“What? No way I don’t believe it.”
Xander shook his head in exasperated disgust, dismissing any possibility that the winged creature kneeling before them could be who Buffy had said it was.
“This can’t be Giles,” he argued, gesturing toward the demon with its wild hair and nearly naked body. “I mean, look at him, Buff. Since when has Giles had wings, or a body like that?"
“Since that bloody explosion smothered me its blasted goo, is when,” the Brit grumbled nasally through the mask of fingers covered his wounded nose. “And what exactly do you mean by ‘a body like that?” the Englishman retorted petulantly.
“I mean, like that,” the boy frowned, nodding at Giles’ trim form. “I know tweed is the Miracle Fabric guaranteed to cover all sins, but there ain’t no way you’ve been hidin’ that under a bunch of wool for all these years.”
Sighing, Giles tenderly tweaked his bruised face. He could feel something warm and wet trickling down his upper lip. Buffy’s blow had broken a blood vessel, but nothing vital like bone had been damaged. Wiping away the red trail with a discreet swipe of his fingers, the Watcher gamely hitched up the sagging towel around his hips, and struggling to his feet, he confronted his two companions.
“Once I washed away that horrid gunk, this is what was underneath,” he explained, picking off the grass blades that clung to his knees. “Though how all these extra bits managed to remain so effectively hidden under a simple layer of slime is beyond my understanding.”
“Extra bits?” Xander queried tremulously. His eyebrow waggled questioningly as he gave the Watcher a suspicious glance up and down. “We are talking about those honking wings, right? ‘Cause, if there’s any extra parts under that skirt, I don’t want to know about it.”
“It’s not a skirt,” Giles frowned, raising his chin haughtily. “It’s a towel.”
“It is a towel,” Buffy readily affirmed as she gave the pale terry material around his waist a second, closer look. “In fact,” she announced with an indignant pout. “It’s one of my towels. And you got blood and grass all over it Those stains are never going to come out, you know.”
“I promise to replace any goods I may have inadvertently damaged,” the Brit scowled peevishly. “I’m not so certain you could make the same assurance for my nose.” Wincing, he rubbed the tender area. “Did you really have to hit it that hard?”
“Giles, a demon jumped out of the bushes and attacked me. It’s not like I’m going to stop and think about whether I might be over-reacting.”
“I did not attack you,” the Watcher retorted sharply.
“You slapped me!” Buffy returned defensively. “And you tried to take away my favorite axe.”
“Only after you whacked at my head with it.”
“Yeah, well, what did you expect me to do? You were hiding in the bushes. That’s pretty suspicious behavior, if you ask me, and it cancels out anything that I did.”
“So ” Clapping his hands together, Xander smoothly directed a change in topic. “Where exactly were you headed in that fabulously stylish little wrap of yours?” he asked the Englishman.
“Well,” the Brit hemmed, and grimaced sheepishly. The last thing he wanted to admit was that he had been running away. Fortunately, a plausible half-truth lay amidst the other less desirably revealed elements of his plan, providing him with a ready-made explanation. “It seems I’d neglected to bring a change of clothing upstairs with me,” he outlined in explanation. “I was in the process of rectifying that situation when I, erm, uh, slipped.”
“From the roof?” Xander inquired. He gave a skeptical glance toward the house behind them. One of the windows leading into Buffy’s bedroom stood accusingly open, the curtains fluttering in the night breeze. “You know, Giles, there are easier, and safer ways to get from one floor of a house to the next, and they don’t involve throwing yourself out a window. Try taking the stairs.”
“I shall endeavor to remember that,” the Englishman muttered as he gingerly massaged a bruised muscle in his back.
Buffy watched the Brit kneading at his terry-covered hip. Her mind began to wander, her thoughts straying into dangerous territory. Giles’ fingers continued to rub idly at his side, and with every digging pass, his towel’s precarious purchase eased another fraction of an inch downward. The slayer stared, transfixed, watching as the tucked waistline gradually loosened its hold, and the seam over the Brits leg split wider, revealing an expanse of shapely-muscled thigh.
At first, she could do nothing but gape. She was enraptured by the unlikely sight of her Watcher’s bare flesh. Just look at him, she sighed, unconcsciously leering within the privacy of her thoughts. Who knew Giles was such a hunka-hunk? He’s got rippling muscles and everything. Those abs are absolutely gorgeous And Anya was right about that butt, too. Tight and firm. Bet that would look just scrumptious packed into a pair of black leather pants. Oh, my God!
With a startled jerk, Buffy ripped herself out of the dream-like reverie that had hijacked her brain into forbidden territory. I wasn’t just ogling Giles, was I? Ewwww Get a grip on yourself, Summers. Swallowing the horrified knot gripping her belly, Buffy forced herself to bury the scandalous thoughts swimming through her head. She carefully plastered on an overzealous smile on her face, and turning to her companions, she breathed a sigh of relief to see that they hadn’t noticed what she had been doing.
“Come on. Let’s get you back inside,” she announced, waving her Watcher toward the house. “We don’t want the neighbors calling the SPCA to report us for harboring an endangered species. Besides,” she continued, trying desperately to avoid staring at the Brit’s hardened nipples. “It’s a little cool out here. Don’t you think?”
The trio slowly trooped single file across the silvery-lit lawn. There was a noticeable flurry of commotion at the living room window, and as they tromped up the front porch stairs, the door flew open before them, revealing four very curious and somewhat anxious female faces.
“Is-is that who I think it is?” Willow squealed, grinning at the winged Brit.
“I hope so,” Dawn retorted with a wriggling dance. “’Cause if Giles is down here, then the bathroom’s free.”
“It’s Giles,” the slayer remorsefully affirmed.
The teen did a happy little hop, and pirouetting around in about face, she galloped off toward the staircase, thundering up the steps to vanish into the recesses of the second floor above.
“Don’t mind her,” Buffy said, casually dismissing her sister’s odd behavior to the puzzled Watcher. “It’s nothing personal. Well, actually it is. She’s been waiting to use the bathroom for, like, forever, but you were hoggin’ all the privacy This Old House has.”
“She has my sincerest apologies,” Giles muttered with a dry and gracious air. The trace of a grin toyed at his lips, a low chuckle rumbling musically in his throat. “It would seem that the shoe has finally found the other foot.”
As Xander closed the door behind them, Giles’ amusement quickly dissolved. He found himself the uncomfortable subject of close scrutiny from five awed young pairs of eyes.
“What?” he challenged, perturbed by the looks the Scoobies were giving him.
“You-you laughed,” Willow replied. Her expression said that the fact, which in itself wasn’t necessarily unheard of, was for some unknown reason, a spectacular event worth noting.
“Yes, well, I have been know to do that sort of thing upon occasion,” Giles wryly responded. “Though, for the sake of accuracy, I’d have said it was more of a chortle, than a laugh.”
“It sounded pretty,” Tara remarked, beaming shyly at the Watcher.
“I don’t know from pretty,” Xander added. “But it was…different.”
“Different?” Giles’ frowned. “Different how?”
“I dunno,” the boy said, scratching his head. “It was weird, that’s all.”
“It wasn’t like any noise we’ve ever heard you do before,” Willow effused excitedly. “It was like a whole bunch of little birdies chirping away in their happy little tree. Of course,” she added, flashing a sheepish smirk at the winged Brit. “It could just be the twisted inner workings of my brain making a free association with those huge feathered things sticking out behind you.”
“I think Will’s right,” Buffy concurred. “Not about the twisted brain thing,” she quickly clarified at the red head’s wounded pout. “Though, there are times…” She grinned, letting the sentence hang unfinished for a moment. “Anyway, the bird thing is a definite. You did the same thing outside, when we were rolling around…I mean, fighting,” she corrected, biting back her unwisely chosen words. Shooting a furtive, guilt-riddled look toward Anya, she waited for some kind of haughty acknowledgment of the Freudian slip, but the ex-demon was too eager to insert her own perspective into the running commentary.
“It all makes perfect sense,” the ex-demon asserted authoritatively. “If Giles is a demon, then his natural tongue could be a derivative of some exotic bird-based language. Hence the chirpy noises.”
“What do you mean ‘if’ he’s a demon?” Xander snorted cynically. “Ahn, look at those wings. What else could he be?”
“He could be dead.”
There was a long, disconcerting silence. Backing away from the winged Watcher, the Scoobies exchanged furtive glances among themselves, conveying messages of varying degrees of alarm and worry.
“Oh, come on ” Giles erupted in an affronted huff. “I should think it’s quite obvious I’m not dead.”
“Giles, this is Sunnydale,” Buffy reminded the Watcher. “Nothing is ever as obvious as it looks.”
“Yes, well, be that as it may,” the Brit scowled with exasperation. “I believe I can say with some authority that I have both a healthy heartbeat and a pulse. You’re more than welcome to check for yourself if you doubt my word,” he said, offering his arm out to the slayer.
“No thank you ” Tossing up her hands, the blonde recoiled from the extended limb. Her overreaction did not go unnoticed by Giles, who pouted, retracting his proffered wrist with a confused and wounded look.
“You needn’t be so bloody adamant about it,” he grumbled peevishly. “It’s not like you’ve never touched a demon before.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t go ‘round touching them when they’re naked,” Buffy sniffed back piously in retort.
“Yes, well, I believe we all know of at least one instance when that wasn’t true.” A lewd sneer tugged at the Brit’s mouth. “Or perhaps we’ve forgotten about Angel.”
“Giles ” Buffy scowled at her Watcher. “This has nothing to do with Angel. Anyway,” she defended, gathering the frayed edges of her dignity. “I don’t know anything about taking pulses. If you want someone to verify your vital signs, ask Willow. She’s the one with the doctor playing experience, remember?”
With an impatient sigh, Giles dutifully dangled his hand before the red head. Following a brief but perceptible beat of hesitation, Willow shyly accepted the challenge, and wrapping her fingertips around Giles’ inner wrist, she gingerly began to explore for his pulse.
A look of concentration fell over the Wiccan’s features. She frowned, making several long glances toward the mantle clock in the next room as her lips moved in a faint, inaudible whisper. The first minutes passed, and then several more before she finally released the Englishman’s arm.
“He definitely has a pulse,” she announced. A collective sigh arose from the assembled group. “But...”
“But?” Buffy tensed expectantly. ‘Buts’ seldom meant good news.
“Well, it’s probably nothing serious,” Willow said, but she threw a worried glance at the Englishman. “Your heart rate is running a little fast.”
“I would expect as much,” Giles calmly returned, skirting the issue’s more serious implications with a casual dismissal. “Especially considering recent circumstances and all.”
“I guess that makes sense,” Willow shrugged. “Only...”
“Now there’s an only?” Buffy looked from Willow to her Watcher, her anxiety increasing. “Giles, when a ‘but’ becomes an ‘only’, it means a world of bad.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing, Buffy,” the Englishman assured his slayer. “A slightly elevated heart rate of-”
“Three-fifty,” the witch interjected.
“Three...what?” Giles’ eyes popped open as he turned to Willow in shock. “That’s impossible! Th-there must be some mistake.”
“I take it three-fifty is not too good,” Buffy prompted her red head companion with concern. Willow returned an uncomfortable grimace.
“A normal person’s resting heart rate should be around sixty to ninety beats per minute.”
“So, we’re talkin’ more than just gentle pitter-patter heart rate here,” Buffy worriedly interpreted.
Willow nodded concurrence. “More like ‘I’m about to have a cardiac arrest’,” she explained.
“Definitely not good,” the slayer frowned as she stole an anxious look at her Watcher.
“Except, what’s weird,” Willow continued, pouting thoughtfully. “Giles’ body doesn’t seem to think it’s so bad. By all rights he should be keeling over right about now, but he looks pretty healthy. Actually,” she corrected, appreciatively eyeing the Brit’s near-naked physique up and down. “He’s looking very healthy.”
“Maybe it’s just a demon thing,” Tara offered, trying to set her companions’ minds at ease. “Don’t birds have faster heart rates? If Giles is a bird-demon, then maybe it’s normal that his pulse is that fast.”
Everyone turned toward Anya, their resident demon expert, for confirmation of Tara’s theory, but the shop girl had her mind stuck on another matter entirely.
“You two play doctor?” she queried, smiling knowingly at the red head and her shy girlfriend. “Xander and I enjoy playing Naughty Nurse.”
“So, what’s going on? Did I miss anything?”
From the top of the staircase, Dawn’s voice interrupted any reply. Drifting down to join the others crowded in the foyer, the teen could sense she’d walked into something, and the conversation had reached an uncomfortable impasse.
“Why is it that whenever I walk into the room, everyone stops talking?” she grumbled belligerently. “You know, this is just the kind of thing that makes a suspicious person go all schizo-paranoid.”
“Don’t worry, we weren’t talking about you,” Anya cheerily explained to the disgruntled teen. “We were actually discussing whether Giles was a demon, or if he was dead, but then Giles said something about Buffy touching Angel when he was naked, and she got all huffy and tried to tell us she didn’t know how to take his pulse, so Willow did it because she and Tara like to play doctor a lot.”
The red-headed Wiccan raised a sputtered protest. “Tara and I do not play doctor,” she interjected sharply.
“Then why did you say that you did?” Anya innocently challenged.
“I never said…”
Sighing, Buffy stepped forward once again to act as referee. Experience told her that there was little use in trying to straighten out Anya’s convoluted logic. It was better to ignore, forget, and move things along.
“I think we’ve managed to establish that A, Giles isn’t dead, and B, he’s probably a demon,” the slayer announced to the group gathered around her. “The question before us now becomes, what are we going to do about it?”
“It’s comforting to know that we haven’t all forgotten about the important issue here,” Giles muttered in a tone that cracked dryly with undisguised sarcasm. “I was beginning to suspect that you might prefer I remain this way.”
“Well,” Willow grinned, ogling the Watcher with a twinkling eye. “It’s not such a bad look. The whole ‘Jerry Garcia meets the Fountain of Youth’ thing kinda works for you. Plus, the wings are definitely sexy…what?” Tara’s nudging elbow halted her dialogue. Turning toward the tawny-haired witch, Willow found herself on the wrong end of a disapproving glower. “I was only trying to help Giles,” she argued in a contrite whisper. “He looked like he could use an encouraging word or two.”
“Encouraging?” Tara raised an eyebrow.
“Okay, flattering,” Willow conceded with a begrudging roll of her eyes.
“Sounded more like full out gushing from over here,” Buffy grumbled, adding her censure to the debate of Giles’ attractive qualities.
Willow blushed, looking to the others for sympathy, but even Dawn, who seldom saw eye to eye with her sister on anything, refused to back up her opinion.
“Definite sounds of gush were heard,” the teen informed the pink-faced wiccan with disgust. “In another minute, you’d have been proposing to Giles, and asking him to have your babies.”
“All right,” Xander announced, holding up his hands. “Enough with the crazy talk already. I, for one, do not want to hear any more about Giles, his Victoria’s Secret wings, or anyone birthing his babies. Can we please move this discussion on, and talk about something less disturbing, like, oh, say, anything?”
“I’m with Xander on that one,” Buffy declared with a resounding echo of approval. “We need to start making with the research thing, and the sooner the better. We have to get Giles back to normal. Or, at least, what passes for normal,” she teased with a dubious glance at her Watcher. “He is still Giles, after all.”
“So, it’s off to the Magic Box?” Xander asked. Hefting his machete, he let out an exaggeratedly disheartened sigh. “Guess I won’t be needing this anymore.”
Relieving him of the large blade, Buffy carried it with her own back to the weapons chest in the living room. Dumping the arms into the open box with a loud, metallic clank, she slammed the lid shut, and returned to the foyer.
“We can research here,” she announced, assuming command of the operation in her typical slayer style. “The environment at the Magic Box right now is questionable at best, and speaking for myself, I get a lot more work done when I’m not worrying about if the ceiling’s going to cave in on my head.”
Leaning in toward Willow, Dawn whispered a questioning aside into the witch’s ear. “Don’t tell me the Magic Box got destroyed again?”
“Afraid so,” the red head replied with a discouraged sigh.
Willow nodded her agreement as Buffy, ignoring the interruption, continued to delegate her orders to the waiting Scoobies.
Snapping to a smartly executed attention stance, Xander clicked his heels and saluted the slayer in regulation military fashion.
“What is thy bidding, O Fearless leader?”
“You’re in charge of research reconnaissance. You can take Willow and Tara with you. They’ll know what we need.” Redirecting her next comment to the two witches, she began ticking items off on her finger. “Grab whatever you think looks useful. Books, charms, herbs, magic stuff. Let’s try to do this in one run if we can.”
“Gotcha,” Willow concurred, throwing the slayer an affirming thumbs up.
“I’m going with them” Anya declared. Linking her arm with her boyfriend, she tossed her head defiantly, daring Buffy to deny her. “It’s my shop. All right, mine and Giles’,” she grudgingly amended, catching the sharp glower the Watcher shot her way. “They’ll need my key to get in.”
“We can use her help,” Xander enjoined, adding his weight to the ex-demon’s argument. “She can carry stuff.”
“Fine,” the slayer acquiesced. “Go. Another pair of hands means you get back faster.”
As the four Scoobies shuffled toward the front door, Dawn turned to confront her sister with eager anticipation.
“What about us?” she asked, including herself with Giles and her sister. They were the only three participants without a formal assignment. “We get jobs, too, don’t we?”
Buffy frowned. She knew that being left out of the slayer action was one of her younger sister’s great frustrations, but she wanted to keep Dawn safe, if such a thing was even possible when living over a Hellmouth. The young teen constantly complained to her about being treated like the lone child of the group. At fifteen, Dawn thought she was old enough to do her part in saving the world. It was a hard argument for Buffy to counter when she, at the same age, had been fighting vampires on a near nightly basis, a fact that Dawn had latched onto lately with vigorous tenacity.
But this time Buffy was ready for her sister’s arguments.
“There’s something for everyone,” she informed the teen.
“We’re making snacks.”
“Snacks?” Dawns petulant pout said that she was not impressed. “Now, there’s a job fraught with danger,” she grumbled sarcastically. “Opening bags of potato chips. Oooo! Sounds real scary. Are you sure I can handle it? I mean, I might need someone with superhero powers to protect me from a paper cut. Maybe we should get a slayer to do it. Oh, wait That’s you, isn’t it. I guess the world’s safe after all.”
“Hey ” Xander chastised the teen with an admonishing wag of his finger. “Don’t go knocking snack food duty. It’s a very critical and key position. Everyone depends on you to come through in the big crunch. In this League Against the Forces of Darkness, this is one special operations soldier that seriously believes in the old adage, an army marches on its stomach.”
“Okay, I’ll be snack go-fer,” Dawn capitulated with a reluctant sigh. Her glum attitude changed as she was struck by a sudden inspiration. “Oooo Can we make brownies?” she asked her sister.
“Brownies sound like a perfect start,” the slayer returned. “We can nuke up another batch or two of popcorn, slap together some dip for the chips, and throw some more soda in the fridge to chill. While we’re at it, we can put on a pot of coffee, too. We’ll be needing all the caffeine and sugar we’ve got to keep our brains fueled. It looks like it’s going to be a long night ahead.”
There was a last minute exchange of instructions, and then the two Scooby factions parted ranks, each going off to do their respective tasks. Xander and the three girls filed out to his car, their ultimate destination the Magic Box, while Buffy , Dawn and Giles went to see what they could come up with in the way of culinary magic.