Balance of Power
By Josiah Rose

TITLE: Balance of Power
AUTHOR: Josiah Rose
RATING: uhhh PG-13 to a mild R …bad things happen to good people
SPOILERS: Lets just say everything just to be safe, because I have a lot of inadvertent references to current season stuff. This is my own lil alternate universe where Buffy is in college and then, well…things get really interesting.
DEDICATION: For Hope, cause she pesters and then gives great feedback. And for Julia, also for great feedback, and the well-timed great idea that kept the plot going.
FEEDBACK: Well naturally. This is a bit of a departure for me. So please, let me know what you think.


They say that life-changing events happen on the most ordinary of days, camouflaged in mundane details and tasks that, under any other circumstances, wouldn't even prompt a second look. It all began on just such a day, with just such an event.

In the midst of a fierce electrical storm, static crackling as she put her sweater on, Buffy left for patrol. The few vampires that had felt up to braving the weather were easily dealt with. A stray demon with delusions of grandeur was easily beheaded. Muttering to herself about the weather, and the gall of demons and the undead to even be out on such a night, Buffy tucked her sweatshirt more tightly around herself, and bent her head into the wind, headed for home. The first fat droplets of rain were splashing down as she trudged past the third of Sunnydale’s twelve cemeteries. Lost in her own thoughts of hot chocolate and her quilt, she almost didn’t hear it. Hidden in the mournful wail of the wind, was the sound of a child crying.

Between one thought and the next, she was running toward the noise, praying she wouldn’t find the child at the mercy of one of the town’s many nasties. Near the gate of the cemetery, huddled at the bottom of one of the flanking columns, she found her. A young girl who looked to be about five. Dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, she still easily seen, thanks to a bright yellow raincoat, decorated with a somewhat mocking happy face.

Carefully, Buffy approached the sobbing, shivering girl. "Hi there. I thought you might need some help," she began. "I’m Buffy. Can I help you find your house? Or your parents maybe?"

The girl stopped crying for a moment, and raised her face to look at Buffy. Luminous eyes nearly violet in color measured Buffy for a moment before answering. Swallowing her tears, she shook her head yes for a second. "I’d like that but I’m not supposed to go with people I don’t know."

"That’s a good rule to follow, but you need to get home before the weather gets really bad. I won’t do anything, except help you. What’s your name?" Buffy asked, keeping her voice quiet and gentle.

"Kiara Alisha Seymour," the little girl answered promptly.

"Do you know where you live Kiara?" Buffy asked quietly.

"784 Oriel Street," she answered, again as soon as the question was asked.

With a silent sigh of relief that the girl lived on the same end of town they were on now, Buffy waited until the girl was looking at her again, and smiled. "That's not too far from here. Why don't I just help you find your house?"

Kiara thought for a moment and then smiled. "Alright. Let's go before I get any wetter. I'm starting to get cold."

The two of them started walking, with Buffy keeping a careful eye out for vampires and other nasties, and a little while later they were walking down a residential street. Kiara was quiet, skirting carefully around the larger puddles, finally breaking the silence only when they were within a block of her house.

"I know where I am now. Thank you Buffy, but I should go on by myself so that my parents don't know that I talked to a stranger okay?" she asked quietly.

Though she didn't like the thought of leaving the little girl alone, even for a block, she sounded so scared of getting in trouble that Buffy nodded at her and smiled. "Alright, I'll stop here, but you go straight to your door okay?"

Kiara nodded and smiled back at her, then turned and started walking down the block. "Thank you again," she called back over her shoulder, voice receding as she picked up speed.

"You're welcome," Buffy called, as she watched the small figure, nearly invisible in the sheets of rain walk to a house just a ways up the street. When the door closed safely behind Kiara, and presumably whichever one of her parents had let her in, Buffy smiled and turned to go home. It felt good to help someone not in mortal danger on patrol once in a while.

***

The next morning when Buffy woke up, she groaned softly. Her head was pounding and she felt feverish. "Damn," she muttered to herself. "I guess I should have tried to get out of the rain faster last night."

With an effort she sat up and got out of bed, padding to the kitchen of the house she and Willow were sharing.

She was standing at the sink, managing, barely, to drink a glass of water when the room spun crazily for a moment and then the world went black.

Willow wasn't particularly surprised to see Buffy's bed empty when she woke up. Ever since the whole fiasco with Faith and the body switching thing, she had been very restless, and had taken to patrolling at odd hours.

Slapping the alarm off, she lectured herself into crawling out of bed, and moved toward the kitchen. Six am was a little early, even for a morning person like her, but she had studying to do before class, so it was get up, or fail the exam. Yawning and rubbing her eyes, she stumbled toward the refrigerator, and then snapped her eyes open when she tripped over a bump on the floor. "What the…oh my God, Buffy!" she cried, as she realized that the bump was her best friend, sprawled on the floor between the sink and the fridge, pale as a ghost.

Dropping to her knees, she shook her gently, calling her name urgently. "Buffy, can you hear me? Come on, wake up," she demanded, hysteria creeping into her voice.

A few seconds went by, as Willow's heart leapt to somewhere near her mouth, but then Buffy moaned weakly and opened her eyes. "Will?" she asked. "What happened? Where am I?"

Light-headed with relief and adrenaline, Willow helped Buffy sit up before she answered. "We're in the kitchen. You must have got up and fainted or something."

Buffy frowned and looked around. "I don't remember what happened. But I feel horrible." So saying, Buffy tried to get up, only to realize she wasn't sure her legs would hold her.

Carefully, Willow helped her up, and then back into bed. "You really don't look so good Buffy. Do you want to go to the doctor?

Smiling weakly, Buffy shook her head no. "I'm sure it's nothing serious Willow. After all, how sick can the Slayer get?" she asked, keeping her voice light.

But for all her optimism, Buffy was feeling even worse by the time Willow reluctantly left for class.

Her vision kept going black, her head was pounding and her stomach felt like a herd of gymnast were turning cartwheels in it, which probably accounted for why she couldn't keep any food down. Worse yet, she had almost no energy and even less strength. She wanted, more than anything, to go to sleep, but some instinct told her she had to stay awake. After a few minutes of trying to shrug off her anxiety, she reluctantly picked up the phone and hit the speed dial for Giles' number.

Giles had been on edge for hours, tossing and turning all night, fighting the feeling of impending catastrophe. When the phone rang, he turned on the light and reached to answer it, hands trembling as the dread intensified.

"Hello?"

"Giles? It's me," Buffy told him, even the simple act of speaking exhausting for her now. "I'm sorry, I know it's still early, but can you come over? I think I need a ride to the doctor."

"Buffy what's wrong?" Giles asked. "I'll come right over, of course, but what is the problem exactly?"

"I don't know. I just feel so bad, and I'm so tired. Please Giles, just come."

Assuring her that her would be there as soon as he could, Giles hung up the phone, and quickly got out of bed and dressed. As he headed downstairs, he tried to push his own nebulous fears to the back of his mind. He would hardly be of any use to her if he wasn't able to concentrate.

He made excellent time to her house, pulling up in the drive only about twenty minutes later. Without bothering to knock, he opened the door and stepped in, calling Buffy's name. When there was no answer, he moved quickly toward her bedroom, fear rising again, joined this time by an unshakeable feeling of something deeply wrong. He was stepping into her room when he felt it. Faint and very well concealed, but unmistakably there, the taint of blood Magick.

Clenching his jaw, and steeling himself against the stomach churning nausea that the taint caused he went to Buffy's side, unsuprised to see her sleeping.

"Buffy, wake up. Come on, open your eyes for me," he told her gently.

After a moment, and with great effort, Buffy's eyes opened slowly, and she looked at him, the pain, and fear she was feeling reflected in her eyes.

"Giles?" she asked, voice shaking, and eyes unfocused.

"It’s alright Buffy. I’m here. I’m going to make sure you’re alright."

He tucked the covers around her a bit more; knowing that whatever was causing all of this was probably making her sicker then even she knew. "Buffy, listen to me very carefully," he told her gently, eyes worried. "You need to fight. You have to stay awake. Do you understand? You must fight against what is happening to you."

Buffy nodded slowly, determination joining the pain in her eyes. "I will," she answered in a near whisper.

"Good. That’s good." He squeezed her hand in support, and then turned to look around the room. Everything looked normal, but that didn’t really mean anything, especially on the Hellmouth. "Buffy, I’ll be right back. I just want to have a look around alright?"

"Alright," she told him. "I’ll be here."

He smiled at her, and the stepped out of the room. Once he was outside, the nausea and overwhelming sense of wrong receded, and he shook off the after effects, and forced himself to focus. Breathing deeply for a moment, he closed his eyes. It had been awhile since he had used what the older generation of his family liked to call talent, but the ability had never left him. With a little bit of mental effort, he could See the protective wards he had asked his cousin Adrianna to put on the house. They were uninterrupted, pulsing with the comforting warm green of her energies, but they were much fainter than they should have been. Adrianna was without peer when it came to most protective Magick, which was why he had her do them in the first place. There was no way they could be so close failing without some kind of outside interference. Unfortunately, that didn’t tell him anything he didn’t already know.

And he wouldn't be able to find anything else out until someone else was available to watch Buffy, and he could take a better look. Forcing himself to stay calm, he turned and went into the living room, heading for the phone. After he had arranged for Xander to come over, he hung up and quickly returned to Buffy's room. He was relieved to find her awake, and sitting up slightly.

"Any ideas?" she asked hopefully.

He shook his head no, and frowned slightly before answering. "No, I am afraid not," he told her. "Nothing specific anyway. All I know for certain at this point is that someone, or something is working some type of rather dangerous Magick. It appears that is what is affecting you, but I have no idea why or how. At least not yet, in any case."

With a tired smile, Buffy shrugged her shoulders in an effort to ease the ache that was getting steadily worse. "Well, we'll just have to figure it out, not that I'll be much help in this condition. But I have faith in you Giles. You'll figure it out." She paused, and waited, as a wave of nausea receded. "But do me a favor please, and figure it out soon. Whatever this is, I can definitely live without it."

He smiled, and then nodded at her. "I'll do my best."

A short while later Xander arrived, eyes serious, but as cheerful as usual. He greeted Giles quietly, and then went up to Buffy's room, intent on cheering her up, or at the very least making her smile.

With Buffy safely watched over, Giles felt free to take a better look at the energies in and around the house. He came out of his near trance with a worried frown on his face, eyes dark and angry. Whatever was causing the problem was tied not to the house but to Buffy herself, and was steadily draining energy from Buffy and from the house protections, and from several other local energy nodes. He had tried to trace the energy drain back to its source, but had run into one of the most powerful shields he had ever encountered, and had been forced to give it up, at least for now.

Seated on the couch, he was plotting his next move when Xander's startled scream jolted him to his feet. He ran for her room before he even really realized he was moving. When he got there, he wasn't sure at first what the alarm was about. Then he came in, and moved to the bedside, and he saw it.

Buffy was sitting in the middle of the bed, with her arms wrapped around her knees, a shaking hand wiping away tears. And her hair was completely white. "I fell asleep, Giles. Just for a minute, I swear. Xander had to go to the bathroom. When he woke me I thought I was better because I don't feel sick. And then I saw myself in the mirror," she told him quickly, obviously fighting to contain her fright.

"Buffy, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have left," exclaimed Xander, guilt stamped across his face.

Buffy managed a small smile for him, as she answered. "Hey, it's okay. You couldn't have known. We just have to concentrate on beating this thing, whatever it is," she told him, voice steadier.

When Xander nodded and smiled hesitantly at her, she turned to Giles. "Which brings me to my next point. Giles, what is going on?"

Giles cleared his throat. "I am not entirely positive. All I was able to determine was that someone or something is draining energy from several local sources of supernatural energy…including you. I haven't been able to trace the source of the drain. But I'm getting definite hostile traces. I'm afraid whatever it is, and whatever its end goal, we can be sure it isn't friendly."

Resisting the urge for a bitingly sarcastic comment, Buffy nodded. "So what do we do now?" she asked quietly.

Giles looked at her for a long moment before answering. As much as he hated to admit it, his strong point in Magick was not the slow, methodical research. His training as a Watcher had made him very skilled under those circumstances academically and historically but had never, could never, managed to teach him more than a preliminary grasp of preparation intensive Magick. His skills lay in what was nicely termed field application, but was better called what it really was; offensive battle Magick. He could cast spells that needed intense preparation with the best of them. For most good spells to work, you simply needed the right incantation, the proper ingredients and a low-level Power source, not necessarily your own. But when it came to the use of his own raw Talent to tap into magical energy, the more preparation he did, the less likely he was to succeed in whatever it was he was trying to do.

"Now, with your permission, we call in reinforcements." He looked at her intensely. "I need to make sure you get the help you need. And I don’t know if I have the proper skills to track whatever is doing this."

"What about Willow? Can’t she help you? You could do it together," Buffy told him, her tone making it a question.

"As talented as Willow is, I do not think even she would think she has the skills to deal with this."

Buffy looked in the mirror, holding back a sob as she gazed at her reflection. There were wrinkles on her forehead, and smaller ones around her eyes and mouth. <And they say Slayer’s never get old> she thought, a touch of bitterness joining the fear. Looking at Giles, she saw the sincerity in his eyes, and also a hint of what could only be fear. And that scared her more than anything, even what she saw in the mirror. Looking at him, trying to show him her faith in him with her eyes, Buffy nodded once. "Do it," she told him quietly.

***

They gathered in the living room. Giles and Buffy were on the couch, Xander in the recliner, and Willow, who had recently returned from school, on the floor at his feet. Giles was siting just behind Buffy, and almost without realizing it he put his arms around her, and felt her relax into his chest. They had been closer and closer over the past few months, ever since the whole fiasco with the Initiative, Adam, and her break up with Riley after he had slept with Faith, but he had never allowed himself to be this close to her, to touch her. He had been too afraid she would reject him, or perhaps worse, ignore him. Now, in the face of so many unknowns, watching her literally age in front of him, it just didn’t seem to matter. Only being with her, keeping her safe and with him, whether as a friend or maybe eventually more, mattered.

As quiet as they were, everyone jumped when there was a soft knock on the front door. "The cavalry has arrived," murmured Buffy as Giles stood up to answer it.

Giles opened the door, still smiling at the comment, to reveal a tall, white blonde haired woman, who immediately flung her arms around Giles.

"Rupert, you look well," she told him, just a hint of an English accent audible in her voice, as they parted and she came in the door. As she stepped inside, she immediately felt the drain Rupert had told her of on the phone, and one look at Buffy confirmed her to be it's anchor.

"Allow me to introduce my cousin, Adrianna Dougless," said Giles quietly. "She is the acknowledged expert in my family on matters such as these," he told the group in general.

"Really Rupert, what kind of an introduction is that?" chided Adrianna gently. "Hello everyone, she said, crossing the room to stand in front of Buffy. "My, you have got a bit of a problem, haven't you?" she asked, voice full of quiet sympathy. "How old are you my dear?"

"Eighteen," replied Buffy, refusing to focus on the fact that she looked closer to her mother's forty-three if she looked in the mirror.

"And how do you feel, physically?"

'I'm tired, and my joints ache, but I'm fine. I was sick, but that went away…when I started aging," Buffy answered quietly.

Adrianna nodded and looked at Buffy intensely for a moment. "Buffy I'm going to have to touch you in order to have a closer look at what's happening to you, alright?"

Shifting in her seat, Buffy tried not to feel to uncomfortable. Giles obviously trusted, and respected his cousin, but something about the woman struck her as odd, and she couldn't put her finger on what it was. Finally she nodded slightly. "Alright."

Adrianna carefully sat down beside her on the couch and put her left hand over Buffy's right one. Then she smiled gently and closed her eyes. "Just relax my dear," she murmured. "I only want to help you I promise. I won't hurt you."

Buffy slowly took some deep breaths as she waited for whatever Adrianna was doing to end. While she was waiting she studied her a bit more closely. With her light colored hair and heart-shaped face, there seemed to be little family resemblance between her and Giles, but when she looked closer she realized that there were similarities. They had the same air about them of quiet control, the same shape of nose, though thankfully Adrianna's was considerably smaller, and before she had closed her eyes, Buffy had seen that they were the same vivid shade of green as Giles'. At first glance, she had assumed her to be as old as Giles, but as she studied her, Buffy realized that Adrianna was probably only in her early thirties.

She sighed slightly, trying to be patient as she waited, wishing that Giles was still sitting with her. He was very comforting, without even trying, just by being close to her. A slight frown appeared on her face as she pondered the new closeness between her and Giles in the past few months. It wasn't that she didn't like it, only that she was unsure of where it was going, and that made her uncomfortable. The strength of her feelings also made her a little uncomfortable. What she felt for Giles had gotten so much stronger that it was scary, and it wasn't even close to paternal. But she hadn't said anything because she hadn't had a chance to really adjust to it, and get up enough nerve to tell him. <After this is all over, I'll tell him> she resolved. <No matter what he says, it has to be better than not knowing>

With a slight smile at the thought of the look on his face when she said something, she shifted slightly and continued to wait. Xander and Willow talked quietly in their corner, and after a few minutes Giles came over and settled himself on the arm of the couch next to her and put his arm around her shoulders in support.

It was about half an hour later when Adrianna took a deep breath and opened her eyes. Eyes dark and serious, she looked at Buffy. Though she had only done a surface scan of the woman in front of her, so as not to invade her privacy, she liked what she saw, and she respected what Rupert had told her of Buffy's courage and abilities as a Slayer. Now she had cause to hope that all of what she had been told was true because Buffy was going to need every resource she could get.

"The good news is I know what is happening to you, and most likely what, or should I say who, is causing it," she began quietly. "As I am sure you have been told, there are a great many things in this world that crave power. Some are demons, or worse and some are human, but only in the loosest possible sense of the word. Those kinds of people will do anything to get, and keep their power. Anything, including trapping the unwary into giving theirs away."

"Giving it away? I don't get it. I didn't give my power away," Buffy cried, frustrated. "Someone's just helping themselves."

Adrianna squeezed the Buffy's hand in sympathy. "Yes, I know you didn't, at least not on purpose. That's not how she works."

"She?" Buffy asked.

"She was using the name Mia when we last met. She is human, but she wants to be immortal. As she ages, she acquires more power to make herself young again. And she doesn't care how she gets that way. She has some talent as a sorceress of sorts, and she uses it to set traps for those who have more power than she does. And then she uses whatever means necessary to tap into power and take it. It usually involves blood sacrifice to boost her own power and allow her to cast the necessary transfer spells."

Buffy leaned forward, ignoring the pain she was in. "That's what's making me age? A transfer spell?"

Adrianna nodded slowly. "Yes. But knowing what it is and who is doing it is the end of the good news I'm afraid."

Suddenly cold, Buffy shivered. "Okay, then what's the bad news?"

"You say your hair turned white because you fell asleep right?" At Buffy's nod, Adrianna looked from her to Giles and back again. "That's because you have some natural defenses as the Slayer that most people who have any concentration of power don't have. But sooner or later you will have to sleep. When that happens, unless we have reversed the spell and dealt with Mia, you will continue to age, until it kills you."

Buffy massaged her temples. "You're telling me that if we don't deal with this, I'm going to be the first Slayer ever to die of old age?"

Adrianna looked at her with sympathy, seeing the fear join the anger in the young Slayer's eyes. "I'm afraid so Buffy. If we don't find out the exact circumstances of the spell that anchored the power drain to you, we can't reverse the power transfer. We need to deal with Mia, and believe me when I tell you that won't be easy."

"As long as it can be done, we'll find a way to do it," Giles told her quietly, before Buffy had a chance to answer.

"Does my rather vocal cousin speak for all of you?" Adrianna asked quietly, looking at Willow, then Xander, and lastly Buffy. Some of what we do may be extremely difficult, and I can almost guarantee that most of it will be unpleasant.

All of them nodded. Only Giles felt Buffy begin to tremble as Adrianna explained what they would try first.

***

They tried the first three of Adrianna’s ideas without any success before Giles finally called a break. "We’re not getting anywhere with any of this," he announced to the room in general, running his hands tiredly through his hair. "We just don’t know where to start. We don’t even know what form she is using."

Buffy could feel herself getting more tired by the minute, but fought against the urge to sleep. Adrianna had quietly informed her that her natural defenses against the drain were much weaker when she was asleep because her mind was so much less focused. Since she was in no real hurry to see old age, she knew she had to stay awake as long as possible.

"Are you sure you haven’t met anyone new in the past few weeks who seemed…well a bit off, for lack of a better term?" Adrianna asked, not for the first time, hoping again to trigger something in Buffy’s memory.

"I told you, there’s been no one. Not lately anyway." Then she paused. "Wait a minute," she muttered. "The girl."

"What girl?" asked Adrianna, as everyone turned to look at her.

"The other night, before I got sick, I did meet someone. A little girl. She was lost. I helped her get home. She did seem a little odd. But she couldn’t have been more than five or so."

"Looks can be deceiving as you well know," Adrianna told her quietly. Did this girl have any distinguishing marks on her? Anything at all about her that stands out in your memory?"

Buffy took a few deep breaths and concentrated on her breathing, waiting for her mind to clear. When there was no awareness left to her but the sound of her own breathing, she went back, concentrating on all of the little details of that night: the smell of rain washed air and ozone, the static in the air, the outline of the clouds in the sky, and then the girl. A second later, she had it. "Her eyes, they were purple, well violet, I guess."

For just a moment, Buffy saw a flash of some strong emotion in Adrianna’s eyes, gone too quickly to name, and then she nodded. "You’re sure?"

Buffy nodded. "Yes, I’m absolutely positive."

"That’s it then. We know at least one of the forms she’s using. We can track her now." Adrianna’s voice was calm, but her eyes were intense, and the air around her crackled with suppressed energy. Without speaking, she gestured Willow into the other room. They were both going to be casting the necessary locating spell, with Willow helping with the lesser aspects, and providing extra energy, because Adrianna anticipated that, even with a trait and signature to trace, it could be a long haul to track Mia and… dispense with her.

Before going into the other room, Adrianna slowly came over to Buffy, who was still seated on the couch and sat down. "Buffy, I need an accurate imagine of Mia to find her. Form the clearest picture of that supposed girl that you can, and hold it in your mind until I have what I need, alright?"

Without answering, Buffy closed her eyes and let the picture form behind her eyes. She didn’t want to scare anyone, so she hadn’t mentioned how weak she was getting. She didn’t want to waste the time talking. They’d know soon enough, as she aged more, what state she was in. Right now, she needed to concentrate, and get through the whole mess. With an effort she held the picture in her mind, until Adrianna murmured that she had enough. Gasping quietly, she let herself sink a bit more into the couch.

Worry seeped into Adrianna’s eyes, but she said nothing, only squeezed Buffy’s shoulder in support and went into the adjoining room, which Xander and Giles had cleared and readied for the spell. At this point, she knew her actions would do Buffy much more good than words.

As Willow and Adrianna began chanting softly, Buffy felt suddenly cold, and a knot of dread settled in her stomach. She knew they would do their best, but every possible what if spun around her head.

Giles watched her from across the room for a moment, and then crossed and sat beside her. He didn’t say anything, just opened his arms, and waited. A few heartbeats later she shifted until her face was hidden in his chest, her whole frame trembling. He was still silent, even though he ached to say something. There was nothing he could say.
She pulled away a moment later, just enough to look at him, and then turned to look at Xander as well, before she let out a shaky breath. "Man, I must look like a crone by now," she said shakily. She had stopped looking in the mirror when she realized she no longer even resembled herself, but she knew she felt older. Giles smiled at her a bit. "You most certainly do not," he told her. The body he was holding felt wrong, and the voice didn’t sound quite right but when he stopped looking with his eyes, he knew it was Buffy. Her smell, the way she held herself, and her tone and inflection would have given her away, if the look in her eyes, and the steely determination she was clinging to under her fear hadn’t.

From the perch on the floor, Xander had remained quiet, but spoke up after a moment. He knew all about the kind of fear he saw in Buffy’s eyes. And he knew what he would want to hear in her place. "It’s alright Buff, you’re still you, no matter what you look like."

Shifting on the couch, with a little cry of pain thanks to her protesting joints, Buffy looked at him with a smile of gratitude. "Thanks Xander."

He smiled back her and was about to answer, when there was a pause in the chanting in the next room and then muffled cursing. And then, perhaps worst of all, heavy silence. Minutes later, Willow stepped into the room, supporting Adrianna, and not bothering to hide her tears.

"What happened? Giles demanded.

"She blocked us long enough to pull enough power from us, and around her, to death spell herself," Adrianna explained in a near whisper. "She’s no longer a threat, but because of the casting she managed before she died, the drain didn’t end with her. It will only end when power equaling what she pulled before she died is drained from Buffy into her focus," she said the last in a near sob, then forced herself to continue. "By the time the balance of power is restored and stops the drain, you’ll have died." Looking at Buffy, Adrianna lost the calm she had held on to from the beginning. "I’m so sorry Buffy. I failed you and Rupert terribly. But I honestly thought that she was too selfish to do such a thing."

Buffy looked at her, seeing the pain her failure had caused her, and hearing the words she spoke, but none of it seemed real, as the fact that she was going to die echoed in her head. <Not yet. I can’t. There’s so much I haven’t done yet. And Giles. I haven’t told him yet. I wanted…I wanted a chance to find out what I wanted, what we both wanted. Dammit I wanted to be the first Slayer to retire> She didn’t realize that she had spoken that last thought out loud until she felt Giles shift and look at her. She was surprised to see only a deep resolve on his face, resolve and pain, but no sorrow.

"You still can be Buffy." He paused while he waited for her thoughts to catch up, and then nodded at her confused, but silent question. But it wasn’t her he spoke to next.

"Adrianna, sweeting, it wasn’t your fault," he told his quietly suffering cousin. "And you didn’t fail, not completely. Mia’s dead. If we insure a proper power balance some other way, Buffy will be fine."

Adrianna looked up at him, frowning in confusion. Then enlightenment dawned, showing clearly on her face, even as she shook her head in denial. "No. No Rupert, you know it cannot be done."

"And you, my dear, know very well that it can, at a price." He seemed calm, but Buffy was getting more and more confused. "What are you two talking about?" she asked quietly, but they ignored her, for the moment.

"If you drain your reserves, and I can’t bring you out fast enough, you’ll die. I won’t do it. I won’t sacrifice your life, not even to save your Slayer."

Giles didn’t respond for a long moment, but when he did, his voice was quietly intense. "You can bring me back. I know you can. And if you can’t, then so be it. I will not let her die. Not while there is anything I can do to save her." Giles was still holding her, carefully being sure not to hurt her, but almost as if he had forgotten she was there, he continued. "And this is not just about me, and what I would do. Remember cousin, what we were told of family duty, and remember that right now there are two Slayers. And one is not quite sane, but for a time at least, she would be all there was to stand against the darkness. Would you unleash that on the helpless and innocent?"

Suddenly very pale, Adrianna looked at him, refusal in her eyes, but then she ducked her head, shoulders shaking. Controlling herself with an effort, she looked at him again. "Damn you for being right. And twice more for knowing me so well," she said bitterly, voice filled with fear, this time for him.

Very carefully, Giles rose, settling Buffy gently on the cushions, and went to embrace her. "I am sorry," he told her quietly. " I didn’t want to have to do that to you."

She held onto him a moment more and then stepped back. "It’s alright. I know you are right. I just don’t have to like it. I’ll go and get everything ready." She left the room quietly, pulling the door of the other room shut behind her.

Her departure left Giles standing at the edge of the room with the three sets of eyes staring at him. He took a deep breath and turned to face Willow first. She stared at him, eyes huge and dark with fright in her small face. "It can work," he told her, almost calmly, without waiting for her to ask what he knew she would.

Willow shook her head. "But Adrianna is right. If she doesn’t pull you out in time, you could die."

"I’m sure she can."

"You can’t be sure of that. You know you can’t. Willow’s voice rose to a near yell at the last, eyes begging him to take it back, to make it all right some other way.

"This is the only way Willow. If you think about it for a moment, you’ll know that. You would do the same thing in my place."

Standing there, looking at the man who had come to mean more to her than her own family, Willow ached to argue with him, to somehow convince him there was another way. But she knew there wasn’t. And just as surely, she knew that, for him, the risk wouldn’t matter. Not with Buffy involved. They had talked quite a bit in the past few months, about many things, including Buffy. And she knew that, whether he admitted it or not, he didn’t just love her, he was in love with her.

Feeling tears slip down her cheeks, she fought not to sob as she walked over to him and hugged him tightly. "Just promise me that you’ll be as careful as you can," she whispered fiercely.

"I will," he answered quietly. A minute later she let go of him and joined Adrianna in the other room to help with the preparation.

Suprisingly, at least to him, Xander didn’t say anything, only looked at him and then Buffy for a long moment, and then crossed the room to hug him, without a trace of his usual awkwardness. Somehow knowing that this might be the last chance he ever got to do it made the fact that hugs weren’t manly seem insignificant. When he pulled back, Xander looked at him for a long moment, and then swallowed the lump in his throat so that he could speak. "I don’t like it, but I understand it. And just in case this thing goes typically Hellmouthy on us, I just wanted to say…thank you…for everything." His voice broke as he finished, and Giles had to swallow a lump of his own to answer.

"You’re welcome Xander, for everything."

Smiling, with tears in his eyes, Xander looked from him to Buffy again and quietly left the room, patting Buffy on the shoulder in support as he left.

Alone with Buffy again, Giles took another deep breath, and stilled his trembling hands. He rejoined her on the couch, knowing she couldn’t get up and confront him as she usually did. Several long moments passed in painful silence. He started to speak, and then stopped, wondering what to say.

It was she who spoke first. "Tell me that what I think you just bullied Adrianna into wasn’t what I think it was," she pleaded, voice unsteady.

"Buffy, I am simply going to allow her to help me cast a spell that will let the drain begin to take power from me as well. It will give you enough time to recover your own strength, and should allow you to fight its effects long enough for me to stop the drain by restoring the proper balance of power that Mia disrupted," he told her gently.

"And once you restore the balance and stop the drain, and she can’t bring you out. What does that mean?"

"There is a danger that if I use up too much of my own energy, I won’t be able to find my way back to myself. That’s what Adrianna meant by her having to bring me back. And if I use too much of my own energy, even if she brings me back my body won’t have enough energy to sustain my life. It is dangerous. But it doesn’t matter."

"It doesn’t matter?" Buffy cried, voice breaking. "You could die. It matters." She stared at him, feeling tears come to her eyes.

"That’s not what I meant. I don’t want to die Buffy, but I would never be able to live with myself if you died and I could have saved you." He faced her, voice raw with his own emotions, unsure of how to tell her what he felt, but had kept hidden for so long.

The bitterness in her tone when she answered surprised him. "Why? Because the world needs a Slayer? Even as she asked, she cursed herself for never having really told of her feelings before now.

Lost in her own thoughts, she didn’t see the tenderness in Giles’ eyes until he put a finger under her chin and tilted her head up to look at him. "The world does need a Slayer. And it always will. We both know that. But that’ s not the only reason. It’s only part of it."

"Part of what?" she asked, hardly daring to breath as she watched him struggle to get the words out.

"Buffy, I know this is absolutely terrible timing, but it can’t be helped. I don’t know why I didn’t tell you before now. I suppose because I was afraid of what you would say, and scared that you didn’t, couldn’t feel the same way. But it doesn’t matter now. I…I’m in love with you." He stopped, breathing ragged, waiting to see disgust in her eyes, for her to pull away from him, but she didn’t. She only sat very still and looked at him, with tears standing in her eyes.

Slowly, Buffy shook her head, and closed her eyes, swallowing a sob. When she could look at him again, she could see in his eyes that he meant what he said. And she could see the depth of his true feelings, something he had never let her see before. Lifting one trembling hand, she reached up and touched his cheek, wiping away a tear winding its way down his cheek that he didn’t appear to notice. "Well I would say that this confirms it Giles," she told him, smiling a little. "You really are human after all. But you didn’t have anything to be afraid of. I do feel the same way. I just didn’t know how to deal with it because I was too afraid to tell you." She stopped and smiled at him again, true happiness shining in her eyes in spite of the circumstances.

For a few heartbeats Giles didn’t do anything, as he realized what she had said. Then he pulled her to him, holding her tightly, unable to keep from chuckling. "We’re quite the pair, you and I," he said quietly, breaking the embrace just enough to look into her eyes. Just before their lips met for the first time, Buffy grinned at him, and nodded. "You better believe it."

They were both more serious when they broke apart. Buffy spoke first. "Giles I don’t know about this. What if it goes wrong? Dying for me may sound romantic, but I won’t appreciate it, trust me. I would much prefer you living for me."

"I know that Buffy. And I don’t plan on going anywhere. But it’s the only way. If you think about it, deep down you’ll know it’s the only way."

She didn’t answer for a long moment. "I can’t do this alone," she told him. "Not now. I can’t let you go." She stopped, her voice breaking, and looked at him. There was nothing more she could say. He was right, and she knew it.

***

Once Adrianna and Willow had finished the preparations for the spell, they gathered in the other room. Giles made himself as comfortable as possible on the love seat they had dragged in for him, with Buffy seated beside him, refusing to let go of his hand. She had been quiet since they finished talking. He wished once again that there was something he could say to help her, but as much as he wanted to he couldn't guarantee the outcome. Instead he just held her hand, ignoring the wrinkled skin and age spots, and tried to put his feelings in his eyes when he looked at her.

For her part, Buffy kept having to fight back tears. She was so tired, and so scared that she just wanted to curl up and cry. But she couldn't. She had to be strong for Giles. As strong as he was for her. Despite his brave words to her, she knew he was afraid. Not necessarily of dying, but of being alone. She could see it in his eyes when he looked at her.

After a few moments, Adrianna looked at both of them and nodded. "Alright, since you are so determined to do this Rupert, let's have done with it. And I swear to you by all that I hold dear, if you don't come back to me, and that girl of yours, I will kill myself and come after you." She had a slight smile on her face as she said it, but they both knew what she was trying to say.

"I have every intention of being among the living for a good while yet," Giles assured his cousin, holding Buffy a little tighter.

"I'm ever so glad to hear it," Adrianna told him, even as she took a deep breath and started the chant that would begin the spell. After a moment, Giles joined her, their voices perfectly matched in cadence and rhythm. Long moments later, Giles' voice stopped, and Adrianna's continued alone, as Giles sat back and tried to catch his breath.

Suddenly, Buffy felt as if an enormous weight had been lifted off of her. Though she looked the same in the mirror, she wasn't nearly as tired and achy. Looking over, she saw Giles looking at her, smiling. "The drain has been shared between us. Now all you have to do is fight it off until I stop it."

Still fighting back tears, Buffy nodded. "No problem," she told him, managing to keep her voice steady.

"Good. That's the spirit," he told her. "I'm not going to be fully conscious for much longer I'm afraid, love. I have to be in a bit of a trance to control the amount of energy it's going to take to restore the balance. But I'll be with you, one way or another. And no matter what happens, I love you"

Buffy nodded slowly. "I know. I love you too Giles. And I will be really, really mad if you don't regain consciousness." She felt tears come to her eyes at the last, but smiled at him anyway. Minutes later, his eyes went blank, and she knew that at least temporarily, he was gone.

Still clutching his hand, Buffy turned to Willow, who was watching everything from a spot in the corner on the floor beside Xander. "Hey Will, how long should he be out, assuming nothing goes wrong?" she asked quietly.

"I'm not sure Buffy. But Adrianna said probably not more than half an hour," Willow told her, trying not to let her voice shake. Without realizing it, she reached for Xander's hand, and felt a little better when he took it and squeezed lightly in support. Watching Buffy, who was watching Giles, they listened to Adrianna's chant, and waited.

After what felt like decades, but was probably only thirty-five minutes or so, they were all startled when sudden silence replaced the rhythmic chant. Heart in her throat Buffy looked from Adrianna to Giles and back again. "Well? Did it work?" she demanded.

"See for yourself," Adrianna told her tiredly, gesturing toward the wall mirror. Slowly, almost afraid to face her reflection, Buffy raised her eyes and looked at herself. And let out a sigh of relief when her normal, teenaged self looked back at her. She looked at herself, and then at Giles, surprised to see that he hadn't aged. Her surprise must have shown in her face, because Adrianna answered her unspoken question. "He went into this much more prepared than you were, and with considerably more power at his disposal to help him fight its effects."

Buffy nodded as she considered that. It made sense. But moments later, she looked at Giles again, wondering when he was supposed to wake up. "Should he be awake yet?" she asked, keeping her voice down in a response to the quiet that had overtaken the room.

"He has only just managed to stop the drain. Let's give him a few moments," Adrianna told her, looking at Giles carefully. But the minutes ticked by, and Adrianna grew visibly upset. "Dammit, Rupert. Don't do this. I told you not to do this." Crossing the room, she stood in front of Giles and put her hand on his forehead. Then she closed her eyes, hardly seeming to breath for a long moment, and when she opened them again, there were tears pooling in the corners, and her expression was grim. "He's used up too much energy. I've given him all I can. If he could find his way back, he should have woken up by now. I'm so sorry Buffy."

Buffy looked at her, suddenly cold, hearing the words echo in her head, but unable to believe it. Shaking her head in denial, she looked at Giles and willed him to wake up. <Come on, you're in there somewhere. Wake up. Come back to me.> But he didn't answer, and remained still and silent on the couch. Buffy wiped tears out of her eyes without even really noticing she was crying. She blocked out the sound of Willow and Xander crying, and Adrianna's voice as she tried to comfort them. All she could see was Giles, so close to her, but so very far away.

Moving purely instinct she pressed herself even closer to him, put a hand to his temple, and closed her eyes. Adrianna didn't know him like she did, didn't know how very much she needed him. Keeping that thought in the front of her mind, she reached deep down inside herself, looking for the knowledge of how to reach him. And suddenly, like he was standing beside her, she could feel Giles. She felt her perceptions shift, like someone had turned the world upside down, but he was there. Not physically, but mentally. The warm comfort of his presence. Only now she could see it too. A deep blue green that seemed to be everywhere at once, but was fading ever so slowly. Without pausing to consider her actions, she reached inside herself again, looking for energy she didn't know she still had, and projected it outward as strongly as she could. The blue green was joined by a soft white tinged purple, that Buffy knew was her own. Slowly, the two colors merged together, as one strengthened the other. She was dizzy for a moment and then feelings overwhelmed her; love and belonging and so much more she couldn't even put a name to, and she knew she was feeling what Giles felt for her. Again, Buffy felt whatever state she was in shift, but she ignored the strange sensation, focussing entirely on Giles, her feelings for him, and willing him to feel them.

When she heard someone calling her name softly, she tried to ignore it, not wanting to face the reality of what had happened before she had closed her eyes. Relief filled her as the voice stopped calling her, but then her eyes snapped open as she felt the touch of Giles' lips on hers for a moment. "It's alright love," he told her, amused at the shock on her face. "I'm alright. I'm back now. And I'm not going anywhere." As Willow, Xander, and Adrianna threw themselves in his direction, unable to believe he was really there, he surrendered to their jubilant hugs and stammered explanations.

When the collective joy had dimmed a bit, he slowly made his way up to his bedroom, with Buffy close behind, ignoring the way the room spun. After refusing all manner of offers for everything from tea to medications, he assured his cousin and his young friends that all he needed was sleep. Alone with Buffy at last, he fell onto the bed, smiling as Buffy followed him down, and burrowed closer to him before making herself more comfortable.

Though they were both drowsing, and nearly asleep, he turned to her with an effort. After what had nearly happened, he needed her to know. "I heard you, you know. And I could feel you. Everything you felt for me. I couldn't find my way back until then." His voice was low, but his tone so intense, that she felt tears come to her eyes as she nodded her head in the semi-darkness beside him.

"I know Giles. I felt it too. I don't know how I did it. But I am glad I did." She said the last as she moved over and pillowed her head on his chest, and he couldn't help but smile at her.

"So am I Buffy. Believe me, so am I. But you realize that after what we shared, the bond between us will never be the same. That kind of power between two people. It changes them. Makes them see each other much more completely." He kept his tone light, but Buffy could hear the sincerity in his tone. And she knew, without knowing how she knew, that he was right. They had literally been inside each other's minds. But it didn't matter. All that mattered was being together. "I wouldn't have it any other way," she told him softly, just before sleep claimed her.

END