“I think the strain is getting to her, Mr. Giles,” said Margaret, her Scottish brogue barely noticeable. She stood at attention in Giles’ study in the basement.
He gave her a pained look. “I’ve told you repeatedly that it’s Giles or Rupert. The formality is entirely unnecessary.”
“I’ll be the judge of my own preferences in the matter, if you don’t mind, sir. Now about the girl… twice today, she’s alarmed everyone in the house and on the grounds. If this keeps up, it will be difficult to tell when a response is actually necessary.”
“I know, but remember she’s had a difficult time of it all the way around." Giles removed his glasses and began to clean them. "Though frankly, given all that’s happened, don’t you think you’re overreacting a bit with only two false alarms in the last two weeks?”
Margaret’s spine stiffened. “I apologize, sir, for implying that two false alarms in a single morning might possibly take the edge off those who’ve sworn to protect you and yours from further harm.”
“Bloody…” Giles glared at her. “You learned that from your father.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, sir.”
“Twenty years ago, I taught Charlie Andrews how to tell a pig-headed superior to go to hell without actually saying the words, and I won’t stand for you playing that game with me.” In a gruff tone, he added, “If you disagree, say so. Don’t hide behind protocol.”
Her shoulders drooped. “I’m sorry, sir. But my father told me when I came here that if I let anything happen to you, he’d…” She broke off, blanching slightly.
“Never mind.” Giles sighed. “I can imagine what he threatened you with.”
“Thank you, sir.” She cleared her throat. “About the younger Miss Summers?”
He looked up at the carefully neutral expression she now wore. “The first incident wasn’t entirely her fault, considering what happened the last time Buffy couldn’t be found in the morning. I am, however, concerned about the second incident. You say she was convinced there was something on the front porch?”
“Yes, and that it had stuck an arm through the keyhole.”
“Hmm.” Giles frowned.
He looked up. “Sorry. I thought…” Giles shook his head slightly. “Never mind. We’ll keep an eye on Dawn and see if we can help her relax today.”
“I’m telling you, Buffy, there was something there.” Dawn sat on Buffy’s bed, smoothing out a crease from one of the dresses draped across it.
“None of the security people saw it, and Willow couldn’t find any trace of a spell.” Buffy held up a black dress. “What about this one?”
Dawn shook her head. “Too formal for anything around here. Besides, it gives you that whole princess-of-the-night vibe.”
“Really? But it has beadwork and everything.” Buffy frowned as she looked at it. “It's sparkly! You’re sure it won’t work?”
“It’s creepy on you,” said Dawn with finality. “But not nearly as creepy as that arm that came through the keyhole earlier.”
Buffy tossed the dress onto the bed with the others that had been rejected. She stroked Dawn’s cheek gently and said, “I know you’re having a rough time right now, what with losing Lessa and almost losing me…”
“That’s not it!” Dawn protested before letting her shoulders slump slightly as she looked up at her sister. “Okay, yes,” she said with resignation. “Bad things are happening, and I’m pretty much the cause of them…”
“You aren’t!” Buffy’s denial was almost as fierce as the look she gave Dawn. “Ethan is responsible for everything, and I don’t ever want you thinking you caused any of this. You didn’t!”
Taken aback, Dawn nodded emphatically. “Got it. I’m not responsible.”
“Um, but back to the arm thing… You have to believe me, Buffy, it was real and it came through the keyhole. I don’t know why no one can find the owner, but something was there.”
His arm finally intact again, Fergus rooted around the foundation of the house, grunting as he stopped under one of the windows. “Idiots,” he muttered. “Convinced they’re safe with their high and mighty wards. Never once stopped to think there might be somethin’ more dangerous out here. Sloppy. If I’d ever been so careless, me Mam would have sent me packing.”
He bent down, his hand seeming to grasp nothing but air, and twisted once to the right and twice to the left before standing up again. He offered a grin and a jaunty salute to the space he’d just twisted. “I’ll leave ye to get on with your work now, darlin’ but I’ll be back later with a bit of a libation by way of thankin’ ye.”
The air shimmered, turning briefly into a deep gold before clearing. Fergus bounced up and caught the windowsill above, pulling himself into the house with a smooth motion.
Buffy sighed then sat on the bed with Dawn, reaching out to smooth her hair, tucking a strand behind her ear. “Ethan likes to play games. It’s entirely possible this was some kind of illusion he sent.”
Dawn turned to her, a pleading look on her face. “I know he does the mind game thing, but it didn’t feel like…”
Her face drawn with concern, Buffy asked, “It didn’t ‘feel’ like what?”
“I don’t know how to explain it, but it didn’t feel like an illusion. I know I hit something. Okay, sure, Ethan might have sent it, but it felt real. Please, you have to believe me. I’m not going crazy, and I’m positive it wasn’t a hallucination.”
After a long moment, Buffy nodded unhappily. “Alright, I believe you. And I promise we’ll figure this thing out.”
“Really. But later. Right now, we have something more important to worry about.” Buffy frowned and stood up. She walked over to the closet and pulled out another dress, holding it against her. “What about this one?”
“Obsessed much?” Relaxed now, Dawn leaned back on the bed, supporting herself on her elbows. “We’ve got Ethan on the loose and funky, unexplained arms shooting through keyholes, not to mention the whole stolen Slayer strength thing, and all you can worry about is clothing? It’s not even time for lunch, and you’re already trying to figure out what to wear tonight.”
“Tonight’s going to be as special as we can make it.” Buffy tossed the dress back on the bed and cocked her head at her closet, frowning. “And that means I’m not going to worry about these things. The CoWboys are on the hunt for Ethan, and we’ll figure out the arm deal sooner or later. Since it didn’t trigger any of the wards, I’m guessing it can’t be all that dangerous…”
“Famous last words,” Dawn muttered.
Buffy shot her a dirty look before continuing, “As for the Slayer thing, believe it or not, I’m not as freaked as I thought I’d be.”
Dawn cocked her head. “You’re not?”
“Nope. I’m really not. The first couple of days after my enforced bed rest were sorta tough, but I'm feeling fine now. Actually, it makes me feel kind of girly not to be the strong one in a relationship.” Buffy smiled gently. “Especially when Giles gets all manly and protective when I stub my toe.”
Buffy burst out laughing at the expression on Dawn’s face. “I’m guessing I’m not doing much for the whole woman power thing, am I?”
Fergus made his way through the house and up the stairs, not stopping until he reached the attic. He carefully and silently pulled the steps up behind him.
A violent wind ruffled his long beard, and he sent a stern glance in the direction it came from. “I’ll be having none of that, lass. You can just sit still for now and let me be about my business.”
A rattling of Dawn’s knick-knacks was the only response Hedwig could manage.
Willow leaned against the counter and stared at Xander as he sat hunched over the kitchen table, staring at his empty coffee cup. “You aren’t still thinking about that thing with Buffy and Giles this morning, are you? I promise, I'll get the spell done before tonight.”
He shook his head.
“Then what’s the problem?”
Xander opened his mouth a few times, but nothing came out.
She sighed. “You can’t tell me?”
His eyes wide open, he shook his head.
“Maybe if you relax a little, you can talk about it. Want to try a meditation?”
Buffy put back the dress she decided on and paused before turning around. “Dawn, is something else going on with you?”
Startled, she looked up. “What? I don’t know what you mean. Other than Ethan trying to kill us and a spooky arm and you being freakily obsessed about choosing a dress to wear, there’s nothing. Isn’t that enough for you?”
“Protesting a little too much, aren’t you?” Buffy went to the bed and sat down. “Why hasn’t Mark called this week?”
“I…” Dawn caught sight of Buffy’s expression. “Can I say right now that I really hate resolve face, especially when it’s yours?”
Dawn took a deep breath and looked down at her hands. “I told him I had stuff to work out. Alone.”
Buffy went still. “You broke up with him?”
“No. Not really. But he might think so. It’s just that with Ethan around…” Dawn’s voice trailed off. She blinked hard a few times and refused to look up.
“At least Mark isn’t an Owen,” Buffy murmured.
She shook her head. “Never mind. So you’re trying to keep him at a distance to keep him safe?”
“Yeah.” Dawn rubbed at her eyes.
“It’s your decision, but honestly? I think it’s a bad one,” Buffy said.
“Will be dealt with.” Buffy pulled Dawn to her in a loose embrace. “I think you should call Mark and see if he wants to go to the movies tonight.”
“It’s kind of dangerous right now.” The look of hope in Dawn’s eyes was at odds with her words.
“I’m not saying you should go on a long walk alone through town, but I think with a couple of CoWboys along for the ride, you could probably risk it.”
“I don’t want him to get hurt,” she said, her tone asking for reassurance.
“And I don’t want you to spend the rest of your life hiding from relationships because you’re afraid.” Buffy dropped a kiss on Dawn’s forehead and held her close.
Fergus closed Dawn’s diary with a thump and looked over to where Hedwig continued to rattle whatever she could reach. “I see what you mean about her having a difficult time of it, but it makes no difference. She was rude to me, and I owe her for my arm.”
Buffy and Dawn walked down the stairs. “Are you sure about it, Dawn? You don’t think it makes me look… I don’t know… too frilly or anything?”
Dawn sighed heavily before stopping her sister and turning her around. “You could be wearing a burlap sack and be covered in purple demon guts, and Giles would still think you look totally beautiful.”
Giles, standing at the bottom of the staircase, turned slightly green as he looked at the half-eaten jelly donut in his hand. He gave the pair a pained glance.
At their raised eyebrows, he stammered, “Of course I would find Buffy beautiful no matter what she happened to be wearing at any given moment.” After a pause, he added, “You, er, won’t be wearing burlap and… and…”
Buffy gave him a sympathetic smile before going down to join him. “Relax. Burlap and demon gore are totally last year, and you know what I’m like when it comes to obeying fashion trends.”
“Promise.” She wrapped an arm around his waist. “Now that the question of date-wear is settled, we need to have a chat about the thing that tried to get in this morning.”
Giles’ eyes darted upward to where Dawn stood, her arms crossed in front of her. “Perhaps we should talk about this later.”
“Here and now, Giles.” Buffy gave him a quick squeeze. “I believe her. I think it was a real beastie. With really, really thin arms.”
He looked down at her. “You’re sure?”
Shrugging, she said, “Weird things happen, especially when it comes to us. Is an arm through the keyhole any stranger than turning into our costumes for Halloween or adults turning into teenagers after eating band candy?”
After a long pause, he nodded thoughtfully. “You think Ethan might be involved.”
“Okay, Xander, one more time,” Willow said softly. She stood behind him as he sat at the kitchen table, and she reached around to brush his eyes closed. “Take a deep, cleansing breath, and picture yourself…”
He stood quickly, almost knocking Willow down in the process. “I can’t, Will. It’s not going to work.”
“Well sure, if you’re not even going to try, but…”
“No, that’s not what I meant.”
She tilted her head. “I’m confused.”
“Believe me, so am I.”
“Me and Carrie. Because, you know, we started dating around the same time Buffy and Giles did, and if they’re getting ready to, you know, then maybe Carrie and I should be getting ready to, you know.” He looked helpless and terrified.
Willow snorted as she tried to bite back the laughter. “As one of my best friends once told me, if you’re doing it, you should be able to say it.”
“That’s the thing. We’re not doing… it. We’re not anywhere near… it.”
Buffy walked into the kitchen just ahead of Dawn and Giles. “Not anywhere near what?”
Xander blushed and ducked his head. “Um. That thing. Right, Will?”
"Right Xander." Willow shook her head quickly. “Never mind him, Buffy. His thing is not a thing for you to worry about. You have other things. And speaking of other things, other than getting ready for your big date tonight, what’s the plan for the day?”
Shaking his head in bemusement, Giles put his hand on Dawn’s shoulder. “Willow, I would like for you and Xander to take Dawn outside and start looking for our visitor from this morning.”
“Something tried to get in this morning, and given the nature of Ethan’s religious affiliations, it’s not entirely unreasonable to assume there might be something to find outside.”
Suddenly alert, Xander said, “You mean chaos stuff.”
“That’s precisely what I mean.”
“And while you three are checking out the grounds, Giles and I are going to get in a little training before lunch,” Buffy said, giving them all a bright smile.
Dawn shot a sly glance at her sister. “Is that what you guys are calling it these days?”
The four adults in the room all said, “Dawn!”
Fergus finished arranging the stuffed toys on Dawn’s bed and nodded in satisfaction at what he saw. “Now, boys, we’ve a fierce battle before us, and I’ve no doubt you think you’re going to be disloyal to your mistress by obeying me, but...”
A thump against the wall made him turn away from the bed. “Be still. It’s a lesson I’ll be teaching, and I’ll have no more of your complaints. Your young lady will be in one piece at the end of the day, and perhaps she’ll be just a bit wiser to the ways of the world.”
Dawn, Willow and Xander stood on the front porch with Margaret, and she clearly wasn’t happy with them. “With all respect, there was nothing out here this morning. We would have seen it if there were and in any case, none of the wards were triggered.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Willow said apologetically. “But, you know, ‘more things in heaven and earth,’ especially now.”
Irritated, Margaret said, “We’re well trained to see that which others do not. Furthermore, as I said, the wards…”
“…Are good against Ethan, but not necessarily other stuff.” Willow touched her arm. “Buffy believes Dawn, and Giles believes Buffy. And we know enough to believe both of them. They want us to take a look around out here, so we’re going to look.”
“I don't feel it's safe for civilians to be out here,” Margaret stated firmly with a pointed glare.
Dawn started tapping her foot. “Hello? I grew up on a Hellmouth. Compared to that, a walk around the yard is… is… It’s a walk around the yard!”
“She has a point, Margaret.” Xander stepped forward. “Look, I know you’re used to guarding people who don’t have a whole lot of direct experience with the scary stuff, but we’re not them.”
“Anyway, all we’re going to do is walk around the yard and see if we can find any tracks or anything.” Willow gave Dawn a stern look. “And not a single one of us is going off the property, so we won’t be breeching the outer wards.”
Margaret shook her head. “I still think it’s a bad idea.” When the others started talking again, she raised her hand to quiet them down. “However, Mr. Giles has given his blessing, so I won’t interfere. I will, however, be keeping an eye on you. Understood?”
Dawn bounced lightly. “Yay us! We won.”
Fergus made his way back down to the first floor of the manor, pausing to listen to the conversation outside. A big smile wreathed his face as he heard them talk about trying to find tracks. When everyone moved off the porch, he said, “A change of plans won’t bother me. We’ll just wait until later for the army.”
Giles and Buffy faced each other on the mat. Each wore sweatpants and a t-shirt, and neither wore shoes or socks. Buffy moved carefully, watching his responses to her actions. She feinted to the left and was about to follow up with a right upper cut when he blocked her move and twisted her arm around her back.
She looked back at him over her shoulder. “No fair.”
“As I’ve told you several times this week, you need to stop relying on speed you no longer have,” he said gently. “Tricks that play up to a Slayer’s advantages will do you no good right now. And you’re still dropping your right shoulder before you attack.”
Buffy rolled the shoulder in question as much as she could. “Got it. Um… could you let go, now? This hurts more than I like.”
Giles released her immediately. “Dear lord. I’m so…”
His apology was cut off when Buffy moved without warning and pinned him to the mat. She straddled his waist and looked down at him with a happy smile in place. “What I lack in strength and speed, I make up for in cunning and guile. Tell me again how many times you’ve said not to get distracted when we’re training?”
“You tricked me,” he said. He made an attempt to dislodge her, but was stopped cold in his efforts when she very deliberately leaned forward and kissed his nose.
“Did I?” She wriggled her hips slightly, moving down his body until she was directly over his groin. “Something’s telling me you don’t mind too much.”
“Buffy.” His voice was low and harsh. “We can’t end all our training sessions like this.” He groaned as she rubbed her hands along his chest. “As difficult as it's been, we’ve made it through the week. We can make it a few more hours until tonight,” he pleaded.
“Don’t wanna,” she said before bending down again.
His lips opened just as their kiss began, and he moved his hands up her legs to grasp her hips and pull them down to situate her more firmly. She moaned at the increased contact and her hips started moving in an uneven rhythm.
Dawn walked around the carriage house, poking a long stick into the bushes that lined the walls. “Okay, Tinkerbell, you can’t hide from me forever. I have the pokey stick of doom.”
Crouched beneath the branches of a bush Dawn had already checked, Fergus laughed at her as he drew a circle in the ground before him. He pulled a small jar of honey from an inside pocket of his jacket and poured a small amount inside the circle.
“Come on then, ye wee greedy things. I’ve paid the price, and I don’t have all day to be waitin’.” He sat back against the wall of the carriage house and pulled out a pipe from yet another inside pocket.
Just as Fergus lit the bowl, a burst of iridescence lit up the inside of the circle. Multi-colored lights seemed to zing back and forth within the limits of the circle, though eventually, they all settled down around the glob of honey he’d poured a few minutes earlier.
Eventually, one of the lights moved away from the crowd and hovered expectantly at the edge nearest to Fergus. He took one last puff and leaned forward. He pointed toward Dawn with the stem of his pipe, and speaking in a low voice, he said, “Yon needs to learn her place in this world. What I had in mind was this…”
Dawn stopped at a clump of daisies growing near one corner of the carriage house. As she bent down to pick one of the flowers, a dazzling piece of light flew in front of her. She let loose with a small shriek as she stepped backward to avoid it.
When they heard Dawn’s scream, Buffy broke the kiss and raised her head for a moment, only to turn her attentions to his jaw. She started kissing along it until she reached his ear.
He said distractedly, “Buffy?”
“Hm?” Buffy nibbled on his earlobe for a moment before turning her attention to his neck.
“Shouldn’t we… yes, right there... Christ, that feels good...”
After a moment, she asked softly, “Shouldn’t we what?”
“What? Oh, right.” Giles moved his hands up her sides, stopping when he reached her breasts. He lightly brushed them, earning a whimper in the process. “Shouldn’t we see why Dawn screamed?”
“It’s nothing,” she answered, licking his neck before gently biting down.
Giles’ hips bucked up at the bite, and he groaned. After a few attempts, he finally managed to say, “Dawn screaming… harder, Buffy… Dawn screaming is… nothing?”
“Nothing,” she repeated before sitting up again. She lifted herself only enough to pull the hem of Giles’ shirt up so she could get to his skin. “That was Dawn’s something-freaky-just-happened-but-it-was-kind-of-cool scream.”
“You got all of that from one shriek?” He made little noises as her hands explored his chest.
“Yep. It was a short, high bark that ended on a small giggle.” Buffy pushed the hem of his t-shirt even higher and began tracing the scar from his spear wound as she settled down more firmly on his groin.
“Harder,” he gasped.
She smiled and pushed down with a slow grind of her hips. Before she could say something, a loud shout of “Hey!” came from outside. Buffy frowned slightly.
Giles looked at Buffy through slitted eyes. “Everything still okay with Dawn?”
“I think the freaky-but-cool thing just lost some brownie points,” she said before standing up with a sigh. “I’d better go see. Coming?” she asked as she headed for the door.
Breathing hard, he sat up, muttering, “Sadly, not any time soon.”