Author's Note: Thanks for bearing with me for so long and putting up with all the RL-induced delays. I hope you've enjoyed the ride.

Chapter 10 -- Battlefields

Giles jerked awake with a start. "Atlas!" he gasped, pulling himself into a sitting position.

Buffy, curled up on the bed with Dawn looked up groggily. "Atlas demon?" she yawned. Snapping awake abruptly, she shouted, "Giles!" and slid from the bed, pulling the Watcher into a bear hug.

Giles smiled and returned the hug, peripherally aware that Willow was scuttling around the room in search of a map. He was grateful to the girl for allowing him the opportunity to share such a moment with Buffy. He took them where he could get them and was always duly grateful for whatever circumstance allowed them.

"Oh, God, are you okay?" Buffy demanded of him, not loosening her grip.

"Fine, my dear," he whispered, smiling as Dawn threw her arms around him as well. He repositioned his own arms until the embrace encompassed both girls. "Dawn. How was school?"

"How was school? You want to know how school was?" Dawn made an indignant noise and glared at him. "How could you scare us like that?" she demanded.

"Yeah!" Buffy added, pulling away and crossing his arms. "Giles!"

"Well, we hardly meant to scare anyone," Giles pointed out as Willow knelt next to them with a map. "We were just trying to ascertain… There!"

He pointed to the map, his finger coming to rest over Willow's, the girl having pointed not a second before him.

"The Atlas demon is there?" Buffy asked, peering at the map of Sunnydale.

"Atlas demon?" Willow repeated, shaking her head and groping blindly for a pen.

Giles shook his head. "Premadiabla, Buffy, not an Atlas demon."

Willow nodded. "This is way creepier than an Atlas demon."

"What's an Atlas demon?" Xander yawned, stumbling in to the room. "Wills!"

She smiled and let him pull her to her feet for a hug. "Hey, Xander," she laughed, hugging him back.

"Anya, they're back!" Xander shouted over his shoulder.

"Yeah, got that from all the shouting." Anya nodded and stumbled into the room. "Okay, someone said Atlas demon? Why's everyone getting so bent over an Atlas demon?" she demanded of Giles.

"Not an Atlas demon, Anya," he told her, shaking his head and finally releasing his hold on the Summers girls. "It's a Premadiabla."

"It's a Prema? Oh, God." Anya stared at him with wide eyes. "That is not good," she muttered, sitting down. "Tell me it hasn't emerged yet?"

"Would we be standing here if it had?" Giles asked reasonably.

Anya sighed and closed her eyes. "So we can still stop it?"

"Well, it's assuming that a lot of things go right, but yeah." Willow nodded. "Until it emerges fully, we can still stop it."

"Guys, share," Buffy requested. "What is it, how do we kill it?"

"Premadiabla, it's an Old English bastardization of the Latin Prima Diabla or first demon. Well, demoness," Giles ammended. "She is, according to most accounts, the mother of all demons."

"And when she emerges things get ugly fast," Anya contributed.

Willow nodded. "Last time one emerged fully… well… the dinosaurs went extinct."

"That's not good," Xander murmured.

"Others have tried to emerge since," Giles added, circling a point on the map Willow had gotten. He rose and turned on the overhead light. "But none has ever succeeded, the rest of the world having a vested interest in preventing it."

Anya nodded. "Slayers and Watchers have joined forces with demons to keep these things from emerging. Kind of says it all right there."

Buffy nodded, her eyes wide. "In other words this thing is pretty nasty."

Willow nodded. "Their emergence is typically associated with mass extinctions, ice ages, cataclysms…" She shrugged. "It's already starting."

"Really?" Xander asked, glancing out the window. "'Cause I didn't notice an ice-age last time I was outside…"

Everyone fell silent as another earthquake rocked the house.

"That I noticed," Xander said, shifting uncomfortably.

"There have been ecological disturbances as well," Giles added. "They're only going to get worse. Earthquakes, too."

"How do we stop it?" Buffy asked.

"Quickly," Giles told her simply. "Our window of opportunity is limited. They go from vulnerable to more or less omnipotent in fairly short order."

Buffy nodded. "Okay, then let's get armed and move out."

As the Scoobies filed out, Giles caught Anya's arm. "I think I finally understand what it is that you have against rabbits," he murmured.

"I told you they were scary," Anya said, shaking her head and moving to catch Xander.

"Rabbits?" Dawn asked Giles. "This thing is a rabbit?"

"Well, no, not precisely." Giles shook his head and smiled down at her. "They do have rather a lot of white fur, though. And long ears. And… twitchy noses."

"Twitchy noses?" Dawn laughed. "Ooh… all tremble in terror before the twitchiness that is its nose!"

"Yeah, well, the mental image is less amusing when you add the six inch, poison-dripping fangs, retractable claws, and spikes," Anya assured the girl grimly.

Dawn made a face. "Ew," she said.

Xander frowned. "So we're off to slay… a reject from Monty Python and the Holy Grail?"

"Inspiration for, actually," Giles corrected him absently. "Buffy, you still have that rocket-launcher?" he called, going to find her.

***

"You know, it's amazing how many caves there are under Sunnydale," Willow noted as the small group picked its way single-file through an underground river, ridiculously armed with an array of weaponry spanning more than a thousand years of military technology. "I wonder if that's a natural phenomenon or…"

"Willow, there is nothing natural about Sunnydale," Giles told her. "You should know that by now."

"He's right," Buffy agreed from the head of the column. "Sunnydale is big with the lack of the natural."

"We should rest here," Giles suggested as they came to an area where the cave widened enough to allow them to stand side by side instead of in a straight line.

"How far under the city are we?" Dawn asked, shining her flashlight upwards.

"Judging by our angle of descent and the fact that it's been easily five miles?" Giles sighed, leaning against a stalagmite. "At least a half mile. Probably more."

"Okay, let's take ten minutes and then move out," Buffy said. "Can't be much farther now."

"It isn't," Willow told her. "Can't you feel it?"

Giles nodded faintly. "She's close."

"I don't feel anything," Buffy began. "Should my Slayer's spidey senses be all over this?"

"This isn't a vampire," Anya told her simply. "Not all demons give off that same vibe. Giles and Willow would be more able to feel it with the whole wicky-wacky-woo."

Nodding, Giles pulled off his glasses, trying to clean them but only managing to further smudge the lenses with his wet shirt.

"She's right," Willow agreed, nodding. "It's earth empathy. This thing is poisoning the earth and we can feel that."

In fact, 'feel' was probably too mild a term for the sensation that the Premadiabla's proximity was causing in them. It was an almost maddening awareness of the thing: a tingle like millions of tiny insects crawling over every inch of skin, a suffocating sense of claustrophobia, a virtually irresistible desire to scream right along with the dying land, and a sense of foreboding like a half-buried memory or disaster.

Willow broke away from the group and moved to stand in front of Giles. "This is not going to go well," she whispered.

"I know." He nodded faintly, giving up on his glasses and putting them in his shirt pocket. "I don't know, Willow. For the first time since I became Buffy's Watcher I find myself seriously wondering if I'm going to walk out of this alive."

Willow sighed deeply. "I… I don't feel that exactly, but I do feel like everything is about to change in a very big way, Giles."

"It is, Willow," he sighed. "This is the ultimate turning point for all of us. I feel that so strongly…"

"Hey, what you guys whispering about?" Buffy asked, joining them. "Anything you want to share with the class?"

Giles forced a smile. "No, Buffy."

"Hey, why don't I go see how the others are holding up?" Willow suggested, leaving the two alone.

"Everything okay, Giles?" Buffy asked quietly, looking up at him.

"Um…" He nodded. After a moment's silence, he smiled down at her, reaching down and smoothing her hair out of her face. "My, how you have grown," he murmured. "I remember when you were just a little girl instead of a grown woman…"

Buffy's eyes widened faintly. She shook her head. "Don't you dare say goodbye to me, Giles," she whispered.

"I'd have had to say it eventually. May as well be now," he sighed, letting his fingers linger on her cheek. He absently stroked the skin there, not thinking.

"No, you don't have to say goodbye," she whispered, shaking her head. "Giles, you're miserable in England. I may not be a mind-reader like Willow is with you, but I do know that much. You could stay," she urged.

"How are you supposed to become a responsible adult when--"

"I already am that," she told him. "You said so yourself earlier. Giles, whatever you think you're proving by being in England…" She shook her head. "Hey, we've always been honest with each other."

"With rare exceptions," he agreed quietly.

"Stay," Buffy whispered. "I like having you around. Dawnie adores you. Willow and Xander love you; even Anya loves you."

"And you?" he whispered, closing his eyes.

"What?" she asked, staring up at him with wide eyes. "Giles, what kind of question is that?"

"A stupid one," he told her, shaking his head. "Forget it." He turned and started towards the others.

Buffy caught his hand and pulled him away from them and around a corner. "What is wrong with you?" she hissed.

"Nothing, Buffy." He shook his head. "Nothing."

"You aren't acting like there's nothing wrong. You've been down since you got back. What is going on with you?"

"This is not the time for an impromptu therapy session, Buffy," he protested, shaking his head. "We have a Premadiabla to kill." He turned and started back towards the group only to be pulled back by Buffy.

"Not if you are off your game, Giles!" she whispered harshly. "You swear to me that you can do this."

"Buffy, I would never let any of you come to harm by walking into a battle that I did not think myself ready for," he assured her gently, cradling her face in his hands.

She looked up at him with wide eyes, nodding. "Fine. Let's go, then."

"Buffy," he began, catching her hand as she turned.

"Yeah?" she asked, turning to face him again.

"Good luck," he whispered quickly, bending and kissing her cheek.

She stared up at him with wide eyes for a moment before swallowing hard and nodding firmly. Ever the proper British gentleman, he had never done anything like that before as far as she could remember.

"You, too, Giles," she agreed, quickly kissing his cheek in return. She was surprised by how right it felt. Grinning up at him, she nodded. "Let's go."

Aware that he was bright red, Giles just nodded, grateful for the darkness. "Yes, let's. The eyes are its weakest point," he reminded her quietly as they rejoined the group. "The underbelly is armored."

"Will, you say this thing is close?" Buffy asked.

Willow nodded. "Very."

"Okay, Giles and I will take point," she announced. "Will, you next. Dawnie, rear guard."

As they walked, Giles quietly repeated everything that he and Willow had learned in their trance. The others listened attentively, none really paying attention to much other than not slipping in the dark streambed.

Willow and Giles stopped at the same time, both looking around in alarm.

"Willow, get them back!" Giles shouted, wrapping his arms around Buffy's waist and hauling her away from the rest of the group as Willow shoved Xander and Anya back into Dawn.

All unsteady on their feet from the rapid movements, the earthquake knocked them all to the ground, moments before the ceiling collapsed.

***

"Xander!" Willow shouted, banging her flashlight against the wall until it flickered back to life.

"Here, he's here!" Anya announced, pulling him above the surface of the water. "Dawn?"

"I'm okay. I think I twisted my ankle, but I'm okay."

"Good, we're all okay," Willow said. "How's Xander?" she asked Anya.

"He's got a nasty bump on his head and he won't wake up…"

Willow turned and regarded the rockfall in front of them. There was no way that they were going to dig through that, and using magic to displace the rocks would have put Giles and Buffy, hopefully on the other side, in the line of fire.

"Get him out of here," Willow ordered Anya, resting her hands against the rocks and closing her eyes.

"But…" Dawn began.

"Go!" Willow ordered.

"Dawnie, help me," Anya ordered, slipping her arm under Xander's shoulder.

Dawn nodded and helped Anya get Xander upright.

As they left, Willow took a deep breath.

Giles? she asked mentally. Can you hear me?

Willow, are you okay? Is everyone okay?

Xander's hurt. Anya and Dawn are getting him out. How's Buffy?

She's fine. We're both fine.

Great. I'll try to get to you.

No, Willow. I think we were meant to do this alone. There was a pause. Willow, you are… a fine woman. It's been my honor to know you.

Don't do that. Just get the demon.

We will. And you take care of Xander.

Willow nodded and turned to catch up with Anya and Dawn.

***

"Giles?" Buffy asked nervously. He was standing with his hands against the rock-slide, his eyes glazed, not responding to her attempts to get his attention.

He looked up abruptly, smiling down at her. "They're all fine, Buffy. Xander's a little hurt, but they're getting him to the hospital now."

"Okay. Let's go slay the demon."

He nodded and turned away from the rockfall, inhaling deeply. "We're close now."

"Okay." Buffy nodded. "Weapons?"

"Crossbow, rocket launcher, battle-axe, and a sword. The others had the rest."

"Going to have to be enough. Let's go."

Giles nodded and followed her through the corridor. Another tremor rocked the cave, but the walls and ceiling remained stable so they ignored it. After less than five minutes, they emerged into a vaulted chamber. In the center was a bubbling black pool, feeding the stream they had walked through, and something was stirring inside.

"Gross," she whispered.

Giles nodded in agreement and raised the rocket-launcher to his shoulder as Buffy loaded the cross-bow. "Ready?"

"We can kill this thing while it's still asleep?"

He nodded. "It would be best if we could…"

"The best-laid plans of mice and men seldom stand a chance in the face of reality," a feminine voice purred.

Buffy dropped into a defensive crouch, watching the pool for movement. Giles dropped the rocket-launcher and went flying into the wall, bones shattering.

"Ah!"

"Giles!" Buffy shouted, rushing to his side.

"And he brings me a Slayer… They taste soooooo sweet."

"You're going down, bitch," Buffy snarled.

"How many generations have your ancestors been killing my descendants, Killer?"

"What is it with bad guys and talking?" Buffy demanded. "Why don't you just show yourself and we'll settle this like the reasonable Slayer and hell-spawn that we are?"

"Mmm, I like that plan, Killer."

The form emerged from the pool, roughly humanoid except for the white pelt, ears that reached to her waist, six inch fangs, long claws, and twitching nose. It was only reminiscent of a rabbit in how unrabbitlike it appeared.

"I smell your fear, Killer," she announced, inhaling deeply. "It smells sweet…"

"And again with the talking too much," Buffy spat, firing her crossbow.

The Premadiabla howled as the bolt took her in the left eye, dropping on to all four. Snarling, she sprung at Buffy.

Dropping the crossbow, Buffy drew her sword as she spun out of the way.

Groaning, Giles drug himself away from the wall, ignoring the spreading pain and threatening oblivion. As Buffy feinted and parried the demoness' attacks, he retrieved the crossbow and loaded it again with shaking hands. If he could just get a clear shot at her other eye… With Buffy fighting the creature, though, there was too much of a risk of hitting her. Except that, in spite of her valiant efforts, she was clearly losing.

So it was risk her life or risk the end of the world.

The decision that he had been called on to make during his trance sprang immediately to mind and his path was clear. As dearly as he loved her, as much as he would have liked to spare her from any pain, any hardship… but there were more important things.

He closed his eyes and fired.

"Buffy," he breathed on the wings of a prayer.

"Giles!" she shouted.

He reluctantly opened his eyes. And was gifted with a vision of the most lovely creature he had ever known and ever would know.

"Buffy…" He smiled and reached up, caressing her face. "Oh, you are so beautiful. Even more lovely than usual."

"Yeah, and you are a mess. We need to get you to a hospital."

"Come here," he whispered, spreading his arms wide.

Buffy nodded and wrapped her arms around him, resting her cheek against his chest. "How do we get out?"

"Have faith," he murmured. "Close your eyes."

Buffy nodded and closed her eyes.

Willow, Giles called mentally. I need your help.

You got it, Giles, Willow replied, relief obvious in her mental tone.

When Buffy opened her eyes, they were laying on the ground outside of the emergency room.

"Giles?" she asked.

He smiled up at her. "I've been thinking about what you said…"

"Really?" she asked, waving her arms to get the attention of a passing doctor.

"Mmm." He nodded weakly.

"Guys!" Dawn called, limping out with support from Willow.

"Dawnie!" Buffy gave her a hug. "How is everyone?"

"They're fine," Willow answered. "Xander was the worst hurt, but he's resting comfortably now. Anya's with him."

"Great. Dawnie?"

"Sprained ankle." She shrugged. "It's nothing."

"Okay." Buffy nodded as they followed Giles into the ER.

Almost two hours later they were finally allowed to see him. Buffy went in first, alone.

"What were you thinking about?" she asked quietly, taking his hand and brushing his hair out of his face.

He smiled weakly up at her. "Just hoping you'd let me sleep on your couch until I can find a place in town."

The End