Sierra High


"Why ever not?"

"Giles, I'm the Slayer, not Calamity Jane. Besides, it's winter. See the white stuff...?"

"There are no roads where we're going and it would take days to hike up there. Are you telling me you are fundamentally incapable of controlling a horse... in snow or otherwise?"

Buffy's face grew stormy. 'Fundamentally incapable' sounded a lot like 'stupid.' "I didn't say I couldn't, just that I wouldn't. My last horse-riding experience involved large teeth and a very bruised foot. And my last interface with 'horsies' wasn't exactly a friendly one either, if you remember correctly."

Giles snorted. "You weren't the one with the bloody lance sticking out of you."

The memory caused Buffy to wilt a little. "Not one of our better campaigns," she winced, remembering how preoccupied she was while he was hanging between life and death.

Giles looked sideways at her, reading her expression. "Definitely not."

She shrugged. "Okay, so show me what they're offering."

The ranch in question had been more than willing to provide mounts in exchange for the removal of whatever it was that was killing their livestock in such macabre and gruesomely artistic ways and leaving assorted mystical calling cards.

They rounded the huge barn, thankful that only a few inches of snow covered the yard, and stopped at a corral with four horses in. Buffy's eyes immediately fastened onto a chestnut of Galloway height, which, to Giles' experienced eye, was part Arabian and beautifully conformed, its only drawback being the three white stockings which made those feet softer than the fourth, black hoof and therefore would require serious attention to shoeing for most of its existence.

Buffy continued to watch it, entranced as it almost floated across the corral, its tail held like a banner, mane and forelock flowing and its nostrils flared warily.

Giles, watching her mobile expressions, smiled to himself and considered the other three choices. The pinto was too small, which left a flea-bitten grey of at least sixteen hands, probably more, and a seal black thoroughbred with long legs and a tendency towards skittishness if its reactions to the proximity of the other animals, and to the bird trying to pick up odd bits of grain around the feed bin, were any indication.

Buffy finally turned. "So hey, they're all kinda nice. Which one are you taking? It's gotta be the pretty black one, right?"

He shook his head solemnly. "If I wanted to make fast time across flat, snow-less country, possibly, but if you look at the grey it's a much steadier, stronger animal, well muscled, but wiry." He indicated its wide hooves. "And it has the sort of feet which will do well where we're going to have to go."

Her face dropped a little. "Then I guess you want me to take the pinto, because, well, it's all chunky and quiet, right?"

"It would be a good choice," he agreed. "But the warm-blood, despite its appearance, is a nimble, powerful mount, usually of some intelligence, and will serve you just as well, provided you have some skill as a rider. Bill said this one was rising six years old and well schooled. You shouldn't have a problem with him, provided you have the appropriate skills, as I said."




Giles chuckled. "A mare might have been a more risky proposition. There's enough Arabian there to make it essential that you concentrate on what you're doing. It's not an animal you want to be riding if your attention is going to be elsewhere for any length of time."

"So... if I agree to do this, I really should take the pinto, then?"

He rolled his eyes and picked up a halter from the fence. "Why don't we wait until you get acquainted first? Come on."

Buffy followed Giles through the gate and watched with some admiration as he quietly isolated the chestnut, speaking softly to it as he moved to its side, and, facing its head, slid the lead rope on the halter around the animal's neck before deftly settling the halter into place. She liked how he smiled to himself when the horse threw its head up defiantly, shook it hard and snorted as if to say 'you tricked me'.

When Giles had tied the horse up outside the corral, Buffy ventured forward to stroke its neck. It really was a beautiful animal.

Giles watched her, understanding exactly what she saw in it. It was a very attractive creature, with its dish-shaped nose, and the tendency to flex too much at the poll... not to mention the banner-like mane and tail. He suspected that Bill's daughter, the animal's owner, had probably been attracted to exactly the same things.

While Buffy continued to bond with her new friend, he went back into the corral and caught Bill's own grey gelding. Unlike the warm-blood, it was unfazed about being haltered, and sedate in an, 'I choose to tolerate you' sort of way.

Buffy looked it over as Giles tied it up only feet from her. "I don't think I like all those freckles all over it. Looks kinda... well, not as pretty as those greys that look like clouds, you know?"

"Dapple greys," Giles provided absently, as he slid a hand from the animal's wither across to the shoulder and down a foreleg.

"So what's this one? Freckled grey?"

He laughed as he encouraged the horse to lift its foot for his inspection. "Flea-bitten grey, though I expect you'll be appalled by that too."

"Duh and eiww. The poor thing."

"It doesn't actually involve fleas."

Buffy rolled her eyes. "I didn't actually think it did, but it doesn't seem fair to the horse to call it that. Not exactly flattering...what are you doing?"

"Checking for stones. These horses were brought in from pasture for our benefit. The children are away at school and their parents have been far too preoccupied with their city day jobs coming up to Christmas, to have time for riding. I don't want to get halfway to the caves and have one of them pull up lame. He moved to the grey's hindquarters and asked for the boot knife he'd given her for the trip. She watched him clean the one hoof that was badly impacted with dirt, grass and mud.

Buffy looked dubious, but copied his earlier movements exactly, to lift a front hoof on the chestnut, who made heavy weather of the exercise and leaned unnecessarily against her while she inspected the horny underside of the white hoof. She wasn't exactly sure what she was looking for, but there were no rocks or stones to be seen. She repeated the exercise with the off-foreleg.

"Be careful," Giles warned as she moved to the animal's rear. "Stay away from his hindquarters and striking distance of either of those hooves."

This time things didn't quite go to plan. The gelding didn't like having its hind leg picked up and planted it like a steel post, refusing to allow Buffy to bend it.

"Um, it's gone on strike. Should I show it who's boss... like, Slayer-type boss?"

"No," Giles said quickly, and moved to her side.

Buffy watched him go to the gelding's head and speak to it as he rubbed its neck and ears, before sliding a firm hand down its back, and down the leg in question, still talking quietly. The hoof was impacted with dirt and mud and Giles' knife pried loose a pebble not much bigger than a pea. He straightened when he was done with the other hind leg, and wiped his hands together.

"Right. Well, can you ride or not?"

Buffy crossed her arms. "Can," she confirmed, looking at the chestnut again and watching it blow air expressively through its nostrils. "Just haven't wanted to since the psycho-pony incident."

Giles smiled, amused. "Riding school and worse, pony-hire mounts, are often eccentric, and occasionally quite disturbed. It's not an easy life for them, being subjected daily, indeed sometimes hourly, to often appallingly bad riders. It's worse if the animal is even remotely bright. Those are the ones who soon work out the routine and which often, on the last ride of the day, are known to take off unexpectedly with a novice rider, to get back faster, knowing that rest, food and peace lie at the end of the ride."

She finally smiled back. "Well, if you put it that way, I don't think I hate that nasty little roan so much anymore. Poor things. Isn't there a law or something?"

"Would that there were," Giles sighed and looked up to where the sun was well and truly above the horizon now. "I believe the tack room is inside the barn."

* * * * *

Giles watched as Buffy did several circles in the open area in front of the barn, demonstrating impressive control of her mount and a light enough touch for what he knew would be a sensitive mouth. The gelding was fresh, and quite obviously wanted to go, regardless of the snow under foot, but was also trained for showing, and therefore extremely responsive to heel and hand.

Satisfied, he swung up into the unfamiliar western saddle, reflecting upon what a pity it was that the only non-western saddle was a mouth-watering 'Stubben' dressage saddle for the warm-blood, in elk and black saddle leather. He supposed, as he settled into the well-worn and surprisingly comfortable seat, that Bill didn't really need such an expensive piece of tack for going around his property and stock.

Buffy also hastily chose a western saddle after questioning Giles about the Stubben and discovering how much it would cost to replace.

Giles guided the grey across to where Buffy had come to halt to watch him.

"Did Bill tell you the names of these guys?" she asked as they moved off together, crunching their way out of the yard.

"I don't believe the subject came up. However, his daughter, Kellie, talks about little else but that creature so I already know that its name is Titan, and Bill, himself, recommended old Jasper, here."

Buffy eyed her companion as they left the home area of the ranch. He looked kinda impressive on the powerful grey, with his glasses put away for safekeeping and his favourite sword in a scabbard on his back. Of course the close-fitting blue jeans, denim shirt and black wool coat didn't hurt, either.

"So how much exactly did you and Will find out about all those weird symbols and the way the cattle know?" she finally asked.

"Not a great deal. It would appear that we're dealing with a nest of a very ancient kind of demon...almost, but not quite, pure. Mordredii thrive on death... or more precisely the moment of death. Fortunately they're also intelligent enough to primarily restrict themselves to non-sentient victims in order to maintain a lower profile."

Buffy rolled her eyes. "The symbols are kind of a giveaway."

He chuckled. "Perhaps, but rather like the citizenry of Sunnydale, for most it has always been far easier to assume something more... mundane, like wolves, coyotes... foxes, or eagles... even feral dogs or cats are to blame, despite such signs of sentience. If Bill Morgan wasn't an acquaintance of mine, I doubt we'd have even heard about this incident, unless you frequent those ludicrous tabloids sold in supermarkets."

The pert nose wrinkled. "I don't call artistically arranged entrails a sign of sentience."

It was Giles' turn to show his distaste. "Yes, well, the fact that they are generally arranged *on* the drawn demon symbols probably accounts for most people preferring to blame wild animals."

They rode on together, enjoying the sunshine, the sharp, cold air, the fresh horses and the idle shop talk, as Giles guided them to the caves from which the locals suspected the killers, whomever they might be, had come. He wasn't particularly confident that he would find anything more than a smattering of sign, or a few half-melted prints in the snow, possibly due to them having retreated there temporarily to avoid being seen by the deer hunters who'd reported wounding 'something real weird' and tracking a trail of blood to the caves. The bravest of the, probably inebriated, men had ventured several dozen metres into the cave in question before a lack of light and general nervousness caused them to decide that discretion definitely was the better part of valour.

"Wow. Kinda under-whelming," Buffy observed when they halted in the clearing in front of the caves... most little more than hollows in the cliff, and the one deeper one looking more like a crack had opened up in the hillside than an actual cave.

"Not everything is like the movies, or the television."

She tilted her head at the unsubtle dig. "Yeah, like you're going to find a television show about an Englishman and his Slayer hunting seriously disturbed demons on horseback in the Sierra Nevadas. Riiiight."

Giles snorted. "The Sierra Nevada," he corrected and dismounted, handing the reins to Buffy.

She watched him cross the clearing and was surprised to find herself watching parts of Giles' anatomy that she had never watched before. He was wearing an earring again, the jeans really were 'comfy' in all the right places, and the soft, light blue denim- look shirt under the long, black coat, did things to her that she really wasn't expecting.

Then again, 'Old Predictable' wasn't supposed to arrive to pick her up for an assignment like this, dressed like... well... and with the sword and all. It gave her a sense of deja vu, which she only placed very near the time of their arrival at the ranch. He was giving off the same vibes and doing very much the same things to her insides as he did when he suddenly appeared to save the day against Evil Willow.

Then, however, there had been far too much happening to take notice of flip-flopping insides and later, way too much baggage being carried to actually *deal* with something that far out of left field. Instead, she'd done what she always did with 'too hard' items. She'd ignored it completely.

Colour rushed into her face as she watched him hunker down to study something, probably tracks, or maybe blood on the remnants of bushes poking through the snow. Titan was dancing more than a little and annoying Jasper, but her eyes were fixed on the figure whose head was bent in concentration and who'd never seemed more alive and more real to her than he did right now. She had no excuses for her behaviour over the last, very long, while, only the knowledge that falling apart was not a good look for her. On top of everything else it had coloured her once pretty good judgment and made her needy and dependent when she should have been standing on her own two feet.

She shuddered at the realization that she had arrived at Sunnydale High with more control over her own life, more courage in her own choices...and far more self-respect, than she'd seen or felt at any time in the last few years. She didn't like who she'd become and she knew Giles hadn't liked what he saw when he came back to fight the First. She wondered fleetingly if she could blame the majority of her erratic behaviour on his absence and reluctantly dismissed the notion. She had tried that before...even out loud...and it had sounded as much like a copout then as it did now, inside her head. His ill-conceived departure certainly didn't help anything, either time, but there was no point in blaming others, especially him, for her choices or her right turn deep into total loser-being. Buffy un-scrunched her brow and scanned around slightly frantically.

While she was lost in thought, Giles had disappeared, or more likely just moved out of sight. At that moment she shuddered violently and Titan whinnied and jibbed sideways, causing Buffy to drag Jasper with them. It took a couple of minutes to settle the horses and Buffy gave thanks for the running martingale Giles had insisted on, though she didn't actually know what it was called, only that it stopped Titan from throwing his head up and hi-tailing it back to the ranch. Whatever had made her shudder had totally spooked the horses, particularly hers. She could feel him beneath her, like a coiled watch-spring, ready to 'unsproing' at the first opportunity.

She didn't know whether to call out Giles' name and alert whatever else might be in the area that she was there, or to dismount and search for him on foot, or take the horses in some arbitrary direction and search for him on horseback. A moment later the decision was made for her. Another shudder was immediately followed, spookily like lightning and thunder, by a prolonged, high-pitched yowl halfway between a scream of terror and a climbing shriek of rage.

Buffy turned the horses toward the noise and picked her way through the trees, despite Titan telegraphing, in no uncertain terms, both his terror and his desire to go in the opposite direction. As she got closer, her Slayer senses took over and she began tracking instinctively toward the source of that noise. When they finally broke into another clearing, Titan reared, snapping the martingale and screaming his own scream of fear. Only Buffy's slayer strength and will brought the animal down again. Jasper was also pulling hard. When the chance presented itself, Buffy dismounted and again had to use all her strength to hold both horses long enough to close-tie them to a tree, figuring that the less rein they had to jerk on, the less likely they were to break them.

With all the weapons she could carry and still fight, she turned again, unerringly, toward the presence.

Beyond the clearing was a crop of granite boulders. When Buffy worked her way around them, ploughing through sometimes quite deep snow, she found Giles, sword held in front of him, poised to defend himself from attack, and a creature that reminded her of some types of werewolf, but far more terrifying. Her skin was crawling with the level of almost palpable malevolence and the overwhelming sense of its sentience, whereas the average metamorphosed werewolf was no more self-aware than a wild dog or a bear.

It paused in its stalking of the Watcher and turned very slowly to look directly at her.

Buffy shuddered then realized that Giles had seen her as well. Taking advantage of the Mordredi's momentary distraction, he rushed forward, intending to decapitate the creature, but it seemed to know even before he moved that he was going to, and in one lightning fast move, had Giles pinned to the ground, his sword spinning out of his hand. It turned its head again, as though daring Buffy to try to save her companion.

Whilst not sure anything she did wouldn't get Giles killed, Buffy knew she had to do something. Giles had said they were intelligent. She walked forward slowly, hand in her pocket, wrapped around a stake.

"Giles says you're smart; so you can probably understand me. Do you know who I am? Who he is? You kill him, you have to deal with me."

The beast threw its head up and snorted through expressive nostrils. It didn't really need to speak. Its expressive eyes asked the question and somehow Buffy understood it. She suspected that it was more than a little psychic, but wasn't really sure, since it wasn't like it was projecting words or pictures into her brain or anything.

"He's mine," she confirmed. "And I'm the Slayer. You know... the pesky *Chosen One*" or one of them at least, she added silently. "You hurt him, you deal with me... and I figure you know how much trouble that's gonna be. Up to now you guys have only killed livestock. If you let Giles go as a show of good faith that you're not gonna start vivisecting people, we don't have to take this any further, right?"

The air suddenly turned a translucent violet colour for a moment. Buffy blinked and then blinked again. Where the lupine creature had been standing on Giles, there now stood a bipedal figure, naked as the day it was born. She tried to ignore its prominent 'endowment' and kept her eyes locked with the emerald green ones that were staring at her, almost mesmerically.

"Why should I give you this kill?" It hissed. "No Slayer has ever killed one of the Mordr'dii."

Buffy rolled her eyes. "I'm guessing that's because no Slayer ever had to fight one of you before," she retorted. "Are you sure you really want to see what you're missing? Wouldn't it be easier to just let him go and consider it even?"

The demon snarled. "Why don't I tear out his life and then we will fight?" It spat back.

Her spirits fell, but she kept the scowl on her face, though she couldn't resist flicking a glance down to see how Giles was doing, in spite of herself. He was in pain, but mouthing something. Her lip reading sucked majorly, but she thought he was saying something about blood.

Buffy's eyes flicked back to the Mordredi. Blood...these things thrived on the kill, on death. Maybe the smell of blood would make it come after her...

Swiftly, she pulled out the boot-knife Giles had given her for the trip and cut her palm, turned her hand over and let the drops of blood fall onto the snow, where they quickly stained the pristine whiteness.

The bipedal being, almost reptilian in appearance, quivered, its large nostrils dilating even further. Then, suddenly, it was leaping away from Giles, a quadruped again and a slavering, noisy one at that. Buffy backed away swiftly, fishing out a stake, so that she was armed with both it and the hunting knife. She evaded the creature's first attack easily, using Slayer speed to leap sideways when it sprang at her. The second time she avoided the teeth and claws with her Slayer speed and agility, the Mordredi howled with rage. It did not, however, react irrationally or throw itself blindly at her, as many of her other adversaries had in the past.

Instead it watched as she automatically looked toward Giles during the lull to see if he was okay, and in that split second made a superhuman leap to crush her to the ground. At which point Buffy discovered that leaping wasn't the only superhuman thing about it...

Giles, who had managed to get to his feet and retrieve his sword, despite some fairly extensive bruising, felt his heart smash against his chest when he saw her go down, before adrenaline and training took over.

Buffy screamed as teeth as sharp as needles tore into her shoulder, partly in mortal horror that it was actually going to kill her and partly in excruciating pain...then screamed again when a blade flashed in the sun once, and it was the creature's turn to scream. A sound that went right through the body...before the sword flashed again and its head rolled off, landing with a squelching noise, and despoiling the white blanket beneath it.

She looked over the shoulder of the gruesome, still upright, semi-eviscerated corpse and sobbed. Giles was still standing in the finish position of the final stroke, eyes wide with pain and concentration. Then he blinked, dropped the sword and kicked the body out of the way before swooping down and folding her in his arms.

"I thought I'd lost you," he said raggedly, brushing the hair from her eyes and studying the torn flesh of the bite wound at the same time. "It's not too deep. You should be healed by morning, but it's going to be painful for a while."

"I figured," she said weakly, but in good humour, and tilted her head towards the corpse. "Not exactly big with the dental hygiene...and it kinda stings: like there's some kind of toxin, or something..."

"Nothing fatal," Giles reassured her quickly, "but yes, its incisors carry a toxin meant to have a paralysing effect on the demon species the Mordredii were actually evolved to hunt. It has very little effect on animals or people in this dimension."

Buffy rested her head against Giles' chest, struggling with the pain, but aware that she was way more focused on the feel of his arms around her, the familiar scent of him mixed with that of exertion, and, it had to be said, the background pall of warm demon guts, than on the discomfort. The pain didn't matter. What mattered was that his chest was as warm and solid as the arms that were holding her so possessively, and that for the first time since he'd left her, she felt safe, and protected and...loved.

He looked down at the fair head, then bent his own to rest his face against her crown. "I thought I'd lost you again," he whispered again, tremulously.

She tightened the hold of the arm she'd curled around his waist then shifted so that she could look up at him. There were things that needed to be said, things both of them had been avoiding for a long time. This was probably not the time, but then...*when had it ever been the *right* time with them*?

"I thought I'd lost you a long time ago," she managed equally as tremulously, surprised at her own temerity. "And then I lost me too. Conclusion: without you there is no 'me'. There's someone who looks like me and sounds like me...but, God, is she a taste, no sense..." Her voice almost disappeared. "...No feeling..."

Giles' voice was haunted. "I'd give anything to have done things differently. I was so certain that I was doing what was best...and I was so terribly mistaken."

Buffy shook her head against him. "Not really," she conceded. "I was kinda pathetic and needy and I was leaning all over you, all in the worst way...and I'm not so stupid that I don't know as well as you do that that state of affairs wasn't going to stop any time soon. I..." She lifted her head and met his eyes, aware that it was way past time. Time for not running away...for the truth. "I just needed you not to go. I just...*needed you*, Giles."

The words were said quietly enough, but every syllable shouted at him. He closed his eyes for a moment, unable to look into her eyes and to think at the same time. When he spoke again it was without opening them. His reply was slow and measured, but it spoke of years of hurt and his tone was also one of 'now or never'.

"Y-you've 'needed' me almost from the moment we started working together, and yet for almost that same length of time you've been more than capable of making choices and decisions quite without my input or support, in fact often in defiance of my opinion, and even of my direct instructions. I've never wanted to be anywhere but at your side, where I belong, where I was destined to be...but you've never truly 'needed' me, Buffy. I was never really more than an indulgence...used by necessity or whim, and in recent times cast aside more often than not."

Buffy had lost all colour and her hands shook. "Giles, look at me," she demanded.

He opened his eyes again and drew a sharp breath at the stark paleness and the moisture glittering in her eyes.

"I won't defend myself to you." She pulled herself from his embrace and sat up painfully before finding his gaze again. "You already know it all, anyway. You know me better than I do; you know what I am...that I'm flawed...maybe more than it's no surprise that Buffy makes mistakes...a lotta mistakes, and sometimes really bad ones. But one thing I was never mistaken about was how much I needed you...I didn't know how to put it into words back then, but're a part of me...and I think I'm part of you. All I know is when you're not there, I'm not whole. I came back broken...but when you left, what was left of me got smashed into little pieces I couldn't put back together again by myself."

"And *I* won't apologise for doing what I thought was best," he said too roughly. "I never meant to hurt you, but I had to do something. Rightly or wrongly, I chose to give you a chance to stand on your own two feet. In that time you always had a choice...I did not make you choose to do what you did or to become what you became after I left."

The truth hurt. Stung by it, Buffy scrambled to her feet, ignoring the unpleasantness of both the throbbing pain in her lacerated arm and the delayed reaction to previous events. It was also suddenly very lonely by herself.

"I didn't choose to die," she retorted, "or to be dragged back." She turned on her heel and attempted to storm off, but the effect was more like brisk teetering. By the time Giles realized that she wasn't going to turn, she'd disappeared into the trees. He went after her, catching up just in time to see her turn Titan toward home. Except that without the martingale, the highly agitated Titan, probably provoked by the rather overpowering smell of demon innards, was able to throw his magnificent head up and bolt with the virtually one-armed Buffy before she could even gather her wits.

In seconds Giles was on the grey, bent low and putting heel hard to the muscled flanks. The powerful old gelding responded magnificently, stretching out as it emerged from the tree line, its wide, mustang hooves barely hindered by the snow. Giles urged it on as they closed on the fleeing warm-blood now that Buffy was fighting it, snow spraying in all directions. He was within about ten metres when he saw it.

Buffy was too preoccupied with her own battle to see or hear the danger poised to strike ahead of her.

Giles loosened the reins, giving the grey its head, drew his sword from the sheath on his back and leaned down close to the horse's neck, weapon poised to strike as they thundered along.

When the second Mordredi screeched, Titan made Buffy's struggles academic by rearing up almost vertically. Unprepared, she slithered unwillingly off his back and landed with an undignified, but undramatic, thump in the wet snow...somewhere she didn't stay for more than a few seconds, scrambling to her feet, ignoring her bruised and very wet butt and agonised, and now heavily bleeding, shoulder.

She faced the creature, which was stalking purposefully towards her, then looked up when the pounding of Jasper's hooves heralded Giles' approach. The Mordredi paused too, turning its head, almost curiously, toward the sound.

And then everything seemed to move in slow motion. The creature turned back to Buffy, who was staring opened mouth at the military-style charge of the man she...the man who'd always been at the centre of her universe, and resumed its careful stalking of her.

Clutching a stake in her good arm, Buffy prayed that the demon, in quadruped form, would remain fixated by the volume of blood soaking her clothes and trickling down her arm and chest.

It sprang.

Buffy raised her good arm.

Jasper swept in and Giles leaned outward, his blade flashing as it described a powerful arc.

The Mordredi screamed a blood-curdling scream.

Buffy heard the same 'plopping' sound and knew that she was safe again without looking at the gruesome remnants of Giles' attack.

Giles, on the other hand, had not slowed, instead setting Jasper to continue after the chestnut, obviously intent on stopping the valuable animal from hurting itself. She watched the pair continue down the slope and streak across the lower meadow, apprehending a blowing Titan with the same impressive elegance as the previous attack. Giles rode as though he were a part of his mount...literally a fusion of horse and rider that was beautiful in its purity and its truth.

Within minutes they had passed, and rounded Titan up to a scrambling halt, turning him in a tight circle with Jasper's body so that the animal perforce had to slow and the Watcher was able to lean down almost trick-rider fashion and secure a wildly, and dangerously, trailing rein to take the animal into custody.

As Giles, and the two horses, climbed back up the rise to where she'd finally roused from her focus on watching him to dust herself off, Buffy tilted her head to one side in contemplation of the scene before her.

Perspiration matted Giles' windblown hair and the shirt beneath the wide-open coat. Several buttons on the shirt were asunder, revealing the gold and grey hairs beneath. The horses were fractious and prancing despite being sweat-caked and blowing hard. His sword was safely sheathed on his back again.

In the opinion of Buffy's eyes, and the tattoo of her heartbeat, never had anything looked so wonderful before. When the horses came to a halt and his flashing, still hyper-alert, green eyes met hers, her breath caught.

"Are you all right?" His voice was husky and a little laboured but those eyes took all of her in, looking for damage.

"Everything except my dignity," she growled, ignoring the gory display of blood, fresh and dried, on her shoulder and soaked into her clothes. "I'll be as good as new by morning. Course, I'd really like it to stop hurting way before then."

"I can imagine," he sympathized. "We should get you back. Slayer healing, or no, there's a real danger of infection if we don't get those wounds cleaned soon. You'd better ride with me. I don't want a repeat of Titan's earlier antics while you're hurt." He slid back onto the cantle, offered his hand and slipped his left boot from the stirrup.

Buffy took the hand and slipped a toe into the stirrup to lever herself up, with a little help, in front of him, the jostling of her bad shoulder making her exclaim in pain as she did so.

A gentle hand rested on her good shoulder and a concerned voice spoke close enough to her ear for the warm breath on it to send shivers down her spine.

"Are you sure you're all right? If it's too painful I can go back and fetch medical supplies from the homestead. I've no doubt that Bill would have a fully equipped kit, including local anaesthetic, for major agricultural accidents...for his employees...and his family."

She leaned back against the warmth of his chest. "I'll be fine, but the sooner we get home to some soap and hot water and quality painkillers, the better."

Giles straightened, trying to ignore the racing of his own heartbeat as his body moulded to the slender one sheltered in the circle of his arms, and turned them all for home.

* * * * *

Buffy had never seen a more welcome sight than Giles' new flat. It wasn't the same as the old one, but it was close. While they were required to work on a new evil prophecy indefinitely in conjunction with Wes in Los Angeles, none of them had the heart to live there, particularly after the tranquillity of Giles' home in Bath.

Instead, they'd opted to go somewhere that would feel as much like home as possible without actually being there: Santa Barbara. While the remaining group: Buffy, Dawn, Willow, Kennedy and Xander, had found and purchased a house with Council funds and made it their own, for better or worse, Giles had chosen to keep his own counsel as he'd always done. All Buffy knew about the new flat was that it had been chosen because it had a loft and because its design was not entirely unlike the one she had grown to miss almost as much as Giles after he was gone.

When the lights went on it felt like...coming home. All of Giles' things were there in much the same order, except this flat was larger and more airy, and the kitchen was almost painfully modern compared to the pretty ancient arrangement in his old one.

Apart from the familiarity and the Gilesean smell of books and herbs, not to mention his personal cologne, what was making her breath catch in her throat was the way it was decorated. In all the years she'd known him, Giles had barely bothered with the season, beyond the obligatory small gifts and cards.

She looked around, wide-eyed, at the tasteful, but beautiful, decorations in green, red and gold, and even more wide-eyed at the big blue spruce in the corner, as bright and as colourful as any family Christmas tree, and as piled underneath with gifts as on any Christmas morning.

"You've kinda been busy, haven't between researching and kicking Mordredii ass and Watcher's Council business in L.A. and other trivial stuff like that? It's gorgeous."

Giles snorted, but he was half smiling at her teasing tone. "I seem to recall some time ago being designated Patriarch of our motley group...even if it was largely against my will. I therefore decided that since we were going to be stuck in California again for Christmas, again largely not by choice, that it was my duty to provide one."

Buffy looked up at him fondly. His mock stuffiness wasn't fooling her. He'd been as displaced and lost as the rest of them since Sunnydale got hoovered by the Hellmouth, and looking just as hard for ways to make that feeling go away.

Despite the warm glow, her arm was almost numb, in a stiff, painful sort of way. The wet clothes, the bloody mess and the bruises were all taking their toll.

Giles closed the door behind them and exhaled heavily. "Sit down on the couch and I'll find our field kit. I'm sorry there was no one home at the ranch. I knew Bill had commitments at work, but he expected to be home in time to see me when we got back."

"Forget it," she croaked. "I've been a lot worse, and so have you. One thing though... could I... that is... what I really need is to get clean. The fresh bleeding stopped hours ago. I'd like to take a quick shower to wash the worst of this stuff off and maybe get really warm again before you try to fix it."

They were very close together, Buffy looking up at him and he towering over her. What little air there was between them suddenly seemed almost... electric.

Buffy shifted a little, but found she couldn't pull her gaze from his, couldn't stop herself from sinking into the soft leaf green, studying all of the tiny black dots and idly tracing the brown smudges as she contemplated the day's events and her reactions to various revelations, visual and otherwise.

Giles watched her colour rise and felt her discomfort, immediately misinterpreting it. "I-I'm sorry," he said suddenly. "I shouldn't be keeping you standing here like this in your condition. Come on, I'll find you some clean clothes and a decent towel and you can have at the bathroom to your heart's content."

She watched him wheel and head across the room with a feeling akin to being torn from something physically. She went after him and when he returned from the linen cupboard, stood in front of him so that he had to stop and look down at her again.

Her eyes, cloud-grey today, searched his. "It's still there," she said cryptically. "Tell me you can't feel it too."

He tilted his head questioningly to one side, an unconscious but truly endearing habit of his that went right to her heart.

"This," she said boldly, and touched his cheek, feeling him shiver as her fingertips trailed over it.

Giles immediately covered her hand with his. "Yes," he said hoarsely. "But I don't... it's..."

"I know," Buffy said softly. "It's weird for me too. It's like 'what the hell?' And at the same time there's this feeling like 'okay, *now* I get it... like somehow it's always been this way... and why didn't I know that a very long time ago?"

The consternation faded from his handsome features and he smiled slowly. "Yes," he repeated softly. "Exactly."

She smiled back. "I'm glad it's not just me. And I'm kinda glad it happened so fast. It feels like we've wasted an awful lot of time already..." She stopped and frowned. "Actually, there've already been way too many times where we might never have..."

That thought made Giles frown as well, along with the wave of haunting pain that always accompanied sudden, vivid recollections of the period after her death.

"Far too many," he agreed sombrely. "I think you know that I have always loved you. Except that, until now, it has been more about friendship, exasperation, pride, admiration, disappointment and of late far more hurt than I want to think very much about."

She digested that, her eyes losing their momentary amusement and filling with sadness. "There's a lot of that going around," she agreed, the sadness becoming profound sorrow. "I'm so sorry."

He studied the lovely face for a long while before nodding.

An ocean of words faded away, knowing they weren't going to be spoken, neither of them willing any longer to wait until they had.

Instead, with a shaky, tentative hand, Buffy reached up again and touched his cheek. "I am sorry," she repeated, the depth of it reflected in her eyes.

His expression gentled and his eyes grew tender. "I know."

At that, she finally managed to smile back for just a moment.

They grew very still then. Buffy stared up at him and he stared down at the troubled face with its soft, slightly parted lips. The spell was broken when they moved as one; tawny head bending, fair one tilting back, and two lifetimes meeting in the merging of two mouths...

Nothing could have prepared either of them for the joy, or the hunger. The kiss evolved from a romantic meeting into a claim, followed by a celebration. Buffy never wanted to surface and Giles never wanted to let go. Finally, they both seemed to realise at the same time that if they didn't stop now, they weren't going to.

Their hands dropped to their sides, and they regarded each other, flushed, ruffled and glowing-eyed.

"You know most people take a while longer to get from 'I think I like you' to 'whoa'," Buffy managed rather breathlessly.

"Most people are not you and I," he replied remarkably calmly, given the colour in his cheeks. "We've always had to fit things in between apocalypses and measure time in terms of anecdotal historical evidence of Slayer longevity... or lack of it... so-"

"Giles... English," she chided, echoing days of old, but her smile was one of great affection.

"Your, um, 'expiry date' I believe you called it back when Glory was an issue... you and I have never had the luxury of doing anything slowly. I-if you think we're going too fast, I completely understand..."

Buffy shook her head violently then paused, her cheeks more flushed than his. "Well, we are, but I don't want to slow down... unless you do. I know how I feel, what I want... why I want it... "Eiww!"

Giles frowned, the word not one with the best of associations for him. "Eiww?"

She pointed. "I've ruined your shirt... and your neck."

He looked down. True enough. Their enthusiasm had been such that he now had dried and fresh blood and grime all over his shirt and-he touched the base of his throat-his chest and neck.

For the first time Buffy also realized that the legs of his jeans were soaked and the shirt was still damp from when he was pinned in the snow, which must have soaked right through the coat. "We're a mess," she observed wryly, also observing silently to herself that she really didn't want to go anywhere that he wasn't, right now. "But it's okay. We match. We can get cleaned up later..."

He seemed to contemplate her for a moment then held out his hand. "We'll get cleaned up now."

Buffy allowed herself to be led into the bathroom and seated on the corner of the bathtub. This was another area that bore almost no resemblance to the old apartment. A state of affairs for which she was very grateful, given her memories of the occupant of Giles' tub last time she'd seen it. This tub was a two-person corner bath in a pale beige colour, with gold coloured fittings. They weren't exactly shiny or new, but they'd been well cared for. A part of her wistfully imagined herself in it with him, steam rising, bubbles everywhere.

Giles ran water in the hand basin until steam rose then opened the door of the cupboard beneath it to take a folded handtowel from the pile of bath linen inside.

The wet cloth was hot against her skin. Pleasant against her throat, but painful as it worked around her wounds. He was close enough again that she could smell his cologne and feel his breath on her skin. After several more moments of the painstaking, intimate contact, Buffy swallowed. "Giles..." She'd spoken too softly for him to hear.

"*Giles*?" Just a little louder.

He stopped. "Did I hurt you?"

She shook her head, staring at the bloodied towel. "We're just making more mess." She looked up very slowly, her eyes meeting his in a way that told him she was suddenly shy, despite the ignition of a mischievous spark in their depths. "We've known each other a long time, right? Long enough to..." Her eyes slid away to the bathtub. "I mean, it's been years and years... and Will and Xander only knew each other for a couple, before..."

"They were five," he chided, smiling widely. "Are you sure you understand what you're suggesting?"

Buffy looked up from the ever more inviting looking tub. "Well, it's like this. I want to be with you and I want to be in there, soaking in hot soapy goodness. In a romance novel we could take weeks just to get to know each other, but if it's all the same to you, I'd like to skip ahead. We've been through death and life together, dressed each other's wounds and held each other's hands for years, now. I think a bath is pretty tame compared to flaming baseball bats and high dives off forty-foot towers, demi-gods and ultimate evil, don't you?"

For a long moment, Giles didn't know what to say. The woman looking up at him, dry humour in her eyes, was not the girl he'd returned to find after the First had almost killed him.

She read the puzzlement in his eyes and grinned. "It's still me. When it hit me way up there in the High Sierra, I guess I knew then that it wasn't something I was ever going to recover from. It's funny, but I told Angel I'd know. That I knew I wasn't done yet; that I had to wait until I found out who I was." Her smile widened to a near-beatific grin. "But it turns out I wasn't waiting for him, or for me..."

"A-Angel?" He managed, still trying to come to terms with what she was telling him.

She nodded. "When he brought the amulet. I know we haven't talked much about what happened, but I know I told you where the amulet came from." He nodded. "When I saw him again there was this rush of chemistry... like old times... and then there was this kinda... fizzle. I tried to explain to him why I wasn't ready for another relationship, any relationship, yet... and there was cookie dough and baking... and really, it was..." She rolled her eyes. "It was kinda pathetic, to be honest. What do you do when you suddenly realize that something you've been pining for, for years, isn't what you want any more, after all?" Giles stared at her dazedly. "You babble," she answered her own question. "You babble about cookie dough like some kind of demented 'Dear Betty Crocker'."

At that point his expression cleared and he finally smiled again. That was all he needed to know. He began unbuttoning her blouse, aware that each caress of his fingertips as he worked his way through them was making Buffy shiver. When he was done, he eased the bloodied fabric with great gentleness from where it was stuck nastily to her wounds. When it was finally free, he slipped it off and let it fall to the floor.

The shoulder lacerations were closing, but the flesh was still swollen and bruised, though the accelerated healing meant she'd already progressed to the green and yellow stage, rather than the original purple and blue contusions.

Giles turned her slowly and carefully undid her bra, before slipping the straps from her arms, careful to make certain the blood-soiled one wasn't stuck to her skin as well. Buffy turned back nervously, holding the cups to her chest and looked up at him.

The moment seemed to last almost forever, both of them aware that a doorway had opened, but that in just a moment another would slam shut forever. Finally, their eyes locked and Giles' green ones lit reassuringly before Buffy's hand fell away and he carefully removed the white sport bra.

"Beautiful," he said softly, then surprised her by leaning past her to drop the plug in place and set the water running into the bath. When he straightened it was his turn to be surprised when Buffy set about removing his shirt.

It didn't take her long and she appeared to like what she saw after it fell to the floor, her fingers almost hypnotically drawn to the soft, tawny and grey hairs. He, too, shivered at her touch, the power of that doing strange things to Buffy's body as her fingertips traced circles and followed the contours of the firm chest.

"Kinda beautiful, yourself," she finally observed, and let her hands trail down to unbuckle his belt, smiling as his breath drew in sharply when she undid the stud of his jeans and eased the zipper down.

"No contest," he growled, returning the favour and allowing them both to step from their pants at the same time.

Buffy, in plain sports briefs to match the bra, was surprised to see him in black stretch ones. "Somehow, I thought you'd be a boxer man," she teased. "Not that the view isn't great anyway, but..."

"I'm very fond of shorts," he admitted, "but they're not really the thing for horse-riding, I'm afraid."

"Not the thing for bathtubs either," she observed dryly. "Speaking of which... getting kinda full if we're gonna fit in there too."

Giles roused from whatever place his thoughts had gone to and swiftly turned off the water. When he straightened they both fell silent, neither quite sure how to proceed.

Buffy giggled first. "Considering you apparently weren't shy about orgies when you were my age and, well, me and vampires... enough said... you have to admit the fact that we're standing here like virginal teens is pretty funny."

But there wasn't really anything funny about the momentary doubt Giles had been feeling. The enormity of the step they were about to take had suddenly weighed upon him like lead... until Buffy added her unique perspective.

He smiled slowly. "I never thought to be likened for a virginal teen again in my lifetime." In the blink of an eye his briefs were on the floor and he'd slipped hers over her hips so that they slid obligingly down her slender legs. The moment she stepped out of them, he swept her up and set her gently in the tub, before following her in.

Once they were settled, Buffy busied herself with looking at the bottles on the side. One was filled with salts for muscular aches and pains, a second was an aromatherapy blend and the last was what she was looking for: bubble bath.

"Just a little of that goes a long way," he said before she even got the lid off.

Buffy looked at the bottle and then handed it to him. Dawn had created enough chaos in their old Sunnydale bathroom with bubbles and they never even had a hot tub. She didn't even want to think about the possibilities here, with all that air pumping through the water.

Giles poured a measured amount of the lavender liquid into the water and within seconds foam began to accumulate around them. He also reached across for the other two bottles and added salts or drops from each of them.

Buffy sighed happily, ignoring the stinging of her wounds and various and sundry other nicks and abrasions from the fighting. "God, it feels good."

"Indeed," he said softly, watching her and smiling a little.

Her chameleon eyes, now almost blue, flicked up to his, holding them for a long moment, then she was shifting so that she could curl her arms around his neck and kiss his mouth ferociously.

"Indeed, yourself," she teased when they parted. "Or better yet, 'indeed' me."

He stopped grinning for a second and stared at her, then gave a shout of laughter. "You really are an incorrigible hussy, Buffy Summers."

"Who me?" The mischievous grin faded. "Well, yeah, but we have a different name for it, here. Short word, right to the point," she added lightly enough, but Giles sensed the underlying recrimination.

"A word that could just as easily be used to describe me, using the criteria you obviously applied." Buffy looked terminally confused. "Those orgies you mentioned earlier... I rather enjoyed them all," he told her in deliberate aside, and finally drew a disbelieving grin from her.

"Giles the 'bad boy', huh?"

"I have been known," he conceded, still smiling.

"Okay, I'm confused. Are there two of you?"

The smiled faded. "In a manner of speaking," he conceded. "Although it might be more accurate to say that you've never really known the real me... only who you perceived me to be."

She frowned again. "Are we talking icebergs here... as in 'tip of'?"

It took a beat to follow her logic, but he smiled again and nodded. "You might say that. My past is part of who I am, for better and worse. It just happens that I chose to keep as much of the 'worse' from all of you as possible."

"Ex... cept for Eyghon, the drinking, Ethan..."

Giles coloured in a way that made Buffy regret the dig immediately, but she didn't quite know what to do about it. She changed the subject instead. "So how does it work... the contradiction?"

He looked up again, a divot in his brow. "Contradiction?"

"Sweet, stuttery, tweedy Giles and bad-ass magic Giles... not really seeing how they get to be the same guy, here."

"Circumstances change... and so do people. You must understand that being thrust into an American high school and all that entailed was as foreign to me as going to Oxford would be for you. I was the proverbial fish out of water, trying to fit in, flapping around in ungainly fashion and making an ass out of myself with monotonous regularity."

That, Buffy could identify with immediately. "That just leaves the dating thing. You were so-"

He rolled his eyes. "I know," he interrupted, then seem to consider something for a long moment before continuing. "It may surprise you to know that I'd never truly been in love before I met Jenny. I had no idea how to court someone with whom I was already thinking in terms of, well... a future. I'm well aware of how much of a prat I made of myself in the interim."

Buffy had a sudden urge to put her arms around him. It had never occurred to her before that someone like Giles... good looking, good body and good man, wouldn't have been in love, and loved, at least at some point in his life. Despite the horribleness of her own love life to date, it seemed awfully lonely to her to go through that much lifetime without ever...

Finally, she opted to walk softly. "You're right. Big surprise. I kinda always figured you for broken hearts from here to Coventry, being as cute as you are," she teased gently.

He half smiled, ducking his head self-consciously and reminding her so much of the old, tweedy Giles that it shot a pang of something very like regret through her, that their lives had changed so very much.

"Broken hearts there may be," he conceded, "but more so because I'd never cared enough to pursue any of them, rather than there being remnants of any great love affairs. My life, for as long as I can remember, has persistently precluded the possibility of long-term attachment, love... companionship..."

"But these last seven years... you've had me... I mean us... all of us," she replied, grasping at straws. She went on, shakily. "Good or bad, I always kinda thought we were family... dysfunctional, granted, but still... together."

Giles lifted an arm and Buffy slid around to snuggle into it, amused when she breathed bubbles up her nose and shifted closer to his chin to escape them. He dropped a kiss on her hair. "I don't really need to answer that, do I?"

After a pregnant silence, she sighed heavily. "No, you really don't."

Neither of them spoke for a long time. Eventually Giles frowned and shifted so that he could turn her face to his. Her eyes were red but he hadn't felt her weeping.


She shrugged, but her tone was unsteady and her eyes grew moist again. "Not easy taking a long hard look at your bad self with a magnifying glass the size of a small building."

He didn't say anything, just smiled and drew her back down into the hollow of his arm, where she curled up gratefully.

For a long time they soaked in silence, both of them blissfully absorbing the heat, and the soothing way the bubbling water massaged their knotted and bruised muscles.

As time passed, Buffy began to be more and more aware of the body she was curled up against, the chest her cheek was resting on... the man without whom, she realized, she could no longer contemplate existing.

When she finally moved, it was to turn and look at him. His eyes were closed. On impulse she brushed his lips with hers and then watched his lids open lazily.

"Feeling better?"

"Mmm. And feeling a little miffed that you're going to sleep when you've got a beautiful... naked... woman in the tub with you," she added dryly, though there was an undertone of puzzlement as well.

The lids lowered again, but he smiled. "Not sleeping, meditating. Not working, really," he said, shifting meaningfully and looking down at the bubbles.

On impulse Buffy slid a hand under the water... and turned beet red. "Oh."

"Exactly," he agreed, amused.

She continued the contact and the moment of awkwardness passed. A moment or two more of watching the pleasure on Giles' face, then she grinned mischievously and lifted herself so that she could slide a slender leg across both of his and straddle his lap, a manoeuvre which prompted the green eyes to fly open quite dramatically.

"Hey," she grinned. "You're not the only one who hasn't been laid in a very long time... and you're not the only one who gets to be ho..."

He pulled himself up and kissed her hard, then ran his hands down the length of her back and cupped the tender cheeks.

Her arms slid around his neck and she sought out the strong lips, inviting them to plunder hers again, which they obligingly did, long and languorously, while their hands explored, discovered and delighted.

Giles was caressing the small, full breasts when Buffy's groans became a growl and he felt her shift again. A moment later, he found himself sheathed inside the vice-like warmth of the woman he loved. He broke the kiss, gasping loudly enough to echo around the bathroom.

"God, Buffy," he finally rasped, unprepared for the staggering new onslaught of desire and arousal that followed.

She, too, was barely able to groan his name as she began to move, so aroused that their lovemaking quickly grew wild, demanding and noisy, water splashing over the sides of the tub and their cries echoing in the small bathroom, until Buffy's movements suddenly became frantic and her cries both strangled and ecstatic.

Both the sounds of absolute pleasure and the sensations of the wild throes of her release were more than enough to catch Giles and drive him, hurtling, over the edge after her.

By the time both of them collapsed back into the warm water, the bathroom was awash, though neither had noticed.

When Buffy snuggled close against him and rested her head on his shoulder, Giles closed a possessive arm around her and smiled at the sound of her very contented sigh.

"We're both going to pay for this tomorrow," he rumbled softly near her ear.

Buffy smiled into his shoulder. "Well, one of us anyway," she reminded him playfully and giggled at his harrumph when he remembered that she'd likely be completely healed by morning, whilst he was probably going to creak out of bed and hobble around like a ninety-five year old arthritic for the greater part of the day.

Everything ached... and muscles he had no idea he even had, much less ever used, were already complaining. His inner thighs hadn't been so sore since he first learned to ride.

"Don't worry," she said sleepily. "If you are stiff and sore tomorrow, Tara taught me a few massage tricks."

He harrumphed again then fell silent, imagining the many different ways an extremely dexterous Buffy [in his imagination at least] might go about the hypothetical massage.

Buffy hadn't heard him. She was already dozing.

* * * * *

When Giles opened his eyes, he was in his own bed. For a brief moment his heart contracted into a tiny ball, then he felt the silky head move against his right breast and realised that he really hadn't been dreaming. Her face was rosy and peaceful in sleep... more peaceful than he'd seen her at any time since their earliest years together.

For the longest time he simply watched her sleep, then, without realizing, drifted off again, himself, awash in a sea of contentment the like of which he'd never known before. The next time he knew consciousness, however, she was gone. He sat up as though a shot had been fired, then let out a curse as all the muscles in his back screamed blue murder.

"Is that you, Giles?"

"No, it's Margaret bloody Thatcher," he growled to himself, though his insides were traitorously jubilant at the confirmation that his world was still, indeed, a wonderful place.

A few moments later a blonde head appeared around the doorway, and with it a tray. Giles couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten breakfast in bed, much less been served it by someone he loved.

"Hey, gorgeous."

"Hello, love."

The use of the endearment brought a pleased flush to her cheeks. She'd never heard him utter one before, but this one had been said so naturally and in that impossibly sexy voice of his that it sent shivers of pleasure down her spine.

"So how are the war wounds?" She asked as she slid in alongside of him and set the tray on his lap.

He frowned and flexed a little, including bending his legs and wriggling his toes beneath the covers. "Back has registered a protest. The rest present and accounted for, but better than expected," he replied, genuinely surprised, and surveyed the bounty before him.

They ate heartily together, giggling their way through recollections of some of Buffy's worst culinary moments, and the unlikely success of her first Thanksgiving, despite the interruptions, both indigenous and un-dead, as they tackled cereal, toast, coffee, tea and fruit.

After breakfast resolutions to get up and go out together gave way to another session of love making, longer, slower and sweeter even than the night before.

"Are you happy?"

Buffy pulled herself up on one elbow to look at her lover, still lying where they'd sprawled out on the bed, much later, exhausted but sated once again.

A look at his expression made her shift her tone from playful to serious. "More than I can ever remember," she told him and reached out to smooth some of the soft, greying hair behind one of his ears. "More than I ever thought I'd be allowed to be."

He grinned then... an unselfconscious, truly happy grin. Buffy thought she'd never seen anything more beautiful as his long arm curled around her and drew her down for a long, slow kiss.

When she lifted her head again it was with a silly grin on her face. "Merry Christmas, Rupert Giles."

He grinned back, puzzled.

She trailed fingertips from the familiar lines at the corner of his eye down to the sensuous mouth and traced his lips before smiling even more widely, almost glowing with happiness and contentment.

"I think we both got our Christmas presents early this year."

* * *