Buffy stood in front of her open locker staring vacantly at the collection of schoolbooks piled haphazardly atop each other inside. In the hallway behind her small clutches of students were beginning to amass, talking and gathering in friendly gangs as they prepared for their first class of the day. It was still fairly early in the morning. School wouldn’t officially start for at least another thirty minutes or so. There was plenty of time to get organized, do a little socializing with her buds, and report in to Giles about the previous night.
Wincing, her thoughts contemplated the disaster that had passed for patrol. Shortly after Giles had left her at the park she’d encountered a pair of vampires prowling the jogging paths in search of their nightly sustenance. A rousing altercation had ensued, with plenty of pummeling and bodily damage on both sides. Buffy had eventually managed to gain the upper hand, dispatching the pair with her usual flamboyant zest. She then spent the next few hours scouring the shoreline around Fuller Pond. The exploration turned up nothing out of the ordinary. Of course, if she’d had some clue as to what she was looking for it would have been helpful. Tired and chilled, her newest favorite boots hopelessly encrusted with mud, Buffy had finally decided to give up and go home. Whatever was out there was being very elusive and not showing its face to her.
Shaking off the fuzzy mantle of sleep, Buffy leaned her head against her locker and hid a tired yawn behind her hand. Her body ached with fading bruises and the drab outfit she had chosen to wear reflected her mood as much as it did the need to hide the evidence of her most recent battle. Simple beige slacks and an icy, pale pink sweater covered the worst of her contusions. A skillful application of makeup disguised a multitude of other beauty sins, including the dark, puffy sleep deprived circles under her eyes. As she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the small mirror that hung inside her locker, Buffy grimaced inwardly. There were times when being the Chosen One was not synonymous with running for beauty pageant queen. This morning was definitely turning out to be one of those times.
Out of the corner of her vision Buffy noticed a red headed figure bouncing up the hall toward her. Stifling another yawn she turned to greet Willow, doing her best to ignore her friend’s painfully excessive effervescence.
“Morning, sleepyhead,” Willow beamed brightly in return.
Buffy groaned an incoherent reply and began pulling books from her locker. Stealing another quick peek at her reflection, she swept back a lock of blonde hair that had escaped that day’s plaited braid, tucking the loose strand behind her ear. Considering what she had to work with, it was the best she could manage, and she’d just have to make do.
“You didn’t by any chance stay up late last night studying?” Willow asked her companion, noting the other girl’s sluggishness. “I thought you said you were ready for this morning’s Lit test.”
“That’s today?” Buffy rotated a tender shoulder, working out a stiff kink in her muscle.
“I’ll take that as a no,” the red haired teen countered.
Buffy shrugged, selecting a book from the stockpile in her locker. “Giles had me doing back to back patrols last night. Guess he figures since he never sleeps, the rest of us can go without, too.”
Gathering together the rest of the books she would need for that morning’s classes, Buffy closed her locker door with a firm slam. The entire row of repositories along the wall reverberated with the residual energy of the forceful push, several students scrambling madly to capture the books, papers and pencils that suddenly came spitting out of their lockers. But the slayer was oblivious to the commotion she had caused. Swinging the small backpack she used as her purse over one shoulder, Buffy struck off down the long hallway with her friend tagging along at her side.
Oz’s locker was their next stop. Willow and the musician linked arms and spent a minute smooching, while Buffy busily pretended to be looking elsewhere. A small pang of jealousy touched the blonde teen’s heart as she listened to her classmates’ sounds of affection. Buffy envied her best friend. She and Oz were so right for each other. They were obviously in love, or at least in an extremely strong state of like. Theirs was a nice, normal kind of relationship. Normal in as far as one of them was a practicing Wiccan and the other was a werewolf three nights out of every month. Still, the young couple managed to make it work and Buffy felt they both deserved the happiness they seemed to share.
Closing his locker, Oz slipped between the two girls, the trio sauntering abreast down the corridor to meet up with the last two members of their gang, Xander and Cordelia. The second couple quickly fell into formation like practiced troopers, and together the five teens waded through the thronging stream of students that had begun to clog the hallway around them.
“So,” Xander addressed his classmates. “Did we decide, or what?”
“Decide what?” Buffy asked, turning curiously to the others for a clue.
“Duh!” Cordelia shook her head with a punctuating roll of her eyes. “Friday? Weekend? Bronze?” She turned to Xander with an intolerant sigh. “I thought you said you guys discussed this already.”
“Buffy had to leave early last night,” Xander explained to his girlfriend.
“Not early enough according to Giles,” the blonde griped. “At what point in life does a person forget about the important things like friends and fun, and suddenly develop an overbearingly compulsive need for punctuality?”
“What’s the matter, Buff?” Xander asked, a gaping grin showing his amusement. “Mr. Mom ground you for being tardy?”
The others smiled, except for Willow. She regarded her friend with appropriate sympathy. “I bet Giles gave you one of his lectures.”
“This one wasn’t really all that bad,” Buffy grudgingly admitted. “He skipped right over the boring ‘duty, honor and unquestioning obedience’ soliloquy. Went straight for the scathing glare. Cut way back on his timing, not to mention the whole aggravation factor. I thought it kinda made for a nice change of pace.”
“What is Giles’ problem?” Cordelia groused. “I mean, other than the obvious. It’s like the guy never met a good time he couldn’t throw a wet blanket over. And he hardly ever smiles. Not when I’m around, anyway. What’s with that?”
Xander grimaced, struggling to bite back the remark that threatened to spill from his lips. “Maybe it’s some British thing,” he said. “Remember that picture of Churchill in our History book? The English are obviously very serious people.”
“So, you lean toward the theory Robin Hood was just an urban legend,” Oz mused thoughtfully. Xander nodded.
“Had to be,” the taller teen replied. “Ain’t no way you’d ever find enough Merry Men in that country to put together a whole band.”
“Why don’t you tell Giles to give you shorter hours?” Cordelia continued, ignoring the boys’ banter. The others looked at her in surprise. It was unusual for the self-centered girl to show such concern for someone else, especially when that someone was Buffy. Their shock disappeared as she continued. “You could use the beauty sleep. Not to mention the extra time in the morning to work on your make-up. Maybe if you spent less time fighting monsters and more effort on your hair you’d look half decent once in a while.”
Buffy made a tiny whimpering noise, her ego bruised by the other girl’s tactless words. Sidling away from her boyfriend, Willow moved in closer to the blonde.
“I’m sure what Cordelia was trying to say was she thinks it’s terrible how Giles works you so hard,” the red head empathized. “He never lets you go out anymore. It’s like ‘Oh, the world’s gonna end’ because you spent a couple minutes with your friends instead of fighting some big, bad evil. He expects you to do too much. You’re only in high school. It isn’t fair!”
“Yeah,” Xander agreed, siding with Willow’s argument. “It’s bad enough you have to listen to Giles about slayer stuff. Where does he get off telling you what you can and can’t do with the rest of your time?”
“He has been getting a little overly possessive of my time,” Buffy retorted, frowning thoughtfully. “It’s like he’s out to out-mom Mom.”
“My point exactly,” Xander came back. “Face it, Buff. You’ve maxed out on your limit of allowable maternal units. Time you told one of them to walk. My suggestion, ditch the one without the biological family blood ties. That kind rarely springs for the really good birthday and Christmas presents. After all, you can’t loose track of the important issues at stake here.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Buffy grinned. She was beginning to feel better. It was comforting to know she was not alone as she suffered through the confusing eternity of time the world called growing up.
“Are we done discussing Buffy’s pitiful little excuse for a life yet ?” Cordelia interrupted, her lips curled in a bored scowl. “I want to know if we’re doing the Bronze thing tonight or not?”
Willow shared a smile with her boyfriend before turning toward Buffy.
“The Dingoes are playing tonight,” the red head beamed as she linked arms with the musician and snuggled closer. “Some group cancelled at the last minute and they were asked to fill in.”
“Sounds like a definite go to me,” Buffy nodded, coming alive at last. A little time with her friends would improve her somber mood.
Their walk had brought the group to a set of double doors at the corridor’s end. On the wall above were large letters declaring the room within as the library, Sunnydale High School’s reference center and primary repository of books and educational related materials. But it was a smaller, temporary sign standing outside the doors that made Buffy frown. The portable signboard announced that the library was closed for the day.
“Giles must be in deep research mode,” Buffy sighed. “He’s probably been waiting for hours to hear what I found on last night’s patrol.”
“And that was?” Xander prompted.
“A big, fat honking nothing,” the blonde replied in discouragement. “Not exactly the answer that makes for a happy Watcher.”
“Don’t worry, Buffy,” Willow said, cheerily encouraging her friend. “If Giles gets cranky and blows up, we’ll all be there right behind you.”
“Yeah,” Xander said, adding his own twist to the red head’s statement. “Way behind you, but behind you.”
Ignoring the signboards warning to stay out, Buffy pushed her way through the swinging doors, her classmates following closely on her heels to offer their moral support. But the teens never made it beyond a few feet within the entry. A collective gasp of surprise rose from the group, their jaws dropping open as five sets of eyes went wide in shock at the sight before them.
There were books everywhere. Of course, that was to be expected. It was a library. But this was not the orderly display of shelved texts they were used to seeing. This was chaos. Dozens of musty volumes littered the worktable in the room’s center. More were piled at the circulation desk. They were stacked on file cabinets, and on top of the card catalogue. It was as if the bookcases had exploded and thrown their contents over the room, the resulting fallout landing in semi-tidy heaps.
“Whoa!” Xander did a three hundred and sixty-degree spin, his astonished gaze taking in the clutter. “Somebody go check on Dorothy and Toto. It looks like a twister hit this place.”
Advancing cautiously into the room, Buffy scanned the disorder surrounding her. There was no sign of Giles, but that didn’t worry her. She figured he was probably up the stacks, or in his office. The lights were on, the computer was fired up and ready for the day’s work, and across the room the book repository cage was unlocked, its door hanging ajar. Through the open slats of the window to Gile’s office she could make out an open book and what looked like a half-empty cup of tea on the librarian’s desk, all reliable indications that the librarian was lurking about somewhere.
“Hey, Giles!” Buffy called out, her voice echoing slightly in the spacious room. She waited for a reply, but none came.
Puzzled, Buffy turned to her companions, looking for some explanation for the silence. Her classmates were confused by the librarian’s lack of response as well, and slowly split ranks to wander about the room as Buffy crossed over to the circulation desk. Dropping her books beside a tall pile of textbooks, Buffy raised up on tiptoe, leaned over the counter to taking a quick peek behind it.
“No Giles here,” she announced to the others.
“None here, either,” Oz said from inside the book cage. He grabbed the lock on the weapons locker, giving it a firm yank. “Still locked.”
“Maybe he just stepped out for a minute,” Willow suggested hopefully. She was standing by the large wood table that dominated the center portion of the library’s open floor. Curiosity soon got the better of the red head, her instinctual urge gather knowledge kicking in, tempting her to explore the piles of books abandoned on the tabletop.
“Oooo!” she squealed enthusiastically. Lifting a small volume from a precariously angled stack, her hand caressed its well-worn edges. “This one looks new.”
“Hate to burst your bubble, Will,” Xander chided. “None of those books is even remotely near what could be considered new.”
“You know what I mean,” Willow pouted. “Not new as in new new, but ‘I’ve never seen it before’ new.” Excited by her find the red head began to leaf through the yellowed pages, scanning through the chapter titles and browsing the paragraphs. “There’s some good stuff in here. Banishing spells, blessings, divination, purification rituals. Hey! Here’s one that increases a man’s, uhm, uh …” Willow’s voice trailed away, her cheeks blushing a vibrant scarlet that outshone her hair. Snapping the diminutive text shut she nervously inserted it among several others in a pile as she squeaked a mortified “Never mind.”
“Guess we know why Giles has been hiding that one,” Cordelia snickered, flashing an astute grin. There was a quick burble of appreciative laugher, then silence as each considered the implications of her comment.
“Eww!” Buffy wrinkled her nose in disgust.
“I second that emotion,” Xander said with a show of his hand.
The teens returned to their search. Climbing the short flight of stairs to the upper level, Buffy proceeded to make her way down one long aisle of bookcases, her classmates following her lead at the opposite side of the room.
“Giles!” Buffy sang in a sweetly, lilting voice. “Here, Giles!”
“Hey, G-Man!” Xander’s call followed the blonde’s, ringing out through the crowded stacks. “Hide and Seek’s over. You win. Ollie, Ollie out’s in free!”
There no answer. As the others continued to converge toward the back of the room, Cordelia took up a position at center front. A frown creased her brow, her expression one of complete boredom. Hands on her hips, she impatiently tapped a designer shod foot.
“Enough with the searching already,” she grumbled irritably. Sucking a deep breath into her lungs, Cordelia released a shout that was heard by several students passing by in hallway outside. “Giles, if your sorry British butt is anywhere in this room, you’d better haul it out here where I can see it, and fast!”
From a far corner of the room came an answering crash. Instantly Buffy was off, sprinting down the narrow row of books, heading for the source of the loud noise. Skidding around a corner she came to an abrupt halt, her path blocked by a tall ladder leaning against the back wall. Within seconds Oz, Xander and Willow arrived, each popping out from a different row of books.
“What happened?” Xander asked. He was panting lightly from his run. “I heard something fall.”
“It sounded like books,” Willow added. “Lots of ‘em.”
Buffy nodded, her finger directing their eyes toward the ground in front of them. Several dozen large, weighty books lay scattered on the floor, upended at various angles, their musty pages rustling like brittle bones as they fluttered back into place. But that was not what had captured the teens’ attention. Sprawled on his stomach, lying amid the mound of dusty tomes was a small boy of about eight or nine years of age.
Willow was the first to snap out of her daze. Dropping to her knees she began removing the heavy books that had fallen atop the child.
“Are you okay?” she fussed, her sensitive features creased by a worried frown. The youth groaned, struggling to sit up. A pair of glasses dangled askew across the bridge of his nose, and Willow extended a friendly hand to help adjust their precarious purchase. The boy suddenly became aware of the group gathered around him. His head jerked back, and a flash of panic filled his eyes as he stared at the four teens. Scrabbling backward across the floor he beat a hasty retreat, withdrawing until his back was pressed against the wall of books behind him.
“Hey, easy there, little fellow,” the red head crooned, trying to calm the child. “It’s okay. Don’t be afraid. Nobody’s going to hurt you. My name’s Willow,” she said, beaming a cheery smile. She gestured toward her companions. “And these are my friends. Oz, Xander, and Buffy. Oh, and that’s Cordelia,” she added as the dark haired teen sauntered up to join them. “What’s your name?”
The boy regarded the teens, his expression wavering between desperation and wariness. Any hopes of a reply became quickly dashed, however, as he turned away, hiding his face behind the thick shock of hair that dropped over his forehead.
Willow’s heart swelled with pity for the little boy. He looked uncomfortable, almost trapped. Realizing that her presence was distressing the youth the red-haired girl quietly backed away to stand with her companions.
“What’s with the little guy?”
Cordelia’s abrupt question sent the skittish youth cringing tighter against the wall. Frowning down at the cowering figure, the tactless teen remained oblivious to the negative reaction her voice elicited in the small child.
“Don’t know,” Oz shrugged. The musician tilted his head to one side, studying the youth curiously. “We found him. Here.” His gaze slid over the books piles on the floor, tracing a path up the nearby ladder to an empty space on the shelf above them. Contemplating the vacant area a few moments Oz expanded on his initial observation. “Looks like he fell. From up there.”
“Probably got knocked down when that sonic boom blasted through a few minutes back,” Xander suggested, eyebrows waggling as he threw a sidelong glance toward his girlfriend. Cordelia shot back a cold, annoyed glare that squelched any further commentary.
Easing herself away from her classmates Buffy approached the youth. Squatting down she brought her face level with his, presenting her best impression of a concerned, kind and caring buddy. Her efforts were rewarded by a quick, furtive glance. That was when she gave him “the smile”. Not a big grin. Nothing forced or fake. Just a genial, unimposing expression promising friendship.
An embarrassed blush colored the youth’s features. Immediately he looked away, hiding once again behind the camouflage of his long, unruly mane. But a second later his shy gaze turned back, his pale eyes flitting nervously behind his owlish spectacles. He blinked, staring at her with anxious apprehension as he waited to see what she would do next.
Smiling encouragement, Buffy used her sweet voice, the one she reserved for talking to cute guys. “I need to ask you a really, really important question,” she began, keeping her tone soft and beguiling. “You see, we’re looking for our friend, Mr. Giles. He works here in the library. Kinda tall, wears glasses, tweed suit and tie. Talks a little funny. Have you seen him?”
Something strange flickered within the boy’s pale, round eyes. An awkward silence drug out between them as Buffy waited expectantly for an answer. As the seconds ticked by she took the opportunity to allow her gaze to wander, unable to resist the temptation to give the little stranger a careful once over with her critical eye.
He wasn’t a very big as kids went, almost runty. She guessed him to be in the second grade, third at most, making his age somewhere around eight. He wore baggy jeans that hung on his slim, angular frame, the loose waistband looking as if it might fall down from his narrow hips at any given moment. His shirt was standard, stereotypical boy-fare; a billowing faded red jersey with a white number eight on its front and emblazoned with the logo of some professional football team. A shaggy mop of brown hair that looked like it hadn’t seen a brush in days was cut in a long, girlish style that haloed a face with pronounced cheekbones and a well-defined chin. Wired-framed glasses accented pale-hued eyes that were lined with lashes thick enough to make any woman jealous, and seemed to shift indiscriminately in color between shades of blue and gray. On his feet the boy wore a pair of scuffed, worn sneakers that had seen better days, and that sported frayed laces tied in huge, loopy bows.
None of these things, however, explained what the boy was doing in the library. And where’s Giles, Buffy wondered? Had he called in sick? He did get kind of banged up the previous night, but no worse than any other times he’d been in a fight with some evil thing or other. Giles was unusually resilient. She’d seen him bounce back from some pretty gnarly traumas, including several nasty head concussions. No, she thought, Giles is around here somewhere. There was no way he’d leave without shutting down the lights or locking the doors. This isn’t like Giles at all.
As Buffy continued to meditate on the whys and whos of the Where Was Giles puzzle, Oz had moved in closer. Hands in his pockets he leaned forward, fascinated by the boy sitting at his feet. A strange, perplexed expression slowly spread across his face as he hovered, scant inches above the crouching child.
The single articulation was uttered in the softest of tones, but the accompanying look on the musician’s face spoke volumes to his fellow classmates. Oz blinked, his eyebrows climbing gradually higher toward his spiky orange-blond haircut. There wasn’t much that could draw an expression from the normally taciturn and tranquil teen, but the genuine surprise that registered on his wide-eyed countenance was plain and clear as it could be.
“You know,” Oz said, his head tipped to one side. “You bear an uncannily striking resemblance to…naaaah!” He shook his head, frowning as he dismissed some impossible thought.
“What?” Willow sensed her boyfriend was onto something.
“Well, normally I’d say it was just some bizarre coincidence,” the musician continued, an eyebrow lifted in reflective contemplation. “But, this being Sunnydale and all...”
Oz examined the youth, his head turning this way and that, scrutinizing him from every possible angle. After a minute he stood upright, his face breaking into a wide grin of amazement.
“Huh!” A restrained chortle accented the musician’s exclamation.
“Ooookaaay! Anyone else here feeling as confused as I am?” Xander asked, motioning for a show of hands among the others. “I think I missed something here.”
“Well, then I’m missing it, too,” Buffy announced. Resting a hand at her hip she confronted Oz, a perplexed pout pursing her mouth. “Okay. What’s the what here?”
Oz looked at the slayer, his response characteristically succinct. “It’s him.”
“Him?” Buffy echoed. Her pout deepened into a frown. “Him who?”
Wordlessly the musician pointed toward the boy on the floor, his gesture allowing the facts to speak for him. For a moment Buffy simply stared, looking from her classmate to the small child, confusion clouding her face. Suddenly it sank in. She gazed down at the youth, and a startled gasp choked from her throat. There it was, plain and unmistakable as it could be. The features were slightly rounder, smaller than she was used to seeing. And younger. Oh boy, she thought, her mind reeling at the realization of what was there before her. Were they ever younger! And by the chorus of astonished noises coming from her companions Buffy knew the others were seeing it, too.
A tiny nervous butterfly sensation flittered inside her as Buffy fell to her knees beside the petite youth. Reaching out a tentative hand, she lay it gently upon the boy’s shoulder. Her head spinning, heart hammering wildly, she looked into a face that was at once strange and familiar to her. Fighting the paralysis that gripped her voice, she forced herself to ask the obvious question, though in her heart she already knew the answer.
Buffy heard her voice quaver as she gulped in disbelief.
“Giles? Is that you?”