Title: Saving Grace
Summary: Giles, Willow, and Scoobies near and far must solve a mystery before their child is lost forever.
Disclaimer: Standard I guess. Buffy et al are property of FOX and Joss Whedon and whoever else... blah blah blahdon'tSueMeCakes
It was the child's laughter that pulled Giles away from unpacking. He smiled and headed toward the bedroom window that overlooked his backyard. Out past the patio and pool in the large yard his daughter Grace spun herself in dizzying circles and then flopped to the ground. An excellent imitation of a rag doll if he ever saw one. Seconds later she was up again her red pigtails bouncing as she raced from the rosebushes to her new swing set.
“Whatcha lookin' at?” Willow asked. Giles barely turned from the window as she walked up beside him. She wrapped her arm around his waist and rested her head on his chest. He pulled her closer and kissed the top of her head. They both winced as Grace ran full force and belly flopped on the flexible swing seat.
“She learned that in preschool,” Willow explained. “Only took her three tries and two bandages.” She didn't have to look to know that Giles' puppy dog in love expression had transformed into a hard scowl. She lifted her head and kissed his chin. To say that Giles was protective of Grace was like saying that the Titanic had been merely big.
“Yes,” he said unable to take his eyes off the scene below. “I've been wanting to talk to you about that school –“
Willow cut him off. “She's fine.” Her voice was sharp and she swallowed tempering it. “It's fine. No record of demony activity outside of being kids. All references checked and double checked. And checked again.” She raised her brow at him knowing full well that he'd researched it too.
He nodded and turned away from the window. “Y-yes, I know. But I just wanted to make sure they understand that –“
“It's preschool, Giles. Not university,” Willow assured him. She put her hand to his cheek and smiled. “She's making friends, she's gluing rectangles to paper, and she's having snack. She's fine.”
“Her teachers are making sure the other children don't trample her, aren't they?” His gaze returned to the window. Any annoyance that Willow felt with him faded as she watched love warm his face. He couldn't help it. From the instant Grace had been born Giles had sworn himself to her. More devoted than he had been to Buffy, more so than even to herself Willow suspected, but she didn't care. She'd done the same thing.
Born nearly two months early Grace Elizabeth Giles had been given a slim chance at survival. She'd weighed in at a whopping three pounds. She had been put on a ventilator and rushed to NICU to be with the other premature and sick babies.
Willow remembered Giles' tears, she remembered his promise to find out what was going on. For the life of her she couldn't remember feeling anything but numb. Her water couldn't have broken, right? The constant wetness down her thighs was just another embarrassing pregnancy thing, right? And, oh, god, they weren't cutting her open, were they? Almost as suddenly as it had begun there was Grace, still, silent, surrounded by technology and then taken away.
Willow had never been more terrified. Giles had been her rock. He was a fixture in the nursery when she wasn't able to get out of bed. He brought her polaroids and demanded information on her behalf when he probably shouldn't have. All because Willow had asked him to. When the day came that they were finally able to hold Grace Giles had taken the tiny bundle into his arms and Willow had watched as he lost his heart to another woman.
“She's fine, Giles,” Willow reiterated. “She's not that much smaller than the rest of them.”
“A-and academically,” Giles pressed. “She's being challenged?”
Willow adjusted herself in his arms then reached up to fiddle with his buttons. There were too many of them still fastened. “They're not up to Bronte yet, but I'm thinkin' within the month.”
Giles' scowl didn't reach his eyes. “Now you're mocking me.”
She nodded as she pulled the hem of his shirt free of his jeans.
“I know you think I'm overreacting,” he continued, “but this is the first time anyone outside the family has watched her.”
Willow stopped her efforts of partial seduction and sighed. “She's not a baby anymore. She'll be five this Friday.”
Giles agreed. “And before you know it some acne scarred oversexed teenage boy will attempt a backseat pawing –“
Willow rolled her eyes and slapped at his chest. “Relax.”
More laughter floated up from the yard and pulled them back to the window. Grace was off the swings and now ducked behind trees and bushes. “Nahny nahny boo boo,” she called. “Stick yer face in doo doo. You can't fi-ind me.”
“Wonderful,” Giles groused. “A public school gem.”
“Actually, that's a Xander gem,” Willow corrected him. She smiled. “Look at it this way, she's got real kids her own age to play with now. It used to be just Xander and Tanny Bubbles, and one of them was imaginary.”
Despite himself Giles chuckled at Willow 's reference to Grace's imaginary friend. “I'm sure Tanny Bubbles will be quite put out.”
“Kiss my shoe, ya big stinkeroo,” Grace squealed. She raced behind another tree.
Giles' smile faded. “I think I prefer the imaginary ones. At least Tanny was germ free. I read a study that children who attend day care have twice as many illnesses as those who –“
“Stop, okay? We talked about this. We agreed that me taking this job was a good thing, remember? You're hurting my feelings being all Willow are you sure guy.”
Giles looked genuinely taken aback. “I-I'm sorry.” As usual, when it came to Grace, he was over-reacting, but he couldn't help it. Common sense told him to lighten up, that she was no longer the scrawny baby who'd struggled to breath on her own. Emotionally, he wasn't ready. While intellectually Grace was ahead of her peers, physically she still looked to be a good year or so younger than she was. Not to mention that she'd inherited her mother's slight build and delicate features. “I didn't mean to suggest that –“
Willow 's soft kiss stopped him. “I know. Let's just give this a fair shoot, alright? Being asked to work at Saotech is a big deal. She'll be fine. I promise.”
“Of course, Dear.” Giles adjusted his arms around her slender waist and lowered his head to steal another kiss. “I'm being silly.” He slid his hand down the smooth curve of her jeans covered bottom and nuzzled her neck. “Can I make it up to you?”
Willow rolled her head to the side exposing more neck and tried to think of something coy but as Giles kissed and nibbled along her throat the best she could come up with was, “mmmmm.”
He caught her earlobe between his teeth and gave it a tug. “How long has it been?” he asked though he knew full well how long. They'd packed up their apartment a week ago and they were still coming out from under the boxes. Though the spirits had been willing the bodies had crashed into bed every night asleep before they hit the pillow.
Giles felt the blood stir in welcomed and familiar warmth. Ignoring Willow's needs was an unforgivable oversight that he would reconcile as soon as possible. Earlier even if Grace weren't in the backyard – most likely on her way inside.
As if sharing the same thought Willow and Giles sighed and pulled apart. “Tonight,” Giles said. He punctuated the word with a kiss that grew in intensity until the unmistakable sound of Grace pounding up the stairs interrupted them. Willow cleared her throat and looked to the floor just as Grace rounded the corner into their bedroom.
The small girl scrutinized them with her father's confused expression and then shook her head as if to clear it. “Peter needs someone on his team.”
“Who's Peter?” Giles asked. He put his arm around Willow's soldier.
“My new friend,” Grace explained. She wriggled her leg with the impatience of a child anxious to return to play. “And since he can't see Tanny he says it isn't fair.”
“He's probably from down the street,” Willow said. She settled under Giles's arm.
Grace's pigtails slapped the sides of her face as she shook her head. “He's not, Mummy. He lives with us sometimes.”
A light of recognition went on in Willow's eyes and she nudged Giles.
“Of course,” Giles said. It looked like they'd picked up another imaginary friend. He accepted Grace's outstretched hand and followed her from the room. Their conversation floated back to Willow. “Tell Peter I'd be honored to be his teammate.”
“You just did, Daddy.”
Willow smiled at her daughter's imagination and her husband's willingness to get goofy and then looked around the room. She sighed in admitted defeat. Boxes and lots of ‘em waited for her. Unpacking would be so much easier if she had just a little bit of magic to help out. Nothing big, maybe something to help move the boxes. Willow shook her head. Wishing would do no good. The magic was gone and had been for over five years. No amount of hoping or bargaining with whatever goddess who might have heard would bring it back.
She pushed the memory aside. There was no point in dwelling. She'd had her cry years ago. She mourned the loss of a part of herself that had been as tangible as her own hand and then she'd moved on.
It wasn't such a bad trade, really. In exchange for her magic she'd been given a family. A family that was having fun while she unpacked bathroom linens. Willow put her hands to her hips and surveyed the room. Another day living out of boxes wouldn't kill them. She closed the bedroom door behind her on her way outside.
They played until dinner. As Giles and Willow cleared the patio table of leftover pizza Grace resumed hide and seek with Tanny and Peter. Willow balanced a half-full wine glass in one hand as she slid into Giles' lap. He felt himself stir as she wriggled into a more comfortable position. Eventually, when he thought he could take no more she settled into his chest and took another drink. He slid one hand under her shirt and rested it across the small flat span of her belly savoring the silky smooth skin. “How much longer until bed time?” he asked.
“Not soon enough,” Willow said. In the background Grace taunted her invisible playmates and then squealed in delight as they “found” her. Willow snorted. “Yeah. She needs real live friends.”
“And what do you need?” Giles asked. He inched his hand upward delighting as it came into contact with the underswell of her breast. It was time to concentrate on his wife. She was facing a lot at once – a move, a job, trying to create order from chaos. Tonight he'd make her forget all that.
“You think tonight'll be any better?” Willow asked suddenly.
Giles coughed and raised a brow. “I'm sorry?”
“The nightmares,” Willow clarified. “You think we'll get a decent night's sleep? Aside from the – um- not sleeping part that we sorta have planned.” She took another long drink and raised her eyebrows at him over the rim of the glass.
“Nightmares are normal,” Giles hurried to reassure her though he hadn't quite convinced himself. In all honesty a large part of their fatigue was due to Grace's sudden onset of night terrors. “I'm sure they'll fade and she'll be as good as new.”
Just as the words left his mouth Grace's laughter stopped. Both Giles and Willow looked up. Giles frowned. He could tell by the set of Grace's shoulders that something wasn't right. Willow slid from his lap ready to step forward.
It took a second call before Grace blinked and turned to her mother. Wide green eyes stood out on an otherwise pinched face.
Giles squinted and started to rise from his chair. “Something wrong?”
Grace nodded slowly, hesitantly and then glanced over her shoulder before she started toward the patio. Grace was walking as quickly as she could without actually breaking into a run and her back was ramrod straight. Giles' frown deepened the closer she got.
She stopped long enough to grab their hands and give them an anxious tug. “We have to go inside now,” she said casting another nervous glance over her shoulder. “Please?”
“Sure,” Willow said. She looked to Giles and then back the direction Grace had come. Her brow was drawn in concern but she kept her voice calm. “It's bath time anyway.”
“I'll be just a minute,” Giles stalled. Something had scared her and he wanted to know what. After his assurance that he'd be right behind them Grace finally eased her death grip and allowed her mother to lead her inside. Giles scanned the yard. The late evening sunlight reflected off the pool and tall flowers and trees swayed in the late spring breeze. The most ominous thing he saw was a grasshopper.
As usual Grace's bath time was filled with splashing, giggling and song singing. Willow sat back on her heels and dried her hands on her jeans as Grace made one more tidal wave before calling it quits. Grace's mysterious mood had disappeared as suddenly as its onset and content with her daughter's ‘I thought I saw something scary' explanation Willow shrugged it off. She was definitely familiar with that sensation.
Willow grabbed a thick purple towel from the counter and bundled Grace tightly in its snuggly softness as they watched the water swirl down the drain.
“You smell like apples,” Willow said burying her head in Grace's neck and snorting like a pig. It never failed to crack the little girl up and tonight was no exception. Minutes later, with hair dried, teeth brushed and pajamas on Willow turned Grace toward the hallway and gave her bottom a gentle swat. “Bedtime for you.”
“Mo-om,” Grace whined. She dropped her head back as she fell into an exaggerated droop. “I'm not tired.”
“Sure you are,” Willow said easily. She put her hands to Grace's shoulders and guided her down the hallway. Now free of pigtails her dark red hair hung down her back in long waves. Willow felt a touch of envy and ran her hand through her own cropped hair that, at the moment was heavy with the day's grime.
She had managed to unpack the scented candles that morning, and the master bath had a Jacuzzi sized tub and Giles had promised her many wonderful things…. Willow's thoughts trailed off down seduction lane but stopped abruptly as Grace drew up short just outside her bedroom door.
Willow held her breath. What had once been a simple bedtime routine had taken more twist and turns than she cared to think about. She bit back a frustrated whimper. The days of a quick story and a kiss seemed a distant memory.
Grace turned pleading eyes to Willow and her lower lip threatened to puff out. “Will you stay with me?”
Unable to find it in her heart to be irritated Willow nodded. She couldn't blame Grace. Who didn't have some adjustment difficulties? It wasn't realistic for them to expect Grace to take all the changes they'd thrown at her in stride. “You bet,” Willow said.
Not quite an hour later a weary Willow turned on Grace's nightlight and carefully closed the bedroom door behind her. All amorous thoughts had been replaced with ones of a quick hot shower followed by slipping between her own fresh sheets. The shower was optional even, and really, the carpet right before her looked just as comfortable as any bed.
Down the hall her bedroom door cracked open and Giles stuck his head around the corner and then stepped into the hall. “Again?” he asked with a nod to Grace's room. “Is she okay?”
Willow sighed and stretched her arms over her head. “Yep.” He met her half way and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. Their hips bumped as they made their way to their room. It was still light outside but Willow didn't care. Sleep was needed. “Said she thought she saw something.”
Giles frowned. “Did she say what?”
“Nope. Probably a bee or frog,” she shrugged. “Kids are weird.”
He hesitated but seemed to let the matter drop and Willow was grateful. Not that his tendency to analyze ad nauseaum was in the least bit tedius. Tonight however, she was too tired to join in with his theorizing. Tonight she wanted to pull their covers around them and fall asleep in his arms.
“I'm sorry,” Willow said through a yawn. “I had this whole bath slash scented candle thing in the works but it kinda petered out on me somewhere around the third story.”
Giles tsked sympathetically and stepped to the side as they reached their bedroom letting her pass through the doorway first. As Willow stumbled across the room and landed face down on the bed he closed the door. She heard the lock click into place and the light dimmed. Despite her weariness she smiled. The bed sank as Giles crawled over her and finally sat straddled just over the back of her thighs.
“So, you're too tired then?” His voice was low, smooth, and almost as convincing as the way his large hands kneaded her fatigued shoulders . She groaned as his fingers pressed deeply into her muscles.
“Because if you're tired I could let you sleep,” he continued. He slipped his hands under her blouse.
He massaged her shoulders, taking his time, kneading the flesh beneath his palm with long deliberate strokes. Just when Willow thought she'd melted into their bed Giles pulled away and urged her to turn over.
"I have this theory," he said as undid the first button on her blouse, "that if you're naked and I'm naked –"
Willow grinned suddenly not so tired. Giles concentrated on the final three buttons and then looked up in feigned surprise as the last one slipped through its confines. "Mrs. Giles, it would seem your blouse has come undone."
"All in the name of science," Willow assured him. She lifted her head and watched as Giles scooted down her body. He nestled his hips and torso in between her legs and propped himself over her chest. His eyes darkened as Willow squirmed her hips against his but the playful smile still worked the corners of his lips.
"And science thanks you," he murmured meticulously pulling her shirt to either side. He glanced down at the lacey bra that concealed her and licked his lips. Willow's pulse doubled with anticipation and she felt her nipples pucker under the heat of his gaze.
He trailed his fingers over her breast, his touch light enough through her bra to leave her wonderfully frustrated. She rolled her shoulders hoping he'd take the hint and quit his sweet torture. Giles grinned up at her and ran his finger just under the lace's edge.
"Still tired?" he asked.
"Oh, no." Willow managed. She bit her lip daring him to draw this game out any longer. "But this experiment will fail if I'm the only one who's naked." Wet heat pooled between her legs and she squirmed, tilting her hips in a silent invitation.
"Indeed," Giles agreed but he seemed in no hurry to move. Instead he concentrated on unclasping her bra. "But a rushed experiment would yield inconclusive results." His fingertips grazed her sensitive breasts as he pushed aside her bra. With another wicked glance back at her face he ducked his head and flicked his tongue across her nipple and then drew it into his hot mouth. Willow closed her eyes and arched her back as a sensual electricity shot through her. He sucked greedily and massaged her other breast with strong fingers.
Willow laced her fingers through his hair holding him loosely in place and then let her hand trail across his shoulders as he gave his attention to her other breast. She felt his muscles tighten and stretch under his shirt as he maneuvered for better position. His weight across her body sent delicious and comforting thrills through her as their bodies moved instinctively mimicking the subtle movements of making love. The friction of their denim covered sex took Willow's breath away.
Giles moved over her again, leaning down to kiss the swell of her breast and then to the side to nibble at the crux of her neck and shoulders. His shirt gapped in the front and Willow brought her hands to the soft cotton and worked on the buttons. The heat from his skin radiated through the thin material bolstering her desire to be skin to skin with him.
Finally with the last button disposed his shirt fell open and Willow laced her fingers through the light smattering of golden chest hair. Years of training had sculpted his body, giving him the physique that men half his age would envy. Willow's fingers butterflied over his chest then danced down his tight stomach. They paused briefly over the unnaturally smooth scar that marred his belly as they always did, bringing up memories of a night more than five years ago, but Giles's kiss chased them away.
Willow opened herself to him as he traced the edges of her lips with his tongue and then dipped inside her mouth. He teased and coaxed her until she wiggled underneath him in anticipation then grabbed the back of his head and pulled his lips back down to hers. She snaked her free hand back down his chest and then with some maneuvering slipped it inside his jeans. He was thick and hard in her hand and, Willow thought as she worked furiously at his zipper, entirely too confined.
A frustrated whimper escaped her throat as Giles pulled away from her and her hand dropped to the mattress. He was certainly taking his sweet time, torturing her with patience when she could barely tolerate not having him inside. He flashed a devilish grin.
"These things can't be rushed," he explained then lowered his head and kissed, nibbled, and sucked his way down her belly. Willow sucked in her tummy and prayed for self control as he tickled and teased and then with deliberate and cruel slowness he tugged open each button of her jeans.
"Raise up," he said and when she did he inched her jeans and panties from her hips. Willow was certain the sound of clothes hitting the floor had never been more arousing and another wave of liquid heat drenched her panties.
Giles stood over her, his eyes heavy with admiration, his arousal obvious beneath his clothes. Willow pressed her legs together and shifted in an effort to ease the ache between them but he shook his head and put a hand to each knee and spread them slightly. A rakish grin crossed his face then he knelt before her and with one movement tugged her to the end of the bed. She couldn't stifle her giggle.
"Willow," he chastised running his hands from her knees to the insides of her thighs. "You're in no position to be laughing."
Willow raised herself on her elbows and bit the edge of her tongue daring him. Her grin faded and she leaned her head back as Giles smoothed his hands down her thighs and spread them just a bit further. Three long white scars stood out and he ran a ginger finger down the length of the longest and then traced the juncture of her thigh. Willow' laughter faded into a short whimper. He sucked breath in through his teeth at the sight of her and stifled a moan. Damp auburn curls quivered with each breath she took. Beneath them, only partially hidden, was the moist treasure he sought.
The diamond in Willow's wedding band glimmered in the soft light as she stroked her hand down her downy soft belly. Giles groaned and his jeans pinched even tighter as Willow slipped her hand between her legs and danced across the auburn curls.
She was intoxicating, every bit of her, the way she felt, the way she smelled, the quiet sounds she made as she pleasured herself. Without taking his eyes from her Giles stood and kicked out his jeans and boxers. His shirt and socks soon joined the pile of clothes at his feet.
An instant later he was between her legs, tasting her, teasing her, making love to her with his mouth. Her muted cries were his reward and her legs trembled around him as she came.
"Again," he whispered kissing her thigh and sliding two fingers into her pulsating heat. He pressed his hips forward and the down comforter brushed against his straining cock like a lover's touch. Giles closed his eyes and redoubled his efforts to see her through another orgasm. There was no way in hell he was going to last once he slipped inside her velvet grip.
"No," Willow said with ragged breath. She reached for him, pulling at his shoulders, finding his hand and drawing him over her. She looked up at him from heavy lidded dark eyes. "I want you inside me."
Trust her to have the best ideas. Giles nodded and then slid forward entering her with one smooth stroke. He wanted to take his time, to savor the feel of his wife as she surrounded him, held him. Willow's warm sigh caressed his cheek and he lowered his mouth to hers. As their tongues danced and teased Willow's hands fluttered over his shoulders and down his back until without warning she gripped him and lifted her hips into his. Giles gasped, and clenched his jaw fighting the sudden urge to come right then. There was no way in God's sweet heaven. She was hot and tight and wet around him and her green eyes sparkled and danced with passion. He pushed aside all polite intentions and simply let the raw lust control him.
Their breathing mixed in gasps as their bodies collided. Giles drove into her, each time wanting to go deeper than the time before. Willow clung to him, nipped at his mouth and shoulders. She said things neither of them understood nor cared to at that moment. Vaguely, he was aware that she arched into him her grip bordered on painful, but it drove him forward. He slid his forearms under her shoulders, dug his fingers into her soft flesh, and buried his face in her neck as telltale electricity raced through his body.
"Now," Willow begged and Giles's world disappeared. He clung to her, thrusting deeply as she shuddered and clenched around him milking his release. He was falling and he didn't care. Willow would catch him. She always did.
When at last they could breath without panting Giles rolled to the side taking her with him. They lay together in the quiet, there were few words shared between them. It was enough to be touching, it was enough that they had each other. He traced the subtle ridges and dents her spine made down her back with the tips of his fingers. Finally he contented himself with lazy circles that would on occasion make her squirm.
Willow's slow and sleepy voice drifted up to him. "And the results were?"
Giles's contented smile deepened into laughter. "Inconclusive. The test will need to be performed again."
"In the interest of science," Willow affirmed. She lifted her head and kissed his chin.
"In the interest of never having enough of you," he corrected. He kissed the top of her head then flung what he could of their comforter over them. Willow's exhaustion had returned and though he was far from sleepy he wanted to hold her, to feel the deep rise and fall of her chest and back as she slept. He knew eventually her even breathing and slowed heartbeat would lull him into the delightful cusp of sleep and awake but until then he was content to be.
Giles wasn't sure exactly how long he'd been asleep when something jolted him into instant alert status. Snuggled next to him Willow remained unperturbed. He blinked the sleep from his eyes and stared up at the ceiling listening for whatever had awoken him. He didn't have to wait long Every nerve in his body ignited as an unmistakable thud and a muffled cry sounded from down the hall.
Carefully, he eased from Willow's side then snagged a pair of tattered sweat pants from the nearest chair and stepped into them. He'd check on Grace and be back before his side of the bed got cold. Willow would never know and he wouldn't have to endure that 'you're smothering her' expression she pretended not to give.
He reached for his shirt but he tossed it aside as a second muffled cry came. Forgetting his plans to spirit from the bedroom he stumbled to the bedroom door, fumbled with the lock and pulled it open. A few long strides later he pushed open Grace's bedroom door. Giles flinched and shielded his eyes against the bright light that greeted him. It took a few seconds of squinting and searching until he finally discerned Grace sitting in the middle of her room wrapped in her blanket.
"Daddy," she breathed in sleepy relief.
Giles pulled a glass ball from a box of packing peanuts and held it up to the light. After months of searching, he'd found it. The Veruvian Orb was on the wish list of almost anyone interested in magic. Whether or not it worked was pure speculation, but it was quite pretty. A small sense of satisfaction tugged at the corner of his lips. The shop bell rang and Giles's smile spread as Xander and Grace walked in. Her backpack hung almost to her calves in a comical effect.
"Hi, Daddy," she piped up as she bound across the shop. A Powerpuff Girls lunchbox plopped on the counter just as she caught sight of what Giles held. She cocked her head to the side. "What's that?"
Giles settled the orb back in its box and rounded the counter. "Let's see what you did today," he suggested and knelt before her. Grace's glance lingered on the box for a minute and then she shrugged.
He wasn't being overprotective, Giles thought as he helped her with her backpack. The orb was very old, very fragile, and supposedly housed the souls of the dead. Definitely not anything a child needed to be playing with. Or looking at. Or even knowing about. Ever.
As Grace unzipped her bag and pulled out a handful of cut and pasted whatnot Anya descended the loft. She balanced a heavy leather bound book on her hip and puffed her hair from her eyes.
"Here's your book. It should explain the particulars of the orb."
Xander hurried past Giles and Grace and pulled the book from Anya's hands. "Houses of the Dead." He looked at Giles. "Something in the works?"
"No," Giles assured him. "Just a little late night reading." His attention was more on modern macaroni art than mystic baubles now that Grace was in the shop. He held up one of her creations for Xander and Anya's approval.
Anya looked suitably confused but managed an indulgent smile.
"The things they can do with pasta nowadays," Xander said with the appropriate amount of enthusiasm. He put the book on the counter and held out his hand to Grace. "I think you were talkin' some trash about beatin' the Xandman at Lego Speedway."
Grace grinned at her dad and then shoved her backpack in his hands and sprinted to the back room. "Last one there's a rabbit fart."
"First one there eats it," Xander retorted hot on her heels.
Giles closed his eyes. Truly, a match made in heaven. He gripped the counter's edge and stood up.
"That orb's pretty cool," Anya offered. "Legend has it that if you're holding it when you die you get to come back. Like a 'get out of dead free card'." She paused for a moment then shrugged. "Might have come in handy when Buffy died."
Giles grimaced at the memory of his slayer's death. The papers he held in his hand suddenly felt very fragile and he started to put them back in Grace's bag but a little voice from the doorway stopped him.
"Aunt Buffy died?"
Feeling like a deer caught in the headlights, he turned around to face his daughter. Xander stood behind her with his hands on her shoulders his expression apologetic. Anya shrugged her apology and shared a guilty look with Xander. Grace looked from him to her aunt and uncle and then back to him. Without warning her chin wobbled and she fled into his arms.
"No, Love," he assured her, lifting her small body into his arms. She pressed her head against his shoulder and Giles tried to quiet her sobs. "She's not dead. I promise."
Grace sniffled a few more times then pulled away from her father's embrace. Her tear- filled eyes serious. "Did she drown?"
Xander coughed and Giles felt his heart stop and then slam forward in his chest. He licked his lips. "Did someone tell you that?" He tried to sound casual but it didn't play. Buffy's death, as far as he knew was never discussed.
"Did a bad man make her die?" she persisted growing more and more agitated.
He cleared his throat and then still finding it difficult to breath loosened his tie. He licked his lips and considered his answer carefully. "Once, a very long time ago, she did drown. Fortunately for all of us your Uncle Xander was there to help her. But I can assure you that Buffy is very much alive and that you'll be seeing her at your birthday party."
Grace sat still for a moment, a fat tear still on her cheek, and then she nodded. "Sometimes people come back, huh?"
"Sometimes," he agreed slowly. A slow anger built in his chest. Someone somewhere had some explaining to do. He covered it with a quick smile. "Now. No more tears. Your mother will have a fit if she sees I made you cry."
"Can we call Aunt Buffy?" Grace asked. She plucked at his tie and then raised her big eyes to his. "Just to make sure?"
"Absolutely," Anya exclaimed. She bustled behind the counter and picked up the receiver. She plastered a bright smile on her face as she dialed Buffy's number and then held out the phone to Grace. "I find constant contact with the ones I love very comforting as well."
With the phone call finished, Grace assured, and Xander once again humbled at Lego Speedway, Giles and Grace loaded their car and headed home. Giles glanced in the rearview mirror and smiled at his daughter. Her tears had been replaced with a happy smile and she lifted her small face to the early evening sunshine. He sighed, glad to see that she was no worse for the wear.
The twenty-minute drive passed with chitchat and ill-fated attempts to find out how she'd learned of Buffy's death.
"'Cause that's how some people die," Grace explained as they pulled into the driveway. She strained in her seat and the annoyed scowl she'd given Giles blossomed into a genuine smile. "It's Peter," she said pointing to her swing set. "I'm gonna go play."
Giles sighed and cut the engine. He was probably reading way too much into it all. Next to him Grace struggled with her seatbelt, opened the door, and ran across the yard to meet her invisible friend. Giles pulled the keys from the ignition grabbed his box and her discarded backpack, then headed inside.
"Hey," Willow greeted him. She sat at the kitchen table surrounded by stacks of paper and not one, but two laptops. Her eyes lit up when she saw the box he carried. "Present for me?"
"Not unless you want to house the dead," Giles said. He gave her a fond smile and lifted the box over her head as he passed by. Willow made a face.
"If they can work some power point magic, I might,” she said indicating the pile of work spread out before her. She peered around his back. "Where's the short one?"
“Playing with Peter it would seem,” Giles said. He stopped and scratched his cheek still bothered by the afternoon's revelation. “She said the strangest thing today – or someone let it slip."
Willow looked up. She leaned her head back over the chair and watched him, her brow drawn in concern. Giles shook his head to clear his thoughts surely he was making too much of it. Children made up tales, had vivid imaginations, saw what they weren't supposed to on telly. Still, Grace's words echoed through his head. The bad man made her die. Images of the Master flashed through his mind and he flinched.
“Giles?” Willow interrupted his thoughts. He adjusted the box he held and cleared his throat. She listened, with a worried line between her eyes, as he explained the misunderstanding about Buffy's death, how obviously Grace had heard part of a conversation, how they'd reassured her.
“The question that remains is how she knew about the Master," Giles said. He knew neither of them would ever repeat such a thing. He frowned out the screen door watching Grace swing back and forth, flying higher with each kick of her legs, as if something unseen propelled her. He rubbed the back of his head. It wasn't like Grace to keep anything from him. “I asked her and she wouldn't say.”
He heard the scraping of Willow's chair as she pushed it back and the air around him moved as she came to his side. She rested her small chin on his shoulder as she looked out the window with him. “I'm sure she overheard it somewhere. Maybe during a meeting – you know how she likes to play possum. We're just going to have to make sure everyone's extra careful now. It's not like anyone would tell her that on purpose.”
He considered her explanation then tried to shrug off the uneasy feeling that had started just an hour ago. Right. Somehow she'd heard one of the others. Most likely her reticence to explain came from her responding to his obvious stress. Giles nodded still unable to pull his attention from the back yard.
“Try again tonight,” Willow said. Her breath blew warm across his cheek making it just that much easier to let go of the tension. She gave his waist a quick comforting squeeze. “You might get more from her when you're not all vein sticking out of my forehead man.”
Giles rolled his eyes and started to take her to task about not being concerned enough but he saw the way her eyes lingered on Grace, the dark light of concern that her sudden forced smile pushed away. He did have to move past these ‘no one could possibly be more concerned than I' feelings.
“You're probably right,” he said then gave Willow's temple an absent-minded kiss. No one had told him that the fear and uncertainty that came with raising a child only increased with each birthday.
Willow put the final touch on Grace's birthday cake and stepped back to admire her handiwork. The princess had requested a pink castle and a pink castle she'd received; complete with iced toilet paper tube towers. Which, upon reflection weren't as easy to ice as she thought they'd be. She adjusted the small plastic horse that pulled the miniature carriage and then covered the creation and moved it from harm's way.
With a few half-hearted swipes at the counter she flicked on the nightlight and turned off the bright overhead and headed to the study. This was their dream house; the one Giles had described in his efforts to distract her from the intense pain she'd inflicted upon herself years ago. It had taken years to find but it was exactly what they'd wanted. Willow smiled. And now it was theirs. She'd given Giles her dream and once again he'd made it come true.
As she settled into the couch and pulled her laptop into position Willow heard the soft rumbling of Giles's voice and the higher sweeter pitch of Grace's response. The unmistakable sound of their laughter followed. It filled Willow with a bittersweet sense of peace and pride. Grace would never have to wonder if she were as important as duty the way Willow and Giles had as children.
Familiar strands of guitar music wound their way down the stairs. Willow doodled and hummed as Giles paid tribute to Kermit the Frog's Rainbow Connection. It was a popular request in the Giles' household. As Giles's smooth voice slid over the notes Willow lost herself in outlining her upcoming presentation.
She wasn't sure how much time had passed when Giles joined her. She looked up in response to the kiss he dropped on her forehead. “How'd it go?”
“Three storied and two songs later and she's out cold,” Giles announced.
“I mean did she say anything else about Buffy?” she asked.
Giles shook his head. “Nothing, aside from accusing Peter.”
“Ah. The famous Peter defense. When in doubt blame the invisible friend.”
Giles managed a wry smile. “I'm beginning to think you're right. I'm sure she overheard it at some point.”
Willow smiled glad to see him lightening up and then looked back down at her screen. “We'll just be more careful,” she said although she was certain it wouldn't be the first time Grace would overhear something she shouldn't. It was all part and parcel of being a kid.
“Absolutely,” Giles agreed. He leaned over her, kissed her forehead, and then pulled her laptop from her hands. Willow's protest died on her lips when she saw the subtle but suggestive arch of his brow. His green eyes shone with sexy warmth. “Come to bed with me.”
Her stomach jumped at the unexpected invitation. Any work she had to do faded in comparison to her husband. He was all rumply and family man seductive…. Willow capitulated easily.
Grace's birthday came with much fanfare. Cupcakes were sent to school, grandparents took her to the park and out for ice cream, and that night Xander, Anya, and Buffy loaded down the table with brightly wrapped presents. The mound of gifts tormented Grace almost beyond adult tolerance but, as Giles pointed out, tradition was tradition. Dinner, then cake, then presents.
"You're almost finished, aren't you?" Grace asked. She hung on Giles's arm looking incredibly pained. When he hesitated she resorted to the ultimate threat. "I'll tell mummy on you if you're not almost finished."
Giles swallowed his last bite of the castle cake (which had been very well received), endured the jibes of who exactly wore the pants in the family, and then reached for another slice.
Grace's exaggerated wail, combined with a barrage of wadded up napkins the others lobbed at his head, convinced Giles that he was on very thin ice. "I think it's time."
"Yes," Grace exclaimed as she jumped up from the patio and pumped her fist in the air. "Prezzies."
"Mine first," Buffy said. She pulled a long box from the bottom of the pile and held it out to her niece.
There was no gentle loosening of the tape, no saving of the bows. Grace ripped into her presents the way she ripped into everything else in her life.
"So the plan is to kill me slowly with several small heart attacks, is it?" Giles asked Buffy of Grace's exuberant squeals of 'I looove it', and, 'it's exactly the one I wanted'. Buffy gave him a merry shrug and helped unpack the Slicer Scooter from its box.
"No worries," she said. "It comes with extra-special training sessions from your truly." She smiled and clicked the handle into place. "We'll have her doin' flips in no time."
Giles rolled his eyes and clutched his chest. Even Willow looked alarmed. Dear Lord, how many frantic trips to the emergency room would this gift garner?
"We gotcha covered, Mac Daddy Giles," Xander said as if he'd read Giles's mind. He grabbed the most festively wrapped box from the table and handed it to the birthday girl.
Before Giles could remind him not to call him that, Grace gasped in delight. "Barbie helmet and matching funkadelic knee and elbow pads!"
"It's protective gear," Anya explained. "Small bones are delicate and prone to breaks. And the helmet is top of the line. It came with stickers."
"Stickers are always good," Willow confirmed as she helped Grace pull out the matching helmet and pads. Grace wiggled impatiently as Willow adjusted the gear and fussed over their fit. When they were finally fit Grace turned and modeled for her adoring audience.
"The rest of these can wait," Grace said with a wave of her hand to the stack that remained. "I gotta try these out."
"You're sure the helmet's tight enough?" Giles worried.
Grace ignored him and put one foot on her scooter. It wobbled but somehow she managed to balance with one foot in the air. Giles leaned forward in his chair, ready to spring into action. Perhaps it would be better if she practiced a bit before she actually tried – Giles rolled his eyes. He'd crossed a line. The others were correct. His concern bordered on neurotic.
"Just be careful," he mumbled in defeat.
"C'mon, Tanny," Grace said. She held out an arm and then pushed off.
"Tanny's still around?" Buffy asked. She slid her plate across the table to Willow.
"Yep." Willow nodded. She stood and started stacking plates as the others followed Buffy's lead. She looked over Buffy's shoulder. Grace zigzagged the length of the fenced in pool. "Good ol' Tanny."
"I have reason to believe that Miss Tanny Bubbles is on her way out," Giles announced. He crossed his calf over his knee and stretched his back then took the plates from his wife and pulled her to his lap.
Anya looked stricken. "But I've enjoyed the youthful frivolity of her unhealthy obsession with a non-existent person." She shrugged and looked to Xander for confirmation. "It's fun."
Giles offered Willow a sip of his wine. "Not to worry, Anya. It seems a little trouble maker named Peter has taken her place."
Willow nodded and wrapped her arm around his shoulder. "We think he's a bad influence," she said in a conspiratorial tone.
"Ya gotta watch those imaginary friends," Xander chimed in. "At first it's imaginary writing on the wall. The next thing you know she's smoking invisible cigarettes in the bathroom."
Giles grimaced at the mental image of a five year old Grace sharing a cigarette in a bathroom stall and shook his head. "Imaginary friends aside I must warn you all again to please censor your conversations when Grace is around. Recently, she's been prone to nightmares. You can imagine what yesterday did to her."
There was a guilty mumble of apologies and the mood turned solemn as they each studied their wine. In the background Grace and her scooter zipped back and forth with giggling and pigtails flying behind her.
"And the fun was suddenly sucked from the night," Xander said under his breath.
Giles shifted feeling somewhat uncomfortable. That hadn't been his intention at all.
"We're not accusing anyone," Willow jumped in. "I-it could have been us. But these nights without sleep are brutal and –"
Grace slid to a stop right in front of her parents. "Can I open the rest of my presents?"
"Absolutely," Giles agreed. He hadn't meant to suck the fun from the night and was more than eager to let it return.
Willow pointed to a large purple envelope with her pinky. "That's from us."
"It's not very big," Grace pointed out. She slid her finger through the flap.
"Don't you know the best things come in small packages?" Xander teased. "Just look at you."
"And diamond earrings," Anya volunteered.
Grace's expression was uncertain and she gave her parents one more look before sliding the card off the table. Giles saw Willow fighting a smile. She was almost more excited about this gift than Grace would be. An expectant hush stole over the small crowd as Grace opened the card and studied the picture inside. After a second she looked to them for confirmation.
"It's a puppy," she said skeptically. Despite the hesitation Giles could hear the excitement in her voice, as if she couldn't quite believe her luck.
Willow nodded. "Yep. One of Shue-Shue's."
"I'm getting a puppy?" The question was barely out of her mouth before the jumping started. "I'm getting a puppy! I wanna go see her. Can we go see her right now? Pleeease?" She grabbed Giles's hand. "Right now? Can we? Please? Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty please?"
"We can tomorrow," Willow promised. "But the puppies are at Aunt Buffy's place tonight and she's gotta work after the party so no one'll be there to let us in."
"She can go with us," Anya said. "Xander and I are going over after we drop Buffy off at – work. We've got to feed Shue. We could take her and –"
"Then I could spend the night at your place?" Grace asked. Her eyes glowed with excitement and she hugged herself. "This is the best birthday ever."
"Grace," came Giles's soft reprimand. She was constantly angling to spend the night at Xander and Anya's. Apparently their cookie jar was open twenty-four hours straight and they had the ultimate cartoon collection. Giles also had suspicions about alarmingly late bedtimes.
"It's okay with us," Xander said easily. "She can help with the cleaning, and the laundry, and the broccoli eating…." Grace's giggle obscured the rest of his sentence and Willow sighed.
"Okay," she agreed and pushed herself of Giles's lap. "I'll go pack your bag."
Minutes later Buffy, Grace, her 'visiting grandma's' suitcase, and her birthday presents were crammed and secured in the back seat of Xander's car. Goodbyes were said, childcare instructions were reviewed, and when at last they were out of sight Giles turned to Willow. She smiled.
"Well," she said and clapped her hands together. Her eyes sparkled in the moonlight. "Whaddya wanna do?"
Blood stirred in his groin. They were alone. It was the two of them and an un-christened pool; what didn't he want to do?
Saturday morning sun shone through the blinds and Giles grunted and rolled to his side pulling Willow closer. They'd spent the night making love: the pool, the study, and finally their bed where Giles, though thoroughly pleased with himself was fairly certain one more go would leave him dead. But the morning, he thought as he splayed his hand across Willow 's smooth belly then cupped the soft weight of her breast in his hand, the morning brought with it a new enthusiasm.
"Morning," Willow mumbled. She stretched against him and then flipped to her back. Giles propped his head on his hand and smiled down at her. Her eyes were still sleepy, and her hair stuck up in funny directions but he didn't care. She was still the most beautiful woman he'd ever known.
"Morning," he answered. The tips of her breasts peeked out over the tops of the covers as she stretched. Unable to help himself Giles leaned forward and caught the sensitive bud between his lips. He tugged gently, laving and sucking until Willow's amused giggles faded into breathy sighs and she laced her fingers through his hair.
His arousal surged against her thigh and then once more as she snaked her free hand between them. Her strokes were long and he rocked his hips into her grip. He released her nipple with a groan and then rolled to his back, pulling her on top of him.
Willow rose over him, slender, pale, sleepy warm, then leaned forward and pressed a light kiss to his lips. Then, pressing her hands on his belly she sat up and guided him inside her.
Giles creased his brow and bit the inside of his cheek in concentration as he felt her slick tightness slide around him. He savored the sensation for a second then gripped her hips in an attempt to hold her still.
"Don't move," he rasped. What was it about her that sent him straight to the edge? After last night, one would think he'd have a little more self-control, yet here he was, orgasm imminent.
"Oh, I think I gotta," she teased. She wiggled in his grasp, sending him just that much closer.
Giles heard himself groan then decided that if he was going, she was going with him. He let go of her hips then slid his palms over her thighs until his thumbs parted the sparse red curls that hid her. Willow leaned back, giving him better access, and he massaged her slick bud until her the intensity of her groans matched the pace she set. The creamy undersides of her breasts bounced as she moved and Giles knew he couldn't hold it back any longer. He closed his eyes and ground into her as his orgasm hit him. Willow followed him, calling his name in that wonderful throaty way that made him want to roll her beneath him and make love to her again.
But that was not to be. Not only did nature dictate it an impossibility for at least another twenty-four hours, a phone call from Willow's office sent her running for the shower. Big emergency, lost data, she'd be home before dinner. It was just as well, Giles consoled himself as he watched her back the car from the driveway. She honked and waved and he raised his hand in return. He could use this time alone to catch up on research. That thought lifted his mood considerably. In all the birthday excitement he hadn't had a chance to do any solid research on his latest acquisition. He grabbed his mug of tea and went to his study.
It was an hour later, maybe three, he couldn't be sure, when he heard a quick rap at his study doors and then felt the air move past him as they clicked open. Giles looked up and found himself face to face with Xander's dark expression. A jolt of fear shot through Giles's gut.
"What's wrong?" He pushed back his chair and strained to see around Xander's shoulders, looking for Grace. "Did something happen to Grace?"
Xander spread his arms and shrugged. His accusing eyes never left Giles. "You tell me."
"Where is she?" Giles asked. A cold fear grew in his belly. He had no idea what Xander was talking about, what could have possibly gotten him this upset, but he was sure he didn't like it. A dozen possibilities went through his mind, each one worse than the one before.
"She's outside with Anya," Xander said. "Swinging."
Giles closed his eyes and exhaled. "What are you going on about, then?" He tore his glasses from his face and put his hands to his hips. He had no tolerance for this kind of game.
Xander took a deep breath as if steeling himself for something difficult. Giles found himself following suit. "I saw the bruises, Giles, and I want to know what's going on."
Giles stopped short. "Bruises?"
Xander licked his lips and nodded. "Yeah. Last night, when we were putting Grace to bed. We moved her from the floor to the couch, her nightgown got caught and we saw them. Why didn't you tell us? What's going on?"
Giles shook his head. "I'm not following. Children get bruises." True, Grace had a few marks across her shin, but what active child didn't? He tossed his glasses on top of a pile of papers. He wasn't prepared for the vehemence in Xander's response.
"I know kid bruises. And I know these bruises. Personally." He brought his hands down on the desk. "Someone's been beating the crap out of Gracie. And I wanna know who."
Giles lifted his chin; this was madness. Still, he crossed the room and pulled open the doors. "Are you insane? No one's hurting her," he snapped, though his heart slammed into his chest. He'd prove it. It was probably shadows they'd seen last night. It was ludicrous. Grace had never even been spanked, had given them no cause for physical discipline – the thought that anyone else would -. Giles slid open the patio door and strode across the lawn.Grace called for him and then slid down the slide. She scrambled to her feet, running for him with her arms outstretched, but the greeting died on her lips and she pulled up short. "What's wrong, Daddy?"
Giles swallowed and tried to smile. There was no need to scare her. He'd have a quick look see, everyone would be satisfied, and the day would continue. "Uncle Xander said that there's something on your back I should see."
Grace's expression immediately tightened and she flicked her gaze to Xander for one accusing second and then took a step away. "I'm not hurt." She spun her hands in her t-shirt's hem.
This wasn't working out the way Giles had hoped it would, warning sirens screamed in his head. He struggled to keep his voice smooth. "I'm sure it's nothing but I'd like to look."
Grace shook her head and took another step away. "No."
"A quick look and then you can go play," he promised, edging closer. Why was she fighting this? "Won't take a second."
Grace's chin crumpled. "I fell out of my bed," she said. There was a desperation about her that pulled at Giles. "That's all." Her large eyes begged him to believe her. "Nobody hurt me."
His breath caught in his throat. "Will you show me?" he asked quietly. Moments passed as father and daughter eyed each other. Finally, Grace nodded. She looked past him, past Xander, and then across the yard as she turned her back to him . Slowly she lifted the edges of her pink t-shirt.
Disbelief stunned him and cold pricked him. Giles' blood pound through his temples as bit by bit she revealed three fist sized bruises across her lower back. Words failed him, but rage did not.
"Oh, my God," he breathed.
Grace said something, but Giles only heard her voice. The words made no sense. Who? Who could have done that? He groaned and pulled her into his arms. They both trembled, him with fury and her with fear.
"Who did this to you?" He smoothed her hair down desperately, knowing that some comfort was needed, but he didn't know what else to do.
Grace struggled from his frantic embrace. Tears coursed down her cheeks. "You're hurting me."
He let go immrediatly; then, suddenly afraid that if he let her out of his sight for an instant something would happen, he grabbed her shoulders.
"Tell me who hurt you." His voice shook and broke. She squirmed from his hold. "Tell me," Giles insisted. Whoever they were, he'd see to it that they paid.
A sob bubbled from her lips and she shifted from foot to foot, as if any second she'd run as far away from him. Giles swallowed and closed his eyes. He needed to calm down; he was terrifying his own daughter. "I need to know."
Grace shook her head. "I can't tell you," she whispered.
She shook her head so hard her pig tails slapped against her cheeks. "I can't tell you," she yelled and bolted past him. Giles reached for her but caught air.
He and Xander turned just in time to see the patio door slam shut and Grace disappear. Giles started after her but Xander caught his arm.
"Let Anya," Xander suggested. Giles jerked from his hold but Xander didn't back down. "You're too close to it –"
"Of course I'm close to it," Giles bit out. He paid little attention that Anya had slipped past them both and had followed Grace inside. "You come here and tell me that someone's abusing my daughter and –"
Xander shook his head. "If you go in there now, the way you are, she'll close off even more. You've gotta calm down, Giles."
Giles's breath was labored, his heart raced, and a light sheen of sweat had broken out on his forehead. He wanted to hurt someone; he could feel it in his trembling hands.
"Let's go inside and call Willow," Xander said. "Then we'll find out who's doing this."
Giles closed his eyes and leaned his head against the window. He ached for a drink. Upstairs Grace and Anya and Xander played paper dolls and pretended life was normal. Here, in his study, he'd just told his wife that someone had abused their child.
"What do we do?" Willow asked, finally finding her voice. Giles winced at the frailty he heard. She picked at her nails and blinked away the tears that stood in her eyes. "Who do we call? Her doctor? Or the police? O-or maybe there's a spell we could try. God, Giles, who would do this to her? Why?"
He could see her in the reflection, her wide eyes, how frightened she looked. He had to be strong. Willow needed him to lean on until she could find her bearings. He turned around and the anger overcame him again. Never in his life had he felt so impotent.
"We're pulling her from that school," he said. It was the only place it could have happened. He'd gone over every person who had come into contact with Grace in the past week. No one in their family would do such a thing. Buffy, Xander, and Anya would willingly sacrifice their lives for her. Not once had any of them even reprimanded her. Willow's parents were ruled out. God help him, he'd even ruled out his wife. Time spent in pre-school was the only time Giles could not account for.
Willow shook her head and confusion clouded her brow. "You think they? Her teachers?" She pushed herself off the chair, shifting from foot to foot as she searched for the words. "But I chose that school. I-I-I'm the one who put her there." Guilt lined her words and begged him for forgiveness. A large tear splashed down her cheek and she pressed her hand to her lips.
"It's not our fault," he managed, although he didn't believe it. There had to be someone to blame, someone he could yell at. Someone he could hurt. "We did everything right. We researched, ran checks." He gritted his teeth. "Someone just slipped by us. But I promise you that it stops now. We will find this person, and we will make sure this never happens again."
She hesitated. He watched her struggle to stay in control. Finally Willow wiped her eyes and smoothed her skirt. She nodded, indicating the door. "I'm just gonna go check on her."
Giles watched as she disappeared, waiting until her footsteps faded before pouring a drink. He held the crystal glass in a white knuckled grip and glared at the liquid it held. Cold fingers of hatred wound themselves around his heart. Whoever was hurting his daughter would pay. He would see to that.
Willow stood outside Grace's bedroom door listening to the make believe play that was taking place. Their voices were muffled, but Xander's squeaky girl voice stood out above the other two. Grace giggled and tears filled Willow's eyes. She sounded so happy – maybe they were wrong. She wanted them to be wrong. Drawing a deep breath, Willow opened the door and stepped inside.
"Mummy," Grace yelled. Paper dolls forgotten, she jumped from her chair and ran to Willow, wrapping her arms around her legs.
"Hey, punk," Willow managed. She crossed her hands over Grace's back, returning the hug and then bent to pick her up.
Grace leaned back enough to study Willow's face. A concerned frown creased her brow and she touched the tip of her finger to Willow's cheek. "You've been crying."
There was a rustle of paper and cloth as Xander and Anya stood from the child sized table. "We'll just go downstairs," he explained, giving a sympathetic smile.
Willow offered him a quick smile then carried Grace to her bed. She didn't know how to respond to the little girl's statement. Yes, Mummy's been crying. And then what? The bedroom door closed with a muffled thud and Willow sat on the mattress's edge. Words failed her.
"Is Daddy mad at me?" Grace asked. Her voice was as small as it had been large moments ago.
Willow shook her head fiercely. "Of course not," she managed. She smoothed Grace's hair. It was so soft, something she'd always taken for granted. "No one's angry. We're all just a little scared."
"But I fell," Grace reiterated. "That's all. 'Cause sometimes kids fall."
Willow had to agree. "Sometimes kids fall. But Daddy and I are afraid that maybe you didn't fall, that maybe somebody not so nice is hurting you. You could tell us –"
"But Daddy was so mad," Grace said. A tear splashed to her hand. "Just like –" She stopped short and sucked in her lower lip.
Willow ducked her head trying to read Grace's expression. She took Grace's tiny hands in her own. There was no way to hide how her own shook. "Just like what? Honey, please. We have to know. We can't stop them if we don't know who it is. Is it somebody we know? One of Mummy and Daddy's friends? Someone at school?"
Grace pulled her hands away and crossed her arms over her chest. She shook her head. "I can't talk about it."
Willow was desperate, but it was too fresh for both of them. "Well, maybe – maybe not right now." She licked her dry lips and forced a smile. "We can talk later."
She expected a nod, some sort of indication that Grace was willing to accommodate her, but it didn't come. Grace stared at her lap. She didn't even look up when Willow pulled her in for a quick hug.
"Right," Willow said as she stood. She smoothed her skirt and nodded. "We'll talk later."
It made her feel bad that her mummy was so upset, but Grace couldn't say anything. She couldn't call her back and crawl on her lap, not and keep her safe. The minute anyone found out who it was – Grace closed her eyes. She didn't want to think about it. He had told her what would happen, and she believed him.
Sunday passed in a blur of tension, and the few hours of sleep he'd caught early Monday morning had done nothing to alleviate Giles's fury. He wanted it over now. He wanted answers. This was insanity. No amount of coercion or assurance had broken Grace's resolve. She'd fallen. Right: three times on a man-sized fist.
That morning had been her five-year check up. Nothing uncomfortable there, Giles thought wryly. Don't know how she got those bruises, Dr. Peyton, and if you wouldn't mind, could you check to see if my child's been molested? He half-expected child protective services to be waiting for them when they'd returned home. Bruises aside, there was no evidence that anything of a sexual nature had happened. Giles dug his fingers deeper into his forehead and the muscles in his stomach tightened. Never did he think he'd have to be concerned about such a thing.
They had dropped Grace off at Buffy and D'mitri's apartment after her doctor's appointment, and were now headed back from a tense, dismal meeting with her pre-school director.
The weight of Willow's hand on his arm was small comfort. He glanced from the road to see her face. She didn't look any better than he felt, but at least she managed a brave face. She'd spent most of the night before prowling their library. If there were a spell she could have managed, some truth revealing incantation that she was powerful enough to do, it would have been done. Old habits died hard. In the end, she'd collapsed in their bed, inconsolable, and he was impotent to do anything but hold her.
"We'll get through this," she said as they pulled in front of Buffy's complex. Her eyes begged him to agree. Giles managed a nod and opened his door. He crossed in front of the car, helped Willow from the car, and wished there was something he could say, something that would make all this disappear. He put his hand to the small of her back as she stood and ushered her inside to collect their daughter.
"How'd it go?" Buffy asked, opening her door, stepping aside to let them pass. A series of whimpers came from the back room and Giles looked up in alarm.
"Shue-shue's puppies," Buffy clarified. "We've spent most of the time naming them."
Giles lifted his chin in acknowledgment. Ah, yes. The puppies. He'd forgotten all about them.
Buffy shoved her hands in the back pocket of her jeans. "So. How'd it go?"
"Bloody useless," he muttered, not in the mood to discuss it. What he wanted was to get Grace, take her home, and read the next chapter in their Pooh series.
"They denied it," Willow filled in.
Buffy set her chin. "All I need is a name."
Giles nodded. Yes, but that was exactly what they weren't going to get, at least not any time soon. He offered a small smile and walked into the living room. Grace sat surrounded by crayons and coloring books. Powerpuff Girls fought on the television. She looked up immediately and a large smile brightened her elfin face. It was as if she hadn't a care in the world.
"Daddy," she cried, scrambling to her feet. In a flash she was in his arms smiling down at him. The tip of her finger met the tip of his nose. "I missed you."
Giles thought for a second his heart would burst. He scanned her face for signs of anything and then hugged her close again. "Were you good for Aunt Buffy?"
Grace nodded. "We did art. Buffy drew the beach." She wiggled from his hold, ran back to the stack of papers, and leafed through them. She held up one and pointed to the pictures on it. "This is the boardwalk and that's Buffy," she added, pointing to a blonde stick figure that stood between two stick figure children. "And that's me and Peter." She carried it over to her father.
"I see Peter has red hair," Giles said, taking the sacred offering. Grace nodded and handed him another picture.
"This one's Peter's."
"There are lots of doors in this one," Giles commented, suddenly very aware that he wanted to cherish everything she brought him. He knelt down and put his arm around her, being careful of her back. "Did you do anything else?"
"We played with the puppies, and told stories, and did you know that Aunt Buffy punches vampires?"
Giles's stomach dropped, sudden indignant rage bursting from his gut. Betrayal felt bitter on his tongue. Even after their talk she'd let such information slip? He glared to the doorway where Willow and Buffy now stood. Willow's appalled expression told him she'd heard.
"Buffy?" Willow asked, her voice soft and hurt.
Buffy's mouth hung open. "Giles, I swear –"
"I thought I made myself clear," he snapped.
He stood and grabbed Grace's hand. Buffy knew better. They all did. It had been established since day one that when, and if, Grace needed to know about life, or unlife, in Sunnydale, about Buffy's mission, that he and Willow would tell her. He heard his himself yelling, "We trusted you –"
"You gotta believe me," Buffy said, grabbing Giles's arm as he tried to brush past her. He turned on her, finger pointed, ready to cut loose, but Willow's hand on his arm stopped him.
"Let's just go home." She said, sounding like she'd lost one too many times.
"Daddy?" Grace asked. The picture she'd been so proud of moments before was now wrinkled in her nervous hands. Giles's heart broke once more. She took a tentative step forward, paused right before him, then slipped her hand in his. A solemn light shone in her eyes. "Please don't yell. It's not Aunt Buffy's fault."
A few blessedly quiet days passed. Willow folded clothes and watched out the patio door as Grace zoomed around the back yard. It was Thursday, which meant they'd survived another day. Today, she'd go into her office and try to catch up on what she'd missed. Tomorrow, she and Giles would meet with their lawyers concerning Tiny Tots. Who knew what would come the day after that. One day at a time.
Grace had remained elusive, refusing to give a name, refusing to talk about it at all. The more they pressed, the more she withdrew and the worse her night terrors were. Willow had somehow managed to convince Giles to back off, to give Grace the time to deal, but soon they'd need answers. A guilty chill went through her shoulders. Every day they didn't know who had done this to Grace was another day another child was at risk.
Willow's fingers worked nervously at the folds of Grace's skirt. All her life she'd loved the smell and feel of fresh clothes, especially from high school on when more often than not it meant vampire dust and demon goo had been washed away. Today it made her feel more connected to her family. Maybe even helped work away some of that guilt she had.
Giles had been against sending Grace to school from the beginning. She'd pushed, and now look where they were. If she hadn't been so damned stubborn….
The back door banged shut and Grace stampeded through the house sounding as if she'd brought at least a dozen other children with her.
"We're goin' upstairs," she yelled. "Peter's never jumped on the bed and I'm gonna show him how."
"You think that's a good idea?" Willow mused casually. Grace was forever angling ways to use her bed as a trampoline. An enthusiastic red headed nod was her answer.
"His dad wouldn't let him and now that he's sleeping we can do it."
Willow gave a short 'hmm' and a nod. "Just be careful."
"It's my middle name," Grace said easily, sounding eerily like her aunt Buffy. She grabbed a cookie from the table, started from the room, then paused. "You think Daddy's still mad at Aunt Buffy?"
Willow shook her head, although she knew for a fact that Giles was nursing this grudge. Despite her best efforts to convince him otherwise, Giles refused to let it go. Willow knew Buffy would never intentionally let anything like that slip. It wasn't like him to be so pig-headed, but then, given the situation….
"Daddy gets upset when people say things that scare you or – hurt you," Willow explained. She sat in the nearest chair and pulled Grace to her lap. "We both do."
Grace shrugged. "Vampires are made up. Daddy told me that. Sometimes people pretend to be them so they can scare people. It's Aunt Buffy's job to make people stop pretended. But you know what?" She leaned her head back, looking up into her mother's eyes.
"Daddy shouldn't have yelled at her, 'cause she didn't say it."
Willow tried to keep her expression even. "Who did, then?"
"I'll have to tell your ear," Grace whispered. “It's a secret.” Willow leaned in closer. Grace pushed a lock of Willow's hair out of the way before she stretched forward. Her breath smelled like peanut butter and apples. "It was Peter."
Giles tried to shrug the tension from his shoulders then grabbed another stack of invoices. Everything ran together, the numbers, the dates, the merchandise. Swearing under his breath he shoved the stack of papers away. This was pointless. He couldn't focus and judging from the nervous way Anya rechecked his work, he'd be better off at home. The shop bell sounded. Grateful for the diversion of a customer he looked up just in time to see Buffy enter the shop.
"We need to talk," she said.
Giles clenched his jaw, then nodded to their training room. "If you'll watch the shop?" he said to Anya. Without waiting for her reply, he pushed open the door and stepped into the back room, preparing himself for what he suspected was coming. … Buffy walked past him, her long, blonde ponytail swishing across her back . When she reached the center of the room she stopped, turned around and pressed the heels of her hands together.
"Look, I know that this thing with Grace has thrown you," she started.
Giles held his tongue. She had no idea how "thrown" he was.
"It's affected all of us. Grace isn't just your daughter. She means everything to the rest of us, too. I mean, I'm prolly never gonna have kids so she's the closest thing I've got to a daughter –" Her voice broke just the slightest.
"Buffy, I –." Giles took a step forward, but she held up her hand.
"I didn't tell her about the slaying. I wouldn't. Ever. You know that."
Giles looked down at his hands, shamed. She was right, he knew that, but he was so damned angry. He just wanted someone to lash out at, someone to blame. He looked up when he felt Buffy's hand on his arm, though it was difficult to meet her gaze.
He turned away from her, putting his hands on his hips. "I've never been this overwhelmed before. To be a father –" He struggled to find the words, "There are moments of pure bliss. And then complete terror when you realize you're not going to be able to shield them from disappointment and pain –"
He stopped and focused on his fingers while the muscles in his throat contracted. When he could once again breath, he gave a short bitter laugh. "I – I guess I should have learned that from you. I'm sorry, Buffy. I was wrong to treat you the way I did."
When he ventured a look relief washed over him. Buffy's sympathetic smile had returned. He'd been forgiven. "We're gonna get through this," she said. "All of us. You guys aren't in this alone."
"More chocolate milk, please," Grace requested. She licked the chocolate ring around her mouth and slid her cup across the counter.
Giles hid his smile and returned the bottle to the refrigerator. "I think two is enough. Your mother would not be pleased to come home to find you with a tummy ache."
He watched as the gears in Grace's head churned and spun, and then the resigned tilt of her shoulders as she gave into his logic. He rested his forearms on the counter, leaning in closer to her. It'd been a good day for her. He'd come home from work, they'd seen Willow off to her office, gone to the park for a few hours, he'd fed her the dinner of champions (hot dogs, apple sauce, and shredded cheese), and they'd just finished their pre-bath snack of chocolate milk and cookies.
"I know this is very difficult for you to talk about," he said, doing his level best to keep his voice even and low. She sat up straighter and looked over her shoulder, as if seeking a place to hide, but Giles pressed on. "But Mummy and Daddy need to know who hurt you."
Grace opened her mouth, ready to protest, but he cut her off. "Sometimes, when people want other people to keep bad secrets they threaten them. Did someone tell you that something bad would happen if you told? Like they'd hurt someone you love?"
She hesitated, inclining her head just the slightest bit, as if she were afraid that someone was watching her.
Giles reminded himself to keep his anger in check. "Who's going to get hurt?"
Grace looked around once more, then extended her pinky finger toward Giles. As quickly as she'd done it, she hid her hands under the counter. Grace sucked in her bottom lip, watching him with large apprehensive eyes. She looked like a coil ready to spring.
Giles measured his words very carefully, hoping like hell he could keep his voice soothing. "Anyone else?"
Grace nodded. "Mummy." It was almost inaudible.
"Peter." She bounced her leg nervously.
Giles cleared his throat as he rounded the counter. He knelt before her, taking her tiny hands in his. "Two things, and this is very important, so you must listen carefully."
Grace nodded. "No one is going to hurt Mummy or me. Whoever told you that was trying to scare you into not telling. Secondly, no one's going to hurt Peter because however real he is to you, he's just imaginary. You can't hurt what's not there."
He wasn't prepared for her vehement reaction. "He is too there," she argued. "Just because you can't see him doesn't mean he's not here. And he will get hurt, just like before, only this time it'll be worse." Tears stood in her eyes.
Giles readily agreed. "You're right," Giles said, backpedaling furiously, afraid that he'd blown his only chance to get a name from her. "You're right. I'm sorry."
"He's real," she repeated. Her eyes held a stubborn green challenge, daring him to say it wasn't so again.
"Of course." He held her gaze a moment before trying again. "Will you tell me his name?"
Grace shook her head.
"Maybe whisper it in my ear?" Giles coaxed, hoping he didn't sound as desperate as he felt.
She considered his offer for a serious moment, sighed heavily, and then nodded. Giles nearly swooned and stood up so that it was easier for her to reach his ear.
"It's Crayton," she whispered.
"And who is that?" he whispered back. He struggled to control his breathing. Who was that? A maintenance man? A new teacher? He tried desperately to match the name with a face.
Grace blinked and took another deep breath. She motioned him closer. "Peter's daddy."
The crystal carafe taunted him. Giles now knew it was true; children could drive you to drink. Not that he'd be able to indulge, at least not until Willow got home. On the floor above him Grace puttered about getting ready for her bath.
He rubbed his chin and spun around in his chair. Lord, she'd led him to believe he was so close, that he was getting somewhere. Yet, once again, had hidden behind her imaginary friend. Peter this, Peter that. No, Daddy, I didn't draw on the wall. It was Peter. And now imaginary Peter's imaginary daddy was responsible for her very real bruises. Giles eyed the scotch again, then swore under his breath. What was keeping Grace from telling him the truth?
Unless she was.
Giles buried his face in his hands, massaging his temples, automatically dismissing the terrifying notion. That idea was more horrifying to him than the truth. It was easier to pretend than accept the reality. She was hiding behind fantasy, trying so very hard to protect them.
"Daddy?" Grace asked from the doorway. Startled, Giles looked up. She stood wrapped in her terry cloth robe, holding a bottle of no tears shampoo. "I'm ready."
Tell me who hurt you, the voice inside his head demanded. Outwardly, Giles smiled. "Right," he said, pushing away from his desk. He held out his hand to her as he stood. "Let's go make some waves."
Grace smiled and tugged at him, leading him to the stairs. "I want to use Mummy's bath beads," she announced, trying to take the steps two at a time.
He waited patiently, holding her hand as she balanced. "I think not."
"But I'm five now," she reminded him. "That's way old enough to put in bath beads and wash my own hair."
“Maybe when you're six,” Giles said. She stretched her legs and pulled herself up another set of steps.
“You never let me do anything,” she grumbled. A pouty frown squinted the corner of her eyes and she looked to him accusingly. “I'm very capable, you know.”
Despite his sour mood, Giles laughed. Capable, he thought as pride bubbled through him. What other five-year old described herself as capable? They debated bath beads and hair washing the entire way the length of the hallway until finally, as the water filled the tub, he and Grace agreed to an extra capful of bubble bath. She would be in charge of sudsing her own hair. He got the dubious honor of rinsing.
“And don't get the soap in my eyes,” Grace warned, settling into the warm, bubbly water.
“I'll do my best,” Giles promised. He rolled up his sleeves and settled himself on the floor next to the tub.
Though outwardly he was calm and collected, a war waged in his soul. Who had hurt her? His thoughts reverberated in his skull but Giles pushed them aside. Patience, he reminded himself. She'd tell them when she was ready. Hadn't he read that somewhere? He flicked at the water and gave Grace an approving smile as she gave herself a bubble beard. If not tonight, he rationalized, then tomorrow. Or the day after. He'd wait as long as it took.
“Sing the fly song,” Grace said. She hunched her shoulders, smiled up at him, flirting "About the old lady with the questionable palate.”
Giles nodded and started the ballad of the poor old lady who had the misfortune to swallow a fly. Grace joined in full force, her eagerness more than made up for the lacking pitch and tone. They were at his favorite appetizer, the bird, when Giles noticed he was no longer part of a duet.
“C'mon, Luv,” he teased, flicking a bit of water Grace's way. “Don't stop now, we're almost to the cat.” The laughter died from his voice as Grace turned her pale drawn face to him. She gripped his arm with a strength he didn't know she possessed.
“What's wrong?” he asked. The hair on the back of his neck stood up and he turned, looking from corner to corner of the small room. Had she seen a spider? He turned back to Grace just in time to see her slap at something. She gave a sharp yelp, twisting this way and that in the bath. Water sloshed over the side.
“Grace,” he tried again and struggled to his knees. “What's wrong?”
She cried out again, struggling to stand, as if she were going to climb from the bath. “Daddy,” she whimpered and then lost her footing. Giles lunged forward to catch her but she slipped between his arms, disappearing under the bubbles.
An unreasonable panic rose in his throat. He lurched after her, pulling her to the surface. Bubbles streamed down her forehead and into her eyes as Grace coughed and struggled for a breath.
“You're okay,” he soothed, using his shirt to wipe her face dry. But she cried out again, twisting as though something stung her. Giles looked to the window wondering if a wasp had flown in. He barely had time to register that it was closed before Grace slipped again and disappeared under the water. The bubbles obscured his view of her head and torso, but she kicked her tiny soapy legs as if – Giles felt the sting of nerve endings coming alive – as if fighting for her life.
“Grace,” he yelled. He grabbed her arm, jerking her out of the water, out of the tub, and into his arms. She coughed, sputtered, then screamed as she slipped from his hold.
No, Giles thought frantically, not slipped. She'd been pulled, was being pulled across the bathroom floor.
Her cries filled the room. “Make him stop, Daddy,” Grace wailed. She lost her breath with a sickening oomph.
Giles watched in terror as his daughter folded in half and threw her arms over her head. With a cry of his own, he dove across the room and threw his body over hers. He felt the undeniable pain of a kick to his ribs then another to his kidneys. He struggled to his knees, pulling Grace into him, shielding her as best he could.
She clung to him and despite the invisible blows that rained across his back, Giles managed to crawl to the bathroom door. Jesus, he thought wildly. What the hell was happening?
A wicked blow to his jaw knocked his glasses across the room and brought a dark haze to the edge of his blurred vision, but Grace's desperate and terrorized screams refused to let him pass out. He gripped the handle, wrapped his arm around Grace, and then pulled open the door. Without looking back, Giles clutched her to his chest and stumbled down the stairs. He'd get them out of there. They just had to make it to the car and he'd find some place safe.
Grace clung to him, hiding her face in his shirt. Giles slowed down just long enough to grab a towel from the laundry basket and drape it over his daughter's naked body. He threw his body shoulder first into the door that separated the laundry room from the garage, stumbling after it as it popped open.
“Where are we going?” Grace asked. Panic coated her voice.
“Somewhere safe,” Giles muttered, adjusting her slight weight so he could dig into his pocket for the car keys. D'mitri's, or Xander's, or the shop. It didn't matter. Anywhere but here.
Grace shook her head and put her hands on either side of his cheeks. Giles stopped in his tracks and stared into his daughter's haunted eyes. Her words sent a chill down his spine.
“There isn't anywhere,” she whispered. “He always finds me.”
"Who?" he asked dreading the answer. It couldn't be true.
Willow knew the instant she opened the door and turned on the light that something wasn't right. The air around her buzzed with an unsettling energy causing her flesh to crawl. Unable to resist the urge, she twisted to see over her shoulder, certain that if she moved fast enough, she'd see what lurked in the shadowed corners. The towels she'd folded earlier lay strewn from the top of the dryer to the floor. A chair in the kitchen lay on its side.
"Giles?" There was no answer and she tried again, this time louder. Adrenaline surged through her and she shoved her laptop and satchel on the island and headed toward the study. Something had happened; she couldn't deny it. She broke into a run, knowing that the worst, whatever it was, had happened.
Her heart lurched in relief when she found Giles at his desk, holding a sleeping Grace in his arms. Open books surrounded them, covered his desk. Willow put her hand to her chest and took a deep breath. They were okay, everything was fine, he'd simply been absorbed in his work.
"You guys scared me. Didn't you hear me?" she asked, walking into the room, turning off one of the several lamps he had burning. Her next words died on her throat and her hand dropped to her side when Giles looked up. A dark purple bruise outlined his jaw and another one, just as angry, stood out on his cheek.
"What happened?" she managed, stumbling a step closer. The tension in his shoulders, the ferocity of his expression, frightened her so much she stopped and gripped the back of a chair. It was then that she saw the white bandage on Grace's forehead.
Willow cried out, hurrying to his side, leaning over him, frantic, examining her daughter. A long, thin, but deep scratch ran the length of Grace's arm. It stood out a fierce red against her pale skin. Willow's eyes flew back to Grace's forehead. The edges of the cut crept out from the sides of the bandage.
"What happened?" she demanded, trying to wedge her arms between his, needing to hold her. Giles's muscles tightened for the briefest of moments, as if letting go of her was the last thing he'd ever do, then he relented and lifted Grace into Willow's arms.
Grace stirred in Willow's arms as she carried her to the couch and sat down. She searched anxiously for clues, a sign as to what could have happened. Grace made a face and tried to push her hands aside, but beyond that, didn't stir. More scratches ran up Grace's side, dark red areas threatened new bruises. Willow gasped and pulled Grace in tighter. What had happened?
"Giles?" She heard the hysteria in her voice.
Giles hadn't moved from behind his desk. He sat there, glaring across the room.
"Giles," she repeated, sharply, angrily. She needed to know.
Finally, he ran his hand over his face, scrubbing it as if he could erase a nightmare, and then let his fist fall to the table. "It was all there, right before us, and we didn't even see it," he rasped. He slammed his hand back down. The lamp rattled and a book fell off the edge, landing with a sloppy thud. Grace jumped in Willow's arms.
Giles momentarily forgotten, Willow forced a smile and put her hand to Grace's smooth cheek. "Hey, Sweetie. How you doin'?"
She watched as Grace furrowed her brow and snuggled tighter into her. "My head hurts," Grace mumbled.
Willow nodded and gave the bandage a light kiss. "I know. But we'll make it better. I promise."
"He hurt daddy. Just like he said he would if I told," Grace said. She was waking up now, struggling to sit, becoming more agitated by the second. Willow froze. Someone had broken in? Attacked them in their own home? Her gaze flew back to her husband – when had this happened?
Giles's chair creaked as he stood. She watched as he crossed the room and knelt by their side, her question never leaving her eyes. He stroked Grace's hair away from her bandage, his hand large and strong. The corners of his eyes crinkled gently, but Willow saw the steely glint underneath.
"Daddy's fine," he assured Grace. "Promise. Don't you worry about a thing. We're going to find a way to take care of this."
"That's why I didn't wanna tell. He's gonna hurt everybody now." Tears bubbled from her eyes. She leaned into Willow's breast, sobbing. Willow held her closer, rubbing her back, but kept her eyes on Giles, begging for answers.
He studied them gravely, then focused on Willow. "We've been very stupid."
"Did you call the police?"
He shook his head. "And they'd believe me, I'm sure," Giles said with wry darkness. He stood, paced across the room, putting his hands to his hips he turned back to her. "All the signs were there. I thought Peter was something she'd created to help cope with all the changes –"
Willow shook her head, not understanding. Grace's sobs had diminished somewhat, but the little girl still clung to her. "B-but he is. Giles, someone broke in our house and attacked-"
"It was a ghost, Willow," he interrupted. "Peter," he paused, putting emphasis on the name, "is a ghost."
She waited to respond, certain that she'd heard incorrectly. He hadn't just said ghost. Peter was a- a hoax. Not a ghost. Definitely not a ghost. No. They didn't have a ghost. She couldn't accept that. They couldn't blame this on the supernatural. They'd worked too hard to keep it all away from Grace. She shook her head and struggled to her feet.
"No," she said, lifting her chin and balancing Grace's weight in her arms. "Absolutely a world of no. I don't accept that. He-he's an imaginary friend –"
"He's a ghost." Giles's sharp voice cut through her protests, but it didn't stop her denial.
"You just can't handle that a human would hurt a child," she accused, knowing that she hovered on the edge of a breakdown. "You're so used to dealing with – with hell dimensions and demons that it's like some twisted comfort zone to you."
Their voices rose, creating thicker layers of tension in the room as they fought. Willow's denial grew, she was furious, absolutely refusing to listen but he was just as adamant.
"Listen to you," she accused, whirling around to face him once more. She stood at the door, poised to leave. Grace clung to her neck, sobbing loudly. "Little boy ghosts? Daddy ghosts?"
"Why is that so impossible for you to accept?" Giles demanded. He grabbed her arm but Willow jerked away, not wanting his touch. "After all we've been through? Everything we've faced?" He pointed to Grace. "We could have lost her tonight."
"Stop it," Grace wailed. "Stop fighting." She pressed her hands tighter over her ears.
Willow wanted nothing more than to escape. A ghost didn't try to drown her daughter. It was impossible. She'd slipped. No, her explanation was better.
Willow pushed past Giles, leaving the room, then turned back to him. "Humans are evil, too, Giles."
She shook her head, closing her eyes to squeeze back her frustrated tears. She clutched Grace to her, whispering soothing words, then continued down the hall to the sanctuary their room provided.
"Mummy," Grace pleaded. Her voice jumped as Willow took the steps two at a time. Giles's heavy footsteps fell not far behind them.
"Sssh, baby," Willow said, pressing a kiss to her cheek. This was insanity. She felt violated, afraid at every turn, afraid that the presence she felt so close behind her wasn't Giles, that someone was still in their house. She drew up short and stifled a yell as Giles pulled at her shoulder and then stepped around from behind her.
He held her firmly by both shoulders, intensity rolling from him, washing across her like a wave of heat. "I wish to God it was human," he said. "Humans can be caught, they can be punished –"
Willow felt her resolve crumple. That was it. That was it exactly. A man could be punished. They could protect Grace from a man. The strength in her limbs threatened to give and Grace slid from her hold. Giles was right there, making sure neither of them fell. He hoisted Grace between them, then wrapped his arms around Willow, supporting her as the tears she'd tried to desperately to stop fell.
Giles's heart clenched. He felt Willow's fear and uncertainty, saw the pain in her face as she absorbed the truth of their situation. Later, when the tears stopped, he would tell her what happened in the bathroom, but for now she needed this release.
Grace wrapped her arms around his neck and gave him a squeeze before resting her head on his shoulder. "Mommy's sad," she whispered and Giles nodded against her cheek. The word he would have chosen was terrified.
Suddenly he felt very exposed, too aware of the shadows that darkened the hallway corners and walls. "Let's get you two to bed," he said, guiding Willow to their room. There was no question of letting Grace out of their sight.
Grace settled herself in the center of the bed, pulling the comforter to her chin, burying her head in the pillow. The night had taken its toll on her, and though she tried to fight it, she was asleep in minutes.
Willow stood at their dresser, methodically removing her jewelry, pulling pajamas from the center drawer, watching Grace in the mirror. When she caught Giles staring at her she sniffed and hastily wiped at her wet cheeks.
"I guess this means we can rule out Tiny Tots," she managed.
Giles wanted to smile, appreciating the small joke, but it wasn't in him. He held open his arms for her and Willow was in them in an instant. He rocked her, ignoring the tightness in his ribs and back. They both turned abruptly, adrenaline rushing, as Grace startled . She groused a few more times and then burrowed deeper under the blankets, sleeping.
"I know what you're feeling," Giles said. Willow looked up at him, the creases between her eyes deep. "But maybe we're at an advantage here. Spirits can be vanquished. There are rituals, exorcisms."
He watched as her eyes widened, and then she shook her head. "I don't know, Giles. The last time we tried that, wasps. A-and I'm weaker than I was back then. Way weaker –"
"We'll do it together. All of us."
Willow looked pained. "Isn't there someone more qualified?"
"Probably," he said. "But we don't know when he's going to come back. I-it could be any time, any place. As much as I hate rushing into things, I feel our best bet would be to attempt it on our own first."
He shook his head, releasing her to pace the room. He didn't want to hear her protests. This was best. They would take care of it in their own way, as soon as possible. "No, I- I've thought this through. The longer we wait, the stronger this entity might become. We can't risk that."
He looked up. Willow pushed her hands through her hair and nodded. The dark circles under her eyes were more prominent now against her now pasty white skin. "Fine," she repeated. "I'll call everyone and you get the stuff ready. We'll do this tonight."
“Tell me again why we're doing this here,” Xander asked. He accepted another candle from Willow but kept his eyes on Giles, awaiting an explanation.
“Because it's safer,” Giles answered curtly. He grunted with effort and lifted the rolled area rug, revealing the casting circle he and Willow had painted in The Magic Box's training room.
“Right,” Xander drew out turning away from him. “'Cause no one ever gets hurt here.”
Giles nodded to the eastern point of the pentagram. “Put that over there. Without the comments." He was nervous enough as it was. He had no idea what exactly it was they were dealing with.
He inhaled a shaking breath and surveyed the room. The rite itself was straightforward but never before had it been so personal. To complete the exorcism successfully well, the relief would go without saying. But to blunder it could bring consequences none of them wanted to consider.
He was mid-migraine when Buffy dropped a box of holy items at his feet. She sifted through the crosses and bibles and then looked up at him. “We aren't gonna have any spinning heads, are we?”
“Very un-Hollywood,” Willow assured her. “We'll definitely keep the pea soup to a minimum.”
Though her voice sounded upbeat Giles heard the worry behind it. Their gazes met briefly and he reached for her hand, offering a small smile of reassurance. “It's going to be very tame.” Although, he himself was far from convinced.
“I'm putting a pre-emptive veto on wasps,” Xander volunteered. He sniffed in a manly way and stood taller. “I don't like ‘em.”
“Right,” Buffy agreed. “Check on the no wasps.”
“We'll do our best,” Giles managed but the soft voices from the couch had already grabbed his attention. He scratched the back of his head and looked to his daughter. As if she'd read his mind, Grace looked up from coloring with Anya, giving him a sweet sleepy smile.
Though he returned the smile his heart broke just a bit more. It wasn't fair. He'd tried so hard to shelter her - Giles exhaled and shook his head, clearing the (what kind of) thoughts from his head. Not now. He didn't have the time and he couldn't waste the energy brooding.
“You're sure Gracie should be here?” Xander asked, rooting through the box. He pulled out another candle. “I mean these exorcism things work just as well without the victim present, don't they?”
Giles bristled at the word victim. Next to him Willow's back straightened. “She's not leaving our sight until we're sure this thing's gone,” he explained and then put his hand behind Willow's slender neck and drew her to him. Just touching her brought him a certain measure of comfort.
“I just thought that maybe you wouldn't want to expose her to –“
Giles sighed. There was no use in pretending his child's innocence hadn't been compromised. “Unfortunately, this is tame compared to what she's been exposed to.”
Willow nodded and though she spoke to Xander her eyes never left Grace. “We'll do this now and deal with whatever questions she has later.” A forced smile did little to hide the sad worry in her eyes, but Willow pressed on, “Besides, Buffy's the only one who can handle whatever this thing dishes out and protect Gracie.”
Buffy squeezed Willow's hand. “It won't get past me,” she promised. “No matter what.”
“You mean that thing's gonna put in a guest appearance?” Xander asked. His eyes flitted to Giles's purple jaw and then back to Willow.
Giles shifted his feet, an easy lie on his lips. However, resigned to the truth he said, “Anything can happen.”
With the proper affects set up and Giles tending to the secondary details, Willow crossed the room and sat next to Grace. She watched Grace color for a moment and then gently took the crayons out of her hands and pulled her onto her lap. Anya took the hint and joined Xander across the room
“How's your head?” Willow asked pressing her cheek against Grace's baby smooth face. Though they both knew there was no need to be quiet they spoke in hushed tones. Grace relaxed into Willow's hold and shrugged.
“Can I help with the sorsism?” She picked at the fabric pills that dotted her favorite gown as Willow considered the question. When her mother didn't answer right away, Grace twisted in her hold. Hopeful determination colored her expression. “'Cause I can do it.”
Willow's throat tightened. How exactly was she supposed to prepare her daughter for an exorcism? A wave of nausea passed over her and Willow clenched her teeth. This was not supposed to be a worry a mother had.
“You get to sit in the middle of the circle,” Willow explained. They interlaced fingers, reminding Willow once again just how tiny and fragile her daughter was.
In as much detail as she felt was appropriate, Willow explained what they were going to do. When she paused, Grace spoke up. A worried scowl creased her forehead. “Does it hurt to go to the light?”
“I don't think so.”
“What if he doesn't want to go?”
Willow hugged Grace tighter and looked to Giles. A proud warmth spread in her belly. “Your daddy is pretty persuasive.”
“Peter's daddy is very strong,” Grace countered. The tension returned to her body.
“I'll bet you Aunt Buffy's stronger,” Willow countered with more bravado than she felt. “And we're all gonna be right there, holding hands around you – like ring around the rosie.”
Willow cringed at the morbid rhyme and wished not for the first time she'd never found out its origins. “Or like playing London Bridge, only with more people. But you've gotta promise me something, okay? If anything makes you scared, you go to Aunt Buffy. Not mommy and not daddy, but Aunt Buffy.”
Willow saw the questions in Grace's expression. She breathed a sigh of relief when Grace finally nodded. Willow crooked her little finger and held it up. “Pinky swear?”
“Pinky swear,” Grace agreed. They hooked pinkies in what was quite possibly the closest thing childhood had to a legally binding contract.
They sat together a few quiet minutes, watching Giles make the final preparations. Finally he crossed the room and stood before them, his expression pensive, his hand outstretched. Though Buffy and Xander and Anya bustled around the background everything but their immediate family faded when Willow took Giles's hand. A sad smile crossed his face when Grace's hand topped his and Willow's.
“Did Mummy tell you what you get to do?” he asked, bending on one knee before her.
Grace mirrored his serious expression. “I get to sit in the middle and go to Aunt Buffy if I get scared.”
“Good girl.” Giles opened his arms to her and Grace climbed into them.
As Giles stood she turned to look down at her mom. “Coming Mummy?”
Willow nodded and followed Grace and Giles to the casting circle. She took a deep breath to center herself as Giles settled Grace in her spot. It tore at her to see how he lingered and part of her fought to join him. Still, the other more impatient, logical part of her itched to get this thing finished. The faster they got rid of entity, the better off everyone would be.
A few moments later, Giles stood at her side and took her hand in his. He gave it a small squeeze and then signaled the start of the ritual. One by one they each lit their candles as his voice, loud with nerves, filled the room, leading the prayer. His gaze went from the book he read, to Grace, watching her, trying in some way to reassure her that Daddy was taking care of this.
Grace sat mid-circle, her legs crossed, watching her parents, trusting them with her life. Giles's heart twisted just a bit more. His voice strengthened with new resolve. This would work, Giles insisted to himself. And when it did, he would do his damnedest to ensure nothing like this would ever happen again.
Finally, the last Latin word hung in the air entwined with the smoke of the extinguished candles.
“Is that it?” Xander asked. He looked uneasily around the room and then to Giles. “Shouldn't there have been a… reaction or something?”
Naturally superstitious Willow and Giles looked up from helping Grace off the floor long enough to glare at him. Buffy smacked his shoulder and Anya rolled her eyes.
“What?” Xander defended himself. He rubbed his sore shoulder and threw Buffy a hurt look. “I'm just saying that was lacking entirely in climax.”
“That's good,” Willow exclaimed. She lifted Grace into her arms, talking over the young girl's shoulder. “No climax is good.”
“I liked the candles,” Grace said through a yawn. Willow pressed Grace's head to her shoulder and ran her hand over the long red waves. She smiled at Giles and opened her embrace to him.
“Really, Xander,” Giles chided joining his family. Grace climbed into his arms and he kissed her forehead. “You should know better by now. But, in all honesty, this turned out much better than I hoped it would. In fact, I'd say it was a textbook exorcism.”
“Yay, us,” Buffy cheered. “I say post-boo party at my house.”
Giles was about to suggest they make it through the day, begin the healing, apologize to Tiny Tots, when Grace stiffened in her mother's hold. She pointed to the couch.
“Look at Peter, Daddy,” she said. Unshed tears made her voice tremble.
“Sweetie?” Willow asked.
Giles's stomach sank and then clenched painfully. With Grace in his arms he searched the room for their unseen foe. Any feeling of triumph he'd felt fled, chased away by a new sense of doom.
“Where is he?” Giles whispered. Grace twisted and turned in his arms until she escaped and ran to the couch.
Stunned, the rest could do little but watch as she interacted with – something. She drew it into her chest and patted – air?
“Anyone else weirded out?” Xander asked, reaching for Anya's hand. Buffy nodded.
Willow clutched Giles's arm, then took a hesitant step forward. It was as if her legs had turned to rubber. “Gracie? Is something there?”
Giles lost his breath. He'd done everything perfectly, every syllable, no mistakes. This wasn't right. The weight that returned to his shoulders compounded with guilt. Giles flipped through the book he still held. What had he forgotten? What had he, in his haste, neglected?
“It's Peter, Mummy,” Grace said, her dark eyes imploring her mother. “He's hurt.”
Willow caught herself reaching for the boy she couldn't see and let her hand drop. She felt the others close in behind her and looked up to see that Buffy flanked Grace.
“I told him you could make it better,” Grace said. “Like you do when I get hurt.”
“I'll try, sweetie,” Willow managed. She pushed a strand of hair behind her ear and pressed her lips together. She looked to Giles for guidance, but he was lost, retracing his steps, going over the ritual point by point. She cleared her throat and gave Grace a shaky smile. “What happened to him?”
“His daddy,” Grace whispered and Willow's heart lurched forward. “That's why I hide him.”
“Is that why his daddy hurts you?” Willow managed. She felt the light sheen of sweat break out on her forehead. “Because you hide Peter?”
Grace gave her a solemn nod. “He gets real mad.” She paused. “Peter says his tummy hurts and his head, too. And his eye looks real bad.”
Willow's heart broke. Behind her she heard Xander's pained exhalation.
“It's okay, Peter,” Willow said to thin air, although she didn't feel at all silly. In fact, she felt very much connected to the little soul who had sought out her daughter. “We'll make it better.” She held out her hand and waited for a breeze or a drop in temperature or – something. A moment passed and then another and finally she looked at Grace.
Grace's small face was screwed up in confused concentration and then took on a desperate expression. “He can't touch you,” she explained. Her voice rose in alarm and she balled her fists at her side.
“Try again, Peter,” she said. “Just like when we play. She'll make it better –“
Giles's hands on her shoulder stopped Grace short. She looked to him, stricken, her voice taking on the plaintive tone of someone tattling. “Daddy, he can't touch Mummy.”
“I'm afraid not,” Giles said gently then glanced guiltily to the others. He pulled off his glasses. “It's fairly unorthodox, there are hundreds of cases of a passed child's energy affecting an adult. However, if Peter's being harmed on whatever plane he's on, then I would imagine he's only strong enough to connect with Grace.”
Xander raised his hand. “Why isn't this little guy wherever little guys go when they're shown the light?”
Giles finished polishing his glasses but didn't return them to his face. “We did the ritual with only one spirit in mind –“
“And if Peter was hiding,” Willow cut in by way of explanation. It made a vague sort of sense, really that only the one spirit would be shown the way.
“How do we know we gave the guy the right directions?” Buffy interrupted. “I mean, did he have a 'lost spirit' badge on?”
Giles felt his stomach bottom out and he reached once more for his handkerchief. He looked around at the accusing expressions and faltered an explanation. It had to have worked. The alternative wasn't acceptable. “Of course not, Buffy. The ritual we used was designed for an unspecified spirit –“
Anya continued the question assault. “So you didn't see him or anything like that psychic lady on t.v.?”
“I'm not psychic,” Giles snapped, almost immediately regretting his temper as Grace jumped.
“Then how do you know it worked?” Xander asked.
Grace's scream answered the question.
It was a flurry of air, of almost tangible rage, that blew into the room, knocking open the door, pushing back furniture. Willow's scream and Giles's cry for Grace got lost in the maelstrom. Before them, but somehow always out of reach Grace stood, her gown whipping around her legs, her hair wild around her head, terror etched on her face.
"Grace," Giles yelled, lunging forward. A stone wall of fury met his efforts, cutting into him, then lifting him. Giles met the weapon's cabinet with a force that knocked the wind out of his gut. He heard Willow screaming for Buffy, Grace wailing, Xander and Anya scrambling, but he couldn't do any more than roll to his side, gasping for air. Someone, some thing, held him down.
"Daddy." Grace's cry, raw, but so clear in the din, reached for him.
Giles struggled and the hold on him diminished as the others moved in to Grace. Behind him the doors to the weapon's cabinet rattled, before him Grace crouched, her knees drawn into her chest, her arms over her head. Willow threw herself forward, an attempt to cover Grace's body with her own, but her head jerked to the side as if she'd been struck, and she landed next to him. Xander was thrown over the couch, and Anya, into the closest wall. Only Buffy managed to get through, crawling to Grace, gathering her in her arms, guarding her against the attack, using her own body as a buffer to the rage.
It couldn't last, Giles rationalized. It was too intense, too sudden, a storm that would kill itself. Inside it, in Buffy's arms, Grace was protected. More protected than she'd been in his. He didn't know if it was jealousy, the frustrating edge of ineptness, or rage, but he made it to his feet and ran forward with a roar of intent. He would protect his child. He would not leave it to others.
Hot wind sliced through him as he hit the front, followed by debris, dust, splinters of flooring that lodged into his face, stung his eyes, but Giles didn't care. He pushed forward. Then suddenly, next to him was Willow, her arm raised, shielding her eyes, but pushing nonetheless, her expression fierce. From across the room Xander and Anya did the same. Wind howled, screamed, swore at them with its core, but it didn't stop them. The four of them huddled over Buffy, who huddled over Grace – their heart.
And then it was over. No wind, no pain, no screaming. Just the sound of their labored breaths, Grace's whimper, their hearts pounding. Moments later Willow had Grace in her arms, cradling her, trying not to cry, walking away from Giles.
Whether or not the betrayal he felt was hers or his, he couldn't be sure. Giles' stomach rolled and clenched. He'd let them down. God, he'd been such a fool, an arrogant son of a bitch to even think that they should attempt such a thing.
"What the hell was that?" Xander managed. He put his hand to his forehead, wincing as his fingers came in contact with a thin but jagged cut.
"I'm so sorry," Giles whispered, staring after his wife and child. He forced himself to look into the bleeding and bruised faces of the others; pain, confusion, and concern looked back at him, expecting something. He opened his mouth, but closed it just as quickly. There were no words.
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