CHAPTER FOURTEEN

The California evening sky was vibrant and alive with color, its clouds imbued with the deep golden oranges and blushing pinks of the sun’s setting rays, but Buffy and Xander were not in the mood to appreciate the dazzling display of nature. The duo slunk across the Sunnydale High School grounds toward the main school building, gaining entrance though an unlocked side door. Their presence went unnoticed by the few personnel within the building at that late hour on a Saturday, and the pair silently made their way along the empty corridors toward the library, their hollow footsteps echoing in a mirror of their dejected attitudes.

As they approached the intersection of the hall outside the library doors, Buffy heard the distinctive clattering staccato of high heel shoes. Glancing up she saw Cordelia, Oz, Willow and walking up the hallway toward them from the opposite direction. The musician and his girlfriend had run into the brunette after her appointment, and the comely teen had grudgingly joined the pair in their investigation of the jewelry stores.

The two separate factions met mid-hall, merging into a loose circle, each group intently searching the other team’s faces for some positive sign of success.

“Any luck?” Buffy had a fair idea what the answer was before she’d asked the question, but that didn’t prevent her painful disappointment when Oz shook his head.

“We combed the mall from one end to the other,” Willow pouted, her eyes sadly apologizing. “We talked to every salesperson we found, went in all the jewelry stores and boutiques. We even did the big department stores. Nothing. The whole trip was -”

“The absolute best assignment ever!” Cordelia interrupted in an excited gush. The brunette’s expression sparkled dreamily as she babbled on with her animated narrative. “Wait ‘til you see the great stuff I bought. Lazler’s had these unbelievable garnet earrings on sale. They’re going to look perfect with my new Custo Barcelona. And these shoes?” She modeled a foot shod in elegant, stylish leather. “Gina’s. From Winstead’s. Don’t they just make you drool? And to think I blew you guys off because I didn’t want to get stuck playing Scooby chauffeur. Again.”

“That’s my Cordy,” Xander said, his mouth pinched in a sarcastic grimace. “Never let it be said she isn’t willing to help out her fellow man. As long as it’s not an inconvenience.”

“That’s right,” Cordelia agreed, not comprehending that her boyfriend had just insulted her. “Sitting around looking through smelly, old books isn’t exactly my idea of big, fun times. Maybe Giles gets a thrill out of it. I mean, it’s not like he’s got a life or anything.”

“Gee, Cordelia,” Buffy snipped acidly, glaring at her classmate. “It’s good to know you haven’t lost sight of why we’re doing all this. We’re here to help Giles, not expand your personal wardrobe.”

“Well, excuse me!” the dark-haired girl sniffed. “Can I help it if I’m the only one sees the good lining the sterling silver cloud? For once, things aren’t about monsters biting heads off or the world coming to an end. So, I checked out a few stores that weren’t on the approved list. Big whoop! It’s not like Giles is dying or anything.”

“That isn’t the point,” Buffy countered, her temper rousing.

“And we all know that, Buffy,” Willow said, stepping in to diffuse the approaching fight. “ I think what Cordelia is trying to say, in her own unique way, is that it’s been a long, frustrating day. For all of us. And she was a big help to us at the mall. Wasn’t she, Oz?”

The musician nodded. “The lady definitely knows the difference between her bangles and baubles.”

Cordelia’s self-righteous glower did little to diffuse Buffy’s anger, but the blonde wisely backed down from any further argument. Now was not the time for petty disagreements. They needed everyone’s help, even Cordelia’s, no matter how irritating the brunette was, especially when she thought she was right.

“Guess we’re all feeling frustrated at this point,” Buffy sighed. She threw a somber glance toward the library’s closed doors. “I’m starting to really worry about Giles. This magick thing, it’s…it’s changing him. And I’m not just talking short subject here.” Hesitating, she tried to think how best to put her thoughts. “Giles is starting to get way too in touch with his inner child. He’s acting like an eight year old.”

“Well, duh!” Cordelia snorted, a haughty but unladylike sound. “Isn’t that what he is?”

“That depends,” Oz quietly replied. “Are we referring to the physical limitations of his conditionally diminished age in regard to his actual number of chronological years since his original birth date, or the emotional transmutation of his adult cognizance into that of an actual eight-year old child?” The stunned silence that followed the usually taciturn musicians question prompted a sheepish shrug. “Just trying to make things clear.”

“That’s the problem. Nothing is clear anymore,” the slayer frowned. “Yesterday, when we first saw him, it was like he was regular Giles, only in an economy-sized package. He talked big. He could think big. Everything about him was Giles as we’ve always known him. Well, except for the clothes. And that weird squeaky thing he’s got going with his voice. But, except for that, you could have closed your eyes and everything would have been the same.”

“Is this heading somewhere important?” Cordelia sighed, bored with her classmate’s windy narrative. Ignoring the jibe Buffy continued.

“I figured the sitch was under control. I think we all did. Even Giles. Only, now I’m not so sure that’s the way of it anymore.”

“But he seemed perfectly fine to me this morning,” Willow volunteered as she pushed back her red hair. She leaned into her boyfriend, seeking emotional support in his touch. “Yeah, okay, maybe he’s a little, you know, distracted. But that’s understandable. He’s got a lot on his mind, what with the researching that spell, the amulet, Snyder. Not to mention the demon out at the pond.”

“Giles is kinda spooked about her,” Xander reminded the slayer, his eyebrow arching pointedly in punctuation to his words. Remember how, last night, he was so strung out he -” Stopping in mid-thought, realization began to dawn. “He completely lost it when Buff and I saw that thing and couldn’t describe it to him.”

“Well, sometimes he does get a little cranky about stuff like that,” Willow reluctantly conceded.

“No,no, no! This was different,” Xander protested. “We’re talkin’ way more intense than his usual A-type retentive personality Gilesness. This was a mega blowout. A regular Hell Britania hissy-fit.”

“Xander’s right,” Buffy reiterated. “Giles threw a genuine temper tantrum last night. He was yelling and calling names and everything. Then he turned around and stomped off in this big huff. Never gave it a thought about where we were, or what could be lurking in the woods. He nearly ended up as Vampire Chow.”

“A vampire?” Willow was suddenly very concerned. “There was a vampire, too?”

“Two vampires,” her friend replied. “One of them nearly had Giles, too. Would have if I hadn’t chased him down. The whole thing really wigged him.” Buffy’s tone softened as she remembered how frightened her Watcher had been. “Giles was so scared. He started crying. You guys should have seen him. It was real heart-breaker stuff.”

“Man, no wonder he’s trippin’ off the deep end,” Xander retorted. He began ticking off multiple incidents on his fingers as he named them. “First he gets a wake up call to join the Lollipop Guild in Munchkin Land, then The Big Bad Snyder makes his day a living nightmare. A vampire tries to make a midnight snack out of him. And then some sticky-fingered demoness with an insatiable appetite steals his favorite new toy, and gives him the hungry evil eye to boot. Kid has a day like that and we’re talkin’ one heck of a nightmare in Elm Street dreamland.”

“That’s assuming he was even able to sleep at all,” Cordelia remarked with a sympathetic shudder. “I know I wouldn’t have shut my eyes. I’d be too afraid something ishy would rip them out when I wasn’t looking.”

“Poor Giles,” Willow sniffled, her aroused emotions sensitive to the librarian’s plight. Oz put a comforting arm around her shoulders. “He must have been so disappointed when that spell didn’t work out.”

“And it’s not like any of us has any good new for him,” Xander glumly added.

But it was Cordelia who supplied the most surprising note of sympathy. “We should buy him a present,” she announced. “A fuzzy teddy bear or something. Kids like that sort of stuff.”

“I don’t think Giles has regressed that far,” Oz laconically observed. “He’s still pretty put together. For the moment.”

“Don’t count on it,” Buffy frowned cynically. “When he hears how we all struck out, a visit from Mary Poppins with a two ton truckload of sugar won’t help this bad medicine go down.” She faced the twin round portals in the library door before her. “I guess we should just go in and get this over with.”

With her loyal troop following her lead Buffy pushed her way into the library. By now the gang had come to accept the anarchic shambles Giles made during his research endeavors, and the boy Brit didn’t fail to meet their low expectations. Since their departure the number of books piled around the room had grown twice over. There wasn’t a flat surface in the place that hadn’t been covered with either an open text, or some sheaf of papers filled with Giles’ notes.

They found Giles ensconced at one end of the large study table amid an accumulation of ancient, crumbling publications. Buffy smiled, contemplating the young librarian sitting in his over-sized chair, feet swinging well above the floor, his heels beating out a rhythmic tattoo against the worn legs. He was all hunched forward, a pen clutched tightly in his tiny hand, his childish face scrunched into an expression of deeply serious concentration as he worked.

Buffy’s amusement was short lived, however, for to her surprise, Giles was not alone. There, sitting at the librarian’s side, her arm draped with casual familiarity across the back of his seat was her mother.

“Mom?” Buffy’s voice rose a squeaky, disbelieving octave as she gaped in shock. “What are you doing here?”

Joyce Summers radiated a pleasant smile toward her daughter. “Hi, honey! I thought you and your friends might want a little break, so I brought you some snacks.”

At the mention of edible fare Xander’s food radar kicked into search mode. He quickly spotted the platter nestled among the towers of books on the table, and shouldering his way past his companions, he moved in for a closer inspection.

“Ooooo! Brownies!” The lank teen’s face broke into a hungry grin, his eyes devouring the generous mound of baked treats displayed so temptingly before him. Joyce took one look at the boy’s greed infused expression and she waved an invitation over the bountiful plate.

“Help yourself.”

With unrestrained eagerness Xander threw his body into a chair and helped himself to one of the offered goodies. Inserting a dark, chocolate square into his open mouth he chomped down. As he tore off a big bite and began to chew, his features were overcome by a blissful rapture.

“Mmmmm, fanksh, Mishush Shummmerzh. Theesh‘r rearry goot.”

“You’re welcome, I’m sure,” the older woman translated with a chuckle. She gestured toward the remaining pile of bars. “I brought enough for everyone…I think,” she added, casting a dubious glance Xander’s way as he polished off his first brownie and reached for another. “But you’d better hurry.”

The rest of the Scoobies swarmed the table, creating a noisy grating of chairs against the floor as they quickly settled in. A light buzz of appreciative murmuring accompanied the flash of multiple reaching hands, each claiming a brownie prize for a famished owner. It had been hours since any of them had eaten, and the comforting indulgence of a sugary chocolate treat seemed the perfect thing to help assuage their fractured egos.

Their problems momentarily set aside, the teens focussed on filling their empty stomachs. Thanking Buffy’s mother around mouths filled with gooey cake, all talk quickly ceased, replaced by their approving mumbles and happy, smiling faces. Joyce sat by and watched as the pile of baked goods rapidly disappeared, beaming proudly as her daughter’s voice joined the others in compliment.

As she leaned back in her seat, munching contentedly at her brownie Buffy smiled as Giles hitched himself up on the table’s edge, his short arm stretching out to nab a particularly large square from the plate. It was obvious from the abundant scattering of dark crumbs around his work that this wasn’t the librarian’s first foray to the mountain of cake. The blonde teen suppressed a giggle as the little Brit plunked comically back down in his seat, his eyes shining with undisguised eagerness as he crammed a huge corner of his prize into his wide, gaping maw. But the discrepancy between the size of his open mouth and the amount of brownie he was trying to force inside it created a problem in physical logistics. Giles face became a chocolate smeared canvas, the frosting painting his already grubby features with what seemed to be only the latest in a multitude of sticky sweet layers.

The librarian struggled with the overly generous potion of cake, his face bulging like a cartoon chipmunk. Buffy found herself wondering if her Watcher could actually breathe around the mass of food he was chewing, her thoughts idly reviewing Heimlich maneuver techniques in case they should become needed. Giles remained blissfully unaware of his own personal peril, his head bobbling contently, his overstuffed cheeks straining to keep their contents within. When her mother picked up a paper napkin from a pile near her elbow and began swiping it at the Brit’s frosting smudged face, Buffy held her breath, waiting for Giles to explode. But the little Watcher didn’t miss a beat and continued his masticating, ignoring the woman’s efforts to clean him and accepting her maternal gesture as if were completely natural and expected.

“Mmmm, Buffy.” Giles wiped a hand across his mouth, displacing Joyce’s own as he fought down the chocolate mass inside with an audible gulp. Licking a pink tongue at the excess frosting stuck on his upper lip, he regarded the teen, a hopeful expression teasing his childish features. “Did you turn up anything of interest in your search today?”

An awkward silence fell over the room as he took another bite of his brownie. The five teens exchanged furtive glances, trying desperately to avoid the librarian’s expectant gaze. There was a sudden renewed preoccupation with the food on the table before them as each Scooby made some innocuous noise about how good the brownies tasted, no one wanting to be the bearer of the bad news. Their discouraged masks were enough to alert Giles that something was wrong, however, and he paused in mid-chew, his narrow shoulders sagging as he struggled to stay composed.

“I see,” he exhaled glumly. A moment later he appeared to have recovered, and with a dismissive shrug he bravely made light of his disappointment. “Well, I can’t say as I expected any different. The prospects were slim at best.”

“We’re sorry, Giles,” Willow said, her sincerity ringing deep in her apology.

“I’m sure that you did your best, Willow.”

Giles’ words were understanding and very adult, but they could read his true feelings in the shadow that wrote itself across his youthful features. There was a faintly perceptible trembling in his lower lip, and the blue eyes behind his glasses were blinking, holding back an obvious threat of tears. Watching her little friend’s valiant attempt to remain calm, Buffy felt her heart go out to the young Watcher. He was trying so hard to be brave and mature, and she wanted so badly to help him.

“It’s not like the whole day was a total bust,” she announced, forcing a cheery note to her words. “Xander and I found a vampire nest. Dusted a whole bunch of bloodsuckers. And, we got a name to pin on our heretofore nameless salesman. Waldo.”

“That’s it?” Cordelia muttered, her sarcasm sharp and derisive. “Waldo? What about a last name? Or a business address? You know, something that’s actually useful.”

“It’s more that you came up with,” Buffy snapped back, targeting the brunette with her pent up frustration. The two girls bristled, their earlier argument flaring as if it had never been interrupted.

“Uh, guys?” Willow pleaded with her classmates, playing the temperate arbitrator. “This isn’t helping.”

Her astute assessment was brought painfully home as Giles leapt without warning from his chair, and with a choked whimper bolted off toward his office. As the door slammed shut with a loud rattle the teens were left stunned, their remorse sweeping over them with guilt in the Brit’s hasty retreat. Sighing, Cordelia slumped back in her chair and shook her head.

“Definitely should have bought him a teddy bear.”

“I think Giles has moved beyond the cutesy stuffed critter stage,” Xander noted. Through the window separating the main library from the inner office they could see Giles sitting at his desk, hunched forward over its surface, his head buried in the crossed fold of his arms. I’d say we’re looking at the live cuddly puppy phase by now. Do they allow pets where he lives?”

Joyce stepped in with a concerned maternal reprimand. “That’s the last thing Rupert needs.” Taking in the circle of anxious faces around her, she softened the edge of her lecture. “I know you’re all worried about him,” she said, her gaze meeting her daughter’s. “I am, too.”

Returning her parent’s declaration of solidarity with a pensive smile, Buffy leaned an elbow on the table before her. “So, in your expert mom opinion. The truth. Do you think Giles is going to be okay?”

Joyce stared through the window at the young Brit. He looked thoroughly miserable, wallowing in his self-imposed exile. It was difficult to believe the small librarian had ever been an adult, and wasn’t anything more than the lonely, sad child he appeared to be at that moment.

Reaching across the table Joyce took her daughter’s hand. “The truth? I really don’t know, honey. Rupert is having certain problems. He can’t seem to keep himself focussed.” She leaned forward, including the others in her announcement. “When I came in earlier, he was…” Joyce hesitated, as if unsure she should betray some important confidence.

“What? Giles was what?” Exasperated with impatience Buffy prompted her mother to continue.

“He was playing.”

“Playing?” Buffy frowned at her parent. As secrets went, this one hardly seemed worth the drama with which it had been revealed, and she would have shrugged it off as mere protective maternal instincts stuck on pre-menopausal over-drive were it not for the paper her mother had slipped across the table to her.

A strange weakness gripped Buffy as she stared down at the page, her chest constricting tightly around the pounding thump of her heart. She was looking at Giles’ notes. Part of the paper contained a loose, childish scrawl, incomplete sentences full of nondescript content that made little sense. But what alarmed her more was the drawing beneath the words. It filled the remainder of the page, the lines firm and detailed with expressive imagination. Two figures, locked in fierce battle, fleshed out in gory minutiae, the obviously female combatants were rendered in dramatic postures worthy of comic book honor. One figure had her hair pulled back in a neat ponytail, the other sported medusa-like tresses that ended in huge droplets of water spraying off in a spiraling fan. Several scallop-waved horizontal bars intersected the fighters at mid-body, with the addition of several randomly placed fish shapes that emphasized the pairs’ position as being immersed in a body of water. A huge, round moon filled the sky above the character’s head, and dozens of crooked stars floated in an elliptical orbit, forming a magical halo around the pony-tailed girl.

“It-it’s me,” Buffy said, her voice catching in awed wonder as the turned the picture for the others to see. Her classmates stared at the drawing, their expressions sliding through a quiet gamut of emotions that ranged from mild amusement to outright bewilderment.

“Yup, that’s definitely you,” Xander agreed. “Or, possibly, Lara Croft.”

“How can you tell?” Cordelia challenged. She frowned critically at the child-like rendition. “They both look like they’re having a bad hair day.”

“No, I think Xander’s right. That one’s Buffy,” Willow giggled, pointing at the pony-tailed figure. “See? There. In her hand. She’s got Mr. Pointy.”

They all leaned in for a closer inspection. Sure enough, one assailant held what looked to be a short, twisted stick in her hand, and she was stabbing her foe with its sharp tip.

“At least this time it looks like I’m winning,” Buffy chuckled wistfully, setting the drawing back on the table. She sighed. “Last night I didn’t do so good.”

“All a matter of perspective,” Xander countered. He gave the blonde an encouraging waggle of his dark eyebrows. “The way I see it, any battle you can walk away from is a good battle, and I offer myself as living proof of a fight well fought. And allow me to stress the living part most gratefully. In this guy’s humble opinion, you still reign as the undisputed champion slayer of Sunnydale. You da man, Buff!”

“Rupert seems to have quite a high opinion of you, too,” Joyce teased. Embarrassed by the compliment, Buffy blushed, her bolstered ego taking flight. It was nice to know that Giles had such confidence in her slaying abilities. The Brit had always been reserved, couching most of his praise with soft-spoken respect within the context of their mentor and student relationship. And though she appreciated the occasional verbal pat on the back when it came, she realized that the sketch was a true indication of how he thought of her, and that he believed in her more than he’d ever dare to let on.

With a bored roll of her eyes Cordelia dismissed the attention that had fallen upon her blonde classmate. “Yeah, yeah. Everybody thinks Buffy’s the greatest thing since the invention of no-clump mascara. What are we going to do about Giles? Little Mister Michaelangelo isn’t going to be much help any more in the research department if all he can do is draw monster pictures.”

“Cordelia’s right,” Buffy grudgingly admitted, her frown a twisted testament to the distaste of her confession.

“I am?” The brunette perked up, sitting taller in her chair. She threw a haughty gloat around the table. “I am,” she repeated, more confidently this time.

“We can’t depend on Giles to do all this,” Buffy said. She waved a hand over the clutter of textbooks around them. “Not alone, anyway. He needs us. Now more that ever. And not just to do research.” The teen met her mother’s gaze, reading the approval in her eyes. “Giles needs us to look out for him. I think one of us should stay with him at all times till this thing is over.”

“Oh, joy!” Cordelia snipped sarcastically. I’m demoted from designated chauffeur to baby sitter for a pint-sized nerd. And spare me the ‘we all have to do our bit for the greater good of the Scooby collective’ spiel. I didn’t say I wouldn’t put in my two hours of enforced unpaid daycare duty. But I want you to know I’m not doing it because you say I have to. I’m doing it for Giles. ‘Cause he’s, well, little, and…God, help me, he’s actually kinda cute. In a pathetic, loser sort of way. Oooo, I just hate this!” she grumbled in self-loathing exasperation. “I’m starting to sound like you guys. When Giles grows up again, he owes me big time. I’m thinking catered lunches, at least a week’s worth. And a lifetime pardon from all library fines.”

Xander chortled under his breath. “Just imagine what she’d charge if she had to change his diapers.”

“Believe me, he couldn’t afford it. Not on his salary,” she huffed, her arms crossed in front of her with defiant finality.

Shifting in his chair, Oz calmly regarded the faces around him. “I take it we’re all pretty much in agreement on this issue then. We’ve officially adopted Giles.” Everyone nodded concurrence, including Joyce.

“I’ll help,” the older woman offered. “I do have some prior experience in this sort of thing. I like to think I didn’t do too bad a job my first time out. Besides,” she smiled, sliding a pointed glance toward her daughter. “I hear that boys are much easier to raise than girls.”

With a gentle laugh Buffy gave a toss of her blonde head toward Giles’ office. “Something tells me you’ll have your hands full with that one,” she snickered.

In his office Giles had apparently recovered from his earlier emotional upheaval and was sitting at his desk, reading from some fat, ancient volume. With the book carefully balanced upright on its edge before him the librarian leaned forward on his elbows, chin cupped in both hands, his glasses halfway down his nose as he concentrated intently on whatever he was reading. Suddenly, Giles sat up, and bouncing in his seat he grabbed the desk, then launching off with a vigorous push, sent his chair spinning around in a dizzy circle to the accompanying squeaky protest of several severely tested swiveling gears

“Buffy Summers?”

The genteel, cultured voice brought Buffy back from her amused reverie. She had been so preoccupied watching the librarian’s antics that she hadn’t heard the doors behind her swing open. No one had. As a curious, wary silence fell over the room the group seated at the table turned around to see who had walked in on their discussion.

His ebony black cane lightly striking the floor, a strange man approached from across the room, moving uninvited toward them. He was of medium height and build, with the barest beginnings of a paunch at his middle that his tailored gray suit disguised very effectively. His non-descript features were in no way what one would think of as drop dead handsome, but they possessed a certain attractiveness of character that came with graceful aging. For the man was obviously well into his sixties, having a definite grandfather-like quality that was underlined by his silvery hair and a pale, trim mustache on his upper lip. In contrast his eyes were dark and piercing, untouched by the age that had defined the rest of his body, and they regarded the gathering before them with polite expectation.

“Are you Miss Buffy Summers?” the elderly man repeated. He had turned his full attentions on the young blonde, positioning himself at her side. In the distinct clipped preciseness of his words was an accent that Buffy found at the same time alarming and familiar. Dumbstruck, the teen found that she could only nod in reply to the man’s query.

“Ahhh! Very good, then.” Stepping closer the stranger leaned forward slightly, his carriage poised and regal as he balanced his weight on the decorative silver handle of his cane. “If I might have a small moment of your time, there is a matter of some importance that I would like to discuss with you, Miss Summers.”

Buffy frowned at the stranger, her curiosity swiftly shifting toward annoyance. “And you are?” she challenged.

“Oliver P. Dodd,” he replied, a brusque ring of authority in his no-nonsense voice. “You’re new Watcher.”

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