, until they were both breathing hard and straining against each other.

The turning point was as profound as it was unnoticed: each of them surrendering themselves and their trust to the other without question or pause.

When they parted again Buffy smiled breathlessly. “Pretty sure,” she answered mischievously and slid her hands down his chest to his belt, only to have Giles cover them with his own before taking them and bringing them back up to his lips. She looked up at him, puzzled.

“No,” he said softly.

Buffy felt like her new world, all gossamer and dreams up to now, had suddenly crumbled to dust. She looked up at him, vulnerability and confusion in her face.

“ 'No, you don't want me', or 'no, you've changed your mind'?” She asked, frowning as the shape of her love life in the last few years loomed in her thoughts, bringing back old self-doubts, old hurts, and seemingly confirming her lifelong certainty that she couldn't possibly be destined to have anything so precious. “Let me guess: you've remembered what I am, what I've done, and you really don't want…?”

“No,” he said again, even more gently, stopping her self-flagellation. “In my lifetime I'll never want anything more than I want this.”

“Then wha—?”

She was prevented from talking by the touch of his forefinger against her lips. Her clear grey eyes rolled up to look into his as he took her face in his hands, a large thumb caressing one cheek before he brushed her forehead with his own lips, trailing them down to kiss her eyes, her nose and then, with the briefest of pauses to smile tenderly at her, her mouth.

He lingered over the kiss, somehow managing to convey the overwhelming power of his love for her in that gentle possession of her lips.

When he relinquished her soft mouth, she stared at him, her eyes wide and her heart in them. After a couple of beats she seemed to return to herself, though unable to stop the moisture rising in her dark lashes, and stepped into his embrace. Giles held her tenderly while she wept with relief, waiting until she was quiet before picking her up with ease and carrying her up the stairs.

From her position on the bed that had been 'his' since she'd brought him home from the hospital, Buffy watched Giles straighten, his gaze lingering on her slender form for a few moments more.

Then she watched him remove his jacket, letting it fall to the ground, before following his fingers as they methodically undid each button and drew the shirt from his pants before sliding it off and letting it fall to the floor.

He looked up and straight at her as rain began to patter on the bedroom window. Their gazes held as their hearts moved from breathtaking recognition to perfect clarity…

They weren't about lust, or possession or even need. They were about belonging…about the kind of love that has no beginning…and no end.

Shaken, as he was, Buffy sat up and repeated his actions without taking her eyes from his, unbuttoning her own blouse, revealing her slender body and the surprising fullness of her uncovered curves. Giles' expression was still a revelation to her: wonder, admiration …joy…love.

Slowly, he kicked off his shoes, unbuckled his belt and removed his pants, leaving only small black boxers hugging his slim hips, their contours graphically betraying the depth of his desire.

When she'd recovered her senses enough, Buffy did the same, leaving her in a slip of sheer blue, silky fabric, cut high and narrow to accentuate her curves, and waited for him to settle at her side, her breath held until he was there, close enough for her to smell the maleness on his skin and the trace of cologne still lingering somewhere.

She didn't speak. She couldn't. As incredible as it felt, there was something almost terrifying about what was happening to them, to her. Giles seemed to know without being told and drew her silently into his arms. Buffy curled up gratefully against his chest, feeling the warmth of his skin beneath her cheek and hearing the sound of his heart beating as she closed her eyes and exhaled.

His body was still hard and strong, and Buffy was finding her reaction to the feel, the scent of him, harder and harder to ignore. Finally, she turned her face to kiss the tip of his sternum, her lips moving slowly up to his throat.

Giles watched her, but didn't move until he felt her weight shift. They fell back in slow motion, Buffy shifting fluidly over him and looking down to meet his desire-blurred eyes.

She shivered at the depth of the passion in them; the overwhelmingly dangerous emerald fire that burned in their depths as he watched the colour rise in her cheeks and the strands of her long hair as they caressed her soft breasts, when she bowed her head self-consciously.

When he traced the curve of the right one, she shivered again, a small sound jerked from her lips before she lifted her head and leaned forward to capture his lips with her own.

The kiss went from urgency to flames as his hands buried themselves in her hair and her back arched as she plundered his mouth as much as he was plundering hers.

Then long fingers slid over her sensitised skin following the contours of her back, until they reached the flimsy blue slip of fabric, slid inside it and cupped her soft cheeks for a moment before Giles reclaimed control of their lovemaking, smoothly turning them both so that she lay in his arms, her thighs cradling his hips, Buffy breathing heavily as she looked up at him with the same desire blurred eyes, to see the depth of the love in his.

The déjà vu was suddenly so strong it rocked her. And then it came to her. She reached up and touched his hair with trembling fingers, remembering.

Giles watched her with alarm. “Buffy…?”

She shook her head. “I-I remembered something…but it's a good thing,” she whispered, not wanting to elaborate about Riley and his perfect wife, or her idiotically desperate attempt to find something with Spike that she knew, even then, in her heart of hearts, could never be.

He looked both bemused and curious.

“I just realised how incredibly much I love you,” she managed then winced almost comically. “I know that sounds so lame, but…”

Giles kissed the soft shell-like lips that were entrancing him. “Not to me,” he teased, the devil in his eye. “Six years of being completely unappreciated is going to take some catching up on your part.” He grinned gently. “You've made a fine start. Keep up the good work.”

Buffy couldn't help grinning back, before rolling her eyes and tightening the circle of her legs around his hips. She raised her pelvis to move against him.

“Like this?” she growled when he shuddered and moaned involuntarily.

“Oh yes,” he agreed in an amused but desire deepened voice. “And like this,” he added, propping back on his knees enough to take hold of her panties and slip them down, Buffy obligingly releasing her hold on him long enough to point her toes in the air while he slid the flimsy blue silk up and over her slender legs. In a couple of economical movements he'd also removed his own briefs, enjoying her obvious curiosity and then admiration, before taking her in his arms again.

There was one last meeting of green and grey eyes, the final question asked and answered, and in the power of that moment, a bond forged, never to be broken.

When they kissed again, each rocked almost physically with the revelation of it, and again with each new touch and caress, every moment as wondrous as if it were the first time.

“Why?” Buffy whispered breathlessly, when he rose at last to lift her hips to his.

Giles paused and smiled back, understanding immediately, then watched her face, her eyes closing, her mouth opening slightly as they became one. When she groaned, he leaned forward and brushed her lips with his.

“Because it's as new as the rain outside on the window,” he said softly. “There has always been rain, but…”

“…It's always new,” Buffy whispered, shifting enough to feel him move even deeper inside her, and holding him even more tightly, as though with sheer desire she might fuse them into one heart, one body, one soul.

Giles' eyes shone. “Always,” he breathed, moving slowly, making love to her with strength and tenderness, experience struggling to overcome the sheer intensity of the joy of their union.

They rose together, Buffy giving the only way she knew how, with her whole heart and soul, trying to show him with her body what words could never hope to convey…until they both spiralled upward into a maelstrom of pure exhilaration, each of them crying out as their completion approached. They moved at the same moment to find each other, mouths locking in a kiss moments before their bodies exploded, joined together as the fire tore across every plane of their love for each other, until they were irrevocably fused into one complete whole…

As the waves of pleasure and exaltation finally subsided to a healthy glow, Giles moved to rest on his side and to draw Buffy to him, each of them feeling their racing heartbeats and heaving lungs, and each of them just as greedy for the haven of each other's arms.

Buffy curled into his chest, holding on to him tightly, and Giles folded her close, resting his face against her hair, neither of them relaxing until it sank in that it was real, and that it was not going to fade into another nightmare, or another hopeless daydream. Or that either of them was going to wake yet again to the overwhelming loneliness and pain that had stalked both their lives for so very long.

It was a rosy Buffy who finally spoke, kissing his chin and shifting to look him sleepily in the eye.

“We're not supposed to have a 'happily ever after',” she pointed out, not entirely able to suppress the contented smile on her face despite the seriousness of her tone. “I'm supposed to be destined for darkness…so we better make sure we prove them wrong…”

“…And Watchers are almost invariably supposed to end up lonely, bitter old men,” Giles added thoughtfully, more than a little rosy himself and not any better at extinguishing the bright glow of pleasure in his eyes as she curled up once again, safe in the circle of his arms.

Only a tiny flicker of something approaching concern darkened the green for the briefest of moments, before both sets of eyes closed and they drifted into a deep, contented slumber.


*******


“Hey, Buffy! Dawn?”

Buffy sat up, blinking. Then she realised where she was, and with whom. She turned to her companion, whose eyes had opened, and were watching her.

“Good morning,” she said softly, her voice rising to an almost enquiring note at the end, over the steady thrum of rain on the roof.

“Magnificent morning,” Giles growled and drew her down into his embrace.

When Buffy lifted her head from their languorous kiss and smiled contentedly, he swallowed hard. “Miracles do happen,” he said, almost to himself.

“Buffy! Anybody home?” Xander's voice called again, just as Buffy was about to reply.

They both closed their eyes at the same time.

“If we stay silent he'll think there's no one home and go away,” Buffy suggested, clearly wanting to do more with their morning than visit with Xander.

They heard the footsteps on the stairs at the same time. Their first instinct was to blind panic, then, in the midst of the scramble, Buffy simply stopped, catching Giles' elbow as he turned to slide out of bed.

He turned back and looked at her quizzically, saw the confidence and the determination in her eyes. After a few more beats he smiled a long, slow smile before caressing her radiant face with loving fingers as the door rattled.

She was still glowing when they both turned together as the door opened.

“Hi Xander…”



* * *