You Can't Go Home Again
By JK Philips

TITLE: You Can’t Go Home Again
AUTHOR: JK Philips
RATING: PG-13 (Dark)
DISTRIBUTION: Not sure what all sites are out there, but if you want it, you can have it. Just please email me your URL, so I know where my story is going. And of course, give proper credit.
SUMMARY: Was Giles right to leave? What will he find when he comes home?
SPOILERS: Everything up to “Wrecked”
DISCLAIMER: I do not own these characters; they are the property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy & Fox. I simply am doing this for fun, and non-profit use.
EMAIL: jkphilips@hotmail.com. WEBSITE: www.geocities.com/jkphilips_fiction/
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Trying to, to what? Desert me? Abandon me? Leave me all alone when I really need somebody?

Giles sank back into the airplane seat, Buffy’s angry words still echoing in his mind, even after all this time. It was the last real conversation they’d had, when he’d tried to make her understand why he needed to leave. All he’d managed to do was make her hate him. He doubted that time and distance had changed that. If anything, it had probably made it worse.

Six months had passed, and although they spoke occasionally on the phone, he could hear the cold shoulder in her tone, in her terse replies. She was distant and brisk, giving him the necessary updates and nothing more: she was fine, everyone was fine, no she didn’t need anything from him. But he never knew what was truly going on with her, with Sunnydale, with the place he still thought of as home.

He’d had second thoughts about coming back, had even said as much to Anya, but she had given him an enthusiastic tongue lashing for even considering not walking her down the aisle. So he would come home for Anya and Xander’s wedding, would see if there was any hope of mending his friendship with Buffy, and he would leave again within the week, for better or worse. He had no place in Sunnydale any longer.

The plane set down, and he waited for the passengers around him to gather their carry-ons. As he walked down the jetway, he allowed himself the momentary hope that Buffy would be waiting for him at the gate, that he would be forgiven, that she would smile at him and her former vivaciousness would be restored, her recent dark cloak of misery and apathy shed and forgotten, that in the sight of a strong, vibrant Buffy his hard made decision would prove correct.

But it was only Xander and Anya waiting for him as he disembarked. Anya greeted him with her usual enthusiastic hug that nearly knocked him over. He patted her on the back awkwardly, his arms pinned at his side by her embrace.

“We missed you.”

“I’ve missed all of you as well,” he replied as she released him. Xander quietly waited to be acknowledged, and Giles held out his hand to the young man, pulling him into a warm embrace at the last moment. “Congratulations, Xander. I’m so happy I could be here to share this with you both.”

Xander shrugged and exchanged an uncomfortable glance with his fiancé before steering Giles off to collect his luggage.

Giles watched them both with a puzzled frown, growing more concerned with each passing moment. They each looked far too glum for two people who were supposed to be getting married in a few days. He told them as much as they drove out of the airport parking lot and towards the Magic Box.

“Things have gotten bad since you left, Giles. Really bad.” Xander clutched the steering wheel with both hands as he said it, and Anya nodded in agreement.

Giles sat forward in his seat in alarm. “Buffy? Is she…?” Another possibility for her absence at the airport had just occurred to him, and his stomach lurched at the very idea.

“No, she’s… fine, I guess. We shouldn’t really talk about it unless… do you know how to set wards? You know, stop eavesdroppers?”

“Wards?” He glanced back and forth between them, completely baffled and struggling to comprehend the missing context for their conversation. “We’re alone in a moving vehicle. What eavesdroppers can you possibly be concerned about?”

“Never mind,” Xander dismissed Giles’ confusion, and Anya turned in her seat to give the ex-watcher a reassuring pat on the arm. “We’ll talk about it at the hotel.”

“Hotel?”

Anya faced the back seat. “After a brief stop at the Magic Box for supplies.” She smiled brightly. “Oh, and you can see what I’ve done with the place in your absence. I’ve really opened up the market for the younger crowd. They really go for that gothic Anne Rice feel. They like a little mystery in their magic. I guess it just takes a younger proprietor to know what the kids these days want.”

Giles settled back into his seat, crossing his arms unhappily. “You’re eleven bloody hundred years older than me.” He sank into a miserable silence, quickly realizing that neither of them intended to tell him anything anytime soon.

They parked in front of the Magic Box, and the first thing he noticed was the iron bars over the windows. He climbed out of the car, studying what used to be his store with a careful eye for detail. The front window still bore a crack from top to bottom, held together with duct tape. A small sign in the lower left corner read: “Shoplifters will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and then cursed with eternal bad breath.”

Giles raised one eyebrow in Anya’s direction. “It appears the younger crowd also has a taste for larceny?”

Xander laughed uncomfortably. “Those kids these days. Someone should have a talk with their parents, huh?” He waved his older friend through the door and into the store.

It hadn’t escaped Giles’ notice that the clerk behind the register had buzzed them in. The familiar bell over the door was removed, no longer needed, and he inspected the new security system on the front door for a moment with curiosity. Anya stepped beside him, and pointed out various features with pride: the video camera surveillance, the heavy iron grate for after closing, and her personal favorite: the magic wards that prevented violence from being done inside the store.

“Angel set me up with some girls in LA who came out and did the job for me. I got a real deal on the whole package.”

Giles shook his head in disbelief and began to wander around the rest of his store. “So these are the security expenses that continually show up on your financial reports? Are you sure they’re quite necessary?”

She huffed, clearly offended that he should question her. “Let’s see: you hadn’t even opened yet before a demon showed up looking for Buffy and the best you could do in self-defense was waive a fertility statue at it. All those demons came in and beat us up while we couldn’t see them because of Tara’s spell. That snake thing burst in here, looking for the Key for Glory. And let’s not forget your last day here when those vampires attacked us while we all had amnesia.” She suddenly grew flustered and dropped her eyes. “Second thought, let’s forget that whole amnesia thing.”

He looked away, a blush creeping across his own features. “Happily.”

Her previous self-righteousness restored, she met his eyes and continued. “My point is that if all that weren’t good enough reason to beef up security, then surely now that-”

“An, honey,” Xander had come up behind her and stopped her tirade with a gentle touch on the shoulder. “All that can wait. Supplies?”

“Right.”

Giles was left standing alone again, frustrated and lost and dreading whatever briefing they were waiting to deliver. His eyes wandered up to the second floor where the more dangerous items were kept. Obviously she had moved the inventory, because a banner draped across the railing advertised that all one’s tarot needs could be found there.

Six months. It was silly really, to have expected everything to have stayed the same. But he had not expected everything to have changed so much. And a sinking, empty pit in his stomach warned him that he had not yet seen the worst of the changes.

They left with three shopping bags between them. Giles gave up asking questions. Trying to wrestle answers from these two was only giving him a headache. He was tired and jetlagged, and he only wanted to close his eyes and open them again on the plane, to land in Sunnydale and have everything be the way it was supposed to be. He leaned his forehead against the cool glass of the car window and watched the scenery pass outside as they drove to places unknown. He couldn’t help but comment as he noticed, “Everyone is closing earlier than I remember.”

“It’s almost dark,” Xander answered.

“I don’t understand,” he murmured, not so much to Xander as to the Universe in general.

“Just hang on,” his young friend begged him. “We’re almost to the hotel.”

“I think I’d rather go to Buffy’s house. I need to see her.”

He didn’t miss the glance that passed between his two young friends before Xander asked with false good cheer, “So how’s life in merry old England?”

Giles groaned and closed his eyes. “Wake me when you decide to clue me in.”

They pulled up outside a shady looking motel room, not a place Giles would have chosen to stay. “Xander?” he asked, somewhat anxiously.

But Xander and Anya were already out of the car and standing outside motel room number nine, Xander watching his fiancé intently, and Anya reaching out with one hand, her eyes closed in concentration.

Giles approached in time to hear her say, “The wards are still intact, which is a good thing, ’cause I’m pretty much magicked out. I think you gotta give me a least another day or two before you make me set anymore. I’m not exactly a super powerful witch or anything, you know.”

Xander kissed her. “You’re doing great, An, really you are. I’m sure we’ll be able to stay here another day or two, and maybe Giles will have a plan or something.”

“Maybe Giles needs to be told what the hell is going on first.” He had reached his limit of patience.

They opened the door and waved him inside. Xander set the Magic Box bags on the floor and glanced around the small motel room nervously. “Sorry about everything, Giles,” he said, his eyes still scanning the room, passing over each untouched double bed, his fingers rifling through a stack of papers on a side table as he talked. “We never know when they’re listening, so we can’t really talk where it isn’t safe. Anya warded this room for us, so we should be good.” Xander faced the ex-watcher for a moment, giving him his full attention and an embarrassed shrug. “It’s also why we couldn’t really say anything over the phone. Wards don’t really work on phone lines.”

Anya had wandered farther into the room and knocked hesitantly on the bathroom door. “Buffy?”

The door opened slightly, and at first he couldn’t see her, because Anya was blocking his view. When his slayer did finally step into the main room, the first thought that crossed his mind was how incredibly thin she looked. The dark circles pressed beneath her eyes made her look like a walking corpse. Giles swallowed hard.

“Look who’s come back for a visit,” Anya said cheerfully.

“Hello, Buffy,” he said softly.

Her eyes lifted to find his, but there was no life in them, only the smallest sliver of recognition. She didn’t come forward to embrace him. She didn’t smile or say hello. She didn’t yell at him for leaving. Her eyes merely slipped past him to land on Xander, and that was all the acknowledgement her watcher received.

“Xander?”

“Yeah, Buff?”

“Did you guys remember to pick up Dawn from school?”

He and Anya shared a solemn glance. It was Anya who answered her question. “She’s living with her father now, remember? Maybe you can call her later.”

“Oh,” Buffy replied flatly. “Okay. I better get ready for patrol.” And she returned to the bathroom, shutting the door behind her.

“Living with her father?” Xander hissed, closing the distance to Anya and glaring at her in anger.

The ex-demon merely pulled herself straighter as she defended herself. “It’s better than saying she’s in jail for shoplifting or that she ran away from home or… Well, anyway, what difference does it make? She never remembers what you tell her, so why not tell her something nice?”

“And when she wants to give Dawn a call?”

“She’ll forget about that too.”

Giles stumbled over to the closest bed and sat down before he fell down. His knees were beginning to feel weak. He stopped their bickering with a soft question. “What happened to Dawn?” He was trying to remember the last time he had spoken to the younger Summers sister. He always asked after her, but it had been four or five months since he’d actually heard her voice on the line.

His friends stared at the ground for a long time before Xander found the voice to answer. “It started with Willow and her-”

“No, it was Spike,” Anya interrupted. “Spike and his stalker, psycho-”

“Anya!” Xander cut her off as the bathroom door opened and Buffy emerged. She didn’t take notice of the halted conversation or the oppressive silence. She walked steadily towards the door, lifted a crossbow from the modest arsenal stacked by the door without breaking stride, and was out of the motel room without a word goodbye.

They watched the space she left behind for several moments before Anya asked, “You think she’s okay to patrol alone? She did seem kind of… out of it just now.”

Xander grabbed a crossbow for himself and threw Giles an apologetic look. “I swear we will tell you everything as soon as we get back.”

Anya was stocking up on crosses and stakes, and he looked back and forth between the two of them. “I think I should come to,” he said.

“No, no,” his young friend insisted. “Not a good idea ’til you know the full scoop. No time for that now; we got to catch up to Buffy. Just stay. Chill. Get over your jetlag. We’ll be back in a couple hours.”

They left him alone, still sitting on the motel bed, his thoughts spinning with unanswered questions. He considered following them despite Xander’s objections, but prudence won out. Not knowing what was going on, he would only be a liability to them.

So instead he explored the room, searching for clues for what they had not told him. Apparently Xander and Anya and Buffy were all staying in this room, had stayed here for more than a few days as the stack of dirty laundry in the corner and the assorted boxes of carry-out in the trash could attest. The supplies from the Magic Box all had something to do with wards and protections, especially from someone else’s magic. Their earlier fears about eavesdroppers made more sense.

He turned on the TV and watched the news. Apparently Sunnydale was now under a sunset curfew. A string of assaults, murders, and burglaries over the last few months meant the city was not safe at night. They interviewed a 7-11 clerk who had been robbed by a group of teenagers. Giles understood now too about the extra security at the Magic Box.

He sighed and sat back down on the bed. Why hadn’t they told him any of this? He would have come back sooner if he’d known. He would have helped in any way he could. He had thought he was coming back for a wedding, but it seemed he was coming back to a war zone.

A knock at the door pulled him from his maudlin and guilt-ridden thoughts. He answered it cautiously, only undoing the chain when he recognized who was standing at the other side.

At some point since his arrival, it had started to rain, and was now pounding in a relentless downpour. It was a testament to his distraction that he hadn’t noticed the patter of it across the roof earlier or the steady beat of it on the cement parking lot.

Dawn stood shivering at the threshold, her hair plastered down, her clothes stuck to her skin, thoroughly drenched from head to toe. She looked nearly as surprised to see him as he was to see her.

“Giles?”

“Dawn?” They just stared at each other for a moment, before her teeth started chattering, and he remembered where he was. “For God’s sake, Dawn, come in out of the rain. You’re positively soaked.”

She came in and stood dripping in the entranceway while he fetched some clean towels. She stared at him as if he were out of place, which, granted, he was.

“What are you doing here?”

He wrapped one towel around her shoulders, another on her head to dry her hair. “I thought I was coming to walk Anya down the aisle, but it seems I was mistaken. Seems there’s a lot they’ve been leaving out when I call.”

“I think Buffy just didn’t want you to be disappointed,” she murmured as she began drying off. “What did they tell you?”

“Nothing, I’m afraid,” he answered, as he looked for some dry clothes of Buffy’s that the girl might change into. “Although, I got the impression that you had… run away?”

Dawn ducked her head, water running down her face, either from the rain or her tears. “Yeah. Ran away. That about sums it up.” She started half-heartedly drying her hair with the towel. “I guess… I don’t think Buffy’s been the same since she… came back. She didn’t really care if I was there or not. I was just one more thing on her list of stuff she didn’t want to have to worry about.”

Giles took her by the shoulders firmly. “You mustn’t think that, Dawn. Your sister loves you very much. She even asked after you today.”

Dawn looked up, smiling hopefully. “She did?”

“Yes. I think your leaving hit her very hard. She does love you. We all do.” He watched her for a moment as she resumed drying her hair. “Did you come back? Is that why you’re here?”

She shrugged. “Dunno. They all hate me. I don’t know if I can.”

He tilted her face up with a finger under her chin. “Your sister ran away when she was just a little older than you.”

“I remember.”

“Then you also remember how we all worried about her, how thankful we were to have her back. That’s exactly how they must feel about you.”

She nodded, shivering still in her wet, dripping clothes. He steered her to the bed, making her sit on the edge where he joined her. He took the towel from her shoulders and started rubbing her arms vigorously and her back too, trying to dry her off before she caught cold. She giggled slightly, and the sound made him smile.

“God, Dawn, you’re freezing.” His hands slid down her arms and took both her hands in his own, rubbing them between his. He blew on them, trying to warm them with his breath. He smiled at her affectionately. “Your hands are cold as ice, Dawn. How long were you out in the rain?”

And then the smile slipped from his face, and his hands stilled in their movements. He stared down at the two small hands he held in his own. He looked up, searching her deep brown eyes, this girl who felt in his heart just like a daughter. He didn’t want to turn around, but he did, just his head, very slowly.

In the full-length mirror on the wall behind them, he sat alone on the bed. Dawn had no reflection.

He closed his eyes against his grief and bowed his head. “Dawn…”

He opened them again when he felt her fingers touch his face, slide up to play with the locks of curls across his brow. “I missed you, Giles,” she whispered.

His heart constricted painfully with the sound of those words. His own fingers slowly worked their way into his pocket as he watched her watching him. His hand closed around the stake he always kept there, old habits dying hard. She smiled as she saw him pull it from his pocket, her hand reaching out to grasp his wrist. He thought she was going to struggle against him, was going to try and stop him, but she drew his hand and the stake up to press against her breast before releasing her hold on him.

“Go ahead,” she dared him. “Buffy can’t do it. I want to see if you can.”

He looked at her, but she retained her human visage. He thought if she showed him the vampire, that he could do it, but all he saw was Dawn, the girl he loved, and he couldn’t make himself drive the stake home. He stayed motionless, the stake pressed against her chest, his hand trembling with his turmoil. He was saved the decision when the door opened. He heard Buffy’s voice off to the side, full of hope, love, joy. It broke his heart.

“Dawn!”

She rose from the bed, but Xander and Anya stepped between the sisters, brandishing crosses in the girl’s face. She did slip into her demon mask then as she hissed and stepped back from the threatening crucifixes. Giles turned his face away from the sight.

“How did you get in here?” Anya snapped.

Dawn shrugged and nodded in his direction. “Guess Giles has been out of the country too long. He forgot about not handing out invitations.”

“Dawn?” Buffy asked, confused, disoriented. Giles jumped from the bed and pulled her aside, turning her away from the sight of her sister wearing a vampire’s face. A moment later and Xander and Anya had chased the girl back into the rain with their crosses. The ex-demon closed and bolted the door.

“Great. Just great. Now they know where we are. Now we have to move again.”

“I’m sorry,” Giles murmured. Buffy pulled from his embrace and fled into the bathroom. He watched her go, repeating himself. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“It’s okay, Giles,” Xander soothed. “It’s not your fault. This actually happens all the time. Buffy always invites her in. She can’t seem to remember. And then we have to move.”

“Tell me.” He gave them both a stony stare. “Tell me all of it.”

Xander sat on the bed, wrapping a towel around his own wet shoulders, and Giles leaned against the wall, his arms crossed, and Anya dashed around the room, packing, as her fiancé told the story of everything that had happened since the watcher had returned to England.

It had started with Spike, with Buffy hitting rock bottom and sleeping with Spike. Giles swallowed his disgust and tried to listen with an open mind. She had confessed it to her friends and tried to explain why: that she had needed to feel again, and Spike made her feel. It might not have been good, but at least it was something. Xander’s voice was soft when he told the watcher that Buffy had been covered in bruises and cuts from their violent coupling, that it had taken days for them to disappear. She had confessed it to her friends as one horrible mistake and assured them that it was over, that it would never happen again.

Spike didn’t take rejection so easily.

He stalked her; he stalked them. And when he tired of flowers and romance, he tried violence and death instead. He got the brainiac kid who’d made the robots to de-chip him, and so Spike was once again “fully functional.” He left dead bodies on her doorstep. He turned acquaintances and made them pay her visits during the middle of the day, so she would be forced to watch them burn outside her window, outside the Magic Box, outside Dawn’s school. Buffy was afraid to talk to anyone, afraid to make friends, afraid that they would be the next target.

Xander started talking about Willow, then, and Giles had a difficult time keeping up with the switch in conversation. But he didn’t interrupt. He allowed Xander to pour out the whole story. Willow had sunk deeper into magic, just as he and Tara had feared before he returned to England. Apparently Tara had left her for that very reason on the very same day he had left them all. Without Tara, it had only gotten worse. Willow had deratted Amy, and the two witches had gone on a magic spree, heedless of the risks or dangers they placed on others. For a short while, it seemed Willow might repent and reform. She had placed Dawn in danger with her magic and saw that she needed help. But that hadn’t lasted. The magic was too tempting, the power too intoxicating. She did magic on the sly, slipping ever farther from her friends and from her tenuous hold on her own morality.

It was Spike that tipped the scales. Spike gave her back Tara in the only way that she could have Tara back. He made the blond witch a vampire. He didn’t turn Willow. He didn’t need to. Willow would do anything for her demon lover, for Tara, no matter what it cost her. And Giles could see in the young man’s voice and face, what it had cost Xander to lose his best friend to the darkness. He remembered all too well when he had been standing in Xander’s shoes, when it had been Ethan who had gone so far that no one could pull him back.

So that was the force they were up against: Spike, Tara, Willow, and Amy. Spike had passed the point of wanting Buffy back and moved on to the point of wanting her miserable. Giles wondered if the others saw that the two were one and the same, that the vampire hoped he would have her back if he made her miserable enough, if he pushed her to that same low, dark place she’d been in when she’d given herself to him the first time. But no, from the others’ expression, he could see that Xander and Anya thought nothing of it except that Spike wanted to hurt her as she’d hurt him.

Nowhere was safe. Willow and Amy could spy on them wherever they went. Anya knew a little magic, enough to try and ward a few places against them. But they had all thought Giles would be better for that sort of thing. Unfortunately, Buffy was stubborn in her steadfast determination to keep her ex-watcher in the dark. They were all forbidden from telling him anything except that things were fine. So it was Anya who set the wards, and Xander who hit the books, and Buffy who went hunting every night for Spike.

And Dawn. Xander’s voice broke when he started, and so he switched places with Anya. She sat on the bed beside Giles and told him how Dawn had gotten into more and more trouble, and Buffy had been too absorbed with everything else going on to do much about it. Dawn got caught shoplifting a few times, and not just at the Magic Box, but at places where they did more than just give you a stern scolding. Sometimes she didn’t call Buffy; sometimes she called Xander and Anya instead. And then one day, the cops had brought her home in the afternoon. She was truant from school, caught stealing at the Gap, and the officers warned Buffy that her sister was headed for juvenile detention. The sisters had a huge fight, and Dawn had run off.

They had searched everywhere for her. After a week, they were fairly certain she had run away. Buffy called all those agencies, called Angel in LA, and even put up posters. But after a week, she showed up at home again, and Buffy invited her in, no questions asked. Apparently she had gone to see Spike after fighting with her sister, and he had listened to her as he always had. And then he had turned her into a vampire.

After that, things were a blur. They couldn’t stay at Buffy’s house or Xander and Anya’s apartment. Spike and Dawn always came, and Buffy always invited her sister in. So they moved from motel room to motel room, trying to stay ahead of the vampires and the witches. But they were always found, and Spike would always wait outside in the shadows, laughing, as he sent Dawn up to the door.

Buffy couldn’t stake her sister, and Spike knew it. He knew that Dawn could torment the Slayer more than any acquaintances burning on the front lawn. So after each visit they moved.

They were losing Buffy too. They could rarely convince her to eat. She got thinner by the day. She was constantly forgetting, asking about Willow and Dawn and Tara, even Spike. Sometimes they told her the story five times in one day, just as they were telling Giles now, but an hour later she would ask where Dawn went. They were both afraid that she would just allow herself to be taken on patrol, that she would just lay down her weapon and die. So they went with her whenever they could, watched over her. Giles’ guilty heart supplied the rest: watched over her as he was meant to watch over her.

The story finished, Giles sat in silence, taking it all in, numb. He didn’t say anything as they loaded the car in the rain and moved on to the next place. Buffy sat in the back seat beside him, pressed up against the window. He reached across to touch her hand, but she recoiled from him, and he remained on his side of the car.

The next motel room looked exactly like the one they’d just left. Different bed sheets, different paintings, different curtains, but still just as dreary and depressing. Again the two double beds, and Giles studied them thoughtfully as the two women went in the bathroom to dress for bed.

“Perhaps we should get another room or ask for a cot?” he suggested.

Xander changed into his pajamas and dismissed the other man’s concerns. “Nah. It’s safer with one room. Don’t worry. You get one bed all to yourself. We only ever use one anyways. Buffy always sleeps with us. She doesn’t do too well sleeping by herself.”

Giles nodded, accepting this as he had accepted everything else. He changed as well, and slipped into one bed, closing his eyes and chasing sleep for most of the night.

It was strange to glance over in the dim lighting and see the three of them sleeping together. Xander and Anya were spooned together, and Buffy was curled up against Anya. Giles smiled when he remembered how Anya had offered to sleep with Willow while Tara was in the hospital, but not in a lesbian way. In spite of all her quirks and her blunt honesty, Anya had one of the most giving hearts he had ever known.

At some point in time, he must have actually managed to drift off to sleep, because he woke when the bed moved. Buffy was climbing into bed with him.

“Anya’s kicking me in her sleep,” she murmured before snuggling up against his chest and falling back to sleep.

He wrapped his arms around her, holding her close for the first time since his return. Her slight weight was so different than the muscled tone he remembered. Her scent was different too, not musky and alive, but sterile and clean, like a hospital. He wept quietly for everything that had happened since he left, for Dawn and Tara and Willow. Most especially for his dear Buffy, who he had left to shoulder all those burdens alone.

He didn’t sleep again, but held his slayer through the night.

Xander and Anya left in the morning for work and the Magic Box, as if this were a day just like any other day. He supposed to them it was. He dozed slightly after they left, waiting for Buffy to wake. He opened his eyes at about ten in the morning to find her staring at him.

“Good morning,” he murmured and brushed the hair from her face.

She smiled slightly, but it was a sad smile. “I thought you were a dream. When did you get here?”

He closed his eyes to stop her from seeing the flash of pain through them. She didn’t remember. “Last night, Buffy. Before you went on patrol.”

He opened his eyes and watched her face as she considered his words, her forehead creased with puzzlement. “Huh? Last night? I guess it’s a little foggy.” She laid her head down on his chest, and he played with her hair, his fingers working out the snarls the rain had left. “Did they tell you everything? About Willow? And Spike?”

At least she remembered that much. “Yes,” he answered. “And Dawn.”

He felt her tense in his arms and paused in his combing of her hair. She spoke finally, her voice muffled by his chest. “Dawn ran away.”

He sighed and held her tighter. That part, it seemed, was still buried beyond her conscious awareness. “Yes, she did.”

He felt her shake as she started to cry, and he tried to soothe her, but what could he say? “You should have told me, Buffy. If I had known things had gotten this bad, I would have come back.”

She shook her head against his chest, her breath catching with each sob. She wouldn’t lift her head to look at him, and he could do nothing but hold her as she wrung herself out. When she spoke again, her tone was flat, defeated. “You were right. I was leaning on you too hard. I thought if I could just fix things on my own, that you’d think I was better, stronger, standing on my own. I didn’t want to tell you, because I thought if I could just prove that I didn’t need you, that maybe you’d come back to stay. But things just kept getting worse until I knew if you found out, you’d just be so disappointed in me.”

“That’s not true. Buffy, I never meant that you had to do everything alone. It’s just… after you came back, you weren’t doing anything. You were putting it all on my shoulders. You were trying to turn me into Dawn’s father, and that wasn’t fair, to me, to you, or to Dawn. She wanted your attention; she needed you to step in and be responsible for her, like you had done after your mother died.”

“Yeah, and I sure messed that up. Now she ran away, and it’s all my fault.”

He silently cursed his own insensitivity, as she started on another crying jag. He waited her out, tenderly rubbing her back in soothing circles. After she had calmed, he continued. “I thought I was leaving you to a solid support circle of friends. I thought I was stepping out of my role as your personal crutch, and thereby forcing you to move on with your life. I thought the others could fill my role as your watcher. There was Willow and Tara to help with the magic, plus Anya and Xander to help research. Spike even to back you up on patrol.

“I never once resented supporting you as your watcher, Buffy, assisting with your training and researching your foes. That is my duty as a watcher. It is something a slayer is always meant to have. I did resent having you turn to me to solve all the woes of your personal problems, to be forced to take care of the details of your home life. I couldn’t say no, not when I could see how much you were suffering. But I was doing you no favors by carrying that burden for you. It was making you weak. It was making you doubt yourself in the slaying, too, I think. When Sweet took Dawn, and you asked me what to do… Time was you would have made the plan, gave the orders. I just wanted you to find that Buffy again, that strong independent woman I remembered.”

He paused for several moments, and she lifted her head to look at him. He brushed her hair back from her face. “If I had any idea that your support circle would crumble beneath you, that it would end up just being you and Xander and Anya… I would have never left you to face that alone, Buffy.”

She climbed out of the bed and fumbled for clothes out of their bags. She dressed without embarrassment or modesty in front of him. He turned away, but not before catching a glimpse of bared flesh. Again, all he could think of was how terribly thin she looked.

“First things first,” he said after she had dressed. “Breakfast.”

He climbed out of bed too, digging through his luggage for slacks and a light sweater and underwear. She made a face at his suggestion. “I’m not hungry.”

He tried to brush her off with a teasing smile. “Well, I am. And you’re not going to let me eat alone, now are you?”

He disappeared into the bathroom before she could answer, and he dressed quickly, reemerging to find her rummaging through his suitcase. She looked up to meet his curious stare, a sheepish grin tugging at her lips. “Can I?” She held a sweater up for him to see. She held it to her nose and inhaled. “Can I wear it? It smells like you.”

He nodded quietly, surprisingly touched that she would desire such… intimacy between them. Then again, she had climbed into his bed without hesitation. “Of course, Buffy. Although, even with the rain, it’s liable to get warmer later.”

She didn’t seem to care, eagerly slipping his sweater over her head and practically swimming in its long sleeves and hem. It only seemed to accentuate her thinness, make her look smaller, ghost-like. But she seemed pleased, wrapping her arms around herself and soaking in the feeling of his clothes on her body. She met his eyes then, and they were clear, bright, alive. She told him in no uncertain terms: “I didn’t miss my watcher, Giles, I missed you.”

Before he could respond to that, she had turned and started out of the room. He followed her, but the moment was broken, and she was talking about patrol and where she might find Dawn. He bought her a breakfast she didn’t eat. He wondered if she were starving herself, if that were the out she had chosen for herself.

Sometimes she was quiet. Sometimes she told him stories of different demons she had faced over the last few months. He got the feeling she was trying to impress him, trying to show him how resourceful and clever she had been, how she had gotten the slaying done on her own. He spent the entire day with her, but she never talked about anything important, never talked about Willow or Dawn or Spike.

He brought her home just before dark, and Xander and Anya were waiting for them. He wanted to give them both a break, wanted to give them some alone time that they had probably been sorely missing. It was Giles’ suggestion to go patrolling with Buffy.

He watched her with the first band of vampires. His slayer was a whirling dervish of fists and stakes and speed. She was ruthless in the kill, a ruthlessness that was born of despair and rage. He was not needed here. He wondered why Xander and Anya felt the need to go on patrol with her. She dusted each vampire like a dance as they came at her, so focused and channeled that it took several seconds for her to realize that she had finished off the last foe. She wasn’t even breathless.

“Remarkable,” he pronounced. “Truly a wonder to behold. You are a miracle, Buffy.”

She shrugged. “Death is my gift.” She turned and continued on through the cemetery.

It took him a moment to catch up to her. He was caught off guard by the bitterness in her tone, the tension in the muscles of her back. It was when they faced the second group of vampires that he realized why Xander and Anya went on patrol with her. They were a group of younger vampires, younger both in having just been made and in being no more than fifteen or sixteen when they were. Buffy had a girl pinned on the ground beneath her, was raising her stake for the final blow, when Giles saw her hand stop in mid-air. His slayer was frozen in place. Two other vampires knocked her off their friend, held her down by one arm each. And still Buffy didn’t struggle against them. Still she stared at the young vampire she had faced the moment before. If Giles hadn’t been there, she would have surely died. But he was there, and he finished off three of them before the others ran away.

Buffy didn’t move, still sat on the ground watching the space where the young girl had been, the girl Giles had dusted.

“Buffy?” He touched her face, and finally she looked away from that spot. Her eyes were wide and pooling with tears.

“She looked a little like Dawn, don’t you think?”

Giles closed his eyes. “A little.” And then he helped her to her feet, her hands clinging to his arm for balance, for security. The tears that had pooled in her eyes now began to fall, and she looked back to the space the girl had filled.

“I think she went to school with Dawn. I think she came to our house once. Oh God, I think I’m going to be sick.” Buffy pushed him away and stumbled a few steps, leaning over a tombstone as she retched.

He approached hesitantly, unsure what the limits of their relationship were now, if he was permitted to comfort her in this, unsure exactly what he was to her now that he had left her. When she had finished, she rested against the headstone for a moment, catching her breath. She held her hand out to him, and he took it. When her eyes met his, they were bleak, haunted.

“I think Dawn turns her friends. She knows I can’t slay them.” She covered her face with her hands. “Sometimes I just wish she’d turn me.”

She started to cry, but spurned his embrace, walking across the cemetery instead, leaving him struggling to match her pace.

“Buffy!”

Her eyes were scanning the area, the mausoleums and open ground both. “When her friends come, usually Spike and Dawn are around here somewhere.”

“Buffy, wait.” He stopped her with a hand on her arm, and she wheeled to face him, anger burning in her eyes. He backed up a step. “Maybe that’s enough patrol for tonight.”

She shook her head. “No. Isn’t this what you wanted? For me to stand on my own? Do my duty? Take responsibility? Well, here I am. I am all alone. And I have a job to do. I have to kill my sister. Gee, you wanted me to last year. Maybe tonight you’ll get your wish.”

“Buffy!” The venom in her words stung. He stood there and watched her walk away from him, knowing that she probably still hated him for leaving, knowing that she probably had every right to.

His fears proved well founded when she whipped back to face him, pointing an accusing finger at him. “If you hadn’t left, I would have never…” She cringed. “With Spike. But you left me all alone, Giles.”

He closed the distance between them, holding his hands out in a plea for understanding and forgiveness. “I left you to your friends and family. I didn’t know what would happen.”

“No!” The tears were slipping down her cheeks, unnoticed in her anger. “You left me with the people who damned me. God, Giles, couldn’t you see? They did this to me: Willow, Tara, Anya, Xander. They ripped me from heaven. And every time I looked at them, it only hurt more, knowing what they did to me. How could I tell Dawn about any of it? How could she ever be expected to understand why her sister would rather be dead than stuck here, taking care of her? I couldn’t do that to her. So there was you and there was Spike. And you left. When I needed you the most.”

She started to cry again, and he felt as he always did at these moments: like he wished he could take her in his arms and heal all her hurts, could take her burden from her shoulders and carry it for her. This was why he’d had to leave, more than any convenient excuses about teaching her self-reliance or shoving her out of the nest. Giles had needed to leave because it hurt him too much to watch her suffer. He reached out one hand in a pointless effort to comfort her, but she brushed off his touch and continued striding through the cemetery. Only Giles’ long legs allowed him to keep up with her brisk pace without needing to break out in a run. She continued on with her tirade, and he let her vent her anger.

“So you went away, and Spike was the only one I could talk to about any of it. But his shoulder to cry on had strings attached. You know what I told him? I told him I only kissed him because I missed you so much. You were right about one thing, though: if you had stayed, I probably would have given up. What’s the point now? They’d just find a way to bring me back, over and over again. At least when you were here, I knew you’d stop them if they tried. But now I don’t even have that. So this is my eternal reward: lifetimes of pain and death and loneliness.”

“Buffy, it doesn’t have to be like this,” he told her softly. “We can-”

“No. There’s no we. You left, remember. You’re not part of my life anymore. Just go back to England. You taught me everything I needed to know about being the Slayer. Your job’s done. Just go home and write your memoirs or something.”

She hadn’t taken more than five or six steps away from him when he heard the buzzing through the air. He saw the arrow fly, but not even her slayer reflexes were enough to stop it before it embedded itself in her torso. He dashed the few feet separating them and caught her before she fell.

“Oh, God, Giles,” she cried, clutching his shirtfront. “Pull it out. It hurts.”

The arrow had embedded itself in her stomach, just left of center, not terribly unlike the spear wound he had received before crashing the RV.

“No, if we pull it out, it could do more damage, cause more blood loss. We have to get you to a hospital.” He stooped and scooped her up with an arm beneath her knees and one beneath her shoulders. She was such a slight weight in his arms. She cried out from the pain, and he started at the fastest pace he dared.

He heard Spike’s voice behind him. “Lookie, lookie, Watcher-boy came back for a visit.”

Giles turned slightly to see them, still cradling Buffy against his chest, still moving out of the cemetery, walking backwards now. Dawn was with the blonde vampire, was looping her arm in his.

Spike smiled down on her. “So, Niblet, you want me to turn him or just kill him?”

She pouted at him. “I like Giles. Don’t kill him.”

He ruffled her hair fondly. “Fine. We’ll turn him, and after he’s one of us, you’ll never have to worry ’bout him leaving you again.”

She nodded. “Yes, make him stay with us.”

“Sure, one big happy family.”

Giles was still walking backwards. Buffy was crying in his arms, her hands clutched around the shaft of the arrow, her blood staining his borrowed sweater.

Spike nodded in her direction. “Let me turn her too. You know your slayer’s going to die if I don’t.”

“No, Giles,” she begged softly. “I’d rather die.”

They came closer, and Giles murmured the words of the incantation. Smoke billowed up around them, obscuring everyone’s view but his. He took advantage of their confusion to make his escape, running as fast as he could and trying not to jostle Buffy any more than necessary. The Magic Box was the closest safe house, and he could call for an ambulance from there.

But he found the shop locked and barred. He cursed Anya’s new security measures and kicked the door in frustration. His eyes were scanning the neighborhood for another option when he heard the clang of the iron grate opening behind him. Apparently, Anya had also hired night security, and the guard recognized the slayer.

“We’re being followed,” he told the imposing demon. “Stop them.”

The mercenary lumbered off, and Giles hurried inside, laying Buffy down carefully on the center table. He double backed to close the gate and door, locking them both. Unfortunately, he didn’t know how to activate any of the other security features. He heard the sounds of a battle outside and knew their pursuers had caught up with them.

He dashed to the phone, but there was no dial tone. “Damn. Phone’s dead. They must have cut the line.” He glanced back at Buffy, his mind valiantly trying to formulate a plan. He could take her through the tunnels beneath the shop, carry her to the hospital himself if he had to. “It’s okay. We’ll just... just find a phone somewhere else.” He crossed to her side and slid his arms carefully beneath her as if to carry her again. She clutched the front of his shirt, and stopped him with a word.

“No.”

He looked down on his slayer, her face tight with pain. “Hold on, Buffy. I’ll get you to a hospital. You’ll be fine. Just hold on.”

“No time.” Her breathing was already labored, and he knew in his heart she was right. She smiled at him weakly, her eyes pleading with him. “S’okay, Giles. I’ve already done this before. S’not so bad. Just… just hold me, okay? I don’t want to die alone again.”

“You’re not going to die, you hear me?”

“Sure, Denial-man. Let’s go ice skating.”

He closed his eyes, trying to choke back his grief, trying to just be what she needed him to be for right now. He knew she was right. She was going to die, and there wasn’t much he could do to stop it. All he could do was stay with her while it happened. He eased her up enough for him to crawl onto the table behind her, cradling her in his arms like a baby, ever careful of the arrow still protruding from her side. Her eyes never left his.

“I’m sorry ’bout everything I said before,” she whispered. “Sorry for yelling at you.”

“Think nothing of it. I’m sure I deserved most of it.” He brushed the backs of his fingers across her cheek. “I’d gladly suffer another twenty years of your yelling at me if…” He took back his fingers and sighed.

“Don’t look so sad, Giles. You know, I’m not afraid to die. I just…” She licked her lips and took a shaky breath. “I’m just afraid… afraid they won’t let me back in. You think they let you back into heaven? Or is it like a no reentry thing?”

He swallowed hard and forced a smile. “I think they stamp your hand on the way out and let you back in no problem.”

She laughed as he intended, but it jarred the arrow in her side, and she gasped in pain, something he hadn’t meant to cause. Her fingers grasped his shirtfront tighter, and he rocked her gently, trying to soothe her. He stroked her brow with a kiss. “Shhh, it won’t hurt much longer.”

“I know,” she whispered. “It’s just really bad right now.”

They were silent for a moment, but he never broke eye contact, afraid that if he looked away, even for a second, she would be gone.

“Giles?”

“Hmm?”

“Promise you won’t let them bring me back.”

He smiled reassuringly and nodded.

“And you’ll take care of everything, right? Dawn? I couldn’t do it. You shouldn’t have to either, but…”

“Shhh.” He smoothed her hair back from her face. “Don’t worry about any of it…”

“Sorry. Making you clean up my messes again, dumping it all on you. I wanted to stand on my own, really I did. Wanted to make you proud.”

“You always made me proud, Buffy. Never doubt that.”

She smiled and laid her hand over his where it rested against her cheek. “Wish I could make you understand… what it’s like… heaven. Don’t think you’d be so sad for me to go if you knew.”

He lowered his head closer to hers, their foreheads touching. He didn’t trust himself to speak. He wished he could make this moment last, could keep her here in his arms forever. Or, failing that, wished he could set the clock back six months and hoard that time with her like the treasure it was.

Her hand tightened over his, and she turned her face to press a kiss into his palm. He kissed the cheek she turned from him.

She met his eyes again, a brave smile lighting her face. “It’s better this time. If I have to die, this is how I want to go. I feel safe in your arms. I’m not scared.” Her fingers reached up to brush across his cheeks, to catch tears he didn’t realize were there. “Before… I said it was a little like having Mom back, and it was. And Dad, and Riley, and Angel… everyone who’s ever loved me. I can feel it all when I’m with you.” She laid her hand against his heart and sighed.

“Giles, I love you. Love, love, love… See? It doesn’t feel so strange anymore.”

“Buffy-” But he felt her relax in his arms and realized that she was gone. And he hadn’t even gotten to say the words back to her. His mind replayed six years of moments. Not once. Not once had he ever told Buffy that he loved her. Not as a daughter or as a friend or as anything.

Giles pulled the body of his slayer close and wept against her golden hair. He tried to gather her against his chest, but the arrow was still there, and he removed it carefully, knowing he couldn’t hurt her now. But the arrow he could hurt, and he savagely broke it into tiny pieces before throwing the bits across the room. He scooped her up again, his lips whispering over and over against her ear, as if she could still hear him, “Buffy, I love you. I love you. I have always loved you.”

Six months wasted and a lifetime remaining to regret it. He would give anything to be able to go back, to go back even a day and cherish every moment, to say everything he had never found the courage to say.

To go back.

His head lifted with a gasp. How he had hated Willow for her spell, had hated her for taking such a risk with Buffy’s soul. And after they had learned where she had been, how his anger had burned even brighter, knowing they had stolen her peace and ripped her from paradise.

He looked down at her still, serene features. “Forgive me,” he murmured as he lay her gently down on the table. Would she forgive him, he wondered? He laughed at the bitter irony, that now he would be the one to disturb her well-deserved rest. That he would betray her trust yet again.

Oh, there are others in this world who can do what you did. You just don't want to meet them.

He glanced up towards the second floor of the Magic Box, now housing harmless tarot cards and candles and crystal balls. Where would Anya have put the more dangerous items? He started searching the store. The back training room was as he remembered it. The office had a lock on it. That must be it.

He fumbled through the drawers, looking for a key, his hands still slick with Buffy’s blood. Finally, he gave up and retrieved an axe from the back weapon’s cabinet. He smashed the lock and entered the office.

Floor to ceiling shelves graced one side of the office, their contents arranged just as he remembered them being upstairs. He scanned the shelves until he’d found what he needed: Dark Magicks.

He gathered his supplies from the rest of the store, set up the ritual in the middle of the shop floor. He had just completed the last of the incantation, and the candles had just flashed before blowing out, when the front door to the shop burst open, caving in as though from an explosion.

Spike walked in first, followed by Dawn.

Giles didn’t move from his circle. “There’s a protection spell on this whole place. You won’t be able to hurt me.”

Spike smiled wickedly. “See, here’s the thing about spells: they can be broken.”

Willow followed them in the next moment. Giles hardly recognized her. Her hands crackled with power, her eyes were already black as her lips moved soundlessly in recitation.

“Willow, this isn’t you. You know this is wrong.”

But he remembered the girl who had threatened him in the kitchen that night.

The magicks I used are very powerful. I'm very powerful. And maybe it's not such a good idea for you to piss me off.

That was all that was left in the Willow who stood before him: the power hunger, the arrogance, the blatant disregard for the forces of nature. Giles wondered briefly if he were now started down that path as well. He hadn’t been able to let Buffy go either. The room shook as the protection spell fell.

“Poof!” Spike pronounced as he spread his arms wide and threw back his head in laughter. When he looked down on the watcher again, he had slipped into his vampire face. “Just like that… protection gone. God, I love magic. And you are just the best, Red.”

“Spike,” Dawn whispered, stepping towards the table and her sister’s dead body.

“Nothing you can do ’bout that now, Niblet. Watcher should have let us turn her.” He strolled closer. “You still want to turn him? Or do you hate him now?”

In two steps, Spike had him by the throat, was hauling him up and dragging him across the floor and shoving him against the wall. Giles struggled against the inhuman grip, grappled with the hand crushing his throat.

Spike leaned in close and whispered in the watcher’s ear, “Your slayer liked pain, liked to scream with it while I was shagging her senseless. You like pain, I wonder?”

The vampire pinned him against the wall with preternatural strength and used the fingers of one hand to wrench his head to the side. Giles felt cool breath against his neck, the sharp scratch of fangs against his skin. Spike teased him, not taking him for the moment, just enjoying the frantic struggles of an animal in the hands of Death.

The spell should have worked by now. His heart hammered with panic, his mind desperately praying that he had done it right. But if he hadn’t, did it matter if Spike took him?

He felt the pain as Spike’s fangs pierced his skin. He wanted to scream with it, but the hand choking him stopped all sound. He felt the dizzy, sickening, world-spinning sensation of his blood being drawn from his body.

Giles closed his eyes and waited. Waited to die, waited to live, he wasn’t sure which, only that he waited.

The world faded out and then in, light then dark. Words floated through his mind.

Buffy, I've thought this over ... and over. I believe it's the right thing to do.

And then he heard her voice. “You're wrong.”

He was afraid to move, afraid to shatter the illusion. He was looking straight into her eyes, eyes that were angry and hurt. And then she was jumping up from the couch and storming across the training room like a petulant child. It was just as he remembered it, and he had to fight back an inappropriate smile. The spell had worked.

She was almost to the door before he found his voice. “Buffy, wait.” She stopped, but didn’t turn to face him. He could see the tension that tightened her shoulders and flowed down into her clenched fists. “M-maybe… maybe you’re right. Perhaps I am wrong to leave. But if I stay, some things will have to change.”

She did face him then, her expression wary, still hesitant to hope too strongly. “What things?”

“I have to know that if I stay… that I won’t be simply enabling you to avoid dealing with the world. You’ll have to do as you said: no giving up, be strong with me here.”

She took a few steps in his direction. “Okay. I can do that.”

“That means that Dawn will have to be your responsibility.” He looked down at a spot on the floor, remembering the moment he had discovered that Dawn was a vampire and the grief that had filled him. “It’s not that I don’t love Dawn, Buffy. It’s just…” He met her eyes again. “She needs this from you. She needs to see that you care.” He smiled as he remembered a similar conversation they’d had in the past. “You’re the only one who can be the… the ‘stompy’ foot, the guiding hand. You have far more influence over her than I have. And you are the better authority figure for her.”

“How am I supposed to deal with Dawn when I’m still dealing with my own stuff?”

“Your mother did. Parents do it all the time. You learn to balance her needs and your own. You can do this, Buffy. I have faith in you.”

He watched her standing there, halfway between him and the door, her entire body telegraphing the imminent possibility that she might bolt, that he might have pushed his skittish slayer beyond where she was willing to go.

“I do love Dawn,” she finally whispered.

“Then show her that. Give her what she needs from you.”

Buffy crossed the remaining distance between them and resumed her seat on the couch. She nodded firmly. “Okay.” She said it again, as if convincing herself. “Okay. I can do that too. I can be strong, and I can take care of Dawn.”

He smiled at her kindly. “You can still come to me for advice. I’m not wiping my hands of the lot of you, or anything of the sort. But in the future, you need to be the one having the important conversations with Dawn.”

She nodded, smiling back at him. “Gotcha. Loud and clear.”

“There’s something else, something that may not be so easy for you.” She watched him patiently, and his mind tried to find a way to word it without giving away the bleak future he had seen. “You can’t shut us out anymore, Buffy. You can’t just avoid dealing with everything and hope it will all go away. You need to speak with them. You need to tell them how you feel about what they did.”

She dropped her head. “I can’t.”

He tipped her head back up with a finger beneath her chin. “You can. And you need to. Promise me?”

He saw the war being waged in her eyes: the fight between doing as he asked or simply retreating back into herself and letting him leave her. Unshed tears glittered in her eyes, and she licked her lips before answering. “Okay. But just… just not today, okay?”

“Very well. Not today. But soon.”

“Soon,” she echoed bleakly, before wiping away the tears that had sneaked down her cheeks. “So is that it? That your list of demands? Take care of Dawn and talk to the gang? ’Cause I can do those.”

“One more thing.” He rested his hand on her shoulder, whether to give her comfort, or himself, he wasn’t sure which. “If I stay, you have to be open with me, too, Buffy. You should have told me where you had been, what you were going through. Spike isn’t the only one who would have listened and understood.”

That was the key that opened the floodgate. She started to sob, and he wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close to his chest. His heart broke with her pain, but he could do nothing but rock her gently and croon meaningless platitudes to her softly. He could do nothing but stand beside her as she faced the pain.

When her tears quieted, he offered her his handkerchief and allowed her to pull away from him to regain her composure. He readjusted himself on the couch, turning from his sideways position and crossing his legs. He waited patiently for her to speak. When she did, it wasn’t entirely what he expected.

“It’s a two-way street, you know.”

“Pardon me?”

There was fire in her voice again. “You haven’t exactly been Mr. Share Guy either here. I mean, you never gave me any idea about any of this before, and then bam- it’s ‘I have to leave for your own good.’ If you didn’t like helping out with Dawn so much, you should have said something before.”

“Buffy-”

“No. You’re going to hear me out for once.” She got up from the couch and started pacing. “You wanted me to be open, so here I am being open. You’ve been King of the Mixed Messages ever since I got back, Giles. Every time I had problems, you gave me the ‘you’re being too hard on yourself’ line. Now I’m not being hard enough? Which is it?”

“Now, that’s not what-”

“Is this about the money? ’Cause I can pay you back… sometime… maybe not soon, but we can have a payment plan or something.”

He removed his glasses and cleaned them, an irritating habit he resorted to when he didn’t want to see what was right in front of him. “It wasn’t a loan, Buffy. It was a gift. And it’s not the issue.”

“Then why, after all the time you encouraged me to lean on you and told me I shouldn’t expect so much of myself so soon, are you now telling me that I can’t lean on you and that I’m not doing enough? And why couldn’t you just tell me all of that first? Why’d you have to decide to pack up and leave in order to drop this bombshell news on me? ’Cause, really, I don’t think I’m that clueless. I think you could have tried the less traumatizing talking part first. And then, you know, if I didn’t get it, you could have hit me over the head with a hammer or something. And then, maybe after that, if I still didn’t get it, you could have resorted to a trans-Atlantic flight.”

Giles stood and slipped his glasses back on. He stopped directly in front of his slayer and waited until she met his eyes. He slipped one hand into his front inside jacket pocket and removed the plane ticket that rested there. Without breaking eye contact, he ripped it in half and held it out to her. She accepted the pieces with some surprise.

“A new beginning,” he told her. “Let’s pledge not to keep such secrets from each other again. No walls between us. You will be open with me, and I will be open with you.”

“No walls,” she agreed. “Bring in the construction crews. I’m ready for the no-more-keeping-it-to-myself thing.”

He smiled and laid his hand reverently against the side of her face, as he had when he had first returned to find her miraculously alive and whole after Willow’s spell. “There’s one more thing.”

She frowned. “Should we get paper and pen? Maybe make a list?”

He laughed. “No, nothing like that. Think of it as the first step in the no walls pledge. There’s something I need to say to you, Buffy, something I should have said long ago.” He took a deep breath, his thumb absently stroking the curve of her cheek. “I love you, Buffy. You are more dear to me than anything in my life, and losing you-” His voice broke on the word, and he closed his eyes for a moment to regain his composure. His hand slid down to rest against her shoulders and neck. When he opened his eyes again, she was smiling at him sweetly. “Losing you was harder than I could have ever imagined. Those months were the darkest of my life, and I’ve had some pretty dark times in my life.” He chuckled depreciatingly, and she joined him in his amusement.

He tucked one curl behind her ear and leaned forward to place a chaste, tender kiss on her forehead. He whispered softly against her brow. “I thought you should know just how much you mean to me, my dear sweet Buffy.”

He felt her arms slide around him, holding him tightly, but this time mindful of her own strength. He returned her embrace, rejoicing in the feeling of a warm, living Buffy in his arms, the six months of memories that had not happened yet nothing but a terrible nightmare, and here was the waking.

She murmured against his chest. “I know, Giles. I always knew.” She pulled apart from him, and with a hand on the back of his neck, drew him down so she could place a kiss on his cheek. “I love you too, Giles. And I would have been heartbroken if you’d left.”

He smiled, thinking of the future he had managed to avoid. “I know,” was all he said to her. “And I’m sorry for putting you through all of this.”

He placed a hand to the small of her back and steered her out of the training room and back into the Magic Box. The others were waiting for his big announcement, just as soon as Willow and Xander-

The bell rang as they came through the front door. Giles had an overpowering sense of déjà vu, which should be expected when history repeats itself.

Willow was laughing “Thanks for the jacket. It's cold out there.”

“Not a problem, the cold only makes me stronger and more macho-like.”

Giles stepped forward. “Willow, may I have a word alone with you for a moment?”

She looked at him, puzzled. “Sure, but aren’t we here for some big Scoobie meeting?”

“Yes,” Anya answered. “Please get on with the big important announcement, so some of us can go back to the monthly invoices.”

“In a moment.” Giles tilted his head to indicate to Willow that they should move away from the group. After they had both retreated to a private corner, he held his hand out to her, palm up. “The crystal, Willow. Give it to me.”

“How…?”

“I sensed the magic on you,” he lied. “Give it over.”

Spike came in at that moment, but he wouldn’t let her be distracted. The others could handle Spike’s dilemma. He gripped her arm hard and forced her attention back on him. “Break it. Now.”

“But, but,” she protested. “It will help Buffy. If she doesn’t remember being in heaven, she won’t be so sad.”

“Think about what you’re doing, Willow. You robbed Buffy of heaven. Will you also rob her of her memories of it?”

She drew the crystal slowly from her pocket. Her chin was quivering with her effort to keep her tears at bay. “I just wanted to fix it.”

He took the crystal from her hands. “I know.” He dropped it on the ground and smashed it into satisfying pieces beneath his foot. There went those unsettling memories of a store full of bunnies, and Anya’s warm lips, and the supreme embarrassment that followed, all memories that thankfully would not be repeated. Just as all his subsequent memories would hopefully stay simple memories, serving as a constant reminder of the much brighter future he was now molding for himself and the others.

He laid his hand on Willow’s shoulder. “There are some things we can’t fix with magic, no matter how much we might like to.” Hypocrite, he told himself. He had fixed things quite neatly with magic and in effect, robbed Buffy of heaven a second time. But none of them would ever know that, and heaven would still be waiting for her sometime in the, hopefully, distant future.

Willow gazed across the room at Tara, who was still thumb wrestling with Anya. “Will you tell her? About the spell?”

He followed her gaze, knowing even before he did that she meant Tara and not Buffy. “If you don’t, then I must.”

“Giles, please!”

Her voice was loud enough that the others glanced in their direction. He moved them both slightly to one side to keep their conversation private and lowered his tone. Even quiet, his voice was steel. “Willow, you are losing yourself in the magic. Tara is only concerned for your well being, as am I. The two of us have had conversations, and we both feel… I think the two of you need to have a conversation. I think if you’re willing to ask for help, then there’s still a chance. And after you and Tara have spoken, come speak to me.” She started to protest, and he tapped her beneath the chin. “I’ll brook no argument on this point. If you don’t tell her, I will.”

“You don’t understand.”

His face hardened as he thought of the mistakes of his own youth. “Oh, I understand more than you give me credit for. I have a unique perspective of expertise on this subject. And I think I can help, if you’ll let me.”

She dropped her eyes from his, and he wasn’t sure if he had reached her or not. But he had time to try again. And he would try again… and again… and again. He was not about to let Willow slip into that darkness. He would not let her become the corrupt thing he had seen in her future. What he could not do for Ethan, he would do for her.

She walked away from him, angry perhaps, still denying her own fault in all of this. She plopped down in a chair, still staring down at her hands.

Giles crossed to the center of the room, and all eyes fell on him. Spike was sitting up on the counter, beside the cash register, and Giles spared him a withering glare.

“So what’s the big pow-wow, G-man?” Xander asked.

He took them each in with his eyes. Xander and Anya would have their happy life together, a life in which they did not carry the burden of holding the world together on their shoulders. Dawn would live and grow and experience the things that every teenager should: school dances and crushes and sleepovers with friends. Willow and Tara… they might weather the storm that was to come, or they might not, but they would each come out on the other side of it intact. Buffy would recover from death and resurrection and in the end be stronger for it, and one day, soon he hoped, she might even be happy again. Spike… well, there was one more conversation left to be had, but that would need to wait until later.

They were all staring at him back, waiting.

“Some oogly-boogleys we need to research?” Dawn asked.

He cleared his throat. “There are no oogly-boogleys, Dawn. I just… just…” He flailed for something. “Just wanted to inform you all that I’m considering hiring some people to place protective wards on the shop, turn it into a sort of sanctuary, if you will.” It was the first thought that had popped into his head.

They all stared at him blankly.

“Well, that was an announcement that definitely required our presence here, all at the same time,” Anya replied sarcastically.

“I’ll have to go with An here,” Xander seconded. “Nice thought. Not exactly CNN worthy, though.”

Giles exchanged a bemused smile with Buffy. She was the only one who realized what announcement they had narrowly avoided hearing, and the relief was obvious in her body.

“Can we go now?” Dawn piped in. “I have homework.”

“By all means.” He waved them all out.

Buffy stopped in front of him and flashed a smile. “Training later?” He nodded. “I might be late,” she added. “I think Dawn and I are going to have that talk.”

“What talk?” Dawn asked.

Buffy glared and steered her sister towards the door, telling her along the way, “That talk about nosy little sisters who shouldn’t eavesdrop on private conversations.”

“Yeah, well, private conversations shouldn’t be in such public places and maybe-”

The rest of their bickering was silenced when the door closed behind them.

Giles sat down on the table, alone now with Anya.

“You know, if you’re serious about this protection ward thing, I could hook you up with some gals in LA who would come do it real cheap. They might even be able to add on a special ward against shoplifting.”

Giles rolled his eyes and headed into the back office. Déjà vu indeed.

It was later that night, after dark, that he finished the tasks he had laid out for himself. He walked into Spike’s crypt without knocking, because when had any of them ever knocked?

“Well, hello, Watcher, come for a midnight stroll?” Spike had abandoned the tweed suit, having perhaps resolved whatever issue had necessitated the disguise.

Giles tossed Spike a crossbow and kept one for himself. “Buffy asked me to come find you. She wanted you to help patrol with her.”

The vampire smiled smugly. “Did she now?”

The two of them strolled out of the crypt side by side. When they had gone further into the cemetery, Giles let Spike walk a little ahead of him. When they were nearly to the Van Elton crypt and he was sure they were alone, Giles lifted the crossbow and fired.

Spike had just enough time to spin around and stare at the watcher in shock before crumbling to dust.

Giles’ eyes never wavered, remaining just as cold and ruthless as when he had strangled Ben. The future he had seen would not come to pass. And the killing of one more soulless demon was less of a stain on his hands than other things duty had demanded of him.

Giles started walking out of the cemetery, stooping to retrieve Spike’s dropped crossbow without breaking stride. He headed towards Buffy’s house. Killing Spike was less of a cross to bear than the lie he would have to tell Buffy to conceal it. She would believe that Spike had died defending Giles while on patrol, and tomorrow they would start on their new beginning. Tomorrow they would have no more lies or secrets or walls between them. But for tonight he would have this one last lie. And tomorrow what he did tonight would be justified.

Because now they had a tomorrow to look forward to.

~Finis~          December 15, 2001