Cordelia Chase was window-shopping. Granted, it wasn’t as fun as the real thing. She didn’t actually get to take home all the expensive and wonderful little items she so carefully picked out as she browsed at the mall. Still it was a pleasant way to pass a few hours. She did buy a few small token pieces, just enough to feel she’d accomplished something on her day out at the local shopping center, but not so much that she had truly splurged. The teenaged girl was an avowed expert at making the perfect discovery of some tiny treasured accessory that would complete her many have-to own designer articles of apparel. Shopping was the passion of her life and Cordelia indulged herself in the pastime every chance she could get. She thought nothing of spending an entire afternoon trying on clothes, finding just the right outfit guaranteed to complete her trademark look of flawless style and panache.

She was admiring a pair of sparkling diamond and emerald drop earrings when a bright flash of auburn hair caught her eye. Squinting between the display mounts in the jewelry store window, her mouth dropped open in surprise as she saw a familiar redheaded couple inside the store where she’d been perusing. What was Willow Rosenberg and that Oz fellow doing in there? They couldn’t possibly be shopping at this place. It was way too chic and upscale for their kind. Frowning in agitated puzzlement, Cordelia decided she had to find out what was going on.

Keeping hidden among the cover of jewels and watches in the window, the dark-haired girl kept her eye on the young couple in the store. They were apparently having a discussion about something with the salesclerk. The man was bringing various examples out of the glass cases for closer inspection, showing them rings and necklaces. Willow kept shaking her head, obviously not satisfied by anything she was seeing as the salesperson continued to exhibit his collection of gems and fine jewelry. Eventually the teens left the store without a purchase, heads huddled together, deeply engrossed in low conversation. Cordelia hung back, hiding behind a convenient pillar and waited to see where they would go next. The pair walked the mall’s main corridor holding hands, finally stopping in front of a second jewelry shop. This store was even pricier and more glamorous than the previous one that they had visited and the jealous Cordelia was left staring in awe as the couple went through the door to disappear inside.

“I don’t believe it!” she said aloud to no one in particular. “That Willow’s actually getting him to buy her something serious.” Cordelia’s frown deepened, considering the possible implications of the couple’s actions. “They must be engaged or something. Oh, my God, she’s going to get a ring!” she hissed venomously, her voice seething with envy at the very thought of such a loser couple finding any happiness she had not yet experienced for herself. “They’ve got some nerve!”

Waiting outside the store, Cordelia continued to spy on her classmates as they shopped. Their routine was the same as in the last store. Nothing they were shown seemed to meet with their approval. Snorting contemptuously, Cordelia narrowed her eyes, her piercing glare observing the browsing couple. Willow was being way too choosy the teen thought to herself. Just who did she think she was? Like she really needed some big, expensive stone to set off the pathetic outfits in her unstylish bargain basement reject wardrobe. And as for Oz and his sense of fashion, well, she didn’t even want to go there!

After visiting a few more shops the young couple eventually left the mall. Cordelia followed them out to the parking lot and watched them get into Oz’s van. As they drove away she considered chasing the two to their next stop, but then came to her senses, realizing just how psycho that would be. How would it look if she were to go around acting jealous of some pitifully geeky couple like Oz and Willow? Besides, she was Cordelia, the Queen, and had her image to consider.

Abandoning her shopping excursion, Cordelia made her way across the lot to her own sporty little red car. Maybe she would treat herself to a carefree spin around town, check out the local sights. And if she just happened to pass by the school while tooling about she might stop and see if Wesley were there. She remembered him saying something about working on one of his boring Watcher projects this weekend. She was sure he wouldn’t mind a little company.

Cordelia smiled, her dark eyes glinting as she fired up the ignition of her car. Gunning the engine with a reverberating roar she peeled backward out of her parking space, leaving tire marks on the asphalt as she abruptly reversed direction and took off, whipping her car through the lot toward the nearest exit. A clever plan was already forming in her mind. Even though she hadn’t seen her there with Oz and Willow, Cordelia had a strong feeling that Buffy was somehow behind all of this. If so, this could be a perfect opportunity to finally put one over on that blonde slayer bimbo and her rotten gang of do-gooders. Yes, she would have a nice, friendly little chat with Wesley. And if the subject of what she’d seen at the mall came up, which she was sure it would if she had anything to do with it, he might have some interesting views of his own to offer about what was going on.

She was zooming down the street through a bad part of town, one of those areas full of tired old businesses and bar after seedy bar, when Cordelia got her second surprise of the day. She was stopped at a red light, using the moment to check her hair in the rear view mirror. As she repaired some minor wind damage, tucking a few stray strands back into their usual place of perfection, two figures appeared in the reflection of the scene behind her. Frowning, Cordelia was upset by the distraction at first. Then she recognized who they were. Xander and Buffy.

Immediately Cordelia was on the alert again. The pair was coming out of a bar called Willy’s Alibi Room. It was one of those places where vampires and creepy things liked to hang out. Both of her classmates were too young to drink legally, and it being broad daylight Cordelia was pretty sure they weren’t visiting just to stake some evil vampire guy. Something was happening. This was very definitely suspicious type behavior.

Reaching for the sunglasses on the seat beside her Cordelia casually slipped them on, hoping she hadn’t been noticed. She waited impatiently for the light to turn, keeping her face averted and a wary eye on her schoolmates in the rear view mirror. As soon as the traffic signal turned green she was off, flooring the accelerator and peeling out down the street, her red car a blur as it sped away.

At the sound of squealing tires Buffy stopped and looked up, shielding her eyes against the afternoon sunlight. She managed to catch a brief glimpse of a familiar red sport vehicle as it roared off into the distance, disappearing among the downtown traffic. A distracted expression fell over the blonde’s features as she turned to her companion.

“Was that who I thought it was?” she asked.

“Let’s see,” Xander mused dramatically. “Red car doing fifty in a thirty mile an hour zone. Tire marks on the road. Lack of any brake use. I’d say it was most definitely Cordelia.”

“What’s she doing out this way?” Buffy wondered aloud. “There isn’t a clothing store for blocks.”

“Yeah, but the mall’s off that way,” Xander said, pointing down the street one way. He turned, gesturing toward where the car had been heading in the opposite direction. “And that way is, well…” he frowned, not having any idea where the girl would be going. “It’s someplace else. She’s probably taking a short cut somewhere.”

Buffy nodded, satisfied with the explanation. “Come on, Xander,” she said and took off at a fast clip down the sidewalk. “Willy seemed to think these vamps might know where we’d find our friend and his traveling K-mart jewelry department.”

“He was being very cooperative today,” Xander remarked about the infamous bartender as he hurried to keep up with his companion. “Our interrogative techniques must be improving.”

“That, and the twenty you gave him sure didn’t hurt,” Buffy threw back over her shoulder in reply.

Buffy was moving along at a brisk clip, anxious to get on with their search efforts. She led the way, making good time as they headed across town toward their next destination. So far they hadn’t turned up much. Willy swore the sorcerer they were looking for hadn’t been to his bar. Buffy wasn’t so sure the weaselly little man was telling them the whole truth, but her intimidating threats of bodily harm and a subsequent offer of cash only got them some sketchy information about a vampire nest in another part of town. Willy told them that they might find a particular undead fiend with a liking for fancy trinkets there, suggesting that he might know something more about their salesman sorcerer. A slim lead to be sure, but it was the only one that they had.

Following Willy’s directions Buffy cut through a deserted alley and then turned up a side street. She could hear Xander huffing behind her, slightly winded but gamely keeping up as she jogged along. She knew he understood the urgent timing of the mission ahead of them. It was getting toward late afternoon. They had to hurry if they expected to take advantage of the remaining daylight hours when they questioned their latest lead. With a look of determination fixed on her young features Buffy lengthened her stride, her companion grunting noisily in her wake but staying with her step for step as she picked up her pace and broke into a run.

Wesley was sitting alone in the Sunnydale High School library, enjoying the solitude as he browsed though an old volume about spirits and creatures of Finno-Ugric folklore. The book was written as an inventive chronicling of the better known mythological fables of the northern European people, but he was finding a few helpful facts among the fancifully told stories that might prove of some eventual use. He had to keep an open mind toward every possible source of research if he was to be an effective Watcher to Buffy’s Slayer.

A loud, impatient knocking at the library’s secondary exit startled the Englishman, interrupting his reading. With an irritated sigh Wesley slowly uncrossed his legs and rose from his chair at the library table, moving quickly up into the second level stacks to answer the insistent rapping. He wondered who could possibly be attempting to gain access to the school on a Saturday. Certainly not one of the students. They didn’t even come into the library during regular school hours.

The hammering increased with a demanding ferocity that sent the Watcher hurrying down the aisle between the bookcases toward the source of the unrelenting noise. Perhaps it was Giles, Wesley thought to himself, although he had given the librarian specific orders to stay at home that day. He had been hoping for some private time, a chance to peruse the library’s bookshelves at his leisure without his fellow Britain hovering about to intimidate him. If it were Giles, he would be sure to give the lad a thorough talking to and then send him immediately on his way. He was in no mood to deal with any insolent displays of disobedience.

Scampering the last few feet to the back door Wesley threw it open to confront his uninvited visitor. His annoyance quickly turned to delight when he discovered none other than Cordelia Chase waiting outside. His face broke out in a congenial smile to greet the girl, but she had already pushed her way past him and was striding purposely through the bookcases down to the main open area of the room. He turned and followed doggedly upon her heels, his thoughts racing with questions, his curiosity aroused as to why she was there. Not that he minded taking a short break from his work for a bit of pleasant conversation with such an obviously attractive young lady. Cordelia was fetching as ever in a teal designer dress that was almost scandalously short. Wesley found it difficult to keep his eyes focused somewhere other than the revealing hemline, blushing and nervously looking away as the young woman came to a sudden stop, whirled around and faced him.

“This is a pleasant surprise,” he greeted the teen, recovering quickly with a cheerful grin. “And to what do I owe this pleasure?”

“Oh, I was just passing by,” Cordelia replied, attempting to effect an air of nonchalance. She glanced toward the nearby table, noticing the neat piles of books covering most of its flat surface. Grimacing inwardly the teen held back delivery of a scathing remark about how boring the English Watcher’s life must be if this was his idea of how to spend a Saturday. Instead she held up a perfectly manicured hand, displayed her own volume that she had brought in with her. She had checked the book out of the library a few weeks back, keeping it in her car for just such an occasion. “I wanted to return this,” she said, waving the small text under Wesley’s nose.

“It’s Saturday.” Wesley announced, puzzlement written on his face. His comment produced an expression of what he read as vacant non-comprehension from the girl, so he went on to explain. “School isn’t in session today.”

“I know,” Cordelia irritably huffed in response. As if she didn’t know that! She dismissed Wesley’s statement with an indifferent toss of her head, her hand sweeping back her dark hair in a gesture that allowed the sun’s rays coming in from the overhead skylight above to accent her cheekbones.

The effect was not lost on her appreciative audience. A dazed look settled over Wesley’s countenance, his head tilting slightly to one side as he stared unashamedly at her sunlit features. Cordelia lowered her gaze coyly, pretending not to notice that she was being noticed. She waited for just the appropriate amount of time, not too long to look disinterested, but not so short as to seem overeager and cheap before she raised her eyes and flashed the Englishman a perfect smile.

Wesley melted, disarmed by the young girl’s calculatingly skilled performance. He was smitten by what he perceived as Cordelia’s innocent charm, helpless to do anything but admire her beauty as she gracefully turned and began to walk away, heading toward the circulation desk across the room. He watched with fascination as she set her book on the counter and then leaned forward to stand on tiptoe, straining to look into the librarian’s open office beyond.

“I happened to be passing by and thought I’d drop in to see if anyone was around,” Cordelia announced, her voice sweet and sultry. She glanced backward over her shoulder toward the Brit. “Is he here?”

“Is who here?” the Englishman blankly inquired, then realized the girl had meant Giles. Snapping out of his distracted stupor Wesley advanced toward the teen to stand at her side. “I’m afraid Rupert’s not here. I thought it might be best he keep a low profile today, stay at home.” Lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper he leaned closer and continued. “There have been certain developments concerning his current situation.”

“Really? What kind of developments?” Cordelia asked, her interest piqued. She was always interested in new gossip. “Anything you can tell me about?”

“News from the Council,” the Englishman replied, his eyes watching the girl as she began to slowly wander about the room again. “Official Watcher business and all that. I doubt it would be anything of interest to you.”

“Oh, I think what you do is very interesting,” Cordelia responded with another sweet smile. Before the Brit could recover from the attack of neutralizing flattery she quickly changed the subject, hitting him with her own strategic piece of news. “You’ll never guess who I saw on my way here,” she announced, hoping that Wesley would pick up on the broad hint she had dropped. He didn’t disappoint, grabbing the bait precisely as she had planned.

“And who might that be?” the Brit asked. He had inquired more out of politeness than with any overt fascination for what Cordelia might have to say.

“I saw Buffy,” Cordelia cunningly replied.

A sly sideways peek toward Wesley told her that she had caught the Britisher’s attention and he was listening attentively. But her pride in the easy success she had with manipulating her victim was tainted with slight jealousy. It annoyed Cordelia that the mere mention of the blonde’s name had such a noticeable effect on the Brit. She reminded herself it was only a natural reaction. After all, Wesley was her boss, or Watcher, or whatever he wanted to call himself. He had to be interested in Buffy. It was part of his job. Still, she couldn’t help but feel slighted by his undisguised solicitous response.

“You saw Buffy today?” Wesley continued to query, trailing after Cordelia as she meandered casually about the library. Approaching the large wooden library table the teen pretended to read the various titles, most of which held no special significance for her. Choosing a small volume of demonology, she began flipping through its pages as if reading.

“Uh huh,” Cordelia nodded, continuing her story as idly scanned the book. “She was with Xander. I guess they were busy on some little assignment you gave them to do. Yuck!” The last comment was a reaction to a particularly distasteful portrait she had discovered. Her face contorted in involuntary revulsion as a cold shudder wracked her body. “This guy is in serious need of a plastic surgeon. It is a guy, isn’t it?” she asked, showing the demon’s picture to Wesley.

“Uh, yes,” he answered, glancing briefly at the portrait and then dismissing the issue to returning to their previous conversation. “You-you say you saw Buffy and Xander. And whereabouts was that? In the park?”

The girl shook her head, putting the book back down onto the table. As a sly smile curled at her mouth Cordelia secretly congratulated herself, pleased that her instincts had been right. Buffy was up to something and Wesley didn’t know about it. This was just so typical of the vexatious blonde teen. She was constantly getting into trouble and doing that rebel thing. Well, it served her right to get caught this time. And Cordelia was only too happy to be the one doing the catching.

“Oh, were they supposed to be at the park?” the girl asked with an expression of carefully studied naiveté. Widening her eyes she gazed at Wesley with doe-like innocence. “But that’s not where I saw them. In fact, they weren’t anywhere near the park. Ooops!” Cordelia covered her mouth as if ashamed of her faux pas. “Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned this. I certainly wouldn’t want to get Buffy into trouble. Why don’t we both just forget I said anything about it, okay?”

“No, no,” Wesley argued, his suspicions aroused at this point. “It’s quite alright to speak freely. So, where exactly was it that you happened to see them?”

“On second thought,” Cordelia craftily reversed her story, feigning ignorance to draw the Englishman in further. “Maybe it wasn’t Buffy and Xander I saw. Maybe it was somebody else. Two somebody elses, and they just looked like Buffy and Xander.”

“Cordelia,” Wesley responded, applying firm but persuasive pressure when the girl seemed reluctant to provide more information. “If you know something it is imperative that you tell me immediately. You needn’t worry about getting Buffy into trouble. That’s not your concern. There should be no secrets between a Watcher and his slayer, something that Buffy must learn. Now, where was it that you saw them?”

“Well, maybe they had to track down some big important clue or something,” Cordelia embellished, attempting to appear as if she were vacillating between tough choices, to tell or not to tell. Wesley was playing into her hands perfectly. He really believed her. Pausing for effect she frowned as if Buffy were her dearest friend and betraying her was something she couldn’t bear to do. Finally she made her confession, blurting out her story with a display of dramatic agony. “I saw her slumming it downtown at that skanky Willy guy’s bar. You know the place I mean, don’t you? It’s where all the vampires and ishy monsters like to hang out.”

“Yes, I believe I know the place,” Wesley replied. “Hmmm! What could she possibly be doing there.”

The Englishman scowled thoughtfully, seeming to give a great deal of consideration to the teen’s offered information. Cordelia could almost see the wheels turning in the man’s head, his features darkening with each new scenario that popped into mind.

“I’m sure I don’t know,” the girl remarked truthfully to the Brit’s query. Seeing she had him firmly hooked, Cordelia decided it was time to feed Wesley her other tidbit of gossip. “And they weren’t the only ones out running around today,” she told the Brit, slyly dropping her next insinuating clue. “Willow and Oz were at the mall. I think they got engaged or something. I saw them looking at rings. If you ask me, Willow was being way too picky about the selections. I mean, jewelry is important to a girl and everything, but she’s not exactly the type to need the Hope Diamond. She should be happy with what she can get. She was when she chose that weirdo boyfriend of hers.”

“That seems a rather innocent activity,” Wesley remarked. “As I understand they’re quite the couple. They may be a bit young for such formalities, but it’s not entirely unexpected, considering. And I doubt they’re interest in jewelry has anything to do with Buffy.”

Moving closer to Wesley the young teen spoke in a confiding tone. “I heard Willow tell a salesclerk she was looking for something unique and old, like one of those designer pieces you get at estate sales or from a private dealer.” This bit of news raised the Englishman’s eyebrows, and Cordelia continued, moving off onto a tangent line of thought. “As if she could appreciate that kind of thing! Willow wouldn’t tell an authentic antique from a Cracker Jack prize. Why that girl wouldn’t know haute couture if it bit her on the…”

“Indeed!” Wesley exclaimed, cutting off last statement sharply. He was mentally adding up the information Cordelia had delivered and he didn’t much care for the conclusions that came to mind. Immediately he suspected Giles was behind this exhibition of mischief and slayer skullduggery. These little ‘assignments’ were probably his doing. The thought irritated him to no end. He had told Giles to stay away from Buffy. Apparently the librarian had decided to disobey his orders again. Well, he wasn’t going to allow him to get away with it this time.

“Perhaps I should pay a visit to our friend, Rupert,” the Englishman grumbled. Turning toward his young visitor he put on a clam mask as he addressed her. “You’ll have to forgive me, Cordelia, but I’m afraid that I shall have ask you to leave now. I have pressing business I must attend to elsewhere.”

Cordelia smiled understandingly. The Brit gestured toward the exit and she meekly followed him up to the second level and through the book stacks to the back door. Her news had certainly struck a sensitive nerve. Ms. High and Mighty Slayer was in for it this time. They were all in trouble, the whole stupid Scooby sleuthing gang. And they deserved it. Especially that Xander. She’d show him what happened when one dared to cross Cordelia the Queen of Mean.

She waited as Wesley locked up the library behind them, gloating inwardly at the successful execution of her little scheme. A mischievous smile spread its glow across her face as the Englishman escorted her across the lot to her car where he said his farewell and then left her to go to his own vehicle. Cranking over the engine Cordelia reached over and readjusted her mirror, checking out her reflection one last time before backing out of her parking space to take off with a loud squeal of tires and a final parting wave of her hand.

Wesley sighed, his gaze wistfully following Cordelia’s little red car as it zipped across the open blacktop and then exited out onto the street to become lost among traffic. When she was gone he made his way toward his own vehicle, ruminating on the information she had so considerably provided and deliberating upon his next plan of action. It was fortunate indeed that the girl had dropped by that day or he might never have found out about Rupert Giles’ unscrupulous conspiracy with Buffy and her young friends. This time they had pushed him too far. Enough Mr. Polite and Understanding Watcher. He was going do what he should have done in the first place and put an end to this situation once and for all.

The more he thought about it, the darker Wesley’s mood became as he drove his van away from the school. He was angry. No, angry wasn’t a strong enough word for what he felt. He was furious! Hadn’t he made countless allowances for Buffy and her companions, suffering their flagrant disregard for his rules? Perhaps being lenient hadn’t been the proper way to deal with a willfully insolent slayer. From now on he would demand respect for his orders, enforce unquestioning obedience. He would instruct Buffy Summers on what it meant to serve as the Chosen One under a real Watcher one who believed in his oaths and the divinely mandated wisdom of the Council.

As he steered his car through the quiet residential streets, heading toward the small flat he’d rented upon his arrival in Sunndale, Wesley’s increasing ire continued to fuel his bitter desire for retribution until he found himself actually anticipating the confrontation ahead of him. Parking out front he stopped at his place just long enough to make a phone call, apprising the Council of the latest developments concerning Rupert Giles. Quentin Travers was especially keen to hear the latest news and was quick to back Wesley in his proposed plans, praising the Watcher for his no nonsense attitude. There was a definite satisfaction in the council member’s voice as he relayed the progress that had been made concerning arrangements for the librarian’s return. Armed with that knowledge, Wesley grinned smugly as he headed back out to his van and got inside, continuing his journey on to Rupert Giles’ apartment.

Several minutes later Wesley pulled up to the curb out in front of the librarian’s condo. The old Citroen coupe sat parked where he had last seen it, unmoved and unused over the past two days. There was also an American model SUV vehicle sitting nearby, attesting to the possibility that Giles was not alone. Wesley’s felt his temper smolder as he got out of his van and stalked up the pathway through the leaf canopied courtyard entrance to the librarian’s front door. He impatiently rang the doorbell, fuming in his pique of irritation, already mentally composing the scathing speech he intended to deliver to the younger Briton.

After a moment the door opened. Wesley was momentarily taken aback, his anger forgotten in his surprise at finding himself face to face with of all people Joyce Summers. His first reaction was to question what she was doing there. But he quickly realized that Buffy had probably told her mother about the librarian’s condition, though for the life of him he couldn’t see a need as to why. Still, it was the type of thing he’d come to expect from the teenager and her former Watcher. Once again the pair had gone behind his back, keeping him out of the loop of information. Well, that practice would soon come to an end.

“Mrs. Summers,” he greeted the woman politely, hiding the underlying animosity he felt at that moment. “What an unexpected pleasure to see you here. I assume Rupert is at home?”

Joyce Summers stared at him, her features cold and business-like, not in the least bit what he would call friendly. Glancing back over her shoulder, the woman directed her gaze toward someone inside the apartment as if checking for permission to answer the Englishman’s query. Turning back toward Wesley, she opened the door wider.

“Yes, he’s here,” she answered and stepped back as the Englishman boldly brushed past her through the doorway.

As he stepped across the threshold, Wesley’s eyes scanned the apartment. He quickly spotted Giles. The librarian was sitting on the sofa across the room. Giles was wearing an expression the newer Watcher could only interpret as guilt, and as Wesley walked over to his younger counterpart, he couldn't help but notice the dozens of reference books that lay scattered about on the floor and stacked all over the low coffee table. It was definite and unmistakable evidence of a recent research marathon, and confronting the smaller Watcher with stern disapproval, the taller Brit gave a curt nod toward the collection that Xander had earlier referred to as Giles’ branch library.

“Keeping ourselves busy, I see,” Wesley noted with a haughty frown. Giles glared back, his mouth set in a petulant sneer, assuming the defensive.

“What would you have me do?” he replied, his childish voice thick with sarcasm. “Sit about all day watching cartoons on the telly?”

“While it can be argued that today’s youth spend entirely too much time being brainwashed by such frivolous, vacuous entertainment." the Englishman smirked sardonically. “In your case it just might serve to keep you out of trouble.”

“They are my books,” the youthful Brit brsitled defiantly in return.

“Indeed?” Wesley repressed a small chuckle. “Why don’t we see?"

Choosing one of the volumes at random from the table, the Watcher opened it to the back cover. Inside, prominently embossed upon the page in a raised relief, was the official stamp of the Sunnydale High library.

“If I’m not mistaken,” Wesley said, displaying the seal to the boy. “This one is marked as being the property of the school.”

“I am the librarian,” Giles curtly reminded his fellow countryman.

“Yes, of course you are,” the Watcher responded as he neatly replaced the book upon its pile. “And I suppose as such you are entitled to certain privileges. It’s no concern of mine if you take out more than the approved limit of books. However, it is another matter that has brought me here. Something that I feel I cannot ignore.”

Wesley’s features tightened with a severity that was ice-like and austere. Since his arrival in Sunnydale, he had been forced to work in the librarian's shadow. The slayer had made it clear early on that her former Watcher remained the preferred choice when seeking out advice in matters both private, and those dealing with slaying. Wesley often found himself shut out, treated like an inferior, and it grated him. Until now, there had been little he could do about the situation, but with Giles at a chronological disadvantage, he saw a chance to take charge, and seize the upper hand.

Moving in closer to the sofa, Wesley stood next to Giles, his taller form towering almost ominously over the smaller librarian. He could see the younger Briton shrink back, whatever courage he had formerly possessed rapidly fading away as Wesley fixed him with a firm and authoritively piercing gaze.

“It is my understanding that you are using Buffy and her friends to assist in some special extra-curricular project,” Wesley frowned, looking down his nose at the librarian below. “That is in direct opposition to my instructions.”

“Strangely enough, I don’t give a damn about your instructions,” Giles managed to muster with a convincing show of bravado. Sliding forward to the sofa's edge, he hopped down to the floor, and drawing his diminished height up to its full extent, he faced the taller man. “They were here before you rang,” he explained succinctly. “I wasn’t about to be rude and turn out my visitors.”

“And where are they now?” Wesley demanded. Giles shrugged, volunteering nothing. Scowling, the Watcher realized he would get nowhere questioning the resolute youth, so he turned to Joyce for an answer. “Do you know where they are?”

“You know kids,” the woman laughed, taking the librarian's evasive tact. “They don’t always tell you where they’re going.”

“Perhaps, Mrs. Summers, you should start asking,” Wesley frowned. Whatever was going on, it was obvious she was part of the conspiracy, too, and Wesley resigned himself to a disapproving sniff. “It so happens that a reliable source has informed me that Buffy was seen at some rather unsavory places this afternoon. If I were her parent, I would endeavor to keep a closer eye on her activities.”

“Well, you’re not her parent,” Joyce responded, her voice lowering to a flat, menacing tone. The Englishman's presumptuous attitude angered her, and as she walked across the room, she challenged the man with a frosty glare. “She’s my daughter, and I’ll thank you to leave the responsibility of raising her to me.”

“Of course,” Wesley replied. His tone wavered from its smug arrogance, momentarily thrown by assurity of the woman's defiance. “I wouldn’t presume to interfere with your parental authority. You’re her mother and as such it's your duty to raise Buffy as you see fit. However,” the Brit continued as he found his backbone once again. “I am her Watcher, and that means I have certain responsibilities as well."

Turning on the small librarian, Wesley's eyes pinned the youth with petulant accusation.

“Responsibilities," he repeated, frowning with reproval. "That you, Rupert, seek to constantly undermine with your insolence and insubordination.”

“I’m not the one that's to blame if you’re having difficulties with Buffy,” the younger Brit snapped back. “Your own incompetence is a more likely source for your failure. I would suggest a serious reconsideration of your vocation might be in order, Wesley. Possibly another career would prove more suited to your lack of abilities. How about an insurance actuary, or..." Giles continued, his lips curling in a contemptuous, dry smirk. "Perhaps one of those insipid fops that paint the toenails of poodles for silly old ladies with blue hair and more money than they know what’s best to do with!”

“That will do!” Wesley hissed, his face blanching pale with ire as he fought the urge to pout. There was a edge of whining in his tone as he scolded his small detractor. “Your disobedience is compromising my appointed authority, and may consequently jeopardize Buffy in her duties as a slayer. My slayer,” he added, throwing out the taunt with a pompous, self-righteous vindictiveness. “She's no longer yours, Rupert. You were relieved of that privilege by the Council, and given fair warning what would happen if you were to interfere. Or have you forgotten that?”

“How could I?” the librarian sneered. GIles' small fists clenched into tight balls at his sides. “You seem to delight in throwing that fact back in my face at every available opportunity. But what you don’t seem understand is that Buffy isn’t a piece of property to be handed over as a prize to the Council’s favored blue-eyed boy of the moment. She doesn’t belong to you, to me, or to anyone else for that matter. She’s free to do precisely as she pleases, and I dare say there isn’t much you or the Council can do about it!”

“We shall see about that,” Wesley sniveled, his eyes narrowing in calculated acridity.

“You obviously don’t know my daughter,” Joyce chortled, inserting herself uninvited into the argument. “Buffy’s a very headstrong girl, and if you try and force her to stay away from Rupert, she'll do everything she can in her power to fight you. You’d know that if you were any judge of character.”

“Oh, but I do know your daughter, Mrs. Summers,” Wesley replied, his lips tweaking in a smarmy, confident grin. “Perhaps better than either of you realize. You may be right in that I can’t force her to stay away. However, it is within my power to remove the temptation.”

“I’m aware of your plan to send Rupert away,” Joyce muttered. She cast a sympathetic eye toward the child librarian. “And personally, I think that it stinks! Rupert should be able to do what he wants, and not what your Council people dictate."

“This is not an issue for debate,” Wesley nervously argue withd the incensed woman. “The Watcher’s Council of England is the accepted authority in this situation"

"Why?" Joyce countered. "Because you say they are?"

"Well, yes," Wesley frowned. He was slightly unnerved by her audacious challenge to his accepted authority, but he defended his superiors with the strength of rote assuance. "The Council's decisions are not based on emotion driven trivialities, but calculating and detached reasoning. They take into account matters of which you have no possible means of understanding, matters that involve more than just your little world here in Sunnydale. It’s not my place, nor is it yours to question their order to return Rupert to England. Simple point in fact, he is going." With a smug glower, he finished on a confident flourish. "I’ve already received confirmation of his flight. It leaves tomorrow evening.”

“Tomorrow?" Giles blinked, stunned by the Watcher’s unexpected announcement. His childish voice quavered as a look of confusion haunted his pale eyes. “But..the paperwork. The passport. I-I thought that it would take some time to-to arrange those things.”

“The Council has certain connections,” Wesley brusquely replied. A look of gloating triumph crossed his face at the younger Brit’s noticable deflation. “They can be quite efficient in these matters when necessary.”

“Apparently so,” Giles mumbled in a glum daze.

A sickening feeling overcame the librarian. He could feel his legs wobbling under him, threatening to give way. Flopping onto the sofa with a heavy whump, Giles bowed his head in dejection, and ran a hand through his hair. This was happening much too fast. He wasn’t ready. Not yet. But what could he do to stop this?

As the maelstrom of his emotions quickly well up inside him, Giles was swept along hopelessly in the powerful grip of deepening depression. It was all he could do to hold back his tears of self-pity. But he stubbornly fought the impulse to cry, refusing to give Wesley the satisfaction of seeing him break down in whimpering sobs. He trembled in his tortured anguish, his turmoil tightening painfully in his chest until the physical ache made it difficult for him to breathe.

Joyce Summers instinctually sensed the librarian’s distress. She could see this latest piece of news upset Giles. The young Brit was making tiny distraught noises and respiring in shallow, rapid gasps of air. Circling around the sofa, she sat down next to the small librarian, and put her arm around his slim shoulders. She could feel him shaking, struggling in vain to remain composed. At that moment he was suddenly a little boy, lost and confused, and feeling utterly helpless. Joyce realized it was only a matter of time before Giles fell apart, and lost whatever dignity he had left.

“Maybe the kids have come up with something,” she said in a soft offering of hope. “They’ve probably found that man and are bringing him here right at this very moment.”

Giles lifted his head, forcing a weak smile as he nodded. But inside his despair was growing. He knew that if Buffy or one of the others had found the sorcerer they would have called by then. It was becoming difficult for him to continue believing that anyone would ever find a solution to his problem. He was going to be stuck as a child for a long, long time to come.

“Well,” he quipped lightly in an effort to relieve some of the tension building within him. “At least it won’t take long for me to pack. I’m pretty much wearing all the clothing I have that will fit.”

Joyce smiled sorrowfully at the librarian, looking at his over-sized sweater with its rolled up sleeves and lop-sided collar hanging off one shoulder. The top was comically large on such a small boy’s frame, a mismatched fit on an appealingly forlorn waif. His jeans with their scuffed up knees, and the mud stained sneakers on his feet merely exaggerated the effect even further. It was obvious that Giles was in desperate need a new downsized wardrobe.

“We should get you a few things,” Joyce suggested, warming to the idea even as she spoke. “Something decent to wear. The kids might not be back for a while. We probably have time for a quick run to the mall. What do you say, Rupert? Are you up for some shopping?”

“An excellent idea!” Wesley exclaimed in approval. A shopping trip seemed like a very acceptable idea to him. It would tie up Rupert’s time, and keep him out of trouble. The boy librarian was in sore need of appropriate attire to take with him on his trip back to England. He had to be presentable when he went before the Council. “Why don’t I leave that detail to you then, Mrs. Summers. I’m sure you could help Rupert find something suitable. You women are usually very good at that sort of thing.”

Ignoring Wesley's sexist remark, Joyce rose to her feet, directing her attention to Giles. “If we leave now we can be back in an hour or so," she told the small Watcher. “Tell you what. How about I cook you dinner when we get back. I'll do the dishes and everything.”

“There are a few errands that I need to attend to,” Giles frdgingly admitted as he considered the woman’s proposal. “I should stop at the bank, and the post office. I’ve a suit at the dry cleaners, though I suppose that could wait," he sniffled, braving a slight smile. "It’s not as if I’ll be wearing it anytime soon."

“And I shall see that these books get back to the library where they belong,” Wesley added, gesturing toward the stacks on the coffee table. “Can’t leave loose ends lying about. I’m sure you’ll want things in proper order for your replacement.”

“My replacement,” Giles mumbled in a shocked echo. The full reality of Wesley’s news suddenly hit him. He was leaving Sunnydale. No more library. No school. No Snyder. Well, perhaps that last point wasn’t quite so bad. But he would certainly miss the excited bustle of the students in the hallways, the way they laughed and carried on so. He would especially miss his young friends. Their bracing adventures, the boisterous joy of their company. There was so much he was leaving behind. And he had no idea what was waiting for him in England when he arrived. The thought of that uncertainty was a very frightening prospect, indeed.

“Some of these books are my own,” Giles reminded the other Brit. “You will leave those behind, won’t you?” Gathering the volume he’d purchased long ago, the one he’d thought held such promise only a short time earlier, Giles held it against him, cradling it protectively in his arms. “I’d like to take a few books with me. It’s a long flight and something to read would help to pass the time.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” Wesley replied distractedly. He was anxious to get the pair out of the apartment so that he could begin his own work. Taking the librarian by an elbow he encouraged him to his feet then proceeded to hustle both boy and woman toward the front door. “You two run along now. Leave matters here to me. I’ll see to it that things are returned to the library as they should be.”

Giles hesitated at the threshold. Wesley held the door open for them, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave just yet. An ominous sense of foreboding hung darkly over him. He didn’t trust this man. Something told him the Watcher wasn’t volunteering his help simply from the kindness of his heart. He had some ulterior motive. But confusion clouded Giles’ head and he didn’t know what to do. Time was running out. There were too many details to attend to, too many loose ends to tie up if he was going to London tomorrow. He would have to set aside his doubts, take his chances and hope Wesley was being straight with him.

“If-if Buffy or-or the others were to return before us, don’t send them away,” Giles pleaded, his once defiant demeanor replaced by a timorous and submissive stammer. “I-I would like to see them be-before I’m to leave, to-to talk with them, to say good-bye. Wesley, I know you said I wasn’t to bother them, but I’m asking you to allow me this-this one thing. Please! I promise my full cooperation in return, whatever it is you want of me. No more arguments. No-no trouble of any kind. You have my word on that. I’ll do anything you ask, just...I'd like to see them again.”

Wesley stared down at the small boy before him. Stern and immutable as he intended to be his resolve had begun to waver, melted by the youthful librarian’s plaintive request. But it wouldn’t do for him to appear soft. He had an image to uphold. So even though he was going to give in to the boy’s entreaty he pretended to ruminate over the idea for a minute before replying.

“Very well, Rupert,” Wesley sighed. He carried through the charade of a reluctant authority figure giving out an unpleasant decree. “Your may have your friends over to visit. It doesn’t look as if they’ve turned up anything of consequence in their little misadventures today anyway. Seems as if all your clever scheming and clandestine assignations were nothing but a waste of time.”

Joyce Summers noted the librarian’s subdued reaction to the Watcher’s scolding and she frowned. Giles looked defeated. Gone was the self-reliance gained in a lifetime of experiences leading up to adulthood, the fortitude that allowed him to reason and form opinions, the strength that backed his convictions. Instead he postured meekly, head bowed, eyes lowered in submission, a child awaiting the merciful end to a punishment he knew was rightfully deserved. It was a sight she found disheartening and sadly disturbing to see.

“I will expect you to be ready to go tomorrow when I come for you,” Wesley continued lecturing, wagging a finger at the small boy before him to emphasize his point. “There will be no excuses for tardiness. No delays. Is that understood?”

Giles nodded obediently. Satisfied, Wesley rubbed his palms together, and beamed a smug grin.

“Good! Then I shall ring you later tonight to check on your progress and confirm the time for our flight tomorrow.”

“Our flight?” Giles repeated the words, his voice stressing the unexpected plural pronoun. An uncomfortable feeling began to twist in the pit of his belly. Blinking slowly he lifted his face to stare up into the taller Brit’s commanding countenance. “Y-you-you meant to say my flight time. No? Surely you’re not going to go to London with me,” he gulped, finishing his query lamely. “A-are you?”

“The Council has asked that I escort you to New York,” Wesley explained, ignoring the younger Briton’s stunned reaction to his announcement. “I’m to wait there with you until your connecting flight leaves. Someone from the Council will meet you at Heathrow and see to it the necessary arrangements at the other end are carried out.”

“All that fuss and bother hardly seems necessary,” Giles complained with a pout. “I assure you I’m perfectly capable of making such a journey on my own. I don’t need a child-minder.”

“Yes, well, you do have a reputation of sorts for straying from the appointed path,” Wesley replied, summing up the Council’s and his own concerns. “And we certainly wouldn’t want you getting lost somewhere along the way, now would we? Everyone is quite anxious to see that you return home safely.”

“How very touching,” the youthful Brit observed with mordant dryness. “I never imagined the Council was so concerned for my welfare.”

“They’re only interested in doing what’s best for you, Rupert,” the Watcher returned. “We of the Watcher’s Council take care of our own.”

Giles grunted under his breath. He didn’t believe Wesley’s excuse for one moment. It was obvious he was being chaperoned and it didn’t take much thought to figure out why. The Council didn’t trust him. They had branded him a heretic and a rebel, someone expected to cause trouble. He had become a problem, an interference that required immediate attention lest the archaic backward hierarchy begin to loose any part of the influence and control it held sway over the Slayer.

The librarian’s skepticism was not lost on Wesley. As a Watcher he understood the Council’s actions, agreeing with the consensus among members that if left to his own devices Giles wouldn’t hesitate to take an unscheduled detour somewhere along the way to London, leaving his superiors with the headache of a transcontinental wild goose chase. Not wanting to waste valuable resources hunting down a wayward boy, especially one with the intelligence of an adult and the magical capabilities of a full-fledged mystic, the Council had given Wesley the responsibility of conveying his young charge across America to New York. It was felt his personal supervision would be sufficient to guarantee Giles boarding his international flight connection, at which point any further mischief from the former Watcher would be reduced to an acceptable level of risk. Upon his arrival in England the Council would assume custody of the boy librarian, administering any supervision or discipline called until such time as the situation was brought to some acceptable point of closure.

“Rupert?” Joyce laid a hand gently upon the small Brit’s shoulder, rousing him from his detached thoughts. “We should go now if you want to get back early.”

“Right, yes, of course” Giles sighed. He felt drained and tired, lacking any ambition to face the task ahead of him. But the firm touch of Joyce’s hand was steering him toward the door and he obediently began to move forward. He was about to cross over the threshold when Wesley stepped in front of him, barring his exit.

“Just a moment there!” The older Englishman reached out, his hands closing around the forgotten book Giles still clutched in his arms. “I’ll take that.”

For a brief instant the boy resisted, holding tightly onto the volume, refusing to give it up to the other man. But Wesley was stronger and insistent, managing to tear the prized text free from Giles’ protective grasp.

“B-but, that belongs to me!” Giles complained, a tremulous whine edging his words with childish desperation. “It-it’s my book!”

“That may be so, but we don’t need to take it with us on a shopping trip, do we?” Wesley grumbled in rebuttal, a condescending smile belying his irritation with the youth’s protest. Holding the book aloft he haughtily stared down the smaller boy, his piercingly cold gaze daring the librarian to start an argument. When he realized that none was forthcoming the Englishman’s taut grin broadened in triumphant approval.

“I’m sure your book will be perfectly safe here, Rupert,” Joyce interjected, sensing the young Brit’s distress. Giles looked ready to burst into tears again at any moment. “Nothing’s going to happen while we’re out. We won’t be gone long, I promise.”

“Yes, really, Rupert. Why all the fuss and bother for this?” Wesley chided the boy librarian. Curious, he rifled through the text, casually perusing its pages. “There really doesn’t seem to be anything particularly useful in here that I can see. It’s much too general for any serious research. More of beginner’s introductory text.” He sighed, snapping the volume shut and tossing it carelessly onto a nearby bench. “But I’ll keep it aside if that’s what you want.”

“Please. I would appreciate that,” Giles politely returned.

“Well, you two run along then,” the Watcher announced with a dismissive wave of one hand. A firm push from the other expedited Giles exit through the open doorway as Wesley eagerly ushered the couple out of the apartment. “Have fun. Ta-ta!”

Giles looked back to see the door swing shut behind them with a firm thud. For a moment he stood motionless, staring at the closed entryway. Once it had been a warm and inviting portal the sight of which he welcomed at the end of each busy day. The ornately carved structure had represented a tangible safety net for him, if not providing actual protection against the evils he knew were lurking just outside in the streets of the Hellmouth over which he lived, at least it had given him peace of mind, a sense of security. Now it had become a cold, impenetrable barrier, shutting him out, exiling him from the comfort and familiarity he had grown to know as his home.

He was contemplating with some seriousness the idea of storming his apartment and engaging Wesley in a bout of fisticuffs that would end in the satisfying act of physically throwing the Watcher out on his rear when Giles felt Joyce’s hand slip around his own, bringing him back to reality. Dutifully he obeyed the gentle coaxing tug on his arm, falling into step as she crossed the shady tree canopied courtyard with its trickling water fountain. Traversing the short maze of worn tiled walk they found their way out into the bright afternoon sun, the small librarian reluctantly scuffing his sneakered feet as Joyce towed him toward the curb out in front of the condo complex where her car was parked and waiting.

Helping the size-challenged librarian conquer the task of climbing up into the passenger side of the SUV with an assisting lift, Joyce closed the door after him then circled the vehicle to slide in behind the wheel on the opposite side. Pausing a moment she studied the young Brit sitting so quietly beside her. A distant somberness darkened the waxen eyes that stared unfocused out the front window, Giles’ boyish features drawn into a tight, severe mask that looked completely out of character with his youthful years.

Reaching out Joyce swept a hand lightly through the librarian’s unruly mop of hair. At her touch the young Brit momentarily flinched, the distraction pulling him back from whatever melancholy thoughts seemed to have been plaguing him.

“Are you ready?” she asked, her expression concerned and motherly at once.

Frowning Giles considered the woman’s question. Was he ready? How did one go about preparing for something like this? He was being asked to leave his truest and dearest friends. No, Giles mentally corrected himself. Buffy, Willow, Xander, Oz; these young people weren’t his friends. They were so much more than that. They were family. His family. The only family he had anymore. Oh, there were still a scattering of Giles’ back in England, a few cousins he barely remembered, a great uncle he hadn’t seen since childhood, a distant niece or nephew he’d been told about over the years. But blood aside, these people were nothing to him or he to them. He felt no ties, no kinship, not even the slightest sense of connection emotionally. Everything and everyone that actually mattered to him was right here in Sunnydale, California. Why would he ever want to leave?

Turning toward his companion the disconcerted Brit was met by an unexpected and warm smile from the slayer’s mother. Making an attempt to return the same in kind, Giles failed miserably, unable to hide the feelings of helplessness that grew inside him. He wanted nothing more than to run and hide, to escape the embarrassment of childish emotions that left him feeling so exposed and vulnerable. But instead he took a deep breath and nodded in reply to Joyce’s earlier question as he blinked back the veil of tears moistening his eyes.

Joyce felt her sympathies aroused by the forlorn little boy sitting beside her. She gave Giles’ chin a gentle chuck of her hand, tilting his face upward to look at her. Obeying a maternal impulse she leaned forward, planting a kiss on the librarian’s forehead. The simple gesture was meant as an encouragement. She wanted him to know he was not alone, she was there to help him. The brief smile that he flashed at her in return was a wordless thank you, a reward that said he understood and appreciated her kindness.

“Let’s buckle up then, Rupert,” she announced, sitting back and tugging her seatbelt down into place. “There’s a whole lot of mall out there just waiting to be conquered, and you and I are the ones who are going to do it.”

Wrestling with his own seatbelt Giles strapped himself in with a click of the buckle. Satisfied her small passenger was properly secured Joyce turned the key in the car’s ignition and the SUV’s engine caught with a reverberating rumble of unleashed power. With a quick glance up and down the street she pulled away from the curb, merging easily into the light flow of the side street’s traffic. Then they were on their way, heading across town toward the Sunnydale Mall and an adventure in shopping.

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