Snow and Fire
By Gail Christison

TITLE: Snow and Fire
Author: Gail Christison
Pairing: B/G
Rating: Okay NOW ITS OTHERWISE :-) THIS PART [Soft NC-17]
Summary: Buffy finds out about an amulet hidden in the High Sierras which could protect Dawn. Buffy and Giles take a road trip on Christmas eve :-) Snow, Christmas and other adventure abounds :-) And of course, romance.
Timeline: After Into The Woods, right wherever this season's missing Christmas eppy goes
Disclaimer: All the goodies belong to Joss as we all know, though I get Rhiannon, the cat, the dog, the chickens and the snow...not to Giles's bubble bath and his Christmas boxers. I don't know who has the copyright to Rupert Bear though LOL!
Distribution: My site, when my site manager recovers from her trip to Vietnam and can catch up in the next couple of days hopefully; Gabi if she wants it :-) If you want it faster because you're going away somewhere, email me and I'll send it to you...just coz it's Christmas :-)
Feedback: I love it, always. chriscln@iinet.net.au
Author's note: This began as a response to a challenge for a fic to make someone feel better about being snowed in and became my Christmas fic for this year. Thanks to Julia for the idea. I know it's taken a while, but I hope it helps...even if it's not exactly Southern California. Also thanks to Kazza for her little idea :-) Oh and yes, it is finished, but I'm not done breaking it up into parts yet, so eh, how do I know how many parts? <VBG>: I'm guessing about 7 or 8 tops.

Dedication: This one is for all the B/Gers who are snowed in...

Merry Christmas, everyone!

NOTE: I forgot to thank my beta readers for their help. Big thanks to Karen and Liz for helping get this out for Christmas :-)


"I don't know why I let you talk me into this."

"Did you want to spend Christmas in toasty Sunnydale again?"

Giles snorted. "Christmas in my 'toasty' apartment is far preferable to spending Christmas Eve on the road, heading for God knows where, to find God knows what."

"God has nothing to do with it. Sowakathwali, that waitress at Willy's, is terrified of Glory and if she says there's an amulet up here that will help us defend Dawn…well, I want it, besides, we'll be home by tomorrow night, latest."

He sighed. "I understand that. And Sowa has been helpful before, for a Kowali demon. I understand that too. I simply didn't expect my holiday plans, piddling though they were, to be tossed aside for a long road trip of extremely questionable value. Come to that, how did your mother and Dawn take the news of your sudden departure?"

Buffy shifted uncomfortably in her seat. "Dawn has it all under control. I mean, she's got Mom all to herself…and Mom took it the way she took going away for Thanksgiving last year," she said dryly. "They'll be fine. They don't need me. They're perfectly capable of playing board games, watching weepy movies and stuffing themselves with chocolatey Christmas goodness with or without me."

Giles shot her a sudden, sideways look. "No, I suppose not. Is that all you had planned for Christmas?"

She continued to look out the window. "Pretty much. Mom's not strong enough to go anywhere or do anything much, so it was just going to be us…real quiet. Willow and Tara have big plans, and Xander and Anya have gone to San Fran to raise some heck… and probably do some serious sex," she added, just to see him look shocked, and was disappointed to see that he didn't even raise an eyebrow. "So what were you going to do?"

"Mm?" Giles murmured as he guided the BMW up a steep gradient behind a large truck. "Me? Well, I…I had plans. Yes, plans that I don't have any more because we're out here climbing mountains instead…"

Buffy tilted her head to one side. "You were going to spend Christmas alone again, weren't you?"

He cleared his throat. "Of course not…" he began haughtily, but deflated quickly and dropped his head a little, without taking his eyes off the road. "Sitting at home in my chair, with my own eggnog and a good book, pretending it's cold is still much preferable to gallivanting across the Californian countryside in search of some unverified talisman."

"Up it, is more like it," Buffy observed as the scenery continued to change and they continued to climb. Her thoughts, however, were lost in imagining what the last few Christmases might have been like for the big Watcher, painfully aware as she suddenly was, that the three of them had somehow managed to neglect him almost every year for their own plans, their own lives. She looked up at his gentle profile and wondered for the first time if he'd ever been lonely.

The last time she'd even thought about him at Christmas was the year Angel returned. And they still hadn't even managed to invite him for dinner….

She closed her eyes. She'd dragged him into helping Angel instead. And he'd done it…without a word of dissent, as always, in spite of the horror to which the vampire had once subjected him.

Giles turned off the main highway smoothly and Buffy suddenly started to rub her arms. "You don't have the heater on," she observed.

"Should I have?" he drawled. "It is California, after all, and the temperature was seventy two when we left Sunnydale."

"Well, now we're in the Sierras and it's not seventy two anymore, Toto," she complained. "Heater…please?"

Giles put it on and leaned forward over the wheel to look up briefly. "I don't like the look of the weather," he muttered. "And I've yet to see a sign to tell us how far to this turning Sowi was talking about, now that we're off the highway."

Buffy looked up at the darkening sky with its greenish clouds hanging low and frowned. "Not good," she pronounced, as small patches of snow started to be seen on the roadside and in the fields they were passing.

"Not good," he agreed. "Do you want to try to get back to the highway, or continue on, whilst praying that the heavens don't open until we're safely into a warm hotel?"

Buffy bit her lip. They needed that amulet. They needed all the help they could get, but Giles looked worried. "What do you want to do?" she asked carefully.

He looked at his watch. "We can go on. It can't be much further and we've at least three hours of daylight left."

The snowflakes started less than ten minutes later, just as they finally found what Giles confirmed from his mileage indicator, had to be the turnoff, before resetting it.

At first Buffy proclaimed their prettiness, large, fluffy flurries that they were, but in time the wind picked up and the flurries were joined by friends and became something more ominous.

"Giles, I haven't seen a car for the last hour," she observed, breaking a long silence.

"I know," he said darkly. "Nor have I seen a sign. I was certain this was the right turning…"

Buffy looked at him with alarm. "We're lost?"

He shook his head. "I checked the map. But there really should be some sign of civilization by now."

Buffy checked all the windows, barely able to peer through the ever-increasing amounts of falling and swirling snow. "There isn't even a power pole or a light out there, let alone a town," she observed. "Giles it's getting dangerous. We're going to have to stop soon. And I didn't pack for snow."

"Nor I. I packed for the forecast," he growled. "We both did. And snow was supposed to be out of the question until close to New Year's."

"Where exactly are we?" she asked, peering through the windscreen and the overworked wipers. "Do you have any clue, or have we just entered the Twilight Zone?"

He would have snorted again, but he didn't have the heart. The mileage indicator on the dashboard was showing that they were approximately the right distance from the last turnoff to find the next one and the small town that was supposed to be at the junction, but there were no signposts, no indications of any turnings, and no sign of any kind of civilization.

"To be honest, I don't know. Either I misread the map, or this road wasn't marked, and therefore threw my count completely out."

Buffy squinted out of her side window. "I'm going to have to go with 'not marked', at this point," she observed dryly. "Is it me, or is there a light on that hill?"

Giles slowed down even more and stole several looks out of her window. "Looks like a light. Watch for a gate or some such. They might be able to tell us where we are, at the very least, and if we're fortunate, we might even be offered shelter for the night if it's a terribly long way to the next town."

The gates were locked. Giles undid his safety belt, but Buffy stayed his arm. "Let me do it. If there's a way to open it, I'm your girl."

His face was a picture of frustration and stifled gallantry, but he nodded stiffly. "Just don't catch pneumonia…here, hold on," he added as she opened her car door, reached over the back and grabbed the leather jacket he'd thrown there when they last filled the car, hours earlier, in warmer climes.

"It'll get ruined," she said softly.

"Better the bloody jacket than you," he growled. "Wear it, and move quickly. This sudden, drastic change in temperature makes you a prime candidate for catching something nasty."

"I'm the slayer, Giles, remem—?"

"The same Slayer who ended up in hospital last time she contracted a bad virus," he pointed out acerbically. "Move quickly and get back in the car as fast as you can."

She rolled her eyes and opened the door, the blast of frigid air more of a shock than either of them expected, warmed as they were by the car's heating system.

Giles watched as she lifted the chain on the gate and found a padlock of some size on it…and smiled when she easily snapped the solid links and pushed the gates open. They would have to offer compensation…

Buffy clambered back into the car after closing the gates again behind them, still swaddled in Giles' jacket, and peppered with snow, dotted in her hair and still on her shoulders. More freezing air followed her.

"You're shivering," Giles said indignantly. "You were only gone for a couple of minutes."

Buffy looked sideways at him. "Turn the heater up," she growled through chattering teeth.

"It's up as far as it will go," he said apologetically and put the car in gear. "Let's get you to some real shelter."

The light was a security sensor light, being continuously triggered by a tree branch blown across it by the freshening wind.

"Well, it's a homestead. That's gotta be of the good," Buffy proposed, ignoring the complete lack of internal lighting, parked vehicles or life of any kind. "Maybe they're asleep?"

"At four o'clock in the afternoon?"

"Okay. Well, maybe they're old. Nap time?"

"Or perhaps the place is deserted," he shot back very dryly. "Or they had the good sense to go somewhere warm for Christmas."

"Either way we're screwed," she observed, deadpan.

Giles opened his door. "Let's try knocking first, shall we?"

They were halfway to the porch when Buffy realised Giles was still in his shirtsleeves and getting wetter by the second. Once they were undercover and out of the wind, she turned on him.

"You're soaked. Why didn't you put something on to keep dry and warm?"

"Because you're wearing it. I brought an extra sweater for the night, but wearing it would be rather pointless in this, don't you think?" he asked, brushing off snow and looking out at the storm.

Buffy had the good grace to look sheepish, then started to peel the leather jacket off, snow going everywhere.

"No," he commanded. "You must stay warm. Shall we just find out if our hosts are in residence, first?" He stepped up to the door and gave the knocker a good work out.

"Warm is a relative term," she muttered as they waited.

And waited.

Eventually they looked at each other then Giles pulled his map from his breast pocket and unfolded it. The porch sensor light was diffuse, but strong enough to make out the brightly coloured roads and the major centres. He pointed out the road they were supposed to be on, and the last turning before it that he had identified.

"No doubt about it," Buffy said, shivering again. "This should be the right road, lack of junction notwithstanding. If it is, there's another town about forty miles down the road, and the highway just as far in the other direction. If it's not, God knows where we'd end up…if we could see far enough to get there."

"I'm not taking you back out in this. It would be foolish in the extreme to leave shelter when we don't know how much worse the storm will get or where we're going. Stay here. I'm going to check the outbuildings to see if there's somewhere I can put the car. It would be nice if the engine block didn't freeze during the night and my sump and radiator refrained from cracking."

"I'm coming with'," she announced.

"Buffy—"

She shook her head. "I'm coming."

There was a barn, a hayshed, a large double garage and a covered, but open, shelter for some expensive farm implements.

Buffy found horses in the barn, both looking restive and hungry, and a cat curled up on a folded saddle blanket, left on what looked like a feed bin. When it saw her and moved swiftly to the hayloft, she lifted the lid on the bin and scooped up a measure of oats, experimentally offering them to one of the horses, which barely allowed her to pour the grain into its feedbox, it was so ravenous. She did the same for the other one and made a mental note to ask Giles to split a bale of hay for them.

By the time she'd come up empty on the cat food front, she could hear Giles starting the car. He must have found a space in the garage. Judging by the horses' behaviour, he might have found an extremely empty garage. The cat was now also winding its way around her legs, wailing plaintively.

Something was definitely not right about the whole set up. Not only that, but they would have to check the whole place for other livestock before they could even think about resting…or food for themselves. Buffy wrinkled her nose. More interesting smells…

The horses also hadn't been mucked out for more than a little while. It was lucky that they had those thingies on their water troughs that kept filling them when they got low, or they'd have been in a lot more trouble…

Giles met her halfway to the hayshed. "What are you doing?" he demanded, shouting into the wind.

"Horses, hungry, hay," she shouted back.

"Horses?"

"And a cat."

"Bloody hell. Nobody would go away on a holiday and just leave their animals. Hungry, you say?"

"Starving…in the feed me now before I bite your arm off sense, not the bones poking through sense," she added awkwardly.

"Come on, then, I'll help you pull down a bale or two and we'll make sure they're not the only the only hungry things around here."

The horses settled down to munch blissfully after Giles split the bale of lucerne hay, and they headed off into the blizzard to investigate the rest of the buildings.

They found a henhouse behind the hayshed and a kennel around the back of the house, on the back porch. Inside it was a tightly curled up ball of hair, which, when it uncurled and launched itself at them, turned out to be an unchained collie.

Buffy relaxed and shifted out of the defensive stance she'd taken up, when it threw itself at Giles in a licking frenzy.

"Something's really wrong here, Giles. Nobody would leave all these animals alone. Those poor chickens are going to freeze. And they were so hungry."

"Well they're not hungry any more," he pointed out, scratching the dog's scruff and talking to it softly. "I'll go back later and try to rig something to keep them from freezing. Even a couple of those lanterns which were hanging on the stable wall, hung above the perches, would throw off enough warmth to keep the birds from freezing on them."

Something occurred to him and he let go of the dog, walked up to the back door and tried it. It wasn't locked.

They crept inside warily, a small bathroom immediately to their left, laundry to their right, and what looked like the kitchen dead ahead.

A half-frozen, soaking wet Giles slid his hand up the wall until he found a light switch. It was dull, almost like twilight, because of the low, heavy cloud and the snow and it felt good to finally blink and focus in the bright light.

Buffy sighed. Everything was running normally. She could hear the refrigerator cycling and the clock was running on the microwave.

"We have power and light," she observed. "And with any luck, dinner."

"Yes," Giles agreed, "but right now I'm more concerned about where the owners might be. We'll search the entire house before we do anything else."

They met again in the master bedroom, each of them having taken a floor and gone over it with a fine toothed comb.

"Nada," Buffy announced. "You?"

Giles shook his head. "I saw a door to the attic. Do you want that, or the basement?"

"Basement," she said immediately. "The bad guys are always in the basement…and since bad guys are my specialty…"

"Just…be careful," Giles warned.

He opened the attic door gingerly, once he'd reached the landing. It was dark and dusty, and deserted, as attics were wont to be. He was about to turn and leave when he heard…something.

His heart rate picked up and he listened intently for it to be repeated: a soft moan.

Again.

With a deep breath, he moved further into the room, cursing silently when he tripped on the leg of an old coat rack, and wishing fervently that he'd brought a torch.

"I-is there anyone there?" he asked aloud and immediately felt an idiot, imagining snickering demons or vampires preparing to leap at him, until the groan was repeated. He followed it until he found a woman lying on the floor, surrounded by broken preserving jars, blessedly empty, a box on it's side next to her with just two unbroken ones left in it. He looked up, squinting. She'd been on a stool, now also tipped over, trying to get the box down from a cupboard.

"It's all right," he said softly, when she moaned again. She was terribly cold and her pulse was hard to find.

"Can you hear me?"

"Rob...s-s'at you?" she mumbled.

"Rob isn't here," he said gently. "Are you hurt very badly?"

"I-I fell."

"I know. You must tell me if you're injured."

"My h-head…" She half-frowned without opening her eyes. "My leg."

Giles did his best to check her legs, neither of which appeared to be broken, though one ankle didn't look too good, and her head was sporting a lump the size of a goose's egg on the back of it.

"H-How long?" she stammered, moving her head back and forth, but still not opening her eyes, her voice cracked and rasping.

"I don't know. When did you come up here?"

"When…" She appeared to struggle for clarity of thought for some time. "When I got home…I was…have I…missed Passions?"

He closed his eyes. As much as two days she'd been lying there, if she wasn't completely addled by the bump.

"Move your feet," he commanded and watched her fairly feeble but successful attempts to obey before scooping her up as gently as possible, though not without a long, low moan from her as he exited the attic.

He was halfway down the hallway when Buffy reappeared. "No bad guys?" she asked.

"No bad guys, apparently," he confirmed. " A mishap with a stool and some bottles. She was lucky not to be badly cut."

"I hate to tell you this, but I checked and the phones are out." The woman moaned again softly. "We should get her into bed right away. The Master is probably hers."

There was an electric blanket, which Buffy switched on immediately. Once Giles had laid the woman gently on the bed and removed her shoes, Buffy made her comfortable and made certain her clothes were loose.

When she was tucked in, and the bed starting to warm, she finally opened vivid blue eyes and looked at them.

"H-who?"

"Refuges from the storm," Giles said softly. "There's a blizzard outside. We've fed your animals and we'll stay and watch you tonight. I'm afraid the phone is out."

"Rhi…Rhiannon McAllister," she whispered scratchily.

Giles smiled reassuringly. "Rupert Giles, and my…this is Buffy Summers." He looked searchingly into the woman's eyes and could see no sign of trouble from the head wound.
"How do you feel?"

She almost chuckled, but it turned into a dry cough. "Like a steer ran over me. My back aches. My ankle hurts like hell and my head feels like a basketball, when it's not throbbing."

At that moment Buffy returned from nipping into the bathroom, with a glass of water, which Mrs McAllister drained swiftly.

Giles chuckled. "Well, fortunately it looks like you might have only strained your ankle, and your back is bruised, but apparently not seriously hurt. I'm not a doctor, but judging by your speech and your perfectly normal eyes and their rather normal reaction to the light, I would hazard to guess that your bump on the head isn't terribly serious either. The main concern is the length of time you were out."

"I-I was out for a long time?"

"If you knocked yourself out before Passions last screened, you've been unconscious for a day and a half," he pointed out gently.

"Oh dear. It's my own fault. My husband is away and I haven't slept properly since he left, barely at all, actually. It must have been a combination of the whack on the head and sheer exhaustion. I do remember stirring a few times when the dog barked. P-please, Mister Giles…help yourself to some supper." She turned her head gingerly toward the window and the four-inch gap in the curtains. "It is a bad storm. Your Buffy should turn down the spare bed for you and the one in my daughter's room…maybe put on the electric blankets…" She groaned again and closed her eyes. "I think maybe I should rest now. Either that or I'll need a bucket."

"Rest," Giles told her softly. "And don't worry about anything. We'll watch the animals and we'll be close by if you need us. We're not going to leave you until the phone comes back on so that we can call for help, or the storm breaks, whichever happens first."

She smiled painfully, but didn't open her eyes. "Thankyou," she whispered. "For all of us. Y-you should let Rusty in out of the cold."

"Rusty?"

"The dog. He sleeps in the house when the weather is bad. He's t-trained. Don't worry… he'll stay with me," she said sleepily.

Giles motioned Buffy out of the room.

Rusty was indeed pleased to be allowed into the house, addressing both Giles and Buffy with the same enthusiasm before scampering off to find his owner.

"Hungry?"

Buffy looked up at Giles. "Are you kidding? Starving wouldn't come close to describing it."

"Then let's investigate the sleeping arrangements, and find something to fill the empty spaces."

The spare bed turned out to be a very large double bed, perfect for Giles' long frame, but the McAllister daughter's bed was a tiny white and gold painted single brass bed, in a very pretty child's room.

Buffy snorted. "Trade?"

Giles chuckled, but shook his head as Buffy reluctantly turned the covers down. He watched her as she worked. Her hair was damp and the coat was far too big for her, but her face was flushed and her natural beauty undiminished. He sighed silently, wondering if she was ever going to be allowed a real Christmas…if she was ever again going to know a real life.

She turned to find the green eyes watching her and stopped, stayed somehow by the look in them, the expression on his face.

"Giles?"

"What?" He shook himself out of his thoughts. "Oh. It's nothing. I'm just sorry you're going to miss Christmas, once again."

Buffy shrugged. "Yeah, well, last year wasn't horrible, even if I did spend most of it missing Riley and listening to my dad fighting with his girlfriend…who's not, these days, by the way. I think I preferred her to the secretary, though. At least Irina was anything but cliché."

Giles let his gaze linger a few moments longer, silently fighting strong feelings about the depth to which her father's recent indifference had hurt her. A surge of something else quickly followed it, and made him clear his throat suddenly.

"Yes...um…well, I'm going back to the car to get our bags so that we can get out of these wet clothes. Will you check on Mrs McAllister? If she's still awake, we should try and force some more fluids, and perhaps find some clear soup for her.

Buffy immediately slid out of the coat and handed it to him, tilting her head aggressively when he started to shake his head.

"Yes, Giles. At least it's dry in here. You can't go out there in just your shirtsleeves again. I don't want you in bed with pneumonia, either."

He took it reluctantly and slid the wet leather over his shirt. It was warmed by her body and smelled of her perfume, mixed with the less than salutary aroma of damp hide.

Only half surprised, he ignored his body's unexpected reaction to the borrowed intimacy and composed his face into it's usual calm lines.

"See to Mrs McAllister. I won't be long," he managed, and made his escape.

On the porch, he hesitated. It was even darker than when they'd arrived. It was an eerie kind of dark, not night, because it was too early, and no longer day either. The sun had been all but obliterated and the light that did struggle through had been refracted through so much dark cloud and moisture that it was as soft as gauze and as difficult to see through.

The snow was still coming down heavily, blown now by a fairly strong wind, and visibility beyond a few feet had become an issue. Still, the garage was in a straight line with the right hand corner of the house. If he kept a straight course for a chain or so, he would find it easily, and the reverse with the return.

He had no trouble finding the garage, though he took a lot of buffeting from the wind, and the incredible cold from both the snow and the wind chill factor had already numbed his uncovered fingertips and cheeks.

Some time later, Buffy slipped out of Rhiannon McAllister's room and frowned when she realised Giles wasn't back yet. The older woman had managed another glass of water, this time with a little juice mixed in, and approved of the pitcher and glass Buffy left by the bedside, before slipping back into a relatively peaceful doze.

From the back porch, Buffy could see nothing, not even a light in the garage, only a driving wall of white. She waited another twenty minutes or so, her instincts growing more and more panicked by the minute, until she decided she had to something.

She knew where the garage was and set off, to be almost knocked over when she stepped off the porch, before gathering herself and using her slayer strength to launch herself into the wind.

He wasn't there. The bags were gone, though the BMW was still there. There was a trail of snow from the trunk of the BMW towards the exit, most of which was now obscured by the billow of snow blown in when Buffy opened the garage door.

Her heart began to pound. That meant Giles was out in the snow somewhere. How the hell was she going to find him? How…? She was too terrified and too angry to cry. Not Giles! No way was fate going to take Giles away from her now…

Then, as though a soft cool breeze had suddenly sprung up on a stiflingly hot day, the memory of the sound of his voice came to her. Whispering, calming, reassuring…the chant from her mediation exercises…

She ran out of the garage and stopped, unclenching her fists, closing her eyes and deliberately relaxing every fibre of her being, despite the freezing cold. Slowly her mind reached out, finding no demon or vampire nearby, but pushing beyond that, trying to do something she'd never done before.

Buffy had done a lot of things lately that she'd never done before. More and more she turned into herself, focusing, reaching, trying to find what she was looking for.

Moments later, to the observer it would have looked like Buffy had been shot out of a barrel, the way she launched herself into the storm, surely, swiftly, cutting through in a forty five degree angle to the house.

By the time she found him, he was almost covered in snow, only the red, upended over night bag sticking out of the drift, catching her eye. In seconds she was on her already frozen knees digging, pulling, feeling for a pulse. He was still alive.

She let go of the breath she didn't realize she'd been holding and gasped, then choked as the freezing air cut into her throat like razors.

He was a terrible colour, and so cold. It took all of her ingenuity to get him back to the house. Because of her Slayer strength, weight was not an issue…but his sheer size was incredibly awkward for her.

Once inside a frantic dash to McAllister's room found her drowsing but not asleep. Buffy seized the chance to ask where blankets and first aid equipment could be found.

When Giles was stripped to his underwear, towelled off and wrapped up like a mummy in woollen blankets, Buffy started to bathe his face with a warm cloth. It was struggling to regain its colour, but soon two tiny pink licks appeared in his deathly white cheeks.

She hated that he was on the floor, but there was no easy way to get him up the stairs, and a man his size was not going to fit on the two-seater settee in the living room. What she hated more was not knowing if she was accomplishing anything; if she was doing the best for him that she could. She knew almost nothing about first aid, let alone helping someone who'd almost frozen to death.

The only thing she remembered was how much her hands hurt when her parents had taken her to Aspen to see snow, for her seventh birthday. She'd been excitedly making a snowman without putting gloves on until she was called for lunch and realised her fingers were completely numb. The hot water on her frozen hands had been more agonizing than the cold itself.

At that point she suddenly realized her hands were now trembling and pulled the cloth away.

"Giles?" she whispered. "Giles, please…if you can hear me, wake up. You wanted to give me Christmas…come back. You're all I want for Christmas…you hear me? Don't leave me! I…"

She stopped as if hit in the stomach and swallowed. She had been going to say 'I need you,' but the word that had almost left her lips wasn't 'need.' She swallowed again and cupped his face with her hand.

"You can't leave me, Giles," she whispered.

His eyelashes fluttered at the warm touch and she felt his jaw shift slightly.

"B-Buffy?" he rasped.

"I'm here," she managed, barely able to swallow the silent sob of joy.

"I must have…missed…the house."

She nodded stupidly, since he hadn't opened his eyes yet. "Missed it completely, probably because of the wind. You would have been bearing hard into it, and didn't know your own strength. I found you. You're going to be okay."

"Bags…?"

Buffy rolled her eyes. "I got them. Nothing like Slayer strength, bags slung over my back, dragging your carcass through the snow like a pack mule. There shoulda been pictures," she teased.

His brow creased into a divot. "I-I'm sorry," he said softly.

Buffy's hand moved so that her fingers were pushing damp hair off his forehead and stroking it.

"Why?" she asked gently and smiled. "I was done being mad at you by the time I found you. And it's not your fault there's a blizzard."

"P-put you at risk," he managed, and tried to open his eyes.

When they finally did flicker open and stopped squinting against the light, Buffy found herself staring into the green depths. Somewhere in the back of her mind, a part of her brain wondered where his glasses were.

"Where am—?"

"On the floor in the lobby."

He turned his head very slowly, trying not to think about the continuing gentle caresses of Buffy's fingertips, saw the pile of sopping clothes on the floor and the dripping jacket on the doorknob.

"G-good lord, am I…?"

Buffy shook her head. "I left the cute little Christmas boxers on," she told him, her eyes dancing. "But it's good the amount of colour in your face now."

He rolled his eyes. "Anya gave them too me. You still shouldn't have had to…"

"Giles," Buffy interrupted impatiently, "I'm a grown woman and I've seen my fair share…" The sudden memory of Riley's departure stopped her short for a moment, before she reclaimed her train of thought and went on. "You're in great shape, and besides, I was kind of in the middle of a major panic attack about your survival at the time, so stop being sorry." Her face cleared and a look of mischief came into her eyes. "Truth is, with those shoulders and that chest hair you're actually the sexiest guy I've ever seen in his underwear," she told him, only half teasing.

He managed a feeble snort and tried to sit up, gasping at the pain in his extremities as he did so.

Buffy's tucking was tight and she had to loosen the top blanket before helping him to a sitting position, which inevitably revealed his chest again, just as he closed his eyes against the bout of light headedness that followed.

A part of him considered whether that was more from shifting position suddenly, or from his body's reaction to the fact that his bare back was now resting against her soft body.

"If you're strong enough to move now, we should get you to bed before you do catch your death," Buffy said in a strange, almost forced, tone.

Giles nodded and suffered silently as half frozen limbs struggled to work. They both almost fell even before he was fully upright, but she steadied them and patiently helped him through to the stairs.

When she looked up at the steepness and the number of them, Buffy bit her lip. "This is going to hurt. How are the legs holding up?"

When he didn't answer, she looked up at his face and realised that he was in a great deal of pain already. She lowered him immediately to sit on the bottom step.

He drew the blanket on his shoulders tightly around him, trying not to shiver.

"You need more time before we hit the stairs, but it's too cold to stay here," she muttered. "Why couldn't the guest room be downstairs?"

Then she remembered the bathroom near the back door. A quick sortie revealed that it was fully equipped, though judging by the work boots in the corner and the industrial strength soap and old, faded towels, it was meant for the more stinky clean ups after working outside all day. The tub was extra long, and deep, probably meaning that Rob McAllister was as big as Giles, or bigger. She hadn't, however, seen any pictures, even of kids or animals, in the house.

By the time the faucets were running strongly she was already rushing back to Giles.

When they reached it, Buffy perched Giles on the corner of the tub, shut off the hot faucet and tested the water, topping up a little with cold before shutting it off too.

"Perfect," she announced, then frowned when she realized how much he was shivering and how pale he was again. Without thinking about it she put her arms around him and hugged tightly, rubbing his back as she did so.

"Buffy," Giles said a few moments later, despite the delight of her warmth and her touch.

She paused, realised what she was doing, and pulled away. "I'm sorry," she said awkwardly. "We should get you into the tub."

Giles, well aware of a new problem that Buffy hadn't yet noticed, shook his head. He was amazed that she could provoke such a reaction at a time like this, despite the pain, discomfort and miserable cold.

"I'll do it myself. You can leave me now."

"No way," Buffy growled. "There's no step into the tub and you're barely mobile. I know how much of your weight I was supporting to get you in here."

"Buffy…please…I'll manage," he said desperately.

Which of course prompted Buffy to think about why, his modesty being the first thing she thought of, which in turn tracked her eyes right to his shorts, which in turn took her breath away.

Thinking quickly, she turned to the rack of bottles hanging from the shower faucet. There was shampoo, conditioner, degreaser and thankfully, bubble bath. She upended the bottle and agitated the water using her added strength until it was a mass of bubbles.

"Okay, modesty taken care of. I told you, I'm not a kid any more, Giles," she said without looking at him, realised what she was doing and very deliberately turned to face him.

Her own face was burning, not only from embarrassment but also from the intensity of her own reaction to his arousal. It shocked her. It was Giles.

Giles, whom she'd almost lost. Giles, who, when she was touching his face earlier, made her feel warm and protective and, she finally admitted…loving.

"Stand up and face the bath," she commanded before she could say something dumb, and helped haul him up before he could, either.

"Buffy, I'm perfectly capable…" he began but stopped when he almost lost his legs from under him the moment they were asked to take his full weight. Holding him also galvanized Buffy. He was shivering intensely.

In seconds she had unceremoniously pants-ed him and let the damp boxers drop to the floor.

"Bath," she commanded. "They had to come off one way or the other…now, or afterward, and then they'd be all soaking wet."

"Buffy, this is wrong. I'm not turning, or taking a bath with you in the room," he said in a strangled voice. "Please leave."

"I'm turning around now," she told him, refraining from voicing her appreciation of the surprisingly nice butt. "But if you fall I'll personally redecorate the rest of you to go with your new bruises…do you understand me?"

Giles said something rude under his breath and leaned on the bath while climbing into it like a ninety year old geriatric, accompanied by a great deal of grunting and groaning.

When she heard the sound of the water as he sat down, and the sigh that followed it, Buffy turned.

"Modesty preserved," she announced, looking at his head and shoulders poking out of the overabundance of foam and bubbles.

"Modesty already shot all to bloody hell," he growled.

For a brief moment Buffy thought he was teasing, but realised very quickly that he was genuinely distressed about the whole situation, including, apparently, no small pain in his extremities from the temperature differential now that he was immersed in the hot water.

"Giles…are you…do you want out? I can—"

"No…no," he grimaced. "It will stop shortly. All of the moving around the house helped restore a significant amount of circulation. I'm just th-thawing out now. Thank God the shivering has stopped."

She moved closer to the side of the bath and knelt down to his level. "Thank God you're still here," she told him, finding her heart doing strange little flip-flops as the sea green eyes stared into hers. "I…Giles, I can't imagine living without you. I would never have been able to tell you, if you'd died out there. I-I need you."

He blinked then, and the spell, whatever it was, was broken. "Well, you don't have to worry. I'm going to be fine," he said gruffly. "How is our patient?"

"Mrs McAllister? She's fine. She's been drinking water and juice, and dozing, kinda. I'll try the phone again, soon."

"Good." He slid further down into the blessedly hot bath. "Um…I have pyjamas…in the overnight bag," he pointed out.

"Did you bring your spare glasses?"

He frowned. "No. Damn. Never mind. Not important."

"Are you sure you're okay if I go and get your clothes?"

He nodded.

Buffy took one look at the blue silk pyjamas and rolled her eyes. He hadn't even bought a robe, probably out of the expectation that they would have separate, heated rooms at some hotel. On impulse she checked the sitting room and smiled at country efficiency.

The room was filled with the aroma of pine from the gaily-decorated Christmas tree that was standing in one corner, and there were decorations and trimmings all around the room. Best of all a hopper stood, filled to overflowing with firewood and kindling, next to a stone hearth. In ten minutes she had a blazing fire going and was back checking Mrs McAllister again.

That lady was in a deep but relaxed sleep and Rusty had curled up in a blissfully contented ball alongside the bed, opening just one eye to look over his brushy tail at her before closing it again.

An exploratory look at the back of her bathroom door produced a man-sized, long-sleeved, navy blue terry robe. Again Buffy wondered where Mister McAllister was, and if he was trying to get home.

When she got back to the bathroom it was to find Giles dozing in the tub. His face was ruddy and glowing and the one hand on the side of the bath was a healthy, flushed pink.

"We did good," she said softly to herself, loathe to disturb him and still trying to decipher the tumult of feelings and emotions that beset her the moment she saw his face again. Then, for one moment, she allowed herself to examine her impulses honestly.

A moment later she'd turned red as a beet, and a moment after that, lost colour all together. "No," she whispered. She'd promised herself. No more guys. No more pain. She looked at Giles again.

He wasn't just a guy. Nor would he hurt her…not deliberately. Not ever. Her eyes grew luminous and tender. Nor had he ever been old, or gross. He wasn't even stuffy any more. He was…Giles. And he was doing terrible things to her body and her mind. She wasn't supposed to want her Watcher…wasn't supposed to yearn to simply touch him…or to feel his arms around her. It was weird, crazy…and yet....

She stared at the smooth jaw with its hint of a five o'clock shadow, the long lashes on his cheeks and the small crow's feet at the corner of his eye.

So very right…and, she was finally beginning to understand, not new. Not since he'd saved her from Amy Madison's mother, had she been able to conceive of a life without him in it. Not since Angelus had almost killed him, had she been as terrified of losing him. And not since Travers' criminal meddling in their relationship, had she been so unsure of herself…of him.

He stirred slightly, his head slipping sideways a little, bubbles sticking to his right cheek.

Instinctively, she reached out and brushed them away.

Giles woke almost immediately and found himself staring into the blue-grey ones he'd just been dreaming about.

Instead of snatching her fingers back, Buffy allowed the backs of them to silently trail down his cheek, aware of the surprise, and pleasure, in his eyes. She continued, tracing his mouth with a barely steady fingertip, until Giles took her hand in a wet one of his and brought her fingers to his lips, kissing them very softly and almost turning her bones to water.

Buffy reclaimed her hand, her heart beating furiously, and scrambled to her feet. "I-I have to check the f-fire," she stammered and backed out of the bathroom.

She was stoking and loading up the impressive pyre she'd made when she sensed someone had come in to the room. She put the poker down and turned around. He was wearing the pyjamas and robe and moving almost normally.

Buffy waited for him, looking up slowly as he stopped just feet away. Her terrified eyes found his, expecting judgement and distaste and embarrassment, and found only concern and puzzlement.

"Was it me?" he asked very softly. "If I did anything…if what happened before…?"

Buffy's eyes widened. "God, no," she responded and saw the doubt in his eyes. She swallowed. Truth time. "You're just unlucky that you're a guy and that it showed."

At his puzzled, bemused frown she explained. "Did it occur to you that I might have felt exactly the same thing you did, except only you men telegraph your…um…interest so darn um…publicly?" she asked tenderly and almost giggled at the look of revelation on his face. "I was just scared."

"Of me?" he asked, stunned.

Buffy shook her head and met his gaze fully and openly. "Of me," she admitted, drinking him in, knowing that it might be the last time they were this close, that she might have made it impossible for their previously easy intimacy…the pure intimacy of friendship, to continue.

Giles stepped a little closer. "Of yourself?" he prompted. "I thought I must have…"

Buffy shook her head quickly, her fast drying hair falling in neglected tangles and rumples around her shoulders.

"Y-you didn't do anything," she whispered, her eyes still lost in his, "except…" she hesitated, knowing that she was beyond the point of no return, and momentarily terrified of what she was about to do. "…Except make me love you even more," she finished in a voice that left no doubt about her meaning or her feelings.

He drew a sharp, frightened breath of his own. It was happening so quickly… everything had happened so quickly…and the circumstances had been so traumatic. The old, cynical Giles was ready to say as much, but the Rupert Giles who had allowed Olivia back into his lonely, Buffy-less life, who had taken the risk of exposing himself to ridicule and worse, by singing at the Espresso pump, out of sheer frustration with the woman in front of him, wasn't ready to destroy the tiny, precious connection that had formed between them, yet.

Instead he searched her face, her eyes, trying to see the truth. And was shaken to the core to see in her face what he'd never once seen there when she looked at Riley. His gaze softened, his heart swelling. She was as vulnerable and as exposed as she had never allowed herself to be with the other men in her life, since Angel.

…Buffy trusted him not to hurt her…trusted him that much.

"I've never stopped loving you," he said very, very gently, knowing only the truth would serve. "And I've wanted you since I saw you walk onto that dance floor at the Prom."

Buffy's eyes grew very bright. "I…I never knew. I wish…I'm sorry I didn't know. I must h-have seemed such a bitch l-last year…n-not to mention incredibly slutty. I—"

But he was in front of her, his thumb brushing her tender lips, his gentle voice whispering "shh," and turning her legs to jello again.

"You were growing up, growing wiser," he said softly. "I hated it, but I understood. Do you remember what I told you about my own youth?"

She nodded and her eyes grew bright with emotion. He did understand…

"I wanted to do everything…be like everyone else who goes to college. I've wanted to be normal for so long…and I thought…I thought it was finally happening."

He nodded. "But you knew, as I did, that it could never truly be, and that made you all the more angry, all the more rebellious…and ultimately separated you from the rest of us."

"And you from your family," she added sadly.

He let his fingers slide across her cheek so that his palm cradled it. "But we both grew up," he whispered and the moment grew charged, so charged that neither could move, nor look away from the other.

For a few moments at least, it seemed neither could breathe, either, and then Giles' gaze softened and sparkled and he began to bend his head very slowly.

Buffy decided she was having a heart attack, but didn't care, every nerve ending in her body screaming as his face stopped only millimetres from her mouth. Without hesitation she slid her arms around his neck and groaned as his mouth covered hers, felt him tremble as they merged, the kiss deepening and crying out to something deep within each of them.

It went on almost forever, until they simply had to surface for air, but only far enough to fall into each other's embrace, holding each other like two souls finding each other after years of searching.

"Don't ever leave me," Buffy whispered against his hair. "I love you so much…I've always loved you." She felt his arms tighten and closed her eyes. "I don't ever want to live without you."

"Never," he told her. "How could I when I have never loved anyone or anything the way I love you?"

Buffy drew away. "Then why…?"

He frowned, holding her in the loose circle of his arms. "Why what?"

She coloured brightly. "I wasn't supposed to tell. Girl talk. Willow told me you almost went away."

Giles looked staggered for a moment. "Willow wasn't supposed to tell either," he said darkly.

"Girl talk is sacrosanct," Buffy told him, "and besides, she made me swear that I wouldn't be mad, that I wouldn't say anything to you, even before she told me."

"And were you…mad?"

"Furious. I wanted to come and beat you senseless. Except, I kind of understood it a little better than Willow did. She kept saying she needed lots of hairy eyeball…I wish I knew what that meant…and that you were more family than her parents ever were. I know Xander feels the same way…but they don't really get it. They don't really get either of us. They never have. They don't understand our kind of 'alone,' or why we sometimes do stupid things. They just…don't understand…"

Giles looked at her in surprise and nodded. "But I knew, and I…I couldn't do anything. It was so damned difficult…being your friend, and yet…and yet being separated by convention, by propriety. Sometimes it was just damned ridiculous. I was the only one who knew what you were going through, and yet I simply had to stand and watch, far too often. It almost killed me at times, seeing you with…others…waiting for them to reach out in ways I knew they never would, or could. It wasn't even as though I…I just wanted to…help. I-I loved you, but I didn't want you then, the way I do…" He trailed off, self-conscious again.

Buffy's lip trembled. "I'm sorry," she whispered again, almost inaudibly. "Giles?"

"Yes, love?"

"I want you to kiss me again."

He grinned. "I think something can be arranged," he murmured and drew her very close, finding and covering her mouth with his again, the kiss this time long, sweet and tender.

When they separated, Buffy's cheeks were glowing almost as much as her eyes.

"I love you," she told him again, and smiled with such joy that Giles was taken aback by it.

He'd never seen her look that way for anyone before…Hurt, grieving, alone, pining, even wanting, especially with Riley…but never, ever like this.

"I've waited such a long time to hear you say that," he whispered and drew her close.

She reached up and touched his face, then smiled again. "Whiskers," she observed. "I thought there were whiskers."

He chuckled.

"Can I tell you something?" she asked, unexpectedly serious again.

He nodded.

"I haven't said that to anyone since Angel." It was a confidence, and Giles knew immediately that it was costing her to reveal it to him. "I-I thought you should know."

He took her face in his hands and smiled. "Thank you," he said, and brushed her lips with his. "I'm very glad you told me."

"About the whiskers?" she teased.

"Yes, about the whiskers," he growled and kissed her harder, only to have her kiss him back with even more enthusiasm.

When they broke apart both were breathing heavily.

"Food," Buffy gasped. "I should get us food, and soup for Mrs McAllister."

Giles, just as short of breath and equally as…flustered…let go of her. "Yes. Food." He looked around the room for the first time, mostly because of the slight pall of smoke in the air. "Y-you do that and I'll see to the fire."

Rhiannon McAllister stirred as soon as Buffy entered the room with food and water for the dog, which leaped up and fell upon it with all the gusto of the ravenous.

"Soup?" Buffy asked softly.

The other woman nodded, seemingly far more lucid now. "I must be all right. I'm starving." She looked at her water pitcher, which was almost empty. "I'm afraid I've been awfully thirsty too. Could…could I ask you to help me? I need to go to the bathroom," she asked awkwardly.

With Buffy's strength it was hardly an issue, despite what was obviously a twisted knee, and the bad strain to the woman's swollen right ankle. Far too late to strap it…

When she was settled again, Buffy filled her in on the condition of all the animals and asked if there was anything else they should do.

Rhiannon shook her head slowly. "No. Nothing. Not this year. I-I was hoping…" She trailed off and bit her lip.

"Your husband?" Buffy asked gently.

"Things have been tough for a while. He got a job that takes him on the road a lot. I thought he might come home for Christmas. He said he would try to be home yesterday…but the storm…"

Buffy looked away. She knew too much about men and jobs that took them away from their families.

"You and Mister Giles should help yourselves to the food in the refrigerator. I can't thank you enough for your help. At least we won't starve," she said wryly as the wind rattled the windows with a howling gust.

Buffy smiled. "Thanks. We'll keeping checking the phone. You should rest. I'm sorry I can't get you something better for the pain."

The older woman cocked an eye at the bottle beside the pitcher. "You'd think from their advertising campaign that I'd be dancing around the room by now," she observed dryly and they both chuckled.

Just then Rusty returned from where Buffy had fed him in the bathroom to touch his nose to his mistress's hand before curling up next to the bed, on the thick carpet, again.

Buffy smiled and promised soup shortly, missing Giles already.

He was waiting for her at the bottom of the stairs.

"Miss me?" she asked, stopping two from the bottom, making her almost head to head with him.

He took her in his arms and kissed her thoroughly. "Does that answer your question?"

"Perfectly," she purred and grinned contentedly. "Did anyone ever tell you, Mister Giles, that you have great arms?"

He chuckled and lifted her down to his level. "Not in so many words, no."

"Well they are," she told him as they headed for the kitchen. "All strong and manly."

Giles pushed open the kitchen door. "I would have thought you'd had far better examples of strong, manly arms, than mine," he teased back.

Buffy turned, suddenly serious. "They weren't. Not like…" She stepped into his embrace again. "It's like…your arms just want me. Their arms wanted me to want them. I was supposed to be there for them, make things all right for them…all of them, even Angel. He…he said he wanted to take comfort in me…a-and Parker…we know what he wanted me for…" Her expression grew hurt. "And Riley…Riley…"

Giles closed his arms around her as the hurt radiated outward from her. "You don't have to talk about it, if you don't want to. It's obviously still very painful."

"I didn't love him, Giles. I couldn't even say the words. I needed him…I wanted him…to make it all right, to make things…normal, but I didn't love him. A-and I think he knew…that's why he…"

Giles looked up at the ceiling. "Granted, it was difficult for him, but no one ever said that it was mandatory to fall in love in every relationship one is going to have. It would, perhaps, have been fairer to tell Riley the moment you realised how strongly he felt about you, but it wasn't your fault that you didn't grow to have the same feelings for him as he obviously does…did…for you."

He looked down again and met her troubled gaze.

"Did you tell Olivia?" she asked softly.

If he was disturbed by the question, he didn't show it. "Not…not at first. Not in so many words. I love Olivia…as a friend…and she loves me…but she has a boyfriend in Milan, another in London…an ex-fiancé in New York, with whom she is on excellent terms. Her life is not lived on the same terms as most other people. Her work means that she is almost never in the same place for more than five or six weeks at the very outside. She has learned to live…and love…within that frame of reference."

Buffy searched his face. She knew him. "And you didn't mind…that you weren't the only one?"

He met her gaze, and she saw the truth before he spoke. "I would have…" he said quietly.

"…If you were in love with her," Buffy finished.

He smiled at the concern in her eyes for him and nodded. "Shall we leave this fascinating discussion for the time being and forage for something nourishing?"

"Sounds like a plan," she agreed and reached up to brush his lips with her own. "You don't mind if we do that every now and then though, do you?" she grinned.

He chuckled. "Not in the least. In fact I insist upon it. Now let's see what's in the refrigerator."

A cursory inspection of both refrigerator and freezer revealed much Christmas fare, as well as two bottles of wine, exotic fruit, pate, and smoked salmon, obviously bought in preparation for the return of the prodigal husband...

The larder produced crusty bread, an extensive array of packets, cans and home-bottled fruit and jam and jellies, a rack of root vegetables. A large box of pickling onions and bottles of vinegar explained the jars Mrs McAllister was retrieving when she fell.

Giles raised his eyebrows, then went and lifted the wall phone from its cradle. It was still dead. They both moved to the window to look out at the un-abating storm. Only the wind had eased slightly. The snow was still tumbling down in the darkness.

"We're lucky we've still got power," Buffy observed.

"Indeed," Giles agreed soberly. "We won't be back in Sunnydale for Christmas at all, I'm afraid. Even if the snow stops by morning, the road will be impassable. And we may even have to wait until Spring thaw to come back for Sowi's talisman, the way things are going. I don't like the chances of finding anything resembling a cave with the 'Marking of Kyrroth' on it, up here, after this."

Buffy smiled slowly. "I guess it means that Mrs McAllister won't mind what we eat, as long as we replace everything when the weather clears."

Giles grinned back. "My thoughts exactly."

Rhiannon McAllister had made short work of canned soup from the pantry, bread, and some of the smoked salmon from the refrigerator, arranged in thin slices on a roll. She also bade them help themselves to anything they wanted, as Buffy had anticipated. Not having eaten for many hours, they needed no second invitation.

They settled back in the living room, at Buffy's suggestion, on the carpet in front of the fire, with the picnic they'd assembled, including a steaming bowl of the left over soup, and bread, some of each of the brie, pate, salmon, rolls, and fruit, accompanied by one of the bottles of wine.

When they were done they were both glowing, from both the fire and the wine. Sleepy and content, Buffy had moved around to sit in front of Giles, leaning against his chest as they sipped their last glasses of chardonnay and watched the flames dance on a new knot of tree root right in the centre of the hot coals.

"Pretty how the flames keep changing colour," Buffy mused.

"Mmm," Giles agreed, deciding that technical explanations were not required. "Very pretty," and kissed the top of her head as naturally as breathing.

"We're going to make a tradition of doing this," Buffy murmured contentedly. "You've got a great fireplace in your apartment."

She felt his chest move and heard the chuckle. "Which is sadly underused due to your appallingly unsuitable weather," he pointed out.

Buffy frowned. "Maybe we could get Willow and Tara do a cold spell sometimes, just for Sunnydale…or maybe even just for your apartment?"

He made a suitably squashing sound. "Magic is not for such frivolous use, as you well know. There will be days for this…and they'll be all the more special for their rarity."

Buffy turned and snuggled into his chest. "Like you," she sighed happily.

Giles grinned again and closed his arms around her. "Indeed. Exactly like me," he told her, tongue in cheek.

It was well after midnight before they cleared up and scattered the dying coals from the fire before heading for the stairs.

Buffy had never felt so content, relaxed and happy in her short life. "How are your bits and pieces?" she asked apropos of nothing.

Giles gave a great bark of laughter. "I beg your pardon?"

Buffy turned crimson. "I was thinking about the snap frozen bits, potty brain…although I suppose that counts too…" she added mischievously.

"Buffy!" he growled good-naturedly. "My bits are fine. I was very fortunate all round. Fortunate you were here to find me, and even more fortunate that what you found wasn't already irrevocably frostbitten."

They reached the landing and Buffy turned to him, grinning. "My good fortune too," she teased. They gained the top floor and Giles was still chuckling to himself. "You're incorrigible, Miss Summers."

"Of course I am," she agreed, opening her door, then sighed and looked pitifully at the child-sized bed. A split second later a glint danced in her eyes. "Goodnight…and Merry Christmas, Mister Giles."

He moved across the hall and enveloped her in his arms before kissing her very satisfactorily. "Merry Christmas, love. Sleep well."

As her door closed behind her, Buffy muttered, "I intend to."

Giles had just settled in the big bed and was about to turn out the bedside lamp when his door opened, not giving him long enough to be startled before he saw Buffy's beautiful face.

"Something wrong?" he asked immediately, then swallowed as the head that was poked around the door, with its freshly washed and apparently, dried, cloud of blonde hair, was followed into the room by a body in a beautiful turquoise nightgown, just transparent enough to show the outline of her breasts and the turquoise g-string underneath.

He cleared his throat. "Um…di-did you borrow that from Mrs McAllister?" he stammered.

Buffy shook her head. "I bought it for myself after Riley…left. I wanted to do something wild. I brought it because I thought we'd be staying in a hotel…and I wanted… well, just call it a little self-indulgence…" she finished awkwardly. "You don't like it? Too much?"

Giles cleared his throat. "On the contrary," he said hoarsely. "You look beautiful, Buffy."

She grinned engagingly. "Did anyone ever tell you how cute you are when you're doing tousled and flustered at the same time?"

He coloured even more. "Not in recent years, no. Nor has anyone appeared in my bedroom looking like a goddess at two in the morning." The wind gusted and rattled the window. "Especially in a snow storm," he added dryly.

Buffy produced something from behind her back. It was a small, wrapped parcel.

"I wanted to give you your Christmas present," she said playfully, her tone provocative.

His eyes flashed and he smiled. "Ah, so it's not all a plan to avoid having to sleep in the cot?" he teased. "In that case you'd better get your own gift from my bag over there."

Her face lit up. "You brought one for me too?"

His mirrored hers. "Of course, silly girl. It is Christmas, after all."

In seconds she'd retrieved the somewhat larger parcel and climbed onto the bed.

Giles smiled and stroked her arm as she settled near him, then frowned fiercely. "You're freezing. Why didn't you say something?"

"Being cold doesn't exactly go with being sexy," she pointed out, turning her parcel around and around while he took his more sedately.

"It doesn't go, period," he growled and lifted the covers. "Get in, now. The electric blanket is still on low."

She was under the covers and feeling the warmth of the electric blanket seeping into her frozen legs when she realized exactly where she was, and with whom, and suddenly became incredibly self-conscious again.

"O-open yours first," she prompted, trying to sound casual.

Giles, who had been making far too much of examining the wrapper while Buffy slid into the bed along side of him and moved across so that she was close enough to lean against him, began to undo the paper.

Fully expecting it to be some item from his own shop, or Buffy's usual fare of handkerchiefs, aftershave, tiepin or budget cufflinks, he was not prepared for what he found.

As he lifted the gold chain from its box he said quietly: "open yours, Buffy."

Puzzled, Buffy swiftly opened her gift, and lifted the lid inside the wrapping. The pretty floral box contained two separate gifts.

One was the perfume she'd been hinting loudly about for weeks, but the other was a small velvet case. It contained a small, silver antique cross on a chain that looked just as valuable. She picked it up very carefully to look at the subtle filigree, and the tiny but stunning sapphires, three in all, inlaid in the centre shaft.

When she looked up again, eyes glistening, Giles was watching her, still holding the gold chain she had given him, the small but heavy gold crucifix hanging at the end of it. It had taken her from the end of the previous summer to pay it off, but she'd done it. The idea had been borne when she realized he was serious about the magic shop, the memory of what had happened to the last several owners sharp in her mind, and galvanized when Giles surprised her with her very own work-out area.

The emotional separation from Riley had been coming for a long time, but the unconditional love and care with which Giles and Xander had crafted that gift just for her, finally crystallized something she'd been unable to grasp since Angel had deserted her.

True love was unconditional. Everything else was irrelevant. All of her relationships had lacked that one fundamental…

They were all conditional, in one form or another.

"It's…beautiful," she whispered, the emotion in her voice describing far more than just the attractiveness of the piece.

He looked a little self-conscious, half smiled, looked down then looked up again. "It was my grandmother's. It's been locked away since my mother died. I-I was going to give it to you when…when you turned twenty-one, but since we fought Adam, I've had an overwhelming desire to give it to you sooner. I-I can't explain…but I've always wanted you to have it."

Buffy blinked, flicking moisture out of her lashes, and nodded toward his hand. "Mine isn't an antique, but I wanted…you bought that damned magic shop…and I can't always be around when you need me…"

Giles' hand closed on it, emotion evident in his own face now. He understood, and what it meant was even more precious than the gift itself.

When Buffy realized how moved he was, and that he really didn't know what to say, she put her gift down and took his, unclasped it and slipped it around his neck. When it was clipped she looked up, their mouths just millimetres apart.

Giles reached around her and picked up her crucifix. It felt cool against her skin. She shivered, both from the sensuousness of the metal and the warmth of his touch as he worked the old clasp very gently.

When he was done they were still in almost exactly the same position. Neither of them moved, only the sound of their breathing punctuating the suddenly charged atmosphere.

It throbbed as Buffy very slowly allowed her forehead to rest against his chin, her breast rising and falling faster with each breath.

"Tell me I can stay," she whispered and heard the rasping intake of his next breath.

Giles closed his eyes. It was sweet torture being with her like this, so soon…so very soon.

"I want you more than I want to wake in the morning," he breathed, "but not here, not now. It's not our home, or our time, but I don't want you to go either…" He tilted her chin up and kissed her mouth very gently.

At the same time, he reached across, moved her gift onto the side table and turned out the light, before drawing her into the warm circle of his arms and sliding both of them under the covers.

Neither of them knew just how tired they were, until they woke the next morning exactly as they had gone to sleep, Buffy still curled in Giles' protective arms, her head still on his chest, under his chin.

Woken by, of all things, rooster crow, they both stirred at the same time and blinked at the amount of light in the room.

Moments later the significance sank in. Buffy blinked. "It's stopped," she croaked.

Giles was squinting at the open curtains. "Thank God," he muttered. "We may even have an outside chance of getting out of here after all. Depends whether snow ploughs are going to be needed or not."

Buffy turned her body and wriggled up far enough to kiss his mouth. "Why would you want to plough snow?"

He gave a good-natured guffaw. "Not plough. Push it off the road so that traffic can get through," he explained. "And a Merry Christmas to you too."

Buffy blinked. And immediately felt at her throat. "Merry Christmas, Rupert," she said softly, fingering her precious gift. "From me and your Grandmother."

For a few moments Giles was very still. "I like the sound of my name when you say it," he told her eventually, his voice a shadow of its normal self.

Her blue grey eyes searched his. "But something's wrong?" she asked carefully.

He shook his head and smiled slowly, his eyes, his tone charged with the strength of his feelings.

"Something…something is very right. I can't, quite, believe—"

Buffy covered his lips with her fingers. "Believe," she told him. "Believe that I love you, and that this is how it's always going to be from now on." When their lips met again, it was as two burning fires merging into one inferno of passion.

"I know," she breathed whimsically, when they finally broke apart, both breathing heavily and fast. "N-not here, not now…but you are in so much trouble when we get back to Sunnydale.

Giles trailed a finger across the soft skin above the bodice of her nightgown. "We both are," he growled as she shivered…and not from the cold.

"Time to check on our host, see to the livestock and start breakfast," he said, without removing his fingers from the inner curve of her breast.

Buffy held his gaze as her own fingers deliberately slid over the thigh of his pyjamas and came to rest provocatively where it would disturb him the most.

"Do we hafta?" she asked huskily, her eyes dancing.

"Yes," he squeaked, cleared his throat, and repeated, "yes. You know very well we must, minx." And breathed very strangely as her fingers trailed over the area in question, before being withdrawn. "Now," he added in a strangled voice, for good measure.

"Spoilsport," she complained. "I'll check Mrs McAllister. You check the livestock. I'll meet you out there when I'm done."


*******

Giles, dressed in a heavy, cream, cable knit sweater that covered his cute, denim covered butt, was measuring grain for the chickens when Buffy found him.

"We forgot the chickens!" she wailed.

"Stop panicking," he chuckled. "They're all present and accounted for, even the old boy, there." The crowing culprit was jostling his consorts shamelessly. "I'm assuming shared bodily warmth," Giles teased over the cackle, as the Rhode Island Red, Black Orphington, and multi-coloured fowls clamoured at the wire for the food they knew was coming, despite their run being carpeted with new snow.

Buffy watched as he tossed the pitchers of grain over the wire and the hens fell upon the food, picking it out of the snow. Giles had already broken up the ice on their water and collected the eggs.

In the broad daylight they realised the homestead was a lot more extensive than it seemed in the blizzard. Everything had survived the storm, mostly in tact. Buffy followed him to the barn, where the cat greeted them like long lost relatives, meowing and curling around their legs shamelessly as they saw to the horses.

Afterwards Buffy picked up the unhappy feline. "I forgot about him last night," she said guiltily as he climbed up to lie across her shoulder. "He must be starving…poor thing."

"I daresay," Giles said dryly. "And probably has fleas, too."

"Yearghh! Now you tell me," she squawked, trying unsuccessfully to detach him from her shoulder, cursing as his claws dug in deeper and deeper, before finally giving up as Giles roared with laughter.

"Bring the miserable creature up to the house and we'll find it something to eat," he told her between gasps, then relented when he saw her face. "Silly goose. It's too bloody cold for fleas. They're a summer affliction."

Buffy scowled and followed him out of the barn. "You are so going to get it later, Mister. Be very glad I'm being held hostage here…owww!!!" she yelled as the cat suddenly used all four sets of claws to launch himself off her shoulder.

"What the…?"

They watched it scamper back to the barn, Buffy holding her shoulder.

"That hurt," she complained. "A lot. Stupid cat."

"It probably lives in the barn. I'm sorry," Giles said apologetically and eased her pretty, wide-necked sweater off her shoulder. There were several sets of puncture marks and one parallel set of deep scratches just an inch or so long.

Before Buffy could even offer a scathing observation, the handsome head bent and his warm lips touched the wounds…several times.

Her knees turned to jelly and her body instantly burned like fire as the velvet touch moved over each mark.

When she groaned, he lifted his head, put down the bucket of eggs and dragged her into a clinch, capturing her mouth and kissing her with all the pent up fire and passion they both needed to exorcise. Buffy responded, straining to him, until neither of them were aware of anything but each other.

Only the sound of Rusty barking at the back door interrupted their reverie. They parted reluctantly, Giles' free arm curling possessively around her shoulders as they ploughed through the drifts of snow on their way back to the house.

He fed the dog while Buffy hunted for cat food, amid the pleasant breakfast aromas of the fresh coffee, bacon and egg, and buttered toast that Buffy had taken up earlier to a much more chipper Rhiannon McAllister, whose main problem now seemed to be an ankle swollen to the size of a melon, a still painful knee and more bruises than a football player on Monday morning.

Giles also volunteered to go back to the barn with the glad tidings for the cat, when Buffy found and opened a can of sardines after giving up on finding any real cat food.

She grinned as she handed him the smelly feast. "I promise I'll have your breakfast ready when you get back."

"Good," he said with feeling. "I'm starving. It must be the altitude."

She tilted her head to one side. "And the good mood you're in?" she teased.

"Entirely," he agreed, his eyes dancing and shouldered the back door open. "Back in a minute."

He was back in quick time, pausing inside the door as he closed it, amused by Buffy's sudden domestication. Unlike the last time, during that frenetic Thanksgiving a couple of years back, this time she seemed to actually be enjoying herself. He came up behind her as she turned eggs, bacon and hash browns in a huge, cast iron frying pan, and slid his arms around her waist, surprised when she didn't jump, even a little.

"You're no fun," he murmured, kissing her ear.

"Slayer hearing," she replied, chasing a recalcitrant slice of bacon with her spatula and leaning back against his chest at the same time.

"You're not the bionic woman you know," he teased.

"Much," she growled. "I could take her in a heartbeat…and big ol' Steve too…if I wanted."

"I have no doubt," he agreed, moving his mouth to her other ear, "but I prefer you to confine your battles to the forces of darkness, rather than the products of seventies television."

"Spoilsport. Breakfast is served," she announced. "Stick some bread in the toaster and bring the coffee to the table.

He snorted, but did as she ordered. By the time she'd dished up two plates of hot food, the toast had popped up, and both of them moved to the table together with their breakfast.

"I haven't eaten so much in years," she groaned when they pushed their empty plates away. "Not even at our Thanksgiving."

"I enjoyed every morsel," he added. "Well done. I can't remember the last time such simple fair tasted so good."

Buffy paused. "You're right. Better than good…maybe there's something to be said for chicken-to-table service?"

He chuckled. "I'm certain of it. And real smoked bacon, and, if I'm not mistaken, that wasn't processed bread, either. Good lord!" he added suddenly.

"What?" she demanded, alarmed.

"I just realised that neither of us has checked the phones this morning," he explained, a note of incredulity in his voice, and pushed his chair back to go and pick up the one on the wall.

A moment later he re-cradled it and shook his head slowly. "Presumably a lot of lines are down and the authorities are probably working flat out…damn it. I'm going to have to get myself a cell phone."

"Great plan," Buffy agreed. "Except you haven't got a hope in hell of any reception here in the mountains, anyway, my love."

He rolled his eyes. "All right, smart arse, one to you. I'd just like to get some proper medical attention for Mrs McAllister's ankle and preferably see her husband home before we leave."

"Yeah, well, you saw the drifts out there, Giles. You're going to need your snow harvesters or whatever."

"Snow ploughs," he corrected dryly and shook his head. "Californians."

"Hey!" she shot back then grinned. "No fairs picking on the bottle blonde. It's Christmas. If no one comes today, I'm even going to do Christmas dinner for you and Mrs McAllister. There's that joint in the fridge and everything we need is here. So behave yourself."

"Joint?"

"Mm. Big piece of meat for baking, thawing in a tray," she told him facetiously.

"I know what it is," he muttered. "I was wondering what kind."

She shrugged. "It's without horns or wool or cute lamby tail. How do I know?"

"I can see who's going to be doing most of the cooking tonight…and the cleaning up, I'll be bound," he growled.

"You're so cute when you're annoyed," she grinned and stood on tiptoes to kiss his nose before picking up her patient's new pitcher of water and sashaying out of the room. "It's a corner of beef," she called over her shoulder, just before completely disappearing from sight.

"Brat!" he called after her, then chuckled and smiled to himself. He'd never seen her so relaxed…and truly happy.

"Stuffy!" her voice called back from the bowels of the house.

He chuckled again and set about cleaning up the kitchen.


*******

"Tell me again where she said the firewood was?" Giles demanded, and rattled the big wood bucket expressively.

Buffy stopped, knee deep in snow and breathing hard, an empty kindling box in her arms.

"She said it was past the hay barn, down in the storage shed near the pigsty."

"Pigs?" Giles exclaimed. "I wonder when they were last fed."

"I didn't know," she complained.

They continued to plough through the new, soft, snow, both heaving and blowing by the time they reached the pigsty.

"It's empty!" Giles exclaimed, checking each of the pens. "They must have sent them to market already. But there are no breeders."

"So what? They just fatten little piggies up for bacon and pork chops?" she asked unhappily.

"Something like that, yes," he confirmed, heading off towards the closest building.

It turned out to be an open shelter full of firewood, as expected.

"Excellent," he said, dropping the bucket and pulling an axe from it's rest on the wall.

Buffy looked around. "Where are you going to chop? There's nothing but snow."

"Good point," he said, crestfallen, and let the axe drop to his side. "Well, we'll just have to improvise."

He dragged an oversized log to the small area of shelter not covered in stacked firewood and stood it on its end. The diameter of at least eighteen inches provided enough surface area to stand kindling and other small chunks of timber on for splitting while Buffy made a pile of heavier pieces that didn't need cutting.

Giles had a respectable pile of both kindling and split firewood and had actually removed the heavy farm jacket to really swing into the chopping, when a piece of pine splintered and a big chunk of it went spinning over Buffy's head and out into the snow.

She dropped the piece of stump she was carrying and tried to run out and get it, but didn't bank on the depth of the drifts. After three strides she tripped, cart wheeled through the snow and landed face down.

It stung, and it was cold, but worst of all, Giles thought it was funny. She could hear him roaring with laughter behind her.

In a few moments she was up and launching a big snowball, surreptitiously compacted while she was on the ground. Her accuracy was deadly and Giles spluttered and yelled when it hit him just below his chin, frigid against his work-heated skin. It ended up in his hair, on his shoulders and down the front of his shirt.

It was Buffy's turn to laugh, until he came towards her, bending to scoop up snow as he marched out.

"Oh no. No you don't!" she yelled, giggling, but didn't move fast enough and wore the whole thing in the middle of her back. Their snow fight lasted for at least ten minutes of missile throwing and chasing and culminated in both of them falling into the snow, still trying to stuff snowballs down each other's shirts.

The wrestling continued until their weapons disintegrated and melted.

"We are so going to need dry clothes," Buffy complained between giggles, wriggling beneath the warm body that had her pinned.

"And whose fault is that?" Giles asked pointedly, pinning her hands to the snow.

"And who's letting you win?" Buffy shot back.

He looked down at her face and smirked. "Fair point," he conceded, captured her mouth and plundered it for a seemingly endless time, utterly unchallenged. "Any complaints?" he drawled when he raised his head.

Her breasts heaving, Buffy smiled back. "Plenty. We're in the snow. We have to get that wood up to the house and I can't do evil things to your body until we get back to Sunnydale. The waiting's going to kill me," she growled, sliding her legs around his hips and lifting her own so that their positions became extremely intimate.

Almost involuntarily, Giles pushed against her and heard her groan, then rolled off, not trusting himself to take the game any further, stood up and offered a hand.

Buffy wrinkled her nose and took it, coming to her feet lithely and easily and shaking off the excess snow, as he was.

"Do we have enough wood yet?" she asked as they walked back to the shelter, trying not to think about the fire in her loins, the ache of her body or the memory of the feel of his against her...

"I daresay it will do," he said in a pitch lower than normal and held out his palms. "I find that the novelty of chopping wood has worn off.

"Giles," she exclaimed, concerned. Both palms sported large blisters, some already broken. "That's it. No more rustic fun for you. We're going back to the house and find something for your hands."

"Don't fuss, love. They're too cold to be very painful at the moment, but they will be if I start splitting wood again, and they get warmed up. We'll carry this lot back and lay the fire for tonight, then we're both going to get into some dry clothes."

"Now who's fussing?" she teased, filled the box with kindling and hefted it easily.

Giles gingerly finished filling the bucket to overflowing and they struggled back to the house through the snow.

"You should have said something earlier," Buffy admonished some time later. She was bathing the blisters, while Giles sat at the kitchen table with a palm up. "I'm not exactly 'Helpless Girl', you know. I could easily have taken over the chopping part."

"Consider it a man thing. Not the thing to sit and watch a woman chop wood…even a bionic one," he said gruffly.

"Or a Slayer," she sighed, looking at him fondly. "At least we've got a fire again. You'd think they'd have central heating in this day and age."

"This isn't a modern house, Buffy. They might be happy with the more traditional elements."

She lifted an eyebrow and looked over his shoulder. "You mean like the microwave, and the deep freeze?"

He tilted his head to one side and gave her his best 'smart arse' look. "You know very well what I mean," he growled and closed his hand around hers, pulling her onto his lap.

"Patient revolt!" she wailed. "And no hurting the hands… Hey your pants are still all wet and squishy."

Giles deliberately slid his hands down to cup her butt. "So are yours," he growled and bent his head to kiss her neck, just under her ear.

She groaned and turned her face to catch his mouth. "You're doing this deliberately," she moaned, kissed him again. "I'm about ready to jump out of my skin and you're fanning the flames," she added when she lifted her head again. "Have you no pity?"

He was about to make a comment about what she was doing to his lap, when they both jumped like startled cats at the sound of the phone ringing. In seconds Buffy had answered it.

"The snowploughs will be here by tomorrow. They're going to work on the road all night. I told them about Mrs McAllister's accident. They said if nothing changes, the doctor will come up with the snowploughs, but I'm to ring them if anything changes and they'll get someone up here, somehow. Apparently there's at least one snowmobile in town."

"And her husband?"

Buffy came to the back of his chair, slid her arms around his neck and kissed his temple. "Not a word, and I forgot to ask. I guess if he's in town, he'll call."

"Mm," Giles murmured non-committally, deep in thought. "In the meantime, I suggest we try to make something of this Christmas for our host."

"We? You're going to help me cook dinner?" she teased.

"Why are you so surprised?" he demanded indignantly. "Who stuffed the Thanksgiving turkey, made certain the vegetables didn't burn and got stuck, I might add, with the clean up, afterward, just as I predicted I would?"

Buffy ran her tongue around the rim of his ear. "Self fulfilling prophecy."

"Rubbish," he retorted. "More like a bratty little wench who always wants everything her own way…and gets it," he added, trying not to laugh as she gave him a shove and roughed him up.

"That's low," she complained. "I don't always want things my own way. Sometimes I want them other people's way."

"Your assault on the English language has reached new heights," he observed acerbically, straightening in his chair and pushing back his ruffled hair. "Go and tell Mrs McAllister that the phone is back on, while I organize things down here."

"Who died and made you mission leader?" she growled good-naturedly, but went anyway.

The dinner preparations went almost without a hitch, except perhaps for the egg Buffy dropped, and the lumpy traditional gravy an absent minded Giles had stirred flour directly into, instead of mixing it with water first, and which he deftly managed to pour down the drain and wash away before Buffy came back from taking tea up to their host. She returned to find him whisking a pre-packaged version with boiling water, in a gravy boat.

"I thought you were making gravy the way your mother used to…I didn't think they had instant gravy in the old days?"

Giles gave her a filthy look. "I decided the pan was far too…greasy," he improvised. "This is much healthier, and just as tasty."

"You burned it, didn't you?"

"No I did not!" he retorted indignantly. "I'll have you know it was perfect…" he added, in high dudgeon, then deflated and muttered, "before it got lumpy," under his breath.

Buffy giggled. "You don't remember yelling at me for putting the flour straight in the pan at Thanksgiving, do you?" she prompted, trying to let him off the hook.

He grinned back. "So I did. It was perfect…until you decided it wasn't thick enough."

Buffy made a face. "You don't have to rub it in, Mister Instant Gravy Guy."

Mrs McAllister wanted to come down stairs, but Giles convinced her not to try the ankle too much until it had been X-rayed. Instead a riotous Christmas dinner was had in the host's bedroom with ample participation by Rusty, who felt bound to remind everyone that it was his Christmas too. In the end it was decided that he would have his own plate of trimmings, a little gravy and number of dog treats instead of vegetables, on the side.

The most laughter was reserved for the cracker pulling, to which Rusty took exception, growling and barking at each cracker before and after it was pulled, before shredding all of the remains with great feeling.

"She really enjoyed herself," Buffy observed, swirling the big blue-patterned china plates through the steaming hot, soapy dishwater.

"I think we all did," Giles said contentedly, taking the one he'd just wiped back to its display cabinet and putting it back carefully.

When they got to the greasy pans, they switched places by prior agreement. "I think I was had with this deal," Giles complained, scraping residual baked on pumpkin, sweet potato and beef bits off the sides of the roasting pan before beginning to scour it.

Buffy moved behind him and slid her hands over his hips, so that he made a funny strangled noise and dropped the dripping pan on the sink just as he was about to give it to her to dry.

"I thought it was a great deal," she purred, caressing the various contours of the front of the soft denim jeans.

"Yes, w-well, all right," he agreed, his breath catching. "Perhaps I was a little hasty…"

Buffy was just starting to grin when she suddenly found herself in front of the not-so-pretty dishwater with a scour sponge in her hand.

"And then again," he said very close to her ear, his hands slipping over her own hips and sliding provocatively up her slender body. "Perhaps we both were…?"

She deliberately attempted to get on with the chores, trying not to show how much he was affecting her, but she heard herself groan several times as his sensitive hands played over her soft breasts, caressed her lithe curves. Nor could she stop her body from moving back against his and rubbing itself against him more than once.

Ultimately, with only the last wipe down left to do, Buffy turned and pressed herself against her love's body, barely able to breathe.

"You're evil, Watcher," she growled. "Just plain evil." And moaned as he commandeered her mouth and pulled her off the ground to plunder it. The electricity between them pulsated as they continued to ravage each other, and then Giles stepped toward the cupboard so that her butt slid onto it.

Buffy used the opportunity to capture his hips with her legs, in turn making him growl low in his throat and push himself against her, listening to her almost begging groans as she responded, pushing back, tilting her hips upward as they kissed again, ferociously.

When they finally managed to stop, Giles lifted her down and wrapped his arms around her. After a few moments he finally spoke.

"I'm sorry," he said ruefully. "I can't help wanting you…I love you so terribly, but I shouldn't let things get out of hand like that."

Buffy squeezed her arms tight around him then lifted her head to kiss his chin. "'We', big guy…as in both of us…" She grinned mischievously. "You have to admit though…we're good together, huh?"

"Positively dangerous," he growled. "But with any luck we should be home by tomorrow night. It's not so long to wait, is it?"

She made an almost half serious whimpering noise. "Only forever," she complained good-humouredly, "but I like that. Something in my life that's forever."

Giles' face dropped, and his eyes lost their merriment. "You will have forever," he promised. "If there's any way on God's Earth I can give it to you, you'll have it," he said fiercely.

Moisture pricked Buffy's eyes. She hadn't meant to be serious, or to remind either of them of that part of their lives. She resented the fact that it would never leave them alone…that even simple teasing or jest could lacerate, because of it.

"We'll do it together, like we always have," she told him. "Only we'll be even better, because you won't have to tell me twice from now on, and you'll be able to lecture me around the clock…from when we wake up in the morning, until we go to sleep each night after you've made love to me."

That brought creases to his sombre face, and a reluctant smile to his lips. "Every night?" he asked, with mock incredulity.

"Oh yeah," she grinned back. "Every night. And after serious Slayage, maybe twice."

"Good lord," he said with feeling. "Perhaps I am too bloody old after all."

Buffy trailed her fingers over the granite hard contour of his jeans. "Oh yeah, way old," she growled appreciatively. "Totally past it…so far past it, that part of me wants nothing more than to forget where we are…wants you to just take me...right here, right now." She made a small sound when she felt his reaction through the soft fabric.

"P-point taken," he stammered, not sure if moving was a good idea. "B-but since we can't…would you settle for eggnog instead?"

It was such a silly, helpless thing to say that Buffy found herself giggling, and when their eyes met, she lost it completely, dragging him along with her. After that, they were both lost in a giggle fit that tried over and over to subside, right up until they inevitably looked at each other again, and were lost…again.

By the time they'd giggled themselves out, the tension had passed and they left the kitchen comfortably in each other's arms, to enjoy the rest of their Christmas by the fire.

"You're going to make me sleep in the Barbie bed, aren't you?" Buffy sighed as they climbed the stairs contentedly some time after midnight.

Giles pulled her closer and kissed the top of her head with a casual possessiveness that spoke volumes.

"I don't want to," he told her honestly. "But I'm not sure either of us can behave for another entire night together."

"Don't want to behave," she muttered, in CaveSlayer's pouting tones.

He squeezed her shoulders again as they made the landing. "Neither do I, love; neither do I."

"You know, it's really weird, but you're kind of special, you know? Waiting isn't exactly big with my generation…not for anything."

Giles snorted. "You don't have to tell me. Three years at that bloody school provided evidence enough of the countless shortcomings of today's youth."

They turned to each other in the hallway between their rooms. "Hey, I'm allowed dirty slams about my age group. You're not," she teased, then grew serious. "I want to stay with you," she said softly.

Giles turned, rested his head against his door. He didn't want to go to bed alone, either. After a beat, he turned.

"Can you feel it?" he asked cryptically.

Buffy frowned slightly, but paused to think before she automatically questioned him, and in the process stretched out her Slayer senses, as a matter of course.

"I can feel how 'undemony' this place is," she told him a few moments later. "I can feel you…upstairs or downstairs, inside or out…whether we're together or not." She cocked her head to one side. "I can feel the cold…and I can feel how much we want each other…"

"Undemony," he quoted. "Yes, that's it. Untainted. Buffy, there's something about this place…"

Buffy's eyes widened a little as she stretched herself even further, extending into places barely brushed by her earlier forays into the furthest reaches of Slayer consciousness.

"I feel it too, but I don't know what it is. I-I don't think it's scary, but that really settles it. We're not separating. I promise I'll be good. As long as you promise to be really, really bad when we get home."

Giles stared at her wide eyes and serious face for a moment, then laughed at the same time she did.

"As bad as you want," he promised. "But first we have to get through this night. Do you think, perhaps, one last check on Rhiannon?"

Buffy started to nod, then stopped and frowned again. "My room, Giles. It's a kid's room…it's Christmas and there's no kid…no pictures of a kid. I looked at the gifts under the tree downstairs: all to Rob, and even to Rusty. Nothing else. And she hasn't even asked…"

Giles frowned. "Perhaps the child is at boarding school, or stranded by the storm…"

"Or dead?" Buffy asked quietly.

"Perhaps," Giles said heavily. "But there has been no evidence of that, either."

"Dog, cat, one big horse, one little horse. Not two big horses, one little horse," Buffy mused.

"Pony, Buffy," Giles corrected, amused.

"Huh?"

"Little horse?"

"Oh. Pony. Right. Giles, I think I'm going to look around again after I check on Rhiannon."

Their host was fast asleep when Buffy peeked in.

When Giles finally found her again, Buffy was sitting at the big leather chair in the den, where the farm accounts were obviously done, and most of the house's books were located, in big bookcases.

"Buffy?"

She looked up very slowly from the photograph album she was looking at and turned it around.

There were a lot of somewhat dated pictures of a young couple. A turning of the pages saw more than half of the pictures of the young man in a uniform. A few more were primarily of the young Rhiannon on her own, in various stages of pregnancy and then the book ended, unfinished.

Buffy stood up and went over to the only glass-fronted cabinet in the room, and Giles followed. She pointed to the medals in it, the blown-up photograph of the young marine, signed, 'love, Andy.'

"If that's her husband, who's Rob?" she said softly.

"An excellent question," Giles almost whispered. "But I don't think we should impinge any more upon Rhiannon's privacy. If she wanted us to know, she would have told us. The explanation could be as simple as remarriage, but somehow I don't…" He looked around the room. "I think we should go to bed."

Buffy climbed into the big bed in a T-shirt and his last pair of clean boxers and immediately wriggled right over into his arms.

"No sexual tension being had while wearing Rupert Bear shorts," she announced playfully. "Anya again?"

"Actually, no," Giles said quietly and Buffy immediately sensed a withdrawal.

"You said it was okay," she said softly. "I can wear tomorrow's underwear instead. It's a little racier, and it means you'll just have to deal with me being underwear-less on the way home," she added, teasing gently, but he barely smiled.

"No, it's fine, love. Wear them," he told her, but didn't enlarge.

Buffy sat up straight. "Not if they were a gift from someone special."

He shook his head. "They weren't a gift." I only bought them recently, as a matter of fact, from a catalogue. To celebrate an anniversary, and someone who used to tease me mercilessly about my name and that bloody bear."

"Ethan?"

"What? Lord, no. Ethan never had a childhood. I think he was born old."

"Then who?" she asked, frustrated.

Giles stared into a distant place. "My sister," he said very softly and smiled. "My little sister…Sophie. She was a merciless teaser."

Buffy wasn't sure why, but she knew somewhere, somehow, Giles had lost his Sophie.

"You said 'anniversary'. Birthday?" she asked very gently, knowing that it wasn't.

He sort of shook his head, an almost-movement of someone far away. "The last time I saw her," he said very calmly. "She was thirteen. I was twenty-one."

Buffy suddenly realised something else. "It was vampires, wasn't it?"

Giles closed his eyes. "A somewhat irritated demon, actually. My father's Slayer had killed its family. It was looking for Anna…the Slayer, they said, but found only Sophie, home alone from school with a cold," he recounted, his voice sounding almost incredulous of fate's cruel twists. I was away at Oxford…"

It was Buffy's turn to close her eyes.

Giles had never mentioned his family to anyone. He'd never discussed his rebellious past, even, with anyone except her. She knew that was so, because Jenny Calendar had said as much to Willow…out of frustration that Rupert wouldn't let her in, wouldn't open up. When Will had let slip, out of sheer surprise, Jenny had pretty much resented that Giles had confided in her, Buffy, about Eyghon, and his dark years, and no-one else, not even her. If he hadn't told Jenny, Buffy knew in her heart that he wouldn't have told anyone…

She opened her eyes again, their blue-grey depths glistening, and drank in the profile of the man she loved.

"I'm sorry…about Sophie. I'm sorry about us…"

He looked at her quizzically.

"Slayers," she qualified sadly. "We never seem to be there for you…never seem to bring you anything but pain."

His eyes grew very bright. "You're wrong," he said softly and drew her into a tender embrace. "You've brought me more joy, more happiness than you will ever know."

They held each other for a long time before parting.

"I'm still sorry," Buffy told him, touching his jaw. And they both knew what she was referring to.

He nodded. "The past is irrelevant now. All that matters is the future. And right now," he added, watching her eyes droop, "you're almost asleep sitting up." He drew her down with him, and smiled when she curled up against him and kissed the vee of chest where his pyjama top was open.

"I love you so much, Rupert Giles," she murmured and pressed her cheek against the same spot.

A look of great love and tenderness came into the green eyes, and he brushed her temple with his lips. But he didn't sleep for a long time…not until long after Buffy's breathing became rhythmic and deep.

They were disturbed in the morning by the sounds of engines running. Giles almost had apoplexy when he looked at his watch. It was almost eleven a.m.

Buffy scrambled up and went to look out the window. "It's a snow plough!" she cried. "They've cleared the track all the way up to the house. And there's an RV, with chains. Two men just got out. One might be a doctor. One looks like a policeman or a sheriff or something…what do they have up here? And there's one more. He's looking at the house."

"Clothes," Giles suggested. "Fairly quickly, eh?"

They were downstairs very quickly, dressed in hastily pulled on jeans and sweaters, their hair brushed in the most basic fashion, Buffy's pulled back into a ponytail, just before the front door opened.

"Hi," she said awkwardly, when the third man straightened from unlocking it.

"Who are you?" he demanded.

"The name is Rupert Giles, and this is my…fiancé…Buffy Summers."

Buffy shot him a startled look, then composed her face and turned back to the others with a sweet smile. "We've been looking after Mrs McAllister and the animals since the storm started. We kinda got stranded, ourselves."

"Is that so?" the good-looking man with the keys drawled. "Do you want to tell us what you were really doing in my house, uninvited?"

Buffy and Giles looked at each other, then Giles cleared his throat. "As Buffy told you, we were stranded by the storm. We came here and discovered all the animals to be untended and unfed. A search of the house found Mrs McAllister upstairs in the attic. She fell trying to get preserving jars down to pickle some onions."

"Why don't you go upstairs and ask her yourself?" Buffy snapped grumpily.

The man, however, was now paste-white, looking from one to the other darkly. "That would be an interesting exercise," he said grimly. "Considering that my wife died three years ago."

It was Giles and Buffy's turn to blanch.

"Then who…?" Buffy gasped and looked up at the Watcher, whose eyes had narrowed.

"Do you have a dog, a cat, or horses on the property?" Rupert asked very quietly.

The man stared. "Our collie pup, Rusty, is with my daughter Robin, at her grandmother's. His sire died a while back, after pining for my wife for a long time. We haven't had horses since she died, and there was a half-wild cat that used to sleep in the barn. I haven't seen it in years. The only livestock out here since the pigs went to market is the chickens. A friend from the next property over has been watching them for me."

Giles and Buffy looked at each other again. "We should check upstairs," Buffy whispered, and looked to the other man for confirmation. The other two men had long since withdrawn and were outside checking the house and talking to the grader driver.

He nodded.

Buffy frowned for a moment…Robin…Rob…she called her Rob…" She looked up. "If you don't mind me asking…what's your first name?"

"Andrew," Giles guessed quietly.

The man nodded, surprised, but too overwhelmed to react. "My wife always called Robin, Rob."

They all stood in the doorway of the master bedroom, staring at the untouched bed, the empty watcher pitcher and glass on the side table, the bottle of painkillers still with them.

"How did your wife die, Mister McAllister?" Giles asked very quietly.

"She was thrown from her horse…up here, on the property, and broke her neck. She died instantly."

"S-so she didn't die in the attic?" Buffy ventured.

Andrew McAllister shook his head. "But she did fall the Christmas before she died. And it was onions. Robin was here and found her. Her ankle was broken in two places. It took her weeks to get back on a horse again. And the first time she did…"

"Then why…?" Giles paused at the man's puzzled look. "Usually spirits only return to, or remain stranded in a home if they're troubled or have unfinished business."

McAllister frowned. "This is crazy. I mean there've been a few things. Stuff moved and lost things suddenly appearing as if from nowhere, but I just…I thought it was me being absent minded, or imagining things."

"She said she didn't know if you were going to make it home for Christmas," Buffy pointed out. She said things had been hard and you were away a lot."

"I was. We had a bad year, that year. I got a sales job, on the road. I didn't make it home for Christmas because of a storm. They were snowed in then, too."

He stopped suddenly.

"A family of four died that year, caught in the worst blizzard around here in fifty years. Their car was buried. The police think they decided to sit it out and fell asleep with the car all shut up tight. It got buried and they asphyxiated from the carbon dioxide build up…never woke up again. They were only about a hundred yards down the road from here. Rhiannon never forgave herself for not having the lights on, not knowing … somehow."

At that moment the bedside lamp flickered to life and the electric clock began to flash.

At Giles and Buffy's startled looks, McAllister explained: "Lonny must have just turned the power back on. I haven't been up here in over a week. My daughter needed to have her tonsils removed, so we moved to town with my parents for the operation, and her recovery…and Christmas Eve, naturally."

"Um…we cooked Christmas dinner yesterday," Buffy pointed out, "and there were security lights on the night of the blizzard. That's how we found the place."

McAllister shook his head. "I turned everything off. Didn't want to draw attention to the place when there was no one here to take care of it."

"That's why she was here," Giles said gently. "She was righting a wrong. She brought us here so that history wouldn't repeat itself."

Buffy looked up at him, a tear tracking down her right cheek. "I liked her a lot."

"We both did," he said, smiling reassuringly, before looking up at their companion. "We apologise for invading your home. We…we didn't know, though I don't suppose we'd have done much differently, given the circumstances."

"Don't apologise," McAllister insisted, his own eyes very bright. "If Rhiannon needed peace and you gave it to her, I can only thank you."

Giles nodded and smiled again. "She was very happy. It all seemed so real…the animals, the food…the tree."

Andrew McAllister tilted his head to one side. "I did leave our tree up, so it would be there for Robin when we came home and Connie, a friend from the next farm, was going to stock the refrigerator for us, since we were supposed to be back today. The fridge and freezer are on an independent circuit. They have to be able to be switched over to generators automatically when the power goes out. They're the only things that weren't turned off when I left."

Buffy sighed. "Well that's a relief, because my stomach would have sworn it was given real food. G-Rupert is going to pay for the stuff we ate. There's still some pate and brie and a bunch of salmon left," she said apologetically.

"Don't concern yourself," McAllister said, smiling a little. "It sounds like Connie was planning to be here to meet us." At their inquisitive look, he smiled a little more widely. "Connie is a divorcee. She's been very helpful since Rhiannon died, and she loves Robin. Just lately though, she's been, well, letting me know she's interested in more than just mothering my daughter."

*******

"That's weird."

Giles took his eyes off the road long enough to look at his companion. Buffy had pulled her sweater off her shoulder and was looking at the smooth, unbroken skin.

"The ghost cat made ghost scratches," she said whimsically. "All gone. See?"

"I see," Giles said low in his throat, taking another glance at the silky skin, and the exposed section of breast below it.

Buffy looked up at his tone and smiled provocatively. "Enjoying the view?" she teased.

"Absolutely," he growled as they came up to the outer limits of Sunnydale, and shifted in his seat.

Buffy slid her hand over his thigh and stroked the overfilled denim of his jeans, smiling as his breathing grew more erratic and he moved again in his seat. "I see what you mean," she teased. "Good thing we're only a couple of minutes from home, now."

"A bloody good thing," he agreed fervently as she relented and withdrew the hand.

Never had the apartment complex looked so good. As soon as Giles unlocked the front door, they dumped their stuff just inside and he locked it again.

"We're not telling anyone we're back for at least another twenty four hours," he growled, switching on the lights and turning to her.

"Damn right," she agreed.

The phone rang.

"No one," Giles repeated as they both looked at it.

Buffy shook her head. "No one."

They continued to look at each other.

"Oh, hell," he said.

"You've gotta get an answering machine," she growled as he went to answer it.

"It was Willow checking to see if we were back yet. I told her that as far as the world was concerned we were still in the Sierras, and that if she behaved I'd give her that book she's been badgering me about."

"You think she knows?"

Giles looked down at his love. "I'd say so. She told me that she would quote: tear out my oesophagus, unquote, if I hurt you in any way."

Buffy giggled. "Willow is having Riley issues, which are really kind of Oz issues, but with Riley's face now," she explained, leaving Giles as much in the dark as when she'd started.

"But she's not going to tell anyone we're here, right?"

Giles shook his head. "She promised. Not even Tara."

"And that's why we love her so much," Buffy purred and walked into his arms. "You still have one more present to give me, Mister Giles," she growled.

Giles lowered his head and claimed her lips, both of them hungry for the other, exploring, taking, even nipping at each other's bottom lip between moments of total submergence, until neither of them could think straight. He drew the sweater over her head and threw it away, letting her glorious breasts tumble free, his breath caught by her sheer loveliness.

In reply Buffy swiftly undid the buttons of his shirt, dragging it out of his jeans and pushing it off his shoulders, so that he simply let it fall to the floor. When she paused again, and looked up at him, her face was flushed and her eyes blurred with desire.

Giles couldn't stop himself from claiming her beautiful mouth once again.

She groaned against his, as his fingers slid around the curves of her breasts and caressed the soft flesh, making her arch into them and shudder as her hand slid down to his groin and covered the bulge in his jeans.

A moment later she found herself swept off her feet. They were halfway up the stairs before she could even blink. When she realised how wonderful it felt, she rested her head on his bare shoulder and decided to enjoy the unaccustomed gallantry.

When they reached the loft, Giles laid her on the bed and simply looked at her, dressed only in her pink jeans, her hair rumpled, cheeks red and eyes flashing. She was … simply magnificent. It took his breath, the knowledge that she loved him, the desire in her eyes.

He drew an overwhelmed breath. Everything he wanted, more than he ever deserved…

Buffy, watching him, watching the play of his thoughts across his handsome face, drew herself up and stood on the bed, so that she could slide her arms around his neck.

Overwhelmed by the combination of her scent, her subtle perfume and her softness, Giles kissed the smooth spot between her breasts, making her groan. Then he began a slow, sensuous play of lips and mouth across the full, soft peaks of creamy white flesh, enjoying the sounds of her pleasure.

His hands slipped down as he took a rigid pink nub in his mouth, and undid her jeans. Then he drew them down over her hips and let them drop. At the same time, Buffy took his head in her hands and pulled it to her breast, so that he obligingly opened his mouth fully and claimed his prize, Buffy crying out as his tongue circled her over-stimulated flesh and his lips kneaded the warm softness of it.

"Oh God, Giles," she groaned as he lifted her free of her pants at the same time, and slid his hands over her hips to cup her firm, round buttocks.

"Buffy," he breathed, lifting his head and moving so that he could kiss his way down her body, over her soft belly, lowering himself to her waiting centre.

It was all Buffy could do not to scream as her body exploded with desire and pleasure from his touch…they'd waited so long and she wanted him so badly that every nerve ending was electrified…and when his mouth finally found her swollen desire, she did cry out, and her legs almost gave way.

Giles continued, exhilarated by her shudders and wanton cries of pleasure.

And then, suddenly, she was kneeling, undoing his belt, his zipper, pushing his pants away, so that they dropped to the ground, stunned to find him also without shorts, his overburdened manhood springing free and demonstrating exactly how desperately he wanted her.

Nearly as much as she wanted him…she reached out and closed her hand around him, heard his rasping intake of breath at her touch, and lowered her own head, tasting him.
And continued, her eyes dancing when she heard him swear as his hips arched to meet her provocatively descending lips.

"Jes…ohhhhhh!" he rasped as Buffy expertly drove him mad. When he could stand no more, he just as expertly lifted her and shifted their positions until he was able to capture her lips, kissing her passionately as he moved himself over her.

He was almost trembling as her legs curled around him and their kiss became a battleground of tongue and teeth and lips.

Buffy whimpered as he held back, feeling his hardness brushing against her as the kiss continued, arching upward to meet it, her whole body burning for him, her centre throbbing with all the repressed need of the last few days.

And then large hands were holding her hips, drawing her up to his.

Dual cries of ecstasy rang out through the apartment as they were joined.

Their lovemaking continued for an endless time, revelling in each other, striving to the power of each other until neither could hold back the tide any longer. Almost simultaneously they exploded, Buffy arching and thrashing beneath him, as Giles gasped and cried out, thrusting deep and fast until he was as utterly spent as she was.

And when they finally collapsed, both immediately sought out the other, their kiss this time slow and tender.

"I love you," she said, when they broke.

His big fingers stroked her hair. "My heart," he whispered. "I love you more than I will ever be able to tell you. And I desire you far beyond words."

Buffy's smile widened, love making her eyes sparkle like diamonds. "Wow, I thought lovers only talked like that in books," she teased, though her voice was tender.

"Then you have never truly been loved," he told her huskily.

"Until now," she finished wonderingly, and knew that it was true. Her fingers went to his cheek and stroked it.

"I'm never going to be able to love you as much as you deserve," she whispered. "And I want to…more than anything."

Giles smiled, his eyes very bright. "You already have, love," he told her, touching the crucifix hanging from his neck.

Buffy's fingers immediately went to hers, her first thought that it was too precious, that she should have taken it off long before and put it back in its box.

Giles read her thoughts, her crestfallen expression, perfectly. "It isn't meant for hiding away," he said. "That clasp was made to last for a reason. Wear it for me, always."

She looked up at him, adoration in her eyes. She was speechless for several moments, before reaching up to slide her arms possessively around his neck.

"Always," she finally breathed, and Giles heard the tears of joy in her voice.

He pulled her close and held her fiercely, his own joy transforming his face, his green eyes alive with love and warmth and passion.

"Always," he whispered.

 
THE END