The Wishes: A Christmas Story

Giles looked up from his concentration on the cookbook he had open while he was busily chopping vegetables and herbs. Somebody was knocking on the door. He wiped his hands on the cloth he used as an apron and took it off. The mere fact that whoever it was had knocked ruled out Willow, Xander or Buffy or combinations thereof.

"Are you going to answer the door or shall I?"

"Shut-up."

Spike smirked as the Watcher strode past.

"Hey, Giles."

Giles blinked. His doorway was filled with Christmas tree. A very large, lush, blue spruce if he wasn't mistaken, and among its branches were Xander, Buffy, and Willow.

"Are you sure you've come to the right place?" he asked dryly.

"C'mon Giles," Xander grunted. "This thing is heavy and there's not much Slayer strength happening back there."

He stepped aside and allowed them to struggle, three-stooges like, through the door and over to the fire place, Buffy bringing up the rear, rolling her eyes and guiding the trunk casually through the door with one hand, carrying a fistful of sacks and a large planter in the other.

Spike watched them with half-amused contempt. "Nice tree, kiddies. And let's not forget who else will be at the party this year when you're doing the presents..."

Giles turned, his brow down.

"I know...shut-up."

"Indeed. Now, why exactly do I have a whacking great tree in the middle of my living room?"

Willow turned from her arrangement of the tree in the heavy planter Buffy had carried in. "Well, we thought it would be nice...you didn't have a tree last year, or the year before..."

"Though I did manage one the year before that," Giles pointed out. "And I am quite capable of acquiring my own tree—”

"Well, sure, and you have been all festive lately, what with Halloween and all," Xander replied, "but we wanted you to...well, Willow thought...and I thought it was a cool idea..." He stopped, a half-sheepish, half embarrassed look on his face.

Willow, who had been watching the amused and somewhat touched look on Giles' face as Xander tried to explain and the wistful look that subsequently passed across it when he casually glanced at Buffy, rose and stepped in.

"We were talking and Xander's parents aren't doing Christmas this year, because, well, they say Xander's not a little kid any more and it'll save a lot of money, and I've never had one because, well: Happy Chanuka," she shrugged, "and you kind of haven't, not a real one, that is...here...either...so..."

"Yeah, Giles, it'll be nice," Buffy finally added, still playing with the sacks of decorations she'd brought in.

Giles stared thoughtfully at her bent head again for a moment, then turned back to the others and smiled. "It's a splendid tree. And it has been a very long time since I had reason to bother with the trimmings at Christmas."

Xander grinned like a little boy and Willow smiled back at Giles. Buffy looked up from unpacking tinsel and ornaments.

"Cool," she said, smiled brilliantly, and went back to what she was doing.

After a beat, Giles clapped his hands together. "Anyone for tea?" he asked.

Three hands went up.

"Hot chocolate," a voice added from the sofa. "With the marshmallows this time."

Giles slid it an irritated glance then smiled again. "Right," he said to the others. "And we might as well do it properly. Xander, somewhere toward the back of the record collection there are a couple of Christmas albums."

Spike looked at the remote control he'd just picked up then at the portable television Giles had left there to shut him up, rolled his eyes and threw it down the other end of the sofa.

Xander went to find the albums and Willow began sorting with Buffy, her eyes sparkling like a little girl's as she turned to her friend.

"So what are you getting everyone for Christmas?"

"Yeah, Slayer, what am I getting from Santa this year?"

Buffy ignored him. "I haven't really thought about it. Xander is chocolate guy so that's easy, and I have no intention of telling you what you're going to get...and mom is usually perfume or something else she wouldn't spend the money on for herself. Why?"

Willow's eyes darkened, the sparkle extinguished. "You didn't get Giles anything?

Buffy shrugged. "Not yet."

"What did you get him last year?"

"Giles? I didn't see him for Christmas last year. I'm pretty sure I bought him a tie, something not too barf-worthy I think. I gave it to him later...while we were patrolling, probably."

"You didn't visit on Christmas day?"

Buffy frowned. "I was kinda busy," she said defensively. "And I did see him Christmas Eve."

Willow's emerald eyes flashed suddenly. "I remember now. You asked him to ask him to help Angel...even after..." She sighed, then frowned. "That means Giles spent last Christmas alone. I thought for sure you...I spent the day with Oz. I mean we just got back together...and Xander had to spend it with his family."

"I tried to get mom to invite him over," Buffy offered, trying not to think about the Angel remark, "but she did this song and dance about Giles not wanting to spend Christmas with a bunch of girls. She took forever to get over that candy thing. What's the big? Giles isn't a kid. He can take care of himself. "

Willow was going to say something more when the rattle of cups interrupted them.

Tea was a noisy affair with prolonged discussion by Willow and Xander over the matter of gifts and Charlie Brown Christmas specials, and the cheerful sounds of the old Christmas album playing classics in the background.

Giles enjoyed watching them, particularly Willow, who'd never had a Christmas, and never admitted to being the slightest bit interested in the past. He suspected a very small girl in there somewhere who'd at some point listened with envy to schoolyard discussions about trees and Santa and presents and Christmas dinner...

He shifted his gaze to Buffy. For a brief moment his mind slipped back to a time before Angel was turned and the child she used to be, full of energy, cheek, and ...

"...I really miss the snow..." Xander was looking out the window. "I want the fire, the chestnuts, the chestnuts roasting on the fire, the snowman, the whole deal...I mean, I was lucky just to get back into the house last year...This year it'd be so cool..."

Buffy looked up, expressionlessly, from her drink. "No snow," she said quietly. "No Angel, no snow. Last year was a dream Christmas..." Her eyes grew very dark. "But dreams have to end. Now we're back to reality."

Giles rose suddenly, gathered the empty mugs and plates, and took the tray back to the kitchen. A moment later he was back, keys in hand. "I have to go out for milk and I'm out of dishwashing liquid," he muttered as he passed.

Willow watched him go then turned back to Buffy. "Dream Christmas for some, maybe," she said pointedly.

Buffy looked puzzled.

Willow scowled. "Xander was sleeping outside to get away from his family's fights, Oz...O-Oz and I were still trying to work out our problems and Giles..." She lowered her voice. "Don't you ever think about how he feels...ever?"

"Sure, I bought him the tie, didn't I? Think about him how? He's Giles. I slay. He researches. Between us we make the bad guys dead."

"She's got a point," Spike added in a bored voice. "He's not exactly Mister Excitement, you know."

And was completely ignored except for Buffy, who scowled at him.

"Oh, c'mon, Buffy." Xander sat forward, sudden irritation in his voice, his eyes. "What is it with you? Don't you think about anyone but yourself when you're not slaying?"

Buffy's eyes widened in surprise. "Xand?"

Xander shot a glance toward the front door, suddenly unsure of himself. He didn't want to hurt Buffy, didn't even know where the anger was coming from...except...

"You never..." He seemed to reconsider for a beat, before deciding that it was then or not at all. "You don't give a damn about Giles."

"That's not true," Buffy retorted, startled. "I—it's not true..."

"Oh, yeah?" Willow came back into the conversation, her colour suddenly high. "You took Angel to him when he was hurt, like it was nothing. A—And if you really did care, you just wouldn't have asked him to go to Crawford street no matter how sick Angel was."

Buffy's eyes widened, the grey-blue vivid above the violently flushed cheeks.

"And then you asked him to take care of Angel...right where Angelus tortured him. And he did it. Just like that...for you. And did you even give a damn?" Willow's eyes flashed, suddenly too large and overbright. "It was wrong, Buffy."

Her mouth opened and the colour drained from her face. She looked away.

"It's not just that," Xander said quietly, needing somehow to get it all said. "It's everything. We...Willow and me, we...okay, we love Giles...don't tell him I said that, but we do...and we notice things. Like, we used to notice when he was over-working himself, or worried out of his skull about you, or in the same suit for seventy-two hours because he was afraid to go to bed until he found whatever it was that you needed and knew that you were safe again. Thing is, you don't. You just don't even know he's there unless you need him for something or you want something and it bugs the crap out of me..."

"And me," Willow added.

Buffy stood up, dazed and smarting from the stinging accuracy of their observations.

"Why don't you just stake me and get it over with?" she snapped, having unpleasant flashbacks to her return to Sunnydale after fleeing the previous summer. "And how would you know anything about my relationship with Giles?"

"Relationship?" Willow said softly. "Buffy, since Jenny died, you haven't let your self have anything resembling a relationship with him. Bullying Wesley doesn't count and you know it. You hurt him...too much, too often...and you don't even notice...or maybe you just don't care."

"Me? Hurt Giles? He's the one who stuck me with a needle—!"

"And you're the one who ran off after your boyfriend tortured him half to death...who never called while he was having nightmares about that, about where you were, what you were doing, and chasing over half the country searching for you," Xander retorted, surprising even himself.

"A—And after all you put him through you couldn't at least tell him about Angel being back? I mean even when he found out, you didn't give a damn that you broke his heart. All you cared about was..."

"...Angel," Xander finished, "and yourself. Sure you're the Slayer. Big superhero... and yeah, it makes you different...And jeez, yeah, you've been through some really bad times...but, don't you see? He's not superman. He's just a guy, and he's been through a lot worse, because he's suffered all your pain and way too much of his own. And he's still doing it."

Willow shifted, wishing they could stop, that it had never started, but it had far been too long coming and there was far too much to say. It was as though someone had opened a floodgate somewhere...

"You know when Cathy was sucking your soul? I never saw him so distracted, worrying about you," she pointed out.

Buffy shook her head. "It must have been something else. I mean, when Olivia was there when we started college and I needed...when I went to see him...he tried to..." She stopped. He had tried to get her to think for herself, to be more independent...but he'd also spent a sleepless, apparently Olivia-less night after that...

She'd thought it funny at the time; funny enough to make fun of him when he'd come too late to help fight Sunday...

She swallowed.

Willow was watching her. "Exactly," she said quietly, wishing silently that Buffy would break free once and for all from the emotional holding pattern she'd been in since Angel had turned. Nothing had ever been the same since...

Buffy had pulled away emotionally from all of them, especially Giles, and had sought elsewhere ... elsewhere like Faith...what she no longer shared with them.


*******

The rosy-cheeked old lady turned from the aromatic meal she was tending and looked at her husband.

"What is it, dear? I can feel it from here."

He looked up at her and blinked, the heavy frown easing out of the otherwise smooth, round brow.

"Something..." he muttered. "Something important. You remember that child: Rupert?"

Her blue eyes twinkled. It always amused her when he did that. Of course she knew which Rupert, out of the thousands of Ruperts...She always knew.

"Yes, dear, I remember him. Dear little boy. Sensitive, loving child. Missed his mother terribly."

"That's the one. Stopped hearing him by the time he was ten. Haven't heard him since, until now."

"You mean he's never wanted anything?" she asked, surprised.

He chuckled. "Don't be silly, dear. Of course he has, but not anything he needed me to give him." The frowned returned.

"You're looking at his life," she guessed. "Don't upset yourself, dear." Then she frowned, her connection with her husband providing her with far too detailed a vision of Rupert's life. "Poor, poor boy," she whispered.

He nodded. "Paid for all his mistakes, hasn't he? And his father's. Pity he has to keep paying for young Missy's mistakes as well."

She blinked away tears. "He loves her. I think he'd let her go on hurting him forever if he thought he could keep her safe. He has a rare heart."

He smiled, smoothing his voluminous white beard away from the corners of his mouth. "He always did, even when he was lost. It's what makes him special, and what's responsible for this cacophony ringing in my ears. They're all wishing for the same thing..."

She nodded then. "They love him too. I heard them. There was even a passing thought from one I'd almost forgotten."

"William," he confirmed. "He doesn't even realise that he's grown to like Rupert. Demons are such complicated creatures, and I'm sure if he was well again he'd bite them all, but it did cross his mind genuinely enough for me to hear."

"He's a funny boy, that one. Given to such fits of nastiness, then he'll suddenly do something extraordinary. Of course it could be an echo of young Billy. He had a good heart too, for such a scallywag, before..."

"You're right of course, dear. And he was a little scallywag. I despaired of him. A terrible shame to lose him so young, but his heart does live on in our William... keeps that demon on its toes, that's for certain. It's young Missy I'm concerned about. She's been silent for such a long time."

"Frightened little girl," she said softly and turned to stir a bubbling stew.

"Yes..." he mused. "Frightened to reach out for what she wants most, for fear that she'll lose it...or that it'll be taken from her."

She turned back. "She doesn't think she deserves anything. I didn't see that before. Poor child. She thinks if she lets herself care too much she'll lose him too." She shook her head. “Are you going to do something special?"

He nodded. "I already am. I'm going to try and give them all their wishes...it's been far too long, for all of them..."


*******
"Aren't you getting a little heavy for such a festive occasion?" Spike's voice unexpectedly broke into the tense silence, dripping with sarcasm.

Willow looked up and met the vampire's rarely serious gaze. "Stay out of things you know nothing about, Spike."

"Ah well, that's where you're wrong, ducks. I know rather a lot about this subject. Y'see I was there when Angelus was playing his games with dear old Rupert." He flashed a speculative glance at Buffy, who was looking out the window. "I kept the games from getting too...rough, after Peaches there agreed to let me and Dru go."

"You were there when...when Giles was being tortured, and he still let you stay in his house?"

Spike rolled his eyes. "Well that's Giles, isn't it? Isn't that what you've been trying to tell the silly trollop? You know, I don't think she knows, even now, what her old boyfriend really did to him."

He proceeded to tell them all in long, cheerfully delivered, technicolour detail, including amused asides, watching Willow's eyes get larger and larger as they filled with tears, and Xander getting paler and paler before steadying a trembling Willow by drawing her back against his chest and putting his hands on her shoulders.

Spike slid a glance toward the window. The slayer's shoulders were tensed and he could smell her distress, but it wasn't until she trembled and slid slowly down to slump against the wall that he knew exactly how much she hadn't known, how successfully he'd wounded her.

He snorted. He should have known the great pouf wouldn't tell her...and the bloody Watcher...well, he was one of a kind, silent, self-sacrificing bastard, wasn't he?
He shook his head and wondered what made him bother to tell them at all. It unsettled him that he found himself liking Rupert Giles, had unsettled him when Angelus was torturing the poor bastard and he found himself rooting for the gutsy librarian, even before Bossy Buffy laid down her ultimatum. There was something compelling about the man. He shook his head again as the others crossed to where Buffy was still slumped silently.

Willow touched her shoulder "Buffy?"

She jerked it away. "Don't," she whispered hoarsely. "Just...I don't want..." She was on her feet then and heading for the front door. It started to open and she turned, fleeing upstairs, anywhere to escape, as Giles came inside with his sacks of groceries.

Willow and Xander halted in their flight after Buffy.

He looked from one harried face to the other. "You lot haven't been fighting?" he asked, sounding exactly like a teacher.

They nodded. "With Buffy. It was...kids' stuff," Willow said awkwardly and shot an annoyed glanced at the sofa when its occupant snorted loudly.

"Yeah," Xander went on. "We were arguing about the tree. Stupid stuff."

Giles frowned. "None of you are very good liars, but I trust you have a good reason for not wanting to tell me what it's about." He looked up the stairs, concern emphasising the frown. "Is Buffy all right?"

Willow bit her lip. "She'll be fine. I'll get her," she croaked and ran up the stairs.

Buffy was curled up on Giles' bed, but there were no tears, just an aura of incredible tension and an air about her as though the slightest pressure might snap her in two.

Willow sat down wearily, her face still pale and her hands not quite steady. "I know it was awful, but you can deal, right?" she asked tremulously. "Giles is back. Spike shouldn't have done that. I really didn't want...it took me a long time just to be able to talk to Angel again...and now..."

Buffy didn't look up.

Willow frowned. "A—And I'm sorry it...we...got so heavy down there. It was like...it was like a flash flood. We couldn't have stopped it if we'd wanted to."

Buffy sat up and faced her, her face very pale, her hands not quite steady.

"Just... leave me alone," she whispered.

Pain lanced across Willow's face, but she nodded and left.

Buffy watched the door close before her face crumpled and the tears finally came. At first they were hot angry tears of self-pity, echoes of her return over year ago still fresh in her mind, their angry faces, and even angrier voices; then those echoes faded against the memory of his face...standing there at his door looking down at her. He could have yelled, he could have slammed the door...he could have been as hurtful as the others...

Her heart scrunched up into a little ball. He hadn't done any of those things. After the stunned surprise, his eyes had shone with joy...with... She sobbed. And then he'd said those three simple words that had made everything all right, despite the turmoil, the ruins around her, and in her heart...

She wept for a long time, before finally pulling herself up off the bed. Her nose was running and her face was a mess. Giles had to have handkerchiefs somewhere...

She started with the bedside drawer, hopeful of a tissue box at least, and froze when she looked down at its contents. She picked up the card with trembling fingers. The picture was unmistakeable. She'd given it to Giles for his last birthday: a lousy cheap card with a picture of an arrangement of fruit and cheese around a bottle of wine. She opened it.

'To Giles, happy birthday, from Buffy,' she'd scrawled carelessly across it. It had no verse to speak of, just a couple of lines of lousy greeting card poetry. She'd forgotten his birthday, forgotten to buy a gift, as she had every year, and had only grabbed the card on the way to see him because Willow had threatened dire consequences if she didn't.

There were no other cards in the drawer, just an envelope with her name on. It contained another card. She drew it out almost fearfully.

A birthday card, a beautiful eighteenth birthday card, a figure skater in scarlet, in full flight on a frozen pond against a background of snow and blue sky, on the front of it. It had to have taken him forever to find one like it. Her hands were shaking almost too much to open it.

She read slowly, the tears crowding her eyes making it more and more difficult to read the long, sweet verse, let alone the long, painstakingly neat entry in Giles' usually untidy scrawl. It would have hurt him a lot to write so precisely...in January.

"Congratulations, Buffy," it said. "You've made it, in spite of everything that's been thrown at you since you were called. And now, finally, I can tell you how proud I am of that, of what you've accomplished, who you've become. No matter what happens, remember that. I will always be proud of you, will always lo...

He hadn't finished it. Spike's cruel imagery almost swamped her. Her hand shook, almost causing her to drop the envelope. Something fell out of it. Buffy focused on the small rectangles of cardboard and closed her eyes, unable to stop the sob that wrenched itself from her boot-heels.

Ice Show tickets...

She picked them up, shoved them back, and the card with it, put the envelope exactly where she'd found it and closed the drawer.

It took several minutes of concerted effort, and the use of several of Giles' handkerchiefs, located, finally, in the top drawer of the tallboy, before she was ready to go downstairs, both mentally and physically.

The others looked up from the tea Giles had made in her absence as she came down. She was still pale, and her eyes were overbright in an ill-looking way, but little else revealed the turmoil within.

"Did I get one?" she asked, as though nothing had happened.

"Uh, I'll get you one," Xander offered.

"Coffee," she told him. "Black, lots of sugar."

Giles, who was watching her with some concern, frowned and turned to Xander, who was heading for the kitchen. "There's a can of coffee in the refrigerator and a coffee pot...oh never mind, I'll do it myself."

Both Willow and Buffy watched him go before turning to each other.

"Never stops, does it?" Willow asked quietly.

"What?" Buffy asked, barely able to concentrate.

"Him worrying about you."

Buffy looked away. "Why are you doing this to me?" she asked softly.

Willow swallowed. That was a good question. It should have been done a long time ago, and there was just no good explanation as to why today, of all days...

"I...I don't know. I only know it had to be said. We love you, Buffy, but sometimes you can be—"

"Selfish? Self-involved?" Buffy offered hollowly.

Willow nodded. "You...you changed. You used to care about stuff...about us...about him, about whether he was happy, whether he was lonely. But...after Miss Calendar died, you stopped."

Buffy stared at her. It was true. After Angel tore out everyone's hearts that day... especially his...she didn't let herself feel. Not really. To feel would have been to give in to the paralysing pain, the emptiness...the guilt. All that mattered was finding the strength to kill Angelus...and after that, the strength just to go on...

"I...Will, I didn't know how else...it was so hard just surviving..." she said tremulously.

Willow stared back, suddenly in Buffy's shoes and not wanting to be. Surviving...is that what she'd been doing since Oz left...? She closed her eyes momentarily. "Buffy, I'm sorry. I know how hard it must have been, how hard it was, after Oz. It's just..."

"...Giles," Buffy whispered. "I know."

Willow opened her eyes, the dark emeralds probing Buffy's blue ones.

"I care about him, Will. I always have. You remember when he save my life...when Amy Madison's mother tried to kill me?"

Willow nodded.

"I thought he was like...total hero guy. I even developed a crush on him for a while. He was different back then..." she added wistfully. "Kind of cute and stuffy and fumbly, but I always knew where I stood with him...I always knew he'd..."

"...be there for you?" Willow finished.

Buffy nodded. "And then I turned Angel and so much changed. I changed...but Giles was still Giles." She stopped for a few seconds, a half smile on her lips, remembering his words in the car, in the rain, on her seventeenth birthday, unaware of the tear tracking a lonely path down the side of her face. "Then Jenny...Jenny died and he started to change too."

Willow sighed. The changes in Giles had been inevitable...perhaps as inevitable as the changes in Buffy...

She looked up at the rattling in the kitchen and the murmur of the men's voices. "They're coming," she said softly. "I think maybe we owe it to Giles to get this thing back into the Christmas spirit."

Buffy sighed a long, slow sigh. "Well, my bells have been jingled, that's for sure," she muttered as the coffee arrived then closed her eyes for a moment.

Xander had found cookies and she could smell the soothing aroma of Giles' Earl Grey...soothing because it was...Giles.

It had been, both in the library, and there, in his apartment, for as long as she could remember. The sense memory was almost overwhelming...flashes of so many moments in the library...especially the research parties...and the early times when just him being there, waiting, was reassurance enough after slaying, and in the mornings, after the nightmares. She didn't need to tell him about them, because they all went away when she walked into his office, to be enveloped by the tweed, the aromatic tea, the books...his cologne. Her brows knitted in surprise at that, but it was true...all those predictable, unchanging aromas and scents were Giles...were her security blanket for three years.

Now, except for the occasional waft of tea, they were all gone. Since Olivia he'd even changed the cologne...or maybe ditched it altogether for some minty sort of aftershave. Tears pricked her eyes again. How many more times could she wish that nothing had changed?

"Buffy...?" he was saying softly, holding a mug out to her.

She stirred, raised her eyes to his gentle ones and spontaneously smiled at the concern in them, unaware how much her heart and soul was in her face and her eyes.

"Thanks," she said shakily, and took the coffee.

Giles stared back for a long moment as she drank, his eyes gradually softening. "You're welcome," he whispered finally, and straightened, turned to pour tea for himself and Willow while Xander stomped grudgingly over to the couch with a mug of chocolate.


*******

"Did you hear it?"

He nodded. "But I can't make things the way they were...even for her."

She shook her head. "You know I'm not talking about that."

He looked up from the brass buckle he was polishing and grinned. "Just seeing if you were awake, mother. I heard. Coming along, isn't she? She's been waiting for someone to push her for a long time. I thought the others did a splendid job."

She chuckled. "Well, somebody did a splendid job," she said, looking over her half-lenses. The card was a wonderful thought," she added softly.

His face softened into lines of real affection. "I know. Two people never needed each other as much as those two did and yet neither of them had the least idea how to tell the other..." He sighed. "They both have such good hearts...under all those scars."

She blinked. "And yet they're both still so alone..." Her periwinkle blue eyes got a far away look in them behind the grandma glasses for a moment then she nodded. "At he least understands..."

"She will," he said thoughtfully. "She will..."


*******

Buffy wandered through the mall, avoiding strollers and small wailing children and wondering how hard it could be...

All she wanted was to make this year special, different, to find the right gifts, to make Willow proud of her...it was so much easier when she used to charge through grabbing whatever came to mind first for everybody...except maybe Angel...

She scowled. All she'd managed so far was chocolate for Xander. So far it was still the usual Buffy Christmas...she hadn't even been able to find a card. It had become almost a quest...to find the perfect card for Giles...only there wasn't one. From the stupid to the diabetically syrupy, there wasn't a single one that said what she wanted to say.

She stopped dead, a woman with a shopping cart swerving one way to miss her and an old woman muttering under her breath stepping to the other, to pass.

What did she want to say? Did she have even a clue? Her eyes grew very bright.

...No, she didn't...

When about the tenth person brushed by her, roughly this time, she finally started, and began walking again, oblivious now to the sights and sounds of the place.

After what felt like miles of trudging and peering in windows, she finally stopped at a small pawnbroker's shop, her attention caught by a pad of jewellery in the window, between the saxophone in its velvet lined case and the dusty piano accordion.

Inside the grizzled little man who ran it placed the piece of her choice in her hand. She turned it over several times, feeling it's weight, the coolness of the old metal, then found the catch with her thumb. It was as old as she thought it was, older perhaps. She was glad it wasn't engraved.

It cost most of her allowance, and part of the advance her mother had reluctantly given her, but it was now hers. It took her another two hours to finish her Christmas shopping, but she barely noticed, except for several sighs of satisfaction as she completed her purchases.


*******


Giles bent and put his parcels under the tree, went back to his methodical wrapping. Spike waited until he was hard at work trying to wrap a jar of chocolate-coated peanuts for Xander before nipping over to the tree to poke through the packages already under it.

After a beat he sat back on his heels and blew out an irritated breath, something he was good at despite not having to breathe.

"Won't do you any good," Giles muttered without looking up from the delicate job he was doing.

"Don't care anyway," he shot back. "Just wanted to confirm what hypocrites you lot were."

Giles snorted. "And what does one get the average blood-thirsty sadistic vampire for Christmas these days, pray?"

Spike rose from the tree and wandered across to the kitchen. "Oh, I don't know," he said dryly, trying to ignore the sudden rush of memories of cold, lonely childhood Christmases with little or nothing memorable or Christmas-like about any of them. "Dru and I used to have great fun with Christmas...she loved her dollies...and she used to give me music, clothes...a train set once...and we'd always find someone...er…" he cleared his throat, "...something good for Christmas dinner."

Giles shook his head without looking up, not least because he'd actually bought the quirky vampire a gift, simply, he told himself, because he was there, and because he knew that the soft-hearted Willow would expect them all to behave in accordance with the Christmas spirit. He looked at the small, flat packets. Spike hadn't shut up since he arrived about the music collection he'd lost, particularly when Giles played his own, not that Spike didn't approve of his taste, but Giles, who loved his collection, and music in general, could understand just a little the vampire's sense of loss.

"Well then you'll just have to wait and see what the day brings," the Watcher finally answered. "Put the kettle on, would you."

Spike rolled his eyes. "Typical. Insults, abuse, then 'put the kettle on, would you,'” he muttered as he ambled into the little kitchenette. He started filling the tin kettle, then paused, and grinned to himself. Among the packets of candy, cans of food, and other shopping on the cupboard waiting to be put away was a new jar of hot chocolate mix with little marshmallows already in. He shot a look over the breakfast bar at the Watcher's grey-sweatered back, shook his head and put the water on to boil.


*******


Joyce Summers closed the front door and turned to see her daughter sitting on the floor surrounded by wrapping paper and parcels, cards and tape.

“Buffy? You've really gotten into the Christmas spirit this year. You are still Buffy, right? No demons? No vampires? Nothing nasty is going to want to share my Christmas dinner?”

Buffy looked up. “Oh, ha-ha, mom. I'm with the Christmas spirit. I…” She sighed. “Who am I kidding? Mom, why didn't you ever say anything to me before? I can't believe how not with the people thing I've been since I became the Slayer. I mean I remember when I was little, all I wanted to do was give you guys things all the time…well, and maybe be given stuff back sometimes,” she grinned. “What happened to me?”

Joyce sighed. “Adolescence, the slaying. Buffy, you know you've always resented being the Slayer. I love you, but that resentment made you incredibly self-involved, even more so since Angel…well, left. I've tried not to interfere because I knew how much pressure you were under, how hard emotionally all that stuff has been, but there have been times when I could have just shaken you.”

Buffy blinked. “Yeah,” she said softly. “I guess there were. Mom…?”

Joyce looked down into the blue eyes looking up at her with an almost childlike plea for acceptance. “…Yes, Buffy?”

“You know I do love you…a lot…same as I love the guys, even if they don't think so?”

She smiled just a little and nodded. “Trouble?” she asked perceptively.

“Willow and Xander…they think I don't care about Giles…that I let him down too much…hurt him too much,” she finished in a whisper.

Joyce bit her lip. She knew the truth of that far better than either Willow or Xander, but she was fairly certain even Buffy didn't recognise it yet. “Then they don't know very much, do they?” she asked softly.

Buffy blinked, contemplated that for a moment. “No they don't,” she agreed and smiled a watery smile. “Except for the hurting part. Do hormones make you stupid?”

Joyce laughed. “No, but being the Chosen One can make you forget other things…important things, maybe even make you feel far too sorry for yourself for your own good sometimes.”

“You got a point,” Buffy conceded dryly and stood up. “A nasty, sharp point, but a point nevertheless. “Enough Buffy bashing; let's go make waffles. I need comfort food and maybe even some comfort drink.”

Joyce laughed again and led the way through to the kitchen, silently pleased to see Buffy finally showing signs of letting go of the past; of perhaps finally finding her true self among the clutter of scars and emotional baggage with which it was littered.


*******


Christmas eve was cold and brisk, the sky blue and clear, though the horizon boded likely for rain, piles of mash-potato clouds peaking ominously over it.

Buffy was still rubbing her hands together when Xander opened the door. He immediately took her overnight bag and the one with her gifts.

“Been here all day, huh?” she asked quietly as they went inside.

Xander looked over his shoulder and shrugged.

Buffy had enjoyed dinner with her mother and their gift-giving time, and now Joyce was looking forward to dinner at the restaurant with one of the single assistants from the gallery, on Christmas day. Buffy found Xander's parents…or at least Xander's father's…attitude inconceivable. It didn't seem fair that Xander should have two parents and yet way less real family than she had with one…

The room smelled wonderful…like pine and gingerbread and the lingering aroma of a traditional Christmas dinner.

Willow was in the kitchen baking, Spike lounging against a cupboard watching her while she worked.

Buffy looked around self-consciously. “Where's Giles?”

“He had a few things he had to do,” Xander told her. “He won't be long.”

She exhaled and nodded, then went to put her things under the tree with the big pile already under there. It was like a child's dream, so many small parcels and just enough large ones to spark the imagination and the kind of tree kids dreamed of, big, and decorated in brightly coloured ornaments and tinsel scavenged from her home, Xander's and what little Giles had in the hall cupboard from his one previous tree. There were no lights, but Buffy decided she loved it anyway, with its mismatched baubles and bent star on the top, silver, red and green tinsel overlapping all over the place where Xander had gotten creative.

She stepped back, the better to look at it and ran into someone. “Xander,
What…?” She turned.

“Giles…?”

“Hello Buffy. You were off in a world of your own when I came in.”

She was still practically leaning against him, her hand on his chest, when she realised and stepped back hastily.

“Sorry…I was…” She half turned and gestured toward the tree. “It's beautiful,” she said wistfully.

Giles smiled. “It is…festive…isn't it? I rather like it myself. Xander,” he said over his shoulder and handed the young man one of his sacks. “I brought you something for the tree.” He looked around. “Anya hasn't come back yet?”

“Wow…lights…flashing ones…” Xander beamed. “She'll be here. She wants to do her own shopping…and that's bad. Anya hasn't done Christmas before…I'm betting we wont see her again until closing.”

Giles turned back to Buffy when Xander went off to add the lights to the tree. “Your mother is well?” he asked.

Buffy nodded. “We had our usual twosome Christmas. A guy from the gallery asked her to have dinner with him at a restaurant tomorrow, so she's not going to miss me…besides it's a la carte.”

Giles laughed. “I think you're all mad, sleeping here in sleeping bags when you've got perfectly good beds at home, but as long as you are here…”

“SPIKE!”

They both turned toward the kitchen and Giles took two steps toward it, just as Willow whacked Spike with a wooden spoon.

”Hey, easy on there, ducks,” he whined, rubbing his knuckles and licking the gingerbread mix off them.

“Serves you right,” Willow snapped back. “Keep your hands to yourself…”

“You just looked so cute standing there, stirring…things…movin' about all…cute like.”

“All right, that's enough,” Giles interrupted. “Spike, put the kettle on and get out here where I can keep an eye on you.”

“All I ever do is put the bloody kettle on,” he muttered.

Buffy smiled when Giles turned back to her. “I better go help Will. Being groped by a vampire isn't going to help the gingerbread much, methinks.”

He chuckled. “I think not,” he agreed, but his eyes were a little sad. “Go and help her and Xander and I will entertain our resident pest.”

But Buffy really didn't want to go. It was nice, just talking…and for some reason, today he was wearing the cologne…

Willow straightened from putting a tray in the oven, throwing a last annoyed glance at Spike as he ambled out of the kitchen.

“Buffy…How's your mom?”

“Right now, probably watching Miracle on 34th street and sipping the last of the 'nog. We made with the festivities…dad even sent presents this year. She's kind of excited about tomorrow. This guy who asked her out, he's kind of around her age…sorta.”

“You mean like Giles?”

Buffy's eyes widened momentarily. “No… Noah's sort of, well, old, like mom. Giles is…he's…well he's not like Noah…”

Willow had seen Noah Morris cataloguing exhibits at the gallery, when she last went with Buffy. He was perhaps two or three years older than Giles at the most, average height, build and his fairish hair was thinning. Indeed, Giles was not like Noah, but age had very little to do with it…

She smiled, then her eyes grew serious and dark and she sought the other girl's gaze. “You okay?” she asked quietly.

Buffy nodded, trying not to think about the several still-vivid nightmares she'd had. “I'm dealing. When you're right, your right,” she shrugged. “But Spike is really begging to dance with Mister Pointy. I can't believe I ever kissed him, even under a spell. Eaaagh.”

“Then you aren't mad?”

Buffy's eyes warmed with affection. “I've had time to get over mad,” she admitted, “and to move seriously into self-loathing and even a little soul-searching.”

They both giggled, finally breaking the slight tension that had been there since Buffy came into the kitchen.

“Did you find anything?”

Buffy paused, unconsciously looked out at the figure patiently untangling strings of hopelessly tangled lights for Xander while Spike flicked channels. “Apart from more self-loathing? Yeah...actually…a lot…”

Willow smiled. “Good,” she said softly, a wealth of meaning in the single word.


*******


“Do you think she can do it?”

He nodded. “With a little more help from us.”

“Good.” She lifted the cookies from the tray and slid them onto a cooling rack. “Now finish your drink and get yourself out of my kitchen.”

He chuckled and stole a hot cookie. “I'm going. I just thought you'd want to know. You seem to have gotten very attached to both of them.”

“Of course I want to know. They're unique, those two…well, all of them, actually. You have to help them.”

He chuckled again at his wife's version of a ferocious glare.

“Well, then, maybe this year you're going to get a wish too.”

Her face wreathed into smiles. “Just don't let any of them be hurt, dear. They should all have peace, at least this once…”


*******

Buffy looked around the room. It was lit now just by the green table lamp she'd always detested. Xander was on his elbows, body buried in his polar sleeping bag on the floor, Willow was curled up on the sofa, dozing, her head against Giles' shoulder. At the other end of the couch Spike was sprawled comfortably, also intent on the television screen. The room itself was redolent now, on top of everything else, of newly made popcorn.

The guys had sat patiently through Sleepless in Seattle for Will earlier with less than marked enthusiasm—except for Spike, who was more than a little taken by Meg Ryan, or possibly Meg Ryan's neck—and were now well into The Thing, with all the enthusiasm of small boys on a sleep-over.

“Great Christmas viewing,” she sighed, wondering why they needed to watch pretend monsters after all the real ones they'd seen and fought. Her eyes slid back to the sofa again and narrowed when they lighted on Spike's finely chiselled profile. Not going there again, she told herself and let her gaze shift to the other end.

Giles looked relaxed and happy, even sleepy, occasionally dipping into the depleted bowl of popcorn on his lap as he watched, and, she realised, not the least concerned about Willow sleeping on him.

That her stomach had tightened and she felt irrationally annoyed about that, were things she chose to ignore. Never mind that in all the years they'd been together he'd given off nothing but heebie-jeebie signals about people invading his personal space…

She snorted softly and got up, ostensibly to go and make herself a drink, but at that moment someone knocked on the door. All three men looked up just long enough to see Buffy standing, before turning back to their film.

She made a face at them and went to answer the door. Anya's arms were loaded with sacks and packages. She struggled noisily into the apartment and Buffy closed the door behind her, shivering at the blast of cold air that had followed the other girl.

“God, it's so cold. Sorry I'm late,” Anya said. “Where's Xander?”

Buffy smiled in spite of herself. “On the floor watching the movie. It's a boy thing. Want a hot drink?”

Anya nodded. “You have no idea what a jungle it is out there. Those people are insane.”

“Sounds like the Christmas rush to me,” Buffy said dryly, heading for the kitchen.

“Where do I put this stuff?”

“Gifts under the tree, food in the kitchen, personals in the bathroom. Sleeping bag where you can find a space,” Buffy recited in a very Giles-like fashion.

When she returned with a mug of tea for Giles and chocolate for Xander, Anya had rolled out her sleeping back next to Xander's and was already snug under his arm, and as engrossed in the film as the guys were.

Buffy rolled her eyes, toed Xander in the ribs and handed him the chocolate, then went back and touched Giles' shoulder.

He looked up slowly, saw the tea and smiled at her. “Thank you,” he said softly. “Bored?”

She nodded. “Maybe I should have patrolled after all.”

He shook his head. “Not tonight,” he said, without qualification. Neither of them needed one. Tonight she was to be safe. Tonight there was to be no worrying about whether she would come back or not.

She nodded. “Not tonight. How's the movie?”

He grinned ruefully. “Execrable. Like a train wreck.”

Buffy snorted, choking a giggle so as not to wake Willow. “I thought you were riveted.”

He shook his head, and looked down at the tousled one on his shoulder. “Less riveted to the screen, more riveted to the spot,” he mused, tenderness and affection in his voice.

Again Buffy's stomach tightened. “I have to get Anya's chocolate,” she muttered.

When she came back Willow was asleep on a pillow in Giles' corner of the sofa, Spike had sprawled out even more and Giles had vanished. She gave Anya her drink, Xander her own and went to look for him.

It was only when she was back near the entrance to the kitchen that she realised she was over-reacting. Just because he wasn't there didn't mean anything was wrong. He was probably in the bathroom. Jumpy, much

She looked down the hallway, but there was no light under the bathroom door. She frowned. What was with her, anyway? Still, she went to the stairs and climbed to the landing, looked up at the loft door. No light up there, either.

He was out on the terrace. Buffy found herself letting out a too-long held breath when she saw the familiar silhouette in the moonlight, hands in pockets, head back as he gazed at the night sky.

She came silently to stand alongside him and looked up. The sky was ablaze with stars, as bright as she'd ever seen them in Sunnydale, though the northwest quarter was now little more than a purplish-grey blanket of cloud. Her gaze moved to his profile. He didn't seem to be upset or worried, just…distracted.

After a beat he looked down. “Something wrong?”

Buffy swallowed the lump that rose in her throat. “I was going to ask you that,” she managed, even achieving a light note in her voice.

He shook his head. “No, everything seems very much to be right today. I suppose if anything, I'm afraid it won't last. We, all of us, seem to be destined to pay a high price for even the smallest slice of happiness, and I don't want this to be spoiled for them.”

No, neither did she…

“It won't be,” she said softly. “I won't let it.”

He smiled then, his warm breath visible in the cold air.

For just a moment their gazes held, then Buffy shivered, sweater-less and shoeless in the chill. They both looked away self-consciously, both looked up again, but Buffy's teeth had started to chatter.

She was about to suggest they go back inside when Giles' arm slid around her shoulders and drew her close to his side. He was radiating warmth, despite the chill, but Buffy didn't notice. Nor was she cold any more. The sudden flush of warmth that spread through her even brought rosy colour to her cold cheeks.

Terrified of saying or doing anything to spoil the moment, Buffy leaned against him and closed her eyes, happy to stay there forever, if she could. For a time it seemed as though forever was on the cards…neither of them moving or speaking, until the back door opened and Spike came down the steps into the court-yard complaining about the cold, the others taking all the blankets and Willow taking his bed.

Instantly they were apart. Even as Spike whined to Giles about the sleeping arrangements Buffy felt bereft, alone…more alone than she'd felt since the day Angel told her he was leaving. She looked up at Giles' profile as he listened to the vampire, wondering what he was thinking…if he felt…

And then his eyes slid momentarily to hers and she didn't have to wonder any more. A smile flickered on his lips, and hers.

“Go in out of the cold,” he said softly when Spike paused between complaints. “We'll be right behind you.”

Buffy smiled, her eyes glowing in the silvery light. “I'll get Xander to help me move the tree so we can have a fire,” she said and turned for the door.

“First good idea I've heard,” Spike muttered as she left. “It's not fair, Giles…you know I sleep on the sofa. She's got a sleeping bag…why does she have to sleep on my sofa…?”


*******


Buffy woke Christmas morning to the smell of wood burning, bacon and egg cooking, the low murmur of voices and stiff, sore shoulders from sleeping on the floor, expensive sleeping bag notwithstanding. She looked around. Xander was still fast asleep, but it seemed strange to see the extrovert she knew curled up so tightly into a foetal ball of body, pillow and sleeping bag.

Everyone else was up. She blinked a few times and stretched her shoulders, pulled herself out of the bag, the events of the previous evening replaying themselves as she pulled her night-shirt down and headed for the bathroom, only to stop at the entrance to the kitchen, nonplussed, thoughts about the feel of Giles' arm around her shoulders, the sheer comfort of being together like that, driven clean out of her head by the incongruity of a vampire tending a frying pan.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“What does it look like I'm bloody doing? They're all outside playing. 'Look after the food, Spike,' she said. 'Please,' she said. So I am.”

Buffy's head tilted to one side. “Willow asked you…? Wait a minute…playing? Giles? And Anya…and Willow? What do you mean playing?”

Spike deftly turned a soft egg. “Look out the window, ducks. And you might want to wake Sleeping Beauty there, too, since it was his idea in the first place.”

Buffy looked out of the narrow window in the corner of the living room and drew a sharp breath.

Snow…

Tears pricked her eyes as she stared at the soft flakes that continued to drift down. She'd been so wrong…about so many things…

“Xander.”

He stirred, opened his eyes reluctantly and blinked.

“Buffy?”

She smiled down at him. “Merry Christmas,” she said as he shook his head and pulled himself up to a sitting position, then impulsively put her arms around his neck.

He reciprocated instinctively, bemused. “Merry Christmas, Buff. Where is everyone?”

“Outside,” she told him, leaning back a little. “You made snow,” she told him brightly, then grew serious. “Xand—”

He searched the grey blue eyes. “Yeah, Buff?”

“I'm sorry.”

His dark ones grew very gentle, then very bright. “I know,” he said softly. And smiled a moment later, when she hugged him again, this time ferociously, and returned the embrace.

“We should be out there,” he said when they finally drew apart. “They're probably having major fun without us.”

“Did you bring snow clothes?”

He shook his head.

“Me neither,” Buffy pouted. “I've got jeans…I know, we raid Giles' closet. He's got all those old sweaters.”

When Buffy and Xander tumbled out into the soft light of the overcast morning it was to find the other three brushing snow off each other, a half-built snowman looking the worse for wear and the roof and hood of the citroen covered in snow.

Giles' eyes narrowed when they reached him. “I see you two didn't waste any time wondering what to wear.”

Buffy grinned up at him, her face shining, her barely-brushed hair wild and loose around her shoulders like a little girl.

“Well, we knew you'd probably mind, but it was this or freeze.” She modelled the baggy grey sweater, hanging almost halfway down her thighs, over her jeans. “How do I look?”

“You'll do,” he said dryly, and deposited a large chunk of snow down her neck on her last twirl.

Spike heard the squeal in the kitchen.

Giles didn't realise he could still run so fast, Buffy chasing him past the car and across the street with a huge snowball while the others looked on, Willow with shining eyes, Anya with amusement and Xander grinning from ear to ear.

They were both laughing when she caught him and brought him to ground, only stopping just as she was about to shove the icy snow up his sweater.

He was breathing hard, his green eyes shining, face flushed red both from the exertion and the merriment as he looked up at her, and her own rosy cheeks, brilliant eyes and steaming, puffing breaths.

“You deserve this,” she said menacingly, then dropped it and grinned again. “But I think you've had enough, old guy. I don't want you to burst a valve or something.”

“Is that right?” he said, devilment of the moment in his eyes, and rolled her over, tickling her ribs until she shrieked with laughter and finally used all her slayer strength to grab his hands and stop the onslaught. They were still laughing when their gazes met and held.

Buffy grew very still, her half-frozen hands tightening around his equally cold fingers.

There were a thousand things she wanted to tell him, a million things that had to be said and suddenly there were no words for any of them.

Giles stopped chuckling and his brow furrowed worriedly, his eyes asking her silently if she was all right. He also tried to move from where his knees straddled her legs, so that she could get up.

In response she pulled the hands a little closer, a little tighter, her eyes growing very bright.

“G…Giles, I…” she croaked tremulously. But the past lodged firmly in her throat, silencing her again.

Surprised green eyes searched her despairing ones for a moment, then the frown vanished and they grew warm and almost as bright as hers. He smiled gently, and waited until she smiled back. Then he leaned back, used his knees to push up and pulled her to her feet as he stood, drew an arm around her when she finally relinquished his hands and turned her gently back toward the others.

Buffy closed her eyes as they walked, curling an arm around his waist as his arm tightened around her.

The others had finished the base of the snowman, but they hadn't gotten much further because Xander and Anya were wrestling in the snow, Willow rooting for Anya at the top of her lungs.

Willow turned when the pair came into view, waved and smiled. Something was happening, something good. She could feel it, but it was happening awfully slowly…

By the time Buffy and Giles reached the group the other two were brushing themselves off sheepishly, still poking each other occasionally and giggling over whatever dispute had caused the wrestling match in the first place.

“Time to do the tree?” Giles suggested easily, tightening his grip when Buffy attempted to move away.

Surprised, but pleased, she leaned back into him, not entirely because of the rush of cold air when they had almost separated…

Everyone started talking at once, but Buffy's eyes were only for Giles, watching the familiar profile as he joked and talked. She'd never seen him so relaxed, so…happy…she'd also never seen him from quite that angle before, either. She decided she liked it as they all trudged back to the apartment, stomping snow off as they crossed the courtyard and climbed the steps to the door.

When they tumbled into the house, Giles finally releasing Buffy as they shed boots, coats and damp sweaters—most of which belonged to Giles—they discovered that Spike had revived the fire and laid breakfast at the big table Giles had resurrected for Christmas eve. A few steps further in they discovered the vampire himself, sitting in the middle of the living room floor surrounded by wrappings and gifts.

“Spike, you were supposed to wait for the rest of us,” Willow half-scolded, half pouted.

“I only opened mine,” he said reasonably, still playing with the slinky Xander had given him. “What was I supposed to do stuck in here all alone? You said you weren't going to be very long.”

Willow sighed. “Well, you've had your fun now, haven't you? You might consider saying thank you, though.”

“Oh hey, Giles, thanks, man,” he obliged, picking up the punk-rock CDs. “Can I play them later?”

“Much later,” Giles agreed.

“And I don't know what this is, but whoever gave it me…it's cool,” he said, making the slinky walk over the packages he'd set up for that very purpose. Then he turned a little and picked up some very brief, bright red boxers. “And I don't know who's mind isn't where it ought to be, but these are the right size, so thanks,” he smirked.

Anya cleared her throat, drawing glare from Xander and surprised, goofy grins from everyone else.

“And this, I know, came from Willow the witch. He held up his new mug, inscribed with the words: 'Kiss the Vampire,' in red script against the black of the mug.

“A…A friend did it for me,” she explained, and when everyone looked at her: “Well nobody makes them with vampires on,” she added sheepishly.

“Well I like it,” Spike told her and smiled. “His Nibs can have the other one back now.” He reached down and picked up the last item. “And then there's this,” he said quietly, looked for and found the slayer's gaze.

“You didn't have to, you know. I am a bastard, and I know it…mostly I even like it…I didn't expect you to…”

Buffy shook her head. “It's nothing , and I didn't want Willow to yell at me again.”

“Yes well, I know what that's like,” Spike muttered, drawing a glare from Willow. “Still,” he said, turning the glass snowball in the firelight. “I don't know how you knew.”

“Knew what?” Xander asked.

Spike seemed to rouse from wherever his mind had drifted to. “Never you mind,” he said a little shortly and flicked his gaze back to Buffy. “Thanks,” he said quietly.

Buffy shrugged. “You're English. Giles said once you were from some part of London, when I asked him why you don't talk the same. The old lady in the shop said that was supposed to be the East end of London, way long ago. I didn't know what else to get.”

Xander clapped his hands together impatiently. “So, now that we've gotten fang boy out the way, how about we get down to the good stuff…and can I be dad?”

Everyone giggled, except Spike, who was staring into the tiny vista in the snowball, and Giles who smiled and nodded tolerantly.

Xander beamed and punched the air and everyone moved to gather around the tree.





Anya claimed the armchair, closest to the tree and Xander, Willow settled on the floor to look at Spike's snowball and Giles lowered his long frame onto one end of the sofa, a thought gingerly after Buffy's rugby tackle in the snow.

Behind him Buffy stopped for a moment to watch Willow shaking the snowball and grinning like a little girl as it blizzarded on London and the tiny children playing in the tiny street. Then she turned to sit down and found Giles watching her as intently as she'd been watching Willow.

For a beat she hesitated, then he lifted the hand of the arm he'd stretched along the back of the couch and nodded almost imperceptibly. Her eyes glowed and she went and curled up on the seat next to him just as Xander came charging across with the first armful of gifts, handing one to each person bar Spike before falling on his own with gusto.

Willow was first up, bouncing up to kiss Giles and to thank him for the book she was holding.

Buffy wrinkled her nose. “Looks old,” she said, “like one of yours.”

Giles nodded and smiled at Willow, who twinkled back knowingly.

“One of the ones he used to hide in the filing cabinet,” she said softly as Anya fell on Xander's neck cooing about the lingerie he'd given her.

Buffy looked from one to the other and grinned. “So we grew up.”

Giles nodded and grinned at both of them. “Most certainly,” he agreed, still unpicking the tape on the gift on his lap.

A moment later Buffy put down the perfume Anya had given her and took it from him, ripped the wrapping off and handed it back. “It's Christmas, Giles. Fun, remember?”

He lifted the lid of the small, flat box, lifted an eyebrow, trying not to chuckle, and closed it before Buffy could see more than a sheen of black. He looked up and found the giver, who was now watching him intently.

“Thank you, Anya,” he said, twinkling.

She grinned back happily and went to see what Xander had.

“No fairs,” Buffy and Willow said at the same time, but he just grinned. Willow shook her head and wandered over to look at Anya's lingerie, and perhaps even to find out what Giles was hiding…

Xander rose slowly and stepped around Spike to reach Buffy, carrying his gift. “Buffy…” he said, grinning, and held it up. “Thanks for the candy, but this…how? How did you know?”

“Xand, you and Oz...the Superman thing. No big,” she said, smiling at him. “Honestly. It was mine. I wouldn't tell that to another living soul, so if you repeat it to anyone…” she warned. “Truth is it was my dad's, and my grandfather's before him. I just…I wanted you to have it.”

Xander looked down reverently at the carefully sealed collectible comic book and grinned, then looked searchingly at her. “It's just…wow. Thanks,” he said softly.

They gradually worked their way through the packages under the tree until the room was awash with wrapping paper.

Buffy surveyed the couch. A bottle of French perfume from Anya, a coveted makeup kit from Willow, a box of decadent candy from Xander, Giles' secret box from Anya, a digitally remastered compact disk of one of Giles' favourite albums from Willow, and now an old record album from Xander, held reverently in Giles hands as Xander watched, smiling from ear to ear.

“Will helped me find it on the 'net,” he confided. “It took months, but we—she found it.”

Giles looked up, genuinely moved. “I don't know what to say,” he said softly. “All these years…I never expected to see another one of these.”

Xander shrugged self-consciously. “You said it was the only one you didn't have…”

“It was,” he said softly, eyes very bright, stood up and extended his hand. “Now, thanks to you, I have all of them.”

Buffy looked from one to the other and remembered what Xander had said about he and Willow and how they felt about Giles. It was obvious that he badly wanted Giles' approval, but Buffy had first hand experience of how hard it could be to win or earn that particular item...

Xander shrugged again, took the hand and started to shake it, looking up slowly, almost timidly. Buffy suddenly hated his family with a vengeance.

She never did work out who moved first, but it was something to see the two of them hug, Giles resting a hand on the back of Xander's neck with a remarkable lack of self-consciousness until Xander himself chose to let go, grinned sheepishly and backed away.

It wasn't til after the boy had turned to investigate the adult board game Anya was playing with Spike that Giles sat down again.

”That was nice,” Buffy said softly.

Giles nodded. “I'd like to kill his father, preferably with Mister Pointy, and preferably very slowly,” he said, almost harshly, pausing only to smile at Willow who was handing out the last round of gifts and to take the small package from her.

“Me too,” Buffy agreed, surveying the package Will had handed her. It was from Giles. She shot a sideways glance at him but he was engrossed in watching Anya trying to get Spike to pay a penalty in the erotic board game they were playing, much to Xander's obvious annoyance.

She opened the gift very slowly. Inside was the card from upstairs, a carefully wrapped porcelain figure and two brand new ice show tickets for a big show in Los Angeles in less than a month's time.

Buffy carefully removed the tissue from the figurine, her hands not quite steady, and lifted it free of its packaging. She was beautiful.

Buffy knew her intimately. She'd seen her dozens of times at the mall, drooled over her for her mother's benefit without ever convincing Joyce to buy it for her. Not that Buffy really blamed her. It was a collector's piece, limited in number and beyond her mother's purse even if she had wanted to get it for her daughter.

She closed her eyes, blinked back a surge of tears then clutched the tiny figure-skater close, tickets and card still in her other hand, and slipped away, unnoticed by the others, all four now deep in good natured bickering over the board game, Willow taking Anya's side, Xander, Spike's.

Giles, however, unnoticed by Buffy, had watched her from the moment she began opening the package and had seen both the glow of pleasure and the tears. He looked after her for long seconds when she disappeared up the stairs, before sighing and opening the small package from her.

He took the silver pocket watch from its tissue, and turned it over in his hand. It was old, and it still had its original fob. His thumb found the catch and it sprang open. Instead of a picture, it contained an inscription.

He read it and swallowed hard. Then he read it again. And again. Then he rose, his eyes glistening with moisture, and turned for the stairs.

*******

“Did you have a good trip this year, dear?”

He eased off his boots and sat down in the arm chair. “Perfect, as usual,” he told her. “Though I saw far too many things I wish I hadn't.”

“As always,” she said sadly, then smiled again. “You gave them what they wanted.”

He chuckled. “Still thinking about them? Yes, going well, isn't it? All the boy ever wanted was a real Christmas, and a real father.”

”And the little girl just wanted to grow up.”

He nodded. “Rupert handled both rather nicely, I thought.”

She sighed. “He loves them all, you know…well, perhaps not William or Anyanka…but we can forgive him that. Still, you even managed something for William…and Anya is so happy because she feels like she fits in for the first time…You see, I am still thinking about them. Especially Rupert. They're so close, those two, but they don't quite see it yet.”

He drew off the heavy coat and belt, threw them over the arm of a chair. “That's because they're still thinking the way they did yesterday, and the day before that, and the year before that…and so forth. They're defining what they're feeling in terms they're expected to define them in, instead of really listening to their own hearts.”

“Are they…Will they…?”

“I can't do that for them,” he said ruefully. “I can only make it possible for them to do it.”

She picked up her knitting again and settled back in her chair, sighing. “Then I'll just have to wait, won't I?”



*******

Buffy was lying on his bed, her eyes closed, one of his old jackets in one hand, the porcelain figure and the card clutched in the other.

Giles sat alongside her and gently removed the tweed jacket, dropping it on the floor. She opened her eyes and looked up at him.

“H…How can you love me?” she whispered, collected moisture finally spilling down flushed cheeks. “I h—hurt you…you should hate me. I hate me.”

He opened his palm so that she could see the open watch, the simple inscription: Giles. I love you. Buffy.

“I could ask you the same question,” he pointed out gently. “How can you love me…after…after I betrayed everything we were to each other, the very core of our friendship, for a test that almost killed you, your mother…?” His eyes had grown very dark and his voice trembled.

She pulled herself into a sitting position and unconsciously put a hand on his sleeve. “Because you're Giles,” she whispered.

After a moment of surprise he took the slender hand in his, let it go and pushed back the rumpled blonde strands flowing loose from the normally immaculate head, letting his fingers trail down one of her flushed cheeks before he spoke again.

“Oh Buffy…” he said softly. “If you only knew…”

“I do know, and I don't care, not about Eyghon or Travers or Ripper. I love you. I've always loved you. I just didn't know…until now… I didn't know how much...” Her eyes, still frightened, searched the green ones for any sign of disapproval, withdrawal, but found only tenderness and warmth. She swallowed and went on.

“I didn't know how much I hurt you, how stupid I've been. Everything I love goes away…at least everything with a Y chromosome,” she digressed wryly for a moment, “and I didn't want you to go away…” Her face grew very serious again, her eyes bright with the overwhelming strength of her feelings. “Not ever…”

For a long moment he didn't say anything then Buffy realised his eyes were filled with tears.

Except for Jenny, Giles didn't cry. Not really. It hurt her more than she believed anything could or would again…to see him like that.

She touched his face, tried to brush the moisture away. “Don't,” she whimpered, and put her arms around his neck, her face against his. “Don't. I love you so much. Please…I'm sorry…I'm sorry…”

Giles made a noise and put his arms around her, pulled her close.

Buffy sobbed and turned her head slightly to kiss his cheek. “I love you,” she said again, as though afraid he might withdraw, or send her away, then drew back enough to tell him again to his face and found herself just millimetres from his mouth. Without even thinking, she kissed him.

For a moment his mouth responded to hers, then both of them were pulling back, stunned.

She saw the fear in his eyes, mixed with desire and tears and knew suddenly why she'd done it, why he'd let her…

Slowly, wonderingly, she traced his jaw with her fingers, until she reached his lips, traced them even more slowly then brought her soft mouth back to his.

“I love you,” she whispered and covered it again with hers.

For a moment Giles seemed to hold himself rigidly out of time, as if he needed to be convinced he wasn't dreaming.

But he wasn't dreaming. It was real...He gave in, taking her in his arms, kissing the soft mouth with all the love he'd kept locked away in his heart for so long.

She kissed him back with the same hunger, overwhelmed by the joy of being in his arms. Somehow, it was right, more right than anything in her life had ever been…could ever be…

When he lifted his head to look at her she raised sparkling eyes to his. “It is okay…isn't it?” she asked tremulously.

He nodded and smiled reassuringly. “Are you afraid?”

She shook her head. “But Buffy and wanting are un-mixy things when it comes to you…” she said softly, fearfully, and reached out to touch his face, “…and I won't hurt you again.”

“Then you don't want…?” he asked quietly, and just as fearfully.

Within the blink of an eye Buffy took his face in her hands. “I want more than I actually care about breathing right now,” she told him, her voice trembling. “Did you know that need and want and…love could all be the same thing…?” she asked, amazed by the sudden revelation that there had never really been a time when she didn't love him.

In reply he covered her hands with his, drew them away and kissed her mouth with a gentle passion that took her breath. It seemed to go on forever, as though their two souls were linked forever in that one seemingly infinite moment.

“Yes,” he said when he finally lifted his head.

Buffy looked up at him with her heart in her eyes. “Then I need you with all my heart,” she told him. Then she smiled again. “So, do you think wanting to love you more than anything in the world is okay?”

He laughed and caught her to him, exultant as she wrapped her arms around his neck, sighed and pressed herself even closer.

“I think perhaps it's the most okay thing in the world,” he said against her hair, still smiling.

She pulled back enough to smile back at him radiantly. “Good,” she said and proceeded to do just that…


*******

He lifted his beard and pulled the big red and green quilted doona over them, and settled down contentedly, his entire body relaxing after the most hectic period of his long year, stretched out a hand under the covers to find hers.

“Nice when something goes right,” he said softly. “Makes the sadder things more bearable.”

“Oh yes,” she sighed with equal contentment. “And I do so like it when all the wishes come true…”


* * *