CHAPTER NINE

Buffy quickly sized up her competition.

They were a hungry looking pair, both males and definitely on the large side. The first was a longhaired beast. Standing six feet tall he was dressed in full hippie costume, right down to the authentic love beads and peace symbol hanging on a chain around his neck. He looked about twenty, or at least he had been that young before his change. Buffy guessed the creature had been around when the sixties were in full swing and the tie-dye look was the newest fad among those who were tuning in and dropping out. His sidekick, however, was a different beast altogether. Outfitted in a well-tailored suit, the vampire had undoubtedly been financially well off in life. His considerably fashionable wear pegged him as a recent addition to the league of undead gentlemen, and by far the more superior specimen of the two. Middle-aged and taller by at least four inches, this second creature outweighed his gaunter hunting companion by a good thirty pounds. Both monsters were muscular in a physically threatening sort of way, especially decked out as they were in full vamp face. The surrounding darkness made them look doubly vicious, but Buffy took their intimidating appearance in stride, confident that she could handle the pair without any undue trouble.

The first vampire growled, charging at the librarian, his hands outstretched toward the boy’s throat. Giles barely had time to notice his attacker before Buffy intercepted the creature’s assault. Snatching hold of its shirtfront, she swung the vamp in a wide circle, hurling it back at his advancing companion. The two vampires collided with a thud of undead flesh, falling in a snarling heap of limbs on the pathway. Scrambling to their feet again, they glared menacingly with their yellow eyes burning brightly, angry at the petite blonde that had dared to interrupt their intended meal.

“Well, if it isn’t Felix and Oscar,” Buffy observed wryly, facing the strangely matched pair. “The original odd couple.”

“You should talk,” the hippie sneered in return. “Isn’t your boyfriend there a little on the young side?”

“Him?” Buffy nodded toward Giles standing unguarded in the center of the open path. “He happens to be a lot older than he looks. Things aren’t always what they seem. Take me, for instance.” The two vampires were slowly creeping toward her as she spoke, but Buffy remained unconcerned. “I bet right now you’re thinking ‘two of us, one of her’. Picnic in the park. Think again, Woodstock!”

Breaking into a run Buffy charged the hippie, flipping into a handspring that sent her heels over head. Her feet slammed solidly into the creature’s chest, sending him stumbling backward from the force of the blow. She swiftly tucked, somersaulted past his reeling body, and springing upright onto her feet again she spun around, her leg kicking out to strike the beast squarely in its back. The momentum of the impact reversed the direction of the creature’s fall and toppled him, sending him sprawling facedown on the pavement. In a flash the second vampire was on her. She met him with several hard punches to the head, but he managed to get in a few good knocks of his own. One of them struck her sore shoulder, causing her to wince in pain. She hesitated, but only briefly, steeling herself against the discomfort before renewing the vigor of her attack. Gradually she beat the creature back with an impressive succession of kicks and hand jabs. Whipping around in a final windup spin, she delivered a powerful boot to the vampire’s kidney, and the beast doubled over, clutching his side as he roared in agony.

Its venomous temper aroused, the suited vampire staggered backward as it recovered. Pride as well as hunger would not allow it to admit defeat at the hands of a mere mortal female. Lowering its head, the creature barreled forward with a vicious growl, rushing the blonde like a varsity tackle. Buffy waited until the last possible moment, and leaping into the air, slashed her right leg outward, smacking the beast in its monstrously deformed face. There was an unmistakable crunch of bone as her shoe made contact. The sound was sickening in its destruction, yet somehow satisfying to hear. Retracting her leg she landed lightly on both feet again and immediately wound up for another kick. Twirling around in a graceful spin she let loose another whack with her heel, knocking her thoroughly stunned vampire foe onto its back.

Reaching into her pocket, Buffy pulled out a wooden stake. In a single fluid motion she knelt forward, impaling the creature with her pointed weapon. The demon bared its broken fangs at her in a final threatening gesture, then dissolved into a cloud of decaying dust, its undead remains scattering on the breeze, lost amid the debris that littered the forest floor.

Buffy rose to her feet and turned to face the other vampire. She found him cowering several yards away at the path’s edge, an expression of genuine shock on his hideous face. He had made the mistake of thinking Buffy to be an easy meal, but after seeing how efficiently she had dispatched his hunting companion the vampire was beginning to realize he had made an unwise choice. The blood hunger he felt was strongly compelling, but his instinct to survive was greater. Having no desire to end up as a pile of dirt like his ex-partner, the undead creature cautiously held back on the impulse to attack, and instead began to back slowly away.

“Hey, Bead Boy!” Buffy taunted the hippie. She jauntily flipped the stake in her hand end over end in the air, catching it with a smart snap in her palm. “Looks like you’ve got some bad karma about to come your way.”

The vampire glowered darkly. There was an unmistakable look of fear in the creature’s evil eyes. And it had plenty of reason to be afraid. It was Buffy’s intention to deal with this vampire the same way that she had his unfortunate comrade. Bristling like a cornered animal, his escape route obstructed by the determined slayer, the demon watched in fear as the blonde confidently advanced toward him. But Buffy had forgotten one small detail in her plan, and that was Giles. The librarian hadn’t moved during the entire battle, and stood exposed, alone in the center of the path between the retreating hippie and the cover of the dark forest beyond.

A tiny shift of motion beyond her prey alerted Buffy to Giles’ perilous position. But before she could yell out a warning, the vampire turned and made a run for the trees. She watched in horror as the creature headed straight for Giles, who seemed to remain completely unaware of the danger charging down on him so swiftly. Long, gangly legs easily chewed up the short distance, the vampire gaining speed with each successive step. A dread panic gripped Buffy and she sprang into action, her own feet bounding across the ground as she called out an alarm to the librarian.

“Giles! Look out!”

The Brit’s eyes opened wide, his mouth dropping open in a mute scream as he saw the vampire coming at him. Bracing himself for the oncoming attack, he raised his clenched fists in a defensive posture. Giles was no stranger to fighting. He’d taken on his share of vampires in the past, had even staked quite a few successfully. As Buffy’s main sparring partner, he had trained her in the use of the various weapons available within the library lockup, refining her skills in both armed assault and hand to hand combat techniques. Giles knew what to do when a snarling beast bore down upon him at breakneck speed. Unfortunately, the librarian had forgotten he was only eight years old. It never occurred to him that as a child he stood little chance against a vampire that was a good two feet taller and more than thrice his weight.

Standing firm, Giles postured, his short legs splayed as the larger creature swooped down in attack. With consummate skill he 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, however, and the monster kept coming, never breaking its stride. He felt a cold whoosh of wind as the hippie brushed by only inches away. He waited, expecting a return blow, but to his surprise the creature snagged his extended arm, nearly wrenching it from his shoulder as he was thrown backward. He never hit the ground. Lifted off his feet with a powerful jerk Giles let out an involuntary yelp, suddenly finding himself in the clutches of the fleeing beast as it continued to thunder onward, making its escape into the woods.

Hearing Giles’ high-pitched shriek Buffy quickened her pace, fearing for her friend’s safety. She nimbly jumped a fallen log, leaping across the wide pathway in two steps, closing the gap between herself and her blood thirsting quarry. With a desperate surge she launched into a one armed handspring, one hand still holding her stake in a tightly closed fist. As her lithe body flipped up and over, flying through the air, her legs caught the hippie’s head in a vise-like grip. The catapulting force of her weight was enough to throw the vamp off balance and it stumbled, its neck and shoulders trapped firmly in the tightening squeeze of her knees. They went down together, Buffy’s free hand grabbing the hippie’s necklace like the reins on a horse. Giles small form was caught beneath them as they crashed to the ground, landing in a wrestling heap of mismatched limbs, and the slayer prayed that the young Watcher wasn’t badly hurt as she listened to his voice screech out in protest from somewhere within the tumbling knot of flesh.

She managed to keep her hold as they continued to roll end over end, snapping fallen twigs and scattering forest debris as they smashed through the woods. Finally, they came to an abrupt halt, colliding against the broad trunk of a tree. Their locked bodies flew apart in three separate directions. Buffy was thrown across the mossy ground, the broken string of beads clutched in one hand, her stake secure in the other. Coming to rest in a patch of fallen leaves, she scrambled quickly to her feet, unhurt and ready for action, her eyes furiously scanning the ground around her for her vampire foe.

He was lying on his stomach a few yards away, motionless and overcome by the impact. She was on him in an instant. Dropping to her knees at his side she plunged her stake into the creature’s exposed back, driving its point deep into the vampire’s unbeating heart. There was an explosion of dust as the vamp became history, and the blonde sat back, taking a moment to catch her breath. Satisfied, she slowly, stretched her aching muscles, and rising to her feet casually dusted the dirt from her clothing as she searched the dark shadows around her for some sign of Giles.

A muffled groaning alerted her to his presence, and followed the sound to the edge of the path she found his small body where it lay sprawled, face up, limbs angled all akimbo across the ground. She couldn’t help smiling as she walked over to her Watcher. With his rumpled clothing and dirt-smudged face the librarian resembled a child more than ever before. 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 and one shoe having disappeared somewhere in the woods during their chaotic tumble. As Giles blinked, staring up at her in confusion, Buffy found it impossible to hold in her laughter any longer.

“You okay down there, Giles?” she sputtered between giggles.

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 a bleeding gash on one forearm as well as several smaller scrapes garnered in his topsy-turvy pratfall. He frowned at his bare foot, his hand reaching up to touch his face in an unconscious gesture to adjust his absent spectacles. Otherwise, he was in reasonably good shape, and recovered quickly from his physical misadventure, drawing his legs beneath him as he struggled to sit up in the damp, moldy debris.

“I say, that didn’t turn out at all as I had planned,” Giles remarked aloud. He had hoped to sound light and nonchalant, but Giles could hear his voice shaking feebly as he fought the large lump that had suddenly lodged itself tightly in throat. He was feeling somewhat distressed by his experience with the vampire, but he vainly attempted to put aside the knot of dread he felt souring inside his gut, forcing a brave face for the slayer.

“What did you expect,” Buffy responded. Reaching down a hand she helped 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.” He managed a weak grin, massaging his sore arm and wincing as he encountered a particularly tender spot. “And rather painfully, I might add.”

Buffy made a sympathetic noise as she gave his scratches a critical eye. “We’ll get you home and put a bandage on that bad boo-boo. Think you can walk?”

Giles nodded and took a cautious step forward. No broken bones. Everything was working as it should. Casting his eye about on the ground around him, he began to search for his missing accessories,

“Do you see my…ah!”

He spotted his sneaker first. Hobbling toward it the Brit grimaced slightly with pain. The immediate shock had worn off and he was fast becoming aware of the smaller bumps and contusions he’d received in his fall. Bending slowly forward, he retrieved his shoe with a laborious grunt. Leaning back against a convenient tree he balanced on one leg, sliding the stained sneaker onto his bare foot again. The operation proved to be a difficult challenge, and seeing his frustration Buffy stepped forward, offering him a hand.

Relinquishing the small task to her gratefully, Giles concentrated on fighting the strange trembling that had begun inside him. An overwhelming rush of emotions plagued him, trying to take control. Holding his breath, he worked to keep his composure outwardly calm. He didn’t want Buffy to see how he was shaking. The unexplained panic that gripped him had his heart pounding, his pulse racing panicked through his veins. It took all his strength to hold back the tears that were gathering in his eyes, and he sniffled quietly, wiping a hand across his face, quickly swiping away the few telltale drops of moisture that had escaped to slide down one cheek.

“There you go.” Buffy said, standing up from her task to face her small Watcher.

Giles had managed to regain some semblance of normalcy, or as much he could possibly muster given his present bewitched condition. Pushing away from the tree, he thanked the teen as he staggered forward, adjusting his step to accommodate the additional weight of his newly shod foot.

“I think these are yours,” Buffy said, picking something out of the dry leaves at her feet. She handed Giles his glasses. They were still in one piece, though one temple was slightly bent, and the lenses impossibly smudged. Giles took a moment to wipe at the grime, using an unsoiled corner of his shirt. He managed a passable job of cleaning his spectacles, and adjusting the battered frames, he slipped them on his face, brushing back the wayward veil of hair that had fallen in his face.

Walking back toward the paved path Giles and Buffy exited the woods. The young Brit was quiet, his thoughts far away. Buffy could sense something was wrong with her friend, and she waited for him to volunteer his story. As the silence lengthened awkwardly between them, she cleared her throat, breaking the spell that held them both tongue-tied.

“We should get Xander. Call it a night, don’t you think?” she asked.

“Yes,” he agreed. “That sounds like an excellent idea.”

Falling into step side by side, the slayer and Watcher retraced their footsteps back toward the pond. Giles retained the faint trace of a limp, but moved along briskly as Buffy kept a vigilant watch on the surrounding woods, checking for any further signs of danger. She wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice. From now on she would keep an eye on Giles at all times. As they marched along, the teen made several attempts to engage her friend in dialogue, but the librarian remained pre-occupied, his attention elsewhere. Buffy found herself wondering what had her Watcher so distracted. 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 on his mind. Giles was brooding, and she suspected it had a lot to do with his newly acquired status as an instant pre-adolescent. Maybe it was time they had that special little chat she tried to start earlier.

“Giles, wait a minute.” They were approaching the break along the path that turned off toward the pond. Giles obediently stopped, waiting for her to continue. “We need to talk.”

“About what?” he asked simply.

“About you, and what just happened. And don’t give me that ‘what about little ol’ me’ innocent look. I’m not falling for it. This may seem like déjà vu all over again, but I can tell something’s wrong. You’ve been through more mood swings than the mother of sextuplets. What’s got into you? Speak, Giles.” As the Briton opened his mouth she promptly cut him off. “And don’t tell me ‘nothing’. I’m your friend. I think I deserve the truth.”

“Yes, you do,” the librarian condescended with a sigh of resignation. “I believe I owe you an apology. Xander, as well. I don’t know what I could have been thinking, or even if I was thinking at all when I said those things I did. I had no cause to criticize you so harshly.”

“It’s this spell thing” she said, dismissing his past transgression with a waving gesture of compassion. “You’re really letting it get to you. Things aren’t really all that bad. I’m sure it’ll all work itself out somehow. Maybe you should look at this experience as a chance to have some fun.”

“Fun?” the librarian sneered bitterly. His gray eyes flashed with incredulous disbelief as he brought them to bear on the slayer. How can you say that? This situation has been nothing but one long impossible nightmare from the moment I awoke to find this!” he snapped, pointing at his youthful features. “Bad simply doesn’t begin to describe the day I’ve had. Try discouraging. Dreadful. Disastrous! Nothing has gone right. Snyder went out of his way to make my life a sheer and utter misery. The man is an insufferable, arrogant poon. He was forever popping into the library with some flimsy excuse or another to check up one me, making sure I was staying out of mischief, he said. Warning me to stay out of trouble, or else. Or else what, I ask. What did the man think I was going to do? Blow up the school?”

“Snyder can be a pain,” she empathized knowingly.

“An understatement if ever I heard one,” Giles grumbled. “I couldn’t turn around without him doling out some tedious warning to ‘stay out of trouble’. He’s a disagreeable, loathsome toad with misdirected delusions of grandeur who drives perverse pleasure from the subjugation of the very innocents he was appointed to serve and guide. When I find the spell that reverses this cursed condition of mine, Snyder is going to be very sorry. I’ll make him rue the day he accepted the position of principal in that school. I’m going to give him what for. He’s…”

“Hey, hey, hey!” She interrupted the escalating tirade, cutting him short. “Easy, boy. Simmer down. Enough already with the dire threats. Snyder’s scum. You’ll get no argument from me there. So, forget it and move on. Let’s talk about something else. Like, what’s really been bugging you.”

“I don’t know as I can answer that,” Giles pouted, ruminating pensively. “It’s not as if there is any one thing in particular. I suppose it’s everything. The magick, Snyder, being small,” he gruffed, wincing distastefully at his own admission of inadequacy. ”This blasted body can’t do anything I want it to. I feel so bloody helpless.”

“You’re just bummed because of what that vamp did to you,” she philosophized sympathetically.

“Don’t you mean what he could have done with me,” Giles corrected her. “I couldn’t stop him, and if you hadn’t been there…” The quaking began again as he considered what might have happened without the slayer’s timely intervention.

“But I was there, Giles. And nothing happened,” she comforted, placing an arm over the agitated Watcher’s shoulder. “Maybe you got a little bruised here and there, but you’ve gotten knocked around a lot worse and lived to tell the tale.”

“I realize that,” Giles sighed, keeping his face down as he blinked back an escaping tear. A tidal wave of emotions inundated him, forcing out a strangled sob, the noise catching him completely unawares.

“Hey! It’s okay,” she reassured, giving the librarian a squeeze of encouragement. “A Big, Bad Vampire attacked you. It’s only natural a kid you’re age would be freaked by something like that.”

“But I’m not a kid, Buffy,” he firmly reminded her. Sniffling, Giles pushed the teen away. “I am not some callow, ill-mannered child who needs to go running to his mum because he’s had a bit of a rough knock. I’m a middle aged man who has been taking care of himself quite well for some time now. So-so, why am I -”

Choking back another sob the Brit bit his quivering lip, unable to go on. Sharing a sympathetic smile with her smaller companion, Buffy ventured an explanation.

“Things have changed,” she told the Watcher. “So have you. You’re not big Giles anymore. You’re little Giles. And you just aren’t built to slay vampires. Or anything else,” she added with a musing whisper, her thoughts straying toward the demon in the pond below. Maybe bringing Giles along hadn’t been such a good idea after all. She needed to get him someplace safe, before he got hurt.

As she pondered how best to suggest their retreat to the stubborn Brit, Buffy noticed something wet and glistening on Giles’ face. A trail of moisture running down the curve of one smudged cheek had caught the moonlight. As she stared, a second thin stream of teardrops slid out from beneath the Brit’s glasses, reflecting wetly as it slipped toward his chin. With an empathetic ache her heart tightened within her chest. Giles was crying. Buffy was stunned by the realization of her Watcher’s vulnerability. Was Giles really that scared? She knew that a situation like this would have sent any normal child rushing into their mother’s arms for a warm hug and a kiss. At least, that’s where she would have run for comfort.

Scratch that, Summers. You never faced anything remotely like this, teen or child. And you’re not Giles’ mother. Besides, he probably wouldn’t appreciate being treated like a little kid. Giles is plenty tough. He’ll get through this. Just you wait and see.

Still…

“Giles?"

"Mmmmm, yes?"

"Will you promise me something?”

The small Brit turned to his companion, curious, and waited for her to continue. "Of course. And what would that be?”

“That, from now on, you’ll only go after little monsters.”

Giles nodded, gladly acquiescing to the girl’s inane request with a smile. How could he say no to those impish green eyes that had charmed him so often in the past? Squaring his shoulders, he put on a brave front for the teen, though deep down inside he was still afraid. He was all too aware of the dangers that stalked the streets of Sunnydale. There were ghouls, zombies, vampires, not to mention countless other demons that could strike down the innocent at a moment’s notice. It was one thing to have been a Watcher’s child, knowing these horrible creatures existed somewhere out there in the world. He had drawn comfort from the knowledge that his parents were there to protect him, that they could keep the beasties and nasties away, in life as well as in his dreams. But things were different now, here, in this place, and he had no one to chase away the terror when it came in the night. He was helpless, a child living alone atop an active Hellmouth. Giles wasn’t sure he was prepared to deal with that.

Buffy could sense the shifting insecurity in the librarian’s demeanor. She was worried about Giles. He was changing, becoming more like a real 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 had thought there was an invisible bond between the two of them, some sort of mystical Watcher/Slayer radar that they shared. It wasn’t ESP, or like a Vulcan mind melding. She couldn’t actually read Giles’ mind, and it definitely didn’t help him to understand the way things worked inside her head. But she knew it was there, an ominous nagging whenever something bad came between them, a sort of slayer sixth sense for trouble. And right now it was working on overtime, telling her Giles needed her help.

But realizing something was wrong didn’t mean she knew what to do about it. That was Giles’ department. He was Thinker Guy. She was Action Girl, knocking things down until they didn’t get back up. That was how she handled things. And it had been a good partnership for them both, one that had worked well. But the balance had begun to shift. Everything was falling apart. What had gone wrong? Buffy knew that when she discovered the answer to that question, she would be able to finally help her friend. Until then, all she could do was try her best to keep his spirits up. Considering some of the stuff she had seen recently, the job wasn’t going to be an easy one for her.

Sweeping back a fall of stray hair, Buffy smiled at her Watcher. It was time to take Giles home. At least there she could count on him being reasonably safe. She was pretty sure that even the librarian would admit he had seen enough excitement for one day. Time enough to worry about water demons later. And who knows. Maybe this kid thing would work itself out of Giles’ system, like one of those twenty-four hours bugs.

Giving the Brit a gentle nudge, she directed him toward the overgrown trail that would take them down to the pond below.

“Come on, Little Buddy. Let’s go find Xander.”

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