Where Do We Go...?

"Buffy? Buffy, wake up!"

The screams became whimpers and the thrashing little more than shudders but it was still several more moments, and a number of gentle shakes of the arm before the Slayer opened her eyes.

"Giles...how?"

"You were dreaming again," he said softly.

Her brow furrowed and she blinked moisture from her eyes. "That whole immolation thing just gets prettier and prettier every time," she muttered sarcastically.

"Pardon?"

She looked up and into the concerned green gaze. This was the third night in the last week and she'd lost count of how many during the two and a half weeks they'd been in England, that she'd woken to the feel of his large hand holding hers and the soft, deliberately soothing tones of his voice.

"I guess it's about time I told you, huh?"

His face gentled, his eyes growing warm. "Only if you want to."

She looked away. "I-that stuff, about Spike... You and Robin, you were wrong...but so was I. I could have gotten us all killed. As it turns out, I was also right, but that doesn't mean I should have taken so many chances. It's just...well, you didn't need to kill him. Between that big brain of yours, and Robin's, you two should have been able to come up with a better plan than that, even if I was being stupid about it."

"Yes, well, it all sounds fine in theory," he said evenly. "But at the time neither Spike, nor you I might add, were giving anyone very much choice in the matter. There were a lot of lives involved, and even more at stake."

The blue eyes flashed up to his, irritated in spite of herself. "And you always have to do the right thing, don't you?" she demanded.

It was his turn to frown. "I don't quite...?"

"Not just the Spike thing. You were going to fight the Master for me. You were going to get yourself killed by Eyghon...mostly for Jenny...and maybe me a little bit. You were willing to die to try and save Willow from herself...and you almost died trying to save the world from Angelus and Acathla..." she added in a whisper.

His expression was a mixture of touched, puzzled, and the smallest hint of amusement. "It wasn't all nobility and self-sacrifice, you know," he teased. "I seem to recall rather selfishly throwing myself at Angelus with nothing more than a baseball bat at one point," he reminded her, then seemed to change tack again, his voice soft. "There are times when we all have to do things for the right reasons that feel terribly, terribly wrong." His voice inexplicably grew hoarse long before the end of the sentence. "You did the right thing, Buffy."

She clenched trembling fists. "I left him there to die. The nightmares...I know they're real. I never saw any of it...but almost every night I see him burn...all the way down to dust. Sometimes just before his face burns off, it's Angel. Somehow...it becomes Angel. I should have been the one...I should have died in that hole. Giles, I'm...I was the Slayer...with a soul, but more than human...maybe not better, but definitely more."

"You loved him?"

She shrugged impatiently then dashed moisture from her face and eyes. "No...yes. I...I cared for him. I'm not smart enough to define what I had with Spike. He said I didn't love him, but he was wrong. I just didn't love him the way he wanted me to." She stopped then sighed. "Maybe that makes him right, anyway. I just know that he's gone and I'm still here...and...and I miss him. And I miss the others, and Dawn. And for some reason I miss mom. I dream about her too."

His fingers tightened around hers. "Not nightmares, I hope?"

Buffy shook her head. "Nice, mostly, but there's always badness at the end. She always has to go, or gets taken away from me."

Giles sighed again. She'd lost even more weight and hadn't settled at all since she'd returned with him to England. For all that she'd been looking forward to a life...a real life beyond Slaying, the adjustment was proving as difficult as fighting any apocalyptic evil.

"It's going to take a while for you to adjust to no longer being...to not having the world constantly upon your shoulders, as it were."

She half-smiled. "I'm getting used to that part pretty fast. I just...I never wanted to be the Slayer, or to have to take charge...to do any of that crap that drove everyone crazy... but now..." She shrugged. "Is it completely stupid to feel...bad...just because I'm not, you know...?"

"Special?" he provided.

"...Any more," she finished, nodding.

"It's perfectly normal, as is feeling regret about Spike and still missing your mother."

Buffy yawned, her too-thin face stretched by it, before she closed her eyes again above now flushed cheeks. A moment later she was surprised to feel the soft brush of the backs of his fingers pushing strands of hair off her face, before cupping her cheek, fingers sliding into her hair, thumb brushing her temple. The last thing she remembered was the stroking of the thumb, and letting the weight of her cheek rest against the strong palm...

*******


"There's another letter from Dawn...well, a postcard anyway," Giles called as Buffy put slices of bread in his toaster.

"Cool. You know, it was really sweet of you to do what you did. It's not going to hurt your, um, finances too much, is it? I mean, you already helped me that time, then there were all those plane tickets and...well...and yes, I know, I should have thought of this stuff a long time ago."

He chuckled. "No...no...my bank balance is perfectly fine, thank you. In fact, Anya is the true benefactor in this instance."

Buffy tilted her head, sadness in her eyes. "Neat trick, considering."

His mouth pulled into a half smile, but found itself unable to maintain it. He hadn't realized just how much affection he felt for the socially inept ex-demon, who'd grown so human she'd become the first ever to resign from her previously beloved calling.

"Well, no. She's still very much...gone. It's simply that, after her estrangement from Xander, the only person she nominated in her will as both executor and beneficiary of the majority of her estate..."

"...Was her business partner," Buffy guessed.

He nodded uncomfortably.

"Trust Anya to have a will. I've already been dead more than once and I still didn't get around to making one."

"Well you should," he said in a voice that betrayed how much he still hated being reminded about her mortality.

"So, what have they been up to?" Buffy changed the subject, trying to lighten things up again.

He turned the post card over to find Donald and Mickey waving at them. "They're in Florida," he confirmed, browsing the small, enthused note. "Dawn is rather impressed with the whole Disney thing."

"Well that's halfway, anyway." Buffy ran a hand through her hair and held the back of her head for a moment. "It is going to help, isn't it?"

"You saw their faces," he said quietly. "They...all of them...deserve to be children for a while...to do childish things...to worry about nothing more pressing than whether to have hamburgers or pizza. They need this."

Buffy's eyes grew distant. "Xander always wanted to see America by road. Dawn always wanted to...well, she wanted to be treated like an adult, but have fun like a kid. I think Xander's perfect for the job."

"And Willow and Kennedy will make certain both of them survive to tell us all about it."

"You think it might help get that stick out of Kennedy's butt?"

He chuckled. "I hardly think it's going to stay there very long if Xander has anything to do with it. He'll have her quoting Superman comics, drinking slushees and playing Dungeons and Dragons before they're done."

Buffy stared at his bent head as he started to butter the popped toast.

After a beat he seemed to sense the eyes boring into his scalp and looked up. "What?"

"You. You really care for him, don't you?"

"Of course I do," he said, surprised.

"Of course you do," Buffy agreed affectionately, "but not so anyone could ever really see...up til now."

He slid the toast onto a clean plate and got cups for their tea. "Are you feeling any better this morning?"

"Slick switcheroo there, Watcher-mine. I'm okay. Not 'Julie Andrews racing to the top of the hill' fine, but I'm dealing." Her gaze lingered on his face. "There's something about this place..." She stopped, seemingly self-conscious all of a sudden. "I wonder what all the residents of Sunnydale will do... Do you think they'll get insurance?"

"Some of them...few, if any, I suppose. This isn't something you'd find written into an insurance policy. The words 'Act Of God' will be bandied about a great deal, I suspect."

"Act of God? I suppose the First kind of qualifies...as one of the 'small 'g'' kind of wannabes, maybe...but Spike? Not sure I'd want to be the one trying to hang this one on the big 'G' though." She giggled suddenly then her eyes grew very moist.

"Buffy?" he asked, alarmed.

"It's okay. I was just...Xander used to call you that, when..."

"When things were...when we all were..." He stopped, equally struck by the moment.

She nodded, the glitter shattering so that the moisture flicked out of her lashes as she closed her eyes. "When we were still kids, and there was fun...and he had two good eyes to see how much calling you that annoyed the crap out of you."

After an amused beat, Giles' expression grew sombre, his eyes almost as pained as hers. "Things change, Buffy. None of us can stay children forever-"

"But were we ever really kids...? I mean: Will and Xand gave up nearly as much as Slaying took away from me. Seven years, Giles. Seven years we've been dealing with life and death and life...dead bodies and dead friends, apocalypses...both the evil kind and the personal kind...and we're still only twenty-two." She scowled. "It's a whole kind of evil in itself...like my taste in men."

"Tragic," he agreed, smiling when it took a beat for her to realize he was taking the piss.

"Asshole," she retorted good-naturedly. "You can enjoy it now, but you didn't have much of a sense of humour about any of them at the time."

He snorted. "And why the hell should I have? Do I need to remind you of the sordid details...?"

The smile vanished. It took but a few seconds for every moment and every consequence of her relationship with Angel to flash before her eyes as though it had just happened. "No, you don't," she said quietly, forcing herself to consider the others. "You really didn't like Riley much, either, did you?"

Giles snorted again, most expressively. "Captain Cardboard?"

Buffy looked away, blinking too-bright eyes. For a second Giles thought it was about Riley, then he remembered where that nickname had come from. He cleared his throat.

"No, I didn't like him much. You deserved better, but you had to learn that for yourself."

"At least he loved me..." she offered half-heartedly.

Giles tilted his head, his eyes narrowed. "A lot of people loved you, Buffy, but you didn't go around jumping into bed with any of them every five minutes...well, not with the majority of them anyway," he amended at her look. "On the contrary, the more some of us wanted to be there for you, to help, to care, the more you pushed us out of your life...all the while entertaining such sterling characters as that Abrahms idiot, and Capt...er...Riley Finn...and finally the piece de resistance: Spike. None of us ever understood what he could give you that we couldn't, apart from the painfully obvious. As you've discovered several times now without learning anything from it, sex can be very cold comfort when there's nothing to go with it."

Buffy scowled. "Don't lecture me, Giles. Don't you think I paid for all that stupidity? Angelus? Riley and his vamp hos, not to mention the little wife..." When he would have asked the question, she held up a hand. "Later. Then there was Parker. Well, he goes without saying. I know Willow ratted me out details-wise on that one, so I'll just skip right past those and move right along." She made a glum face. "...To Spike."

"Yes: Spike," he said through his teeth, surprising her, and yet not.

"I don't think I really owe you an explanation for that part of my life," she said reproachfully, and unexpectedly. "You were there and things were safe and I had something to count on...and then just when it finally starts to look like I might have the space to deal with that...that...what did you say the Council called it? The 'Post-traumatic stress syndrome' thingy? Just when I need you the most, you announce you're leaving me...for *my* own good, no less."

"Buffy..."

"Don't worry. I know I still don't owe you an explanation, but I want to get this out while I think I still can. Then maybe the nightmares will stop...maybe." She folded her hands together, tightly, breakfast long forgotten. "After...after you left, it was like...it was kind of like those ommercials the SPCA does...you know where the car stops and they push the dog out, slam the door and speed off. The mutt just stands there, wondering what the hell it did to deserve this. And then it gets so lost...and then it gets angry...it might even try to bite the people trying to help it..." She shook her head, dismissing the failed analogy. "I couldn't talk to the others. They couldn't talk to me. I didn't have anyone, and in case you hadn't noticed, I'm not that smart. Working it out on my own wasn't working too well. Dawn was way too young to deal with my issues, even if I could have told her, and you were way too gone. Spike was just...right there. I never understood how he could be evil, with all that killing and torture and liking it so much, and then such a creep, with his sex-bots and Buffy-shrines and stalking and stuff, and still touch something in me, but he could and he did. I can at least admit that now...I owed him that much."

Giles made a disparaging sound. "And the little matter of that documented murder, torture, rape and pillage across Europe, Asia and then the Americas, the killing of at least two slayers and the long held ambition to add you to that list...not to mention attempts to kill more than one of us on any number of occasions...? Of no consequence in your little romance?"

She shrugged. "He changed. Even without the soul. There was something weird about him, even as a vampire. I mean, he was evil. Vampires are evil...goes without saying, but there was this little piece of him that wasn't...evil...y'know?"

Giles paused for a moment. "Yes, I know," he finally agreed, remembering how much promise he'd seen in the wanker while he was under his roof and how his extended hand had been thrown back in his face, as he should have known it would be. "But that little piece wasn't enough to stop him from being dangerous, from doing...things. Had any human...had the Parker boy, for example, done all the things Spike did to you, you'd have wanted him arrested, or worse. You accepted all that, and yet look at the way you responded when I made the understandable mistake of trying to protect you... everyone," he amended swiftly. "You can hate me so easily, and yet despite his endless resume of...of...you give yourself to that...that..."

"Amazing what a little depression can make you do," she deadpanned, surprised by the spleen in his tone and the serious emotions that were making him stammer and leaking out of his British reserve like water out of a sieve. "What did you care, anyway? You were gone. I wasn't your problem...it wasn't your problem any more...it wasn't anyone's problem...not mom's, not Xander or Willow's, not Dawn's and certainly not my father's. It was just a little party between me, my terrific job and the stack of unpaid bills to go with my fun calling, Willow's addiction, Dawn's delinquency...not to mention the ever helpful geek trio trying to make my life complete..."

He put his head back, stared uncomfortably at the ceiling. "When I was there you weren't willing to make any decisions, take responsibility for anything you could fob off onto me. It was not my job to raise your sister, nor to make all your decisions for you. If it was, you do realize Spike would not have been there to wear the medallion ...and I..." He stopped, the atmosphere charged. When he spoke again it was in a voice that betrayed the effort to keep his tone even. "I would be mourning you again, if by some miracle the rest of us had even managed to survive."

"I missed you so much," she whispered, her expression acknowledging his point. "And I hated you so much for going...but not as much as I hated myself for driving you away. Evil vampire sex and pummel-age followed accordingly. He was good though. He actually had me believing that I came back wrong...that I belonged with him in the dark, because if any of you knew, you'd hate me...I mean really hate me. It didn't help, either, that he could hit me."

"Um...pummel-age?" Giles asked, barely containing his dread of what the reply would be. "A-and why would you let him hit you?"

"I pounded on him because I was angry. He pounded on me because it was fun and a big turn on. Mutual bruise-making. And I went through a lot of...ah, clothes, yeah...a lot of clothes during that period." It was clear from Giles' expression that she hadn't got away with that one, but she pressed on. "It wasn't pretty, but it wasn't all bad, either. He did care, in his own twisted way."

"But...the chip?"

"Um...there's something you should know..."

Giles' eyes widened as it sank in. "He could hit you...with the chip still working?"

Buffy nodded. "Now do you understand why depressed, needy, loser-Buffy was... well: 'depressed, needy loser-Buffy'? I was convinced I came back wrong...bad. I hated being here and I hated me more than any of you could and Spike was very helpful in letting me express my pain," she said sarcastically.

"I thought you said you cared for him," Giles said gruffly, trying to hide both his shock and his annoyance at not being informed of something so important...yet again.

*******


Her eyes flicked up to his, cynicism fading again. "Not at first. I mean, I remembered him being there...when mom... He-after he tried to shoot me he was...well, nice, but it wasn't like that after you left. It was like...well, sex..."

Giles rolled his eyes.

"Good sex," she countered, "except for the badness, that is. It made me feel...something. And that was better than the endless empty nothing that had been killing me since I did the horror movie thing...y'know...when Willow so thoughtfully terminated my heavenly happies." She paused then snickered nervously at his dazed expression. "Translation: when I dug myself out of my ow coffin."

His expression was grim. "It was no wonder you were emotionally damaged. And instead of having someone you cared about to help you deal with all of the trauma, we all thought we were trying to help restart your life, when all we were really doing was pushing you into more and more stress and pressure."

She shrugged. "You thought you were doing the right thing. You couldn't know that Willow was taking a sabbatical from responsibility of any kind, including financial, or that Dawn was so glad to have me back she spent most of her time find ways to piss me off, criticise me or indulge her newfound klepto-girl hobby. And you especially couldn't know about Spike, or the chip. And there's the little thing about me not telling you about Heaven..."

"Yes, that," he said, surprisingly gently. "Presumably you thought the others wouldn't cope?"

She nodded, surprised and yet not, at his instant understanding. "But I should have told you. I just..."

"Yes, you should. You should have told me a great many things, Buffy." Giles couldn't stop the words that followed, and by the time he'd said them, he no longer wanted to stop them. "There were too many other times when you thoughtlessly rode roughshod over my feelings, even in issues that directly affected me."

Buffy held his gaze, but her own was filled with guilt. She knew exactly which incident was making those green lights flash nastily in his eyes and his voice so cold.

"I made some bad choices when I was a kid..." She rolled her eyes at the frown that formed in his brow. "Okay, I make choices all the time that are stupid or wrong. I know that. They seem right at the time...except I guess they only seem right for me. I'm sorry...truly I am, for hurting you. I never wanted to, ever. The others let me know in their own charming way a long time ago that I'm a bad friend. So I really am so sorry ...for being so incredibly stupid. I-I love all of you, Giles. I always have. I know I've caused a lot of pain but I never meant..."

His face finally gentled. "But you've also been through so much..."

She half smiled. "Thanks, but so have all of you. No more excuses, Giles. No more running away..." The smile faded. "I shouldn't have left."

"Sorry?"

"After I killed Angel. I shouldn't have run away. Even if mom never let me back into the house, I should have come to you. "

He was looking at her, obviously remembering all the badness. "Why didn't you?" He asked curiously.

"I killed the man I loved. My own mother kicked me out of the house. I was wanted for murder. Jenny and Kendra were dead because of me. You were tortured because of me...Will and Xander were hurt...because of me. Xander'd already made it obvious how he felt about me. They're not excuses," she added hastily. "Just reasons. I was a kid and it was just...too much. I couldn't face any of you." Her gaze slid to the not-quite straight fingers of his left hand. "I couldn't deal, not with mom. Not with losing Angel, or with the cost of having him in the first place." She looked up at him again, the atmosphere between them heavy with emotion. "Do you know what it's like to be responsible for so much pain...to be *in* so much pain...and not have any way to fix it...to make it better?"

Their gazes held silently until Buffy's memories and Giles' expression answered the question for her. Frustrated beyond measure at her eternal stupidity, tears rose suddenly in her eyes, mirroring the glitter in his.

"Of course you do," she whispered. "I'm sorry."

They moved together, Buffy leaning against his chest, and Giles resting his cheek on the blonde head as their arms tightened around each other.

"You're such a duffer, Buffy Summers. I don't know how we ever made it through the last seven years," he said against the soft hair. "No, wait, of course I know how we did it: through all the mistakes, the stupidity, the unending soap opera that was your love life, there were still there were two things that didn't change: your courage and the strength of those we love: Xander, Willow...Dawn. Even Cordelia in her time, Oz, Tara, and Anya, bless her. When we stood, we stood together."

Buffy sniffed and looked up, smiling. "Careful, you're getting all sentimental, old guy."

He smiled back. "Perhaps, but sentimental or not, it's all true."

She laid her cheek against his shirt again, enjoying the warmth and strength beneath it.

"Well thank you again, but one of these days I'd like to grow up and be able to be there for you guys as much as you've been there for me over the years." Her tone changed to one of bantering. "This nostalgic looking back at the Buffy badness...of which there is *way* too much...badness *and* looking...wasn't in the brochures for this holiday."

He withdrew his arms unexpectedly and shoved his hands in his pockets. "No, I suppose not." His tone was even, but there was some effort behind it.

Buffy watched him warily. She knew immediately that she'd screwed up, but she really didn't want to let it go this time, especially when even she could sense that she had done something to hurt him...again.

"Giles?"

"Mm...yes? W-would you like a fresh tea, perhaps? It has been a rather heavy discussion..." He made a half-hearted attempt to smile to go with the half-hearted humour. "...What with the 'Buffy badness' a-and all."

"Giles," she repeated, silencing him again, "I'm sorry. I spent seven years building walls so I could function...so I could deal if something happened to one of you guys. Seven years of not getting close...not nearly as close as you guys have been to each other. I tried to tell you once before, a long time ago...I couldn't do both. I couldn't be strong or brave or whatever it was I had to be, and do all the crap I had to do, and deal with the possibility of losing any of you as well." She raised a hand when he would have protested. "No, let me finish. When I was a kid, back in high school, I was scared *all the time* that I was going to lose one of you, or that you would get hurt or...maimed...that it would be my fault. And it was killing me. And it was affecting my judgment...*affected* my judgement. It cost lives. We both know my not being able to kill Angel...Angelus cost lives. I never wanted that to happen again...so I withdrew. Built walls. Looked elsewhere, like Riley, for happies. I never loved him. I convinced myself I did, for a while, but I think we both know the only way I could be with him and still do what I had to do is if he wasn't going to be a problem, emotionally."

"A problem? The way Willow, Xander and I were 'problems'?"

"Got it in one," she said flatly. "Bottom line: I know you all wanted more from me. I just didn't know how to give it. I'm still not sure I do. You only have to look at my love life to know how much I suck in that department." She sighed. "I know the walls still come up even when I don't mean them to, which I guess, is what I've been trying to say in my long winded Buffy way. What it doesn't mean is that I don't love all of you beyond the telling of it. I do. I always have. And I miss the way we used to be so much sometimes, it hurts." She was trembling a little as she turned away.

Giles roused himself from his immersion in the things she'd been trying to tell him.

"Buffy, are you all right?"

She shook her head silently. "So many people have died because of me...and now this. All those slayers, Giles, and Anya and...and Spike. I couldn't save them...any of them. It's my fault they're all dead and nothing you can say will change that."

"Yes, they are all dead because of you."

She turned back and looked up at him, her lips parted, startled.

He calmly returned her stare. "Of course you're not to blame for what happened to Anya and Spike, or even Amanda. But as their leader you have to learn to accept responsibility for your decisions without succumbing to irrational guilt. Yes, you and I both know that earlier your judgement was badly affected and that it cost lives. There's no point in me lying about it. And we both know that even though it was ultimately wrong, the mutiny was entirely justified, as was the attempt to ensure that the First would not be able to use Spike against us; wrong, but more than justified at the time. At a time when it was crucial for us all to work together, to trust each other, you did more than raise walls. You simply walked away, and for what? Another shag?"

"This from the guy who made an art form of walking away," she snapped back, caught on the raw again. "I did what I thought was best...made all those damned decisions you wanted me to make, grew up and took charge like you wanted me to...except none of it was good enough. Instead of going behind my back, instead of going all Fletcher Christian when things weren't working out...don't you think it would have been better to just talk? It would have been a whole lot better if I knew I could discuss things with you like the old days, but in case you've forgotten, you've been telling me since I started college that I can't do that anymore: 'Think for yourself, Buffy. Do it yourself, Buffy. You have to stand on your own two feet, Buffy. You're the Slayer...you decide'. Well, I decided...and what did it get me?"

Colour had flooded into Giles' face. "And what exactly did you expect it to get you? You weren't going back to that vineyard because it was the tactically correct thing to do. You were going back there because you were pissed off that Caleb had beaten you the first time and you'd found yourself a rationalization for going back there to try to finish the job. You were going to recklessly endanger all those lives without any proof that anything was going to be gained from it? That is, if anyone even survived!"

"God, you are so full of yourself," she growled, moving toward him. "Righteous, all-knowing Giles."

"Too bloody right," he snapped back. "You were wrong, and since you seem to have forgotten, I wasn't the only one who thought so. Only your precious vampire thought otherwise. The little pissant even suggested that I was acting out of petty jealousy because I was no longer..." He stopped, exasperated, and chagrined at how much he'd let his emotions rule his mouth.

"Spike defended me?"

"More like stuck it to the rest of us," he muttered, annoyed that she sounded so pleased, only to be distracted when her expression completely changed.

"He said that...about you? Did you hit him?"

He looked at her, shocked, but couldn't stop the laugh that followed. "Did I...? Have you forgotten your other piece of breathtaking irrationality? One doesn't shoot at a cannon with a peashooter."

"The chip was killing him," she said through her teeth. "Yes, it was the wrong time...but it was the only time. I knew if he didn't get it taken out then he never would."

"But you also knew that he was still under the control of the First and, as such, incredibly dangerous without that bloody chip. Ultimately you made that choice, not for the greater good, or even his sake. You made it for yourself. If you can't admit that, even now, then you've learned little or nothing from everything that happened."

Buffy stepped right up in his face. "I don't believe this. I found a way to save the world...again...and I even manage to survive this time...and you're still pissed about all that stuff. Old news, Giles! I followed your orders. *I* made a decision, good or bad. And being a Buffy decision: bad...obviously. Live with it. "

He did not back down, instead towering over her. "The question is," he said, green eyes burning into hers, "can you?"

They stared at each other for what felt like an endless time, the electricity in the room almost suffocating.

"He saved the world, Giles," Buffy finally said, her voice quiet.

He exhaled, long and raggedly. "Yes, he did, didn't he? But we aren't really talking about him, here, are we?"

After a beat she shook her head. "I can't believe we survived long enough to defeat the First. I screwed up so much...I did the right thing for the wrong reasons and the wrong thing for the right reasons...and I pleased nobody..."

"Except him."

She shook her head. "Not even him. What he wanted I could never give him. If I wasn't sure before, I knew when I saw Angel again."

Giles' shoulders hunched and his hands slid back into his pockets. "Something happened between...?"

Buffy shook her head again. "It was nice...I basked, even...but God, going there again, after all this time...I loved him, Giles...I loved him so much, but I know now that I'm not her anymore...and I'll never be that girl again. And...and I'm not ready...maybe not ready to be with anyone, but especially not him."

"But you will be some day?"

For a long moment her eyes seemed to gaze into a private world of her own, then she returned to the room and looked up at him.

"I don't think so. A part of me still wants the dream...the schoolgirl romance come true...but the rest of me: the one who had to deal with all the crap after he left, and the one who's made such a mess of her life every moment since then, knows that it's time to move on."

Some of the tension went out of the wide shoulders and he pulled a hand from one of his pockets to remove his glasses.

"Do you have any idea what you want to do, now that you're...free...for the first time since you were fifteen?" he asked quietly.

She shrugged. "I kinda thought actually being here with you was a pretty good start...until the inquisition started." Her tone was teasing, but there was hurt in her eyes. "But I guess, eventually, I'll have to find a place for Dawn and me, get a real job and build a life." Her eyebrows rose and she sighed. "And I thought Slaying was scary."

He smiled, a tender, amused smile. "Nothing is quite as scary as life," he confirmed. "But I know you'll do just fine."

She finally smiled back. "Oh yeah, like I did at being taking-charge gal, or burger-slinging gal...or how low can I sink gal..." She closed her eyes, a divot between them. "Can I go back to when it was just us, and the Slaying was 1-2-3 by the book and I knew that no matter what happened the library was there and when I walked-or ran-in you were going to be there, book in one hand, cuppa tea in the other?" She seemed to pause, lost in memories, for a moment. "The hardest thing in the world about going to college was that you weren't there anymore."

He tilted his head to one side, a patented Giles look of pure cynicism back on his face. "Is this the part where I'm supposed to go 'awww'? Because from where I stood I seemed pretty damned irrelevant."

Her eyes grew bright. "You were the one who told me to go away. You were *damned relevant* to me, but who am I to argue with the great and mighty Watcher when he tells me I have to take care of myself? So I did. Not a crime. Weren't you proud that you made me stand on my own two feet...?" she added sarcastically.

He snorted, exasperated. "Oh yes, I was proud that you threw yourself at the bloody Initiative and that cow Walsh rather than grow up and learn to make your own decisions. And so proud that it almost got you killed. Not nearly as proud as when you decided to kill the only lead you had into my apparently violent disappearance with a nickel-plated letter opener."

She stared at him for a moment, then wheeled and headed for the front door.

"Running again?" he said softly, knowing she would hear, but not whether she would listen.

Buffy froze then slowly turned in spite of herself. He looked tired and hurt, instead of arrogant and pissed, as she'd expected.

"Do you know why I was such an idiot?"

His eyes narrowed then he looked down and shook his head.

"Everything pointed to you being dead. Gone. Nothing made sense anymore. It was like my brain just...stopped. All I could think about was what it would be like without you around."

His head came back up, his eyes searching hers. He didn't say anything, because there was nothing he could say to that. At the time it had seemed so obvious that she was more than happy without him.

Buffy saw the doubt. "How many times did you need me to tell you exactly how much I needed you?" She said almost harshly. "This is me, remember: retardo-girl, the one who can't connect with anyone, but I still managed to tell you...how many times? That I need you, that I couldn't do it without you. Didn't that tell you anything?"

He threw the glasses on the counter. "Believe it or not, it wasn't always about what you needed, although you obviously thought it was; picking us up and putting us down whenever you felt like it, like tools, or toys." His voice changed to a pseudo-version of hers: "Oh, yes, fine, they'll be there when I want them again. In the mean time I'll just pretend they don't exist. My dull-as-ditchwater-testosterone-poisoned boyfriend and his band of merry men are so much more interesting than the friends who've been with me since the beginning, who care about me...who love me."

The moment the angry words left his mouth his hands shoved back down into his pockets and his shoulders drooped again.

This time Buffy blinked, realizing there was more going on than just the bitterness in his voice and the...admittedly...justifiable criticism of her behaviour during that period. Then her eyes lighted on the cold toast.

"My breakfast is all cold and gross," she complained, moving into action. "That wasn't the plan. Tea? I'm making..."

"What? Oh yes, tea. Fine. Milk, two sugars." He looked up as he spoke, realised she'd moved and closed off once again, and sighed wearily.

Buffy's hand stilled on the teapot, her retreat halted mid-stride, her eyes filling with sadness. "I remember, Giles. I really do..."

He wasn't looking at her any more; just sort of staring at his boots, his face closed and inscrutable as it always was when he was hurting. Not sure what to do next, or why she suddenly wanted his arms around her again, almost painfully badly, she focused on the tea making instead.

********


"I'm going to call Xander now. Make sure everything is all right. He better have that bloody phone turned on this time. I didn't buy it for them to leave it switched off all the time," he muttered, still without looking at her.

Buffy's insides were in turmoil. She knew that she'd handled things badly again, but she was utterly at sea as to what to do about it. In the past it had been so much easier to simply rationalize it away: can't worry about personal stuff when I've gotta worry about staying alive and Slayage and regularly-scheduled world saving. Later...always later...but later mostly never came.

She watched him sit down in his armchair with the phone, cursing when he punched in the wrong numbers, probably because he hadn't put his glasses back on, then trying again. For the first time in a long time she really looked at him. He had changed...a lot. He'd gotten a little greyer, and there were more of the cute laughter lines at the corners of his eyes, but he'd also gotten leaner and fitter and kind of tanned. She let her eyes roam over his whole person. His clothes had changed and he wore his hair in a spikier, much more sexy style. Sexy? She wrinkled her nose. Where had that come from? Nevertheless, she noted, she had managed not to notice that the person she trusted most in the world had almost completely changed in the last few years, right under her nose...mostly.

He tilted his head to the side when he'd apparently gotten through, the beaten silver band in his ear glinting in the filtered sunlight coming through the living room window.

And there was that. She'd only ever seen it once before, and there had been pain and hurting then too. She remembered the brief moment in which she pondered why he'd apparently stopped wearing it when he came to Sunnydale, and how quickly she'd completely forgotten about it. So many things, as always...Riley, Angel, her probable impending death at Adam's meaty hand, the scariness of the ease with which Spike had turned them all...even him...against her. She shook her head, and went back to her study of this man who'd been so much a part of her life...and her psyche...for so long.

He laughed suddenly, his whole face changing, taking years off and making the word 'adorable' spring to mind. Buffy almost knocked the clean teacups over. Giles was *not* adorable. Authority figures like Teachers, Librarians, Watchers, whatever... were *not* adorable. Travers was not adorable. Snyder was most definitely *not* adorable. Her mouth formed into an unconscious pout. But Robin most definitely *was* utterly adorable...and sexy. She did knock a teaspoon off the counter at that point. There was that word again.

She banged the tea caddy on the counter and prised the lid off before looking up again when there was another shout of laughter from the living room. He was talking animatedly and gesturing with his free hand. She watched the fingers flicking around and wondered just how much he'd suffered while she'd screwed around dealing with her mother and Spike and everything else instead of rushing to his rescue that day.

Then he sat back, lifting his face up, tenderness lighting it, because, she guessed, he was now talking to Dawn. *Utterly adorable...and sexy...*

Tea," she exclaimed aloud. "Making tea. Just tea."

*******


Several days passed without any further conversations about her nightmares or her stupidity. Giles seemed to go out of his way to normalize things, to keep everything uncomplicated. And the more he did the more irritable and restless she became.

"Don't you have anything except old sweaters in that closet of yours?" she growled as he came downstairs to go to town for groceries.

He looked down at the old grey sweater in surprise. "Actually I have several expensive, tailored suits, a number old tweed jackets and a large selection of shirts, some of which will never see the light of day again," he said huffily. I happen to like this jump...sweater. It's old and comfortable...like me."

"You're not old," Buffy growled, irritation evident in her voice, "and you shouldn't dress like you are all the time."

Giles' eyes widened in surprise.

"Do something for me. Go put on a shirt like you're going on a date instead of picking up Weetabix and toilet paper."

"What?"

She looked up at him, blinked then returned his bemused gaze with an intense grey-green stare. "You heard me. Make yourself gorgeous. Take your time. I'm going to change. You're taking me out to lunch."

He stood there, dazed, on the stairs as she flashed past him on her way back up to her room.

"Bloody hell," he said under his breath and finally got his feet to move.

She managed to make herself pretty in record time. Instead of plain blue jeans, sneakers and the roll-neck sweater she was originally going to wear, she'd changed into a pretty blue dress she'd bought in Los Angeles before they flew out. It had never been worn. She wore her new soft camel coat over it against the cold then went downstairs expecting to be able to wait for him at the bottom. Instead she found him standing by the front door.

Buffy looked him up and down, from head to toe. He'd taken her at her word. He looked mildly pissed, if anything, but she guessed he'd gone out of his way to *show* her, since she'd pushed his buttons about the age thing. Her breath caught when he looked up.

He'd spent time on the new hair, changed the earring for another, elegant hoop, and the shabby easy-fit blue jeans for tailored black ones, the sweater for a collared black shirt she'd never seen before, opened two buttons down at the throat. It wasn't the clothes. It was what they allowed her to see: all that the familiarity of the old, shabby things had hidden away for so long.

"You're not old," she repeated, wonderingly, her mind for some reason making comparisons with Robin and startling her by deciding that if she could choose she would pick...Giles. Every time.

"And you're as lovely as ever," he managed, staring at the hair falling around her shoulders, the perfectly made up face and mouth, the pretty, frivolous dress... something he hadn't seen on Buffy in a very long time: frivolity.

"Flatterer." Her smile was spontaneous and radiant. "You did good work yourself. I can't believe I've never seen this side of you. Obviously someone has, so why not me?"

"Does the word 'eiwww' ring any bells?" he drawled, his face once again becoming all planes and angles.

She went crimson. "Ouch. Well there's no 'eiww' here. There's 'oooh!' and 'wow' and *my God, Giles has a secret identity* but no 'eiww'."

He made his familiar *yeah, right* face. "Something to be grateful for then, I suppose," he said, turning to open the door and dropping his glasses as he did so.

Buffy watched the shirt pull over his wide back as he bent at the waist to retrieve them, then swallowed when she realized she was checking out Giles' butt...and that it was a tight, curved, sexy size thirty-four. Her face flamed as she came the rest of the way downstairs and followed him out the door.

As he handed her into the four-wheel drive Rover he used while in England, he frowned. "Buffy are you quite well? You look a little feverish."

Buffy, who was still trying to deal with her earlier reaction and the fact that in the space of an hour her whole life had turned upside down...not to mention her cookie dough wondering what had hit it, did not look back at him, afraid that he would see in her eyes what was going through her tiny mind right then.

"I-I'm fine, Giles," she managed. "I just...I was thinking about stuff," she improvised, for some reason unwilling to lie to him but damned sure she wasn't going to tell him that she'd been ogling his behind...or that she hadn't hated the feel of his fingers holding her elbow gallantly...and unnecessarily it had to be said...as she'd climbed into the four-wheel drive.

As the vehicle wound its way along the country road, Buffy found herself noticing other things, like the subtle scent of him, so familiar and yet until now, not really a part of her consciousness, the way his thighs were straining the denim of the jeans and the way he could do silence so very well. She sneaked a look at his profile. It was an interesting face, but a handsome one. She liked the way his hair was long enough to brush his collar and curl around the back of his ears, but not long enough to be scruffy and she liked that sort of semi-spike he seemed to wear the top of it in these days. He looked, she decided, being totally honest with herself for once, like a weathered thirty-five. For the first time she wondered why he'd never bothered with contacts. He was too good looking to hide behind any old glasses, and yet that was pretty much what he'd been doing for the whole time she'd known him.

"Did you ever try contacts?"

Giles was mildly startled by the question. It took him a moment to gather his wits and answer over the noise of the car.

"When I was younger I only needed the glasses for an astigmatism. Now I have bifocals, for that and for reading...old age and all that. I don't need the glasses to actually see when I'm not doing close work, or at the cinema, or needing to see distances clearly."

"Then why do you wear them so much?"

"I don't...really," he replied, surprising her. "You've never really bothered to spend any time with me that didn't involve research or training of some kind. And I needed them in the library for obvious reasons and in the shop to read labels and such. If you had spent much, if any, of your free time with me you would have noticed that I most certainly don't wear them all the time."

"Oh," Buffy said meekly, starting to remember times, especially after she graduated, that she would go to the apartment, granted, usually to fill him in about some new demon or to research one. He was right. Most times unless he was reading, he wasn't wearing glasses...they just invariably went straight back on when the books came out. She simply hadn't cared enough to notice. She slumped in her seat and remained silent for the rest of the journey.

They emerged from the supermarket arguing over American versus British breakfast cereal. Giles was being disparaging about the amount of sugar in American food, and pointing out that candy in breakfast food was just a travesty and no wonder so many Americans, and their kids, were overweight. Then he'd looked her up and sighed. "And then there are the rest of you," he'd added.

The bickering turned to fashion and her figure and how being so underweight might affect her health, both then and in the longer term.

By the time they'd put their packages in the Rover and driven across town to the pub, Giles had decided to take her to for lunch, Buffy's colour was high and her eyes were flashing nearly as much as his. He was not pulling punches about the so called *stupidity* of what she was doing to her body and it was starting to hurt. The implication that she was too thin to be womanly...that it made her ugly...or, more precisely, that he thought she was ugly...hurt far more than she was going to let him see, and way more than it had a right to.

She was very quiet right up until Giles placed a designer beer in front of her at their table in the crowded tavern, and asked her if she'd noticed anything on the chalkboards that she wanted to eat. She rolled unhappy eyes up at him.

"Maybe I should have some of everything so I can get fat and not be ugly any more," she grumbled.

"Rubbish," he growled, and went to order.

When he came back, Buffy was working her way through her pint and not looking any happier.

"Buffy?"

When she didn't look up the word was repeated.

"*Buffy?*" She finally looked up. "There's no need to sulk. You know you're a beautiful woman whether fifty pounds or two hundred and fifty. It's not about whether you're attractive or not. It never has been. It's about the ugliness of what you're doing to yourself and the fact that I care about you..."

They were staring at each other when he felt silent, and continued to do so, neither sure what was in the air or why it was holding them almost frozen in the moment...

...Until it was shattered by the appearance of a young man about Xander's age, in jeans and a black, heavy-metal band, T-shirt. He was not unattractive, and obviously pretty pleased with himself.

"Saw you sitting here all by yourself," he said, trying with exaggerated care to appear sophisticated and 'cool.' "Wondered if your old man could spare you long enough to have a drink with me and the lads," he nodded toward a table with several other boys around the same age and one rather older, who was watching them, and Buffy in particular, in a way that set Giles' teeth on edge. He was already controlling himself beautifully after the 'old man' crack. He redoubled his efforts, trying to repress the urge to go over there and wipe the lust off the punk's pimply face...preferably *right after* flattening their visitor...

As Buffy said hello back and struck up an unlikely conversation with their visitor about his shirt and where she might buy some 'real music' in Bath, he paused to consider his reaction, which, considering the clenched fist on the table, was out of all proportion to the situation. They were nothing more than young louts.

He looked across at the other table and glared at the older boy until he backed down rather swiftly and concentrated on his beer. Giles smiled to himself, pleased with the victory but unaware just how dangerous he looked in that moment. He came back to reality to hear Buffy declining the interloper's invitation.

"I don't think my boyfriend would like it very much," she said cheekily and gave Giles the kind of look she usually reserved for Angel or one of her other paramours over the years.

*Oh dear Lord...*

"Boyfriend? Him? Only one reason someb'dy'd go out with an old man like that, darlin'. Got a lot of the ready to throw around, has...?" He lost all track of his thoughts when he caught Giles' eye.

'Dangerous' didn't begin to describe the older man's expression. He pulled a fiver from his wallet and shoved it at the boy. "Why don't you go and have a drink instead, and leave the lady alone?" he drawled, daggers dripping from every word.

A shiver went up Buffy's spine, then back down again. The green eyes were glittering, and somehow Giles made the flash of his still-white teeth seem more terrifying even than a vamp poised to bite.

The young man snatched the note and sneered as he made his getaway. "Creepy old bastard. You'll be doing schoolgirls next."

Buffy leaped up and caught Giles by the elbow as he lunged out of his chair toward the little git.

"Don't," she said under her breath, her eyes beseeching him not to get into a fight. A glimmer of amusement came into them as she looked from the sniggering, but obviously rattled, youths at the other table, then back to the fearsome look on Giles' face. "There's a better way than destroying the place, even though I know you could take them with your eyes closed." She reached up and touched his face with convincing intimacy. "Make it look good."

Giles looked down at her, startled enough to forget where they were for a moment. Then he made an effort to smile back at her as though she'd said something worthy of it, before saying through his teeth.

"It wouldn't be proper...or decent."

"Since when has Ripper ever been proper or decent?" she returned, playing with the chest hairs in the 'V' of his shirt.

Again Giles managed to look down at her with a possessiveness that would have convinced any other man to stay away, but Buffy could see the flustered panic deep in his eyes.

"C'mon, Giles," she prompted, aware that they still had an audience...then spoke no more, her breath completely taken away as an arm suddenly crushed her against his body and a warm mouth came down on hers.

At first she didn't know what to do, then she panicked...then she remembered the game and then...then she forgot everything.

It was some time before the kiss ended, Buffy's entire universe focused on nothing but 'smell, touch, feel' and the velvet of those lips. Only when they separated did she remember *who* she was kissing.

They looked at each other, both flushed, both equally overwhelmed and slightly startled, and they both smiled self-consciously at the same time.

Giles gathered himself enough to make a production out of seating her again and was about to sit himself when their number was called.

Buffy wasn't sure what Guinness pie was, but it smelled great. It probably tasted great, too, but all she could think about was that she'd kissed *Giles*. And that it wasn't gross, or weird or...it was great. Damn it, it was *incredible* and she wanted him to do it again...except that there wouldn't be any 'again'. What there would probably be would be a lecture...or worse: it would probably become one of those things 'never to be spoken of' again.

They ate in silence, finished their drinks then headed out of the pub, both so lost in reflection of the afternoon's events that they didn't notice that the other table was now deserted.

Outside, in the soft light of a mild British summer's day, both of them roused from their reverie.

"My God, sunlight!" Buffy teased. "We're out in the sun...both of us. It's just... wrong, and scary."

He chuckled in spite of himself. A part of him was still appalled at what he'd done, and worse, how much he wanted to do it again. It wasn't as if he'd ever made any bones about loving her. He'd just never considered that he might be *in* love with her. It wouldn't do. It couldn't. He was tool old, too damaged by things...too many of which she could never know about, and above all her heart still belonged to someone else. It was foolish to even be thinking...

"I suppose from now on you'll be able to live in the light, if you so choose," he managed to reply. "It isn't as though you're tied to Sunnydale anymore, and Faith and Wood have gone to guard the only other active Hellmouth in your country. Of course I could use your help with what's ahead: the new Council, the stupendous amount of work to be done to be able to offer all of your newly-created Slayers training and guidance, if they choose, and to find any ex-pat, retired, or former Watchers who are willing to return to help us...and the world...to set up a new order against the darkness."

"You sound like a recruiting video," she complained. "I just got my freedom and you're saying here's the harness...you know you want it. No fair, Giles. Anyway, I'm too skinny, I have no leadership skills and the sensitivity of a rock, remember? Do you really want me anywhere near them?"

"Oh, ha, ha, ha," he snorted as they approached the Rover, only to find themselves surrounded.

"You again," Buffy drawled when she recognised the twit from the pub.

"We figured you'd be ready for rescuing by now, love. You just step away from the old man, and we'll take care of 'im for you, right now."

"You?" She turned back to Giles, who was watching the situation warily, his Watcher training overriding his irritation at their insults. "Take on the Ripper and win? I had the distinct impression that you were all peeing your pants back in the bar...I mean, pub."

There were mutters of 'bitch' and 'cow' and the group moved forward. For a split second Buffy braced to fight, then she looked up at Giles again.

Ripper indeed... In the best performance of her life, she allowed herself to be dragged out of the circle and made herself watch from the sidelines as Giles took them apart one by one, entranced by the unexpected poetry in some of his movements, and the equally unexpected explosive animal savagery of others. That mixture, of so many elements that he'd taught her and some truly dirty street fighting, saw half the youths sprawled all over the pavement and road and the other half sprinting and limping down the street as fast they could go.

He finally turned, shirt torn open, gash and bruises across his chest, blood at the corner of his mouth, oozing nastily from a combination of a cut and a filthy graze imbedded in a rapidly-swelling bruise where he'd been hit. There was another cut on his temple, and another bruise right over his left eyebrow. He was lucky not to have a black eye to go with it.

For a moment Buffy was mesmerized by the heaving chest, the mussed hair, and the fire still in the green eyes, but quickly snapped out of it when he staggered a little.

She helped him to the car in silence, trying not to notice how much her body was reacting to the one leaning against her, to the arm around her shoulders. He insisted on driving, knowing what hers was like, but the silence persisted for several blocks before one of them finally spoke.

"Are you mad at me for not helping?" She asked quietly, wondering if she'd made the wrong choice yet again.

He put the indicator on and made a right turn before grunting when the slash and grazing across his chest pulled.

Unexpectedly, he grinned rather like a schoolboy. "I probably should be, but I must confess I enjoyed it far too much," he admitted ruefully. "Why didn't you?"

"Did you need me to?" She countered, for some reason vividly remembering the time she rescued Xander from Larry.

He smiled. "No."

******


The days flashed by far too quickly. Buffy had never felt so rested, so at peace, and much to her chagrin, she was gaining weight.

The truth was Giles was way too good of a cook, and when they didn't eat at home, he was taking her somewhere else that he wanted her to see or experience. She'd enjoyed most of the British food, the Spanish, the Thai and even the Cornish...except for the fish pie... The one cuisine she didn't get along with too well was Indian. If she never saw another Madras curry or Vindaloo it would still be too soon. Morning ablutions had been an exercise in delicate torture.

On the other hand, they had not spoken again of the 'incident' but by mutual unspoken assent they'd gone out of their way to spend time together, to enjoy each other's company. No more had been said, either, about the past, for which Buffy was truly grateful. The more time she spent with Giles, the more she found herself reliving those days in the moments before sleep, remembering things long shut out of her mind or cast aside so that she could function; things she wished she could forget, but never would again...

*******


The phone rang two days before they were due to fly out to rendezvous with the others in Los Angeles. Giles had spoken to Robin and Faith, who had made temporary arrangements to accommodate the group until they knew what they were going to do with their lives. All of them had confirmed that their parents and families had survived Sunnydale, but none were in a position, financial or otherwise, to offer shelter to the group, or even to their children.

"Buffy! Phone!"

Upstairs, Buffy poked her head out of the bathroom, where she'd been drying her hair. "Phone? Me?"

"Yes, you. Hurry up. It's an international collect call. Anyone would think I'm made of money."

She was downstairs a few seconds later, tightly bundled up in one of his best bath towels.

Buffy's mouth dropped open when she heard Angel's voice on the other end.

"Hey Buffy."

"What are you doing calling Giles collect?" She demanded.

"Collect? I didn't...!" Angel objected, causing Buffy's head to swivel around and a gimlet eye to fix itself on Giles.

"You didn't?" She enunciated, and scowled at the Watcher who flushed adorably. "Oh, good. Why are you calling me here? Is the world ending again already?"

Giles straightened.

"No, silly. I just...I need to see you again and Wesley says he has to see Giles about this new Watcher's Council, or whatever it's going to be called now. He's kinda worried about what's going to happen now that there're all these potential hand-grenades around the world who just got their pins pulled by a certain Witch and a certain Slayer who shall remain nameless. Come with him, Buffy. I've missed you ever since I left Sunnydale."

Buffy turned and shook her head at Giles. He relaxed again, pleased that world wasn't ending, yet again. He didn't think he had the energy to care, much less fight, at this point.

She turned back to concentrate on her call. A part of her was romanced beyond words...basking again in the glow that was being wanted. She did want to see him again...and a few weeks ago nothing would have kept her from him, now that she was a free agent. She looked across at the Watcher again, not sure what was holding her back.

"Sure. I'll mention it to Giles. We'll probably come early and see you before we meet the others in Anaheim."

Buffy didn't see Giles tense again.

"That was Angel," she said redundantly when she hung up. "Wesley wants to see you about the new Watcher's Council or whatever you're going to call it. Angel asked if I'd come too."

"We'll leave tomorrow. The tickets are open, in case the others had problems and were going to be late getting into Anaheim. It won't be difficult to change the booking," he said coolly.

Buffy watched him warily, aware that the warmth, relaxation and closeness they'd shared in the last little while had suddenly vanished again as it had never been there.

"Fine," she replied, just as coolly, and headed back to the bathroom.

Giles watched her go, aware that he would never look at the luxurious duck-egg blue bath sheet Xander and Anya had given him for Christmas one year, in exactly the same way, ever again.

*******


Los Angeles hadn't changed much. Buffy still didn't like it. The rental car was a dark green convertible. It had been a compromise. She got a convertible, he got to choose the colour. Nothing was going induce him to drive a pink car. Buffy had cajoled him into the upgrade, but Giles really didn't mind. There were times when he missed the two-door-tramp rather more than he'd ever let on.

When they walked into the lobby of the old hotel, they found themselves surrounded by packing crates, packing materials, piles of books, paperwork, files and stacked furniture.

An intimidating looking black man emerged from one of the rooms with his arms full of weapons.

"Ah, hey there. What can I do for y'all?"

Buffy gestured towards Giles, "Giles," and then towards herself, "Buffy."

"Oh, hey, cool. I heard all about you guys. I'm Gunn." He grinned at Buffy, equal parts admiration and sizing up. "So you're the Slayer?" His gaze slid to Giles. "And this is Wesley: the previous generation." Against his better judgement, Buffy had convinced Giles not to drag out his old stuffy suits and his shabby sweaters again. He looked every bit as good as the first day they'd gone out for lunch together, if not better...right down to the earring. "Except you don't look too previous to me, dude. You Watchers found some kind of 'cool' elixir or something? You ain't gonna believe Wesley these days."

"Pleased to meet you, Mister Gunn," Giles said evenly. "I believe Wesley is expecting me."

"Ah...wouldn't know about that. I just got back from a week in Vegas with Fred and Lorne. Angel and Wesley were here a while ago...and I don't think Angel would have gone too far this time of day...for obvious reasons."

At that moment the subject in question wandered down the stairs with an armful of cleaner bags packed with jackets and shirts.

"Buffy..."

"Angel," she grinned radiantly.

After a beat, Angel focused. "Giles, good to see you again. Wesley slipped out a couple hours ago to see a man about a demon...several...demons, actually. He's due back any time now. In the mean time, why doesn't Gunn take you over to the office and show you around?"

Giles' eyes narrowed as the vampire's gaze slipped back yet again to Buffy.

She in turn smiled warmly at him, then turned to Giles, the smile fading. "Or...you could stay here and wait." He followed her eye line down to his clenched fist and released it self-consciously before turning back to the younger man.

"Lead on, Mister Gunn," he said.

Buffy watched him go, confused. How weird was it that all she could think about was how upset Giles looked when Angel was right there in front of her? Angel, who never seemed to change. He was still wearing the same jacket with yet another dark shirt...relentlessly unchanging...except that he'd apparently gotten tired of gelling his hair. It didn't look so bad...maybe even added a few years.

"So how's the baking going?" He asked, as though unsure how to start a conversation.

She smiled wryly and caught herself looking at the door again. "Um...doughy."

*******


"Look, see, this is really cool. Wesley said you'd be blown away by this," Gunn enthused, placing a large volume in the Watcher's arms.

Giles turned the first page. Blank pages. He rolled his eyes. "Please tell me no-one has been scanning books into computers again...?"

"No, man...well, sorta. See, think of something rare...something you always wanted to read...you know, mystical, and tell it to the book."

Giles blinked at Gunn for a moment, wondering what the young man was on then sighed.

Gunn heard him say something in a demon language, but had no idea what it was. Still, he was more than satisfied with the older man's reaction when the words began appearing on the page, particularly with the colourful expletive Giles uttered.

"And I thought Wesley was awful potty-mouthed for a Watcher," he drawled, grinning. "They're all like that. I don't know what the rest of them do, but Wesley does. This is the only one he'd let me try. I actually work in a different department altogether..."

At that moment Wesley arrived and it took a moment for Giles to absorb the man who'd replaced the boy he used to know.

Wesley responded by looking him up and down. "I see we've both been breaking a few moulds."

"Indeed," Giles said wryly. "How is the search going?"

"Two hundred and eight-seven so far, from Newark to New Zealand. They're everywhere, Rupert. It's a bloody nightmare. Had one contacted in Saskatchewan just recently and by the time my emissary arrived back here another was detected... two streets away from the first one. We've already had our first reported suicide and two homicides: one in the Philippines and one in the South Bronx."

"Homicides?"

"Both victims of abuse who finally fought back. One didn't know her own strength, and the other didn't care..."

Giles closed his eyes. "We have a lot of work to do."

"Well, I'll do what I can, but you do understand that my primary job is here, running this department? I've already given an undertaking..."

Giles nodded. "Anything you can do is very much appreciated, at least until we can get some real and tangible infrastructure in place."

"Is anything wrong?" Wesley asked suddenly.

The older man met his vivid blue gaze. "Nothing, apart from another apocalypse and the deaths of a few friends. Why?"

"You seem...unsettled. It's not something I'm used to seeing in you."

"Yes, well, everything changes."

"Yes, it does," Wesley agreed. "Is there somewhere you'd rather be?"

That finally made Giles focus on what he was doing. "No, nowhere, except perhaps in my own home with..." The green eyes grew distant again for a split second then he came back. "...With a good book and a drink."

Wyndham-Pryce looked sceptical, but nodded. "Fine, then. We should get started on these plans of yours. If you brought your computer with you, or you have an address to which I can upload all the data we've collected so far...?" He handed Giles a hard-copy file. "I should tell you that we've only been able to locate seventeen active Watchers, three retired ones, one of whom is in a nursing home, and a number of operatives who were far enough under cover to avoid the First. They're the most difficult of all, because they're really only useful for espionage and, well, wet-works activities. Not all of them want to come and work for us. It takes a certain kind to handle that type of work and I'm afraid and very few of them seem to be as altruistic as the rest of the Council ...er...was."

"Your father?"

"Still listed among the missing," Wesley confirmed in a flat monotone. "Apparently there are at least a dozen sets of remains from the explosion at Council Headquarters of which there isn't enough left to formerly identify, and I haven't been asked to provide a DNA sample...yet. We know, however, that Travers, Danbridge, Summerside, Stanthorpe and Meadows were all in that building...and are, unfortunately, confirmed deceased."

Giles browsed the lists in the file. "Good God. That's half the inner Quorum. What about Michaelson? I heard he was in Scotland...?"

Wesley shook his head. "Both he and his two sons...car bomb about two months ago."

Giles swore under his breath, then rubbed the back of his neck with an agitated palm. "This is going to be far more difficult than I thought. Mabuto has already agreed to come out of retirement to take a senior position, but most of these names I'm not even familiar with. God alone knows how long since they've worked even with potential Slayers, if at all."

"My point exactly. We'll just have to organise an assessment process. I suggest sending someone to them, rather than assembling them, at least initially. We're more likely to get a better picture of who they are if we're assessing them in their own environment. The last thing we want is everyone on their best behaviour..."

The two men paused, their gazes meeting again, the sheer immensity of what had happened to their world, their heritage, haunting both sets of eyes.

Then the younger Watcher decided it was time to break the silence. "Let's continue this discussion while I take you on a tour of the firm. You must have a thousand questions, particularly given which firm exactly this is..."

Giles nodded and gestured for Wesley to lead, before following him out.

*******


Buffy watched Angel expertly making coffee and wondered what his life had been like with Cordelia and Wesley...and the hunk out in the lobby. They'd been immersed to the eyeballs in small talk ever since Wesley and Giles had left. She wasn't sure who was responsible but they sure as heck weren't having the kind of reunion she'd expected, or dreamed of over the years.

She was about to tease him about it when someone else came in. She leaped to her feet, ready to fight.

"Whoa, doll face...I come in peace," the demon said chirpily.

Angel sighed. "Lorne, this is Buffy."

"*The* Buffy?" Lorne waggled his eyebrows. "That one?"

Angel sighed again. "Krevlorneswath of the Deathwok Clan, meet Buffy Summers. Buffy, Lorne. He's part of the team."

"Wow, she is a hottie. Nice to meet you, sweet cheeks," he said, shaking her hand firmly, his eyes narrowing for the briefest of moments before he cleared his throat and grinned again. "Well, I hate being a third wheel so I'll just go find out what Fred's done with my clothes...and my CDs. For all I know, my whole life could be in a crate on the way to Nepal...or worse: Fresno, by now."

Buffy watched the larger-than-life demon saunter off before looking up at Angel. "Is he for real?"

"Oh yeah. Sings like an angel too...you'll forgive the expression. Empath demon. Big help around here...mostly."

"Oh. How many more bodies?"

"Well, Cordelia you know about, except you don't know she's in a coma right now after giving birth to Connor's child which turned out to be another hell god...and ...it's..." His tone flattened as he remembered that no one else would have any memories of Connor's existence. "...A really, really long story. We still don't know if they're going to be able to bring Cordy back, but she's in the best hands possible."

Buffy blinked dazedly. "Connor?"

Angel sighed. "It's a long story. He was...my son. Now I'm the only one who remembers him."

Buffy's head was spinning. "Son? You have a son? A-and he slept with Cordy? And she's in a coma, to go with one-eyed Xander, dead Anya and dusted Spike? And you're what? A...grandfather? Cordelia is your daughter-in-law? How icky is that?"

Angel, whose eyes had widened in shock at the mention of Spike, snorted.

"What...grandfather? It was a set up. Evil Cordy sleeps with Connor and they make a full-grown goddess? I don't think so. Jasmine manipulated everything, including the creation of Connor, to get here. What happened to Spike?"

Buffy blinked again. Angel always was good at getting back to the point...and away from one he no longer wanted to deal with.

"The medallion...it used his soul to defeat the whole army of the First and close the Hellmouth, but he was already flamey when I said good bye to him." Her expression grew haunted. "He...he didn't make it."

"So Spike saved the world, huh? God, he would have hated being the sappy good guy, although he would have lapped up the attention... at least before he got a soul..."

Angel froze, then turned slowly to Buffy. "We just had an apocalypse and a vampire with a soul saved the world...?"

"That about sums it up," she agreed, not sure why he was looking so... Stunned? Shocked? Nauseous? Something was making him look awfully green instead of his usual pallor. "Angel? Are you okay?"

"Oh yeah, I'm just dandy," he growled. Then he snapped out of it. "Sorry. I'll tell you about it sometime." He cast about for a moment for a change of subject. "So what was with Giles and the midlife crisis? I thought he already did that once..."

*********


Buffy blinked at yet another subject change. "There's no crisis, midlife or otherwise. There's just Giles...the real Giles, not the one stuck behind the glasses and the baggy sweaters. If anything, the old Giles was midlife crisis guy. You didn't see the real Giles take out six thugs in Bath...without me lifting a finger."

"Oh, I know how tough he is-" Angel stopped as abruptly as he'd spoken.

It only took Buffy a moment to realise why. "H-he was tough?"

Angel stared at her. Never before had she even wanted to be reminded that it happened, much less...

"He was amazing. He was making m-Angelus crazy, because he wouldn't-didn't break. In the end Drusilla had to trick him into giving her the information. Poor bastard."

Buffy grew very still. "What did she do?"

"She made him think she was Jenny."

All colour drained from her face. "After what he'd been through...you let her do that to him?"

Angel spread his hands helplessly. "It wasn't me, remember? When the demon's back, I'm gone."

Her eyes flashed. "I spent enough time with Spike, both souled and unsouled, to know that's not entirely true."

"It is for me," he insisted brusquely. "The psychotic persona is way too strong for any remnant of me to control. I'm sorry for what happened. I'll never stop being sorry, but I can't change it."

"I read about Angelus, and what he did to people," she said quietly. "I was actually snooping on Spike at the time, but you guys seem to have a pretty tight history, so there was a lot of stuff about you...actually way more than I ever wanted to know." Her expression grew dark. "If I'd found out you did even half of those things to Giles...and I'd known about it back then, I would have killed you myself, curse or no curse. Maybe that's why I didn't want to know. I didn't want anything to spoil the perfect romance. You coming back from hell, all redeemed after...everything...it made it all right. I didn't want anything to change that. *God*, I was such a child."

Angel's face became a mask. "Buffy, this stuff is all old history. Giles is past it, and so am I. Let it go."

Painfully aware of how much Spike's attempt to assault her, trivial compared to what Giles must have gone through, had affected her life and still did, Buffy's temper flared. "Yeah? Just exactly how do you get past it, Angel? How do you banish it from your nightmares? Make your hands stop shaking every time he comes near you or something reminds you...?"

Angel's eyes narrowed, but he couldn't find a way to frame the question he wanted to ask. "You just do. Enough time goes by, and you learn to deal. Giles did, probably for you, more than me. I still can't believe you asked him to go back to the mansion to take care of me, of all people, so soon after...I mean, that must have..."

She shrank visibly. "I didn't mean to...I couldn't think about anything except...you were dying, Angel. Nothing was more important than that. I had to find a way to save you...I didn't..."

"You didn't know..." He filled in. "You never wanted to know, Buffy. What's changed? Why so interested now? What's going on in that tiny mind of yours that makes Giles' feelings so important all of a sudden after all these years of not caring?"

"Y'know, I really don't need you, of all people, to point out my flaws. I am now painfully aware of each and every one. After a mutiny, screw-ups resulting in deaths, not to mention Xander losing an eye, and more recently evil show and tell with Giles, I am fully aware that I am sadly lacking in all and any admirable qualities except brute strength and a weirdly masochistic desire to keep going out there night after night..." She paused for a moment and frowned. "Except possibly not even that any more, since I'm not actually *the* Slayer these days. Weirdly enough you're about the only person I haven't actually hurt...beat me to it, there, kiddo, and what's even weirder is that I've hurt most of them pretty much because of you, one way or the other. Wow, scary: two epiphanies in one day. You think my head will explode?"

Angel's fixed expression faltered. "Xander's eye was not my fault," he said quietly, only too aware that his impact on her very young life had been unforgivable and tragic. She was 'damaged goods', and he was well aware that a very big part of that was directly attributable to him.

Buffy shrugged. "I'll give you that. Caleb was all mine. Put that one down to my sad lack of tactical skills and general stupidity."

"I'm sorry," he said simply.

"You're sorry? Angel, you pretty much destroyed my life and a lot of others. I know the soul thing isn't exactly your fault, but it is. Don't you get it? If you hadn't let Darla turn you in the first place, you wouldn't have become that bastard. You wouldn't have been so evil a bunch of Gypsies had to invent a whole new curse just for you."

"I didn't let..."

Buffy stared him in the eye. "Been there, know the deal. You have to want it, or it doesn't work...or maybe that's how you make yet another stupid minion for the Slayer to kill..." she speculated dryly.

He looked away. "Still doesn't mean that I chose to be what I became," he said softly. "Any more than Darla did...or Dru...or even your precious Spike."

Buffy bit her lip. "Leave him out of this. He was no different to you. Just as evil. Same spark of good in him. Except it took a curse to make you good."

Lost, Angel lowered his head. "Why are you doing this?"

"Because I didn't do it back then."

"I love you, Buffy."

"I love you, too," she replied sadly. "And I loved him. I really did. But it's not who I am...I was never yours, and I was never going to be his. I tried to tell you... me and my dumb cookie metaphors. Loving you was the most wonderful thing that ever happened to me...and the most terrible."

"And loving him wasn't?" Angel snapped.

"Spike? He came with the terms all spelled out, which is more than you did, and some of it was...wonderful...and terrible...but in the end it was all about pain again... It always is."

"It doesn't have to be," he said softly and crossed to her, put his hands on her shoulders. "I love you, Buffy. That's never going to change..."

She dropped her gaze. "You know, I didn't know. Not until right this minute...but it's over," she said sadly. "It's really over. I'm sorry, Angel."

"Who is it?"

"Who is who?"

"Don't play games with me, Buffy. A few weeks ago you were basking, remember. Now it's over? So who is it?"

"Why does there have to be anyone? I'm not the same person who started the fight against the First. Hell, I'm not even the same person who got on that plane three weeks ago."

Angel's eyes narrowed dangerously, but his voice remained even. "So...have a nice time in Merry old England?"

"I...did some...moulding," she said carefully.

He spread his hands. "I was kinda hoping were going to do some of that together, some day."

"So was I," she reminded him. "I remember being sixteen and big with the moulding and the dreams of us moulding together...and then a big old stompie-wompie vampire came and squished all my cookie dough...and then he went away. He came back, and I still kept dreaming about...moulding...about you and me. I lied to my friends, made choices that only made sense if you thought about cookie dough...hurt good people... and for what? So Mister Stompie-wompie could just walk away again...and leave all that cookie dough to go all mouldy and nasty?"

Angel's shoulders squared. "I don't know. It didn't seem to take you all that long to find someone else to knead your dough for you..."

Buffy didn't flinch. "Riley didn't knead. I wouldn't let him. I wouldn't let anyone. You...you did that to me. I was a child, Angel. Did you ever once think of that? I was dumb, yeah. As dumb as everyone says I was, but I was just a kid...and you broke me...smashed me up into little pieces...pieces I'm *still* trying to put back together."

The vampire shook his head. "I'm not Angelus. This...this is crap. We...we're forever, remember? What happened to that? What happened to that 'one perfect love' you always talked about?"

"It's still where it's always been: in my dreams. I'm sorry. I wish I could be the person you want me to be, but I can't."

"Why the hell not?" Angel demanded, his gaze flicking across her shoulder to the doorway as he spoke.

Buffy looked him in the eye. "Because I'm not a child any more, and daydreams and fairy dust just aren't enough. Because my baker was there all along and I just didn't know who he was..."

She turned slowly. "And this stupid cookie metaphor is starting to make my head hurt." She looked up at the figure in the doorway, her face lit at the sight of him, her eyes asking his tender ones the question.

He looked past her to the vampire for a long moment, nodded stiffly, then let his gaze slide back to hers, a slow smile lighting his face. When she smiled back, even more radiantly, he nodded the slightest of nods and extended his hand.

Angel watched the two hands join in what seemed like the slowest of slow motion, that hand...the slightly bent fingers being joined by her slender, perfect ones, entwining, before the two figures merged and walked away.

He wanted to scream, he wanted to rage against the poetry of justice, and most of all he wanted to stop her...wanted to kill him.

*One perfect love...*

He let them go.

* * *