CHAPTER TWELVE

Saturday morning dawned bright and sunny with only the delicate fluff of an occasional cloud to break the serenity of the sky’s endless azure expanse. But as promising as the new day appeared outside, within the walls of the Spanish-style condo Giles’ mood remained dark.

The Watcher's night had been filled with fearful and horrible images, his dreams reflecting an increased frustration and feelings of woeful inadequacy. It was well past his usual hour of rising when Giles finally managed to force himself to get out of bed. For a brief interlude he harbored the dim hope his situation had miraculously resolved itself overnight, but one look in the bathroom mirror told him otherwise, and he sighed, his disappointment descending in a cloaking gloom once again. Nothing had changed.

Scavenging through his wardrobe, Giles searched in vain for something he could wear. Of course, none of his usual clothing fit, and so, he found himself once again contemplating the outfit he had worn yesterday. The mud on his jeans had dried overnight, and a vigorous brushing removed the worst of the stains. A few minutes with needle and thread repaired a ripped pocket, and the small tear across one knee. Judging the results maginally acceptable, Giles slipped on the trousers, and then turned his attention next to grime embedded jersey.

One look at the bedraggled shirt, and Giles realized that it was unsalvageable. It would require a run through the laundry with a generous amount of detergent before he pronounced the hopeless material fit to put on his clean body. Digging through his drawers again, he came up with an adult-sized sweater that he thought might do in an emergency, which was pretty much where he sat at the moment, fashion-wise. Pulling the over-sized top over his head, he arranged the gaping folds around his petite form, rolling the sleeve ends back several turns to free up his hands. The effecting fashion statement was dramatic, but he decided it was no worse than some of the strange styles he'd seen on the students at school. Finally, he rescued his scuffed sneakers from under his bed, and tying the frayed laces in over-sized loops, he bounced down the stairs and out of his apartment, slamming the door behind him as he went.

It was past nine o’clock when he started off for the library. He ran the entire way, arriving at the school campus in a matter of only minutes, his short legs easily leaping every obstacle that dared to stand in his path. As he approached the parking area he could see the teens gathered outside the library’s back entrance, and with a burst of energy he charged up the walkway, racing toward them. He skittered to an abrupt halt just short of the group, nearly falling over in his rush to greet them.

Reaching into his pocket Giles dug out his ring of keys to let them into the building. He was surprised by the intensity of his joy at seeing the friendly faces that crowded around him. The five teenagers had sacrificed their Saturday to come and help him work. Touched by their display of selfless generosity, an unconscious grin found its way across his youthful features as he fed his key into the stubborn lock.

“About time you showed up,” Cordelia grumbled, her glare immediately cutting short any further feelings of elation. “I’ve been waiting here for a whole hour. Where have you been?”

“Sorry,” Giles apologized contritely. “I lost track of the time.”

“I bet he overslept,” Buffy smirked, flashing an impish look at her small Watcher. “Guess it’s my fault. Next time I won’t keep you out so long past your bedtime.”

Giles ignored the snide remark. Instead, his attention was riveted on the pink bakery box that Willow held in her arms. Seeing his interest, the redhead opened the lid with a grand flourish, revealing a generous supply of doughnuts inside, each lined up in a tightly packed row according to their variety.

“We got lots of your favorites,” she announced with a cheery beam. “The kind with jelly in the middle.”

“Nothing like a nutritionally depleted helping of empty fat and carbohydrate calories to start the day off right,” Xander chuckled sagely. “A couple of these should fix that hypoglycemic hangover and put the ol’ zipp-a-dee-dooda back in your day.”

Fumbling with the key, Giles unlocked the library’s back entrance. With a grunt he pushed the heavy door open, and flipping on the lights, proceeded the teens into the building. He led the troop through the tall rows of bookcases, down the short flight of stairs toward the large wood table gracing the open floor of the main lower level. There he clambered up into one of the empty chairs and waited impatiently for the others to join him.

A noisy clattering and scrape of chairs filled the room as everyone found a seat and settled in. Willow had no sooner placed the doughnuts on the table than Giles was up again, standing on his seat, and stretching across the table with a greedy hand to reach into the box. He frowned thoughtfully, considering the contents for a moment before selecting a plump jelly-filled round dusted with white powder. Hunger pushed aside any guise of manners as he ripped off a big bite. His mouth stuffed with sugar-laden sweetness, he plopped back into the chair beneath him as the others looked on with various expressions of wonder.

It was as if he’d set off a signal. A flurry of hands reached out to snatch up their respective preferences from the pink box. Within seconds the stash of doughnuts had been significantly diminished, and the muffled noises of satisfaction that arose from around the table served as the only communication for some time.

“What’s on the agenda for this morning?” Buffy asked between ravenous bites.

Giles attempted to reply, but found himself unable to make even the barest of intelligible sounds around the doughy cud that filled his mouth. Swallowing the lump with a loud gulp, he pretended to ignore Willow's giggles as he swiped a hand across his face, and brushed away the sprinkling of white powder that coated his chin.

“Damnable icing sugar,” he pronounced, coughing sheepishly. “Get’s everywhere.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Cordelia sniffed. “Can we get started already? Some of us have lives we’d like to get back to.”

Dropping his doughnut to the table, Giles licked his fingers and then scrambled down from his seat. With a buoyant skip he crossed to the caged area that functioned as both book repository and weapon’s lockup. Producing his key ring again, he unlocked the steel wire door, and stepping inside, pulled several volumes from a bookcase, bringing them over to the teens waiting at the table.

“Willow, why don’t you look through the section on magicks to see what you can find. Cordelia and Oz can help you.”

As the trio went off to do his bidding, Cordelia rolling her eyes in a show of bored compliance, Giles circled the table and handed the pile of books he had already collected to his slayer.

“Buffy, you and Xander can start with these.”

“Is this it?” Buffy frowned. The meager assemblage of publications wasn’t all that impressive. It wouldn’t take them long to get through the small stack. “We’ve got this thing under control,” she said, smiling at Xander.

“I’ve a few more volumes in my office,” Giles informed her. “Xander, if you’ll please come with me?”

Unfolding from his seat, Xander followed the small librarian across the room. Watching the pair vanish into Giles’ private office, Buffy selected a book from the pile before her and settled back into her chair with a cocky “Bring ‘em on!”

Opening the yellowed pages the teen began to flip through the table of contents, her eyes scanning the tiny, faded print. As she turned the volume's brittle leaves, a fine cloud of dust arose to tickle her nose, and she fought back an involuntary sneeze.

Ignoring the persistent warnings of her air passages, she continued on, wading bravely into the first chapter. A strained grunt resounded from across the room, and glancing up, she saw Xander weaving unsteadily toward her, his gangly arms burdened with an impossibly tall tower of ancient texts.

The dark-haired teen staggered drunkenly up to the table. With a loud, relieved sigh he dumped his heavy stack beside her with a thunk that rattled the reading lamps at the table’s center.

Buffy's gaze traveled to the approaching librarian, who carried yet another prodigious armload of dusty tomes. As he placed these beside the now full-grown collection of literary material, the slayer ran a critical eye over the expanded assemblage before turning her pout upon her Watcher.

“Anyone ever explain to you what the concept of‘a few’ actually means?” she grumbled tersely.

“But wait!” Xander proclaimed, his voice ringing with all the exaggerated enthusiasm of a late night TV infomercial announcer. “There’s more!”

“More?” Buffy gulped, looking at Xander with cringing trepidation. Her classmate nodded, and with a groan, the blonde slumped down into her chair. “I should have known better,” she intoned with a resigned wail toward her Watcher. “When it comes to books, you’re definitely not a lacker.”

“I am a librarian,” Giles reminded her, his dry stare finding her over his ever-drooping spectacles.

Returning from the stacks, Willow, Oz and Cordelia each brought with them a half dozen or more books, adding the new selections to the increasing piles. With a irritable grimace Cordelia tossed her contribution onto the table and sank dejectedly into a chair.

“This is going to take all day,” she muttered.

“Then, let’s get started,” Willow cheerfully directed.

Pulling up a seat, she grabbed the top book from her pile and began to thumb through it. Oz took his place next to her, and following her studious cue the others slid in around the table, choosing their own volumes to peruse. Soon everyone was busily searching for the one passage that might bring an end to the librarian’s youthful tribulations.

Over the next hours the group immersed themselves in the inexhaustible supply of books. They tracked down every remote reference they could lay their hand on, gradually emptying shelf after shelf of Giles’ private occult athenaeum. Around noon there were signs of increased restlessness among the researchers. Raging appetites had asserted themselves over rapidly fading attention spans. The box of doughnuts had been depleted, and a suggestion was tabled that someone should make a food run. Oz and Xander volunteered, and Giles provided funding. Consulting everyone for ideas the boys took off, returning in short order with a plentiful cache of munchies and take out from the nearest fast food restaurant. The group pushed aside their work in favor of the bountiful, if not nutritiously wise repast, and grazing through the bags of greasy food, set about replenishing their ravenous stomachs.

As the food disappeared the atmosphere in the library relaxed. Tidbits of gossip were squeezed between bites, and for a while, their worries and work were forgotten. But when the snacks ran out, responsibility prevailed itself once again on their consciousness’. Renewing their research efforts they settled in for another few hours of book browsing. At one point excitement bubbled hopefully when they thought they had discovered a promising spell. Giles raided his office for supplies, borrowing an ingredient or two from the science lab. Willow was called upon to perform the accompanying ritual, and though she followed the instructions carefully and read the incantation without flaw, the thick blue soup the amateur witch ended up with looked less than encouraging. Giles nonetheless gamely consumed the viscous liquid, but nothing happened. Using the remaining supplies Willow whipped up a second batch and they tried again, this time applying the goo like a salve. Within minutes Giles broke out into a rash that sent him fleeing to the showers of the boy’s locker room for relief. There he scrubbed off the offending material before it could do any further damage, and then returning to the library, scratched his way through the next few hours as the Scoobies continued on with their research.

“This is totally useless.”

An uncomfortable round of stares from the other teens at the table met Cordelia’s announcement. Her defiant returning glare dared one of them to refute the obvious.

“Cordy, we talked about this last night,” Xander calmly explained, his eyes nervously darting around the table in his embarrassment for his girlfriend’s bluntness. “We both agreed it would be a good thing to help Giles. Remember?”

Giles sighed, pushing away his own volume as he took off his glasses and rubbed wearily at his face. “Perhaps Cordelia is right. This is getting us nowhere.”

“Then I can leave?” The brunette smiled hopefully, and Giles nodded. “Great!”

Relieved of her obligation, Cordelia quickly gathered her belongings. Without anything further to say than a curt “good-bye”, she breezed out of the library, leaving Xander to apologize for her behavior.

“You know Cordelia,” the teen shrugged, grinning sheepishly at the small librarian. “She’d keep the Grim Reaper on hold if she had something important scheduled. Important meaning having to do with her.”

“I’m starting to get an itch in my feet, too,” Buffy admitted. She closed the book before her with a muffle snap of dust. “Maybe it’s time we changed our tactics and went out looking for our sorcerer friend. Anyone else up for a game of ‘Hunt and Go Seek’?”

There was an enthusiastic show of hands from everyone at the table, including Giles.

“Sorry, Charlie,” the slayer gently admonished her young Watcher. “But someone has to stay behind and coordinate incoming calls. You just volunteered.”

“Why me?” Giles argued petulantly. “Anyone can do that. How about Willow? Or, Xander?”

The eagerness in her Watcher’s childish expression was truly endearing. He really wanted to help, and Buffy felt besieged by guilt at having to tell him no.

“Look, we need you to keep with the research,” she said, trying to find an angle that would give her an easy out. “I was counting on you come up with something on this Rusalka thing.”

“And again, Willow is quite capable,” the Brit countered, a slight pout pursing his lips. He was beginning to sense something was behind the teen’s insistence other than her admiration of his superior skills at library work. “Need I remind you, I am one of the only two persons here that can identify this man.”

“I really don’t think anyone’d have trouble recognizing this guy,” Buffy snorted, dismissing his claim. “The guy’s not easy to miss,” she told her companions. “Think Pee Wee Herman meets the Man from Plaid.”

Willow nodded. “We’re looking for a colorful character, then.”

“Total Crayola Fashion statement,” the blonde rejoined.

“Got it.”

“So, where do we start?” Xander queried. “What’s the drill?”

“I thought you and I might begin with a visit to our favorite snitch,” Buffy replied. “Instinct tells me this guy hangs with Willy’s kind of people. The non people sort of people.”

“We can do the Good Cop, Bad Cop bit,” Xander said, immediately warming to the idea. “I’ve been itching for a chance to try out my T. J. Hooker routine.”

“If he’s a die-hard salesman, he’s probably been to some of the legit places around town, too,” Oz interjected. “Willow and I can check out the jewelry stores, walk the mall, find out if he’s been seen anywhere.”

“Good idea,” the blonde reiterated. “Everyone got their assignments?”

There were nods all around, and though she noticed Giles responded with reluctance, he gave her no further arguments about staying behind.

“Then we’ll meet back here. Say around sixish?" the slayer announced. "That gives us…” She glanced over her shoulder at the clock on the wall. “Not a whole lot of time. So, let’s get this party started.”

The four teens sprang into action. Pairing off into couples for their self-appointed tasks, the inspired sleuths filed out of the library amid a chorus of noisy chatter, already deeply engrossed in a conversational diatribe. Sitting alone at the table, Giles watched them leave, the quiet slowly settling in around him with a tomb-like stillness. For a brief moment he was tempted to abandon his books and run after the group, but he realized that Buffy had been correct in her assessment. He could best serve their efforts by staying out of harms way.

Setting aside his disappointment, the young librarian breathed a wistful sigh, and pulling a large, thick book from the stack in front of him, flipped it open to once again resume his solitary studies.

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