Tradition and Protocol

part 1: Initiation

AUTHOR: Antennapedia
EMAIL: antennapedia@gmail.com
Pairings: Giles/Olivia, Giles/Buffy (eventually, but not here)
RATING: NC-17 (FRAO)
SUMMARY: When a Council representative makes assumptions about his relationship with his Slayer, Giles must come clean to Buffy about the true natures of Watchers and of Slayers.
WARNINGS: Coercive Council magic. Body piercing with questionable consent issues. Violence. Sex and lots of it. Dom/sub kink, piercing kink, bondage kink. Tattoos. And more. And if that isn’t enough, the odd four-letter word. Starts mild, however.
SPOILERS: Early season 4 through “Harsh light of day”; retells S4 in an AU from there.
NOTES: My tribute to the works of A. Manley Haight. Thanks to twilightofmagic, katekat1010, kivrin, and secondalto, who read early drafts. emmessann provided several crucial insights and beta-read; this story would not be what it is without her help.
DISCLAIMER: I claim no ownership and am making no money.


1. Initiation

Soft grinding. Slow strokes down the blade. Giles leaned over the steel broadsword clamped to his desk, easing the whetstone along in one last pass. He paused to finish the tea cooling in the cup at his elbow. He switched to the sandpaper block for the final edge. Nearly finished now. Someone had put this blade back in the weapons chest after only a hasty wipe-down, still spotted with demon blood, edge gone. Giles had been resharpening for some time. “Someone.” Willow never touched physical weapons; Xander had been put to work cleaning them often enough to take the task seriously. Only Buffy would be so careless with a blade.

Giles had been working through his armory steadily in the last few weeks, through the end of August. He’d brought a number of swords to perfect edges, then oiled them for storage: the daggers, the better of his two steel broadswords, the rapier, the leaf-shaped bronze blade he’d cast himself in a workshop. The few he thought likely to see use in his own hands in the coming months merited inspection and careful maintenance. Buffy might have lost her fascination with his weapons, but he still wished to keep them ready and reliable. The flat reeked of cloves from the oil, and he’d gone through a good deal of sandpaper. It kept him busy, at least. For minutes at a time he could get his mind off Olivia’s casual farewell after her last visit, and Buffy’s equally casual indifference to his apology, delivered less than an hour after the door had closed behind Olivia. Both of them seemed to have forgotten his phone number.

Giles second-guessed his decision to stay every day. Every night when he sat unwanted for patrol. He and Xander had taken to organizing patrols on their own. The only consolation he had was that two months ago, in June, the Council had, for reasons they hadn’t bothered explaining, restored him to the payroll. With the hazard pay bonus, and the full insurance plan. Better than what he’d enjoyed before the Cruciamentum. He had no need to find employment. Other than a general need to fill his days once he’d sharpened every metal object in the flat, that was.

The door knocker went. Giles stripped off his gloves and went to answer it. Standing in the circle of his entryway lamp was a young man he’d never seen before. Scrubbed, hair slicked down with some foul substance but still managing to stick up in the back. In the tweed uniform, with handkerchief poking out of the waistcoat pocket. Oh, no doubt about this lad.

“John Stamford, Mr Giles. On assignment from the Council.” The grip behind his handshake confirmed it: calluses, muscles, physical confidence that no man wearing trousers creased that sharply should have. Giles himself was wearing paint-stained jeans.

“Oh, right. Travers sent me a letter about you a while back.” Giles stood aside from the door. Stamford bounced in. The uniform was Wesley, but the body language was all Xander. “Remind me what this is all about?”

“The Slayer, of course! I’m working on my doctoral thesis, you know. On Slayer psychology. Dr Sloane felt I should meet a real Slayer and Watcher.”

“Dear old Sloane. So practical,” murmured Giles. Head of the Council psych department. He’d read Sloane’s little monograph on Slayers and tool use, with parallels to demon tool use. It was one of the few papers written by that group that he’d been allowed to read. They kept a lot away from field Watchers, and what they did show them was often pure bunkum. That monograph, for instance.

“Is the Slayer here? I should like to meet her.”

“No.” Giles drifted to the kitchen to put on the kettle. Of course the boy would want tea.

“It’s a thrill to meet you, Mr Giles. You’re a legend, you know. So unorthodox, yet so successful. The bad boy in all ways.” Stamford’s voice dropped for that last bit. “Still making waves, of course.”

“Oh, really.”

“Oh, yes, the total silence in the last months. No monthly reports. You used to be so regular and thorough.”

“You’ve read my reports?”

“Oh, yes! And the facsimiles of your diary that Mr Wyndam-Pryce made. And your Council training files. I do believe I’ve read it all.”

“And no doubt my prep school records.”

“No, I haven’t read those. Though if you think they’re relevant—”

“No,” said Giles. “Why would you expect monthly reports from me?”

“Well, we expected you’d return to your previous habits after the Slayer’s choice. Poor Mr Wyndam-Pryce. He was talking to one of our counselors every day when he got back. Was touch and go there, they said.”

Giles finally stemmed the flow of words with a upraised hand. “Touch and go? Wesley was suicidal?”

“Oh, my, yes. Rejected by the Slayer, you know. We were braced to send a team out for you if the Slayer had chosen Mr Wyndam-Pryce instead. But she claimed you. Congratulations!”

Claimed... oh bugger. They thought Buffy had claimed him. His hands shook for a moment. The kettle was on the boil. He switched off the gas and busied them making the tea. Wonderful. Buffy didn’t even know that the claim magic existed. And wouldn’t if he could help it. Not that she was curious. She’d never shown any bloody interest in anything to do with being the Slayer if it didn’t involve penetrating vampires with stakes. Or being penetrated by them. Giles ground his teeth. Well, that explained the sudden return to the payroll.

“We were hoping to coax you into writing up the details of your claiming ritual. For the files, you know. Though I would also like to interview the Slayer.” Oh fuck.

“Buffy is touchy about it,” Giles said. “Please allow me to discuss it with her first before you mention it. I’ll, er, pave the way for you.”

“Oh, that’s so thoughtful of you, Mr Giles.”

Thoughtful. Yes. Giles was certainly thinking about it a great deal at the moment. What would he say to Buffy? Would he explain the magic? Would he tell her that it was Council nonsense, and she should just put Stamford off? Or should he just come clean and say it was all a dreadful mistake? That... that would be humiliating. He wasn’t supposed to be here without it. He was supposed to have done as Wesley did, and crawled back. He looked at the young man uneasily. Wriggling, likely to drool on the carpet, impossible to dislike, yet Giles wished to roll a newspaper.

He carried the tray over to his couch, where Stamford was gazing around at the flat as if stunned. Giles supposed it was a bit cluttered. He and Xander had made a start at organizing the books, but not much of one. Right, Xander.

“The others are likely to be arriving soon,” Giles said. “For patrol.”

“Ah, yes, the ‘Scoobies’,” Stamford said. Giles could hear the quote marks. He wouldn’t have put it past the man to have solemnly watched selected examples of the cartoon. His own initiation had been inflicted by Xander, while he’d been laid up recovering from his night with Angelus. “Here,” the boy had said, “this will cheer you up. And you’ll finally get it when I call you Fred.” Giles had explained the nicknames in a subsequent diary entry. What a punctilious swot he’d been.

The gang indeed burst in around nine. No Buffy. Willow made an apologetic little face at him when he stood in the doorway peering past them, hoping to see her. He made introductions, then stepped back while Xander strutted for Stamford. Though he thought that perhaps there was method to Stamford’s awestruck mooning; Xander was answering questions rather too freely.

“Shall we get started?” Giles said, abruptly. Xander dug his favorite crossbow from the weapons chest. Giles took his workaday steel sword and a second crossbow. Willow already had holy water and a pouch full of crystals she wanted to test. “Stamford? Bring your own weaponry?”

“No, thank you, Mr Giles. I will be observing only tonight. Watching, don’t you know.” He held a clipboard. Giles hadn’t brought a clipboard on patrol since the first month he’d been with Buffy, and the memory made him flush. How had Buffy refrained from strangling him? How would he refrain from swatting Stamford?

They’d reached the street before the penny dropped and Stamford asked. “Where’s the Slayer?”

“We’ll meet her there,” said Giles, hoping it was true. She knew their plans, the usual schedule. If she wanted to meet them, she would. Buffy had been distracted the last couple of days, Willow’d said. There was some boy. And she’d been sulking about something. Olivia’s visit still, he thought, and his clumsy attempt to disengage himself from her, to assert his independence. Which was exactly what the Council had decided he didn’t have.

Stamford offered to drive, and Giles accepted for the sake of the Citroen’s groaning engine. The Council had stumped up for an SUV rental for the boy. Giles contemplated it sourly, contrasting its likely weekly bill with the reaction his expense reports had received over the years. “Aren’t you using rather a lot of antiseptic, Mr Giles?” They had paid up anyway. He had to give them that. And his current salary was princely. To match what was, according to Stamford, his current high status, as one of the Watcher elite. A status he held under false pretenses, if accidental ones. Now what the hell was he going to do about that?

Stamford followed them through the cemetery meekly enough once he’d been reassured the Slayer would be with them shortly. He’d gone silent when they’d moved past the glow of the streetlights and into the depths of tree-shadows, picking their way through the monument maze. The three residents knew this cemetery well. Familiar territory. Just here, for instance, was where he’d sat with Buffy to work on her SAT vocabulary. It was almost restful.

Almost.

Xander pointed. A fresh grave, troubled earth, an empty hole. That meant vampire, hungry vampire, around them right now. Giles snapped his crossbow up and began a slow spin to scan. He spotted motion, stopped, continued his patient wheel, then spun back. That had been it. It detected them, and began moving in fast.

Giles steadied himself, aimed, leading a little, and let fly. Perfect shot. Lucky shot. The vampire exploded. He paused to reload the crossbow, and incidentally let the adrenaline fade.

Stamford finished scribbling something. “A vampire already,” he said. “Lucky! And a pity the Slayer wasn’t here to help.”

“Yeah, I guess finding only one is lucky,” said Xander. He pushed open a mausoleum door and peeked inside. “Something’s been breeding them in the last couple months.”

Stamford choked. Giles spun. The boy thrashed in the grip of a second vamp. Giles dropped the crossbow; no chance of a clear shot. Sword would be useless, same reason. He pulled a stake from his pocket and closed on Stamford.

The vampire released Stamford suddenly, and turned. Something kicked it, hard, sending it flying. It got up and charged toward the newcomer. Buffy, of course. The two traded blows. Giles held up a hand to keep the others away. Let Buffy give the Council boy an eyeful. And, apparently, an earful.

“Good evening, sir! I’ll be your Slayer tonight. I’ll tell you about our specials, then I’ll take your drink order. We’ve got a delicious dust plate tonight. It’s spit-roasted vampire drizzled with juniper berry sauce on a bed of arugula. Do you know what arugula is? ‘Cause I don’t.” Punch, block, counter-blow.

“I, I think it’s lettuce,” said the vampire. Buffy was allowing herself to be boxed in among some monuments. Bad tactical thinking. Or perhaps she had some plan Giles couldn’t perceive.

“Cool! Want to order that?”

Giles edged himself into a better position, just in case.

“I’d prefer to discuss the drinks.” The vampire launched a flying kick at Buffy and connected. Buffy staggered back, stumbled over a headstone, and went down. Giles strode in and locked with the vampire from behind. His stake thrust missed. He kept it off-balance for a few dizzying seconds, then the demon’s far-greater strength told, and he was stumbling backwards. At that moment it dissolved into dust. He saw Buffy on its other side, holding his stake and looking miffed.

“Giles, don’t go getting into the fights like that. You could get yourself hurt.” She turned and stomped off, deeper into the cemetery.

Giles took a moment to straighten his clothes and brush the dust out. “Well,” he said. “That was fun.”

“Two vampires in one night. Extraordinary,” said Stamford. He dabbed a hand at his cheek.

“Welcome to the Hellmouth,” said Willow.

The four set off after Buffy. They could hear the tell-tale sounds of blows exchanged ahead. A third. Buffy was engaged in the usual fisticuffs, but not effectively. Her timing was off tonight. Giles wondered if she’d been getting enough sleep. She did stake it eventually. She stomped over to the group.

“Who’s the mini-Giles?” Buffy took a closer look. “Sorry, the mini-Wes.”

“Stamford, allow me to present the Slayer, Buffy Summers. Buffy, this is Council representative John Stamford.”

“What are you doing here?” Buffy could be charming when she wanted, but the Council was never going to inspire her to want.

“He’s writing a paper,” said Giles, so drily that Buffy dropped her sulk for a moment and twitched a private smile at him.

“Wow. Did you bring your microscope? Or are you just gonna take core samples?”

“Mr Giles’ descriptions of your wit were not exaggerated,” said Stamford, with a courtly dip. Giles snapped a look at him; that quip had had much more of an ironic edge than he had expected. Stamford did not give himself away further, if indeed the remark had been a slip and not just a clumsy courtesy.

Buffy marched up to the boy and stood on tiptoes for a moment. “That’s gonna bruise,” she told him. “Stay out of it for the rest of the night.” Then she turned and marched toward the back side of the cemetery, without a further word.

Xander met Giles’ eye and shrugged. Neither one of them knew what was eating Buffy. Willow might know, but she wasn’t saying. They trailed after her, weapons once again at hand. Buffy was moving fast, apparently with some kind of destination in mind. Giles half-ran to try to catch up. The others strung out behind him.

And once again they were blindsided. Buffy was down. Big demon, some kind of antlers, scaled skin, color hard to tell. A club. Spiked. Giles dropped to a knee and let a quarrel loose, not troubling for an over-fine aim. It flew true, hit the demon’s shoulder, and shattered. Giles hadn’t stood still. He was already closing at a run, crossbow discarded and sword drawn. Buffy wasn’t up yet, but she was also not yet pulverized by that club. Why, he couldn’t guess.

Giles screamed with all he had, anything to draw its attention from Buffy. He swung the sword two-handed, right leg planted, hips snapping, arms extending through the swing. Impact, and the sword fell from his nerveless fingers, notched. Magic. A shield of some kind. Or impervious skin? Arcane backlash hit him. He dropped to his hands and knees and vomited, utterly helpless to act as the demon moved away, Buffy in its grip.

Xander was there, wiping his face. The nausea receded, leaving fear-wrack wet along Giles’ spine.

“Buffy! Where is she?” Giles pulled himself to his feet. Stamford had a hand under his elbow.

“The claim bond, Mr Giles! Draw on the bond. Surely you know exactly where she is.”

“Uh, yes, of course, sorry, still disoriented. She’s, uh, in that direction...” He cast a wild glance at Willow, silently begging her to help him. He scooped up the sword, gave the blade a quick glance. Ruined, but it was the best weapon he had to hand.

“Sewer entrance,” said Willow. “That crypt.”

“Right, sewer. Let’s go!” Giles took off at a dead run. The crypt was a good guess on Willow’s part: the door was open, and there was an obvious break in the wall leading to a tunnel down. Willow cast a light spell, and the four of them started down the tunnel. Giles restrained himself from running only through cold repetition of the basics of tunnel hunting. No bursting around corners. No unnecessary noise. No more amateur mistakes. A hell of a patrol for Stamford to join.

Ahead, he could hear grunts, and then a rapid flurry of wet smacks. Buffy’s voice shouted, and then came the sound of smashing rock. Giles ran, then, and rounded a corner willy-nilly, and found Buffy alone in the sewer access, knee-deep in green water, still in fighting stance, staring down a corridor. She had been drenched.

“Giles, let’s get out of here. I can hit that thing, but I can’t hurt it much. No clue why it just ran away.”

He was rearguard on the way back to the surface, notched sword in hand. The patrol was over. He sent Stamford away to drop off Willow and Xander, insisting that he and Buffy could walk back to his flat perfectly well. And Stamford didn’t need sewer water on the leather seats. Secretly he wanted an opportunity to lash out at Buffy. Where had her head been? She had been completely unaware of all of the demons they’d encountered, taken by surprise every time. And her fighting had been off balance.

He was forestalled by Buffy herself.

“Giles. Don’t tell me about it. I know you want to. Just don’t. I already know. I sucked tonight.”

“I’m more concerned about why,” he told her.

“God. I’m screwing everything up. Time to stop. Giles, I’m sorry I was a bitch tonight. I’m stressed, and I took it out on you.”

An apology from Buffy. Giles sat on the sarcastic rejoinder that came to mind first, and went with his second reaction. At least she seemed to have snapped out of her sulk. “It’s all right, Buffy.”

Buffy followed him down to his patio. “Gonna borrow your shower, if you don’t mind.”

“Right, then,” said Giles. “Drip sewer all over my flat.” She shed most of her clothing standing on his front step, however, then shot across to his bathroom rapidly. Ruthless practicality. She had bundled up the clothes and avoided dripping on his floor, and had successfully retained her modesty. Buffy seemed to be in hard emotionless mode at the moment, perhaps in reaction to the disaster that patrol had been.

Giles closed his front door, locked it, and flipped off the outside light. The shower was going already. He unlaced his boots and returned them to their spot in his closet. He tended briefly to the crossbows and the sword, and restored them to the weapons chest. Not a lot of point worrying overmuch with that blade.

“Giles?” Buffy, through the bathroom door. “Do I still have a bag of clothes here?”

Giles rummaged in his hall closet. Yes, there was her gym bag. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d laundered its contents. It had been seriously depleted since. He pulled out a sports bra and a pair of yoga pants. He handed them through the door, along with a plastic sack for the wet clothes. “Sorry, that’s it,” he said. “Wait a tick and I’ll get you a shirt.”

Buffy emerged, toweling her hair, in time to take a t-shirt from him. Gray. Had shrunk in the wash. She held it up and tilted her head. “And in a pinch, it’s a tent!” She pulled it on. Giles saw a flash of something in her navel. “What time is it?”

“Nearly midnight,” Giles said.

“Hey, look, can we talk? And then can I crash on your sofa?”

“I was assuming you would.” Giles was already moving in the kitchen, filling the kettle. She came around and leaned against the counter, out of his way, watching him. He had no idea what was on her mind.

He carried the tea tray out to the sofa and put it down. They sat together on the couch. She leaned against him briefly, then sighed and took a cup.

Giles was struck by a wave of affection for her. He reached out and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “You have a new ring in your ear,” he said. “Odd spot for it.” Way up, near the top of her ear, through cartilage. It had to have been painful.

“Yeah, I had a couple of piercings done just before classes started. That one, bellybutton. Slayer healing is nice. Gonna get another done soon.”

“Oh!” he said, intrigued. He hadn’t realized Buffy was interested in such things. Perhaps she had tattoos as well. Just another aspect of her personality he would see only from the periphery. She lifted her shirt a few inches for him, showing off her muscled stomach and the ring that had caught the light earlier. He bent to look at the jeweled bead in it. Jenny had dangled her corkscrew from her navel. Giles had a flash of memory, wistful and erotic at once, of kissing that navel. He reached down and touched the ring with a finger, lifting it from her skin, then realized what he was doing. He snatched his hand back. “Oh, uh, sorry, didn’t mean to presume.”

“S’okay.”

They sat together for a little while, drinking tea. Giles was content just to be near her.

“So...” she said, drawling. “I guess I should just fess up. Giles, it’s the Slaying. It’s not going right. You saw it tonight. I’ve been seeing it every night. It’s totally screwy. That vampire, Sunday, the other day— she dislocated my wrist. She beat me. I had to run away. She shouldn’t have been able to touch me.”

Giles made a thoughtful noise, and freshened his cup.

“And the other thing. When you sent me away... that was when it was the worst. I was so off balance. I know, Giles, I know, I was a total bitch. I owe you an apology. And Olivia too. I, oh man, I behaved really badly. Sorry.”

“Oh,” he said, softly. His heart melted, all thought of sarcasm gone. “Thank you. Apology accepted. I, well. I appreciate it.”

She flashed a rueful smile at him. “I was just kinda surprised. I was already feeling off balance. Everything around me has changed, you know? Then I found that everything was different here too. I reacted badly. Sorry. Really. I guess I shouldn’t have expected you to be alone all the time, huh.”

“No, you shouldn’t. I, uh... well, you haven’t been paying much attention to me.”

“No, I haven’t. And I’m beginning to think that’s the problem.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. When you sent me away, woah. I stormed off and had the worst possible fight.”

“That’s interesting,” he murmured.

“It’s like I reach inside for something and it isn’t there. And when I think about it, I realize it hasn’t been there for months.”

Giles hemmed again. This was odd. He’d never heard Buffy say anything like it before. She was so physically gifted, even as Slayers went, so used to attempting and succeeding. He shied away from drawing the obvious conclusion.

“Been thinking pretty hard about this, trying to figure it out. I think I finally did, tonight, during that last fight. I know you told me that I didn’t need a Watcher any more. Giles, I think you were wrong. I think I do need a Watcher.”

Giles arrested his teacup in motion to his mouth, then resumed it. He reminded himself that she had no idea what she was asking for, and that therefore he could find a way to give it to her that did not involve that. Because he couldn’t. He couldn’t. He wanted to, but it made him— Giles wrenched himself away from thinking about it.

“Whaddya say? Be my Watcher?”

Giles made no immediate answer, waiting until he was sure he could keep his voice casual. “When’s the last time you trained seriously?”

Buffy’s mouth twitched. “Last time Wes made me. Before the whole Mayor thing.”

“Four months ago? Five months, maybe? That’s a long time to go with your skills slowly degrading.”

“Yeah,” she said.

“We’ll, we’ll train again. Hmm?”

Buffy looked doubtful. “Yeah, sure. But I don’t think it’s just that. It feels like something else.” She smacked a fist on the couch. “Ugh! I’m not finding the right words for this, Giles! This doesn’t feel right! You’re not... you’re not feeling right.”

“You, you don’t want me?” He controlled a flinch.

“I definitely want you as my Watcher.” Giles relaxed again. “Just that there’s something missing from this exchange.” She hit the couch again, this time hard enough to raise dust.

“I, I, I think you’ll find rehearsing the fundamentals will soon set you to rights. N-now, let’s get some sleep. You’ve got your morning classes, yes?”

Buffy allowed him to end the conversation and hand her a pile of blankets for the couch.

Giles didn’t sleep. What would happen if he told her? He ought to have told her. Ought to have confessed. What if she wanted to exercise her right as Slayer? What would he do? What she was missing was a Watcher. Her instincts were on target. But not a casual Watcher, not a Watcher who was a mere personal trainer cum translator. The Slayer was searching for a Watcher to claim. Would she settle for him? She didn’t know any better; if nobody told her she might. He watched his loft ceiling until the morning light touched it, listening for her as she moved in her sleep.

Giles fed Buffy as much breakfast as she would eat, which wasn’t much. She had a busy day planned, classes and a study group, but promised she’d be by shortly after dinner. They’d patrol together, and he’d evaluate her. Find the areas she most needed to work on.

He spent his afternoon scanning through A Field Guide to Demons and some of the terser surveys, looking for species with scaled skin and antlers. He found several candidates. He thought it wasn’t a Chaos Demon; he’d seen no slime. But it might be a Vargos, or a Cornutos, or even a Red-eyed Rockhopper. None of these species had innate resistance to blade weapons, which confirmed his suspicion that the effect that had destroyed his sword last night had been magical.

He did a quick pencil sketch of the demon from memory. At an earlier time, he would have labored over the sketch and rendered it fully in inks in his Watcher’s diary. But Giles wasn’t keeping a Watcher’s diary any more. He’d stopped the day after Buffy’s Cruciamentum. He hadn’t wanted to give the Council bastards a moment more of his labor than he was obligated to. Everything he’d done for Buffy since, he’d done out of his love for her, and not because the Watcher was bound to the Slayer.

He wondered how long his freedom would last. If Stamford found out that he was in fact free, and not bound, they’d act to replace him. Immediately. His violation of protocol at Cruciamentum was nothing compared to his violation in recent months. Would Buffy demand that he stay, or claim his replacement? It was all up to her. As everything was, in the end. Up to the whims of an eighteen-year-old woman who alternated between terrifying dedication to her calling and desperate avoidance. Who at the moment was in a dedication phase. Giles had no idea where that would lead, or how long it would last this time.

She wasn’t a child any more. He had to remember that. She had been an adult from the moment she’d passed Cruciamentum. She might yet turn out to be steady.

How could he tell her, though, now? After his dissembling last night? And yet he had to tell her something. Stamford would have to be put off, though Giles had no idea how. He had trapped himself. Good show, Rupert.

At six, Giles set aside his sketchbook and his notes on the shield. He searched out the leftovers from last night’s stew and heated them on his stove. While the pan bubbled he dug in his cabinet for a bottle of the Bonny Doon syrah Liv had deposited there on her visit. The first bottle had been delicious when they’d drunk it in bed. The second would go well enough with the stew, and might calm his nerves. He ate a quick dinner sitting at his counter, reading the ALA journal. With the Council’s paychecks arriving once more, his job search had been shelved. Couldn’t hurt to keep up, though.

Buffy was early, for once, unerringly choosing an occasion when he did not wish her to be. She was dressed for patrol, in dark clothes and harness boots. The professional Slayer. She moved into his flat as if she were its owner, not he, and settled herself on his couch. She pulled off the boots and tucked her feet up. She watched him, holding him on the spot without a single word. He stood in front of his hearth, hands in pockets, completely at a loss. Tea. He could make tea. And finish off the work on the sword that Stamford interrupted yesterday.

“Giles, we need to talk.”

Oh, to hell with tea and pretense. He refilled his wineglass, poured another, and joined Buffy on his couch. “Well, then. Talk.”

Buffy looked a little disconcerted to be given alcohol by the ever-cautious Giles. He saw her twitch in a tiny shrug, then drink a little. “Huh. Not bad. But you’re not distracting me, Giles. Willow told me something very interesting about last night.”

Damn, damn, damn. He maintained a blank exterior as far as he could manage. “Yes? About the demon?”

“No, about Wes Junior.” The lad had to be at least a decade older than Buffy.

“Oh?” Play stupid, just in case.

“Yeah. Willow said he said something about a claim bond thingie, when that demon grabbed me. Something about how you should know where I am.”

“Ah.” Giles finished his glass.

Buffy looked at him. “So Willow looked it up. In the Slayer Handbook.”

“Where did Willow get—”

“She stole it ages ago, from the library. Had this idea she would get me to read it.” Buffy drank some wine, then stared dreamily off into the corner. “I can see why. It has some interesting stuff in it. Like, I dunno, about how I can do this magical bond thing with a Watcher, and have him always know where I am and if I’m safe and stuff. Not that this sounds useful or anything.”

“Buffy—”

“I sat here last night and told you I was feeling a severe lack of something, and you said nothing. When were you going to tell me about this?” She leaned toward him and jabbed a finger at his chest. Giles flinched.

Here it came. He was not going to be able to escape this conversation any longer. He’d have to tell her, and hope she didn’t get any angrier than she was already. He felt a pit of uncertainty in his stomach. What was his life going to be like after tonight? She would send him away after this. What did they do with rejected Watchers? He recalled a man, a sad man, sitting in a back office in the Council headquarters, who translated a bit of Etruscan for him once. His future, now, a back office.

He gathered himself, and did his duty.

“Did you read the handbook?”

Buffy hesitated. “No. Willow summarized it.”

“Do you understand all the implications? The responsibilities? What it means for the Watcher?”

“No. I guess you’re going to tell me.” A flash of assertive anger in her voice again, there. The Slayer, being what she was.

“No. I’m going to make you read the description in the Watcher’s handbook.” He went to his desk and unlocked the deep side drawer. He pulled out his copy of the handbook. Battered, the leather cover bloodstained from an incident his father had lived through. A Giles family heirloom. He found the page and handed it to Buffy. He took the opportunity to refill her glass and his. He left the wine bottle on the coffee table and sat in his armchair. He watched her carefully as she read. Her expressions ran from intrigued, to excited, back down to cool interest. She turned the page back, re-read something, then let the book fall closed.

“Okay. Listen to college-girl summarize! It’s a great honor for you. You’re not supposed to be acting as my Watcher without it. It makes you aware of all my needs and my physical state, which lets you be mega-effective. It sounds kinda neat, with the tattooing and stuff. It keeps me alive. It’s tradition. You’re big into tradition.”

Giles laughed, a single bitter sound that he choked off. “Yes. This is quite a tradition. Not very civilized, but then you’re not civilized. You’re a Slayer.”

He sprang to his feet and paced to the hearth and back. She had to be made to understand her responsibilities. This would likely be the last service he provided her, this explanation. “Did you understand what you read? That business about binding a Watcher is not just talk. You trigger the magic, and the Watcher becomes your servant. You say jump, he jumps. Without bothering to ask how high, because he’ll just know. Whether you give a damn about him or not. Whether you deserve him or not.” He snarled out those last words, unable to restrain his bitterness.

Buffy heard it, of course, and tilted her head. “I don’t get it. Explain it to me, Giles.”

“Magical binding. The Watcher becomes what you need of him. He’s a, a tool in your hand. He knows your will, and your wishes, and your feelings. It was common, once, centuries ago. Nowadays, civilized people shudder at the idea. Except the Watchers. We do it to our children.”

“Children?”

He laughed again. “Children. They did it to me when I was ten. The moment they shipped me off to the Council prep school. Part of the induction ceremony. They bound us, branded us, and prepped us for slavery. Had no idea what was going on. They took us and broke us to harness. Now all you have to do is say the words, and you claim a willing slave.”

Giles collapsed onto the couch next to her. He picked up his glass and emptied it again. Scared witless, he’d been, though anger had carried him through it. He’d been angry even then at the disruption to his boyish plans, at the bizarre new life he’d been dropped into. Pomp, circumstance, ritual, incense smoking, candles dancing in arcane breezes, and a handful of trembling naked boys and girls bound one by one in the pentagram and anointed with oil and ash and their own blood and chanted over until they were owned by something they had no hope of understanding. And then branded, screaming, with the Watcher’s sigils. Deep triggers, embedded in their minds and souls. Deep magicks that would shape them and mold them and twist them until they were what a Slayer needed, lurking until that lucky day when they would be chosen, and the triggers fired and the trap closed. By all means, they must pass along their traditions, generation to generation.

Giles fingered the place, high on his right arm, where they’d marked him and bound the magic in. He stripped off his sweater, then his henley, and lifted the sleeve of his t-shirt to show her.

“Algiz. Gebo. The Watcher’s runes. Protection and self-sacrifice. There since I was ten. For all of us. Wesley had them. Whoever you choose to claim will have this mark as well.”

Buffy ran her fingers over the blurry scars, and over the knife cut scored across them. Giles shuddered. “I thought you were... speaking metaphorically or something.”

“For years we all thought it was just an induction ritual. Just hazing. When I turned twenty-one, before I took my final oath, they told me the truth. Told me what we’d been groomed for. Most of them didn’t know what it meant. I’d been doing extracurricular reading. I knew I’d seen spells like that before, and I knew what it meant. The next day I was in London, pissed in a bar with the best mate I’d met half an hour before, in the magic shop where I pawned my sword. That worked out well.”

He’d yielded to the tradition, in the end. There was the irony. He’d finally understood it. Finally grasped why the Slayer deserved it. He’d been willing, then had his chance ripped away.

“Ah,” said Buffy. Then, tilting her head, “Did you ever get your sword back?”

He sighed, though he knew it was Buffy’s way of comforting him. “Yes. Eventually. Eventually I went back, as you know. Willing to serve. Sadder but wiser, as the saying goes.”

She touched the scarring on his arm again, exploring it. He held himself as still as he could. He wanted to flinch away. Her fingers were oddly hot against his skin.

“It looks like somebody tried to wipe out the brand. Did you do that, when you ran off?”

“No,” said Giles. Speaking was much harder than he’d thought it would be. “That happened quite... recently.”

He drained his wineglass again.

“So. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“You wouldn’t listen. You refused to read the book.”

“No, I meant last night. You knew I was willing last night.”

Giles was at a loss about how to answer. He was sweating. His hands were shaking.

“What the hell is going on?”

“I’ve... enjoyed working with you, Buffy. Things haven’t been right between us, I know, but you’re everything I might have hoped for. You’re the finest Slayer we’ve seen in decades. The Watcher you choose will be a... a lucky man.”

“Wait. We’re going to do this, right? You and me?”

“I can’t.” He looked longingly at the bottle. There wasn’t enough wine in the house to get him through this.

“Okay, Giles. You’re freaked out, and you’re starting to freak me out. Why not?”

Buffy tightened her grip on his arm. She had an intent look of utter incomprehension he’d seen on her before. The clues had been staring in her in the face. She had her hand on them right now, on the knife cuts scored across his arm. She’d never asked him what had happened. Never mentioned it to him. He’d spent days coaxing her version of that night out of her, but she’d never once asked any of the rest of them what it had been like.

Giles decided not to spare her.

“It was your demon lover.”

“My demon... Angel?”

“Yes, Angelus. The scourge of Europe. The vampire who spent a night torturing me for pleasure. The demon you didn’t bother to tell me had returned.”

“Giles, I apologized for that—”

“No, you fucking well never apologized, Buffy!”

“I—”

“Be quiet. Be quiet and listen. I will only say this once.”

Before he could lose his nerve he turned his back, pulled off his t-shirt, and exposed his shame to her. She made a little sound.

“The ritual is difficult for the Watcher,” he said, quietly, trying to choke down the fury. “It’s meant to be a trial. Something to endure. Well, I bloody well endured it. Angelus knew all the words. He knew what the brand on my arm meant. He knew the drugs they give us to make us vulnerable. The things the Slayer is supposed to say. He did it all. He knew more about it than I did. Told me it was sealed with blood and pain and sex. He cut his mark into me and made me scream. He raped me. He told me he’d ruined me and you’d never get near me. That’s how to break a Watcher.”

He felt her hot hands on his back. They came to rest on his right shoulder blade. “This is his, his, uh—”

“Say it.”

“Angel’s tattoo.”

“Angelus’ gryphon. Surely you read the history. From the Book of Kells. He drained the artist who did it for him. Flayed him and preserved his skin. Surely you knew the story. No?”

“No,” she said, very quietly. Ignorant. Ignorant and thoughtless. Even after the disaster, she didn’t bother to learn. But whose fault was that? He could have told her. Giles had failed her, far more seriously than a seventeen-year-old had failed him.

But she didn’t lift her hands from his back. They moved, tracing the faint lines he knew ran from his left shoulder to his waist.

“Those were the whip,” he said. “Xander spent a lot of time rubbing vitamin E into them. Paid off. The knife marks, the, the knife marks... those were harder. Too much skin removed.” He’d screamed. And struggled so violently he’d thought the ropes would cut through his wrists. Angelus had giggled in his ear, called him “lover”, and licked the knife before resuming.

“How could you ever forgive me?” He heard her sniffle. Crying. Unsurprising. Giles sighed. He wished for a moment that he hadn’t told her, had let her remain happy and ignorant. But that was the wrong path in the end. The Slayer needed to grow up.

“Because you were a seventeen year old girl. Because in the end you did what you had to, and you sent him to Hell. Because I am your sworn Watcher and I forgive you everything.” Because he was the one who had failed. He’d been broken.

Her hands were moving on his back, running over the lines of his scars, over and over. She’d never really touched him before. The odd hug through layers of clothing. Certainly never skin to skin, like this, her fingers on his bare back. Like molten metal on his flesh, his Slayer’s hands. Giles shuddered.

Her hands rested on his shoulders. “Did he really ruin you or did he say that to screw with your head?”

“I have no idea. It doesn’t matter. I can’t do it. I can’t hear those words again, or be bound again. The very idea makes me...” Giles put his head down between his knees and breathed. Slow and deep. He’d learned a great deal about panic attacks that summer. Xander had taken to carrying a paper bag, just in case Giles hyperventilated again. He sat up again. Buffy was rubbing her nose.

“Giles... God. I want you. You’re the one. We’ve been through all this stuff together. I trust you. You’re my Watcher, not anybody else. If you can’t...”

“You could choose someone else. You could have your pick of any of them. It’s a great honor.” He was utterly unable to control his voice, and the words came out rough and raw.

“You sound... would you be okay with that?”

“No.” The word came out in a whisper.

“Why not?”

He sought refuge in a clinical explanation. “There’s... it’s a competition, among us. More. We’re compelled to seek the binding, Buffy. There was a ritual, just before they sent me to you. Magic and drugs combined, when I swore my oath to you specifically. It make me more vulnerable to it. With you. I’m drawn to you. Compelled to seek your approval. Wesley went through it as well. Whichever one of us you rejected would be devastated. As Wesley is now.”

“Devastated?”

“Suicide watch. Council therapists. Back in England. Stamford says he’s getting better.”

“My God, Giles. This is... It’s nuts. What the hell is all this stuff?”

“It’s to serve you. As you read. You need a helpmate. You need a bonded servant. We are here for you to claim. It’s what a Watcher is, Buffy. It’s what we’re made into, for the Slayer. For you.”

Buffy’s hands returned to his right shoulder. Giles tried not to tremble. It was his Slayer touching him, not the vampire. “What you are,” she said, to herself.

“When it came to it, Buffy, I couldn’t bring myself to tell you. My shame... God. And then they fired me, and there seemed no point. You wouldn’t be choosing me anyway. Damned if I was going to tell you how to claim that whelp Pryce.”

Buffy’s hands gripped his shoulders. “I want you. If you can’t do it, I’ll go without. None of those others deserve it the way you do.”

“Oh, God, Buffy...” She wanted him. She wanted him. Something flooded through him. The magic, perhaps. Or simple relief. The catch in his throat eased. Why? Why was it so easy for her? One simple phrase from her and it was as if nothing had ever happened, as if she’d never betrayed him with that monster.

She hung onto his shoulders still, holding him up. “Does this Council guy know all this?”

“God, no. None of it. I told no one what Angelus truly did to me. Xander knows about the marks on my back, but he doesn’t know what they mean. Stamford thinks you’ve already claimed me.”

“What would happen if we told him?”

“They’d send you another hopeful tweedy bastard who’s yet to figure out which end of the stake is the pointy one. You’d be expected to claim him.”

Buffy laughed with him, but there was a bitter edge to Giles’ voice. It would break Giles’ heart. As Wesley’s had been broken. She had no idea.

“We’re not telling him.” Buffy, decisively. “We’re going to keep going the way we have. The Council can bite me. I quit because I don’t trust them. Their rules... screw ‘em. I trust you. Okay?”

Giles blew out a breath. “Yes.”

“We train. Like we did before. You kick my ass, throw knives at me, tell me what I need to work on. Keep me focused.Ò

“Right. Patrolling?”

“Yeah. You and me.”

It wasn’t as good as a bonded Watcher would be for her, but it was better than what they’d been doing. And he agreed with Buffy. He couldn’t trust anybody else they sent. This was their pact: Giles and Buffy contra mundi, as always. Perhaps it would work out. He’d worked together with Buffy well enough before Cruciamentum. This on-again off-again closeness with her was painful, but perhaps it would be enough.

She rubbed his arm absently, then pulled him down so his head was in her lap. She continued stroking his back, tracing her fingers along his scars. Giles sighed. The magic stirred inside him, always lurking, telling him that the Slayer’s touch was good. The Slayer’s scent was a drug. The Slayer’s arms were his home. He was agreeable. Whatever she wanted. Just so long as he so was part of it.

The sound of a throat clearing. Buffy jumped, and was in motion, threat response mode. She arrested herself, gracefully, and moved past Stamford, who was standing at Giles’ hearth, looking satisfied about something. The man had been watching them, had seen his bare back. “Pardon me,” he said, “but your door was unlocked. And it was your scheduled time for patrol.”

Giles considered an angry response, but stifled it. Instead he stretched elaborately, schooling his body to display indifference to Stamford’s presence. He pulled the t-shirt back on, and then the henley. Methodically restoring his armor.

“Right, then. Shall we?” He turned to Buffy.

“You’re sitting this one out,” she said, with an apologetic note in her voice. She looked at the nearly-empty bottle of wine, then at him. He considered his intake, then nodded to her.

“Tomorrow afternoon? Three?” Though any time she wanted to show up was fine.

“Three’s good.”

She hugged him before she left, one long Slayer-tight clinch that left him breathless but comforted. He watched her bounce out his door and up the patio steps, Stamford and his clipboard in tow. He picked up the wine bottle and tipped it up. Two good swallows left. Not nearly enough.

Giles fell back onto his couch, bottle still in hand. He’d slept on this couch for months after Angelus had left his little present in the bed upstairs. He’d had to return to sleeping on the bed after his night in the mansion. Face-down. He’d taken the anti-anxiety drugs, the sleeping pills, the painkillers. At the end of a month he’d gone through hell weaning himself off them all again. He’d substituted a drink problem for the pills problem, for a few weeks, until Xander’s worry had moved him to control that as well.

He’d had to throw out his flick knife, because Angelus had used one. Had showed it to him, and slid it all over Giles’ bare chest, repeated the Slayer’s half of the ritual while scratching delicately at Giles’ throat with it. Giles still resented having to get rid of the knife. Easier to be angry about that, sometimes, than it was to think about how angry he should be for the waste of a lifetime of training and preparation. For the waste of that little boy’s ambitions.

At least his Slayer still cared for him. She’d hugged him. Giles fell asleep on the couch, all the lights still on.

The next afternoon Giles worked on another steel sword, an inferior and rather battered item he’d had Buffy use early in her training. He hadn’t minded so much when she smashed it on headstones in sloppy fights. There was likely nothing he could do to put a fine edge on it, but he could at least bring it up to usefulness. It would do in a pinch. He locked it into the vise on his desk and began work with the whetstone.

Somebody knocked on his door and opened it. Giles looked up, expecting Xander or Willow. It was Buffy, though, an hour early.

“Is apocalypse threatening?”

“Huh? Uh, no. I stopped by to tell you that I’m gonna be a little late. Got a thing at two-thirty, and I don’t think I can make it back here in time.”

“Could you use a lift? This can keep.” He gestured toward the sword.

Buffy laughed. “Thanks, sure. This’ll be an eye-opener for you. I have an appointment to get another thing in my ear.” She pointed to her left ear.

“Oh! I hadn’t realized one needed appointments for such things. Will you be up for training afterward?”

Buffy rolled her eyes. “Slayer healing, Giles.” Right.

She had him drive them to a building on Sunnydale’s main road, a short way out of downtown. Just another little pop-up box sitting in a strip of shops. Neatly painted, attractive sign. Bodymagick, it read. Piercing, tattooing. “Plus they do branding and other stuff,” Buffy told him. He hadn’t needed to hear that.

He got out of the car and walked in with her. The shop was bright and cheery, so Californian. He had expected something darker. A dank dungeon populated by sullen people in leather. This was anything but. A pair of college students, clinging to each other and browsing the book rack. Clean glass counters, showing off bright jewelry. Racks with condoms and other sexual supplies. A corner with some fashionable fetish gear. Photographs of smiling people with tattoos. Framed certificates and licenses. Private curtained alcoves in the back.

“Buffy!” This from a compact, muscled young man, coming from the back of the shop. Buffy ran forward and hugged him. His shaggy hair was bleached as blond as hers.

“Coyote, I want you to meet Giles. He’s gonna watch me get the new hole.”

Giles shook his hand, covertly scanning the metal in the man’s face: eyebrows, nose, lip. It suited him, oddly. Made him look handsome. He otherwise looked like a surfer. Giles saw a talisman around his neck, a flat stone with a carving granting skill to its wearer. A magic-aware surfer. Only in Sunnydale.

Coyote seemed to be ready for them. He ushered Buffy back to sit in a chair in a cubicle. Buffy took Giles’ hand and tugged him along with her.

Giles could imagine Faith sitting here, waiting to have a ring put in her ear. Faith had had tattoos. She’d showed them to him one night, early, long before she’d become alienated from the group. When Giles had still been able to talk to her. How she’d gotten them at the age of seventeen, he hadn’t asked. She’d been proud of them and had plans for many more. When she could afford them, she’d said. He hadn’t often considered Buffy as being like Faith any way, but in this she was. They were both Slayers, and Slayers were obsessed with marks upon the body. No doubt it was the topic of some of those monographs from Stamford’s group, the ones Watchers weren’t allowed to read. But it was obvious from the Watcher diaries anyway. Why, he could only speculate. Perhaps it was because their battle scars vanished so quickly. No trace of their hard lives remained. Perhaps they wanted something to show, the skin to match the heart.

What the Council had been about not assigning Faith her own Watcher, Giles couldn’t guess. Maybe they’d been hoping he’d attach himself to Faith and not to Buffy. Little hope of that. Buffy had owned him almost from the start. Faith had gotten second-best from him. How much had that contributed to her defection?

The shaggy surfer had finished his preparation, and was leaning over Buffy with a needle. Giles heard a pop, a soft crunch. He felt faint, even though it had nothing to do with him. Buffy made a sound. Her eyes were hooded, and her face serene. Endorphin rush, likely. Runner’s high. Coyote did something with her ear, then stepped back and made a satisfied sound.

“There!” He handed Buffy a mirror. Buffy looked at her ear and grinned.

“Awesome!”

“You know the drill, but here’s a pamphlet anyway. You heal so fast...”

Back at his flat with her, Giles cleared aside the coffee table and the Turkey carpet. Barely enough space for sparring, but most likely he could get across the techniques he wished to. He hadn’t worked with Buffy on hand-to-hand since... dear Lord, the last time had been in the library. The last time they trained. It had been six months. How had he allowed this to come to pass? Perhaps because it was no longer up to him, and Buffy had no incentive.

They started with stretching. He guided her through what had been their usual warmups. He made conversation. “How is your ear?”

“Oh, fine. It’ll hurt like a mother— uh, a lot, uh, for a few hours. Cartilage.”

“What was the name the fellow used for it?”

“Conch.”

“Oh. May I ask, er, why?”

Buffy gave him a careful look over the arm she held crosswise under her chin. “Are you going to make gross noises?”

“No,” he said, honestly. “I’d like to know. It’s unusual, and I hadn’t known you to be interested in it before.”

“I wasn’t eighteen before,” she said. “Mom always refused. She had a fit when I talked the mall place into doing a second set of regular holes. Now I can.”

“You like the way it looks?”

Buffy nodded, then gracefully bent to place her hands flat on the floor. “And the way it feels when I get them. Kind of addicting. Good pain.”

Ah. Giles had suspected that when he’d seen her face earlier. Also common with Slayers. Not that the Council warned them of this, or favored him with monographs about it. As with so many things, it was left for him to deduce from the Watcher diaries.

They finished stretching.

“Right, then. Let’s do the Taikyoku katas. Review basic form.” They faced each other and began moving together. Giles sighed, and sank into the pleasure of working with her. She took cues from him. They could do this without speaking, if they wished. Giles felt an urge to take advantage of her good mood, however. To draw her out.

“How was patrol?”

“Okay. Nothing special, few newbies. Stamford didn’t shut up the whole time.”

Giles stepped behind Buffy and adjusted her arm position slightly. She repeated the strike they’d been practicing, in extreme slow motion.

“What was he on about?”

“A million questions. He wanted to know why I didn’t live with you.” Buffy wrinkled her nose. “What the design on your back was. Why you hadn’t sent any reports. He said we were ‘unusual’. I told him to can the criticism until he’d staked something all on his own.”

Giles made a thoughtful noise. He stepped back and watched her moving. Decent form. By no means excellent. She’d been better, before the spring.

“Has he asked you for details about the claim ritual?”

“Not really.”

“Hmm. They like to catalog them, I think, though they don’t let us read about them. If he does, you can put him off. Tell him he’ll get the details when he reads my Watcher’s diary. It’s your right to keep it private if you wish.”

“Yeah, okay. Anything else I should do to fool him?”

“Just... get along with me. Be affectionate. Act as if I know what’s going on with you. And by the way, it would help my act if I knew.”

“Nothing much to know. Uh, my first two weeks of classes were horrible. My psych prof is a bitch but I kinda like her. The psych TA is cute. I am liking my lit class. Oh, and there’s this guy.”

“Sandan. Yoi.” Buffy gracefully shifted to a ready stance. “Begin. A boy?”

“Yeah. Parker. Really cute. I think he’s interested in me. Willow says he’s gotta be. I’m supposed to see him tonight at a party. He kinda asked me.”

“That’s wonderful.” Giles couldn’t bring himself to enthuse any further. It was good she’d moved on from Angel, he supposed. No telling yet whether this Parker was another in the string of pretty but weak boys Buffy would date for a short time and then be abandoned by, or whether he was strong enough to stick with her. Giles had an idea of what Buffy needed in a lover, which seemed to be quite different from what she wanted. Some day she would find a fellow warrior, and then he’d crawl home for a long session with the Council therapists. In the meantime...

“Shoulder!” he said.

“Crap,” said Buffy.

They began again.

Giles fed her an early dinner. She didn’t eat much, and didn’t loiter afterwards. She needed to shower and change for the party, she told him. For this young man she was meeting there. Buffy had a gleam in her eye. He’d seen that gleam before, when he himself was at university, and had always been happy to recognize it on the faces of his girlfriends. He hoped the young man would be properly appreciative.

Giles watched her off, strangely gloomy after what had been by all measures a wonderful afternoon. What was it that he wanted from her? He had everything he could possibly hope for. He needed to let go longing for the bond. It troubled him, though. He spent his evening reading through Watcher diaries, searching for some sign that other Watchers had felt as he did now, so worried and torn. He became distracted by a tale of derring-do against demons unleashed in Nazi Germany, and fell asleep on his couch.

Willow and Oz, and a little later, Xander, came by for dinner and magic the next evening. Giles had spent the day in research. Stamford had been there from the mid-afternoon on, alternately hovering over Giles’ shoulder and seemingly fascinated by Giles’ library. Since most of it was still in boxes, Giles felt the man could not properly appreciate it. Not that he would be impressed anyway, since presumably he spent most of his days at Council headquarters, near their spectacular collection. Willow’s arrival took some pressure off Giles to entertain Stamford, as the young man switched all his attentions to her. Giles took advantage of the furlough to cook. Xander hovered in the kitchen with him, alternating between helping him and getting underfoot.

“Had another job interview today,” he told Giles.

“What for?”

“Night cook at a donut shop. Graveyard shift. On the plus side, won’t interfere with patrol. Aaaaand of course, a never-ending supply of jelly donuts.”

“How, uh, how did you do?”

“I was warm, breathing, and in possession of more than two neurons, which put me one up over the other candidates I saw. I don’t think the manager liked it when I joked about cops, though.”

“Could you chop this? Bite-sized chunks, please. When will you hear?”

“Tomorrow, I guess.”

Giles sighed, and looked at the gangly young man awkwardly slicing red peppers at his counter. Buffy was the only person he knew whom he would count as braver. Xander went out every night with no supernatural abilities, no magical skills, little training. Just himself. The boy deserved a better career than a series of minimum-wage jobs. A better life. Giles had no idea how to help. Perhaps he should start thinking about it seriously.

He measured out rice while Xander chopped, mulling it over. It kept his mind off the missing Buffy, at least.

Later, while they ate his vegetable stirfry, Giles explained his plans for the demon to the group. He’d found a spell designed to shear through shields. It could be used to enchant objects, such as weapons, that could then be used to unknit the threads of defensive magic. He suggested they try it on his steel broadsword.

“And the Slayer?” said Stamford.

“What about Buffy?”

“Will she not take part in this?”

“Buffy is not so interested in the magicks,” said Willow.

“Or in the research,” said Oz, rolling his eyes.

“I see,” said Stamford.

“But she does like to be around for the killin’,” said Xander.

Still. It would have been better if Buffy had been there, to look the part of his Slayer. Or to participate at all. He pulled Willow aside in the kitchen, over dishwashing, to ask where she was. Willow said something about coursework, but wouldn’t meet his eyes. Giles knew what that meant. She was up to something she didn’t want Giles to know about. Probably that boy. He sighed, and shook his head at Willow. “You’re an even worse liar than she is, you know. Shall I describe how I reached my conclusion?”

“No need, Holmes.” Willow looked over at the kitchen passthrough, toward the other three on his couch. “She, uh, slept with a guy last night. And I think she feels guilty about it so she slept with him again this afternoon. Which is kinda weird, for Buffy. Not that she sleeps with a lot of guys, ‘cause this was only her second, which you probably know already unless you maybe think this is way too much information?”

Giles untangled that, then seized the important thread. “Guilty?”

“One night standy.”

“Times like this I believe in the generation gap. What on earth is university for, anyway?” His mouth said this, but his heart was far more confused.

“Whoaoah,” said Willow. She handed him a dish to dry. “Do I wanna know?”

“Probably not.” Giles gave her a shy smile. They didn’t usually think of each other as sexual beings, he and the other Scoobies. In particular he didn’t like to think of Willow that way at all, though he knew that she and Oz were lovers. He ended up knowing about all of them; he’d known when each of them had lost his or her virginity. With Buffy and Xander, it had been Slayer business, and he’d recorded it. Which meant Stamford knew. Best not to tell them that.

What was worse? The thought of his Slayer wasting herself on yet another callow youth who’d break up with her right before some important dance? Or the thought of his Slayer with that youth instead of here, with him, preparing for battle? Giles got hold of himself. There would always be battle to prepare for. It wasn’t strictly necessary that Buffy be with them just now. Let his Slayer enjoy herself while she could.

The thought of her enjoying herself, last night with the Parker boy. And again this afternoon. And maybe even now— Dammit, this was not what her Watcher should be thinking about. Concentrate on dreary things. On the content of the paper the boy must be writing. The dismal performance of his Slayer on that first outing.

After dinner they moved aside his coffee table and rolled back the Turkey carpet to expose the floor. Giles scraped candle wax from the corner of the hearth from the last working he’d done, then set out the correct pillar candles for this working. Willow loved the rites with the most paraphernalia, candles and incense and chalk circles and bowls of burning herbs and oil to anoint the head. This enchantment was simple, as enchantments went. Two candles, a crystal to focus, and sheer magical power. Power Willow had in abundance. Giles was happy to sit back and guide the proceedings. If they did this right, his sword would be permanently enchanted. Even if this were not effective against this demon, it would be useful. Magic weaponry usually was.

The four sat around the sword with hands joined, chanting in soft polyphony while Willow channeled power into the crystal set on the sword blade. Giles’ skin tingled, and magic coursed through his blood. Such a wonderful feeling when it was going right, a feeling of being in tune with the universe and with the beings around him.

The chant had begun to ring on its own, vibrating through the crystal. Giles concentrated on the channeling the power, on keeping Willow grounded, and his part of the chant cycling around. The crystal began glowing softly in a lovely shade of blue. Then it hummed in some frequency Giles heard not with his ears but with his magic senses, and dissolved with a sound like raindrops on a windowpane. The blade glowed blue for a moment. All was still as the three fell silent and Willow released them. Giles waited for Willow to test the success of her spell. She held her hand over the blade and grinned at him. He touched the metal, gently, and felt the distant thrill of potency. He returned her grin.

Stamford, as usual, hovered just behind them, watching the proceedings but not involving himself in any way. No doubt taking notes on Giles’ technique.

The door banged open. Buffy breezed in. She looked more casual than she had been the last few nights, more the frivolous party girl than the Slayer. She wore pink and pale green and lace and impractical shoes. She had dangling things in her ears instead of the neat steel loops she’d had in before. She burbled at Xander and Oz. Giles turned away from her. This wasn’t his Slayer. This was a girl dressed to please another man, not to please herself. Where the hell had that thought come from? Giles stood aside, glowering at his boots, while Willow plunged into a rapid-fire barely intelligible rave about the casting and showed Buffy the sword.

He caught Stamford tucking his notebook back into his breast pocket. Was jealousy a bad sign? Was he not supposed to feel it? Was a bonded Watcher free of such issues? Giles busied himself with those worries while he sheathed his now-magic sword and bundled crossbow bolts into his jacket pocket.

The patrol went wrong almost immediately, in part because the demon showed up almost immediately. With a companion, and dragging a struggling human behind it. It was there, and it saw them before they saw it, and the battle was joined even as Giles drew breath to shout. The demon had laid Xander out cold before he had time to unsheathe his sword.

“Slayer! You cannot harm me.” it shouted, in Latin. Giles stumbled a moment in sheer surprise.

Buffy was already in motion, already punching her stake with perfect form, feet planted. The stake was aimed true, right at the demon’s chest. Impact! It splintered and shrieked against its plated skin. Buffy grunted and staggered and vomited. Definitely a magical shield, then, with a typical backlash component. She was on her feet, though, recovering more quickly than he had. He had to get the enchanted weapon to her. Giles drew the sword and waited for an opportunity to toss it to her. He caught her eye, tossed it hilt-first, a move they’d practiced a hundred times. And she missed it. Missed it. She had already spun away, to execute a flying kick. The sword went past the place where she had been and tumbled across the grass. Shit shit shit.

Giles ran after his sword. Couldn’t afford to let... that happen. The second demon had it. Same species, smaller individual, slightly different antler structure. Given the mottling on the head, definitely Cornutos. He noted this mechanically, with the Watcher part of his brain, while he backpedaled. He scanned the situation. Buffy in combat with the big one, spiked club versus unarmed Slayer. Xander on the ground, Willow bending over him, Stamford somewhere. Hiding, he hoped to God. The little demon with the sword closing in. Pear-shaped. Entirely bloody pear-shaped.

Buffy was down. Giles stopped thinking and scrambled toward her, screaming a challenge. He got himself between the demon and Buffy, and flung his arms up reflexively. The handle of the club caught him in the face anyway. He staggered and recovered. Buffy was up. If he could—

The club descended again. Pain exploded in his arm, then he felt a ripping tug as the demon jerked the club free. Giles fell forward, right arm curled against his chest, then pushed himself up and away. Blood under his fingers, welling up from a rip just below the elbow. A sun-bright light shone out at that moment, from somewhere behind Giles. Something fizzed and spat from the same direction. Willow? Yes, Willow, casting Nikola’s Fire. Short duration, but the demons probably wouldn’t know that. They shrieked under the assault of the sun’s borrowed light. The smaller one dropped the sword. They turned and fled. Buffy picked up the sword. The light died. Giles fell to his knees next to Xander. He pressed his hand harder to the hole in his arm.

“Buffy?”

“S’okay, Giles. She’s fine.” Oz, at his side with the emergency first aid kit and a wad of gauze.

“Xan?”

“Buff’s got him. Hold this tight. Keep it elevated. Shoulder level. Good.”

Oz taped a temporary bandage into place. Blood loss stemmed. Toxins, who knew. Let the hospital deal with them. Giles wasn’t feeling it yet, the pain still distant behind the emergency rush. Oz hitched his shoulder under Giles’, and the two of them moved slowly to where Stamford had stopped the SUV. He’d driven right across the cemetery grass, Giles noted. Boy had less respect for protocol than he’d expected. And he drove the SUV with surprising skill and speed, tearing across town to Sunnydale General by the most efficient route.

Giles and Xander joined the long list of mugging victims whose crimes would remain forever unsolved. The police department’s record must look horrible to outsiders. Giles distracted himself from the intern cleaning out the ragged wound in his right forearm by contemplating exactly how bad that record must be. Dammit. The anesthetic was never quite enough. He could still tell what the clumsy bastard was doing to his arm. He must have made a noise, because he felt a rush of cold from the IV, and the painkiller blanket got deeper and warmer. Time rippled. Doctors, now, one wielding a needle in his flesh. Giles watched from a pleasant, uncaring distance. An hour later, with his arm stitched and bandaged, he was coherent again, though they refused to let him out of the wheelchair or take the IV out. Eventually he annoyed them enough that they let him sign release forms and stagger out without spending the rest of the night under observation.

He emerged with his arm in a sling to find Buffy fending off a nurse while Stamford looked on in amusement. She had a black eye to match Giles’, and other facial bruising that looked remarkably bad and probably stung like the devil. Giles, even with the morphine warmth still glowing, felt little sympathy for Buffy and the imprint of demon knuckles in her cheek. Her face would be nearly perfect again by this time tomorrow. Unlike his. He couldn’t feel it at the moment, but he’d have a spectacular shiner by morning.

Giles tumbled into rather than sat down in the chair between Buffy and Stamford. “And another stamp on my Sunnydale General loyalty card,” he said. “Two more injuries and I get a free broken limb.”

Stamford was busy taking notes on his clipboard, and wasn’t paying attention.

“Where’s Xander?” Giles asked, almost cheerfully.

“Still waiting for x-rays to come back,” said Buffy. “They’re worried about concussion. Which he probably doesn’t have. Oz took Willow home. Any prescriptions to fill?”

“The usual,” said Giles, waving the slips. “Painkillers I won’t take, and an antibiotic that I will. They wanted me for the rest of the night for observation. I told them to bugger themselves.” Buffy snatched the scripts and disappeared down the hall to the hospital pharmacy.

“How... how often does this happen?” Stamford asked, peering after her.

“You’ve read my bloody diaries,” Giles said. His head spun. “Fuck. Another cock-up. S’better than this usually. She’s good Slayer. Not just saying that, either.”

Stamford flipped up some papers on the clipboard. “Hmm. You seemed to be unaware of your Slayer’s needs in that fight. And in the first night I observed. Given Mr Wyndam-Pryce’s descriptions of your relationship, I would have expected an intense claim bond between you two. If I may ask, what did the Slayer choose for you? That pattern of scarring on your back, was that it?”

“No, you may bloody well not ask,” Giles said, flaring up and out of his seat. The bastard had spied on his back. “S’my right to keep it private until you get my diaries.” And then he wouldn’t care if they found out they hadn’t done it, because Buffy would be dead and he would likely not give a damn about anything. He collapsed again.

Stamford seemed surprised. “Most Watchers have been quite proud of their marks,” he said, twisting in his seat to face Giles fully. He seemed about to say more, but Xander appeared from his exam room just then, with a bandage on his forehead. He moved toward them stiffly. Giles reached up to lay a hand on Xander’s shoulder.

“You all right, my boy?”

“My head is nearly as hard as yours, Giles. Or so they tell me. All I got is a scrape and a juicy bruise and a very stern warning about being out this late at night. How about you?”

Giles indicated his sling. “No swordfighting any time soon.”

Stamford drove them home, once again fast on the dead streets. He dropped Xander at his parents’ house, then headed to Giles’ flat. He then vanished in his own car with a brief word of goodnight.

“Jeez,” said Buffy. “I was planning on staying the night to keep an eye on you, but he could at least have asked.” She coaxed Giles upstairs and into bed with minimal fuss. He was still numb, but now exhausted from the hour and the blood loss. And the stress. The fight had frightened him. They had performed poorly, as a fighting unit. Distracted, off-balance, unskilled, out of sync with each other. Was it he or was it she?

“Buffy?”

She paused at the head of his loft stairs. “Yeah?”

“Something wrong?”

“No, absolutely not. Everything is peachy-keen in the land of the Slayer. Hunky dory. Cool. I’m sorry I missed the sword-toss, Giles. Really really should have caught that.”

“Did you sleep with tha’ boy, whasisname?”

Buffy took a couple of steps back to him. “Yeah. Kinda surprised to hear you ask.”

“Did you like it?” He struggled to get the words out without slurring too badly. He’d be asleep in moments.

“It was okay.” Buffy shrugged. “Good in some ways, blah in others. Why are you asking me this stuff? You never talk about sex.”

“Need man who can give you what you want.” Giles yawned, and dropped away.

Giles lay back in his armchair, injured arm elevated across his chest, hand resting on the opposite shoulder. At least it was his right arm. Twelve stitches, five inside, seven out. Another scar to add to the collection. Buffy clattered around in his kitchen. He winced at the sound of a pan hitting the floor. Lord save him from guilty Slayers. She’d forced him to take another pain pill, so he was further forced to sit and listen to her make him lunch. He was high, his arm was numb, and Buffy was in the flat. He could live with that. If she didn’t break anything.

Willow had appeared shortly after Buffy had, trailing Stamford behind her, with a plastic container of cookies. She brought him one. The Vicodin had killed his appetite, but he nibbled to please her. And told her that her quick thinking last night had saved lives. She blushed.

“I think there’s a portable version of that spell,” she said, brows coming together. “Might help in emergencies, until we can figure out how to hurt that thing.”

“Bound into a crystal, I believe,” he said. “Book in the bottom left of that shelf. Ladders, Coils, and Fundamental Frequencies.”

“Tesla? Tesla wrote books on magic?”

“You must have learned the spell from a secondary source, then. Willow, if you borrow that book, please be careful with it. Tesla, um, Tesla enjoyed attempting to knock buildings down.”

Willow stuck her tongue out. “As if,” she said.

He glowered at her for a moment anyway. Carelessness was what did Willow’s spells in, carelessness with small things that were harmless until you got the order of ingredients wrong. Or the quantities. He shifted the topic. “We didn’t get to test the counter-enchantment on the sword last night. It might have worked.”

“Maybe I could do it on another weapon or something.”

Giles made a noncommittal noise. One sword would be enough, if Buffy used it. “How is Xander?”

“Xander is home feeling sorry for himself. And he’s only got a bruised forehead.” Willow made a face. “How are you feeling?”

“Just fine,” said Giles.

“Need your dressing changed or anything?”

“Buffy did it earlier,” Giles said.

“Ice for your eye? That looks ucky.” She brushed it cautiously, then stroked his forehead.

“I’m all right for now, Willow,” he said, smiling at her gently, affectionately. He turned serious. “Would you fetch Bingley’s Greater Demon Religions for me? That case against the far wall, third shelf, maybe. I think we have a species identification, and if I remember aright, it isn’t good news.” Willow came back with the heavy book, and held it for him while he fumbled the pages with his good hand. There it was: the Cornutos. The last time the species was seen, it had been collecting fourteen live humans for what was thought to be a crop fertility ritual. The man they’d rescued last night had no doubt been one of the fourteen. Unclear how many lives had been lost already, and how much longer they had to drive this thing off. It wouldn’t be easy. The large one was likely a high priest of some sort, and thus likely a powerful mage.

Willow read along with him, and made a soft sound of dismay. Giles understood how she felt.

“Would you take over for Buffy, Willow? Send her out here? And rescue whatever it is that she’s burning?”

Buffy perched in the same spot Willow had, on the arm of his chair. He told her the bad news in a few short phrases. Buffy hummed for a moment. “Known weaknesses?”

“Sunlight, and normally, anything that would kill a human. No mention of magic shielding in the description, but it might be a new development. Or unique to this individual. Though maybe you could break its neck— shields don’t generally protect against that sort of damage.”

“Okay. I see a Corn-nuts demon, I break its neck.”

“Be careful, Buffy. Don’t do it without back up. And the sword might yet work against it. We weren’t able to try it last night. What a bloody cock-up that was.”

“Giles, we have to put pressure on it. We can’t just let it keep taking people. I have to go out and fight it soon. The sooner the better.”

He sighed. She was right, of course. “Let’s plan something. Willow can put together one of those crystals for me, so we can handle any emergencies. I’d like to see you using the sword.”

“I’m not sure you’re coming with me, pal. I’d rather take Willow.”

“I’ll be fine, if I hang back. If I’m wrong about this shield, I want to see it. I need information, Buffy.”

Buffy made a face at him, but conceded. “Not tonight. Tonight you’re all staying home, and I’m thinning the vamps. I promise to book if I see this thing.”

“Fair enough.”

Buffy agreed to stop by tomorrow night, with some takeout dinner, and the two of them would try one more shot at the demon. That settled, Giles relaxed. He took her chin in his fingers and tilted her head so he could take a good look.

“It’s unfair,” said Giles. “I’ll have this black eye for a week, and your demon knuckle tattoo is nearly gone already.”

“I didn’t like the design anyway.” She ruffled his hair.

Giles sighed, as contented as a man who could be who’d had his arm ripped up by a demon the night before. He caught Stamford watching them from across the room. “Play it up a bit,” he murmured. “He’s watching. He was suspicious last night. Be solicitous. That means—”

“I know what that means, Giles.”

Buffy brushed warm lips across his temple. Giles sighed again, and let his eyes close for a moment. “You’re huggable, you know that? Nice shoulders. You’re bigger than you look. I never would have guessed when I first met you. All those layers. Tweedy jackets and sweater vests and ties. You should show yourself off more.”

“Not much to look at, I’m afraid. Just a middle-aged body with a lot of scars.”

“I dunno about that. I can tell you have muscles in there. Gotta have muscles to go up against me hand-to-hand in training.”

“Getting soft. No training in months.” He reached across his chest and touched his forearm, just below the elbow, where the bandages were. No training any time soon, either. Except on the more mystical topics, which she hadn’t allowed him to get near since the Cruciamentum. Not that he blamed her. He felt her fidget on the arm of his chair, brushing up against his shoulder. “What’s your excuse for not working out?”

“Been busy. Class, you know. College. Getting lost on campus takes up a big part of every day for me now.”

“Buffy, it’s the smallest campus in the UC system. It’s the size of a postage stamp.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not good with maps. I get all turned upside down.”

“For heaven’s sake, have you learned nothing from me?”

“The flying kick. I definitely learned the flying kick from you. Oh, and the roundhouse. It’s safe to say that every single kick I know, I learned from you.”

“Good to know I’m useful for something,” he growled.

“Teaching me how to kick, making tea, oh, yeah, and sharpening swords. You’re the man with the blades. I’m gonna call you Blade. He hunts vampires. ‘Course he’s half-vamp.”

He tried to glare at her, but couldn’t keep it up. Willow appeared from the kitchen just then, with lunch rescued. Buffy slipped down and went over to charm Stamford. Giles had no doubt she’d have him eating his lunch out of her hand.

The next night, they lay in wait across from the mausoleum they’d fought near the first night. Buffy wanted to catch the club-demon on its way out of its lair, when it was perhaps unwary. The goal was to use the sword on it, to test Giles’ theory. So Giles and Buffy sat, in a tiny crypt with a door overlooking the mausoleum. Giles had set a little magical alarm on their watchpoint, a simple charm that would tickle both of them if the door moved. They sat in their hiding place on a blanket Giles had brought, with a thermos of tea. The sword was laid out on the crypt they sheltered behind.

Giles’ arm was immobilized in the sling. He’d skipped the painkiller, but he’d be unable to fight effectively with a sword with his arm strapped to his chest. His balance would be off. Buffy had made him promise to hang back and only get involved if necessary. He had his own ideas about what “necessary” meant. He’d test-fired a crossbow in his living room that afternoon, and knew he could use his arm well enough to brace and aim, though it was difficult to grip with his right hand.

He braced the thermos in the crook of his injured arm and twisted off the top. Poured with his left hand into the cup held in his right. Tea, with just a little milk, and more sugar than he liked to admit. His sweet tooth had run him in for a lot of mockery over the years.

Buffy held out her hand, and he passed the thermos across.

“I will never admit this in front of anybody else,” Buffy said. “But you have me drinking tea. I keep a stash in my dorm room.”

“And chocolate digestives?”

“No cookies. I cannot eat cookies and fit into a size four.”

“Nonsense,” Giles said. “Slayers need to feed those metabolisms. You never have enough muscle.”

“Muscle is not what attracts the boys at parties.”

Giles muttered.

“What’s that, Watcher-man?”

“I said, you have been hanging out with the wrong men at parties. Strong women are beautiful. Slayers have muscles. No way ‘round it. So find men who like them.”

“More with the destiny making my life miserable.”

“Nonsense.” She handed the thermos back across, the cap twisted on. He went to open it again, tried again harder, and glared. “Very funny,” he said. “Open it and pour me some tea.”

“Bossy,” she said. She filled the little cup and handed it across. He drank, then tucked the thermos away for the moment.

Buffy scooted across next to him. “Shoulda worn a jacket,” she said.

September nights were cool in the coastal hills. This night was typical. Giles had worn his canvas barn coat, the one with the extra pockets on the inside for crossbow quarrels and stakes. He held it open. Buffy snugged up against him, underneath the jacket and all the weaponry. Giles relaxed. He felt good when he could see Buffy, and better still when she rested against him like this. He had always known this, but for the first years of their acquaintance he’d been unable to touch her outside of training. The school dynamic had interfered. Now he could, and was grateful she seemed to want it. He had no satisfactory theories about why. Perhaps it was that his subconscious only truly believed she was safe when she was near him. Perhaps it was the magic again, the force that molded him into the shape of a Watcher. If it were that, Giles didn’t want to know.

“So, I read some more about this ritual thing. Can I ask you about it?”

Giles went very still. “Why? Are you... are you considering doing it?”

“Not without you wanting it first. Junior said a few things to me yesterday that kinda got me curious. Read a bunch in the Slayer handbook this afternoon, actually. Willow skipped a lot when she gave me the Cliff’s Notes version. It sounded kinda cool. Also not very tweedy. I mean, you gotta be tied up. How kinky is that?”

“Not very,” he said, repressively. “Ritual binding can be purely symbolic, if you want it to be. Or real, if the Slayer wants it.”

“The book didn’t go into detail on what follows, other than the words. A trial, and a mark. What exactly do we do?”

Giles decided to be clinical. Repeat the phrases his instructor had said. Lecture. Give his Slayer the information she required. He didn’t have to think about what Angelus had said to him. “Whatever you choose. The trial and the mark are your privilege to choose, or to omit if you prefer. It’s usually intensely personal for both Slayer and Watcher. I read several accounts in, er, the class that taught us about this magic. Sometimes it’s incomprehensible to outsiders, though the Watchers have struggled to explain. The only requirements are that I— that, that the Watcher be bound, and that the pair repeat the trigger phrases.”

“Oh.”

“The more intense the ritual for the Watcher, the deeper the bond created. Has something to do with the amount of energy poured into the magic potential. A deep bond is... more useful.”

“So, what kinds of marks have other Slayers chosen?” Yes, of course she’d be interested in that. Likely the ritual had been designed to appeal to Slayers.

He flexed the fingers of his left hand, where they rested against Buffy’s shoulder. Blood, pain, and sex, Angelus had said. He wondered if the taint of vampire blood was still in him, and if so what would happen if Buffy and he ever exchanged blood. What would Slayer blood do to him? He would never know. But she was waiting for an answer.

“Any, anything. Everything you can think of. Tattooing. Other... other things. In many cases they simply got married and used the ring as the mark. Or had ritual sex.”

“Sex. Marriage. Tattoos. Wild.” Giles could almost feel Buffy’s head spinning, where it rested against his chest. “Big change from Stuffy Tweed Guy to Ritual Sex Man.”

“Well. The Slayer is in charge after Cruciamentum.” The primitive took precedence over the civilized. The choices were made by the girl-women with the muscled bodies and the training in a hundred ways to kill. The training given them by the men in the tweed and the glasses.

“In charge?”

“Yes. An adult. Presumed to be ready to claim a Watcher and assume command.”

“That test was a pretty big deal, huh.”

“Yes.”

“And it didn’t go normally for me because they fired you, and you stopped cooperating. Huh. Why’d you get fired, anyway?”

“For what that ass Travers said, more or less. Loving you above and beyond what the magic demanded of me.” In matters of tradition and protocol, he’d had no choice. The magic had compelled him. It had only been when the danger to her passed some threshold that he’d been able to violate the magical strictures and tell her about the test. That he’d been able to do so at all had impressed Travers. In a stuffy, disapproving, sack-his-arse sort of way. It had been odd that Travers himself had administered the test. Usually they sent a team from Stamford’s group, plus the two Watchers expected to serve next to manage the vampire. Had Blair and Hobson been Watchers? He thought not. Trainers.

He tried to explain this to Buffy, how he had fought the compulsions of the magic, because the test had been wrong, somehow.

“But I thought it was supposed to make you help me.”

“I don’t know what it does to me. The people who know are the people who inflict it on the children dragged into the Watcher initiation. Those bastards don’t have to go through it. Stamford is one of them. Knows exactly how the magic twists me, writes papers on it, and doesn’t have to suffer it himself.”

Buffy touched a hand to his face. “You hate him.”

Giles let his head thump back. He hadn’t realized it until that moment, but yes, he hated Stamford. Hated that whole department of Council mages and scholars. Hated them for knowing what they refused to tell him, what the magic did to him. He and Buffy made the sacrifices. They took notes on their clipboards.

“Poor Giles,” she said. She hugged him tight for a moment.

“It’s not his fault,” he said, slowly. “I think he was chosen for his role when he was a child, just as I was chosen for mine. We none of us get any choice.”

“No,” Buffy said. “This vampire-killing stuff sucks.”

They were silent for a few minutes.

When Buffy spoke again, it was with a lighter tone, but not on a subject that left Giles any more comfortable. “So what was up with you asking me if I liked sex with Parker? Willow told me what you said about college being for sleeping with people. You wild man.” Giles blushed, unseen in the dark. He’d been loopy with the painkillers. Must have been. “Is that what you really think?”

“You’re young,” he said. “This is when you discover what you like, what you want. When you experiment.”

“Guess I was doing that. Discovered I didn’t want... well, whatever that was. This is gonna sound really weird, but I felt like I was cheating when I slept with Parker.”

“Cheating? On, on Angel?”

“No, not him. Just... being with the wrong guy.” Buffy sounded evasive, and he wondered if she were still clinging to feelings for Angel. “I had a dream that night, right there in Parker’s bed. This weird woman talked to me. She told me to stop wasting my time with ignorant boys and claim my birthright. She was all covered in mud.” Giles could hear the disdain in her voice.

“She, she used the word claim?”

“Yeah. That meaningful? It felt like one of my prophecy dreams. Though I haven’t had it, like, seven times in a row. Which is usually what happens.”

“Probably not, then.” Giles wondered if Watchers could lie to their Slayers after being claimed. Perhaps if that was what the Slayer truly needed?

“Giles, what do people do in bed? Normal people, I mean?”

“Normal people? I don’t... could you be more, uh... what prompts the question?”

“Something Parker said to me, after the second time.”

“Was there something specific he was reacting to?”

“Yeah.”

Giles waited, but Buffy did not seem inclined to elaborate. The whole conversation was making him uncomfortable. And faintly aroused. With the Slayer sense of smell, he wasn’t sure he could keep it secret. Best to just stammer until she relented. “Buffy, uh... anything you want is okay. Anything with another consenting adult. People do, uh, all sorts of things you wouldn’t expect, just from looking at them in their everyday lives.”

“I guess.”

Giles tried not to speculate too much about what she had wanted, or tried, that Parker hadn’t been interested in. Slayers could be... well, if Faith’s sexual tastes had been indicative, Buffy might have been more aggressive than the young man had been prepared for. Giles had had an exquisitely embarrassing conversation with Xander, after the young man had been attacked by Faith, about exactly what had happened between them earlier. Xander had needed some reassurance, though of course he’d been unable to ask for it directly. Giles, aware that he had been acting in loco parentis for some time with the boy, had done his awkward best to provide it. Now he was in Xander’s position, confronted with evidence of Slayer predilections. And what he felt was curiosity. And a stab of desire that he suppressed as best he could. Giles forced his mind away from that, to the question of what Buffy would need most to know, just now.

“You’ll meet somebody who likes what you like,” he said, trying to be encouraging. “Persist.”

“Oh, I get it. This is what you were saying before, to Willow. Huh.” She was silent a moment. “How did you meet Olivia?”

Giles laughed silently. “It’s a silly story.”

“Yeah?”

“For an advertising campaign for the museum. Tube ads. They wanted an exotic model and an academic man posing with a series of artifacts. They were going to use a model for the man as well, but then the art director saw me. I popped in with an Anglo-Saxon sword replica for him to use in the first shoot, and he starting making ridiculous noises. Something about the tweed jacket I was wearing.”

“The one with leather patches on the elbows?”

“Yes, that one. Anyway, he ended up shooting me with Olivia instead of the model. Said I was the perfect type. I was harassed by women in pubs for months after that. They were all certain they’d met me somewhere.”

Buffy laughed, vibrating against his chest where she was snugged tight. “Who knew?”

“It was the beginning and the end of my modeling career. Anyway, Olivia and I got on. We hook up every few years. Seems like we’re going through a patch of hooking up.” He shrugged.

“You like the same sorts of things?”

“We overlap enough. She’s a bit of a jetsetter.”

“I mean, in bed.”

“Dear Lord, Buffy... yes, we do. Never talked about it with her, actually.” Their conversation ranged over art and fashion and politics, but never feelings or what happened in the bedroom. Giles flattered himself that he’d never given Olivia any cause to ask for more than what he gave her. They satisfied each other well enough. It might not have been everything he’d hoped for in his life, but it would do. It would have to.

The conversation lapsed. Buffy settled herself more comfortably against his chest. Giles drifted off a little. His arm had begun to ache badly, though he’d never admit that. And itch, under the stitches.

Buffy sat up, suddenly, and pulled away from him. The magical alert chimed softly, and tickled the backs of his hands. Giles came fully alert. He picked up the crystal and said the word that deactivated it.

Buffy was already crouching at the door of their crypt, peering across at their target. “Motion,” she said. “Get ready. You have that get out of jail free crystal, right?”

“Remember, the sword might not work,” Giles said. “And if it doesn’t, you’ll feel backlash.”

“Okay, they’re in sight. Go!” She was in motion as she spoke, sword in hand. Giles followed her out the door. The demon group had already turned away from them and begun moving along the cemetery drive. Three. Two small ones, then the huge one they’d met that first night.

Buffy caught up to the one in the back and decapitated it. No shield, or the spell was effective. Giles stopped, knelt, and fired his crossbow at the second small one. The bolt hit and plunged into its neck. Definitely no shield, and it was thrashing on the grass, bleeding itself out. Good. He reloaded the crossbow, at some cost in pain, and chased after Buffy.

Buffy was dancing around the high priest, sword in motion. She had knocked the club from its hands, but had done no visible damage. It didn’t seem afraid of her; if he were fighting it, he’d say it was biding its time and waiting for an opening. She moved faster than it, but it had an enormous advantage in reach. She cut at its arms, and Giles saw the sword bounce back. The counter-enchantment was a failure.

Buffy staggered and dropped the sword. Giles was ready to step in, but she recovered and vaulted up onto its back. She was attempting to get a purchase on its head, probably to try snapping its neck, but without success. Giles did not want this fight to go on any longer. He pulled Willow’s crystal out of his jacket pocket and spoke the trigger phrase. Nikola’s Fire, again. Plasma, strictly speaking, Willow’d told him. A nice selection of the wavelengths of daylight sunshine, heavy on the ultraviolet. He held it up, fizzing in his hand, and moved closer. The demon shrieked, a horrible pained sound. It held a smoking arm over its eyes. Buffy dropped to the ground, and it ran back to the mausoleum.

She came to his side. “Well, we can’t hurt it, but we know how to make it run away,” she said, breathing hard. “Until it figures out about sunblock. Or the magical equivalent.”

The light faded. Giles put the crystal back in his pocket. Willow had said she could recharge it.

“No shield on either of the smaller ones,” he said, thoughtfully. “It’s definitely not intrinsic to the demon, but is instead something it has to cast on itself. Perhaps it’s time-consuming, or expensive in some other way.”

“Let me guess,” said Buffy. “Research is in order?”

“Yes.”

The adrenaline charge of battle faded. Buffy wiped his sword on the grass, then resheathed it. She picked up a chunk of broken monument and wedged it under the mausoleum door, bracing it shut. “Won’t stand up to a dedicated demon,” she said, “I’ll check on it tomorrow morning, see if they made another try.”

Giles swayed on his feet. He was bitterly tired, now that the rush of the fight was over, and his elbow unbearably painful.

“Not letting you patrol again until your stitches are out. Shouldn’t have let you come with tonight. C’mon. Let’s get you home,” Buffy said to him. He made no objection. Leave the bodies for the cemetery staff to explain away, or not. They wouldn’t be the first they’d seen.

The next evening saw the entire gang convened in Giles’ living room. The session had started with brainstorming about the demon. Buffy reported that it had not yet forced open the mausoleum door, though she wouldn’t lay odds on how long that would last. She’d shored up the barriers before she came by. It would take two or three of them working in concert to get it open, she thought.

Dinnertime arrived, followed by several large pizzas. They lay draped on his floor and couch, eating the last slices and licking their fingers. The conversation drifted to frivolous topics.

Giles sat at his desk, thumbing through a book on defensive magicks. He had his eye on Buffy, sprawled across his armchair. She was dressed in one of the outfits he loved best: loose trousers, low-slung, a t-shirt cropped high to show off her navel and the ring, and an open button-down shirt over that, all in dark jewel tones. She wore bright chunky rings on her thumbs, which she played with, spinning them around. He’d been watching her all night.

“T-shirts are lame, Xan,” she said, in response to something he’d missed. “We should totally get tattoos. The five of us.” Giles shuddered.

“What of?” said Oz.

“Scooby,” said Xander. “We each get our Scooby character on the shoulder.”

“There is no way I’m getting a tattoo of Velma,” said Willow. “Next idea.”

Oz had one. “It needs to be something vampire-related. A stake, maybe. Through a heart. Giles, do you have any paper?”

Giles silently opened a desk drawer and pulled out a spiral-bound sketchbook. He handed the paper along with a pencil and an eraser to Oz. Oz flipped past several dozen pages of demon renditions and spell diagrams to find a fresh page. He drew a stake, then started working on a stylized heart. Giles was reminded of students drawing logos of metal bands on their book covers, painstakingly shading in jagged letters and garbled alchemical symbols. Willow looked at Oz’s results and made a face.

“Lemme try,” said Xander. Oz handed the pad up to Xander. His stylized stake and heart were much better. They had a certain style that Giles liked. He hadn’t known Xander had the skill. The boy tried a few more takes on the motif, then idly flipped back through the notebook.

“Shit, Giles, did you do these? This is the Cornutos to the life.”

“Council training,” he said, making a self-deprecating palm-down gesture. “Demon life drawing. So the Watcher diaries have accurate information.”

“You should do a tattoo design for us. Unless you want Oz’s sucky heart on your shoulder. Sorry, baby.” That last, apologetically from Willow to Oz.

Giles gritted his teeth. Willow couldn’t know. “I’m not much of a designer. Xander’s is much better than anything I might do. Xander, try something with swords in it. Like what Buffy is doing. Upright like that it’s a symbol of fidelity.”

Buffy was doodling in one of her college notebooks, designs with a sword and shield.

“Might as well do tattoo designs,” Xander said, a little gloomily. “Since apparently I do not have what it takes to fry donuts.”

Giles expressed sympathy, while secretly thinking that it probably was for the best that Xander not be able to supply him with all the jellies he could eat.

Xander held up a drawing of a sword.

“That’s good. An appropriate symbol for the Slayer’s assistants,” Giles said.

“Would you really get a tattoo with us?” said Willow.

“If Buffy wanted me to,” he said. After he spoke, he was aware of a strange thrill in his chest, a point of warmth radiating out. The magic, stirring. Then war, within him: pain and humiliation and the vampire’s mocking laughter, telling him he would never belong to her. If he were to gather the courage to go under the needle, it wouldn’t mean anything. It wouldn’t be what he’d lived to do. To cover his sudden misery, he got up and found a book on Celtic knotwork magic, and handed it to Willow. They could bind magic into the tattoos, if they were clever about it. Xander looked over her shoulder, pencil in hand.

The four young people went out for an early patrol soon afterward. Buffy said she wanted to disrupt the Corndog’s plans, even if she couldn’t kill it. She returned later, with his sword fouled with demon blood. Giles gave her a late cup of tea, and got the report on the patrol while he cleaned the sword. Three vamps, dusted in the act of unblocking the sewer access; one small Cornutos killed; and one large Cornutos driven back into the sewers before it had a chance to rampage.

He gathered up the tea things and took them into the kitchen, carrying the tray one-handed. He returned and stood near her.

“Buffy,” he said. “I wanted to let you know. Olivia called after you left. She’ll be in town tomorrow night. She, uh, we’ll, well, I’ll want some privacy. But please, call me if something comes up. Promise me you’ll call me. Okay?”

“If it’s serious. Otherwise I’m gonna stay out of your hair. No more barging in.” She grinned at him. “Giles? This thing with Olivia going somewhere?”

“Not really. I can’t leave Sunnydale, and she certainly doesn’t want to do more than visit.”

“What keeps you in Sunnydale?”

“Buffy! You do, of course.”

“Do I?” She paced away from him, then back. She softened for a moment, and went up on her toes to kiss his cheek. “Have a good time with Olivia, Giles. Relax, let her fuss over you.”

Giles blushed, and she was gone.

Giles spent his morning cleaning the house. His natural tendency toward clutter needed to be fought, or the books would pile up on every flat surface. He was certain Olivia knew who he was, at heart, knew that he was a bookish academic, and would not truly mind the evidence of his obsessions scattered over the flat. The demonologies, however, he wished to keep hidden. And the armory was probably best treated as eccentric decoration. The bronze sword he’d cast in the workshop, that was decorative enough to put on the wall, just in case of demon invasion. But the rest of it got put away. Giles locked the weapons chest over the litter of swords and knives he’d spent so much time sharpening.

After lunch, he thought about research, but decided against it. He deserved a day off now and then. His battered body needed a day off. He stretched out with the historical novel he’d been meaning to read for the last week.

Olivia swept through his door in late afternoon, dynamic and powerful as ever. Stunningly dressed, of course. She smelled wonderful and tasted wonderful in that first kiss, spun into before they’d so much as exchanged greetings. Or perhaps it was their greeting. It lasted long enough to set his heart pounding and his body stirring, then she pulled back to look at him.

“Rip, what the hell happened to you?”

Arm in a sling, black eye just starting to shade down from black into the more exotic bruise spectra— Giles had to admit he did look as if something had run him over. “Mugged,” he said, shrugging.

“Tell me another.”

“Truly. It, uh, he had a club.” One could, at a stretch, describe the demon’s intention as mugging. Liv wasn’t stupid, however. He had to watch it. And eventually he might have to come clean.

They went out to dinner in the early evening. Giles tugged the flat door shut behind them and shrugged one arm into his leather jacket. Liv held his sling for him while he threaded the injured arm through. He turned to lead the way up to the street, and her rental car, but she stopped him.

“You were mugged the other day, and you’re leaving your door unlocked?” She was baffled. He bowed to her display of practicality and locked the door. He was reluctant to launch into explanations and embarrassed by the prospect of explaining the group of teenagers with whom he shared his life. Buffy had a key; she’d had one for years. It wouldn’t matter.

Giles had a little too much to drink at the restaurant, one glass too many of the chianti with his pasta. He was twitchy, and nervous, and worried about Buffy, which was absurd. What he said to Olivia was that his arm hurt, and he was worried he’d be no use to her in bed. He knew what she came to him for; it was not a relationship, but a slow-motion fling.

And indeed he couldn’t be as athletic as he usually liked, with his arm still in stitches, but Liv promised to compensate. She made it slow, soothing. She started with a massage, with the scented oil she always used. He was aroused with the first stroke of her hands across his shoulders, just from the scent, amber and vanilla and something musky. She said nothing about his back; she had never asked him about any of the marks on his body. When she caught him rocking his hips gently into the bed, she turned him over and worked on his chest and thighs. It seemed like forever before she touched his erection, and longer still before she allowed him inside. She kept him on the edge for ages.

Giles lay awake afterward, sweat cooling on his face and chest. Olivia’s warm cheek rested against his shoulder.

This was what he had needed: a beautiful woman astride him, moaning his name. Nothing complicated, no magic, no responsibilities, just a woman and a man, behaving as they have always behaved. God, no responsibilities. Not even for her pleasure; she’d just taken over and carried him along. It had been surprising how much this had released him. It had been some of the best sex he’d ever had. He replayed the moment of her orgasm again, in satisfaction, the way her body shuddering around his had sent him over at last. His body twitched. Perhaps he’d wake her in a bit. He wanted that feeling again. Or not. There was always the morning. He nuzzled her hair, and let himself slide down toward sleep.

The phone rang. Giles sat up, suddenly and violently awake. “Hullo?” Willow, from the hospital. His stomach dropped away. He tried to sort out the situation from Willow’s babble, which was less coherent than usual. Xander injured. Xander in emergency surgery now, to stabilize his ankle. “Buffy,” he said. “Is Buffy all right?” Yes, yes, Buffy was fine; Xander was the only one injured. His stomach stopped the freefall, but still roiled. He cut Willow off and promised to be there as soon as humanly possible. Liv had turned the light on and was blinking at him, looking worried.

He began pulling clothing from drawers and throwing it on. “A friend of mine has been in a bit of an accident,” he said. “One of my students, the group I was telling you about. His leg, or his ankle. Willow wasn’t clear. I need to see to him.”

“Of course,” she said. She sat up. “Shall I come with you?”

“No, no. Get your sleep. It’ll likely be hours of sitting around waiting for nothing much to happen. God, hospitals.” He kissed Liv. “Don’t invite anyone in while I’m gone.” He shut the light off for her. He was down the stairs and out of the house, moving quickly but quietly so as not to alarm her.

Driving bothered his arm, though he gritted his teeth and simply did it. He tried shifting the gears with his left hand reaching across his body, but that was annoying. He’d begin rehab with it soon enough, and might as well get a start at using that muscle again.

He found Willow in the emergency room waiting room. Hadn’t he just been here? She threw herself at him. He caught her with his good arm, and tried not to wince when she pressed against his bad one.

“Xander’s out of surgery. He’s been asking for you,” Willow said. “He’s okay. Just loopy and stressed out.”

“How long ago?”

“Got here three hours ago.” Willow looked guilty. “We didn’t call you at first. It was all kinda confusing. Mr Stamford said you would come if you were needed.”

“Is he still here?”

“Buffy sent him away a while ago.”

“Where is she?”

“In with Xan. One person at a time.”

Giles then patiently extracted from her the details of the injury and the fight that that produced it. They’d stopped by at his place before patrol, but the door was locked. Buffy refused to let them in, saying that she didn’t want to interrupt anything. Giles dropped his head into his hands. He hadn’t been there; nothing would have been interrupted. But when the four had encountered the Cornutos and a minion later on, Buffy was without effective weapons. Xander had thrown himself at it, much as Giles had done, fallen, and caught the club on his ankle as a reward. Willow blamed herself for not being quick enough with the light spell.

Buffy emerged. “Giles,” she said, then nothing after that. She was white-faced. He inspected her, quickly, seeking signs of injury that she hadn’t bothered telling anyone else about. Her body language was odd, tight, maybe even resolved, but she wasn’t favoring any sore places. He made as if to hug her, but she held up a hand. “Go. Talk to him. He needs you.”

Giles brushed a hand against Buffy’s shoulder and went into Xander’s room. The boy was in the usual mess of machinery and wires, IV and monitors, ankle swathed and elevated, a nurse fussing about in the background with paperwork. Giles recognized the stains that shock left on a face: pale cheeks, black circles under the eyes. Xander smiled at Giles, though.

Giles slipped into the chair by the bed and took Xander’s free hand. “How are you, my boy?”

“Kinda zonked on the good stuff. Which is nice, because prior to that I was passing out from the pain. My ankle went crunch. You know? I actually heard it go crunch.”

“That sounds bracing.”

“Yeah. Bracing. That’s the word I used. Right before I screamed like a girl.” The bravado left Xander, and he looked up at Giles in fear. “They started saying a bunch of stuff about surgery and pins and rehab and specialists and ‘walking again’. Giles, what am I gonna do about that? I don’t have... I don’t have insurance.”

Giles’ throat closed up. He held Xander’s hand tight. “Xander, my boy, I’ll take care of it. It’ll be all right. The Council has... I can get them to pay. You were with the Slayer.”

“Oh.”

“And th-th-they have healers who can do a few things doctors can’t. You remember the Council doctor who took care of my fingers, yes? I’ll get a specialist out here for you, my boy.”

The life crept back into Xander’s voice. “God, thank you. Giles. Dunno where I’d be without you. In so many ways.”

Giles cleared his throat. “I’ll, uh. Well.” He rested a hand on Xander’s sweaty forehead. “Is your pain manageable? Do you need anything?”

“Could you just kinda sit with me?” Xander looked more out of it than he had when Giles had entered.

“Of course. You should get some sleep.” He fumbled for the boy’s bed controls and pushed the button that turned off the light.

“Big expert,” said Xander, muzzily. Giles took his hand again and watched. If Willow’s recounting of how the evening had gone was accurate, this was his fault. His fault, for not being there to tell Buffy to leave the demon alone. His fault, for not being there to arm them better. His fault, for having spent the day with his lover instead of researching a known threat. His fault, for shirking his duty.

Xander would have the best medical care imaginable if he had to pay for it by selling his property in England. Not that it would come to that; the Council would likely meet his demands to provide assistance. He would pull rank. He had rank. Rank falsely obtained. If he’d truly deserved it, he’d have been at Buffy’s side and this would not have happened. No wonder Buffy was so tense and upset out there. His inability had cost her friend dearly.

When he was sure Xander was asleep, he slipped out into the hall. Willow and Buffy were still in the waiting room, heads together and talking. He sat next to them, slumping in the chair. Buffy looked at him expectantly.

“He’s asleep. Specialist in the morning, at ten. I’ll be there to talk to him. You two should get home and get some sleep. He’s likely out for the rest of the night.”

“Will you drive us to the dorm?” Buffy didn’t speak to him, other than to ask him that. Giles couldn’t blame her. When they got there, Buffy asked Willow to go ahead; she had some things to talk about with Giles. He swallowed, dreading what she’d have to say.

Buffy sat for a minute with fists loosely balled in her lap. Giles waited, head down.

“I screwed up tonight, Giles.”

“You— No, Buffy. It’s my fault. I wasn’t there with you. When you needed me.”

Buffy turned in the car seat. “It’s my responsibility. It’s always my responsibility. I’m the Slayer, not you.”

“But it’s my job to give you what you need. Support you.”

“I’m in charge, right?”

“Yes, but—”

“Then I’ve gotta be in charge. I’ve got to make sure I have what I need. Xander’s gonna have a cane for the rest of his life because I didn’t do that. Giles, I’m sick of screwing up. We should have figured out this thing already. Yeah, you should have been researching until you got it. But it’s up to me to ask for that from you.”

Giles rubbed at the steering wheel. He knew what he ought to have been doing. “You shouldn’t have needed to ask. I should have just known. Buffy, I’m not sure this is working.”

Buffy punched at his dashboard. “We haven’t given it enough time! We’ve trained exactly once since we agreed to work together again.”

“Buffy, you don’t understand. You don’t know what you’re missing. You complained about feeling off-balance, remember? You’re missing a Watcher.”

“I don’t believe you. Things were fine before that stupid test! We did okay.”

“But you can do so much better now. With a bonded Watcher supporting you. A real Watcher. What I can’t be.”

Desire welled up in him again. Go to his knees, beg her, allow her to seize him and make him hers. If only he could. If only he could bring himself to do it. Offer her tainted goods. His body, already marked by another, ruined. The magic would reject him.

“No. You’re... Giles, you’re the one. If I can’t have you, I don’t want anybody.”

“You have to.” And he had to talk her into it. Giles felt as if he were signing his own prison sentence. No, death sentence. He wanted to die.

She was silent for a minute, head down. “I’m gonna try to think of something. You said ten for Xan’s doctor?”

Giles nodded.

“G’night.” Buffy kissed his temple. Then she got out of the car and closed the door on him. He watched her run up the walkway into her dorm.

How he kept his composure enough to drive, Giles wasn’t sure. He was operating on automatic, following familiar streets. His chest ached. He wanted to die. He couldn’t let himself die. He had to take care of Xander. And maybe... maybe she would still see him, after she found another Watcher. She’d said she loved him. He pulled himself together. Xander. Care for Xander. He had a purpose in life with Xander. Making up for his failure.

Giles was on the phone the moment he got home, to the Council. He explained the situation, and then demanded action. They called him sir, to his shock, and promised instant response. A Council healer-medic would be on his way within two days, and the insurance information would be faxed to Stamford at his hotel. Giles was taken aback by how easy this was.

Status. The charade. He’d end it soon.

He slept through what little remained of the night on the couch. He awoke to the smell of coffee brewing. Olivia was awake. She made him breakfast, and extracted the story from him. He invented something about a fall down a flight of stairs. He had no idea what Xander had decided to tell the doctors about how it had happened. The usual nonsense about a PCP gang? Olivia drove them to the hospital in time to make the morning appointment with the specialist. On the walk up, he saw she had a wrapped package in her hands. How had she managed that, at this hour? He asked her what it was.

“Hope you don’t mind, Rip,” she said. “This was going to be yours. I think it’ll do for your young friend, though. And he needs presents more than you do.”

Giles leaned down to kiss her before they went in. Maybe, when he was back in London... Unlikely. Liv tired of him quickly. A week was the most she’d ever managed.

The specialist was there already, early, with x-rays and a mouthful of jargon. Liv made a little signal to him and slipped away to the waiting room. Giles strode in and apologized for missing the beginning. The doctor paused and asked for an introduction.

“Rupert Giles,” he said, painfully stretching out his right hand to be shaken.

“Are you any relation?”

“It’s okay, doc. He’s on my forms as next of kin. He gets to know it all.”

Giles took Xander’s hand and squeezed, then focused his attention on the doctor. They had a short conversation, to the point. Xander would need a series of surgeries to repair as much of the damage to bone and ligament as they could. Not all of the damage was reparable; he’d never walk easily on that ankle again. But if he responded well, and didn’t shirk rehab, he would walk on it again. In a few months.

The Council’s healer would improve his chances considerably, by ensuring that he responded well to surgery, and by speeding all natural healing processes. But even that boost would not make it a sure thing.

Xander didn’t have many decisions to make just yet, other than how quickly he was willing to undergo the first reconstructive surgery. He met Giles’ eye, gripped his hand a little tighter, then demanded that it all start happening as fast as possible. He’d go under the knife again Tuesday. The specialist set it all in motion, and swept out.

Giles felt better. He’d begun to step up. He pressed Xander’s hand tight. Xander just sighed, and closed his eyes for a long breath.

“They knock you out for this planned stuff, at least. It won’t be like getting stitched up after a bad vamp-fight. I won’t remember a thing. So, Giles. I heard you had a lovely supermodel visiting you. Where is she?” Irrepressible, that was Xander.

“I’ll just grab Liv so you can meet her,” said Giles. He found her in the waiting room, talking cheerfully with Stamford.

“I see you’ve introduced yourselves,” he said.

“You mean you’re the—” Stamford shut his mouth, then began again. “Yes, fellow countrymen bonding over the dreadful tea.” He lifted the styrofoam cup in his hand and made a face.

Giles introduced Liv to Xander, then stood back while she gave him his present. It was a silk dressing gown, black, utterly decadent. Giles raised his eyebrow. A lovely thing. Xander was speechless at first, running his hands over and over it.

Liv said, “I hear you’ll be spending a lot of time here. You need something to wear to attract every single nurse in the building.”

“Holy crap,” said Xander. “This is the nicest item of clothing I have ever owned.” He rubbed it against his face. “Okay, gotta shave before I do that again. This woman has incredible taste. What are you doing with an ex-librarian, anyway? What did he do, offer to catalog your shoes?”

Olivia sat on the side of Xander’s bed and leaned into to him. She spoke in a conspiratorial whisper pitched to reach everyone in the room. “Confidentially, a librarian is not the only thing this man used to be. He has a very rackety and exotic past.”

“Oh?”

“Mmm hmm.”

“Got any blackmail material to share?”

“Let me tell you about his history as a male model.”

Seeing they were well underway, Giles drew Stamford out into the hall for a moment. Stamford led him back to the waiting room, which was empty. He looked Giles up and down. Giles knew he was haggard, underslept, distressed, in no condition for a verbal fencing duel with a Council scholar. Especially not one who seemed angry.

“Are you well, Mr Giles?”

“Bad night.” Giles took off his glasses and occupied himself polishing them.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing that need concern you.” Giles replaced the glasses, authoritatively.

“Are you quite certain? The Slayer had questions for me last night, Mr Giles. Questions I could not quite believe at first. About her birthright. She implied—” Stamford stopped himself and turned away. Yes, he was angry.

“What did I imply?” Buffy was in the doorway.

“Ah, good morning, Miss Summers.”

“What did I imply?” She advanced into the room, and nodded to Giles.

“That, ah, Mr Giles, here, is not what I had thought him.”

“What did you think he was?”

“Let’s not waste our time, shall we? Mr Giles, has Miss Summers claimed you?”

Giles glanced from Buffy to the floor, then squared his shoulders. Time to end it. “No. I apologize for allowing you to continue to believe that. Before your visit I had no idea the Council had reached that conclusion about us.”

“That design on your back she was toying with?”

“Was not put there by her.”

Buffy crossed the waiting room to stand alongside him. “Okay, now you know. Leave him alone.”

“Can’t do that, I’m afraid. I’ll need to let the, er, Council know. Can’t keep this secret. Shocking behavior on your part, Giles. What were you thinking?” He’d lost the “mister”, Giles noted.

“Again, I apologize.”

“I’m not the one you should be apologizing to.” Stamford was more than angry now. Giles watched him cautiously. His body language had changed utterly. He no longer seemed to be the eager young scholar who’d bounced through Giles’ door a week ago. He seemed older, more powerful. In command. When he rounded on Giles in a fury, Giles had to rein in the urge to flinch.

“Why? Tell me why. You’re devoted to each other. Any fool who spends five minutes with you can see that. Why are you denying her the tool her life depends on most? The weapon she needs most?”

Giles wished to argue no further. It hurt all the more because he knew Stamford was right. He held up a hand to stop Stamford when he opened his mouth to continue.

“I— I can’t. Can’t do it.”

“What on earth do you mean?”

“My back. Those scars. They... You’ve read my history. You know I was, was injured by the vampire Angelus.”

“Tortured, the healer said.”

Buffy went very still at Giles’ side. Giles flexed his left hand, unconsciously. “He did more than I reported. He...” Giles swallowed. “He enacted the claim ritual with me. He carved his tattoo into me.”

“Good God, man. Why didn’t you tell us?”

“I couldn’t have borne being sent away from you.” He said this to Buffy. She rubbed his shoulder.

“You’ll have to bear it, I’m afraid.”

“What?” Buffy snapped around and took a threatening step toward Stamford.

“I made my preliminary report to the Council last night. They should reach a decision quickly. A predictable one, especially once they hear this. You can expect a team to pull him out perhaps as early as two days from now. He’ll be kept away from here, once he’s recovered from the trauma of the separation.”

Giles shivered. He tried to imagine being separated from her, never seeing her again. Any of them. Never touching her again. He turned away from Stamford, because he wasn’t sure he was in control of the expression on his face.

Buffy had her own opinion. “No. You’re not. I’m not going to let you. He’s mine.”

“No, he’s not.” Stamford said it gently. “I’m sorry, Miss Summers, but it’s for your own good. And his. You need a Watcher, and he’ll need our help recovering from this experience. You don’t understand how much the lack of a Watcher is crippling you.”

“I don’t care. I trust him. He’s done things for me that none of you Council people have.”

“Buffy! Buffy. He’s right. You need a Watcher. I can’t be what you need. I wish I could. I wish I weren’t useless to you. But I am.”

“How do you know? Giles. This is what I came here to tell you. How could Angel have triggered it? I think he was just screwing with your head. He put you through some bad stuff, I know. But he might have been lying. Just to hurt you more.”

Giles froze, staring at Buffy. This hadn’t occurred to him. The sensations had been so intense, at the time, the drugs in his blood and the agony in his back so overwhelming. What if Angelus hadn’t touched the magic, truly?

“Maybe...”

Buffy turned to Stamford. “Am I right?”

Stamford played with the knot of his tie, tugging at it nervously. “I don’t know. Our mages might be able to test it. But it would take time. Time you don’t have. You could essay the bond ritual, if you wanted. Did the vampire exchange blood with you?”

“Yes.”

“Dangerous. The Slayer energy component might react poorly. I wouldn’t recommend trying. It’s... Well. It’s powerful magic.”

Buffy looked at Giles once, then backed a few steps away. Giving him the space to think. Hope sparked inside him, and with it a return of deep fear in his belly. He didn’t give a damn about the danger. The question was, could he endure it again? Could he allow himself to be bound and hurt again? He closed his eyes. He was afraid. He felt his breath start to come fast and shallow again. Ropes and the knife. Drusilla and Angelus, laughing at him. But they weren’t here. And he trusted Buffy to carry him through.

If he didn’t try it, he’d spend the rest of his life wondering what would have happened.

“Buffy.” He held her gaze and very deliberately dropped to his knees. “If you still want me, I’m yours. Please. I’m willing.”

“Can you?”

“For you, I’ll find a way.”

He was panting, fast and shallow. His fingers began to tingle. Giles attempted to draw slow, steady breaths.

“No,” said Stamford. Buffy ignored him. “No. We’ll send you someone else. He’s, he’s tainted. Look at him. Even if the bond is possible, the experience has damaged him—”

“Shut the fuck up or I’ll break your arm,” said Buffy. She laid a hand on Giles’ head. He was on his knees, one hand braced on the carpet, struggling to control the incipient panic attack. “Giles. You don’t have to do this. We can figure something out.”

“Buffy, I want to.”

Buffy was silent, and for a moment he was afraid. Then she said, “All right. You’re mine. I claim you.”

Giles breathed in. He lunged up toward her and wrapped his good arm around her. She pulled him over and down onto the waiting room sofa. He held her and trembled. He blinked over the sting of tears. She stroked his hair. The emotion welling up still made it impossible to speak. Fiery joy, spreading out from his chest. The magic, already beginning? His own relief, that they had finally come to a decision? Simple human pleasure at being wanted?

He got himself back under control, conscious of Stamford’s sharp observation. With clipboard out.

“And now the fun part.”

Giles snorted. His capacity for sarcasm was returning as he calmed. “Fun for you, maybe. Do you... do you know what you’d like to do with me?”

“Does it matter? Haven’t you said yes no matter what?”

Giles tightened his good arm around her shoulders and thought about that. He studied her for a moment. He knew she was right. He would leap, and trust her.

“I would say yes no matter what. I do say yes. Buffy, I will be yours. Tell me when it’s time and I will do what you ask.” He slumped back. The fear was returning.

“I’ll make it something easy...”

“No!” He and Stamford said it at almost the same moment.

“Don’t waste it,” Giles told her. “If we’re going to do it at all, we have to do it all the way. Make it hard on me.”

“Mr Giles is correct. The bond is deepest when the ritual is most intense. The mark is best when it’s concrete, visible. Not merely symbolic. The same for the binding.” Stamford sounded apologetic, almost.

Buffy regrouped, and thought for a moment. “Okay. I know what I’m gonna do. What was it you said? Blood and pain and sex. I’ve got an idea for that.”

“Oh, God.”

“It’s gonna be okay, Giles. Trust me. Hold onto me.” She gripped his left hand with hers. “The Slayer handbook has everything I need to know? We need equipment?”

“Yes. I have a ritual knife for you.”

“And you’ll need the, er, drugs. Which I have a supply of. If Miss Summers would care to accompany me? I will review the requirements with her.”

Buffy stood. “You going to be all right, Giles?”

“Go on. I’ve got to deal with Liv.”

“I’ll call you,” she said. “Might be today or tomorrow.”

She hugged him tight, and vanished with the Council puppy. Who was no puppy. Giles wondered what he was. After a while, he got up and went to Xander’s room. He hovered in the doorway, watching. Olivia was there, along with Oz and Willow. Xander and Oz were bent over something that was making a racket, all tinny bleeps and thin repetitive jingles.

“Gameboy,” Willow said, coming over to him and sighing. “I wanted to bring him books, but Oz said this was better.”

Giles nodded. He took his leave of Xander with a quick hand-squeeze. Liv did him one better and gave Xander a lingering kiss. They made conversation about hospitals on the drive back; Liv had spent little time in them, while Giles had become far too familiar with their rhythms. Back at his flat, Giles wracked himself for ideas about how to ask her to leave, politely, in a manner that made it clear to her that he’d like her to visit again. Liv removed the necessity, however.

“Oh! By the way. Got a call while you were in that intense conversation with the blonde girl. Job in LA. I might have turned it down, but I’ve begun to feel a bit in the way.”

“Oh. Er.”

“She’s the one who burst in a few weeks ago, isn’t she. Lucky Ripper, to have little blonde things hovering.”

Giles blushed. The truth, while less flattering, was still not something he wished to discuss with Liv. He followed her upstairs and watched her pack her bags.

Liv looked at him thoughtfully over her cosmetics case. “There’s something you’re not telling me,” she said. “Your arm, your black eye, that poor boy’s ankle, all those whispered conversations that end when I enter the room...”

Giles yanked off his glasses. His heart sank. “Liv, I— I believe it’s nothing that will affect you.”

“Eventually you’ll have to tell me.”

“Will you be coming back soon? I, um, didn’t get enough of you this visit.”

“If you want.” She slipped her arms around him, graceful and casual, and allowed him to kiss her. He was too distracted to enjoy it.

Buffy called him that afternoon to tell him that it would be tomorrow, early. Saturday; she had no classes. He called Stamford to ask him by for tea tomorrow, saying only that it would happen in the morning. His voice was thick with inexpressible emotion when he said it. It was all still a jumble in his chest: anger and fear and longing.

He fasted in preparation. The Watcher’s handbook prescribed it. Giles thought he’d likely bring up whatever he ate anyway. His stomach was a roiling mess.

He spent the day making extensive notes on the training curriculum he wished to pursue with Buffy. He laid out a two-year schedule for teaching her yoga, meditation, the basics of magic, and serious swordsmanship. He thought he could make good estimates of how long it would take her to master various disciplines. She’d be a prodigy with anything physical, but would have trouble with the mystical topics. It was about time she got serious about them, however.

Distraction. He could put off thinking about it only so long. He finally yielded. He opened his official Watcher’s diary for the first time since January and wrote briefly about her decision to claim him, along with a summary of her current status. For the first time, he described what Angelus had done. The ritual might fail, in which case he’d want to document the conditions of the failure. If all went well, tomorrow evening he’d be doing his best to describe the ritual in clear terms, for the benefit of future Watchers and their Slayers. His hand shook as he wrote.

Giles, on a whim, pulled out his facsimile copy of the diary of the last Watcher to have undergone this. Carstairs, in the late sixties, the Watcher who’d followed his father. He found the entry. Yes, Carstairs’ handwriting had shaken too, when he’d written about his Slayer’s decision. She’d made him get a tattoo, rather tame. There it was, in Carstairs’ careful ink reproduction. One of those incomprehensible choices, an image that had meant something to Carstairs and to Leila, his Slayer, but not to Giles.

They did love their tattoos, the Slayers. Even the branding had been decorative, though if Giles remembered correctly, the poor bastard hadn’t exactly appreciated it. Blood, sex, and scarification. The Slayers’ obsessions. Somewhere in the Council library there was probably a tidy little monograph on the psychological implications of Slayer preference in claiming rituals. Somewhere in the section they never let field Watchers see, lest they run screaming away.

Giles considered that option, staring at himself in the mirror as he brushed his teeth before bed. The man who returned his gaze in that mirror tomorrow night would be different from the man staring out now. He wasn’t sure how. Even if Buffy’s mark on him was not visible, the magic would have expressed itself in him fully. That was a decision he could never renege. Even if it failed, he wouldn’t be the same tomorrow. Even if it failed, he’d bear a mark that said a Slayer had once wanted him.

Would he still be Rupert Giles? Had he ever been Rupert Giles? He had never known, would never know, who he’d be without the Council’s mark. Would Buffy ever know who she would have been if the Powers hadn’t chosen her as the Slayer? They were the same, had suffered the same ways. He would seize what had been done to him and use it to serve her. Which, perhaps, was what the Council mages had intended, when they had crafted the magic. Thousands of years of men shaped this way, to serve the Slayer. Perhaps he ought to be keeping vigil over his arms right now, kneeling with his sword propped before him, instead of thrashing restlessly in bed.

Carstairs hadn’t followed up that entry. Hadn’t written anything about how he’d felt the next day, after the ritual. There had been a gap of several days, then more of the vampire-headcount nonsense his diaries were full of. What would Giles think and feel tomorrow? Would he understand why Carstairs hadn’t written? Giles promised future generations of Watchers to do his best to write, if he were at all capable, promised not to leave them hanging and worrying as he was.

He slept little. When he did slip off, just before dawn, he dreamed of Buffy resting a spread hand on his bare chest, branding him with just the heat of her touch.

She arrived around nine-thirty. She had dressed soberly, black jeans, boots, a white t-shirt, the only sign of frivolous Buffy the many silver rings on her fingers. He offered her breakfast, and made coffee for her. If she noticed he was drinking water and not his morning tea, she did not comment. She did comment on his clothes. She took one look at his snug jeans, and told him to change.

“Wear your baggy stuff,” she said. “I know you have lots of that.”

Since he’d put the jeans on just so he could look less out of place wherever it was they were going, he was happy to oblige.

Before they left his flat, he handed her his ritual knife. Silver, traced with runes that were more than mere ornamentation. The knife had a history, which she didn’t need to know, that would bring luck to their partnership. She tucked it into her boot, and they went.

Once in the car, she directed him to Sunnydale’s main street, then to the little shop they’d been in just a week before. Where she’d had that ring put in her ear, and all the other places. The sign also mentioned tattooing, and Buffy had said they did other things as well. Branding. Scarification. He still had no idea what she had planned. He parked and got out of the car. She walked across the tarmac to the shop door. He stood, hand on the roof of his car, unable to follow. What if she wanted to do what Angelus had done, in some attempt to reclaim it? The knife, the rope. He forced himself into motion through sheer strength of will, and followed her through the door.

The surfer-shaman with the unlikely name greeted them again. The shop was a little busier than it had been during the mid-week, more college students, a few scattered teens. Giles followed Buffy to a glass-topped display counter. Inside were a huge variety of little metal rings and other objects.

“Wow,” Coyote said to her. “Your phone call was massively exciting. A scene, huh?”

“Yeah, a big thing for the two of us. Special. He doesn’t know what he’s getting yet. I want it to be a surprise when it happens.”

“You’re okay?” the man asked him. “You’re looking a little freaked.”

“Just nervous,” said Giles. His hands were in fact trembling, worse than last night. He jammed them into his pockets.

The two of them conferred further over the jewelry case, in low voices. Giles had time to look around the shop and allow his terror to rise. What was she going to do to him? A tattoo? How much would it hurt? Would he be able to go through with it? Being bound?

They called him over and examined his left ear for a few moments. Coyote hummed, and nodded to Buffy. They sent him away again. Giles stood awkwardly by the lubricant display, hands deep in his trouser pockets, marveling at the variety of packaging. He’d never owned any. Massage oil had always been enough. He kept a box of rubbers in the nightstand— who didn’t?— but no flavored warming lube. Whatever that was.

At last they were ready. They had the jewelry out on the counter, a small steel ring, about the same size as the one in his ear but much thicker, and an even thicker curved bar, nearly curled around to a complete ring, with beads on each end. A piercing, then. He sighed in relief. Then he tried to imagine the metal in his body, and failed. Where would it go? What would they have to do to him to put it in? Next to that was a pair of black leather cuffs, with metal buckles. For the binding requirement of the ritual, he assumed. Not rope. Thank God. Carstairs had written that his Slayer was planning to use rope. Giles pushed memory away again. He preferred the cuffs.

They had a form for him to sign. Buffy put a hand over the top, continuing to keep the exact nature of his trial a secret. Giles paid, scribbling his name on a credit card slip without bothering to look at how much it was costing him. It didn’t matter.

Coyote led them in back, past the cubicles, to a room with a door. “I thought you’d appreciate a little more privacy. Some of the people I do mods for do scenes here.”

That word had the flavor of a term of art, though Giles didn’t know what it meant. He looked around. It had the same chair as the cubicles, like a dentist’s, and a table with objects on it. A marker. Medical supplies. Antiseptics. Needles. Coyote went over to it and started doing something with the jewelry. Giles looked away, looked at the walls. On the walls were photographs of bodies with metal in them, in places where he might soon have metal in his. There was a platform to the side, with heavy bolts in the wall above it. His mouth was dry. He decided to look at Buffy. The expression on her face was sympathetic.

Coyote spoke to him. “Giles, would you undress, please?”

Giles glanced at Buffy, nervously. “Naked,” she said. “Take it all off.” He methodically undressed, folding his clothes as he went. He hesitated with hands on the elastic of his briefs, then skimmed them off. He tucked them inside the waistband of his khakis. Giles stood next to the chair. Fear and embarrassment chased each other over his skin. And, surprisingly, arousal. She had been watching him. Her eyes were fixed below his waist.

Buffy pushed him to sit in the chair. His breathing went odd. She held onto his shoulders, and he leaned against her gratefully. He closed his eyes. The stranger’s touch on his penis deflated him quickly. Doing something, he didn’t know what. Showing something to Buffy and getting her approval. Dear God. His penis.

“Ready to cuff him?” Coyote asked Buffy.

Giles opened his eyes at the sensation of the cuff going around his left wrist. Buffy buckled it tight, then did the other wrist. The leather was heavy and stiff. No symbolic binding, this. He rubbed his wrists, over the leather.

Buffy led him over to the platform, and made him kneel at the edge, knees spread wide. Then he had to wait there, alone, shaking, while she consulted with the shaman again. The man who was going to stick a needle into him. He closed his eyes again. He breathed, slowly and deeply, struggling to center himself. He had to hold on. Had to hold onto himself. This was not the same. Not. Angelus had tied him with rope, face-down on a table. This was completely different.

Buffy’s touch on his shoulder startled him. He opened his eyes and met her serious gaze. She stroked his face.

“Are you afraid?”

“Yes.”

“You’ll come through it. You’ll see. Drink this now.” She handed him a silver vial, marked with runes. The Watcher runes again. These were the drugs Stamford had given her. She pulled out the cork stopper, and Giles drank. It tasted different than what Angelus had forced down his throat. Sweet. Thick. His head reeled. His skin was hypersensitive; he gasped in shock at the brush of her hand against his as she rescued the vial.

“Buffy... do you understand what this means?”

“I think so. I’m glad it’s you. I wouldn’t want it to be anybody else.” She put her arms around his shoulders. He held her in return, cheek against her waist. He was shaking again.

“Only for you, Buffy. Nobody else.”

“It’ll be worth it. I’ll make you proud to be mine. We’re gonna be famous, Giles. You and me. History books.”

He wanted to laugh. His ambitious Slayer. How far she’d come from the girl who’d run away when he’d shown her Vampyr.

“Ready?”

He took another breath, let it shudder out, then released her. He nodded. Coyote hovered just behind Buffy.

Buffy stood squarely in front of him, holding his gaze. She spoke formally. “I am the Slayer. I have come to claim my birthright.”

The magic stirred in his chest, that warmth that had been teasing him. He matched her tone. “I am the Watcher, born to serve the Slayer. I am yours to claim.”

Angelus hadn’t been able to make him say it. And he’d tried. Giles said it to Buffy now, and felt the heat in his blood. He had a flash of that childhood experience, of being flat on his back, blood and ash smeared on his face and chest, the magic a ball of white-hot light in his chest. As it was again now, on the edge of pain, awakened, but not yet roused. A few more breaths, and he was firmly in its grip. His senses were altered by the magic. His Slayer was a Goddess standing before him. If he had not already been on his knees, he would fall to them now. And God help him, this was arousing him.

Buffy pulled his knife from her boot and held it up to him. He raised his shaking right hand. The ache in his elbow was a distant thing. She took the knife in her left hand and cut her right palm, then his palm. The pain sparkled oddly, then spread when she gripped his hand in hers. Palm to palm, fingers entwined. Slayer blood dripping down his arm. He could feel it trickling into him, spikes of heat across his bleeding hand.

“I swear a blood oath to my Watcher. I will be worthy of the sacrifice he makes for me today.”

“I hear my Slayer’s blood oath.”

She released his slick hand. He cradled it across his chest.

Coyote was there at his side, doing something with his left ear. Giles felt something pass through the lobe, followed by the ring Buffy had chosen for him. Coyote adjusted it, then stepped back. It was heavy. It gave Giles his first idea what it would feel like to have that bar in his cock.

Buffy took his wrists and stretched them up over his head. The torn muscles in his arm stretched, and he groaned. She pinned his wrists together with a firm grip and bound them over his head, to something he couldn’t see. He heard metal clicking against metal. Blood dripped slowly down his arm from his slashed palm. He was utterly vulnerable now, exposed, helpless. He shuddered. She was going to mark him. Mark him and make him scream. Rip his secrets from him and kill him. No. Make him her Watcher. Own him, cherish him. He held her gaze with his, refusing to look at anything else.

Coyote’s gloved hands were on his cock again. Cold, from something swabbed on him. Something slid up inside him. He flinched, and Buffy placed a hand flat on his chest. He had a flash of the feeling of her hand in his dream, burning him. “Breathe, Giles,” she said.

Buffy nodded to Coyote, then met his desperate gaze again.

Buffy spoke. “Are you my Watcher?”

Giles responded shakily. “I am your Watcher.” He took a deep shuddering breath. “I surrender myself to you. I am your Watcher. Your— Ah! Oh God.” He cried out at the pinch of the needle going into his cock, and deeper, then the feeling of something thick and hard following it in and out. And then the magic exploded out from his chest, fire roaring in his blood. Steel bands around him. A live wire from his heart to his groin. The brand marks on his right arm burning as they had when new. Buffy’s searing hands on him and the burning-hot ring in his cock the only things he could feel. Euphoria. Arousal. Freedom.

“Your Watcher. Yours. Oh, Buffy Buffy Buffy. God.” He didn’t know what he was saying. Endorphins and magic sang in his blood.

The flames burned out. He surfaced out of it, breathing as if he’d been running, sweat dripping down his face and chest.

“Do I have a Watcher?” Buffy asked. She looked into his eyes. He blinked. She was still glowing.

“Yes, oh God yes.”

She hugged him tight for a moment, then released him and stepped behind him. She unbound his wrists. He braced himself shakily with his uninjured hand. Coyote was already cleaning off the other, taping the wound. It was indeed a deep bond. He could feel her wrapped around him. And God, yes, he could close his eyes and know exactly where she was, the way he knew where his hands were. She was in his heart now. Why had he been afraid of this? He looked down at himself. The ring went in through the bottom, a shade off-center, then out through his slit. He had expected to be horrified, for it to be something that he tolerated only as as sign that Buffy had chosen him. Instead it was the sexiest thing he’d ever seen. The sensation of it inside him was astonishing.

“Beautiful,” said Buffy, leaning forward to take a close look.

“Yes,” Giles said. “What is it?”

“That’s a Prince Albert,” said Coyote. “And a good-looking one. You have a nice penis.” Giles blushed.

“That was just a moment of pain. Hardly hurt at all.” He was stunned to realize it. Most of his reaction had been the magic. The knife-cut on his palm had hurt much more, and was still hurting more.

The piercing was bleeding a bit. Coyote told him it would, off and on for the next couple of days, particularly if he got hard. Giles was having difficulty preventing himself from getting hard already. Buffy’s arm around his shoulders, the tickle of her hair on his bare back, her scent: he was drunk on his goddess Slayer. He concentrated on the blood on his penis, on the pain in his hand, and sobered a little. Coyote sang a soft chant over it for a moment, a request for quick healing and cleanliness. Then he wrapped it in gauze.

Giles stood gingerly, and staggered when the nausea hit. Whether it was the aftereffects of the magic or the endorphins, he couldn’t say. Coyote pushed him to sit on the platform, head between his knees. He breathed himself further down. When he stood again, Buffy had a hand under his good elbow. Giles was handed a photocopied sheet with instructions. Buffy took charge of it while he got dressed again. She unbuckled the cuffs and told him they were his now. What he would do with them, he had no idea.

He was aware of the ring’s weight with every step he took. Now he understood her command to wear loose clothes.

He embraced Coyote and thanked him. “No, thank you,” Coyote said. “It was a privilege to do a favor for the Slayer. That was a powerful ritual.”

“Two weeks for the ear?” Buffy asked.

“Yeah, needs time to rest. Come back in after that and we’ll stretch up. Give the PA about six.” Coyote wished them luck as they left.

Buffy drove him home. His head was swimming enough that it was safer to have her drive, which was saying a great deal. She stopped at a drugstore and came out with a bag of things she said he’d need; he just nodded and slouched back in the passenger seat. By the time he limped through his front door, he was feeling less euphoric, and drained.

She sat on the couch and pulled him down next to her, then made him lie with his head in her lap. He gazed up at her, content and joyful. What a sight he must be: black eye, arm in a sling, hand bandaged. He hurt all over, but none of that mattered. He could feel her inside. It was like sitting in that mausoleum had been like, with her nestled against his chest, only all the time.

“You okay?” she asked.

“Oh, yes. Sore, mind you.”

“Bet you never thought you’d end up with a PA.”

“Goodness, no. I’d heard the term, but had no idea what it was. Never thought I’d have anything of the sort other than the one in my ear. And what are you planning for that, by the way?”

“Eh, nothing much,” Buffy said, evasively. “Just wanted something visible as well as the big important one.”

“Ah.” She rubbed his chest and he sighed happily. He’d done it. She’d done it.

“Let’s see this class schedule of yours, then.” She pulled a diagram out of a pocket and handed it to him. He pointed out the obvious holes. “Tuesday and Thursday afternoons starting at three, weapons training. Sunday mornings, if you’re amenable, for the meditation and mystical topics. We can do that here, where we’ll have some privacy. I trust you have your own physical fitness program well in hand?”

“Well, sort of. I go running. I figured out that if I don’t do something, I start going nuts. Can’t sit still in class more than five minutes.” He looked up at her sternly. “Yeah, I know, this kind of slacking is why I’ve been having trouble on patrol.”

“What is your sleep schedule like? Still what it was in high school?” She shook her head, and he decided not to ask what it was. “I’d suggest you go back on it. Nap at five, as long as you need. Dinner, then your evening plans, then patrol until one, or whenever is necessary. Meet me at six every weekday morning for workouts. There must be some place on campus you can suggest for that.”

She rubbed his chest some more. “There’s a field with a track around it that would be perfect. I’ll show you where when you drop me off at campus this afternoon. Do we start on the mystic stuff tomorrow?”

“Yes, let’s not waste time. Come by around nine? We can start any time you stop by. Don’t eat breakfast first. I’ll feed you later.”

“Mmm, Giles-brunch.”

“Speaking of which.” He tried to sit up, but fell back against her with a groan. The drug had long since faded, but his head was swimming again.

“Giles, when’s the last time you ate anything?”

“A little breakfast yesterday. I’ve been fasting. Recommended for the Watcher.”

“Recommended for Watchers, maybe, but not for peeps getting pierced. Your blood sugar has got to be tanked. Let’s get some food into you.” She helped him sit up on the couch, then popped into his kitchen. She brought him orange juice in one of his pint beer glasses and watched him drink it down. She took the glass away and came back with it full again. “Drink that slowly. I’ll scarf up some lunch for you.” He lay back on his sofa cushions, sipping at the juice. It felt nice to be fussed over rather than fussing. He suspected he’d be doing a lot of fussing in the coming months. Producing a lot of sudden late-night meals. Giving impromptu massages. Listening to tales of boyfriend woe. Well, worry about those demands when he got there. For now, Giles let himself go limp and enjoy it.

It was going to be all right. He was still Rupert Giles. He didn’t belong to the vampire. He belonged to Buffy.

Buffy appeared with grilled tomato and cheese sandwiches on plates. Giles ate gratefully.

“Oh!” said Buffy. She reached into her boot and pulled out the ritual knife. It had blood congealing on it, his and Buffy’s. She held it carefully, respectfully. When Giles laid a hand on it, he felt why. He could still feel the potency in their blood, and in the blade. The bond magic had left its mark on the blade. The knife had a long history, and the Gileses had worked magic with it for centuries. His own grandmother had likely used it when her Slayer had bonded with her. For this ritual to have affected the blade at all meant it had been deep magic.

“Would you get me a cloth, Buffy? From the weapons chest. There’s a bag on top.” Buffy came back with the cleaning supplies, but declined to hand them to him.

“I’ll do that,” she said. “Tell me how.”

He handed her the knife, laid across his palms.

TBC