Giles paced through his apartment. Xander and Anya stared at him while Tara cooked, and Willow cancelled Buffy's birthday party. He forced his resentment of their invasion of his private space down. They were good children, trying to offer comfort, but only one person could release him from this hell.

He could feel her. The thrum of her that always filled him was still there. He pivoted on the balls of his feet and stalked the length of the room. He had tried locator spells and summoning spells until his nose bled and the headaches nearly drove him mad.

"It's been two days, G man." Xander held up a sandwich. "You need to eat. You can't do her any good if you're starved."

"She's turning nineteen tomorrow. Maybe she decided to hide out. She has an understandable aversion to her birthday." Anya shrugged as everyone looked at her oddly. "It was insensitive of Willow to plan a party and to invite mostly men."

"It was not insensitive of me." Willow ground out. "I'm Buffy's best friend. It's the best friend's job to plan the party."

"This guess list makes it look like it is the best friend's job to procure a steady flow of orgasm friends, and I don't think Buffy wants that." Anya crossed her arms under her breasts and glared at the red head.

Giles closed his eyes and pressed his clenched fists against the wall. Willow and Anya continued to prattle on, but he let their voices slide over him. Buffy was missing. Nothing else mattered.

When the phone rang, he grabbed for it, but Xander plucked it from its cradle first. The relief that flashed across the young man's face was enough. Giles slid down to the floor and rested his head in his hands. Thanking every benevolent deity he could bring to mind.

"Buffy, you stay there. G man and I are on the way." Xander's words dragged him back to his feet and sent him stumbling toward the door. The click of the phone and the jangle of Xander's keys sounded behind him as he opened the door.

"I am driving, Giles. She's gonna need you." Xander clapped his shoulder. The warm hand anchored him. He took a deep breath.

"Just get me to her." Giles looked at the flowers a swaying around him. "I need to bring her home."

"Good thing I cleaned out my car." Xander smiled as Giles slid into the passenger seat.

"Did she sound..." He closed his eyes. "Did she say anything about what happened?"

"No. She sounded exhausted. She wanted you." Xander drove quickly through the late afternoon traffic.

Giles let the tears slide down his face, knowing the young man next to him would think no less of him. The world blurred and he focused ahead. His slayer was alive and waiting for him. The ruin of the high school rose before them and his vision cleared. A splash of ruined blue dress on the green grass next to the strangely perfect pay phone.

He opened the door as the car slowed. He could see her clearly. The one perfect thing in his focus. His foot was on the ground then the other followed and he was running.

She was trying to sit up and reach for him at the same time, too weak to support her own body. Then he was on his knees next to her, wrapping her tiny frame in his arms heedless of her injuries. Xander's eager voice faded away as Buffy sighed into his chest. The warm rush of her breath pushed away the pain. He opened his eyes and looked at the soot covering her and the blood crusted beneath her nose.

Common sense returned as he took the first easy breaths of more than forty eight hours. He checked her for broken bones before lifting her, cradled against his chest, and heading to the car. She blinked her lovely eyes up at him lost smiled faintly.

Xander scurried ahead and opened the back door of his car. He had stopped talking. Giles nodded his thanks to the younger man.

"What happened to her?" Xander stared at Buffy, a flash of agony in his eyes.

"She will tell the tale as soon as she is able." Giles kissed her temple and settled into the back seat clutching Buffy to his chest.

Ethan sighed in relief as Ripper carried Buffy away from the charred building where he was hiding. He wiped the blood from his nose with the back of his hand. It had taken all he had to keep her awake long enough for the rescue.

Fixing the bracelet had bloodied her nose again. Watching her falter and flail had bothered him. Buffy deserved more from fate than pain. The price of magic was sometimes heavy. The two of them had done enough brain damage for the time being. He shrugged and made his way back towards his apartment.

It would be nice to sleep again. Watching her struggle for every breath as Ripper pulled at her power to do more spells forced his guilt to the fore. Shame was not conducive to rest.

Buffy had managed to worm her way in despite his defenses. He cared about the girl and could no longer deny it. He took a deep breath, hoping for once that chaos would not play a part in her recovery.

Between her slayer healing and Ripper's tender care, the girl would be back on her feet and rampaging through his life again in no time. He had to believe it. When this was over, he would welcome a well deserved thrashing. Perhaps his guilt would be assuaged. He stepped out of the shadows and walked along the sidewalk. There was something to be said for warm sun in January.

Joyce Summers took a deep breath and walked past the lovely flowers towards his door. He would know where her daughter was. He always did. He would know why her dorm room was half empty and why she had left no forwarding address. She swallowed as she stood on the far side of the door from her answers. Prayers wouldn't come any longer.

She had left to find some sanity, to remember what normalcy looked like. What if it had cost her everything? What if Buffy had fallen victim to her destiny while she was playing at being normal?

Her hand felt like lead as she lifted it to the door. She knocked and waited, listening to the scrambling sounds coming from the interior of the apartment. Willow opened the door and blanched.

"Mrs. Summers," Willow nodded and stepped back. "We didn't know you were back."

"I wanted to surprise Buffy for her birthday, but it would seem that I am the one confounded. Do you have any idea where my daughter is living?"

"Actually, no." Willow's eyes dropped down, avoiding contact. "Buffy moved out while you were away. I did some magic and it caused her some trouble, but I think she will forgive me. I mean I hope she will. She did come looking for me when we all lost our voices, so maybe she will."

"Where is she, Willow?" Joyce tried to keep the irritation from her voice. It wouldn't help her here.

"I don't know. She went out to stop some demons from opening the hell mouth and starting the apocalypse two days ago." Willow licked her lips and stepped back.

"My daughter has been missing for two days and not one of you called me?" Joyce winced as her own voice echoed through the apartment. She took a deep, calming breath. "Where is that damned man?"

"He's gone to get Buffy. She called a little while ago. Xander and Giles went to get her." Anya answered, stood, and walked toward her. "Why don't you come sit down? It is much easier to deal with anxiety if you do normal things like sitting and eating."

"Is she okay?" Joyce moved over and sat on the couch next to her daughter's friends.

"No." Anya tilted her head and looked at Joyce oddly. "If she was okay, she would be here with us celebrating her victory with pizza and other forms of nonnutritious sustenance."

"But Giles will have her fixed up in no time." Willow added hastily. "What with the slayer healing and all."

The quiet blonde smiled at her and handed her a plate of food which she ate without tasting. The three girls sat around her and offered no comfort, no more false reassurances. She looked at each girl and tried to imagine being a mother to a child untouched by fate. Did such wonders exist?

The door opened and they all turned to see a grim faced Xander holding it. Giles strode into the room with Buffy clutched in his arms. He was making small soothing sounds as he carried her passed them all.

Joyce felt shoved aside and out of place as she trailed behind them. She could hear his voice, but not the words. She moved a step closer.

"Buffy, please, Love, open your eyes." Desperation leant his voice a graveled edge. "Please, my love, come back to me."

Joyce shoved her fist against her mouth to hold back any sound. She watched as Giles wrapped her daughter in his arms and brought her unresponsive form closer. He chanted something awkward and harsh and latched his mouth onto Buffy's slack one. She shuddered as she took in the scene. The temperature rose suddenly as panic flashed to anger.

Buffy's arms suddenly gripped that man's shoulders and pulled him closer. Joyce took another step toward them. What the hell was going on here?

"Oh, Giles," Buffy sobbed as she panted. "I thought I wouldn't make it back."

"I've got you. You're safe." He stroked his shaking fingers through her daughter's hair.

"I wasn't so sure I'd get out of this one." Buffy's voice still sounded weak. "I was so scared."

"I know, Love." He stroked his hands along her body, but he wasn't checking for injuries. Joyce's temper flared.

"What the hell is going on here? That man should not be touching you." Joyce stepped in to the bathroom and glared at her daughter. "That man sent you out to die."