Buffy stood in front of her open locker staring vacantly at the collection of schoolbooks piled haphazardly atop each other inside. Behind her in the hallway students were beginning to amass in growing swarms, talking and gathering in small friendly gangs as they prepared for their first class of the day. It was still early in the morning. School didn’t officially start for at least another hour so she had plenty of time to get organized, do a little socializing with her buds and report to Giles about the previous night’s patrol.
Shortly after the librarian had left her at the park she encountered two vampires out prowling the jogging paths for their nightly sustenance. A rousing altercation had ensued with plenty of pummeling and bodily damage on both sides. Buffy eventually gained the upper hand, dispatching the pair with her usual flamboyant zest. She then spent the next few unproductive hours scouring the shoreline around Fuller’s Pond and finding nothing out of the ordinary or that might even remotely be deemed as interesting. Of course Buffy wasn’t sure what she was supposed to be looking for in the first place. In the end her search of the marshy pond netted nothing more than a pair of formerly favorite shoes now ruined by encrusted mud, two very cold feet and several hours of lost sleep. Tired and chilled, she finally gave up and went home. Whatever was out there had decided it wasn’t going to show its face last night.
Shaking off the fuzzy mantle of sleep that threatened to blanket her, Buffy leaned against her locker door and hid a yawn behind her hand. Her body ached with bruises from her most recent vampire encounters. The drab outfit she wore that day reflected as much her mood as the need to hide the evidence of her battles with the forces of evil. Simple beige slacks and a long sleeved sweater covered the worst of her contusions, and the skillful application of makeup managed to hide a multitude of other beauty sins, including the dark, puffy sleep deprived circles under her eyes. Looking at her reflection in the small mirror she kept in her locker, Buffy thought to herself that there were times when being the Chosen One was not synonymous with running for beauty pageant queen, and she felt that this morning was definitely looking like one of those days.
A figure bounced up the hallway, approaching her from behind. Buffy stifled another yawn as she looked over her shoulder and saw it was Willow. The perky red head was all smiles and full of cheer that morning and her effervescence was almost too much for Buffy to take. With an exhausted groan, the blonde greeted her friend.
“Hey, Will,” she mumbled in a narcoleptic stupor, her words barely coherent as they escaped from her mouth. “Whazzup?”
“Morning, sleepyhead,” Willow beamed brightly, teasing her classmate in return.
“Is it that obvious?” Buffy asked her good friend. Fumbling as she pulled her books from her locker, Buffy stole another quick peek at her reflection in the small mirror. She swept back a lock of blonde hair that had managed to stray from that day’s plaited braid, tucking it behind her ear. It was the best she could do for now, considering what she had to work with.
“You didn’t by any chance stay up late studying?” Willow frowned, doubting her own explanation as to her companion’s morning sluggishness. “I thought you said you were ready for this morning’s Lit test.”
“That’s today?” Buffy moaned. She had forgotten about the test. Well at least this time she had read the book. Now all she needed to do was remember what it had been about. Maybe it would start coming back to her when she read the questions on the exam.
“You were out late again last night, huh?” Willow queried, her voice registering genuine concern for her friend.
“Giles and Wesley had me out doing back to back patrols,” Buffy explained, rotating a tender shoulder to work the kinks out of it. “What with Darth Faith having gone over to the dark side, I’m pretty much working for two these days.”
Faith was another girl who, like herself, had been born into the calling of vampire slayer. Through an unfortunate turn of events, Faith’s Watcher had been killed and she had arrived in Sunnydale, looking to hook up with Buffy and her gang. At first the blonde had been reluctant to accept the wild, reckless dark-haired girl as a friend, viewing the other teen as an interloper in her world who was out to steal away all of her buddies. Buffy eventually got over her initial jealousy and the two girls got along well enough for a while, though they had little in common except the special talent each possessed for slaying vampires. Giles had been her Watcher back then in those pre-Wesley days, when the librarian was still in favor with the Council. He was asked to take on the responsibility of training the pair, and it was beginning to look like Buffy and her new slaymate were going to make some positive inroads against the forces of evil that invaded Sunnydale.
At least Buffy had thought things were okay between her and Faith. Recently the other slayer had strayed from the good guys’ camp, joining ranks with a known enemy, the Less than Honorable Mayor Richard Wilkins III. Buffy had yet to understand why Faith abandoned her friends for a sleaze like the mayor and his evil demonic cohorts at City Hall. She still harbored hope that the confused girl would someday see her error and come back to fight on the side of truth, justice and the American Way. In the mean time, Buffy was on her own again, with dorky Watcher Wesley the Wonder Wuss and his Exhaustingly Endless Book of Slayer Rules. Well, at least she still had the gang to help put the fun back into her life. She was definitely thankful for that.
Picking up the rest of the books she would need for that morning’s classes, Buffy closed her locker door with a reverberating slam that shook the entire row of repositories along the wall. Several students were momentarily startled as the contents of their own lockers spit out falling books, papers and pencils, but the slayer didn’t take any notice. She swung the small backpack she used as her purse over one shoulder, joining Willow to walk down the corridor.
They stopped at Oz’s locker, where the red head and the musician spent a minute smooching while Buffy pretended to be busy looking elsewhere. There were times when Buffy envied her best friend and the relationship she had with her guy Oz. The two seemed so right for each other. They were obviously in love, or at least in an extremely strong state of like. Buffy didn’t have what could be thought of as a normal type of relationship with her special guy, Angel. Angel was a vampire. A good vampire, true, but it still put a strain on their being together, what with her being a vampire slayer and all. Then there was that thing where he would loose his soul if he ever found true happiness again. That sort of nixed big smoochies between them and any other possibilities beyond that. She was trying to deal with the whole idea of loving a man two hundred plus years old who would never die, but sometimes it was such a drag being eighteen and having the responsibilities of the world riding on her back. That was when she would give anything to be like her friend Willow.
Running up the hall toward them through the amassing throng Buffy saw Xander. She acknowledged his presence with a languid smile as he dropped an arm over her sore shoulder and gave her a friendly good morning hug. The lanky teen was apparently having one of his better days, his wide grin broadcasting his good humor to the world.
“Hey!” Xander addressed his buddies as they started off down the hall together abreast in formation, the two boys on the outside flanking positions. “Did we decide, or what?”
“Decide what?” Buffy asked, looking to the others for a clue as to what was being considered.
“Oh, yeah, that’s right,” Xander nodded. “You left early last night.”
“Not according to Giles or Wesley,” the blonde griped in response. “At what point in life does a person start thinking there isn’t enough time for important things like friends or fun and suddenly develop a compulsive need for punctuality? I’d really, really like to know, ‘cause I’m sort of hoping I’ve been tucked in for my final dirt nap long before that ever happens to me.”
“What’s the matter, Buff?” Xander asked, his draped arm drawing her closer. “Mr. Mom ground you again because you were a couple minutes late last night?”
“I bet she got a lecture,” Willow frowned.
It was more of a statement from the red head than a question. Buffy’s friends were more than familiar with the sermon-like speeches adults were famous for dispensing. They had all been on the receiving end of similar conversations, usually with a parent. As Buffy nodded an affirmative reply, Willow made appropriate noises of sympathy for her companion.
“The only thing worse than one of Giles’ boring speeches is when Wesley gets going with his ‘duty, honor and unquestioning obedience’ soliloquies,” Willow remarked, returning to her plaintive tirade on the insensitivity of parental censorship from the previous afternoon. “Personally, I don’t think either one of those guys ever met a good time they couldn’t throw a wet blanket over. They hardly ever smile.”
“Maybe it’s some British thing,” Oz suggested. “Remember that picture of Churchill in our History book? Kind of gives you the impression the English are pretty serious people.”
“So, you’re leaning toward the theory that Robin Hood was probably one of those urban legends,” Xander continued thoughtfully, carrying the idea along further. “’Cause there simply ain’t no way you’d ever find enough Merry Men in that country to put together a whole band.”
“Doesn’t seem likely,” Oz solemnly responded in turn.
“Well, it’s no wonder you look so terrible,” Willow empathized with her friend. Then the red head’s eyes went wide, realizing how harshly her words could be interpreted. She made an awkward apologetic grimace as she turned toward the girl beside her. “That’s not what I meant, Buffy. You look fine. Really you do. It’s just, well,” Willow frowned, her anger building. “It’s the way those guys always treat you. That’s what’s terrible. They never let you go out anymore. It’s like ‘Oh, the world’s gonna end’ because you spend a couple minutes with your friends. Giles and Wesley expect too much. You’re only in high school. It isn’t fair!”
“Yeah,” Xander agreed, siding with Willow’s argument. “It’s bad enough you have to listen to those two old British biddies about all that slayer stuff. Do you have to put up with them telling you what you can and can’t do the rest of the time, too?”
“But isn’t that what a parent does,” Buffy retorted.
“My point exactly,” Xander came back at her. “And who need four of those? You’ve maxed out on your limit of allowed parental units, Buff. Time to tell a few of them where they can get off. I’d suggest you start by ditching the pair without the required family blood ties. That kind usually doesn’t give presents for birthdays. We can’t afford to loose track of the really important issues here.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Buffy grinned, cheered by her schoolmates’ consoling commiseration. It was comforting to know there were others suffering along with her in the confusing eternity of time the world called growing up. “Anyway,” the blonde continued. “What were we deciding before we all got caught up in that other uninteresting subject known as my so called un-life?”
“Whether to do the Friday Bronze thing,” Xander answered.
The Bronze was a local club popular among high school students and the under thirty-somethings in Sunnydale. They served some food and alcoholic beverages, and had the reputation for being strict about carding their drinkers. Buffy and her crowd leaned toward the soda, iced mochas, lattes and cappuccinos provided for those under the legal drinking age. Mostly they went to enjoy the music and the dancing.
“As if there’s another choice,” added Oz, winking at his girlfriend. Willow smiled back warmly, then turned to Buffy.
“Oz is playing tonight,” she explained, linking arms with the musician and snuggling close. “Some group cancelled at the last minute and the Dingoes were asked to fill in.”
“Sounds like a definite to me,” Buffy nodded. She was finally beginning to wake up and come alive. She even felt less sore than she had a few minutes ago. It was surprising what a little time with one’s friends could do to improve a somber mood.
As the teens talked, Buffy’s eye noticed a familiar figure entering the library down the corridor ahead of them. Her newly improved attitude took an immediate dive in the opposite direction. She came to a halt, her classmates stopping to look at her questioningly.
“Wesley!” she moaned, pointing accusingly down the hall. “What’s he doing here? Doesn’t he ever go home?”
“You mean like to England?” suggested Xander with a lopsided grin. That thought brought a smile back to the slayer’s lips.
“One can dream,” Buffy responded with a wistful sigh. She was not thrilled at the prospect of having to face Wesley again so soon, but it looked like she would have little choice in the matter. With a reluctant pout she regarded the double doors at the end of the corridor. “I probably should go see Giles,” she said, trying to convince herself of the wisdom in her own words. “He’ll want to know what I found last night in the park, which happened to be a big nothing. That isn’t what he’s going to want to hear.”
“Don’t worry, Buffy,” Willow encouraged her friend. “If Giles gets cranky and blows up, we’ll be right behind you.”
“Yeah,” Xander said, adding his own twist to the red head’s statement. “Way behind you, but behind you.”
The four teens made their way to the double doors with their round eye-like windows. Breaking formation they pushed their way through the swinging doorway and stopped short in shock just inside the entry. Eight eyes surveyed the room, four mouths hanging agape in symbiotic surprise. There were books everywhere. Of course that was to be expected. It was a library. But this was not the orderly display of shelved texts they were used to seeing. This was chaos. Dozens of musty volumes littered the worktable in the room’s center. More were piled at the circulation desk and stacked on various file cabinets, even on top of the card catalogue. It was as if the bookcases had exploded and thrown their contents all over the room in semi-tidy heaps.
Wesley was sitting alone at the long table the teens used for their study sessions. He was busy thumbing through a thick volume splayed out in front of him, his lips moving in silence as he read the hand-written text. Deeply engrossed in his research, the Englishman didn’t notice the teens as they entered the library.
“Whoa!” Xander exclaimed and did a complete spin, taking in the clutter around them. “Somebody had better go check on Dorothy and Toto. It looks like a twister just hit this place.”
“Gee, Wes,” Buffy scolded in a mocking tone as she approached the Englishman sitting at the long wooden table. “Does Giles know you’re playing with his books?”
“Ah, Buffy!” Wesley jumped up from his chair to greet the teen. Buffy thought he seemed flustered and nervous, much like a naughty boy who’d been caught in the act of doing something wrong. The Brit quickly recovered his composure, adopting one of his many unvarying serious expressions. “I assure you Rupert has given me permission to use these facilities as required,” he told the blonde in a firm and authoritative tone, but Buffy’s keen people reading senses detected a hint of guilt in the man’s explanation. “He’s quite aware of what I’m doing.”
Willow had stepped up to the table to look over what Wesley had been doing. Her curiosity aroused by the selection of sorcery and witchcraft lexicons the Watcher had been reading, she casually browsed through the scattering of antiquated volumes. She recognized several of the books from her own past reading experiences, including two familiar texts on spell casting. But there were a lot of titles among the ancient-looking publications that she had never seen before. Searching through a promising stack, Willow picked up a book bound in aged leather that bore a mysterious engraved symbol on its dark cover.
“This is a new one,” she said, examining the opening chapter of the text. Carefully she began to leaf through the faded yellow pages, mindful of their fragile condition.
“Will,” Xander frowned, observing the obviously worn and time tattered condition of the volume in his friend’s hand. “I hate to be the one to have to break it to you, but none of these books are new.”
“You know what I mean,” Willow frowned in peeved reply. She quickly scanned a chapter about divination, her excitement piqued. Witchcraft was one of her special interests. “There’s some really good stuff in here,” she announced with undisguised enthusiasm. “I’ve got to ask Giles if I can borrow this one.”
“Please, don’t touch any of those!” Wesley scolded, wresting the tome from her grip. Returning the volume to its place on the table, he proceeded to anxiously check through the other piles, making sure they were still in proper order and nothing had been disturbed. Willow exchanged a look with her classmates, rolling her eyes in dramatic exasperation behind the Englishman’s back then sticking out her tongue in a sudden display of childish insolence that had her friends fighting to hold back their laughter.
“What’s with the all the voodoo how to?” Buffy asked, impishly switching the position of a few volumes while Wesley’s attention was momentarily diverted elsewhere. “You and Giles teaching a class on hex education?”
“Excellent, Grasshopper!” Xander complimented the blonde who smiled modestly in return. “The day will soon come when the pupil shall surpass her master in both wit and cleverness.”
The Englishman stared in puzzlement as the dark-haired teen bowed low to the slayer in a gesture reminiscent of the Asian sign of respect. Xander’s TV trivia reference had meant nothing to him. In fact, much of what Xander said often left Wesley confused. The boy seemed to exist in an alien universe of his own where the language consisted of misquoted allusions to a myriad of outdated television programs and pop culture icons.
Dismissing the boy’s strange comment with a shake of his head, Wesley settled back into his chair again, resuming his interrupted research. As he paged through his books the four teens began to move about, circling the table like lazy sharks on the hunt for something weak to attack. He tried to ignore their presence and concentrate on his work, but their constant milling about proved a distraction. When it became apparent they weren’t going to leave him alone, the Englishman looked up and confronted the group with an irritated frown.
“Is there some particular reason you are all here, or did you just come by to make things difficult for me?” he demanded in peevish exasperation.
“Actually, we came by to bug Giles,” Xander answered the man’s question in glib response. “Making things difficult for you was an extra added bonus we hadn’t counted on.”
“Well, you’ll have to come back later,” Wesley instructed curtly. “I haven’t time to sit and chat. I’ve work to do.”
“So we see,” Buffy retorted, eyeing his books with disinterested detachment. “And fascinating as I’m sure it’s not, you’ll have to excuse me while I go have an actual interesting moment someplace else that’s not here.”
Leaving the Englishman to his research, Buffy started off across the room, heading toward Giles’ private office. Her classmates quickly regrouped, falling into step behind the blonde. Wesley’s breathed a sigh of relief, but the feeling was quick lived when he realized where the teens were going. He had to stop them! Immediately he sprang to his feet again, stumbling as he fought to untangle himself from his chair. In a panic, Wesley hastened after the blonde slayer and her companions.
Wesley had blurted out the word, his mind grasping desperately at any thought in the hope it might serve to distract the teens. He was rewarded when Buffy paused long enough to turn around to look at him, the other three teens stopping at her side. Having won a moment of the girl’s attention, Wesley began the struggle of finding some way to maintain it. In a broken rush of partial sentences he babbled on, sounding a just bit too loud and breathless as he approached the students.
“Your patrol. Last night. In the park,” he remarked, feigning an outwardly calm appearance in spite of his racing panic. “I assume it went well, yes?”
“It went well, not,” Buffy replied with a slight frown.
“I see,” Wesley nodded, adopting an appropriate look of concern. He waited patiently for the girl to continue with an explanation, but Buffy had apparently decided there nothing else to say. With a toss of her flaxen-colored hair the girl performed an abrupt about face and bounced away, once again in the lead with the short parade line of her friends right behind.
His first cursory attempt at detaining the teens from their self-appointed mission had failed miserably. Wesley realized that he had to try something else to stop the group, and he had to do it soon for the four students were nearly across the room. With long, swift strides he bolted across the library, hurrying to reach the short hallway accessing Giles’ private office before Buffy. Throwing himself directly in the blonde’s path he effectively brought the small troupe to a halt by blocking their way.
“I’m really quite interested in hearing the details of last night’s patrol,” the Englishman prattled in what he hoped was an encouraging tone. Gesturing toward the table across the room, he endeavored to direct Buffy and her companions away from the office area. “Why don’t we sit down over there and talk about it, shall we? I’m sure everyone would enjoy hearing your fascinating report.”
“I thought you were too busy to chat,” Buffy replied, backing away from the Watcher to contemplate him with mild suspicion. “All those books, so little time. I would hate to keep you from something of apocalyptic importance.”
“Buffy, your slayer duties take precedence over any other concerns,” the Englishman explained with great solemnity. “No matter how busy I may be, I shall always find time in my schedule to discuss such matters with you.”
“You have no idea how special that makes me feel,” the blonde responded, her eyes big and innocent looking as she clutched a hand over her heart in dramatic emphasis. Wesley frowned with an almost childish pout. Buffy’s words were heartfelt, but they had been spoken with a sarcastic inflection that made it obvious she didn’t care in the slightest if he was interested in her activities. The intended slight to his person had stung the British Watcher’s pride.
Wesley’s miffed reaction seemed to amuse the others, and they acknowledged his wounded expression with barely hidden snickers. Their rudeness only perturbed Wesley further and he directed a scathing glare toward the four insolent young students, reserving a particularly nasty glower for the rowdiest one in the group, Xander. The Brit was galled that the boy derived such obvious enjoyment from Buffy’s disrespectful display, and he felt himself beginning to seethe with growing anger. It took all his control to restrain from striking out at the laughing teen.
Seeing that Wesley’s attention was diverted away from her, Buffy took the opportunity to slip past the Englishman and scoot down the hallway toward Giles’ office unnoticed. To her surprise, she found the door before her closed. That was odd, she thought to herself. She was sure she’d seen a light on in the room a few moments ago, and it wasn’t like Giles to shut her out.
Buffy looked up, startled by Wesley’s shrill cry of alarm. The Englishman was leaping toward her, his eyes wild and frantic. It was a disturbing sight and the teen automatically recoiled from the approaching Brit, falling back a step even as Wesley pushed her away and wedged himself between her and the closed doorway.
“You can’t go in there,” Wesley sputtered in near panic, barring her way to the librarian’s office.
Buffy cocked her head to one side, green eyes narrowing and her lower lip jutting forward with the tiniest hint of a pout. To the casual observer the girl’s petulant expression wouldn’t have appeared ominous or the least bit threatening, but Willow, Oz and Xander knew better. They’d seen that look before. It meant big trouble for whoever was on the receiving end of the slayer’s unhappy face, and that happened to be Wesley. If the Watcher weren’t careful, the next few minutes could end up as his last.
“You know, it’s the funniest thing,” Buffy said, addressing the Brit in a tone of false passivity. “I seem to be having this little problem with my hearing today. For a minute I thought I heard you say I couldn’t go in there.”
“Well, uh…” Wesley stammered, his courage withering under the icy glare of Buffy’s direct gaze. She may have been a slight, small girl, but she was suddenly quite intimidating, and the Brit felt himself begin to perspire nervously as he faced down the slayer.
“I’m here to see Giles, Wes,” Buffy continued, impatiently waiting for the Englishman to get out of her way. “So out of my way, or I’ll have to go through both you and the door. And don’t think I won’t do it.”
“Yes, well, I’m afraid that Rupert is, uh, unavailable at the moment,” Wesley’s replied hesitantly, fighting to remain composed. “You’ll have to come back later.”
“Unavailable?” Buffy echoed the word with an unbelieving huff. “And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means that you are not going to see him this morning,” Wesley answered in curt reply. “Mr. Giles is in the middle of some very important research and has left explicit orders with me that he is not to be disturbed. Not for any reason,” the Englishman announced, standing firm. “Not even by you and your friends.”
“Oh, really? Is that what he told you?” Buffy countered with a smirk. She glanced toward her classmates with a knowing look. “What do you guys think? Is Wesley right and it’s A, Giles is deep in serious research mode, slaving away over his favorite copy of ‘Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about the Dark Ages but Were Afraid to Ask’? Or could the answer be B, he’s finally wised up and figured out the perfect way to ditch Wesley for a few hours?”
“Ooo! I pick B!” Willow announced, excitedly waving a hand in the air. Her bright eyes sparkled impishly as she grinned at her blonde friend. “It’s B. Definitely B.”
“Gotta go along with Will on that one,” Oz nodded solemnly. “Put me down for B, too.”
“So, what were those two choices again?” Xander queried with a puzzled frown.
“Oh, for Heaven’s sake!” Wesley grumbled, his ire roused by the teens’ teasing banter. “I’m not the one here who is insisting on bothering Mr. Giles against his wishes. Why would he want to avoid me?”
“Is his question part of that other thing with the A and B?” Xander remarked, directing his comment toward Buffy. “’Cause if it is, I’m thinking we need to add a few more multiple choices in there somewhere. Can I have a C? Or, or maybe a D for ‘all of the above’.”
“Xander, Wesley’s question was rhetorical,” Willow said to her classmate. “He didn’t actually expect anyone to answer it.”
“Then why did he ask?” the bewildered Xander replied.
“That’s the whole point of a rhetorical question,” Oz patiently explained. “It doesn’t need an answer.”
“Oh,” Xander responded. “I knew that.”
“Well, now that we have that matter resolved,” Wesley muttered testily, interrupting the teen’s dialogue. “Perhaps it’s time you all ran along. This is still a school, yes? I’m sure that even here in America they must teach you something of redeeming value in their school system.”
“You would think so, wouldn’t you?” Buffy grinned jovially. “Anyway, classes don’t start for a while yet. That’s why we’re here to see Giles.”
“I thought that I had made that perfectly clear,” the Brit responded with annoyance. “Mr. Giles isn’t seeing anyone this morning. But I shall be sure to tell him you stopped by.”
“And when did Giles hire you as his personal secretary?” Buffy retorted snidely, ignoring the Englishman’s suggestions that she leave. “Listen, Wes. I came to talk to Giles and I’m not leaving until I do. So get out your little appointment book and pencil me in, ‘cause I have this feeling all of Giles’ other previous engagements have suddenly been cancelled.”
“I-I can’t,” Wesley replied. There was a distinct tremor in his voice that sounded painfully pathetic for a grown man. Buffy might have felt sorry for Wesley if he’d been anyone else, but he wasn’t. He was Wesley and she knew that she had the Englishman right where she wanted him. It was only a matter of time before she brought him to his knees.
“All right, Wes,” Buffy said, stepping back to posture her lithe body defiantly in front of the Brit. “What’s the what here? You’re way too eager to have us clear out. I may not be Isaac Newton, but I know when I smell a rotten apple hitting me in the head. So, show us some of that ol’ Sunnydale High School spirit, make like the mascot and start squealing, or my fist may suddenly decide it needs to get physical with your face.”
“Why can’t you for once listen and do as your told?” Wesley complained, his apprehensions surfacing in an annoying whine. “This is not a matter that concerns you, Buffy. It has nothing to do with your slaying duties.” The Brit’s eyes narrowed, his jaw line hardening firmly. “If it were Mr. Giles making the request, would you be giving him such a difficult time?”
“Why don’t we bring him on out here and find out?” Buffy suggested with a sly grin.
“I’m sure you’d like that,” Wesley responded, his bitterness at the blonde’s impertinence overshadowing his other anxieties. “Well, that’s not going to happen. “You’ll see me dead before I let you step one foot in this office.”
“Well, if that’s the way you want it,” Buffy smirked, pushing up the long sleeves of her shirt as if she intended to oblige the Brit his request. “Can’t disappoint my Watcher, now can I?”
Wesley felt his fear rising within him, but he stood his ground, staring down the menacing young girl. He couldn’t afford to let the slayer think she could push him around so easily. After all, he was the Watcher. That meant he was the one who was supposed to be in charge, and unless showed some courage and started to act like he believed that was true he would never gain control over the insolent teen. Fixing what he hoped was a strong, determined expression on his face the Englishman drew himself up to his full height, towering with intimidation over the petite blonde.
“I’m putting my foot down this time, Buffy,” he announced with unwavering conviction to the teen. “You shan’t be seeing Mr. Giles’ today, and that’s final. Good day to you!”
Before Buffy could say a word, Wesley had opened the office door behind him just enough to slip inside, shutting it again with a resounding slam in the astonished blonde’s face. The unexpected display of backbone took the teen completely by surprise. She blinked, staring in disbelief at the closed door for a minute. Finally she turned toward her companions with a questioning expression.
“What happened here?” she asked, her eyes wide in disbelieving wonder. “Did Wesley just do what I think he did?”
“If it’s that he suddenly developed a spine to replace that slinky toy in his back and behaved like a close, reasonable facsimile of an actual man, well, then, yeah,” Xander agreed with a dubious half-grin. “Looks like you got blown out of the water, Buff. Maybe it’s time you thought about retiring, you know, before word gets out you’re a slayer has been.”
“We’ll see about that!” the blonde pouted, glaring at the closed door as if she could see Wesley on the other side of it. “No way I’m letting some Wesley come lately second string Watcher order me around like I’m his personal slayer.”
“But, and I realize as I say this that it isn’t going to make me very popular around here, isn’t that what you are, Buffy? His slayer?” Willow timorously proposed. Her comment drew a dark glare from her blonde classmate as she continued to gently press her point. “Well, aren’t you?”
“You’re supposed to be on my side, Will,” Buffy retorted, frowning at her friend.
“I am,” the other girl replied. “It’s just that, well, maybe Giles really is busy, like Wesley said.”
“Then again, maybe he’s not,” Oz quietly remarked. The musician’s statement attracted curious looks from the others. “I don’t remember seeing Giles’ car this morning,” Oz explained matter-of-factly. “Did any of you?”
“Actually, now that you mention it,” Xander closed his eyes and mentally replayed the scene of himself crossing the school’s parking lot earlier that day. “Let’s see. Tree, grass, pavement, car, car, mini-van, watch out for the gum, car, hello Miss Barton, more pavement, out of the way, football team, car, hmmm, Wesley’s van, car, car, car, ooooo! Gina Alberghetti wearing a little skirt and an unbelievably tight pink sweater thing with buttons down the front and…” His voice trailed off and Xander sheepishly opened his eyes to find his friends staring at him. “Uh, no, I don’t recall seeing it. In fact, there was a distinct lack of that junkyard blight on the landscape look the Gilesmobile tends to give this place. Maybe his car broke down and he walked to school.”
“Could be he didn’t come in,” Buffy surmised, chewing thoughtfully on her lower lip. With a shake of her head she quickly dismissed that idea. “What am I saying. Giles is here. He’s gotta be. How else would Wesley have gotten in
“Maybe he borrowed the key,” Willow suggested helpfully.
“Right,” Buffy snorted, her expression making it clear how ridiculous she considered that conclusion. “And while he was at it, he promised his first born to Wesley in exchange for spinning a pile of straw into gold. I don’t think so, Will. This is Giles we’re talking about, remember? Believe me, the last person he would give the key to this library to is Wesley.”
“I guess you’re right,” the red head agreed. “He is kind of possessive about it. I remember this one time I suggested he make a spare, you know, in case he wasn’t here and one of us had to get in. Boy, you should have seen the look I got! ‘I’m always here’, he told me,” Willow said, her voice deepening in a fair impersonation of the older Brit’s accent. “‘And I shall let you in.’”
“Which brings us back to what’s behind door number one,” Buffy remarked with a jerk of her thumb toward the closed office. “And I think it’s about time we found out.”
There was an eager round of agreement from the four teens. As the others gathered behind her, Buffy threw the door open, boldly stepping into the room.
“Okay, Wes,” she announced . “Either you tell us what’s going on or…”
Buffy stopped short in her tracks, her mouth gaping as she fell silent. Wesley was standing across the room next to Giles’ desk, but he wasn’t alone. A small boy was seated beside him in the librarian’s swivel chair. The presence of a stranger in the room took Buffy completely by surprise and she immediately mumbled an apology.
“Sorry,” she grinned in embarrassment. “I didn’t know you had company.”
Wesley stood motionless, staring at her like a startled deer caught in a car’s headlights. It was the boy who reacted first to the teen’s sudden entrance. Turning away, he hunched his shoulders forward, hiding his face behind a shielding hand. He pretended to be absorbed in a book on the desk, leaning over the large volume and burying his nose in the pages. As the other teens filed into the small office behind Buffy, each registered varying degrees of surprise as they noticed the young stranger among them.
Exchanging curious glances, the four classmates found themselves baffled by the same thought. Who was this boy? None of them had ever seen him before, not that the strange youth was allowing them to see much of him now. He was doing all he could to appear inconspicuous, cowering from the teens’ collective inquisitive stares as the silence in the room built to an uncomfortable level.
In a gesture typical of her sensitive nature Willow made the first overture of good will toward the little stranger among them. Ignoring Wesley’s protests she stepped forward, approaching the boy to greet him with one of her famous warm smiles.
“Hi!” Willow cheered in an encouraging, non-threatening tone. “You’re new around here, aren’t you? Well, my name’s Willow and these are my friends. That’s Oz, and Xander, and that’s Buffy over there. So, what’s your name?”
The boy met her welcoming introductions with a downcast tilt of his face, pointedly avoiding any eye contact. He seemed painfully shy, almost afraid as he turned away from the friendly red head. Willow immediately felt her heart fill with pity for the little boy. He was trying so hard to hide from her, but in the confines of the small office he was trapped. There was nowhere for him to escape, especially since the only exit in sight was cut off by the other teens crowding the doorway. Her compassion aroused by what she felt was the child’s distress, Willow quietly withdrew, looking to Wesley for an explanation.
“What’s with the little guy?” she asked in a pseudo whisper, her worry plainly showing. “Is he okay?”
“It’s nothing you need concern yourself with,” Wesley nervously replied, including the others in his admonition. “He’s quite alright. Now, if you would all be kind enough to leave we could get back to our work.”
The Englishman made a timid attempt to herd the teens out of the office, but his request fell on deaf ears. In what Wesley was coming to regard as typical of Buffy’s disobedient attitude, the blonde refused to move along as instructed. She frowned at him, her arms crossed in a defiant posture that dared him to push the issue further. At one time this tenacity and determination would have pleased Wesley. These were excellent qualities that made for a good slayer, ones that would allow her to defeat the most pertinacious of enemies. But in this particular case the girl’s stubbornness was nothing more than irritating. Wesley found himself wishing that for once the blonde would simply do as asked and not make things more difficult for him.
Glancing over his shoulder Wesley was met by Giles’ stony, disapproving glare. The young librarian obviously wasn’t happy about the developing situation. In their discussions that morning on the way to the shops he had made it clear to Wesley that Buffy and the others were not to become involved in his problem. But then they had both anticipated a solution having presented itself by this time. Three hours of intense research later they weren’t any closer to an answer, and Giles was becoming truly worried.
“Seems kinda shy.” Oz observed, studying the boy’s anti-social behavior.
“Yes, well, he doesn’t like strangers,” the Englishman responded with mild annoyance. “You’re making the lad nervous. He’d prefer it if you all let him be and went away.”
Buffy fixed the Englishman with a captious stare. It was difficult to say who was more upset by their intrusion, Wesley or the boy. The kid at least had the excuse of being among strangers to explain his agitation. There was no reason she knew for Wesley to be acting so weird, except if he was hiding something from them. Her thoughts returning to why she’d originally entered the office, Buffy decided it was time she got to the bottom of this mystery.
“Maybe you can help us,” the blonde said, directing her words to the boy. She ignored Wesley’s feeble attempt to fend her off, stifling any further protest with a withering glance. Since Wesley wasn’t going to tell her anything useful, maybe she could get some information out of the little guy. She would win over the boy’s confidence then question him about Giles.
Buffy moved forward, hunkering down next to the chair so that her face was down at the youth’s level. Presenting her best impression of a concerned, kind and caring buddy, she waited patiently and was rewarded at last by a quick, furtive glance from the child. She smiled. Not a big grin. Nothing forced or fake. Just a genial, unimposing smile that promised friendship. She wanted the boy to see she was genuine and sincere so that she could gain his trust.
Her low-key approach seemed to have some success. The boy blushed, looking away for a second, then slowly turned toward her again. As he peered out through the bangs of his shaggy mop of hair, Buffy noticed he was wearing glasses. His pale eyes flitted nervously behind the oval lenses, regarding her warily as he waited to see what she would do next.
“I need to ask a really important favor,” she said to the boy using her sweet voice, the one she usually reserved for talking with really cute guys. “You see, we’re looking for our friend, Mr. Giles. He’s a teacher, works here in the library. Maybe you’ve seen him. He’s tall, wears glasses, tweed suit and tie. And he talks with a funny accent, like this guy,” she explained, waving a hand toward Wesley who was on the verge of an apoplectic event by then.
“I’ve told you, Mr. Giles isn’t seeing anyone today,” Wesley interrupted, stepping forward and putting himself between the child and girl.
Buffy breathed an exasperated sigh, shooting Wesley a cold, withering look that made the man pull back. To her surprise the boy responded to her action with the brief flash of an amused grin. He had taken obvious delight in her visual put down of the Englishman. Now we’re getting somewhere, she thought, and gave the child a conspiratorial wink.
The boy seemed to be warming up to her slowly, so Buffy took a moment to look at him up close. He wasn’t a very big as kids went, almost runty, and she guessed him to be in second or third grade at most. The baggy jeans he wore hung loose on a slim, angular frame and seemed ready to fall off at any given moment. His shirt was stereotypical boy-fare, a billowing jersey sporting a white number eight on its front and the bright red of some professional football team. His brown hair was long, almost girlish in its style, and his glasses were ridiculously oversized for his head, the loose frames constantly sliding down his nose.
But none of these things explained what the boy was doing in Giles’ office or why he was with Wesley. And where was Giles, she wondered? It wasn’t like him to be late. Maybe he called in sick. She thought. He did get a bit banged up the previous night, but not really any worse than other times he’d been in a fight with some evil thing or other. And Giles was usually pretty resilient, bouncing back right away from some of the goriest traumas she could imagine, including several particularly nasty head concussions that she knew of. No, if Giles wasn’t there, it was because something seriously wrong had happened to him.
As Buffy contemplated the various whys and whos that she’d encountered so far in the Giles puzzle, Oz suddenly broke away from the others and stepped forward, approaching the seated youth. The musician wore a strange, perplexed expression as he stared at the new kid. Leaning down, he brought his face directly up to the boy’s, inspecting him at a close range of scant inches.
The single articulation was uttered softly, but the accompanying look on the musician’s face spoke volumes to his fellow classmates. Oz blinked, his eyebrows climbing gradually higher toward his spiky orange-blond haircut. There wasn’t much that could draw an expression from the normally taciturn and tranquil teen, but the genuine surprise that registered on his wide-eyed countenance at that moment was as plain and clear as it could be.
The uneasy youth pulled back, glancing over his shoulder toward Wesley, his eyes desperately beseeching a rescue. But the Englishman merely gave an ineffectual shrug of helplessness and did nothing to stop the musician’s continuing scrutiny.
“You know,” Oz said, tipping his head to one side and addressing the youngster. “You bear an uncannily striking resemblance to…nah!” Shaking his head as if dismissing some impossible thought, Oz frowned then seemed to reconsider the idea again.
“What are you doing?” Willow hissed in a low stage whisper, embarrassed by her boyfriend’s unexplainable rude behavior. She attempted to divert Oz from his bold examination of the other youth who was becoming increasingly apprehensive by the moment and squirming uncomfortably in his chair.
“Normally, I would say this is just a coincidence,” Oz reflectively postulated, his mouth drawing into a grin. “But this being Sunnydale and all, I’m thinking it’s more than that.”
“What is it?” Willow asked, her own excitement piqued. She could sense her boyfriend was onto something important. The other teens felt it, too, and waited expectantly for their friend to continue his explanation.
“Perhaps we should tell them,” Wesley suddenly interjected, speaking to the child. The alarmed boy threw him a disapproving glare, but said nothing in reply. “They’ll find out soon enough,” the Englishman argued, indicating Oz’s peculiar reaction. “In point of fact, the cat may have been already let out of the bag. I believe he knows.”
“Tell us what?” Buffy demanded, turning toward the musician. “What do you know Oz?”
Oz looked from the small boy to Wesley. “It’s true then?” he asked the older Brit and Wesley nodded. With an exasperated groan, the boy flung himself across the open book on desktop before him, burying his face in his arms. Oz broke out in a wide grin of amazement, his eyebrows arching upward. “This is totally unreal weirdness!” he exclaimed with a restrained chortle.
“Is anyone else here as confused as I am?” Xander asked, consulting the two girls. “I feel like I missed something.”
“Well, I’m missing it, too,” Buffy frowned, straightening to posture with crossed arms as she faced the Britain. “Okay, Wes. What’s the what here?”
“Well, it’s, uhm, Mr. Giles,” Wesley began slowly, choosing his words with great care. “He’s-he’s…”
Buffy immediately didn’t like where Wesley’s announcement was heading. The news was obviously not good. The Brit couldn’t even answer her question straight. Her suspicions were aroused, she was becoming more than just a little worried. Now she was sure something had happened to the librarian.
“What about Giles?” she anxiously confronted the Englishman. Moving forward she crowded the Brit back into a corner against a filing cabinet, using her physical presence to intimidate him. “Something’s happened to him, hasn’t it? Where is he, Wesley? Tell me! Where’s Giles?”
“Well, h-h-he,” Wesley stammered, his voice breathless with increasing anxiety as he faced the aggressive teen. “Actually, it’s really quite the curious thing. You see…”
“Quit stalling, Wes,” Buffy impatiently pressed the Watcher. Her tone was strong, with just enough of a menacing touch to back the threat in her cold eyes. “Just tell me where Giles is and nobody will get hurt.”
“Of course, yes,” Wesley replied, adjusting his tie in a telltale nervous gesture. “That’s precisely what I’m getting at. He’s, uhm, he-he…”
At the sound of Oz’s voice Buffy whirled around, expecting to see Giles walking into the office behind them, but the librarian was nowhere in sight. She turned toward the musician, a puzzled look spreading across her face. With a wordless grin Oz pointed at the young boy seated at the desk.
For a moment the other three teens stared without comprehending the truism behind the musician’s gesture. Then the youth slowly lifted his head, timidly glancing toward the group. The office filled with a tangibly pregnant silence as each of his classmates finally realized what Oz had meant. It was all there for them to see. The features were slightly rounder and proportionally smaller then they were used to seeing, and very definitely younger, but there was no denying who the boy was.
Buffy looked to Wesley for some logical explanation to what she had seen. But the Englishman was no help, seeming as awed as the rest of them by the odd phenomenon. Her stomach tightening around the butterfly feelings flitting inside it, Buffy reached out a hand, gently laying it upon the boy’s shoulder. She gazed down into a face at once strange and yet familiar, her voice quavering tentatively as she asked her question, though in her heart she knew the answer already.
“Giles, is that you?”