Buffy quickly sized up her competition. They were a hungry looking pair, both males and on the large side. The first was a longhaired beast. He stood about six feet tall and was dressed in full hippie costume right down to the authentic love beads and the peace symbol around his neck. He looked about twenty, or at least he was that young before he’d been changed into a vampire, Buffy thought to herself. She guessed the creature had been around when the sixties were still in full swing.
His sidekick was a different matter. Outfitted in a well-tailored suit that looked like it came from some exclusive men’s shop, the expensive clothes telling her the vampire had been financially well off in life. The suit was also less worn and considerably more stylish than his companion’s choice of attire, marking him as only recently undead. This second creature was middle-aged and taller than the other one by at least three or four inches. Both monsters were muscular in a definite physically threatening sort of way, especially since they were both in full vamp face. The surrounding darkness made them look vicious and intimidating, but the blonde felt confident she could handle the pair without a problem.
The first vampire growled and charged toward the librarian, his hands reaching for the boy’s throat. Giles barely had time to notice his attacker when Buffy came up from behind to intercept the creature’s assault. Snatching hold of its shirtfront, she swung the vamp around in a wide circle, hurling it back at his advancing companion. The two vampires collided with a thud of undead flesh and fell in a snarling heap of limbs. They quickly scrambled to their feet again, glaring menacingly at the blonde that had interrupted their intended meal.
“If it isn’t Felix and Oscar,” Buffy observed wryly, facing the strange pair. “The original odd couple.”
“You should talk,” the hippie sneered in return. “Isn’t your boyfriend there a little young?”
“Him?” Buffy nodded toward Giles standing motionless in the center of the open pathway. “He’s older than he looks. Things aren’t always what they seem, you know. Take me, for instance.” The two vampires were slowly creeping up on her as she spoke, but Buffy was apparently unconcerned. “I bet right now you’re thinking there’s two of you, one of me. Picnic in the park. Well, think again, Woodstock!”
Buffy ran at the hippie, flipping into a handspring that sent her heels over head. Her feet slammed solidly into the creature’s chest and he stumbled backward from the blow. Buffy swiftly tucked and somersaulted past, springing upright onto her feet again. She spun around, her leg kicking out and striking the beast squarely in its back. The force of her hit reversed the direction of the creature’s fall and sent him sprawling on his face in the dirt.
The second vampire was on her in a flash. Buffy met him with several hard punches to the head, but he managed to get in a few knocks of his own. One of them struck her sore shoulder and she winced with the pain. She hesitated briefly, steeling herself against the discomfort then renewing the vigor of her attack. Gradually she beat the creature back. The vampire reeled drunkenly from the multiple kicks and hand jabs that came at him non-stop in rapid succession. Buffy did a final windup spin, delivering a powerful kick to the vampire’s kidney that caused the beast to double over, clutching at his side as he roared in agony.
Its venomous temper aroused, the suited vampire staggered back as it recovered from the hit. Pride as well as hunger would not allow it to admit defeat at the hands of a mere mortal female. The creature lowered its head, and with a vicious growl barreled forward, rushing the blonde like a varsity tackle. Buffy watched him coming at her, waiting until the last moment to leap into the air, her right leg slashing out to smack the beast in its deformed face. She heard the unmistakable crunch of bone as her boot made contact, a sickening yet somehow satisfying sound to her ears. She retracted her leg and landed lightly on both feet, immediately winding up for another kick. She spun in a graceful turn, and with a whack of her heel she knocked the stunned creature onto its back.
Reaching into her pocket, Buffy pulled out her trusty wooden stake. She knelt forward in a single fluid motion and impaled the creature with her pointed weapon. The beast bared its broken fangs in a final threat, then dissolved into a cloud of decaying dust that became lost among the debris on the forest floor.
Buffy rose to her feet and turned to face the other vampire. He was watching her from several yards away, an expression of shock on his hideous face. He and his hunting buddy had taken Buffy to be an easy meal. Seeing how efficiently she had dispatched his companion the vampire was beginning to suspect they had chosen the wrong victims that night. His hunger was compelling, but his instinct for survival was stronger. He had no desire to end up a pile of dirt like his ex-partner.
“Hey, Bead Boy!” Buffy taunted the hippie. She jauntily flipped the stake in her hand end over end and caught it again. “Looks like you’ve got some bad karma coming your way.”
The vampire glowered darkly backed away. Buffy could see the fear in the creature’s evil eyes. It had plenty of reason to be afraid. She intended to send him the way of his comrade within the next few minutes time. The desperate beast bristled like a cornered animal, his escape route obstructed by the determined slayer that advanced confidently upon him. But the blonde had forgotten one small thing that would ruin her plans. Giles. The librarian hadn’t moved during the entire battle. He stood exposed and alone in the center of the path, the only obstacle between the retreating hippie and the cover of the dark forest beyond.
Before she could yell out a warning the vampire turned and made a run for the trees. Buffy watched in horror as he headed directly toward Giles, who seemed unaware of the danger that charged down upon him. The creature’s gangly legs chewed up the short distance between them swiftly, the vampire gaining speed with each successive step. Buffy sprang into action, her own feet bounding across the ground as she called out in alarm to the librarian.
“Giles!” she shouted. “Look out!”
The Brit’s eyes opened wide as he saw the vampire coming at him. Bracing himself against the attack he raised his clenched fists in a defensive posture, his small body prepared to do harm. Giles was no stranger to fighting. He’d taken on his share of vampires in the past, even staked quite a few successfully. He was the one that sparred with Buffy in her training sessions, taught her how to use various weapons available in the library lockup, refined her skills at hand to hand combat. So Giles knew what to do as the snarling beast bore down upon him at breakneck speed. But the librarian had forgotten he was only eight years old. It never occurred to him that as a child he stood little chance against an adult vampire a good more than two feet taller and thrice his weight.
Standing firm, Giles postured with his short legs splayed as the larger creature swooped down in attack. The Brit threw a small clenched fist upward, his arm following though in a perfect uppercut jab toward the vampire’s jaw. His knuckles barely grazed their target as the monster kept coming, never breaking stride as it crashed into him. To his surprise the librarian felt the hippie grab his extended arm, nearly wrenching it from his shoulder as he was knocked backward. But he never hit the ground. Instead the beast snatched him up, lifting him off his feet with a powerful jerk. Giles let out an involuntary yelp as he suddenly found himself clutched in the grip of the fleeing beast.
Buffy heard the high-pitched shriek and felt a moment of alarm as she realized Giles was hurt. She quickened her pace as she gave chase, fearing for her friend’s safety. She nimbly jumped a fallen log, leaping across the wide pathway in two steps. She was almost upon the vampire, swiftly closing the gap between herself and her blood thirsting quarry. With a thrust Buffy launched forward into a one armed handspring, her other hand still holding the stake in a tightly closed fist. Her lithe body flipped up and over as she flew through the air, her lower torso catching the hippie’s head in a vise-like grip with her legs. The catapulting force of her weight was enough to throw the vamp off balance and it stumbled, the blonde clinging to its neck and shoulders. Buffy’s free hand grabbed the hippie’s necklace like the reins on a horse as they went down. Unfortunately Giles small form caught beneath them as they crashed to the ground in a wrestling heap of mismatched limbs.
Tumbling dizzily, Buffy managed to keep her hold as she, the hippie and Giles rolled end over end, snapping fallen twigs and scattering forest debris as they smashed through the woods. They came to a sudden halt, colliding against the broad sturdy trunk of a tree, their three bodies flying apart in separate directions. Buffy was thrown across the mossy ground, the broken string of beads still clutched in one hand and her stake in the other. She came to rest in a patch of fallen leaves, unhurt and ready for action. Scrambling to her feet, she looked about for the vampire, hoping to catch him before he could make his escape.
She found him lying on his stomach a few yards away, motionless and overcome by the impact. Buffy was on him in an instant. She dropped to her knees at his side and plunged her stake into the creature’s exposed back, driving its point deep into the vampire’s unbeating heart. With an explosion of dust the vamp was history and the blonde could finally take a moment to catch her breath. She rose slowly, stretching her aching muscles, dusting the dirt from her clothing casually as she searched the dark shadows around her for some sign of Giles.
She heard a muffled groaning and followed it to the edge of the path where she found his small body sprawled across the ground. As Buffy walked calmly over to the Brit she couldn’t help smiling, taking in Giles’ rumpled clothing and dirt-smudged face. If the librarian had resembled a child before, at this moment he seemed the true stereotypical boy. The knees of his jeans were caked in mud and grass stains, his baggy shirt torn and soiled. His long hair hung across his eyes in an unkempt tangle, his glasses having disappeared during their chaotic tumble. He wore only one sneaker, the other lost somewhere presumably in the woods nearby. As Giles blinked, staring up at her in confusion, he seemed unsure of just what had happened and Buffy found it impossible to hold in her laughter.
“You okay, Giles?” she asked between sputtered giggles, choking back the strong urge to whoop hysterically. The librarian muttered an incoherent reply and struggled to sit up. Doing a quick inspection of his aching body he discovered an ugly skin abrasion and gash on his forearm that was bleeding as well as other smaller scrapes garnered in his topsy-turvy pratfall. He noted his bare foot and the absence of his spectacles, but otherwise felt he was in reasonably good shape for having taken his second major stumble that day.
“I say, that certainly didn’t turn out as I had planned,” he remarked aloud. He had hoped to sound light and nonchalant, but Giles could hear his voice shaking as he swallowed a large lump that seemed to have lodged itself tightly in throat. He was feeling somewhat distressed by his experience with the vampire.
“What did you expect,” Buffy responded, assisting the librarian to his feet. “There isn’t a whole lot of you there to stop a rampaging vamp on the run.”
“So I’ve learned.” Giles attempted a weak grin as he massaged his sore arm, wincing when he touched a particularly tender spot. “Rather painfully, I might add.”
Buffy made sympathetic noises as she gave his scratches a critical eye. “We’ll get you home and put a bandage on that bad boo-boo. Can you walk?”
“I believe so,” he replied and took a cautious step forward. No broken bones and everything appeared to work. Casting his eye about on the ground around him, Giles began to search for his missing accessories. “I seem to have lost…ah!”
He spotted his sneaker nearby and slowly hobbled toward it, grimacing slightly in pain as he moved. The immediate shock was wearing off and he was becoming more aware of the smaller bumps and contusions he’d received. Bending down he retrieved his shoe with a laborious grunt, leaning against a convenient tree as he attempted to push it onto his bare foot again. It was proving a more difficult enterprise than anticipated and Buffy stepped forward to offer a hand.
“Let me do that,” the blonde volunteered. With an adept wiggle she slipped the shoe on then knelt down to tie his laces. Giles relinquished the small task to her gratefully, concentrating instead on fighting the trembling inside him. It had been like this when he fell down the stairs earlier that day. The overwhelming rush of emotions he’d felt had returned, trying to take control of him yet again. He held his breath, working to keep his composure outwardly calm. He hoped that Buffy didn’t see the way he was shaking, or that she didn't notice the panic gripping him as his heart pounded out its panicked thumping in his chest.
Giles sniffled softly and managed somehow to hold back any threatening tears. When Buffy stood up and faced him, he felt he at least had the semblance of normalcy, or as much as was possible considering his present bewitched condition. Pushing away from the tree Giles staggered forward a step, straightening his back and forcing a smile.
“Oh, here you go,” Buffy said, picking something out of the dry leaves at her feet. “I think these are yours.”
She handed Giles his glasses. They were still in one piece, though one temple was bent and the lenses smudged. Giles took a moment to wipe at the grime with an unsoiled corner of his shirt, managing a passable job of cleaning his spectacles. Adjusting the battered frames he slipped them on his face, brushing the wayward strands of hair from his face as he stepped out onto the path again.
Giles walked along with the faint hint of a limp, heading back toward the pond. Falling into step at his side, Buffy made several attempts to encourage mutual dialogue, but the librarian remained pre-occupied, his thoughts somewhere far away. She wondered what was going on in his mind that had made him so quiet. Not that Giles had ever been known as a brilliant conversationalist, especially among the high school crowd she hung with. But it was obvious something big was bothering him. He was acting weird, and she didn’t think it had anything to do with the quality time he’d spent with Wesley that day. Giles wass brooding and it was more likely due to his newly acquired status as an instant pre-adolescent. Buffy thought it was about time for her special little chat.
“Giles, wait a minute.” She stopped as they approached the break along the path that turned off toward the pond. Giles hesitated before turning around, waiting for her to continue. “We need to talk,” she said firmly.
“About what?” he asked simply.
“About you,” Buffy replied. “And don’t give me that ‘what about little ol’ me’ innocent look. I’m not falling for it. This may seem like déjB vu all over again, but I can tell something’s wrong. You’ve been through more mood swings than the mother of those sextuplets. What’s got into you? Speak, Giles.” As the Briton opened his mouth to voice a protest, she promptly cut him off. “And I won’t take ‘nothing’ as an answer here. Giles, I’m your friend. I think I deserve the truth.”
The librarian took a minute to consider her comment. “I’m not sure as I can explain,” he finally said with a disconcerted shrug. “It’s not something I understand myself. Things are…” His voice trailed off, the words to describe what he’d felt that day unable to come. It was a terrible frustration for the librarian who thought himself fairly articulate. The distress evident in the Brit’s eyes touched Buffy.
“It’s this spell thing, isn’t it?” she guessed, her voice gentle with compassion. He nodded in reply, feet nervously shuffling as he avoided her gaze. She teen smiled sadly at the young Giles. “Something tells me you’re not having any fun with this.”
“An understatement if ever I heard one,” he muttered bitterly. When he looked up his expression was one of undisguised anguish. “It isn’t a spell, it’s a curse! This entire day has been one long nightmare. Nothing has gone right. First I wake up and find this staring at me,” he grumbled, gesturing at his youthful features. “Then I’m forced to go groveling Wesley for help, and I’m stuck with him all day. You have no idea what torture that was! And Snyder wasn’t any better. He kept popping in and to check up on me, like he thought I was going to burn the school down or some such rot. And, and,” he stammered, finally exploding in irritation as his pent up emotions poured forth in a high-pitched whine. “And this blasted body can’t do anything I want it to! I-I don’t like it!”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Buffy grinned at her friend. “I think you’re kind of cute!” He flashed a look that burned with disgruntled vexation, and she meekly apologized. “But that’s not what you were talking about, was it? It’s what that vamp did to you.”
“It’s more what he could have done to me,” Giles corrected. “Buffy, I should have been able to stop him, but I couldn’t. And if you hadn’t been there…” He choked, considering the unpleasant consequences. The fear he had felt earlier returned, stronger now, his nerves quaking inside. With an embarrassed grin he turned aside to hide his discomfort.
“But I was there, Giles,” Buffy responded, seeing his agitated state. “And you’re all right. Okay, maybe a little bruised here and there, but you’ve been knocked around worse than this and lived to tell about it.”
“Yes, I realize that, but…” Giles coughed, keeping his face down as he blinked back an escaping tear. He tried to speak, but his throat felt constricted, his lower lip suddenly quivering. When he heard his own voice loose a strangled sob, the wretched noise caught him completely unawares.
“Oh, Giles!” Buffy reached out, putting a sympathetic arm around Giles’ slim shoulders. “Hey! It’s okay. You just got attacked by the Big, Bad Vampire. That kind of thing would freak any kid your age.”
“But I’m not a child!” Giles reminded her, sniffling as he pushed her away. “And I am not some callow, ill-mannered child who needs to go running to his mum because he’s had a bit of a knock. I’m over forty years old. So-so why am I so…so,” he choked back another sob and bit his quivering lip, unable to go on as the tear welled up in his eyes.
“Scared?” the blonde finished. She smiled at her smaller companion, trying to offer some trace of comfort. “Things have changed, and so have you. You’re not a big Giles anymore. You’re a little Giles,” she told him gently. “And you just aren’t built to slay vampires. Or anything else,” she added under her breath, thinking about the demon in the pond below. Maybe it hadn’t been such a good idea to let Giles come along that night. She needed to get him someplace safe, and fast, before he got himself hurt.
“You don’t believe I can deal with this problem, do you?” Giles asked, his sorrowful tone betraying his disappointment. He lifted his gaze to meet hers with a sad expression. “You knew this would happen. You-you didn’t want me to c-come along tonight. Don’t you have something else to do, Giles?” he said in a whining mockery of her own words. “That’s what you said, wasn’t it? Read a book. Research something at the library. You didn’t want me getting in the way.”
“No! That’s not true,” Buffy protested, dismissing the young Brit’s fears with a shake of her head. Alright, it was a lie, she thought to herself, but just a little one, and she didn’t want to hurt his feelings. “Giles, I just thought, what I mean is, well, isn’t that what you always do? The research thing, remember? I’m the slayer and it’s my job to go out and slay the baddies while you stay at home in the library and, uhm, you know, watch stuff.”
As she waited for the librarian to take up her cue and start in on his usual spiel about what a Watcher’s calling actually entailed, Buffy happened to notice the moonlight catch on the reflection of something wet and glistening that had left a trail running down across Giles’ cheek. Buffy stared, eyes flying wide open in shock. It couldn’t be, she thought to herself, but as she watched a second thin rivulet of tears slid out from beneath his glasses to prove her suspicions true. Giles was crying.
Buffy felt her heart tighten in her chest, aching for the small librarian standing before her. Was Giles really that scared? And what was she supposed to do? As a child this type of situation would have sent her into her mother’s arms for a warm hug and comforting kisses. Scratch that, Summers, she told herself. She hadn’t ever faced anything remotely like this, teen or child. Besides, she wasn’t Giles’ mother, and she wasn’t sure he would appreciate her treating him like a little kid. Hadn’t he just made a big point out of telling her that?
“You-you may be right, Buffy,” Giles sighed, breaking the uncomfortable silence. Wiping the back of a hand across his face he erased the evidence of his tears with a casual gesture. “Perhaps I’ve got in over my head. It’s a wise man who knows his limitations. Not that I could have been even marginally mistaken for a man the way I fought tonight,” Giles grimaced with an embittered grumble.
“The way I saw it you had all the right moves,” Buffy said, giving the librarian an encouraging smile. “You just picked the wrong place to put that punch. I say, turn those shortcomings into strengths. Go with what you’ve got. When life throws the big vamps at you, aim below the belt.”
“And where did you learn that lovely gem of wisdom?” Giles asked with a dubious look at the blonde. Buffy started to reply and he held up a hand to stop her. “No, please don’t tell me. Sometimes I think it best if I don’t know these things.”
“Whatever,” the girl shrugged, but she was glad to see the librarian had recovered some of his former dry humor. “I just don’t want to see you doing the big mope thing and letting this sitch get you all down. It’s not like this is your fault or anything. You didn’t ask to be the latest New Kid On The Block in Sunnydale.”
“That’s for certain,” the librarian heartily admitted.
“And once you change back to your old self again, everything will be fine,” Buffy told her friend. “But until then, I want you to promise me something.”
“And what would that be?” Giles asked, curious.
“That you’ll only go after the little monsters,” she replied, smiling warmly down at him.
In spite of his misery, Giles found himself nodding acquiescence at the girl’s inane request and smiling. How could he stay glum for long when faced with those impish green eyes that had so often charmed him before? Squaring his shoulders he put on a brave front for the teen, but deep down inside Giles knew he was still afraid. He was very aware of the dangers that stalked the streets of Sunnydale. There were ghouls, zombies, demons and vampires that could strike down the innocent at a moment’s notice. It was one thing to be a Watcher’s son, knowing these horrible creatures existed somewhere out there in the world. He had drawn comfort knowing his parents were there to protect him, that they would keep the beasties and nasties away, in life as well as in his dreams. But things were different now, here in this place. He was a helpless child living alone atop an active Hellmouth where one could encounter terrifying creatures on a daily basis. Giles wasn’t sure he was prepared to deal with that.
Buffy could sense a shifting uneasiness in the librarian’s demeanor. She was worried about Giles. He had changed, and it was more than just the obvious fact he had become an eight-year-old. It wasn’t something she could see, but she could feel it, acutely real and palpable in every nerve she had. There were times when she thought there was some kind of invisible bond between the two of them, sort of a mystical Watcher Slayer radar they shared. It wasn’t like ESP or a Vulcan mind melding. She couldn’t exactly read Giles’ mind or anything, and it definitely didn’t seem help him to understand the way things worked inside of her head. But she knew it was there. She could feel it, an ominous nagging whenever something bad came between them, a sort of slayer sixth sense for trouble. And right now it was working on double overtime, telling her Giles needed her help.
But realizing something was wrong didn’t mean she knew what to do about it. She usually left those decisions up to Giles. He was the levelheaded one, the thinker. She was action girl. Knock it down until it doesn’t get back up. That was the way she handled things. And it had been a good partnership for them both, one that had worked well. But the balance had shifted somewhere and now everything was beginning to fall apart. What had gone wrong? Buffy knew when she discovered the answer to that question she would finally be able to help her friend. Until then, all she could do was try to keep his spirits up. And if the young librarian’s recent moody display was any hint of what was in store for her, he wasn’t going to make the job an easy one.
Buffy decided it was time to take Giles home. At least she could count on him being reasonably safe there, and she was pretty sure the librarian had seen enough fun and excitement for one day. Time enough to worry about the water demon later. And who knows, maybe this kid thing would work itself out of Giles’ system, kind of like one of those twenty-four hours bugs.
“Come on, Little Buddy,” Buffy sighed, putting her arm around Giles and directing him toward the overgrown trail. “Let’s go find Xander.”
They picked their way through the brush, down the worn and narrow track with Giles in the lead. Coming out of the dark woods below, they found Xander impatiently waiting in the clearing where they had left him. The teen trotted forward to meet them, his eyes questioning as he noticed the pair’s grubby appearance.
“Should I even ask?” he inquired with a raised eyebrow. Buffy stopped to talk with her classmate as Giles continued past, moving further downhill to the embankment’s edge below. There he flopped down on the grassy ground, ignoring the others as he gazed out over the quiet pond. The older teens stared at him a few moments, then turned away as Buffy began her explanation of what had transpired in the woods.
“We met up with a couple vamps,” she told Xander, then frowned at her friend’s relieved smile. “What did you think happened?” she asked in wary curiosity.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he replied with a broad suggestive grin. “Two young people alone in the dark. A little moonlight stroll through the woods. That special chemistry between boy and girl…” His voice trailed off, letting her imagination take over.
“Xander!” She gave her friend a punch to his shoulder, shocked by what he was implying. “You’re talking about Giles, remember?”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Xander winced, rubbing his aching bicep where she had hit him. Sometimes Buffy seemed to forget how strong she was. “I mean, he is a librarian, right? What does he know about that sort of thing? Plus, him being the age he is now he probably couldn’t, well, you know,” he fumbled sheepishly before continuing with renewed animation. “Not to say he wouldn’t want to if he could, with you being a real hottie you are and all. I mean, what guy wouldn’t want to if he had the chance. Of course you would have to want them to also, or they’d never be able to because you could just beat them up and…I’m shutting up now,” he finished meekly, realizing he had been babbling incoherently. “You’re supposed to stop me when I do that,” he told the blonde.
“I thought I’d see how far in your mouth that foot would fit,” Buffy smirked at her schoolmate. Then she became serious. “Giles is having issues right now,” she said, looking at the Brit sitting alone on the grassy knoll. Buffy suspected she knew what was on his mind. “He’s in this big gloom and doom depression funk about his second childhood. So you’re gonna have to start making nice with him from now on, Xander,” she warned the boy, her eyes steely and direct as she stared him down. “Got that?”
“Hey, I always make nice to him,” the teen retorted defensively with outspread arms. “Giles and I, we’re bestest buds!”
“I mean it, Xander,” Buffy emphasized with firmness. “Lay off with the jokes. No pointy references to his age, or being short or anything. Understand?” The boy agreed and she quickly dropped the subject. “So, Nessie didn’t show?” she asked, gesturing toward the calm pond.
“Not hide nor hair,” he responded. “Or would that be fin and scales?” he frowned thoughtfully before he went on. “Anyway, it’s been quiet.”
“Probably too late to catch Oz at the Bronze. Maybe we should bail,” the girl suggested. She was anxious to get Giles home. Together she and Xander slowly sauntered down the grassy slope and approached the librarian. Touching Giles lightly on the shoulder to get his attention, Buffy squatted down next to him. “Seen enough?” she asked.
Giles didn’t answer, continuing to gaze out over the pond as he tried to sort the conflicts within himself. But it was getting late, there was too much to think about and he was tired. And hungry, too. He hadn’t had any dinner yet. Suddenly all he wanted was to go home, raid his refrigerator and curl up in bed for a nice, long sleep. With a weary sigh, he turned toward the patient blonde.
“I suppose there’s nothing more we can here,” he said in disappointment. “Perhaps another night?”
“I’ll come back tomorrow,” Buffy promised him.
He got to his feet, taking one last survey of the pond. Giles was reluctant to leave without something to show for the night’s work. Xander was also scanning the water, but he was concentrating his search closer to the shoreline. Buffy gave her peer a curious look as he studied the shallows directly below them with great interest.
“You aren’t going to find anything down there,” she chided Xander good-naturedly. “Unless you’re looking for tadpoles.”
“Jest if you wish,” Xander replied smugly. He reached into his pocket, producing the nugget he had discovered earlier. “I’m not going home empty handed. Look at this baby!” He proudly displayed the glittering rock. Giles suddenly seemed to revive, his interest piqued by the boy’s find. Xander noticed the librarian’s apparent excitement and handed over the gold piece, smiling as he watched the youngster inspect the mineral sample.
“Where did you find this?” Giles asked, adjusting his glasses.
“Over there,” the older boy replied, pointing further down the shoreline. “It was just lying in the water, like it was waiting for someone to come along and pick it up. So I obliged,” Xander beamed with a cavalier attitude.
Giles held the nugget up to the moonlight, observing how it reflected the light. Digging into his pocket he took out a coin, using it to scratch the small rock’s surface. Xander and Buffy watched as the librarian examined the results of his impromptu test, looking closely for some faint indication of damage. Whatever he’d expected to find wasn’t there and he returned the coin to his jeans, this time producing an impressive Swiss army knife. He proceeded to scrape at the nugget for several minutes, at one point actually hammering the mineral piece with his multi-purpose tool, producing a slight spark. Seeming satisfied at last, Giles gave the rock back to Xander.
With an animated leap, the Brit descended the embankment and began searching the shallows where Xander reported making his find. Kneeling on the damp ground, Giles reached into the water, hands sifting carefully through the gravel and muck, trying not stir the muddy bottom. His eye studied the water with a focussed intensity worthy of a bird of prey on the hunt for its dinner.
Buffy could see Giles was involved in some new investigation and that they weren’t going to be dragging the librarian away from the pond any time soon. He had his hands in the mud, his arms immersed in the pond up to his elbows as he hunched over the shallows. She stood up, letting out an exasperated sigh as she turned to Xander.
“You couldn’t have waited ‘till we got home to show him that thing?” she scowled irritably. “You realize we’ll probably be here all night now.”
“Greedy little bugger, isn’t he?” Xander observed, chortling with amusement. Giles was diligently picking through the gravel, oblivious to his audience. As Xander watched from the bank above, he was reminded of something from his own childhood. “You know, when Willow and I were kids there was all sort of talk about gold buried out here,” he told Buffy. “This park was some kind of mining camp back a hundred years ago or so. There was this one story about this geezer who struck it rich in Sunnydale. They say he found nuggets lying around all over the place out here. But he didn’t trust anybody, so he buried his gold in this park somewhere. Then he kicked off.” The boy smiled, recalling a fond memory of times past. “Will and I used to go on these gold hunting expeditions. We had a lot of fun back in those days. It was sort of like being on a scavenger hunt for the Lost Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”
“And you think you found it?” Buffy queried doubtfully as she scoffed at the boy. “Xander, one shiny rock does not a treasure trove make.”
“How about two shiny rocks?” the teen grinned as he pointed at the librarian. Giles was holding a large golden nugget in his open palm. The two older teens exchanged an excited look, then jumped down to join the librarian and see what he had found.
“Oooo! That’s a pretty one!” Buffy said admiringly as the Brit handed the fist sized rock to her and went back to his search again. She held the gold stone next to Xander’s, comparing the two. “His is bigger,” she announced in gleeful smugness. Xander frowned and was about to make a smart comeback when Giles’ explorations yielded another glittering example of treasure. “We’re going to be rich!” Buffy cheered, doing a joyous little dance. “How much do you think they’re worth?” she asked Giles.
“To a collector?” the librarian responded, continuing his quest in the pond’s muck.
“To a bank,” Buffy said. “Like for cold hard spending cash.”
“Cash value?” Giles frowned, pausing in his search to consider the notion. “I suppose they might fetch a few dollars apiece.”
“A few dollars?” Xander snorted derisively in disbelief. “Giles, do you know what the price of gold is these days? We’re talking mucho dinero.”
“This isn’t gold,” the librarian announced, fishing another tiny nugget out of the gravel bed. Perplexed, Xander stared down at the sparkling stone in his hand.
“What do you mean, not gold?” he protested. “Look at it. It’s shiny, and metal, and…well, gold! What else could it be?”
Iron Disulfide,” Giles said as he rose to his feet with a grunt. He wiped his hands dry on his dirty jeans. Xander was looking at him in confusion. “It’s Pyrite,” the Brit told the boy with an amused grin. “I’m sorry, Xander, but you haven’t found your miner’s lost treasure. It’s only Fool’s Gold.”
“Fool’s Gold?” Buffy repeated. The metallic rocks she held in her hands glittered brightly in the moon’s soft light. Suddenly she understood. “Oh, now I get it! Fooler’s Pond, like with an ‘oo’, not a ‘u’. Right?””
“Geographical names often become corrupted over time,” Giles discoursed as he relieved the blonde of the rock collection. He stuffed the nuggets into his pockets, intending to run further tests on the mineral samples to confirm his observations. “People forget the historical associations and the people these names have and the spellings change, becoming something that has no connection whatever with the original intentions.”
“But if you know they’re not real gold, why do you want them?” Buffy asked in puzzlement.
“Maybe he’s going to make paperweights out of them,” Xander guessed, then looked at his own small worthless stone. “Or a key chain.”
“It isn’t the mineral itself I find intriguing,” Giles said, shining his flashlight beam over the area where he had done his rock hunting. “Why is there so much of it here in this pond? Is it simply coincidence, or was it brought here by some outside influence? And does it have any connection with the drowning incidents? It raises some interesting questions.”
“Sounds like time to hit the books,” Buffy noted with satisfaction. Giles’ mood had definitely taken a turn for the better. He finally had something to do. The librarian was always at his happiest when looking through his musty books for an answer to some tantalizing mystery. Buffy knew he simply lived for moments such as these. She would get him to the library and then he’d be nice and safe for the rest of the evening.
Giles nimbly scampered up the steep embankment, anxious to be on his way. Buffy followed him up the slope and they made their way toward the trail above, both assuming Xander was there with them. It wasn’t until they were nearly in the woods that Buffy realized the other teen was missing. She looked back over her shoulder, but her schoolmate was nowhere to be seen.
“Xander?” Buffy called out. No one answered. She tugged on the librarian’s shirt and stopped him. That was when she noticed the sound. It was a sort of soft humming. “Do you hear that?” she asked the Briton.
“Hear what?” Giles frowned and listened. There were plenty of night sounds all around them. Frogs croaked off in the direction of the pond. He could hear the incessant chirp of crickets in the weeds. From the pathway above came the voices of people walking past. He could even hear the faint whisper of music emanating from somewhere nearby. The entire park seemed to teem with noise.
Buffy was getting that strange feeling she had when things were about to go horribly wrong. She glanced suspiciously toward the shadows surrounding them, taking a protective step closer to Giles. The librarian became instantly alert, his heart beating faster as he noticed the blonde’s unease. He knew Buffy was honing in on something with her slayer senses and hoped it wasn’t because there was another vampire. The two they’d met earlier had been enough for him.
But Buffy had already decided it wasn’t vampires she was sensing. Turning back toward the pond she pulled the librarian along, retracing their footsteps. Cautiously she approached the edge of the raised embankment. She could hear splashing now as well as the humming, and it seemed to be coming from the direction of the pond. Peering downward she saw Xander standing in the shallow water below. Buffy breathed a quick sigh of relief. She was wondering where he had gone. Probably looking for more of his stupid rocks, the girl told herself. Xander was a good ten feet out from the shoreline knee deep in the sedge grasses that grew in thick patches along the pond’s edge. She wouldn’t have given it a second thought except she noticed that Xander wasn’t alone. Someone was out there in the water with him.
It was a young girl. She was swimming a few feet in front of Xander, staring at him with intensely focussed eyes. She was pretty with long flowing hair and finely sculpted features, not looking any older than Buffy herself.. She was the one who had been humming. The blonde could distinctly hear her now. The girl’s voice had a gentle, lilting quality that was strangely appealing. Well, it was nice Xander had found himself a new friend, though Buffy thought the sanity of anyone wanting to swim on such a cool night was up for some serious debate. And Xander, hormonally challenged as he was when under the influence of any female that gave him a second look, well, he was certainly welcomed to stay with her as long as he liked, but Buffy was anxious to get Giles home. She decided she’d better let Xander know they were going to be leaving.
“Hey! Xander!” she called out loudly. The boy didn’t seem to have heard her, but it was obvious his friend had. She never stopped her singing, but threw a brief, curious glance toward the blonde before turning her attention back to the boy. Xander had paused momentarily, perhaps unsure of his footing, or maybe to say something to Buffy. Whatever the reason, the hesitance seemed to disturb the swimmer. With a puzzled pout, she rose to her feet and stood up in front of the boy.
The girl’s upright posture revealed something Buffy hadn’t noticed before. Xander’s new girlfriend was nude. Long wet hair was plastered to her figure like a second skin, revealing a lot more than Buffy cared to see. She figured Xander was getting a good eyeful too from his particular advantage point down in the pond, though she didn’t think he was nearly as uncomfortable as she was at the surprising discovery. In fact, Buffy imagined her friend was probably feeling quite pleased at that moment.
“Good Heavens!” Buffy jumped, suddenly remembering that Giles was standing next to her. She looked down at the Brit and saw his pale colored eyes opened wide and staring transfixed at the naked girl. The nymph-like beauty was holding her arms out toward Xander, beckoning to the teen to come forward into her embrace. She wasn’t the slightest self-conscious about her unclothed state or the attending audience on the shore. Her gaze remained upon the boy, her smile sweetly inviting and completely irresistible. Slowly she began to retreat toward deeper water, never ceasing her singing even as she backed away. And Xander followed mindlessly, wading without concern for the chill in the water or his safety. He moved in a trance-like state, blind to all but the beautiful girl.
Her friend’s bold pursuit of the swimsuit-less temptress was completely understandable to Buffy, though she realized she was a little embarrassed at having a young Giles there at her side, exposed to the sight of this naked girl. An urge to cover the librarian’s eyes, to shield him from the stranger’s immodesty grew almost overpowering, as if she should somehow be protecting the librarian’s young corruptible morals from this brazen hussy. As the seconds continued to tick past she found the situation to be increasingly awkward and disturbing. It certainly didn’t help that the young Brit was actually gawking, his eyes unwavering in the directness of their focus on the swimmer’s exposed femininity. Finally Buffy couldn’t take it any more. Nudging Giles, she made an attempt to divert his lascivious attention from the couple in the pond.
“Uh, what’s wrong with the picture here?” Buffy asked, breaking the librarian’s concentration. Momentarily startled, Giles turned toward her, his cheeks flushed pink with self-conscious disconcertion. He seemed uneasy, caught in a compromising position from which there was no escaping. Nervously clearing his throat, Giles avoided Buffy’s questioning gaze, trying to recall what she had just said, his mind drawing a complete blank.
“I-I-I, uhm, well, I,” Giles stuttered, his tenuous childish ego riddled with mortified guilt. “Y-you were saying?”
Ignoring the librarian’s flustered reaction Buffy posed a new question. “Isn’t it a little cold to go swimming tonight, especially in her condition?”
“What? Oh, ah!” Giles brightened, finally grasping Buffy’s train of thought. “Yes, you’re right. The water was rather chilly,” he admitted, remembering the cold from when he’d been fishing for the Pyrite. Xander apparently didn’t mind the water’s cool temperature, nor did the naked girl. She seemed quite comfortable in the near frigid pond, as if that were precisely where she belonged. A sickening sensation hit Giles in the pit of his stomach. He realized that this was no ordinary bohemian beauty out for a breathtaking dip in the pool. No, this girl was much more than she appeared to be, and whatever that something was, it meant Xander was in great danger at that moment.
“Giles, what is it?” Buffy demanded. The librarian was doing a stressed little dance, shifting from side to side, obviously unsure of what to do. Grabbing hold of his arm, Buffy gave him a firm shaking. “Giles! Don’t spazz out on me. I need you here. All of you. Now, tell me what’s wrong!”
“Rusalka!” Giles spat out the word, his tone one of alarm. Buffy didn’t know what a Rusalka was, but she understood from his tense expression that it was one of those things she wasn’t going to like very much. “H-her voice,” Giles was explaining, his tongue tripping over the words as he blathered excitedly. “She-she uses her songs to-to entice her victims into the water, to drown them. Xander’s been bewitched! We must rescue him. Immediately! If-if we don’t get him out of there she’ll…”
Giles never finished his sentence. Buffy sprang into action, sliding down the steep bank, hitting the shallows with a noisy splash. She called out to Xander as she ran toward him, but the teen’s attention was fixated upon the nude girl. He was totally mesmerized by her, seeing or hearing nothing else, his blank expression eerily devoid of any awareness for the world around him.
Buffy heard the watery spatter of footsteps echoing behind her. Glancing back over her shoulder she was dismayed to see Giles following on her heels, his concern for Xander’s safety overriding his better judgement. In spite of her earlier warning, he was rushing straight into the fray, putting himself directly into the path of danger. Well, she wasn’t about to let that happen. Turning on her friend, she threw a hand out to stop him.
“Time out!” she commanded brusquely as she snagged the librarian by his collar. The startled Giles was jerked to a splashing halt, almost falling over in his surprise. “You’re staying right here, pal. This one’s all mine.”
For a moment Buffy thought the Brit was going to argue with her, but he seemed to think better of it, perhaps remembering his earlier ordeal with the vampire, and meekly accepted her order. His head hanging in resolute dejection, he turned back toward shore, obviously chagrined by the slayer’s lack of confidence. But Buffy didn’t have time to worry about Giles’ feelings. Xander was wading further out into the pond, following the girl who continued to urge him onward with her delicate trilling. Waiting long enough to be sure Giles was safely headed back toward shore, Buffy immediately took off again, running to catch up with Xander.
The water was cold and the pond bottom slippery, a combination that slowed the blonde’s pursuit considerably. She sloshed though the weeds, breaking past the barrier of vegetation into the clear beyond. Xander was stumbling along, waist-deep and completely entranced by the young siren’s song. The strange girl had lowered herself into the water and was swimming along side the teen now, encouraging him with her dulcet warbling, coaxing him toward the pond’s dark center.
Coming up behind her friend, Buffy made a grab for Xander’s arm. She caught the sleeve of his jacket and began to pull back, dragging the boy slowly back toward the shore. But Xander wasn’t being cooperative. He struggled against her, floundering in the chilly water, trying to follow the other girl like she was a magical Pied Piper. He was willing to go anywhere she wanted. But compelling as the girl’s song was to the spellbound Xander, Buffy’s will proved itself even stronger. Digging her heels into the mucky bottom for leverage, she physically overpowered the teen, forcing him to come with her.
As Buffy struggled with her reluctant classmate, leading him toward shore, she noticed that the other girl was following them. Stupid demons, Buffy thought to herself. Never let you just walk away. And this Rusalka thing was no exception. As Buffy manhandled Xander through the water, the girl retaliated with her song, increasing its volume and the intensity of its magical power over the boy. Xander thrashed, trying desperately to break free and return to the enchantress, but the slayer tightened her grip, knowing she was fighting for her friend’s life.
Realizing her music was no longer enough to lure the boy away, the demonic girl let out with a keening wail that sliced through the night air, reverberating over the pond’s glassy surface. As the cry’s echoes died away, the Rusalka’s beautiful face took on a sinister cast, the girl glaring menacingly at the blonde that had stolen her prize. In an agitated display of frustration she splashed the water around her, whipping it into a frothy roil, venting her anger with another furious shriek that sounded as if it had come from a throat that wasn’t human.
It was the second screech that finally jolted Xander to his senses again. Confused and disoriented, he surveyed his surroundings, trying to figure out just where he was and what he was doing there. The last thing he had remembered with any clarity was seeing some girl swimming alone out in the pond. He was about to tell the others about the stranger, figuring that a demon infested pond was not a safe place and that they would have to get the girl out of there somehow, when suddenly the girl had begun to sing. He had found her song strangely entrancing and quickly fell under its hypnotic spell. Then everything became a blank. And now here he was, standing waist-deep in the water, shivering and cold and wet all over. He was leaning toward paralyzing panic when he realized someone was holding onto him. Twisting around he found himself staring into a familiar face framed by a halo of blonde hair.
“Uh, Buff, what just happened here?” Xander asked, his teeth chattering from the cold. A violent splashing nearby distracted him, and turned to see the girl he had noticed earlier. “And who is that?”
“Questions later,” Buffy told him firmly. “First, let’s get out of here.”
The urgency in her voice said things weren’t quite as okay as Xander had thought. They made their way toward the shallows, treading cautiously across the pond’s slippery bottom. Behind them the girl screamed in the throes of a tantrum, thrashing the water, sending cascading waves of spray in every direction. Then without warning the Rusalka suddenly stopped. Buffy glanced back in time to see the creature flip backward, long legs kicking out before it dove down into the pond’s cold and murky depths. An eerie silence fell over the night around them, and the two teens paused in mid-step, exchanging questioning stares.
“I’m thinking this isn’t a good thing,” Xander observed as the ominous hush closed around them. Buffy was thinking the same thing herself. Looking toward shore she saw Giles pacing hysterically back and forth, waiting for their return. Giving Xander a push she followed close behind in his wake, keeping a cautious eye on the waters around them as they resumed their hasty retreat. She had a strange feeling that the girl hadn’t gone very far.
A pale, silvery shape suddenly glided past the pair, its ghostly presence barely causing a ripple in the dark water’s surface as it banked slowly left, circling around to come at them again. The teens immediately recognized the mysterious shadow as the one they’d seen earlier that evening. That’s interesting, Buffy thought to herself. Either there were two monsters in the pond, or the water demon they had been searching for was their singing Rusalka companion. She hoped it was the later. One maliciously vengeful spirit per pond seemed a generous enough number to her.
The creature continued its lazy approach, drawing alongside the blonde. Peering down into the murky water, Buffy saw the bright glint of an inhuman green eye staring back, sizing her up coldly. She understood that look well and instinctively jumped back, shoving Xander away from her. But she hadn’t been fast enough. Sharp claws flashed, ripping at her jacket, tearing easily through the soft leather. The attack jerked her off balance, her usually fluid movements hampered by the drag of the frigid water surrounding her. Buffy felt herself being pulled down, captured by the unseen force from below. She barely had time to take in a breath before she found herself completely enveloped within the suffocating chill of wet darkness as her foe drug her down into the muck and across the pond's bottom.
Buffy's heart raced wildly. She couldn't breathe. The chilling blackness overwhelmed her in a confusing barage of sensation. Unable to distinguish right from left, up from down, she soon became disoriented as she was drug through the muddy waters, twisting and bouncing, the creature whipping her body through a dense jungle of weeds and submerged branches. She was blind, her lungs beginning to ache for needed air. Vegetation ensnared her arms, quickly binding her wrists and arms to her sides like slimy ropes, their contricting hold tightening around her body with every turn her captor took.
Holding her breath, Buffy fought against her rising panic, and with a concentrated effort, kicked out with her leg. She felt her heel spike soft flesh, but the blow barely seemed to phase the Rusalka. Sinking its claws into the slayer's tender flesh, the creature began a series of dizzying rolls as it dove deeper into the frigid darkness, towing its struggling prey along in its speeding wake.
Buffy's body was bruised and sore, suffering from the constant battering against submerged rocks and branches. She continued to kick out in defense against the Rusalka, but she could feel her legs growing steadily weaker with each blow, the muscles burning from oxygen deprivation. As Buffy crashed into yet another large and weighty object, the weeds restricting one of her arms caught on something, and her wild ride through the water was brought to an abrupt halt. Precious bubbles of air escaped from her lungs as the creature's talons ripped free of her flesh, but Buffy ignored the pain, and seizing the moment of advantage, immediately attempted to reoreint herself and struck out toward the pond's surface above.
Xander had watched in shock as his classmate’s blonde head suddenly slipped under the black water. For a moment the slayer’s yellow tresses caught the reflecting glow of the moonlight, then disappeared into the nebulous purgatory of the pond. His heart thumping nervously, Xander twisted and turned, searching frantically for some sign of his friend. But she was gone.
Nothing moved on the still pond, not even a ripple disturbed the mirrored surface to mark where the slayer had been at the teen’s side only moments before. Seconds ticked by, lengthening into a minute and then longer. Xander began to feel more than just a little worried. Buffy was the Chosen One and Xander knew this meant she was capable of many amazing things, but even she couldn’t hold her breath forever. If Buffy didn’t come up for air soon, she would drown.
“Buffy?” Xander squawked, timorously at first, then more forceful as he was engulfed by panic. “Buffy?” He began casting about in the water, hands groping blindly, searching for her. “Buffy? Oh, God! Don’t do this to me, Buff. Please! A guy can only take a friend drowning so many times.”
“Xander?” It was Giles calling to him from shore. “What’s going on out there?”
“She’s gone!” Xander yelled back, staring helplessly at the water around him. “She was here, and now she’s gone!”
“Gone?” Giles’ voice was a high squeak. “Gone? What do you mean, gone? She-she can’t be gone!”
“And that would sound a lot more convincing if she were actually here,” Xander snapped back, his growing hysteria manifesting itself into misplaced anger.
“She can’t have just disappeared,” Giles frowned, nervously pacing the graveled beach. “She must be somewhere nearby.”
“I-I think the monster got her,” Xander moaned, staring into the knee-deep shallows like a lost soul. The grieving teen was fractured with guilt. Buffy had come into the pond to rescue him. He was the reason she now could be dead. “Come on, Buff,” he pleaded under his breath, scanning desperately for some sign of the missing blonde. “You’ve faced way more maniacal evilness than this sodden floozy. Don’t let her get the better of you.”
“Xander, what are you doing?” From the shore Giles anxiously watched the teen staggering aimlessly about in the shallow water. “Stop mucking about and go look for her.”
“I am looking for her!” Xander retorted in exasperation.
“Well, she obviously isn’t going to be there,” the Brit groused in return. “Look someplace else!”
“Look here, pal!” Xander blew up, turning on the young librarian with an accusing finger. “I don’t see you getting your feet wet. If you don’t like the way I do things, you’re more than welcome to get off your regal British butt, come out here and look for her yourself!”
Affronted by the teen’s acerbic challenge, Giles impulsively started forward into the water. He had gone only a few steps when he came to a sudden stop, fear freezing him in his tracks. What was he thinking? Whatever was out there had somehow managed to subdue Buffy, if only temporarily. And if a powerful slayer had succumbed to this demon’s physical might, what chance would he have? Giles realized with sinking hope that the answer was none. Still, he couldn’t just stand there, waiting for something to happen. He had to do something.
Giles ignored the frigid water filling his shoes and forced himself to think. There had been something he’d read that morning in one of his books, a mythical reference to Rusalki living deep beneath the water in a crystal palace lighted by a magic stone bright as the sun. Or had that been the moon? Think, Giles, think! No, it was sun. He was sure of that. A magic golden stone. Golden, gold-like, like gold, like…Pyrite? Giles whooped with spontaneous excitement, grasping the connection.
“Xander! Xander! Your rock. Do you still have it?” he shouted at the teen. Xander looked up from his fruitless search to give the librarian an irritable glare, annoyed by the seemingly pointless inquiry. “Your nugget, Xander. Give it to the Rusalka. It should serve as a sufficient distraction to enable Buffy to get away.”
“Should?” Xander shot back dubiously. “Giles, we need a little more to go on than should. Unless Buffy’s suddenly grown a set of gills, we’re running out of time here.”
“Stop arguing and do what I say!” the Brit commanded, his voice breaking into an aggravated whine.
Realizing that he was running out of options fast, and it certainly wasn’t like he had any better ideas of his own, Xander dug into his jacket pocket for the gold nugget he’d found earlier. Griping it tightly in his trembling fingers, the teen waved the stone over the water, mumbling a quiet prayer. He felt really stupid. He couldn’t see any further than a few inches into the murky water, and he didn’t know how anything down there could possibly see him either. His despair sinking with every passing second, Xander held the lump of shining Pyrite out like bait, not sure he wanted to face the creature that would take it.
She erupted from the darkness without warning, shooting up from a froth of foaming effervescence that rose like a fountain spray. Looking like a demonic Venus the naked girl stood before him, her green eyes blazing with a luminescent fire as she stared with undisguised hunger at the small rock in his hand. Xander barely had time to register her presence before she reached out and greedily snatched the offered treasure from him. Announcing her triumphant acquisition with an amazing trill of sounds that ran up the musical scale the girl turned away and with a graceful leap of sinuous flesh, dove once more into the dark water and vanished beneath the surface.
Xander waited, every sense quaking with desperate expectation. Just when he thought there was no possible way his friend could still be alive, a crown of flaxen hair broke the water’s surface, popping up several yards away. With a loud, sucking gasp, Buffy filled her lungs with air, while her arms flailed about to keep her head up. Rushing forward, Xander swept his friend into an exuberant bear hug, his relief showing in his joyful expression.
“I’m glad to see you too, Xander,” Buffy wheezed, returning her friend’s overly zealous embrace. “But if it's all the same to you, I'd like to get goin’ before Princess Pond Scum decides she wants a rematch.”
Accepting the wisdom of the slayer’s words Xander turned and immediately headed toward the grassy bank, splashing his way though a thick stand of reeds growing near the shoreline. Buffy followed close behind, guarding their backside against attack should their mysterious assailant return. Her premonition of danger was not unfounded. As they broke into a run the water nearby began to churn and froth, the vegetation parting as a pale shape came rushing toward them. They didn’t stop to see what it was, but continued their flight shoreward, blazing through the tangled choke of swaying cattails and sedge grasses, barely avoiding the sharp claws that snatched at their heels from behind.
Seeing the pair burst out of the tall weeds, Giles splashed across the shallows to meet them, but the teens quickly turned the librarian around, dragging him with them in their haste to get out of the water. Giles had caught only a brief glimpse of something large thrashing through the vegetation before he was unceremoniously swept along with the fleeing duo, but it was enough to make him appreciate their need for a speedy withdrawal. A health surge of adrenaline sent him racing at a pace worthy of an Olympic athlete, his short legs matching stride for stride with those of the slayer. By the time the fleeing trio hit the shore Giles was in the lead and pulling the others up the steep embankment to higher ground and safety.
Xander was almost crawling as he reached the top of the grassy knoll. Winded and panting for breath he flopped onto the ground, collapsing in an exhausted heap. His clothing was soaked throughout and he was chilled from his swim, his body shivering violently in the cool night air. Buffy was similarly saturated, but having got her companions out of immediate danger, she turned her attention toward the demon hiding in the shallows below them.
“Okay, Chicken of the Sea!” Buffy called out in challenge over the dark pond. “Show yourself!”
Buffy postured defensively, her small fists poised to strike at the first thing she saw. For a few moments all was quiet in the pond. Nothing moved. Then several yards from the shore in front of her the water began to bubble. She was on it instantly, leaping down the bank, hands slashing downward into the now churning foam. But something caught her wrist, encircling it in needle-like claws that pierced her soft flesh. She let out a short yelp of protest as it tried to pull her downward, fighting to extract herself from her captor’s grip. Kicking out at her unseen assailant Buffy used her boot heel as a spike, feeling her foot make solid contact and impale whatever was down there. Her hand was quickly released and the watery upheaval retreated, rapidly moving out into deeper water toward the pond’s distant center.
Buffy watched the burbling waves gradually fade into a gentle rippling, finally disappearing altogether as the water returned to its former calm. She waited several minutes longer, but the creature didn’t return. Realizing that the battle was over, at least for the moment, the teen slowly sloshed her way back to shore, climbing the steep embankment to join her friends on the grassy knoll above.
Picking at the strands of rotting weeds entwined in her hair, Buffy pursed her lips in a disappointed pout. She was dripping wet from head to toe, her outfit no longer presentable by any stretch of the imagination for an evening of fun in public. Not to mention that her hair was a disaster, her makeup had washed away, and her beautiful new boots were full of disgusting pond slime. Then to heap insult upon abuse her best leather jacket had been shredded by some aquatic Jezebel that first tried to drown her friend, and then her. And she never even got the satisfaction of whomping the demon’s sorry little behind. This definitely had not turned out to be one of her better nights.
“You okay, Xander?” she asked her classmate, observing the shivering, drenched teen lying horizontal at her feet.
“Other than having swallowed enough water to drain the pond, I’d say I’m fine,” Xander replied with a weak smile. “Thanks, Buff. I owe you one.”
“No problemo,” Buffy grinned at her friend. “I don’t know what you did to call that thing off of me, but I’m sure glad you did it. I was beginning to think I was going to stay drowned for good this time. That demon had a grip on me like you wouldn’t believe.”
She had no sooner finished speaking then a gurgled cry rose up from across the pond, echoing out over the moonlit night. The noise grew in volume, burbling and resonating until it became impossible to tell from which direction it had originated. It was a horrifying wail, and it hung in the still night air voicing anguish and hunger to all that could hear it. Then as suddenly as it began the frustrated trumpeting ceased. All was silent. Not even the sound of the wildlife around them disturbed the unnatural hush.
“And what was that?” Xander asked, breaking the eerie quiet. He grunted, hoisting his lanky frame up onto his feet to stand with the others staring out at the deceptively placid pond. Giles frowned, pondering the teen’s question with great seriousness before finally voicing an opinion.
“I do believe our lovely lady friend is rather put off at having been deprived of the pleasure of your company, Xander,” Giles suggested in droll response. A faint smile tugged at his lips as he regarded the disheveled teen. “She apparently seemed quite taken with you. Really. Though I can’t for the life of me imagine why.”
“I guess some of guys just got it, and some don’t,” Xander grinned back.
“Oh, you sure got it,” Buffy chided her classmate. “And I can smell it from way over here. What was that thing, anyway?”
“A Rusalka,” the Brit answered. His confident expression slipped suddenly to one of doubtful reconsideration. “Though I suppose it could be a Vodyanoi. They are very much alike.”
“In other words, you don’t know,” Xander remarked with a gloating taunt. It wasn’t often Giles was at a loss to provide an answer when it came to identifying some obscure and inane creature of demonic origins. The older boy couldn’t resist the chance to rub it in. “Lucky for you this is one of those open book tests, or you’d be taking home a big red ‘F’ on tonight’s little homework assignment.”
“Xander!” Buffy frowned, elbowing her classmate in the ribs to curb his tongue. It hadn’t taken Xander long to forget his promise. Luckily Giles hadn’t been listening. He was immersed deep in thought, considering which of his many books to consult for more information. Buffy smiled at her friend. In spite of his strange unexplained transformation, Giles was still very much Giles, and the teen found that comforting to know.
Shaking out a wet pant leg, Buffy sighed and wrung the excess water from her hair before pulling it back into an untidy knot. A faint breeze had picked up and with her damp clothing she was beginning to shiver. She glanced over at Xander, who looked just as chilled and miserable as she felt. They were both soaked to the skin and dripping rivulets of water where they stood.
“I don’t know about you,” she said to the other teen. “But I’d like to get into something a little less moist before I start growing mold.”
“Same here,” Xander quickly agreed. “My shoes are squishing.”
“And I had best be heading back to the library,” Giles pronounced to his companions. He had begun to notice the uncomfortable reminder of a missed dinner gnawing at his empty stomach and was anxious to correct that situation. “Well, let’s go then, shall we?” he suggested and started off up the hill, leaving the older teens to follow close behind.
They left the pond, making their way through the woods and brush to the pathway above. The two soggy teens trudged slowly along, their saturated clothes leaving a puddle-strewn trail as they walked through what suddenly seemed a well-populated park. Between their drenched condition, and the librarian’s squalid appearance, the strange trio attracted curious stares from everyone passing by. After a few dozen rude looks, Xander turned to his equally waterlogged companion with a question.
“So why is it he’s the only one here that’s dry?” he queried, jerking his thumb at the small Brit walking between them.
Buffy hesitated, unsure of how to reply. She didn’t want to tell Xander that she’d ordered the librarian to stay back because he was too small and might get hurt. Xander would never let Giles hear the end of that one. She was sure this day had been traumatic enough for the librarian without adding that particular humiliation to his list of perceived indignities. But to her surprise the Briton came to his own rescue, saving her the unpleasant embarrassment of having to lie.
“I’ll have you know that this is a brand new outfit, procured just this morning,” Giles responded, his innocent features wearing an expression of impugned shock. “Surely you wouldn’t expect me to do something that might cause it to become unsuitable for wear?”
The dark haired teen cast a skeptical eye toward his unkempt, bedraggled companion. He stared long and hard at Giles, not quite sure the young Brit was being entirely serious with him. And then he saw it. The impish twitch at the corner of the librarian’s mouth. It was the unmistakable smirk of a gleeful prankster.
Xander’s jaw fell, his expression clearly stunned. Here he was, the Prince of Puns, the Master of all that could even remotely be considered humorous, and he had nearly been deceived, beaten at his own game. And by of all people, Giles! Who’d have thought the little Brit had it in him?
With an appreciative grin spreading across his face Xander threw a damp arm around his small friend’s shoulders, clapping him across the back. Giles’ own smile grew, the muscles loosing their struggle to reign in their merriment. Then to the surprise of both teens the boyish librarian exploded into a spontaneous riot of laughter, his eyes twinkling devilishly with unbridled glee. It was at that moment they saw him, a part of their friend that they’d never imagined existed. Tucked and hidden away behind decades of adult responsibility Giles the true child had finally been let out to play. Full of mischief, carefree and impetuous, he was the very essence of boyhood. And just like any other grubby little kid who had been rolling around in the dirt all day he was out in search of fun.
The sight of her stuffy, serious former Watcher nearly doubled over in a fit of laughter brought a smile to Buffy’s face. She found herself giggling, unable to resist the librarian’s mood, intoxicated by his joyful hysteria. Even Xander was swept up in the infectious moment, beaming cheerfully as he snickered along with the others. Soon they were hopelessly carried away by waves of uncontrolled mirth, their loud shrieks echoing through the night air. And that was how they made their way through the park, laughing and jabbering away at each other, just three young friends out having a good time.