Full Of Love
By Gileswench

Title: Full Of Love
Author: Gileswench
Contact: gileswench@yahoo.com
Date: 5/11/03
Spoilers: Through First Date...then I make my own little world based on Joss'. I like mine better than his.
Summary: A change in attitude results in better choices and a more effective plan of action against The First...not to mention romance.
Rating: NC17
Pairing: Buffy/Giles
Category: Romance/Drama
Distribution: If you've had my permission in the past, you have it now. All others, ask and ye shall receive.
Feedback: Constructive criticism always welcome. Praise abjectly sought.
Disclaimer: It all belongs to Joss, Mutant Enemy, etc., etc., etc. I just let them have all the fun Joss won't. I own nothing except my twisted mind which you really don't want. Please don't sue.
Warning: Character death, a spot or two of violence, slight Andrew torture, and heavy-duty Giles snark ahead. Do not proceed if you are troubled with a low sarcasm tolerence.
Notes: This one comes to you courtesy of Kerrie's birthday...which was several days ago, but it's the thought that counts. Anyway, she requested the following: B/G & smoochies..throw in some leather, his earring and that shirt he had on in "Family". That color on him was just drool worthy oh and maybe some singing....sigh and the rest of the gang finding out about them in an unusual way.
Dedication: To Kerrie, who did not go overboard at all. Happy birthday, my dear. I hope you don't mind sharing with two other beautiful B/G birthday girls: the inimitable Rari Coss, and my sweet Savage. May you all three celebrate many more years in health, happiness, and prosperity.


Giles slammed the kettle on the burner rather more emphatically than he normally would. Even the way he filled the teaball took on a fairly savage aspect.

"Dating! At a time like this!" he muttered fiercely under his breath. "The lot of them are bloody insane!"

"Not really," came a voice from the doorway. "Not in a lock-us-up-in-special-white-jackets way, anyhow."

"Buffy, I'm not in the mood..."

"To listen to someone tell you you need to calm down before you have a stroke?" She walked into the room and sat at the counter. "So, any chance there's enough in that pot to share with me?"

"Where are the others?"

"Sent them out to train. Xander and Spike went back to Xand's place to rest up and get better. I think Anya went with them. As for Dawn, it's a school night. She's in her room doing the homework she put off until now. See? All doing the serious, just like you wanted."

"This isn't a whim, Buffy," he said turning to her at last. "None of you have time for this sort of...nonsense."

"We know it's serious," she said. "We know this is big. We know it's bad, and we know it's coming. We're preparing the best we can for this apocalypse. But, Giles, I've finally figured out we all need some breathing space, too. All these girls have lost everything: their homes, their Watchers, their clothes and stuffed animals and favorite hairdressers and anything else they cared about. I finally get that they need to see there's more than death and violence and depression to this whole thing. They need to believe there's a normal they're fighting for."

"Where did you learn that particular bit of insanity?"

"You."

"Me?"

"Yes, you, Giles. You always tried to give me as much normal as you could. Okay, so sometimes I tried to push the envelope a little bit, but I knew you were doing your best. You even offered me ice cream when my boyfriend broke up with me right before the prom. How normal is that?"

Giles turned and poured the now boiling water into the teapot and brought it over to the breakfast bar to steep.

"Ah yes, the middle-aged bachelor librarian offers to take the pretty high school senior out for sweets. That's certainly normal."

"In my world, that's about as close as it gets." She went to get a pair of mugs out of the cupboard. She stood for a moment, her back to him, her shoulders tight. "I never forgot it, you know."

"The ice cream?"

"No. Before that. What you said after...when Angel turned. How you said he did love me, and how you didn't think I was bad, even after I made him lose his soul. You didn't try to pretend things weren't awful, but you told me that I wasn't bad. That I was good. That you still liked me. Have you changed your mind?"

Giles regarded her back with wounded eyes.

"Can you really think that?" he asked at last.

"You used to trust me."

"You used to want more for yourself. Buffy, this thing with Spike, I don't know what it is you're doing, but it isn't healthy. And dating your boss...what are you thinking? Are you thinking at all?"

"One date," Buffy reminded him. "I went on one date with him, and it was at least half because I wanted to check him out - check that he's not evil, I mean. And he's not. Evil."

"It took dinner and dancing to find that out?"

"More like dinner and dusting. We got caught in a vampattack on our way to the restaurant. He's good. He could stake for Anerica."

She took the mugs back to the breakfast bar and poured the tea.

"How?" Giles asked as he slid into his seat. "Why?"

"No superpowers. At least not any he knows about, and I'd think he's old enough to know. But there's something about him...something he told me about himself. Or, more about his mother really." She looked seriously at her companion. "Giles, he said his mother was a Slayer."

"A what?" he nearly choked on his tea. "His mother was a what?"

"A Slayer. Like me. One that actually grew up and everything. And she got to do something normal. Something pretty much most of the world takes for granted. How's that for unexpected?"

"Very." He sipped his tea and watched her for a long moment. "You know, soul or no soul, Spike can't have children."

"I know that. And I did figure out it's kinda rough getting a marriage license when the only ID one of you has is a hundred-year-old death certificate. But that's not what it's all about. I'm not going to be with Spike again."

"Then what is it about? Because I'm dammned if I can make any sort of sense out of your behavior."

Buffy sat and toyed with her mug for some time.

"It's about being sorry," she said at last. "It's about how I used him and I owe him big time. Like I said earlier, fighting evil doesn't give me any right to do evil. And don't even tell me he was using me, too, because contrary to popular opinion, I do have a brain. Once in a while I even use it. The fact that he was using me doesn't change the fact that I was using him. If it wasn't for me, he wouldn't have gone and gotten his soul. After all the times I excused everything Angel did because he had a soul, the least I can do is give Spike the chance to prove himself. I need to know for sure. And I need to know that I didn't destroy him by making him a freak of nature."

"You didn't put that chip in his head, Buffy. You didn't send him to get his soul. You are not responsible for what Spike has become." Giles watched her drain her mug. "You can't live your life making up for what happened between you. I don't know the details, but I do know you need to move on."

"And I can't do that until I do this. Until I know whether I can trust Spike, I can't stop being a part of his life, or having him as part of mine. Besides, there's that whole thing about how The First is going to activate him again."

"Another excellent reason to let him go somewhere far away."

"The best reason in the world to keep him here," Buffy retorted. "This thing is world wide. There's no out of bounds on this one, Giles. Wherever Spike goes, The First can switch him back on and make him into a killing machine again. If he's here. I can do whatever I can to keep him from having a huge suckfest on the populace."

"And if you can't stop him?"

"Then I can make it as quick and as painless as I can. I don't want to have to, but if it needs to be done, it's better to have him where all the Slayer power is concentrated."

She began gathering the dishes. Giles watched her. Her face was frozen in a stubborn mask that he knew well. There was no point in arguing. And he had to admit to himself, if not her, that she had made some good points. He stood and took up his customary cloth to help her dry the dishes. They worked efficiently together. It was a long time before either spoke.

"I wonder if it skips a generation."

"What?" Giles asked.

"Slaying. I wonder if it's like diabetes and it skips a generation, or if it's because he's a guy. What do you think?"

"So we're back to the other man in your life, are we?"

"Don't be so grumpy. He's...I bet he won't even want a second date. And anyway, this is sort of scientific curiosity."

"If I had known all it would take to kindle an interest would be a good-looking young chap, I might have tried finding someone like him years ago."

"You think he's good-looking?"

"How the hell would I know? I haven't even seen him yet."

Buffy put up the last mug and turned to Giles.

"He's not bad," she said. "The earrings are a definite turn on. Plus there's the fact that he knows about vampires and Slayers. That's sort of in the comfort zone for me. But there is the wigsome part where he's my boss and he's on a big quest to find and dust the vamp that got his mom. I'm not so sure I can deal with obsessed again. Besides, I could see Spike knew."

"Knew what?"

"That there's sort of no there there. I mean, he's a nice guy and he's good looking and he's not of the evil and all that's just peachy, but there's no...spark."

"And Spike told you this?"

"Sort of. He likes to tell people things they don't want to know about themselves, y'know. He spent all of last year telling me what I did and didn't want to believe; that I wanted the pain, that I needed the darkness. And he was right in ways I don't even want to think about. And he's right when he says part of me still wants that. There's part of me that still wants to hide and be punished. I don't know if I'll ever completely stop wanting that. But he said something else once I didn't want to hear. About you."

"What was that?"

"That he'd always wondered. About us. You and me."

Giles looked at the floor and stuffed his hands in his pockets.

"Ah. Well, I suppose our relationship has always been open to...misinterpretation..."

"Yeah," Buffy agreed, feeling oddly shy. "I guess it has been. Even by us. I mean, this is Spike. Look at his track record. He knew just how badly Willow was falling apart after Oz left when none of the rest of us saw it coming, he knew exactly what buttons to push to get us all yelling at each other inside a day, he knew that Angel and I would never really be friends, and he knew what I wanted last year. And he knew that if he wanted to really get my goat all he had to do was talk about you. Maybe it's time to take another look at us. Maybe...over dinner or something."

"I hardly think this is the time to...are you really asking me out on a date?"

"You got a better time in mind? You said it yourself. Any or all of us might die in this one. I don't want to die again and still not know if he was right. And yes, I'm asking. So, want to go out with me?"

"As another scientific experiment?"

Buffy smiled up at him.

"Could be. Oh, and wear an earring. If you don't have one, you could always borrow one of mine."

"Why should I do that?"

"It's an experiment. To see if it makes you sexy enough to get lucky."

"I don't recall actually agreeing to go out with you."

"But you'll go, right?"

"After my speech tonight? I'm not sure I can. After all, mere hours ago, I was the Grinch that stole dating."

"Yeah, but that was when you were the only one not getting any. And it's not like Xander's gonna be dating much for a while. Plus, I think Willow can be talked into patrolling with the mini-Slayers for one night. If nothing else, she and Kennedy can make eyes at each other across the headstones."

"And likely get themselves killed in the process," Giles grumbled.

"But what a way to go."

"All right," he sighed at last. "I suppose we do both have to eat, at any rate."

"And they say romance is dead."

*****

The next morning, once Giles had finally gotten a chance in the single bathroom in the house so he could shower and shave, he came downstairs to a peculiar state of affairs. He walked into the kitchen only to find Rona and Amanda staring at him, then turning to one another and bursting into fits of giggles. The girls ran out of the room, still laughing. He looked after them with a raised eyebrow.

"I wonder what that's all about?" he muttered.

He turned to the stove and began brewing his first pot of tea of the day. Moments later, Willow and Kennedy appeared, holding hands. When they saw Giles, they stopped dead in their tracks and repeated the same performance as the other two girls.

"Most extraordinary," he mused after their retreating backs.

He sat down to a relaxing cuppa and the morning paper. He was just settling down to a nice, juicy story about some fellow caught loitering in Weatherly Park when the paper crumpled suddenly and he found himself staring Dawn in the face.

"Is Buffy on drugs?" she demanded.

"Wh-what?"

"You heard me. Did you give her something funny, like when she turned eighteen?"

"As I recall, the last thing I gave her, as you put it, was a lecture on responsibility."

"Right. Okay." Dawn slumped into a chair. "So...someone else must have drugged her, because she's not Buffy. She's like...robot Buffy. All perky. Giles, what's wrong with her?"

He sighed and folded the paper as best he could in light of the recent attack on it.

"Let's begin at the beginning, shall we?" he said. "What has Buffy done that is so out of the ordinary?"

"Well, when she came down to give the big, daily motivational, 'we're all going to die' speech, she didn't. She said stuff that really was motivating about all the stuff we're fighting for, like puppies and apple pie and a world with no Celine Dion music in it, which, I could totally get behind, but it's not like her. Then she told us all we have to take opportunities...like the one she said she took last night to ask you on a date which she said she's wanted to do for years. Creepy, huh?"

"She...she told...oh dear lord! No wonder everyone is behaving so strangely."

"So, it's like some demon thingy, right? 'Cause I know Buffy would never in a million years ask you out."

"Is it that hard to believe?"

"Harder."

"And yet..."

Dawn stared, dumbfounded.

"Really?" she squeaked. "Buffy asked you out? What did you say? She said you said yes, but that's gotta be wrong."

"No, she was perfectly correct, though I do wish she hadn't decided to broadcast the news to the entire household."

"But you can't go out with Buffy!"

"Why not?"

"Because...because...you're so old, and you're her Watcher...or you were...or you are...are you or aren't you?"

Giles considered for a moment.

"I honestly don't know what I am. There is no more Council, so I suppose, officially, there are no Watchers. Perhaps I'm not one, anymore. At any rate I haven't acted in that capacity for more than a year. And as for my advanced age...it would appear that isn't such an obstacle to Buffy's way of thinking, which surprises me every bit as much as it surprises you. Still, if she has no objection, I certainly have none. Your sister is quite old enough to make up her own mind whom she'd like to see socially. Is that a complete list of your concerns?"

Dawn slumped in her chair and folded her arms across her chest.

"It's just all wrong. Yesterday, she was mopey and bossy and a total wet blanket, and today she's all sunshine and little birdies and Disney happy. It's wigging me."

Giles tried, but he couldn't stop the corners of his mouth from twitching into a smile.

"You're upset that your sister is happy? Is that it?"

"Well...when you put it like that..." the girl shook her head. "I still say it's freaky, but I guess it could be worse. At least she's not all miserable, like she was when she was with Spike. And at least I know you'll never try to..." her face went pale when she realized what she'd been about to say. "Make her sad," she recovered. "You'll make it better, right?" She got up from the table quickly. "Well, I should get to school. Lots to learn before the world ends."

She found herself impeded in her progress by Giles' hand on her arm.

"I'll never try to what?" he asked quietly. "Dawn, did Spike hurt Buffy in some way I don't know about?"

"N-no. He...he was just all mean to her, that's all. I gotta go."

Giles let her go, though he watched the doorway for some moments after she left.

*****

That evening, all the Slayers in training sat crowded downstairs while Buffy and Giles commandeered two of the bedrooms to prepare for their date. He rummaged yet again through the pathetic selection of shirts he'd brought with him in his mad dash to Sunnydale.

"Stupid jumpers," he muttered. "Didn't I bring even one dress shirt?"

His hand lit on something that didn't feel knitted. He pulled it out.

"Yes," he said, "that will do very nicely."

He shrugged on the bronze-colored shirt and buttoned it up. He started to look for a tie, but realized it was not only futile, but probably not something Buffy wanted to see. He settled for leaving the first two buttons undone.

"Now, about that earring..."

He pulled a small silver hoop out of a box and worked it into his earlobe. He had to admit, he liked the rakish look. He hoped Buffy would, too.

*****

Buffy rifled through her closet yet again for something to wear. Since her return to life, clothes shopping had been less of a priority for her than it was before, and she was feeling the pinch.

"There's nothing in here that looks like a grown woman would wear it," she groaned in frustration. "Have I always been such a fashion victim?"

At last, she settled on a ruffled black skirt and a fairly modest white blouse. A pair of black leather boots and several small pieces of jewelry finished off the look.

"Not bad," she decided, looking in the mirror. "Adult, stylish, date-y. I just hope Giles looks this good."

She took a deep breath, and opened the bedroom door. No point in waiting for the inevitable gawking. She headed down the stairs.

As predicted, a large crowd of Scoobies and Potentials was waiting to see the pair off. The scene reminded her of the ending of The Birds, as she picked her way through the mass of murmuring girlhood, careful not to step on any of them. When she reached the bottom stair, Willow grabbed her hand and squeezed it giddily.

"You look great, Buff. You're gonna knock Giles' socks off...in a metaphorical way."

"So you're okay with this? Really?"

"Gotta be better than some other options you've taken up. Oh, and here." She pressed something into Buffy's hand. "Just, y'know, in case."

Buffy opened her hand to peer at its contents. She folded her fingers over the foil slips quickly.

"Will!" she hissed. "Are you crazy?"

"Like I said, it's an in case thing. Better safe than nesting, if you know what I mean."

"Yeah, I got it, oh Queen of Subtle."

At a sound from the top of the stairs, she hurriedly shoved the condoms into her pocket. When she looked up, she decided maybe Willow had been right after all. Giles did look pretty edible, she had to admit. A surge of jealousy raced through her when she realized several of the Potentials were having the same thought. Then again, she couldn't stay jealous. Other women might be looking at him, but he clearly only had eyes for his date. She smiled at him. He smiled back. Suddenly, he seemed to become aware of the audience.

"Have none of you got better things to do than stand about staring?" he demanded.

Potentials scattered by twos and threes, whispering and giggling behind their hands. Soon only Willow, Xander, and Dawn were left. Giles rolled his eyes at them.

"I suppose you feel it necessary to launch us like a cruise ship?" he said with weary resignation.

"Hey, Buffy's my sister. I have to make sure the guy she's dating has a heartbeat."

Giles' lips twitched slightly as he held out his wrist to Dawn.

"I believe you'll find my credentials are in order," he said.

The girl solemnly checked for a pulse, then nodded.

"Okay. This one's alive," she told her sister. "You can go out with him."

"Thanks," Buffy returned wryly. "And just wait until your first date, when I pull out the videotapes of your potty training."

"You wouldn't."

"Where I've got them hidden, you'll never find them, kiddo. So behave."

Dawn folded her arms across her chest and moved to the living room, where she flopped on the sofa. Xander moved to the fore.

"Now I'm reasonably sure you don't have embarrassing videotapes of me, so I'm going to ask: are you guys prepared?"

"Prepared for what?" Buffy asked dangerously.

"Duh! Vampires! I mean, you guys are on foot, right? And this is still the Hellmouth."

"I have stakes in my jacket, and a couple more hidden in my boots. That good enough?"

"And I'm out with the Slayer. If worst comes to worst, I'm sure she'll protect me," Giles added.

"Darn tootin'! So, are we done?"

Willow and Xander looked at each other. The redhead produced a camera.

"Not quite," she said. "Say 'cheese'!"

She pointed. Buffy and Giles grimaced, then stood close.

"Limburger," they both said solemnly.

"Just smile, already," Willow said impatiently.

The pair followed orders, and were finally allowed out the door.

*****

They walked slowly, neither feeling any need to hurry for once. Both were quiet for a time. Buffy stayed silent because she wasn't quite sure what to say, and Giles because he wanted to savor the moment. He feared the words that would make this night the travesty he half-worried it still might be. He kept his hands resolutely in his pockets and his gaze straight ahead. As long as she didn't say it was a joke, he could pretend it was real.

At last, Buffy spoke.

"This is so dumb."

Giles' heart sank like a stone.

"Did...did you wish to go home, now?" he forced himself to ask.

She stopped dead in her tracks.

"You don't want to go out?" she asked in a tiny voice.

"You - you mean...you do? You want to be out on a date with me?"

"Sorta why I asked. Did you want to call it off? Is it that bad an idea?"

"No, no, of course not," he assured her. "I want to be here. That is, if you do."

"See, this is what I was talking about. This is dumb."

"What's dumb?"

"This. You and me not being able to talk about anything. We used to talk about stuff. Now we can't even find enough conversation to get us to a restaurant. I don't want things to be this way anymore."

"Nor do I."

"Can we...can we be us again?"

"Not the way we were. Not really. We can't turn back the clock, Buffy. But perhaps we can find a new sort of us to be."

"I'd like that," she said a bit shyly. "So, could the new you, maybe take his hands out of his pockets and actually make physical contact with his date?"

"I do believe that could be arranged."

He held out his hand and she took it, not the way a child would, but lacing her fingers with his. She smiled up at him.

"That's better," she said.

"Yes, it certainly is. But I think it could be better still."

"How?"

"Like this."

He pulled her closer, drawing her into his arms. She nestled her cheek against his chest and sighed happily.

"You're so right," she said. "That's my Watcher guy; the one with all the good ideas."

"About time you figured that out," he teased. He allowed himself another moment to simply enjoy her warm body against his. At last, though, he drew slightly back. "Come on, then. We don't want to lose our reservations, do we?"

"Depends on what reservations you're talking about. But the dinner ones, we really don't want to lose. Some of the others? It's about time we did."

"As many as you like," he said.

"You better not be teasing, because I might just take you up on that."

They continued on their way, arms about one anothers' waists, flirting outrageously.

*****

Spike stomped into the living room. His nostrils flared, his hands were clenched tightly at his side.

"Is it true?" he barked at Xander.

"Is what true?"

"What the Niblet told me. She's out there...with that...that...broken down old librarian?"

"Oh," Xander grinned. "You mean *Buffy*. Yeah. She's out with Giles. On a date. I wouldn't wait up."

"But...she can't."

"Why not? They both seemed pretty happy with the idea, and I don't see what business it is of yours."

"He's old."

Xander bit his lip to keep from laughing out loud.

"That's a good one, grandpa," he said as soon as he could manage it. "And hey, he's got a heartbeat, which is more than I can say for some guys she's dated. Face it, Peroxide Boy, you're the ex. In fact, after what you tried to do to her, count yourself lucky that you lived long enough for me to call you that. If you ask me, Buffy's taste in men has improved a whole lot."

"I don't remember asking you anything, you sodding poofter."

"Well, I'm telling you, anyway. Don't make any trouble for them."

"Or what?" the vampire sneered. "You'll stake me? Just remember, Buffy still wants me here. You'd never go against her. You're too Slayer whipped."

"Maybe. But at least Buffy knows she can count on me. She's never been able to say that about you, has she? And soul or no soul, I don't see a lot of difference in the way you treat her. It's all about what you want, what you need, and what you think you deserve. If you really cared about her, you'd have taken a walk in the sun by now. Have you ever even apologized to her?"

"Have you and Red?" When Xander flushed guiltily, Spike gloated. "Thought not. I'm not the one who brought her back and then left her to dig herself out of her own grave. I stuck by her when you and the others all ran away as soon as you knew where you'd saved her from. Don't get on your high horse and tell me I'm the bad guy."

"I may not be perfect, but I never tried to rape her."

"No. But you're the one who broke her down."

"And you're the one who took advantage of it. She'd never have let you near her if she wasn't so bad off."

"Y'know, it must just eat you up inside, knowing it's all your fault I got to shag her rotten all that time." He smiled as Xander flinched. "You always wanted her, didn't you? But she didn't turn to you. When things got bad, she turned to me to make them better. And it was fan-bloody-tastic. Muscles I never knew women had. And talk about your stamina!"

"Shut up, Spike."

"Slayers aren't like other girls, you know. They like it kinky. Like it rough. If you knew some of the places we did it...some of the games she liked to play...once we even did it where she could watch you and Red and your demon the whole time and laugh at you."

"That's a lie!"

"You'd like to think so, wouldn't you?" The vampire lit up a cigarette. "She thinks you're nothing but a lapdog."

That's when Xander took the first swing.

*****

Giles guided his fork to Buffy's mouth. He nearly groaned as he slid it back and watched her tongue flicker out to gather up an errant drop of cream sauce from her lower lip. The little satisfied sound she made delighted him. This both was and wasn't the Buffy he remembered. In every way that counted, she was the girl he'd met so long ago in the Sunnydale High library, but she showed evidence of a maturity he'd never seen before. Sometimes it was hard to believe she was so young.

But there were also times he could pretend her destiny hadn't robbed her of her youth.

"Mmmm, yummy," she pronounced as soon as she'd swallowed. "Want a bit of mine?"

He leaned forward to accept the proffered bite. As it passed his lips, he smiled at her.

"Delicious," he told her. After a moment, he spoke again. "What shall we do after dinner? Did you want to go to The Bronze? O-or possibly see a film?"

"You sound like you're sixteen, Giles," she giggled.

"You'd best hope I'm not, or I'd be a bit young for you. You might even get in trouble with the law."

"Like that would be something new. I just meant you seem a lot younger when you're happy. It's a good. We can use a good or two about now."

"Yes, we certainly can," he agreed. "So, have you decided what you'd like to do next?"

She set down her knife and fork.

"You know what I'd really, really love? A night where I don't share my room with six scared Potentials, and the certain knowledge that I can completely drain the hot water heater without a dozen teenage girls' bladders exploding because I'm hogging the only bathroom. I thought it was bad when it was just me, you, Dawn, Willow and Tara trying to share it. Now, there's a whole new definition of bad."

"It's astonishing the pipes have held so long."

"Xander's friend may have cost a bundle, but the work was good. And I guess my little hot water pipe dream is gonna have to stay that way until all this is over," she sighed.

"Not necessarily," he said slowly. "I do have some resouces left. We could...um...we could...go to a hotel. If you'd like. Have a night off from the overwhelming mass of girlhood."

Buffy frowned in thought.

"Are we talking one room or two?" she asked.

"Well...I...um, I suppose that depends."

"On what?"

"On whether or not you can stand to share your room with one very neat, very quiet man."

"Giles, are you...I mean...did you just proposition me?"

"Yes, actually." He reached across the table and took her hand in his own. "Look, under more normal circumstances, I wouldn't ask so quickly. I'd...wine you and dine you and possibly buy you bits of jewelry, and so on. It's just...I don't know when I'll have another chance...when we'll have another chance to be together like this. It's entirely up to you, of course, but I'd very much like to make love with you."

She looked at their entwined hands seriously.

"I don't know why," she said at last. "After everything I've done...all the stupid mistakes I've made. I'm no prize."

"No, you're not."

"Wh-what?" she asked, startled.

"You're not a prize. You never have been."

"Gee, thanks," she said. She started to pull her hand away, but he held it more firmly.

"I mean it, Buffy," he said seriously. "I've watched them. Angel, Riley, Spike, they all treated you as if you were...some sort of reward for a life well-lived, or a consolation prize for other things they'd lost. You're not. You're a strong, beautiful, stubborn, intelligent, confounding, and frustrating person in your own right. You're you, and there's nobody I'd rather be with. But it's also entirely your decision. If you decide you'd like a night all to yourself, then we shall have separate rooms, or even go home, if that's what you'd prefer. And if you'd like some time to decide, we can even have dessert in the meantime."

"Up to me, huh? Everything seems to be up to me, lately. World saving, sister raising, house caring, and now this. Is it really shallow of me to want to punt?"

"Probably," he chuckled. "But all those other things, you could ask for help with, you know. There are some forty people living in that house. Surely one or two of them might know a bit about some of those things, or would at least be willing to share the burden a little."

"And you do pick up after yourself...which is more than I can say for a couple of the Potentials. Or Dawn."

"So, what do you say, Buffy? Would you like a night off to sleep by yourself? Would you like to be held?"

"Would you care for some dessert?"

Both looked a bit startled at the waiter's question. A moment, later both were laughing at the absurdity of the situation.

"No, thanks," Buffy managed to gasp out at last. "I think we're ready for the check."

The waiter left the bill. Giles pulled out his wallet.

"Oh no, you don't," she said as she rummaged for her money. "I asked you out. Dinner's on me."

"I really don't mind..."

"Uh uh, Giles. We're living in the twenty-first century now. You know, the one where even women have jobs and can pay for their own meals."

"At least let me leave the tip."

"Nah, you're paying for two hotel rooms. I think I've got dinner."

"Ah. I see you've decided."

"Stop making with the puppy eyes," Buffy admonished him. "I...it's not that I wouldn't...I mean...it's just the first chance I've had to sleep alone in months. And that *so* didn't come out the way I meant."

"It's quite all right," he laughed. "Separate rooms, it is."

"I just need some time to myself to figure stuff out."

"You don't have to explain yourself to me, Buffy. As I said, the decision was entirely yours. And my offer was motivated as much by a wish to give you a bit of a break as it was by my libido."

Buffy nodded and counted out the money to leave for the check and the tip. She placed it on the table, and stood.

"Come on," she said, "let's go have some alone time."

He was pleased that she still twined her fingers with his as they left the restaurant.

*****

Xander's fist connected with Spike's jaw, hard.

"Ow! Bloody hell!" the vampire yelped.

"Ow!" Xander yelled, cradling his hand. "What's your jaw made of, Rigor Mortis Boy? Concrete?"

"I don't know," Spike said, as his face morphed. "But I'd like to find out what you're made of. Snips and snails, is it? Or is it something a bit bloodier?"

Before he could move to find out, Spike found himself smashed into a wall, near the ceiling. He slid down and shook his head to clear it. Willow stood at the edge of the room, her eyes fading from black back to their usual green.

"Leave him alone!" she ordered.

"Yeah," Xander sneered. "You heard the lady: leave me alone."

The witch turned to her friend.

"That goes for both of you," she said.

"Huh? Will?"

"He started it," Spike muttered sullenly from the floor. "I was just having a conversation, when he decided to go all Great White Hope on me."

"We don't have time for this," Willow said, ignoring both of them. "If you two can't be in the same room together, then I guess I'll just have to separate you. And you shouldn't be getting in fights, Xand; you'll pull your stitches. Spike, go to your basement."

"Why doesn't Baby Xander get sent to his room without supper?" Spike whined.

"Because he doesn't have a room here. Now move. And no snacking on anyone in the house." As the vampire limped away, the girl turned to her friend. "I know you don't like him, Xand. I don't either. But Buffy wants him here for some reason, and we can't just get into fights with him, now the chip's gone. He could hurt you. He could even kill you."

"Yeah, I know," he said. "That was dumb, what I just did, wasn't it?"

"It wasn't very smart."

They sat on the sofa.

"I just...I got so mad."

"Spike sorta has that effect on people."

"No, Will. I mean, yeah, I hate Spike and he does know all the right buttons to push, but I wasn't as mad at him as I was at me. I just can't exactly punch myself in the jaw, and his was right there."

"Why are you mad at you?" she asked. "Is this about your latest crappy demongirl date? 'Cause if it is..."

"Nah, it's not that. That was just the Hellmouth having its annual belly laugh at my expense. Not fun, but not such a big surprise, either."

"Then what?"

He looked seriously at her.

"Have you ever told her you're sorry?" he asked.

She didn't need to ask who or what for. Her fingers found a piece of lint, and toyed with it while she evaded Xander's gaze.

"Not...in so many words. You?"

"Not in any words. I guess...I guess maybe I thought if I didn't say anything, it wouldn't be real, and I wouldn't have to say anything. Dumb, huh?"

"Yeah. Dumb. But it's not exactly like you were alone in the dumbness. And at least you can blame it on me. I can't blame it on someone else, 'cause it was all my idea, and I bullied you all into it."

"Maybe, but I think we all sorta wanted to be bullied. We missed her, Will. We missed the gang, and Giles kept saying he was going away, and nothing was the same anymore. But if we'd known..."

"If we'd checked..."

"And welcome to the wonderful world of 'what if'. We really blew it."

"We really did," she sniffed.

"If we'd said we were sorry, and maybe tried to help out more, we wouldn't be in this mess now. At least, Spike probably wouldn't be living here free range."

"Maybe even Tara would still be alive."

Xander watched helplessly as Willow dissolved into tears.

"Me and my big mouth," he muttered.

*****

Buffy opened the door to her room, walked in, and shut it behind herself.

Quiet.

It was so quiet.

Almost eerie.

She shook her shoulders to ease the tension building there.

Not wanting to dwell on the silence surrounding her, Buffy took a good look at the room. Sunnydale was not exactly on the tourist map, but it had more than one hotel since so many people ended up spending the night on their way to more popular destinations like Los Angeles, San Diego, and Santa Barbara. This hotel was a nice one that catered to travelers, as opposed to the cheap motel Faith had lived in so long ago. Everything about the room was blandly tasteful. Cream-colored walls, seafoam green carpet, pale wood furniture with fifty coats of high-gloss varnish to protect it, bedspread in various pastel shades, a painting of flowers on the wall in colors carefully coordinated with the bedspread and hung in a narrow goldtone frame. There was nothing to offend the eye or stir the soul.

Certainly nothing to drown out the din of silence.

She put her leather jacket over the back of the chair at the writing desk, and set down the small bag of necessities Giles had gotten for her on the way. He'd insited on buying her a pretty nightgown, even though he knew he wasn't going to see her wearing it, and a few basics he felt sure the hotel wouldn't have provided with the room.

"It's either that, or we go back to the house and pick some things up," he had said. "And I, for one, don't care to have to explain the situation to thirty teenage girls with irrepressibly smutty minds."

He was right. Of course he was right. As usual.

'So why haven't you asked his advice about a single thing since he got back?' the little voice in her head asked. 'Or taken a single piece of advice he's offered?'

"Because I'm a big poopbrain," she told the empty room.

That had to explain some of the choices she'd made in the past year or so.

'Like Spike', her brain insisted. 'And like having the chip removed when you could have had it repaired. You put the whole house in danger to prove you trust a vampire who tried to rape you? Girl, what were you smoking?'

Suddenly, aloneness didn't seem nearly so enticing as it had mere moments before. She decided to take a shower, and then watch TV for a while.

Then at least there would be other voices to drown out the ones that told her she'd handled everything wrong since her spectacular return from death.

*****

Giles got out of the shower and began to towel himself off, still humming a mournful old song. He hoped whoever had the next room didn't mind his shower serenade. Music had always been an outlet for him; a way to put emotions in perspective. Most of the songs lately had been either very sad or very angry, and some were both. Tonight, there was no room for anger in his heart, so they were merely sad.

In some ways, going on a date with Buffy had only made things worse for him. If she retreated into her hard shell, he would only suffer more for having seen that the real person - the woman he'd known and loved for so long - was still in there. It was easier when he could pretend she wasn't; that Willow's spell had brought her back without a soul, or had brought back something that looked and sounded like Buffy but wasn't actually her. He knew the real Buffy would never have surrendered herself so completely to Spike's thrall. The real Buffy would never be capable of so completely ignoring the safety of everyone around her for the sake of someone so dangerous.

Except for that little voice in his head that reminded him she'd done it before.

'But sadly, I must remind you that Angel tortured me...for hours...for pleasure. You should have told me he was alive and you didn't. You have no respect for me, or the job I perform.'

"At least then she didn't bring him to my door and tell me to look after him," he muttered as he pulled on his boxers. "And in her way...she was right in everything but not telling us. Angel...did turn out to be useful. He did help us. Had already helped us when I said that to her." He looked in the mirror. "How often have her instincts saved us all when logic argued a completely different course of action?"

He resolutely turned off his brain and reached for his toothbrush. Perhaps before he turned in for the night, he'd see what mindless film was on the prominantly advertised premium cable channel the hotel offered for free.

*****

"What do you think they're doing now?" Amanda asked the circle.

"Doing? Probably each other," Rona said.

"No way," Dawn said. "He's way too old. She wouldn't. Not with him."

"She's already done a vampire. I don't care what she says, she and Spike have something going. They're too...vibey."

"But that's totally of the past, guys," Dawn protested. "And what about Principal Wood?"

"What about him?" Molly asked. "I don't think she's going to see him again soon - that way. But Giles...well...I think she really likes him. Not that I blame her. He is rather handsome."

"But he's her Watcher," another girl objected. "Would any of you have done it with yours? I know I wouldn't."

"Mine wasn't my type," Kennedy said. "A little too male."

"Mine was a little too female for me," said another girl.

"I never had one," Amanda added. "I didn't even know what a Slayer was until the night I found out I could be one."

"I did," Rona said. The rest of the room fell silent. "What? Like you're all virgins, saving it for the wedding night. Right. It's no big."

"No big?" Dawn squeaked. "How can you say that? What happened?"

"Look, it was him and me against the world as long as I could remember. Then, a few months ago...we got closer. He said it happened all the time between Slayers and their Watchers. And before you can ask, it was my idea. Then a Bringer came. Brian told me to run here. So I ran. That's the last I ever saw of him. Brave, huh? I didn't even stay long enough to see if I could save him."

"You got out," Kennedy said. "That was what he wanted."

"And Buffy always says, the most important thing in Slaying is don't die," Dawn added comfortingly. "You didn't."

"What does it matter?" she shot back. "We're all just sitting here like trapped rats, while Buffy goes out and has dinner and a movie, like some ordinary person. What if something comes for us while she's out on the town?"

"Then we kick its ass," Kennedy shrugged. "What do you think all the training's been for? We haven't spent all this time living, training, and working together to just curl up and die without a fight."

"You know," Amanda said slowly, "I don't think we've all really talked much. I don't even know everybody's name yet. Does that seem wrong to anyone else? We train, and we listen to lectures, and we all hide here, but I don't know what anyone else misses about before. Shouldn't we know something about each other?"

"I think we all know a bit more about Rona," Molly said. "Maybe we should all take turns telling something about ourselves. Make up for lost time."

"Okay," Dawn said, "I'll start."

*****

"Come on, Will, please don't cry," Xander begged as he pulled her into his arms. "You'll make me cry, and then I'd be forced to shoot you so nobody ever finds out what a sissyguy I am. And then what would I do without my bestest bud?"

"T-twenty-five to life?" she choked out. "And...and you couldn't even use the broken yellow crayon defense."

"Yeah, it's a shame I didn't save all my Twinkie wrappers all these years."

"That didn't work. Maybe you should have saved the HoHo ones."

The pair chuckled soggily and kept hugging one another. For a long time, they just sat together in silence, drawing comfort from their connection. At last, Xander spoke.

"What happened to us, Will?"

"Just now? Or are we talking something more long-termy?"

"I know a lot's happened in the last couple years, but I can't believe what some of it is. How did we ever get the idea in the first place that bringing Buffy back would be easy and all about sunshine and daisies? We know more about magic than that."

"Yeah," Willow agreed slowly. "And then, what made us think if we never said we were sorry and we were never around, she'd be okay?"

"And the whole thing with Anya. I wasn't sure for months before our not-quite-big-day. Why didn't I just sit down and talk with her? One way or another, it would have saved a lot of misery for both of us, and possibly a bunch of money."

"I think that was more ordinary Xander stupidity," she told him. She rubbed his arm gently to ease the sting of her blunt pronouncement. "You do have sort of a way of letting things slide when you don't want to deal and it looks like it might work out on its own. Me getting out of control with the whole magic deal, though, that's just all wrong. I know better. I knew better a long time ago."

"Yeah, but you do sorta always have this way of having to convince the world you can handle stuff, even when there's a lot of you that knows you can't. That was just defensive Willow arrogance."

"Okay, maybe you've got a point. A little tiny one, but still sort of a point," she grumbled. "But what about Tara? When Joyce died, and Dawn wanted to bring her back, Tara didn't even want to let Dawnie know resurrection spells existed, because they're so dangerous and never work. Then, a few months later, she doesn't even make a peep like it'd be a bad idea to raise Buffy? That doesn't make any kind of sense."

"And Tara was all about the good sense," he said. "And what about Giles? He's got a brain the size of a planet, and he just walks out on Buffy when she's all recently resurrected and her friends are avoiding her because they feel guilty about bringing her back? Anyone could see she was ready to just hop right back into that grave."

"Yeah. After all the times Giles was the only person who could get through to her, and all the times he wanted her to depend on him more...he just went away. He was the only person who could have stopped half of the dumb things we did last year, and he just walked out on us. And if there's anyone we know who ought to know what sort of trouble a bunch of stupid, depressed, twenty-one-year-olds with no smart people watching out for them can get into, it's him."

"He has sorta been there, done that, bought the baggy sweater, hasn't he?"

Willow sat up and shrugged Xander's arms off her.

"I have an idea forming in my brain," she said.

"If it's the one where this First Evil manipulation has been going on longer than we thought, I'm right with you."

*****

Giles sighed and turned off the television - again. Two in the morning, and he still couldn't sleep, still couldn't find anything to watch, couldn't turn off his brain. He didn't like where his mind kept going, and felt sure Buffy wouldn't listen to him if he tried to share his thoughts. He pulled off his glasses and laid them on the nightstand - again. He laced his fingers behind his head and stared at the ceiling.

So many bizarre decisions had been made in the course of the past couple years. Some, obviously, could be chalked up to normal human fallibility. Others were harder to explain - even simply out of character for the people involved. Why on Earth would Tara and Anya have agreed to a resurrection spell? They were the only ones who understood exactly how dangerous an idea it was. Why would Buffy have turned from her friends and had an affair with Spike, of all...well, not people, since he wasn't one. Creatures? He wasn't quite sure how to end the question, aside from an expression of disbelief. And speaking of Spike, what had convinced him he was in love with Buffy in the first place? Why had he gotten a soul? And once he did, what made him come back and continue to treat Buffy so poorly and then emotionally blackmail her with this supposed soul of his?

He had to admit that even his own behavior wasn't exempt from scrutiny.

What had made him think Buffy was in any shape to be left alone like that? She had no job, no education, no parents, no money, too many responsibilities, and no hope. He knew what much of that was like from personal experience. At twenty-one he'd been broke, unemployable, and rebellious. He'd even been hopeless and briefly suicidal after Randall's death. If anyone could have got through to Buffy and made her whole again, it ought to have been him. There were so many better ways he could have handled the situation rather than leaving. He could have asked the Council for help. An ordinary psychologist would have locked Buffy up if she'd said what was wrong with her, but the Council had other resourses - *had* had other resources. When there was a Council.

And yet, he'd walked away from her and never told the Council where she'd spent the summer. Why was that?

His depressing reverie was interrupted by a tentative knock on the door.

"Giles?" Buffy whispered. "Are you still awake?"

He threw off the covers and padded over to the door. He opened it a crack and peered out.

"What are you doing still up?" he asked. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah," she said. "No vamps or Bringers or anything like that. I just...I couldn't sleep. Seems I'm not so good at being alone these days, after all. My head won't shut up."

He smiled down at her. She looked lovely in the pale blue nightgown, despite the black leather jacket slung over it in lieu of a robe. He was about to move back and open the door further when he realized he was wearing nothing but his boxer shorts.

"Well...Buffy, it's late, you know. Couldn't this wait until morning?"

"It is morning. It's been morning for two hours. If I don't hear someone else in the room breathing, I don't think I'm gonna get much sleep, and then what do you think everyone will think we were doing all night?"

"Are you suggesting we sleep togther so nobody will think we slept together? Is that it?"

"No. I'm suggesting if we sleep together we might actually sleep and then they won't think we had sex together. Plus, if we talk about the new theory I have, maybe we can convince them we really went out for dinner and a council of war."

So the whole thing had been a joke. He scowled at her.

"And goodness knows my privates are only good for pissing with," he muttered under his breath.

"Eiww. That was really gross, Giles. Did you have to say that about peeing? Open the door and let me in, will you?"

"Hang on a moment," he sighed, "and I'll put something on."

"What? You're naked in there?"

"Not entirely. And while we're on the subject what would be so shocking if I were? For all you know, I might sleep that way every night."

"Well so could I, but someone here assumed I needed a nightgown," she snapped. She made a small, frustrated sound. "Look, just get decent and let me in, okay? We need to talk."

"You'd already be inside if you hadn't stopped to make a fuss about what I do or don't wear to bed."

"No fussing going on," she said. "I'm completely fuss-free. Now hurry up. It's drafty out here."

He shut the door and went to put on his shirt and trousers. A wave of frustration surged through him. A part of him, he realized, had been hoping Buffy would come to him in the night. Now, here she was and it was about insomnia and business. He left his shirt only half buttoned, returned to the door, and opened it, allowing her silently in.

"Took you long enough," she grumbled as she slipped through the doorway. "At least you didn't shove a cross in my face. Though it wasn't very smart that you didn't check and make sure I'm not a vamp. They don't need invites to hotels, do they?"

"Not to get in the building, but they do to get in rented rooms, I believe. Now what's all this about a new theory?"

He seated himself at the desk and tried not to think about the way the light filtered through Buffy's nightgown, half revealing her shapely legs.

"Do you mind...?" she gestured vaguely toward the bed. "And do you have to sit all the way over there?"

"For the moment, if we're to discuss this groundbreaking theory of yours, yes."

"Well, is it okay if I warm up under the covers? Somebody went nuts with the air conditioning in this place."

"Be my guest."

She shrugged off the jacket and Giles found himself swallowing hard. The fabric of her nightgown was thin and more sheer than he'd realized when he bought it. If he concentrated, he felt sure he'd be able to tell whether she had any underpants on. Instead, he turned his attention to rummaging in the desk drawer for the inevitable pad of notepaper emblazoned with the hotel logo. He located it, then took his time testing the traditional hotel pen to see if - contrary to all experience - it worked. By some miracle, it did. When he turned to face Buffy again, she was under the covers and wearing a bemused smile.

"Are we ready now?" she asked humorously. "I don't really think you're going to have to take notes on this. It's pretty simple. And probably kinda nuts."

"Let me be the judge of that," he said. "Now, what is it you think you've come up with?"

"First Evil."

"Yes...? What about it?"

"How long do you think it's been playing us?"

"Well, we began seeing signs sometime early in the autumn, as I recall..."

"No, Giles." She shook her head and shot him a disgusted look. "Not 'how long have we known'; how long has it been playing us? How long have we been puppets on his string?"

He set down the pen and laughed mirthlessly as he rubbed his chin. Buffy looked wounded.

"I know I said it was crazy, but did you have to agree before you even hear the whole theory?" she asked.

"No, no, it's not that," he said. "More a case of...well, let's just say it's been a while since we've come to the same conclusion so quickly."

"Really?" She perked up instantly. "You thought the same thing as me? So, are you the crazy one, or is it still me?"

"Probably both of us."

"See, I figured that eyeball thingy you and Anya talked to said this was all about me being back, and then I got thinking about how I was back. I mean, I could kinda see Will deciding she wanted me here and deciding she could do it, so she should, and I could totally see Xand playing follow the leader on that, but Tara? And Anya? Tara's the one who tried to stop Dawn trying to bring Mom back, and Anya's been around the block a few million times and she knows what resurrection spells can do. Besides, she never liked me that much. I mean, we get along okay, I guess, but we were never really big fans of each others' work. So, I'm kinda guessing the big bad needs me here, and it pulled some cosmic strings to get me back. And that's why it's going after everyone else. It's messed with my head, but you'd think the first thing the First Evil would do is get rid of the Slayer. You know, the one whose been on the job for eight years and had two big death scenes to save the world?"

"And yet it hasn't moved directly against you or - to the best of our knowledge - Faith."

"God. I didn't even think of her. And she's sort of a sitting duck in prison, isn't she? Maybe somebody should warn her."

Giles stood and began to pace the room.

"Why would the First leave you unharmed?" he asked. "I don't understand it. If you were gone, and Faith was still alive but imprisoned, there would be no active Slayer to get in the way of its plans. Why bring you back at all?"

"Gee, thanks."

"You know I'm delighted to have you here. I simply don't understand why something so evil would want you. You're a force for good."

"And yet, I did some really not-good things last year. And I've kept them right up this year."

"You're hardly alone in that. It may take years to know which of your actions were truly yours, and which were manipulated by the First."

"If I can duck responsibility on even a couple, it'll be a relief."

Yes, well, I feel much the same way."

They shared an ironic smile, then Giles returned to his pacing. Buffy frowned.

"So...it needs me for some reason, but it's scared of me, too. And it needs you and it's scared of you."

"Me?" He stopped in his tracks. "What does it need with me?"

"I dunno," she shrugged, "but it does. If it didn't, I don't think you'd be here."

"I told you, that thing tried to kill me. I only survived because its shoes squeaked."

"And that's way sloppy, which we know these guys aren't. You should be dead. Just like me. I mean, they can hunt and fight without any eyes. They've killed off nobody can even guess how many Potentials and Watchers, and I don't have an easy time bringing the Bringers down. Not to doubt your fighting, 'cause I've seen you do some real damage to the baddies in a tight spot, but you shouldn't have been able to win. It let you live. There has to be a reason for that."

"And one assumes it's because the First knew I'd return to Sunnydale and you."

"Where I'd be playing house with your favorite undead party guy, Spike."

"Whereupon I would make a complete ass of myself out of jealousy and fear, and alienate you. Yes, I think I'm getting the picture now." He sat on the edge of the bed with a thump. "So...what you're saying is that the First needs us both in the same place...but with...an emotional gulf we can't bridge. Is that it?"

"Well, I was gonna go with 'in the same zip code but completely out of touch'. Pretty much the same thing, yeah."

"I suppose that means that together...truly together..."

"We can beat 'em. I'm thinking that's about the size of it."

"Why the hell did it take us so long to think of this?"

"Duh! We were being puppets, remember? I really hate those things. Always have. So, I guess in order to save the world, we need to kiss and make up."

"It's a sacrifice," he said with an exaggerated sigh, "but if I must..."

"Oh, you must, you must."

"How literal would you like this kiss to be?"

She blushed slightly, but smiled.

"Very, if it's not too much trouble."

*****

Spike slumped back on his cot. He pulled out his lighter and rummaged around for his cigarette pack. When he found it, he shook it only to find it empty. With a disgusted snort, he lobbed it across the room, then sent the lighter flying after it.

"Careful," came a pouty voice from the shadows. "If I was solid, that would have been painful."

"Sorry, Pet," he muttered insincerely. "I didn't mean to not hurt you."

Buffy's giggle bubbled up in the dark corner.

"I always liked the pain, Spike. Giving it...receiving it...the pain turned me on more than you can imagine. That's why you're here. Hurt me some more, Spike. I want it."

"You sure you shouldn't be Dru about now?" he asked sardonically. "That really sounded more her line."

The being sauntered into the light. It still wore Buffy's face.

"But it's true," it said. "You know it's what I wanted. Even when I fought, I wanted it. All women want to be dominated."

"Look, I'm not completely stupid," he retorted. "I do know Buffy is out tonight. And if you think ol' Rupes is going to dominate her...well..." he began to chuckle. "That's just too funny."

"She's out?" the ersatz Buffy demanded. "With him?"

"Never thought it would happen, but it seems she's finally taken off the bloody blinders. Not that he'll get lucky tonight. She's a right tease when she wants to be." When there was no reply, the vampire looked about himself. He shook his head in disgust. "So glad you could drop in," he muttered. "Come back when you can stay for a cup of tea, why don't you?"

He double-checked the space under his cot for more cigarettes.

*****

"Don't do this," Giles said quietly, "unless you're absolutely certain it's what you want. If you're going to regret kissing me in the morning, then go back to your room, and we'll forget anything was said."

She looked at him seriously. As if compelled, she trailed her fingers gently down his cheek.

"Stubbly," she observed with a small smile. "But nice."

Her fingers continued their exploration, discovering the shape of his lips, the slight crook in the bridge of his nose, skimming softly over the furrows of his forehead. At last, she traced the shape of his eyebrows and smiled at him. He let out the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. She leaned toward him.

"I want it," she said finally. "But not now. Not like this. If we did this now, there would always be this question of whether we were doing it because we want to or because this is what some cosmic Pooh-Bah has wanted us to do all along. I want my free will back. When I kiss you, I want you to know it's really me, for all the right reasons."

His lips twitched slightly, despite his disappointment. Suddenly, he realized that he was feeling something else: gratitude. He was touched that she wanted to wait for it to be indisputably right. His hand reached up to caress her cheek.

"You truly are a miracle," he said.

She ducked her head to hide her blush. When she looked up, her expression was nervous.

"Could I...maybe stay here, even if all we do is sleep?" she asked hesitantly. "I know it's sort of a lot to ask, but I feel like I've been alone so long. Even with that whole houseful of people...I know it's stupid, but I kept feeling like I was alone no matter what I did or who I was with. So could we just sort of be here together? Or will you be all frustrated and snarky if we do that?"

With a small smile, he nodded.

"I'll just turn out the light," he said. "I might get frustrated, but I'll do my best not to be snarky."

He got up and took care of the aforementioned light. As he lay down next to Buffy, she looked at him with a smile.

"You know", she said, "you don't have to keep all your clothes on, if you don't want. I promise not to peek, even."

"I don't mind," he said a bit stiffly.

"Maybe not, but I do. More togetherness is better, Giles. And from what I've seen tonight, you don't have much to be ashamed of in the body department. Come on. It can't be comfortable to sleep in your pants. Anyway, you'll get them all wrinkly."

Giles almost protested, but then he decided that sleeping in his trousers would, indeed, be uncomfortable, and slipped them off. His fingers hesitated at his shirt buttons.

"I've seen chests before," Buffy said sleepily. "Just take it off and come to bed."

"Why this sudden fetish for undressing me?"

"Consider it a preview of coming attractions."

"You're getting all the previews."

"Too sleepy for this talk. Come lie down with me and shut up."

He shrugged the shirt off his shoulders, lay down next to her, and closed his eyes. A moment later, a warm, female form pressed against him.

"Giles?"

"Yes, Buffy."

"You know I love you, right?"

"Of course I do," he said. "And you know the feeling is mutual, don't you?"

"Yeah. I know." She rolled over and wrapped an arm around his bare abdomen. "Apart from being a little weird...it's not too bad."

He chuckled and took her in his arms.

"It's not bad at all," he said. "In fact, I'm rather pleased."

They gave one another a light squeeze and settled down to go to sleep.

*****

"...and I like watermelon Jolly Ranchers, and my favorite TV show is Survivor...but my Watcher hated it. He used to tell me it was sapping out my brains," Kennedy said. "I miss him," she added quietly after a moment. "He was my whole family from as far back as I can remember. I guess that's about it."

She sat back down. Everyone was quiet at first. It felt a bit to Dawn like introductions at summer camp, when nobody was quite sure what to do afterwards. She guessed somebody had to be the cousellor and come up with the next game.

"Anybody want to play Truth or Dare?" she asked.

A figure in the hall came to a halt.

"Oooh, I love that game," Andrew said popping into the doorway. "Can I play too?"

The Potentials eyed one another. For the first time ever, they all seemed to be sharing one thought.

"Sure," Molly said a little too brightly. "We'd love you to come play. Who goes first?"

"Can I?" Amanda asked. When the others nodded, she turned on Andrew. "Truth or Dare?"

"Ummm...Truth," he chose.

"Are you gay?"

*****

"The sorority at the top of the stairs has been awfully quiet," Xander observed as he flipped through the book Willow had handed him.

"Kennedy's up there," she shrugged. "She'll keep it under control."

He nodded and went back to his reading. A minute later, he looked up again.

"Will? Do you really think we'll find anything in the notes?"

"I'm not sure," she admitted. "It's sort of all I could think of to do about our breakthrough theory...look stuff up...try to find some proof before Buffy and Giles get back so we can make 'em listen. If they'll listen. Buffy hasn't been really open to suggestions for a while."

"And Giles hasn't exactly been open-minded man, either. Not that we've been saying a whole lot worth hearing."

"Stop beating yourself up, Xand. We can mentally berate ourselves later. Right now, I think we should probably make with the helpful."

"I'm making. I'm helping. I'm starving. Think there are any cheesy chips left?"

"I ate the last ones this afternoon. Sorry. What time is it?"

Xander checked his watch.

"Two-fifteen. Why?"

"Shouldn't Buffy and Giles be...y'know...back by now?"

"Oh, I forgot to tell you. Giles called. They're not coming back tonight. And that's what I call a successful first date."

"So you think they're...y'know...doing it?"

"Will, we're all grown up now. I think we can say the words. They're doing the horizontal bop."

"Rockin' the casbah?" she giggled.

"Makin' bacon," he grinned.

"Making love like crazed weasels."

They stopped laughing and grimaced slightly.

"We're sick for thinking about this, aren't we?" Xander asked.

"Maybe just a little. But it's been so long since there's been a real good, maybe it's not so sick to be happy for them. I miss laughing with Buffy."

"Yeah. And I sorta miss teasing Giles until he stops being stuffy and zings me good. I want our friends back."

Willow reached out and took his hand.

"Me, too," she said seriously. "And I think maybe we should tell them that when they get here."

"Want to lay off the research and see if there's a really dumb infomercial on?"

"Sure. I don't think we're gonna find the answers between the covers. The...book covers."

"Only covers I was thinking of, Will," he said quickly. "And has anyone ever told you what a crime it is to bogart the cheesy chips? Infomercials just aren't the same without 'em."

They closed their books and headed for the sofa. As Xander picked up the remote, he turned to Willow.

"Y'know," he said, "I could get used to a life like this. My best friend sharing the tacky with me while our best friends get happy. Give me a love life and a toilet that isn't constantly threatening to overflow, and I'd be one happy guy."

"Maybe some living room windows that don't need replacing every couple weeks would be nice, too," she added.

Xander stopped flipping channels.

"Oooh!" he exclaimed. "Exercise equipment we'll never use. Wanna watch this one?"

"If we can't find Ginzu knives, yeah."

Willow pulled the comforter over herself and her best friend as they giggled at the overblown sales pitch.

*****

It took some time, but Buffy eventually settled down and went to sleep. Giles held her close. Her body felt so small, yet so overwhelming, curled up next to him that he wondered if he would sleep at all. For some reason he couldn't articulate in his own mind, he felt a need to stay awake and protect her. In all their years together, he'd rarely felt that need. Training, camaraderie, cajoling, providing emotional support in his admittedly clumsy way, even occasionally making her face up to facts she didn't want to, yes, but not protection. That wasn't what a Slayer needed.

But he wasn't lying in bed with the Slayer; he was with Buffy.

He gently brushed a strand of hair from her face as she slept.

"Mmmm...I remember how that felt," came a voice from across the room. "For a guy who could barely get a sentence out sometimes, you could be awfully eloquent with your hands."

He looked up and swallowed hard, pulling Buffy closer.

"You're not Jenny," he said.

"Sure I am. I'm anyone I want to be. Well, anyone who's died. I couldn't be any of your other old lovers, but I was your favorite, anyway...until she grew up," the First nodded at Buffy's sleeping form. "Now...well, you know if I was still alive, you'd have betrayed me by this time, don't you?"

"That isn't true." He swallowed hard.

"Isn't it? You gave me up for her adolescent hissy fit. It got me killed just when we were getting back together. That must eat you up inside, Rupert. She even stopped you from avenging my death."

"She saved me. She kept me alive."

"And you resented that for a long time, didn't you? Be honest. You still do, sometimes. You wanted to give up. You wanted it over, and she took away your excuse. You're a pathetic little man, aren't you? Always running away, always hiding whatever you feel, always ashamed. Does she know you're a cold-blooded killer?"

"I'm not." His voice shook, but his gaze remained steely.

"Aren't you?" The form morphed suddenly into Ben. "You killed me. You killed Jenny, you killed Randall, and you were ready to kill Dawn. Sounds pretty much like a serial killer to me. Oh, and I know how much you want Spike dead, too. Not just gone, that's not what you really want. You want his dust blowing in the wind. Not that I can blame you for that one. She's pretty obsessed with him. She'll always compare you, you know. And let's face it, a fifty-year-old has-been is never going to measure up to a vampire with six-pack abs. You know when she wakes up in the morning, you won't be the one she wants to see. She'll be off with the next guy who's younger, better looking, or just less work. Hell, she almost picked me, and she did pick two dead men over you. She's nothing but a heartbreak waiting to happen, and you're next on the list. And you'll let her grind you into the dust, because you're too weak to leave her again."

Giles squeezed his eyes shut and tried to will the voice from his mind. He knew what this was; knew that listening to it would only poison his soul. Still, it voiced every fear, every painful self-doubt, every insecurity and harsh fact until the mounting evidence of his uselessness and moral bankruptcy seemed irrefutable. He wanted desperately to lash out, but the thing was incorporeal. It would be a foolish waste of energy and a sign of capitulation. He wouldn't give up like that. He couldn't. And yet, it was so tempting to simply give in to the dark side of his nature; to shake off everything proper and safe about himself.

"Go away," he hissed. "I'm not what you say I am. And Buffy is better than that."

"Really?" came a new and yet more sardonic voice. "And does she know you lusted after her even when she was a student? I was just waiting for you to slip up and give me some proof you were teaching her more than History in that library."

"Wonderful," Giles muttered. "Herr Snyder. Just who I most wanted to see."

"She'd be disgusted if she knew some of the things you thought about her then. She'd run screaming into the night...and then she'd come back and kill you, you big pervert. That time you dreamed about doing it with her and the computer teacher on my desk - my desk! not even yours - revolting."

The faux Snyder looked disconcerted when Giles began to giggle.

"Stop that!"

"Or what? You were a sniveling little weasel in life, and you're still one in death. A petty, trumped up, hateful Facist who got his kicks by lording it over schoolchildren because he was always the one picked last for the team. You're pathetic. If you weren't such an utter nonentity, I might even feel sorry for you."

His victory was short-lived, however, as the First turned changed persona again. Giles felt the blood drain from his face and his stomach turn sour.

"You aren't real," he reminded himself. "You're not here."

"That's where you're wrong, Rupert. I'm always here. I'll never go away. And no matter what, she'll always pick me over you. Has she looked at your back yet? Has she seen the souvenirs from the night she hung you out to dry? Does she know the memories still make you drink until you fall down to keep from crying? Man! What wouldn't I give for a solid body and a chainsaw right now. Because...I really want to torture you again."

*****

Andrew came barreling down the stairs, half a dozen Potentials in close pursuit.

"You have to answer, or you have to take a dare. That's the rules," Amanda insisted.

"What makes you think I even know any Barbra Streisand songs?" he asked, almost in tears. "And I can't sing standing on my head."

"You wouldn't answer the question," Kennedy repeated. "You have to take the dare or you're even more of a wuss than I thought...and that's pretty bad."

"What's going on?" Willow asked.

"Andrew won't play the game right," Dawn said.

"They didn't say they were going to ask such an embarrassing question," Andrew whined. "You guys are as mean as...as...Romulans! Only not as smart."

Xander took one look at the potential violence brewing in the Potentials and counseled Andrew wisely.

"I'd shut up about now, if I were you...which I'm very glad I'm not. Why are you still living here, anyway?"

"Because...the Slayer is protecting me from the First."

"More like because she hasn't bothered to throw you out. If you really want to stay here and be protected, I think you're gonna have to make a serious effort to be a lot less annoying and a lot more helpful. These girls don't look like they're very interested in protecting you from anything."

"But...I'm an innocent with vital information."

"No. You're a weasly little coward who won't take responsibility for all the pain and suffering he's caused who *used* to have some helpful information, which we already beat out of you."

"I'm also the chef."

"Show of hands," Xander said to the Potentials. "Who here thinks Andrew's cooking is enough reason to have him here hogging the bathroom and bugging the hell out of us?"

Not a single hand went up for a long time. Finally, Willow raised hers. Xander and the Potentials stared at her.

"He makes good blintzes," she said sheepishly. "And he's sort of pathetic with no friends or anything...not that I want to be friends. Sorry, Andrew. No offense."

"None taken," he mumbled.

"So, if you want to stay," Xander continued, "you'll have to behave yourself...and you can start by playing the game right. What did they ask you?"

Andrew shifted from foot to foot for a moment. At last he went into a corner, got into an awkward, wobbly headstand and started singing.

"Hello, Dolly..."

The Potentials grinned and high-fived one another. Dawn hugged Xander. Everybody laughed.

Until the window shattered and five Bringers burst into the room.

*****

The creature smirked at Giles with Angelus' face.

"What's the matter, Rupert? Cat got your tongue? You know, I didn't even slice it to ribbons last time. Some silly thing about you needing it to betray your Slayer with. But this time..." he broke into a sardonic laugh. "You should see the look on your face. It's really something."

"Get out. You're not real."

"Of course I'm real. I'm your worst nightmare. Actually, I'm a lot of people's worst nightmare, but pretty much all of them are dead."

"You can't manipulate me anymore. I know who you are."

The entity shrugged.

"But you're so fun to play with," it said. "A challenge. So smart, so strong...and yet, so fragile. You're just like her. You come off like nothing gets to you, like you've got no emotions, but you're both so needy inside. You need approval, unconditional love...and neither one of you ever gets it. And you never will."

The creature disappeared.

Buffy squirmed a bit in Giles' arms. He realized how hard he'd been holding her, and did his best to relax his grip. Still, it wasn't enough. She blinked sleepily up at him.

"Wha's wrong?" she asked. "Can't you sleep?"

"I - I'm sorry," he said. "Bad dream. I didn't mean to wake you."

She pulled back slightly from his chest and made a face.

"You're all sweaty, and your heart's going a mile a minute. Must have been a doozy. You want to talk about it?"

"Not especially."

With a small frown of determination, Buffy reached over and turned on the bedside lamp. She pushed her pillows up so she could prop herself upright against them, and wriggled into a sitting position.

"Tough. Talk."

"Buffy...do we really need to go into this now? It's three in the bloody morning."

"Was it something to do with what's going on with the First?"

He sighed and sat up next to her.

"Actually," he said, "it was a visit from the First."

"Who was it?"

"Who wasn't it? It...it started out as Jenny. Then it became Ben, then Snyder."

"Ick. No wonder you're freaked. Anybody else?"

"It saved the best for last. Angelus. Not Angel, mind, but...Angelus."

"Wait a minute, I thought it could only show up as someone who's dead. Angel's alive, last I heard, and Angelus is...not really him, but he can't exactly be here if Angel isn't. Every sighting we know about, the person has been dead. Are you saying it can be anyone at all, like Artemus Gordon? That we can't be sure who it is until we put our hands straight through them?"

"Angel is alive," Giles said slowly, "but he hasn't always been, has he? He died. He died and was reborn as a vampire, and then he died and was brought back from Hell. Perhaps...all it takes is having been dead. We know it appeared to Willow as Cassie, and it may or may not have manifested itself to Dawn as your mother. All the Potentials saw it as Eve. Who did it appear to Spike as?"

"You know, I don't think he ever said. Every time it came up, he sorta skirted the issue and we never pushed him on it. We never used to be that sloppy about clues. When we get home, we'll grill him and we won't stop until we get an answer." She reached out to smooth his hair and quirked a wry smile at him. "So, do I want to know what it said to you? Did it...did it say stuff about me at all?"

"It was all lies," he said softly as he took her hand. "That and truths twisted out of recognition."

She nodded and looked down at their linked hands.

"I'll take that as a big yes," she said. "It said you can't trust this, didn't it? That I'll let you down and hurt you, like I always have before?"

"You haven't," he protested.

"I have. And you've hurt me. Doesn't matter. That's all the past. We're here now, and we're together. I'm not saying I'll never do anything stupid again; I can't say that without poking my nose through the opposite wall. But I'm going to do my best." She leaned in and touched her lips gently to his. "It's you and me all the way, from now on, no matter what."

"Unconditional love," he breathed softly.

"The unconditionalest. Is that a word?"

"Perhaps not officially, but I rather think it should be. And you kissed me."

"Took you long enough to say anything about it," she grinned. "It's okay I did that, right?"

"It was...um...very okay." He traced the curve of her cheek with his fingers. "Would it be okay if I kissed you back?"

"I think it would be very okay if you did."

His hand moved to the back of her head as he leaned in. She moved one arm around his neck and touched the other to his chest. Their lips met for the second time, still gently, a bit curiously. This kiss lasted longer than the first. When he pulled reluctantly back, she made a small sound of protest and brought his lips to hers again. Soon he was kissing and nuzzling her entire face and throat hungrily. She met his caresses with obvious pleasure and mounting passion.

"Please," she whispered. "Please, Giles, don't ever stop."

*****

"Weapons!" Xander yelled. "Now!"

Dawn raced for the stairs as Xander hurled the nearest lamp at one of the eyeless attackers. Potentials scattered, grabbing whatever objects they could find to hand. More girls tumbled down to the living room to join the battle. Andrew screamed and scrambled for the relative safety behind the couch. As a Bringer moved in for the kill, Kennedy threw herself on the creature, grappling desperately with it.

*****

Buffy took Giles' hand and placed it firmly over the fullness of her breast. He groaned at the delicious sensation. His kisses trailed down her throat to the swell of her bosom until he could swirl his tongue over the hardened nipple through her nightgown. She gasped and whimpered in pleasure.

"Stop that right now, young lady!"

"What...?" Buffy said breathlessly. She stiffened and sat up.

"I can't believe you're doing that with a man old enough to be your father. And one I'd already been with. Didn't I raise you better than that?"

"Buffy? What's wrong?" Giles asked. "Have you changed your mind?"

She shook her head to clear it. Her mother was still visible over her lover's shoulder.

"You're not her," she told the apparition. "You're not my mother."

Giles turned, but saw nothing. He took Buffy's hand.

"It's the First," he said. "Don't listen to it."

"Well duh!" She said. "I had that figured out."

Despite her careless words, she clung to him and squeezed her eyes shut.

"He always told you not to listen to me. He always got between us," the creature continued. "If it hadn't been for him, we would never have fought as much as we did. He drove a wedge between us for so long, honey. He didn't want you to have anyone but him in your life. He stole your childhood, your future, your life. And he lied to you. He almost got us both killed that time, remember? How can you trust this man? He'll just hurt you again, like every other man in your life."

"He won't," Buffy said shakily. "He won't hurt me again."

"Yes he will, and it's what you want," the First morphed and there stood Spike. She shrank further into Giles' arms as the false image of the vampire approached. "He doesn't know, but you won't think he's a man unless he causes you some pain. You say you want it gentle, but you don't. You want it to hurt. You want it to be punishment, just like it's been ever since the first time. That's why you couldn't ever really give yourself to your pretty, poncey soldier boy. And this one'll hate you if he ever learns exactly what a perverted little slut you are. He'll leave you, just like all the others...and then you'll be mine."

*****

"Duck!" Amanda yelled.

She swung her axe. Rona dropped to the floor. A second later, the Bringers' head landed next to her. The two girls shared a relieved smile and moved on to their next targets.

"What the bloody hell is going on?" demanded a voice from the kitchen. "Can't a fellow brood in peace around here?"

Spike appeared in the doorway.

"Grab a weapon, or get the hell out," Xander gritted out. He managed to shove a Bringer away, but more seemed to come every second. "You want me to tell Buffy you wouldn't fight?"

"Well, if you put it that way," the vampire shrugged. A moment later, he'd set fire to one Bringer with his cigarette lighter and kneed a second one in the groin. "Beats sitting about brooding."

"Where are they coming from?" Molly asked. "How can we kill them all?"

"Keep swinging," Kennedy ordered. "Every one we kill is one more we're done with."

"Why are they doing this?" Willow asked. "I've never seen so many in one place before."

She cast an immobilization spell on a pair of Bringers. Two Potentials moved in for the killing blow with kitchen knives.

"Who cares why they're here?" Kennedy yelled. "Keep hitting them!"

"We must be doing something right," Xander surmised as he fought off another Bringer. "This feels like Custer's last stand, and I really hope we're not Custer."

*****

"Look at me, Buffy," Giles urged her. "Look at me, dammit!"

"I can't," she protested, burying her face harder into his shoulder. "It's right. How could anybody love someone like me?"

"Couldn't," the Spike-faced apparition said cheerfuly. "You're a right waste of space. You've pushed all your friends away, driven off any decent man who might have loved you...even your own dad wouldn't stick around. You know he took one look at you and decided no more kiddies, don't you? So did your mum. The only reason you've got a sister is those meddling monks, and even they couldn't create something that would love you back. Little Bit resents the hell out of you, you know. She was glad when you ended it all. She'd dance if you did it again. They all would. There's nothing in the world they've regretted as much as bringing you back for another sodding encore."

"Don't listen to it," Giles said. "Whatever it's saying, it's wrong. It isn't telling you the truth."

"How do you know that?" Buffy demanded. "You don't know what I've done...what I've been like."

"I know you. No matter what you think you've done that's so horrible, it doesn't change what you are to me."

"That's what he says now," the creature said as it morphed yet again into Angelus. "But we both know how much you can rely on that, don't we? He'll do exactly what I did: he'll get you into bed and then turn his back on you. Let's face it, he's abandoned you already, and that was before he found out how cold you are, how unresponsive, how you just lie there and take it. You make the guy do all the work, and then you can still pretend you're a good girl...but you're not. You created monsters. You turned me into a killer, and Riley into a vampire bite junkie. You turned Spike into a rapist. None of us would have been those things if it wasn't for you, spreading your thighs like a penance. What do you think Giles will do if you let him into your bed? Maybe you'll even find out why they called him 'Ripper'."

She nearly leapt off the bed and stood trembling in a corner of the room. Giles approached her carefully, as he would a wounded wild animal.

"Buffy," he said in a quiet, coaxing tone, "it's all right. I won't hurt you. Just try to tell me what it's saying, if you can. If you talk to me, I can help you."

"Yeah, why don't you talk to him," the entity sneered. "You know he'll never tell you the truth. He'll just say whatever it takes to get you back in that bed."

"Stop it!" Buffy yelled. "Stop saying that!"

"What is it saying? Tell me."

She turned her head away from Giles.

"I can't trust you," she whispered. "And I can't trust me with you."

"That's right," the Angelus-faced creature said. "You can't trust anybody."

"Look at me, Buffy," Giles urged. "You have to trust yourself. Whatever you decide about me, you must trust yourself."

"Why should I? Everything I touch, I destroy. Angel, Riley, even Spike. I ruined them all, and for what? Tell me what for!"

"You didn't harm them," Giles said. "Angel was cursed, Riley had issues none of us could have guessed at, and as for Spike...how the hell does one ruin something already so ruined? And what about me? What of Willow and Xander? We have all gained from knowing you."

"No you haven't. I've let you all get hurt, and I've hurt you myself."

"That may be true, but I don't think any of us would prefer not to have you in our lives. I know that I've gained more than I've lost being with you."

"He lost a girlfriend he really loved," the creature reminded Buffy. "He should have spent most of a summer in the hospital after what you let me do to him, but he spent it chasing after any clue to find you. He did permanent damage to himself because you were hiding."

"Remember the summer you disappeared?" Giles said. "I spent the entire time searching for you. I didn't care about the expense or the frustration, so long as I could see you again. When you came back, it was all I could do not to take you in my arms and weep for joy. I ought to have done it and damn the consequences."

She looked up at him at last. Tears tracked down her cheeks. She was still trembling.

"R-really" she gulped.

"Really, Buffy. It wasn't like this, but I loved you even then. So many things have changed over the years, but that never has. It never will change. I love you."

"Don't listen to him," the First hissed in her ear. "Nobody could love you. You're not worth it."

"Look in my eyes, Buffy," Giles said. "Look in them, and you'll know."

He held out his hand to her. She looked back at the floor for a moment. Finally, she raised her eyes to his and looked into them. At last, she spoke.

"Turn around."

"What...?"

"Turn around. Let me see your back."

Giles looked at her with a confused expression, but did as she asked. She moved closer. First, she inspected him with her eyes, then her fingers joined in. Her brows drew together as she touched his skin. There were several long scars, but nothing like the horrors her mind had envisioned when she thought of what might have been done to him that night.

"It's not so bad," she said slowly. "I thought it would be worse."

"It seemed bad enough at the time. But it's a wonder what vitamin E can do to reduce scarring."

She laid her hand flat against his back. She could feel every muscle tense. Slowly, she moved closer and slid her arms around his waist.

"It's my fault," she said quietly. "I should have gone faster. Should have saved you. I won't make that mistake again."

His hands covered hers over his belly. A moment later, he turned in her arms.

"You can't do this!" the First howled. "You should both be slitting your wrists by now!"

"Oh shut up," Buffy told the creature. "You're not worth listening to. And while you're at it, would you just go away? We really don't need an audience."

The beast gave an unearthly scream and popped out of the room. Buffy reached her arms around Giles' neck and smiled at him.

"Now, where were we before we were so rudely interrupted?"

He lowered his lips to hers and proceeded to make up for lost time.

*****

Xander hauled back his fist to punch a Bringer, when suddenly, all the eyeless minions stopped fighting and began to leave.

"Yeah," he taunted them to their backs, "we won. That's right! Go back and tell your evil master that we were too much for you!" He turned to Willow. "How were we too much for them? We shouldn't have won, should we?"

"I don't know. I'm just kinda glad we did. I guess we better see how the troops came through it."

They turned and surveyed the battlefield. Amanda was doing her best to staunch the flow of blood from a gash on her forehead, Dawn cradled her left arm carefully, several other girls were obviously wounded to one degree and another. They all stared at Rona, who lay still in the middle of the room, her eyes wide and sightless. Near her, there was a pile of dust. For a long moment, nobody said anything. At last, Xander moved to Dawn's side.

"Come on, Dawnster," he said quietly. "We better get you to the emergency room."

One by one, the small army rose. The wounded girls were helped out to Xander's car by their comrades. Kennedy found a blanket to put over Rona's body. At last, Willow moved to the kitchen to get the Dustbuster.

"Sorry, Spike," she told the dustpile, "but I can't sweep on the carpet."

She turned on the small vacuum cleaner.

*****

Giles swept Buffy up into his arms and carried her to the bed. As he laid her down, he noticed her puzzled expression.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

"It's nothing," she said. "It's just...do you think it'll be back?"

"It's the First Evil. I rather doubt you destroyed it entirely. On the other hand, I get the impression that it's done with us for the time being."

"That's what I thought. I can't believe it gave up because we told it to go away so we can...y'know...be together."

He smiled at the blush that suffused her face.

"It spent a great deal of time and effort on keeping us apart," he said. "I'm still not sure why it did, but...well..." He trailed off, unsure how she would take the rest of his thought.

"If the badness wants us miles and miles away from each other, that's a pretty good reason to stick together," she finished with a grin. "It's kinda proof positive that us is a good thing. Isn't it?"

"The best thing." He kissed her softly.

"No," she said with a shake of her head. "This is the best thing."

She pulled him close and kissed him more deeply that she had before. His response was immediate and eager. Their tongues mingled and danced as their hands began to wander across one anothers' bodies.

"Buffy?" he asked breathlessly.

"Uh huh?"

"Do you...do you want...?"

"To do this now?" she asked.

"I-I know it's late, and I'd understand if...you didn't..."

She pressed a finger against his lips.

"If you stop now, I won't be responsible for the consequences," she said.

He smiled, then took the fingertip into his mouth and sucked on it briefly. His tongue fluttered against the sensitive pad, making Buffy shiver with desire.

"Then I suppose I'd best carry on," he chuckled.

No," she said. "*We'd* best carry on."

She rolled them until she was on top and kissed her way down his throat. His hands trailed up her legs starting at her calves, inching her nightgown up until his hands rested on her bared buttocks. He caressed the firm globes as she moved down to run her tongue over his erect nipple. She groaned when she felt his cock growing harder against her groin. His finger dipped between her cheeks, down the cleft to her womanhood. Buffy gasped and renewed her oral ministrations on Giles' chest.

"So wet," he murmured. "I can't wait to be inside you.

His finger brushed lightly against her clitoris. She jumped and moaned, then pressed eagerly back against him.

"I want you, Giles," she breathed. "I want to make you feel good."

She moved further down his body. They both made disappointed sounds when his finger could no longer keep contact with her moist core, but she kept going until she was face to face with his boxers. She ran one hand over the large bulge in them, and smiled when he groaned and thrust his hips.

"Like that, huh?" she grinned.

"Undress me," he whispered. "Please, I want to be naked with you."

His request sent a bolt of pure desire shooting through her core. She leaned down and gently nuzzled him through his boxers for a moment, her lips finding the shape of him, the thickness of his cock, the heavy warmth of his balls. Her fingers slid under the elastic of his underwear, and she drew it down his legs, carefully releasing his erection. It sprang out, long, thick, and uncircumsized from a tangle of coarse brown hairs. A drop of precum sat poised on the slit.

Buffy tossed the boxers aside and took a moment to slip her nightgown off. Giles looked up at her, heavy-lidded.

"So beautiful," he said. "You're so very beautiful."

"Look who's talking," she joked breathlessly even as she blushed again. "You're pretty impressive with no clothes on."

He laughed happily. Buffy had to giggle at the way his cock bobbed up and down. Suddenly, she felt a surge of regret go through her. She lay down with her head on his hip.

"Buffy?" he asked. "What's wrong?"

He could feel her head shake against him.

"You should have laughed more," she said. "You should have been happy, but I've hardly ever seen you really be that way. I wish I'd made you happy more often than I did."

His hand stroked her hair. He spoke gently to her.

"You've always made me happy. Over the years...I've been so proud of you. I know I didn't say it. Emotion isn't my forte, as it were. My feelings have changed with time, but pride, affection, and...amusement have always been there. I ought to have shown you how I felt more often. Said more. But you have always brought me joy."

"Really?"

"Really."

She moved up to kiss him.

"There were a lot of times I could have made it easier to say what you were feeling, too," she said. "And from now on, I want regular declarations of love out of you." She jabbed him playfully in the ribs to emphasize her point. He jumped away and giggled.

"I adore you, Buffy," he said through his laughter.

"Right back at you, Sweetie," she giggled back. "Now where was I? Oh yeah! I remember."

She kissed her way back down his belly until she reached his manhood. It had softened a bit during their talk, but was still half hard. She wrapped a hand around him and stroked firmly, but gently. He groaned and brought his hand down to show her the pressure and speed he liked best. Together, they pumped him until he was back to his full size. Then, she took the head in her mouth and swirled her tongue over him.

His hand moved to her hair, not guiding her movements, but following them, encouraging them. He spread his legs wider and reached his other hand between them to fondle his balls. Buffy took him deeper, sucking him hungrily. His moans increased in volume.

"Don't think...I can last much longer," he gasped after a few minutes of intense stimulation. "Want to...be inside you."

She gave a final suck and released him from her mouth. Moving up beside him, she nuzzled his throat and wrapped an arm around his middle.

"Did you know you taste good?" she asked.

"Do I?" he whispered back as he kissed her cheek. "That's good to know."

He took her lips in a carnal kiss, their tongues slipping against one another. Rolling atop her, he grinned dangerously.

"Now, I wonder how you taste," he said.

He kissed and nibbled his way down her torso, stopping along the way to nurse at her nipples. Her thighs opened to cradle him as he moved still further down her body. He could feel her trembling in anticipation by the time he reached his goal. Pausing briefly, he took in the sight and scent of her sex. His cock twitched with desire. His tongue darted out and flicked across Buffy's nether lips.

"Oh God," she breathed.

He smiled and pressed wet kisses all around her pubic nest, then lowered his head and began to lick her in earnest. His hands slid under her buttocks as he thrust his tongue into her channel, drinking in the nectar that flowed so copiously from her. Her hips rocked involuntarily. Her hands clutched the bedding desperately. Giles' tongue moved to encircle the tiny nub of her clitoris. Over and over again, it swirled over the engorged button until she was certain her body would explode from so much pleasure. Moments later, her thighs tensed and a keening wail rose in her throat. The explosion came. Even as she reached her orgasm, he kept up his ministrations, altering them to prolong her excitement, and then to help her calm down. His kisses gentled, and his caresses became soothing rather than exciting. She trembled as aftershocks of intense delight coursed through her.

At last, he gave a final kiss to her nether lips and slid up beside her. She nestled against his side, still occasionally shuddering.

"Liked that, did you?" he asked smugly.

She mock glared at him.

"If I wasn't so blissed out, I'd wipe that wise-ass look off your face," she giggled. "And yes, I liked. I liked a lot. Now, what about you?"

"What about me?"

"Are you ready to last more than a minute? 'Cause I really, really want you now."

He looked about himself.

"Where's my jacket?" he asked.

Buffy blinked.

"Okay...as non-sequiturs go, that was world class."

Giles rolled his eyes.

"I have some condoms in the pocket," he explained.

"You mean, we were both packing?" she giggled.

"You...you had...?"

"Will gave them to me right before you came downstairs. As soon as I saw you, I knew it was a good idea."

"Well, Willow always was an intelligent girl."

Buffy jumped off the bed and grabbed her jacket because it was closer. She grabbed out a foil packet and returned to the bed. Giles was already lying on his back, so she straddled his thighs and opened the slip. She rolled it over his hard length, then positioned herself above him.

"Ready or not, here I come," she teased.

"You're not the only one," he returned in a strained tone of voice.

He used his fingers to part her nether lips while she held his penis steady and lowered herself onto him. Slowly, she worked her way down him until he was fully imbedded inside her. They both groaned happily at the feeling of completion. She slid up and down him at a painfully slow pace for a while, but soon the urgency grew too strong for langour. Buffy began to ride him faster and faster. His hands reached for her breasts, teasing the nipples as his hips rose and fell to match her thrusts.

"It's so good, so good," she whimpered.

Her passion inflamed him all the more. His hands moved to her hips and he began to thrust even harder. She took him with a strength and joy that delighted him. With Herculean effort, he pulled her off himself. She looked confused and hurt at first, but soon realized he was merely changing positions. He lay her down on her back and settled himself between her thighs. A moment later, he was pistoning into her again, her legs clamping around his waist. She held his head to her breast so he could suckle it as they made love.

"Yeah, yeah, that's good," she murmured. "So close, so close. Keep going, Giles, I'm almost there."

His hand moved between them to tease her clitoris. That was all it took. Buffy cried out her release. Giles moved harder and faster. Moments later, his own orgasm overtook him. He gritted his teeth and did his best not to shout as the first stream of seed shot out of him. Wave after wave swept over him, each one slightly smaller than the last.

When the last one had passed, he collapsed, exhausted and sweaty on his lover. Their hearts continued to pound as they recovered from the exercise. She stroked his hair while he dropped soft, nuzzling kisses on her shoulder and throat. At last, he raised his head and looked in her eyes. They were still passion-dark and limpid with sated desire.

"You're so beautiful," he said.

"You're not so bad, yourself," she grinned back.

They kissed softly, then he withdrew to take care of the condom. When he returned to the bed, she had gotten under the covers, still naked. He decided that wasn't a bad idea, and left his boxers on the floor and climbed in beside her.

A few more kisses, a few more sleepy endearments, and they both fell asleep.

*****

Some hours later, after they had returned to the house and been told of what had happened while they were gone, Giles walked out to the back porch. Buffy was already there, staring moodily into the distance. He sat beside her.

"Are you all right?" he asked quietly.

She shook her head.

"Rona was in love with her Watcher," she said after a moment. "Dawn told me. I guess they'd all had this big bonding session while we were out. I didn't know that about her. I didn't know anything about her. Nothing but her name and she was a Potential. That's more than I know about some of them, though. When Willow was telling me who had been hurt...there were names I didn't even recognize. Girls who had been living in my house, who I'd been training to fight and kill and die, and I didn't even know their names."

"You were being manipulated by the First. We all were. It made us do things that made no sense, and fail to do things we ought to have done."

"I can't belive Spike's dead."

"How do you feel about it?" Giles asked cautiously.

"I don't really know yet. Part of me is sorta glad, but part of me really wants to cry. I don't think I'll ever know what I feel about him all the way. There's just too many parts to it. He tried to rape me. Did I ever tell you that?"

"He what?" Giles demanded.

"Didn't succeed," she shrugged. "He risked his life to save my sister, then he ignored her once I was back and mistreating him. He tried to rape me, but he died fighting to save Potentials in my house. He hit me over and over, but he told me he loved me...and I think in his way, maybe he really did. Kinda hard to decide what to feel with all that jumbling around in my head. I still don't think I knew who he was. And it's not like all the badness was his. Over all, though, I think I'm mainly relieved I won't have to explain to him about us."

They sat in silence for a moment. Giles tried to shift to put an arm around her shoulders, but she moved slightly away.

"I - sorry, I just can't right now," she said. "All the time we were...there were dead bodies in my living room. People fighting and dying while I got a happy. I'm not sure how to deal with that."

He sighed and took another approach.

"Do you know what Mahatma Ghandi was doing when his father died?"

"No."

"He was making love to his wife. When he heard about his fathers' death, he took a lifelong vow of celibacy. I always felt that was...a bit extreme."

"You know way more than I want to about Ghandi's sex life."

"The point is," Giles explained, "he overreacted. The problem wasn't that he was having sex. His father would have died, one way or another. Life goes on. We take time to mourn, and then we go on living, or what's the point? We didn't know what sort of battle was being fought here, and they didn't know about the battle we fought in that hotel room. We won, and they won. I won't lie and say I feel anything but relief that Spike is gone for good. Considering what you told me a moment ago, he ought to be glad he's beyond my reach. I am sorry that Rona died. And I'm sorry others were injured. But I cannot find it in my heart to regret making love to you. For the first time in so long, you were whole and strong again. You were truly Buffy. No matter what happens, I will never regret what we did."

She looked up at him. Tears hung suspended on her lashes, waiting to fall.

"No regrets here, either," she said shakily. "I just need a little while to do that mourning thing, like you said. I'll be ready to live again in a little while. Could you do one thing for me while I'm not ready?"

"What would that be?"

"Could you...could you hold me while I cry?"

He pulled her into his arms and rocked her gently, crooning soothing words as she poured out her grief.

 
THE END