The Surprise

“Where are we going?”

“I told you before, it's a surprise.”

“I'm not sure I like surprises.”

“You'll like this one.”

Buffy sat back in the vehicle, content to let the wind whistle through her hair as the car made its way up the coast.

“Africa USA?”

“No.”

“Are there any humungous museums full of old stuff in San Francisco?”

“Not that I'm aware of. Well, some dinosaurs, perhaps…”

“Giles! I hate surprises.”

The watcher grinned to himself and kept driving.

When they finally drew to a halt, it was at a lovely terrace house in an older part of San Francisco.

A small, dark haired woman answered the door and spoke to Giles in heavily accented English, before smiling at Buffy.

In the study, Giles shook hands with a robust man who had to be at least seventy, with steel grey hair and a beard and handed him a book.

“Albert, this is Buffy.”

“Pleased to meet you, young Buffy,” he said heartily, in a strong Boston accent, smelling of aromatic pipe tobacco and old text.

“Buffy, this is an old and dear friend of mine, Albert Richardson. He and I have some things to discuss and some information to exchange. It shouldn't take long. Estella will take you to the kitchen and I'll be with you as soon as I can.”

Buffy frowned. Some surprise…and it wasn't like Giles to include her out, like this. She followed Estella through the airy, bright home, with its black and white tiled floors, white planters full of fulsome greenery, skylights and expensive, but sparing, furniture. She liked it.

Estella was surprised when she asked for coffee, but provided it without question, along with a plate of tiny Dutch cookies, then excused herself to go and see to other chores. Buffy made the coffee, and the cookies, last quite a long time, daydreaming about what Giles' surprise could be, and luxuriating in the idea of no slaying, no classes, no Dawn and no pressure for the next couple of days.

Eventually, though, both of her distractions ran out. A few minutes after that, boredom and Estella's continued absence, prompted her to indulge in a little exploration. She could see a real garden through the kitchen door…and real gardens, with riots of real trees, herbs, flowers, climbing things and grass, were a rarity in her life.

The door wasn't locked, and the little garden was surprisingly cool. She wandered through it looking at the flowers and crushing herbs in her fingers, wrinkling her nose at the strong smell of rosemary, mint, parsley and lemongrass on her fingers when she sniffed them delicately a little while later.

Around a corner of the house, she spied a white wrought iron garden seat and smiled to herself. She sat down on it, just enough sun falling on her to be warm without being uncomfortable. It was peaceful and nice, in a way that she'd almost forgotten things could be…the birdsong…the wafting perfumes from some of the flowers and a buzzing, which, after a moment she identified as bees, working in the sunniest area, in a carpet of alyssum in full bloom. In her life there was no time for the sound of bees humming, or the bird that just took wing, or…

Voices floated down to her.

Someone had just opened a window above her.

“It sounds like you have your work cut out for you, Rupert. I had myself convinced you were returning to England. Your letters last year were so damned depressing. And when Olivia called, she made it quite clear that she thought you were terribly unhappy and that England was far and away the best place for you.”

Buffy frowned.

“I thought so too, for rather a long time,” she heard Giles say. “I was useless last year, Albert, just bloody useless. I should have left after she graduated, but I didn't. I stayed and got my arse kicked. And then I sulked. I told myself I didn't want to start a job because I was constantly on the edge of tossing the whole bloody lot and going home. No ties, you see, whereas a job would require all sorts of commitment.”

“But you didn't go?” the other, deep, scratchy voice asked surprisingly gently. She assumed the following silence was Giles shaking his head.

“I couldn't,” he said eventually. “I made a vow to train her, guide her and to use every skill to keep her from harm.”

“Which you've done, abundantly. She's a lovely girl, Rupert.”

“Buffy is…extraordinary…”

It wasn't what Buffy wanted to hear. She wasn't sure what she was waiting for, but that most certainly wasn't it.

“…And at this point more than capable of taking care of herself. Last year…Last year I don't think she could have taken care of goldfish, let alone herself. If it wasn't one thing, it was another…”

“You sound like a harried father,” the other man laughed.

Giles snorted. “Buffy has parents,” he growled.

Below them Buffy agreed, the expression on her face severe.

“Besides, I don't think she would countenance a replacement for her own father. He drives her to despair at times, but she loves him dearly.”

“Then you don't see yourself as a male role model?”

Giles made another derisive noise. “The last person to mention male role models ended up skewered by her own creation. She was trying to psychoanalyse me too, the cow, to see how far she could push me. Unlike you, she read me like a book, Albert. Took me apart and screwed me royally.”

“Not literally I hope…”

Both men laughed. “Christ no,” Giles said, still chuckling. “I wouldn't have slept with that bint to save my life.”

“And Buffy?” Albert asked unexpectedly.

Buffy heard the inference, and screwed up her nose. It didn't matter their age, men always wanted to know the same things.

The silence stretched, and she frowned.

“I…I don't know,” Giles said eventually. “And that's the God's honest truth. People are forever casting me in a parental light, but I've never felt particularly parental. Granted, when I worked at the school I fulfilled my duty as an authority figure and my obligations as school librarian, but Buffy has never treated me as such. At first she barely respected, or even tolerated me, really. Later, after the Master, we seemed to grow closer, in an indefinable way. I…I grew to love her dearly…but I was distracted by Jenny, and Buffy was terribly hurt by Angel. By the time that had resolved itself, I had lost Jenny, and I thought I'd lost Buffy too.”

Buffy stared into space without even seeing the butterfly that flitted across her vision or the birds fighting over a grasshopper on the grass.

“It took me weeks to realize that I would simply have to wait until she chose to return.”

“I remember,” Albert said quietly. “I passed on all those sightings to you. I'm sorry they were such a waste of time, old chap. I meant well.”

“I know,” Giles said kindly. “It was just…difficult. I loved her so much and I had no way of knowing if she was alive, dead, turned bad, or suffering terribly, somewhere…I-I missed her so badly.”

Buffy closed her eyes against the pain in his voice, the memory of his face the day she returned.

“And then she came back. I wanted to tell her a thousand things, to scream at her, to hold her…but I did none of those things, because it wasn't my right. And nothing has changed. Not really.”

“Weren't you rather banged up? Didn't you even tell her…?”

“How the hell could I?” Giles seemed to retort irritably. “'Buffy, your boyfriend tortured the crap out of me, almost killed me, in fact, and by the way I'm not sure my fingers and certain…other things…or my mind, for that matter, will ever be quite the same again…'”

“You should have come up here,” Albert chided. “You should have had someone to talk to, someone to help you through it. You were there for me after Anita died, and so often while she was ill.”

“I didn't have time. I had to find Buffy, and afterward, I just didn't want to think about anything except making certain she was all right, that she was as prepared as I could conceivably make her before the next bloody Angelus came along.”

The colour drained from Buffy's face.

“And did you? You don't sound as though you feel any kind of satisfaction in your work during that period.”

“My work,” Giles snorted. “I was deluding myself that Buffy needed me, that I was fulfilling my role as her Watcher…and her friend…when in truth she was deceiving me, lying, hiding things from me, and almost all without real remorse.”

“Rupert, when you rang me, after the incident with Gwendolyn Post, you didn't reveal any of this. I thought your single biggest problem at the time was the after effects of your head injury?”

“Bloody head injuries. They'll be the death of me one day,” Giles grunted. “That was a rather a close shave though. She almost accomplished what she set out to do. The surgeon was adamant that I was lucky to be alive and that the paramedics grew rather tired of bringing me back during the journey in to the ER. Of course he was also full of himself and his surgical skill, but I presume that there was rather a lot of damage done when our Mrs Post caved in my skull.”

“I know she was busy carving herself a career, but did you even think to call Olivia while you were dizzy and vomiting all the time? I'm sure she'd have been only too happy to come.”

“I'm used to being alone,” was all Giles said, before returning to his line of thought. “And so went that year. You know about that cursed test, and I told you about Quentin's interference.” Giles laughed bitterly. “He called it 'a father's love' too. Ironic, considering he'd never seen us together, and apart from a few moments to tell Buffy she'd passed the test and to announce I was fired, he never did see us together.”

“Travers is an embittered old bachelor, Rupert. He drew conclusions, and, full of his own self- importance, decided they necessarily had to be the correct ones. Only you can know what is in your heart…what's in hers…”

“I told you,” Giles said a little harshly. “I don't know. For a long while I believed him. I knew how much I loved her…how bloody impossible it was for me to leave, to even go twenty four hours without thinking about her or worrying about her one way or the other, but…”

“Then it wasn't that you felt attracted to her at that time…? I mean, I'm an old man, but I'm still a man. I can see how lovely she is.”

“You're biased,” Giles teased. “Your Anita was tiny and fair, like Buffy, and you robbed the cradle yourself, you old bastard.”

It was Albert's turn to snort. “She was a grown woman when I asked for her hand. Three weeks nigh of her twenty first birthday. In my mother's day it was commonplace for girls to marry at sixteen, for God's sake. I adored Anita from the moment I laid eyes on her until the day she died. And I have every confidence she felt the same way about me. She used to tease me about the grey hairs starting to appear at my temples, the crow's feet, but she loved them all, just the same. She made my life a living joy.”

“Buffy isn't Anita,” Giles said sadly. “She has her own life, her own young man…the memory of Angel. She's never shown the slightest interest in me, except to remind me repeatedly that I am, in her words, 'old and gross'.”

A tear trickled down the side off Buffy's face, and her mouth drew into a straight line when Richardson laughed again.

“But, my dear Rupert, we are old and gross. Didn't you know? These days anyone over thirty is considered to be past their expiration date, disposable…due for replacement… like every other damned thing in this superficial, hypocritical, self-involved society we've made homes for ourselves in. What is relevant is whether or not we deserve to be loved, and who loves us. Never listen to others when it comes to matters of the heart. Their vision is no more true than yours, and so very often coloured by their own agendas, prejudices, and experiences,” the older man finished almost harshly.

“Bitterness, Albert?”

There was a rueful laugh. “Perhaps. I was 62 when perverse fate snatched my beautiful Anita from my arms. A cruel twist of irony, really, considering that when we fell in love all the shallow crones and ceaseless harpies in our lives had it was wrong, that I would widow her impossibly young, frail imperfect male that I was…and yet I was to have her slip from my world at just thirty-six…”

“I remember,” Giles said softly.

Buffy only just caught the sad, soft tones.

“We were the same age, but the last time I saw her in the hospital…I-I didn't know her.”

“I know,” a quiet voice agreed. “We were so alive, she and I, so attuned to each other, so passionate. I never knew another woman the way I knew Anita. And I haven't since. It only truly comes once in a lifetime, Rupert. Don't let it pass you by, my boy, because it will never, ever come again.”

“I don't believe it's a question of what I do or do not choose, Albert. Buffy will, perhaps rightly, never see me as anything other than her Watcher, and her friend.”

“If that's true, then why did you and Olivia part ways?”

“She's still my friend,” Giles answered defensively. “I just…Olivia wanted more than I could offer, and I don't blame her. We were drifting…by mutual agreement…but she needed to know where her life was going and—”

“And she saw you with Buffy?”

Silence.

“She trusts me implicitly, but she didn't understand the relationship, or the extent of my work.”

“Or she understood too well,” Richardson offered, with unerring accuracy. “Olivia loves you as a friend, Rupert, but she knew neither of you were in love with each other. She's in Nice, currently, with some pretty young man who photographs beautiful models, I believe.”

“Raphael D'Ortini,” Giles supplied, followed by a pause. “Oh, we still talk regularly,” he added, as though prompted, probably by an expression on the older man's face. “We've been friends for a very long time.”

“Even she knows you're a lost cause,” Albert chuckled. “Drink your sherry, Rupert, and don't forget the damned books. You didn't come all the way here just to talk about your love life. Your young lady will be getting restless by now.”

Long after they fell silent, Buffy continued to sit, sorting through everything that had been said, all that it meant, unaware that she was shaking as she gripped the seat.

She knew she couldn't say anything to him about it…about any of it. She also knew that at some point she would have to. She thought about the last few months, how she'd rationalized to herself that she needed Giles to help her again…needed her Watcher in her life again.

Only after that did her already shaky relationship with Riley hit the rocks well and truly. He just couldn't compete on even terms with Giles. The answer was a simple as that, and yet until now she hadn't seen it, content to enjoy the warm fuzzy feelings she'd begun to have when she and Giles trained together, the overwhelming sense of belonging, of security, as they'd begun to deal with things as a team again. For the first time in a very long time she hadn't felt alone with her problems, and that had felt good…so very, very good…

In every way that mattered, Riley simply couldn't measure up…to Giles. While Riley worried about brooding vampires, his true nemesis was making him tea…

Buffy would have laughed, if it hadn't all been so sad, and so painful. She swiftly stopped trying to imagine herself in Giles' place the last couple of years. That was beyond painful, even just contemplating what she'd done, through his eyes; what he'd been through. She closed her own.

They immediately flew open again. Even that reminded her of when he'd been so utterly blind, and she so utterly indifferent to his suffering. She frowned. Willow had turned her into a simpering Spike-loving idiot. She hadn't even remembered she was supposed to love Riley…

At that moment, in the bowels of the house, she heard the faint sound of her name being called, rose, wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, and headed inside.

“Ready to go?” Giles asked as if nothing had happened, when she reappeared in the kitchen doorway.

“Absolutely. All done?” she managed, proud of her calm tone.

Giles lifted his armful of books. “More than satisfactory result, thanks to Albert.” He turned to the older man. “We must do this sooner, next time. I'll bring them back as soon as practicable.”

“Excellent idea,” Albert grinned, and winked at Buffy. “Take care of him, for me.”

Buffy smiled warmly at Albert Richardson. He was a good man, and his warmth was infectious.

“I will,” she said, and it had the sound of an oath. “Count on it.”

Giles was still looking at her sideways when they emerged onto the sidewalk in the late afternoon sun.

“So, was Albert my surprise?” she asked, managing the casual with a great deal of effort.

“Uh? Oh…what? Oh, no, that was the main reason for the visit, but your, um, surprise…is not until this evening. I've booked accommodation for us in the city.”

“We're staying in San Fran? The others will be so jealous. Xander said it would some mouldy old archaeologist's place and Willow thought we'd be too busy researching or something to have any fun.”

They settled into the car and Giles pulled out into the relatively empty street. “No research. You deserve a break. All the work we've been doing, the strain you've been under…you need some relaxation.”

“My surprise is relaxing?” she teased, proud of herself for disguising her misery so well.

“Extremely,” he said with infuriating brevity.

She sat back and blew out a breath. “What are we doing for dinner? Is dinner my surprise?”

“Willow said you might like to go to the Hard Rock Café for dinner.”

Buffy looked at him sideways. “You asked Willow where I'd like to have dinner?”

“Seemed like a logical solution at the time. If it had been an a la carte restaurant, I would have needed reservations.”

She made a whimpering noise. “A la carte,” she said wistfully. “And we're having hamburgers…”

Giles shot her a speculative look, saw that she was serious and smiled to himself as he turned back to the road.

“Perhaps not,” he said.

The rooms Giles had booked were both queen-sized doubles, and far more luxurious than Buffy was used to. Apparently Albert hadn't invited them to stay because he'd converted the only other bedrooms in the lovely old villa into the study, and library, all of which Giles already knew, and had consequently booked their rooms ahead of time.

Buffy spun around in hers and made a noise of delight before dashing across to the window. “It even has a real view…ocean…sky…wow. Eighth floor. Feels like we're wealthy jetsetters!” she exclaimed happily.

“Hardly,” Giles said gruffly, but couldn't help smiling at how much pleasure he'd given her.

There was a box on the glass breakfast table by the window. Buffy peeked at it. “For me?” she said when she saw the card with her name on. Inside there were roses.

Two dozen red roses. She lifted them out carefully and sniffed them. Perfumed…real roses, not the crappy, scentless ones florists sold by the bucket load on Valentine's day, but real, dark, velvety red garden roses with a heady scent.

She looked up, her eyes wide and overbright. “They're beautiful,” she whispered then picked up the card.

Happy birthday Buffy

Always,

Giles.


She stared at it for a long moment then buried her face in the soft blooms again.

“It's the best surprise I've ever had,” she told him in a voice thick with emotion, and lay them down gently in their box again. “Thank you.”

He flushed red and put his hands in his pockets. “You deserve them. N-Now we must change for dinner. I'll see you in about half an hour, shall I?”

Buffy smiled at his discomfort and nodded lovingly, watched him go through the adjoining door to his room.

Under instructions from Willow, she'd brought several changes of clothes. Mostly she had just wanted to 'bust out' in Will's enthusiastic speak. She rarely had the opportunity to go anywhere that required really dressing up and, she decided, she was going to at least once, on this trip.

When Giles tapped on her door exactly half an hour later, Buffy was still in her bathroom.

“Come in,” she called and stepped out just as he stepped in.

Both of them stopped dead, their breaths caught in their throat.

He was wearing a dinner suit, obviously owned, not rented, because it was cut to fit him absolutely perfectly, the snowy white silk shirt underneath showing off his first tan, probably from jogging, since taking up residence in California. Despite the breath-taking elegance, his black tie was slightly off kilter, making him seem the more adorable…and sexy, especially with the small silver hoop he was wearing in his left ear.

Giles watched Buffy come toward him, absolutely beautiful in a soft lilac evening sheath and silver high-heeled sandals, her hair caught up in a chignon, but full and soft, highlighting her large, wide eyes.

He swallowed as she adjusted his tie, trying to ignore the occasional brushing of her knuckles on the skin of his throat.

“There,” she said when she was done, and looked up. “All straight now.” Her smile faded when their eyes met. For a long, uncomfortable moment the air crackled and snapped between them, and neither could move.

Then Giles coughed and the moment was shattered. “Yes, well, better go if we want to eat this evening. I'm told there's possibly going to be something of a wait.”

When they pulled up, Buffy blinked. There was no Hard Rock Café in sight. Giles walked around and handed her out of the car, closed the door for her and locked it.

“A little bird told me,” he said very close to her ear.

The small, intimate French restaurant was panelled in dark timber, and lit romantically, soft music playing unobtrusively somewhere as the patrons all went about their meals as though each were the only ones there.

When they were seated, Buffy sighed. “It's…perfect,” she whispered. “Just like my daydreams.” She didn't say that those daydreams had always included the man of her dreams; the one who would love her and protect her, and yet excite her and make her truly happy for perhaps the first time in her short life…and for whatever time she still had…

Giles smiled. “Splendid. Now, if you enjoy the food as well, it will be perfect.”

Buffy giggled. She liked it when he felt relaxed enough to tease. “I'm going to like French food…except I don't want to try the snails. No snail jokes, okay?”

He smiled, but said gravely. “Understood, no escargot.”

Giles ordered for both of them, since the menu, in French, was beyond her meagre school vocabulary.

When the waiter returned with a bottle of champagne, Buffy reddened delightfully, but still looked at him questioningly.

“I know,” he said gently. “But, although it's still a couple of months away, it is for your birthday. More than just cause to celebrate, wouldn't you say?”

It was said lightly, but she understood exactly what he meant. They lifted their glasses together, their eyes, inevitably, entwined. Giles had removed his glasses again after reading the menu, and Buffy found it mesmerizing to stare into his clear green gaze without the lenses in the way.

“To you,” Giles whispered. “Now and forever.”

Buffy drew a sharp breath, but didn't move or blink. Finally, she managed to lift her glass a little, her eyes bright with emotion, and take a sip of the expensive champagne. In turn he also sipped his.

When they put the crystal flutes down, their colour was high and the tension was back between them. Giles was just clearing his throat to speak when the entrees arrived. They ate in silence, Giles deftly handling his oysters while Buffy savoured the incredible lightness and exquisite flavour of her wild mushroom crepe.

Giles refilled their glasses when he'd emptied the last oyster shell and smiled at the murmur of contentment Buffy made as she put down her knife and fork.

“God that was good. I'll never be able to go back to cafeteria food,” she sighed.

He guided the rest of the meal through gentle conversation, even making her smile and laugh a number of times, and allowing her to choose dessert, despite the fact that she was complaining about being incredibly full.

When the two confections finally arrived they both stared and then they looked up at each other and started to giggle. The giggled bloomed into a full-hearted laugh, until their eyes met again and they both subsided.

“How was I to know?” she complained with some pathos, staring wistfully at the mounds of cream, chocolate, choux pastry and creamy custard. “I thought it would be little, and French, and delicate.”

Giles chuckled again. “Yes, well, they are rather…generous…serves. Are you up to it…?”

They walked out into the cool night air both a little the worse for wear, and turned for the car, parked several yards down the road.

Impulsively, Buffy slid an arm through one of his and leaned her head against his bicep.

Giles looked down in some surprise, despite the rumbling of his stomach from the combination of champagne and monster dessert. Then, very slowly, he smiled and sighed inwardly, savouring those few moments before they reached the car.

“I'm never, ever going to forget this birthday,” she said as he started the BMW.

“Nor shall I,” he replied, more to himself than to Buffy.

When the car stopped again, Buffy frowned. “This doesn't look like the street with the hotel.”

Giles locked his side of the car and came around to hand her out once again. He was locking her door when he heard her startled intake of breath.

“Y-you didn't?” she whispered as he straightened.

“I did,” he confirmed. “I should have done something a long time ago. I-I would have, except…”

“Except I'm not your daughter,” she said before she could stop herself.

“No, of course not,” he stammered. “There simply haven't been any productions close enough, or conditions suitable enough for us to take the time off to attend one farther a field, since then. This is the closest I, or San Francisco, could manage this weekend.”

Buffy kicked herself mentally. “I never was, you know,” she said quietly.

“Not what?”

“Your daughter.”

Giles tensed. “I know,” he said. “We don't have to do this, if you don't want to…”

“Are you kidding?” she grinned through tears. “An Apocalypse of Armageddon magnitude couldn't drag me away.”

“In that case…”

Buffy's eyes widened even further when Giles opened the trunk and handed her a brightly wrapped, heavy box, and took out a small sport bag of his own.

She removed the paper and drew out the contents. Skates. The most beautiful, perfect competition skates she'd ever seen. The kind she'd coveted since she was a small child watching the Winter Olympics.

There were no words. Never in her whole life, had she had a day like this.

“Giles..they're…you're…”

She gave up and put her arms around his neck, squeezed, and kissed his startled cheek, before drawing back self-consciously. “It's like a fairy tale. You made a fairy tale, Giles,” she said tearily and grinned, then looked down at his sport bag. “You skate?”

“A part of my somewhat less than cosmopolitan childhood, right up until I was sent away to school,” he confirmed. “I haven't actually been on ice…haven't seen any bloody ice, since I left London to come here.”

A thrill went through Buffy. She hadn't skated with anyone for years.

It was deserted, given the lateness of the hour, and recently re-iced, relatively smooth and clean, compared to the usual shredded, bumpy mess in public rinks.

Buffy eased out onto the glistening surface, dressed in one of her last competition costumes. She'd found it hidden in the sport bag by a truly organised Giles, and felt the joy bubble up inside her. Skating was a part of her that was hers, and hers alone. Something neither the vamps, the council nor anyone else could touch or taint or take away from her...

She gathered speed and turned to glide backwards across the ice until she'd gained enough speed to try an axle…nothing spectacular, just one turn, for the sheer heavenly joy of it…

As she turned out of it, laughing and flushed, the scattered sequins on the aquamarine coloured costume sparkling, she saw Giles skating towards her. He moved with a grace and skill that sent another shiver through her. Like his fencing, skating revealed the truth behind the man they thought they knew. Until this moment she would have pictured Giles on skates in tweed, falling on his butt, his glasses going one way, his inevitable book going the other.

Instead, an utterly gorgeous male, in black skates and a stunning dinner suit, still minus his glasses, was skating across the rink with all the ease and elegance of a matinee idol. He came to a halt just as easily alongside her, but without flourish.

“Enjoying yourself?”

“I am now,” Buffy told him and took his extended hand, going with him as they gathered speed again. They circled the rink hand in hand at least a dozen times, in silence, before Giles shifted to slide an arm around her shoulders.

Buffy thought she would explode from sheer contentment and happiness as they continued to glide around the deserted rink.

Above her, anyone looking into Giles' eyes would have seen the exactly the same thing.

For a long time he watched her perform her whole repertoire from her competition days and enjoyed the sheer childish pleasure she showed in getting old, half remembered routines right. He watched, too, as she joyfully performed spins, rejoiced in landing axles and hurling around the rink at breathtaking speeds, all with the grace and beauty of a swan.

When she slid to a halt again, she allowed herself to glide right up to him, glowing, eyes sparkling, hair out of its pins now, and laughing happily.

“God, Giles, it's the most wonderful present I've ever had!” she announced, launched herself and threw her arms around his neck, so that this time she was off the ground.

She was lucky that he'd set himself so firmly on his skates while he was watching her. The momentum made them spin a little however, and Giles slid his right toe back to compensate for the shift in weight in the same instant that he wrapped his arms around her.

For a long while neither of them spoke, nor did they release each other. A sense of coming home, of belonging, enveloped them and warmed them, despite the cold, so that it was some time before Giles finally allowed Buffy's skates to touch the ice again.

When she did, she looked up at him, her eyes still sparkling. “You did all this for me, after…after last year?”

Giles looked down at the ice. “One doesn't stop…caring…for someone simply because there is discord,” he said softly.

Buffy's eyes searched his face. “And you do…kinda…care for me?”

“Y-yes, of course,” he confirmed and looked up slowly, curious about where this was going. “I have always cared for you, Buffy. Nothing will ever change that.”

Her colour deepened, the flush glowing against the pale gold of her hair. “I didn't mean as your Slayer, or your student or even just as friends.”

Giles stared. Something was changing between them. They had never quite achieved this kind of emotional shorthand, before. He could feel himself on the edge of a precipice, holding his heart in trembling hands…

“I see,” he said finally, hoarsely. “If I were to…care for you…in any way other than the friendship we've shared up until now…it wouldn't be grounds for knocking me into next week?”

A nervous chuckle escaped Buffy's lips. “No knocking,” she confirmed and reached up to touch his face. “But it could be grounds for me wanting you to show me exactly what you mean by that…”

His eyes grew very bright for a long moment, then he was cupping her face with long, gentle fingers.

And then neither of them could breathe.

Giles bent his head with as much fear and trepidation as he'd felt in any single confrontation with even the worst kind of evil.

Buffy lifted her face to his, her heart racing, and closed her eyes as the velvet lips covered hers, caressing them, sending shockwaves through her body and making her tremble with the strength of her feelings.

When, at length, he lifted his head, he looked down at her with a combination of wonder and fear.

Buffy opened her eyes and found his, the overwhelming love in them telling him everything he needed to know.

“Wow,” she said very softly. “Who'd have thought…?”

“Indeed,” Giles agreed, amused, his green eyes at once tender and alight. “Presumably you have revised my venerable age downward to a more acceptable level?”

Buffy's blue gaze flickered for a moment. “Denial is an amazing thing,” she said quietly. “And the more I think about it, the more stupid I realize I've been…for way too long.”

In reply, Giles trailed his fingers down a soft cheek, and smiled when her eyes closed as she lifted her face again, her lips parted slightly.

A moment later he brushed those lips once more with his.

“Who'd have thought…” he repeated in a soft whisper, took her fingers and drew her into a new flight over the ice.

They gathered speed, their hands still linked, hurling around the perimeter, each perfectly attuned to the other. Faster and faster they flew, until, breathless and grinning, they slewed across the rink to finish in the centre of the huge circle of ice…and merged into one, spiralling to a halt enclosed in each other's arms.

This time there was passion, ferocity and adoration in their kiss, stolen amid heaving breaths, rumpled hair and glowing faces.

When they parted, they stared at each other for what seemed like forever.

Buffy could scarcely believe this elegant, glowing, sensuous male with the flashing green eyes that were making her melt where she stood, was the same man who'd spent so much of the previous year in old sweaters, mired in a seemingly permanent state of 'why bother?' Nor was he even the same Giles who'd almost broken up with his car, opened a Magic shop with all the smooth of Mister Belvedere on speed, or who'd stood so stoically at her side through all the usual disasters and the new major bad of mom's illness and Dawn's presence in their lives…

He was watching her with amused eyes, still breathing a little heavily, as she was, and obviously warm. He undid his tie, and the top button of his shirt, and Buffy felt the heat travel right through her. Never had she seen this Giles before…and that disturbed her.

“Buffy?” he said softly, when the glow seemed to dim momentarily in the blue eyes.

“I-It's nothing. I just…you're so…why wouldn't you ever let me see you before?”

A small furrow appeared in his brow. “I don't…?”

“This…gorgeous…you're so…Giles, you're a God!”

Giles chuckled at her discomfiture, and her description.

“Am I to assume that's a compliment?”

She nodded. “Giles, how could I not know you all this time? How come you only ever let us see the stuffy guy in the glasses…the motorbike and scooter magazine guy…tea and scones…book guy…?”

He tilted his head to one side. “Perhaps you should have accompanied Willow and Tara to the Espresso Pump occasionally, while I was working. They asked me much the same thing, without quite the same degree of disbelief,” he added dryly. “Though I have to confess I don't have the faintest idea what any of you are talking about. I don't magically change just because I'm wearing a suit…or playing a guitar. I'm still…”

“…My Giles,” Buffy finished, her eyes again locking with his.

“…Your Giles,” he agreed, his own green ones suddenly burning again.

At that moment the overhead lights suddenly lit up the arena and an approaching voice called from the sidelines, “I'm sorry, Mister Giles. That's your time up. Actually you're over, but I waited as long as I could. I gotta close up now. The wife's gonna kill me as it is, and if management finds out... well, son, it's not worth my job.”

Giles nodded and drew Buffy across to where the old man was standing. “You have more than honoured our agreement, Mister…er…Ralph. The money is yours.” The Watcher handed him a number of large notes. Buy your wife something nice.”

The old man smiled. “It was a pure joy to watch. Good luck to you both,” he said, and meant it.

Out in the car, Buffy settled next to Giles and covered the hand he automatically rested on the stick as he slid the key into the ignition.

“Who was the old guy?”

Giles steadied his breathing. “Ralph? Oh…well…when I first began planning this…um, after I discovered there were no shows in the foreseeable future…I had grand ideas about hiring the rink, but I soon realized that it was far beyond my means. Instead I asked Albert to look into…other…avenues for me.”

“I thought Albert was some kind of big time archaeologist or something?”

“Indeed he is. He is also an expert demonologist and a long retired, ex-Watcher. It wasn't difficult for him to find out who on the cleaning staff would be the most sympathetic, and the most in need of financial assistance.”

Buffy giggled. “You bribed a cleaner?”

Giles cleared his throat. “More or less…” he said sheepishly. “Does…does it spoil things for you?”

Buffy looked surprised. “God no,” she said warmly and reached up boldly to caress his jaw. “Just makes it all that much cuter, like you.”

His eyes flashed dangerously again, and he hastily turned the engine over.

Back at the hotel, Buffy opened her door with a happy flourish, using her computer key, and Giles followed her into her room, moving almost immediately to open the access door to his own.

“Giles,” Buffy said, throwing her purse on the bed. “Is…is something wrong?”

He half turned. “Not a thing,” he said in a voice she recognised from long experience as the 'watcher with something to hide' voice.

She frowned a little, but came to him and stood on tiptoes to see past his arm. “I haven't even seen your room yet. Is it like mine?”

“Exactly the same,” he said brusquely. “I should change.”

Buffy frowned again, but nodded, and watched him slip through the door. She stared at it for several long moments before opening it and following him into the other room.

Giles turned from hanging his jacket in the closet, his cuffs and more of his shirt buttons undone.

“Buffy, what is it?”

“Did I do something…?”

She stopped.

He looked down and turned away again swiftly.

For the second time that night heat flooded Buffy's body and every nerve ending came alive. She watched the colour rise from his collar, starkly contrasted against the snow white of the shirt.

“And that would be a problem because…?” she asked tenderly, teasingly.

Startled eyes looked back at her in spite of themselves. He cleared his throat. “Buffy, I love you more than anything in the world. I can't not react to…”

And then she was there. “Shh,” she said softly. “You really think I don't feel exactly the same way? That I want to end this evening alone…again?”

“Riley?” Giles whispered helplessly, because he had to.

“He knows I don't love him,” Buffy said simply. “He thinks it's someone else, but he knows it's over.”

“I-I'm sorry.”

Buffy smiled. He would always be Giles. “No you're not,” she said softly, unzipping her dress deftly and hearing his swift intake of breath. “Do you want me to go?”

After a beat Giles took a slender strap in each large hand and drew the dress off her shoulders, the bodice falling to her waist and revealing the smooth, creamy flesh beneath.

“Oh lord,” he whispered, the tension between them almost unbearable.

She moved closer, drawing his shirt from his pants and pushing it off his shoulders. He let it fall to the floor before circling her with strong arms and lifting her so that he could kiss the smooth spot right over her heart.

Buffy moaned and pressed herself against him as his lips caressed the soft flesh, his clean shaven cheeks brushing her sensitised breasts and sending currents of aching desire through her.

Then she was being allowed to slide down until his mouth covered hers again, the kiss searching, asking, then demanding and finally, as she gave him his answers, wanton and ecstatic…

Eventually Giles lay her down on the bed, sliding the sheath off to reveal the white lace g-string and the tiny garter belt holding her stockings in place. In another moment he'd deftly removed her slender evening sandals and his own shoes, before stopping to look at her again.

Buffy looked up at the desire burning in his eyes and caught her breath, not at the intensity of his passion, but at the depth of the love that fanned those flames. Nobody had ever looked at her that way before. Nobody, not even Angel, had ever loved her like that…

For the first time in her life she felt wanted, not for what she was, or what someone needed from her…

Just simply loved.

And for the first time in her turbulent life, she wanted to give back as much, if not more, than the promise in those green depths. She wanted to love, hold, and cherish…to give him everything. Even the part of herself she'd kept locked inside for as long as she could remember, buried in a secret place where it wouldn't bruise, or bleed or hurt, ever again…

The words, unspoken in so very, very long, came slowly, but with a shattering power.

“I love you.”

Giles stopped. He let go of his unbuckled belt, his hands falling to his sides as he stared at her.

Buffy watched as he struggled with emotion and surprise. Then she sat up and pushed his unzipped pants off his hips.

“Briefs,” she said with satisfaction, shattering the tension as the beautifully tailored trousers fell in a crumpled heap on the floor.

Giles laughed softly. “I've never worn anything else. I'm glad you approve.”

Buffy trailed her fingers over the distinctive contour in the dark charcoal fabric. “It doesn't matter if I approve or not,” she told him as he shuddered. “All that matters is that I love you so much I think I might explode if I can't make love to you soon…”

“Like this?” he asked, bending unexpectedly to draw her back down, and to kiss her inner thigh very softly, above the line of her sheer, silky stockings.

Buffy gasped.

“Oh God…” she moaned, as electric currents rippled through her body from the spot, and continue to crackle as his mouth explored the soft, creamy flesh, trailing its way provocatively up to the tiny slip of white lace until she could feel his warm breath on her aching womanhood.

He did not, however, stop there, his lips continuing their erotic journey over sensitised flesh, and across her belly as his hands slid over her body for the first time and gentle fingers found her aroused breasts, the peaks hard against his palms as he cupped them.

By the time he'd brought his lips to meet the sweetness in his gentle grasp, Buffy was writhing and moaning with pleasure, her cries turning to shuddering gasps as his warm mouth found and tasted each soft curve, each tiny, hard peak.

And when, finally, his lips trailed downward again over her soft belly, she cried out in anticpation, the groaning cry becoming a strangled gasp as her body bucked and jolted against the unexpected touch of fingers tracing the lacy outline of the g-string.

“Please…!” she whimpered, her thighs parting, every Slayer nerve in her body screaming for release, every part of her aching to know his touch, to have every part of him for herself.

His response was to shift until his underwear was gone, aware of her instant desperation when his touch was momentarily withdrawn. Then he was bending again, to mould his lips, his mouth against the lace. He listened to her shuddering cries with satisfaction, nipping and kissing the tender, barely covered flesh until she was arching off the bed. And then he ran a single forefinger down the narrow edge of the lace, his nail grazing the soft, moist flesh beneath and making her scream for the first time.

“Plea-s-e…!” she begged again.

Giles slid the lace away, and tasted the straining flesh, his own hardening unbearably at her screaming response to his ministrations, the sweet scent of her, as he continued for long minutes to pleasure her simply for the joy of it. His heart pounded, overwhelmed by the intensity of finally being able to love her, and his body burned with the fire of his passion.

Responding to both, he eventually moved over her and felt her thighs rise to his as he kissed her throat, her breast, her chin, her soft, tender mouth. He drew her into his arms and shifted as she curled her hips up to his, and he brought himself, trembling, to her.

When his flesh finally touched hers, his fire caressing her own, he struggled desperately to hold himself in check, astonished to find his body reacting like a raw youth to the potency of finally claiming the love of his life.

Buffy whimpered a little at the touch and Giles found himself look at her, kissing her closed eyes.

“Look at me,” he asked softly.

The lids opened and the blue grey eyes, blurred with desperate passion, searched his.

He touched her face, drawing a jagged breath as she pushed herself against him. “All right?” he asked.

She smiled at him in a way that spun his already wrought insides, and nodded, her soft moans turning to a shout of ecstasy in concert with his as he took her.

“Oh God…Buffy…!” Giles gasped as his flesh merged with hers, knowing he couldn't last long now that she was his.

“Oh God, oh God!” Buffy was screaming as she lifted her hips to his glorious invasion, and they strained desperately to each other. They were both so aroused that each teetered on the brink for endless, sensuous minutes before Buffy began to writhe and thrash and gasp.

The incredibly erotic motion was too much for Giles' self control and he cried out when his own body exploded as it had never exploded before, amid Buffy's ecstatic throes.

Their voices blurred into one as they continued to cry out their completion, each rocked over and over again by surging, crashing waves of pleasure, each firing the other to new heights, until, eventually, they both collapsed, exhausted, in each other's arms.

It was long minutes after that before Giles moved to snatch tissues from alongside the bed and to give them to Buffy. She rolled her eyes, but was grateful anyway. A moment later she was snuggled against his chest.

“If that was true love, I've been doing it all wrong,” she observed ruefully.

Giles kissed her hair, and drew her tightly to him. “It is, and we've both been doing it all wrong,” he told her lovingly. “Until now.”

She kissed the warm flesh over his sternum and raised her face. “Because we were doing it with someone else?” she guessed, and felt his chest shake.

“Most certainly,” he chuckled dryly, though his voice was still hoarse with emotion.

Buffy kissed his chin, then drew herself up to eye level. “I didn't know then…what the ache was…why it always felt like something was missing, when I was with them. Angel was need and pain and the big high-school romance with romance…not to mention my fatal attraction to the bad…and Riley…I had nothing left for Riley, as hard as I tried. I'm sorry it worked out the way it did.” She leaned forward and brushed his lips with hers. “I didn't know it was because everything I have to give already belonged to someone else…”

He kissed her back and smiled. “And neither did that someone,” he told her ruefully. “We've wasted a great deal of time.”

Buffy frowned. “How long?”

He pushed strands of blonde hair off the creamy brow. “I think I suspected when you came back from Los Angeles that summer. When you told me Angel was leaving, I was almost certain. And when I saw you walk into that room at the Prom, I knew. Does that disturb you?”

The frown vanished. “God no. Except for the making you miserable last year part.”

He laughed again. “Oh yes, that part.”

Her eyes grew very bright. “Don't tease,” she whispered. “I know what I did…I-I heard you talking to Albert…I was in the garden when he opened the window.”

Giles stared back at her for a long moment, then suddenly got up, unaware of how sensuous his unclothed, already semi-aroused body looked as he moved away from the bed.

“Giles?”

Buffy followed him, alarmed.

His face was wreathed in pain, his eyes shadowed with doubt.

“Is that why…?” he whispered, barely audibly.

She swallowed. “Is that why I want you again so badly that I wouldn't care if you took me on the damned table?” she shot back, then held up her hands. They were trembling. “Is that why I'm shaking? Why every part of me wants to touch you, hold you, love you…be with you?”

He turned to her slowly and saw the truth in her eyes, made a choking noise in his throat, and caught her when she threw herself off the ground and into his arms. The embrace cast away remorse, pain, sorrow and heartbreak, and left only the shattering power of their love.

When they finally moved, they were both breathing hard. His hand slid behind her knees and swept her into his arms, carrying her to the glass table in front of the eighth floor window, the clear night sky and a moonlit ocean visible beyond it.

Buffy gasped when he laid her on the cold glass, revealing the strength of his renewed arousal.

It sent a powerful wave of desire through her and she groaned, opening her thighs wide, her legs claiming his body as he came to her and took her. This time their lovemaking was a seal, all power, giving and taking in a frenzied joining of throbbing bodies, their cries filling the room as they rose, unhindered, and undelayed to wild heights of pleasure in each other.

When it was over, Giles gathered her up again immediately and carried her back to their bed.

“Wow,” she said blissfully, as he slid in beside her.

He grunted as she curled up once again in his arms, her warm, soft body pressed close to his.

“I could perhaps contribute a 'Good Lord',” he added with sleepy good humour and felt her press closer.

“You could,” she agreed, smiling into the soft hair on his chest, her eyes drooping, “but I like 'I love you,' a lot better.”

“How about: I love you, and I want us to be together for the rest of our lives?” he asked tenderly.

“Works for me,” Buffy sighed happily.

Giles laughed and closed his eyes, contentment and happiness rolling over him like a blanket.

“Rupert…?”

“Mm? That sounds nice…”

“Rupert? I like it,” she agreed.

“What was it you wanted, love?” he murmured, when she didn't continue.

“Nothing much,” she sighed, and smiled to herself one last time as the sound of his breathing slid into a low, audible rhythm and the rise and fall of his chest told her that he was sound asleep. She could feel herself not far behind…

“Just you…”


* * *