The frightening emptiness that gripped Buffy spread its aching numbness throughout her gut. Dodd’s callous deposition continued to scream within her dazed mind long after the Watcher had finished his speech. Suddenly every breath was an effort. Each tortured beat of her heart took forever, and felt like it would be her last. With hands clenched in white-knuckle tightness around the arms of her chair Buffy began to shudder, her nails biting into the wood as her sanity fought desperately to maintain it tenuous control.

This isn’t happening. Giles can’t go back to England. He wouldn’t just go off and leave her here alone with some stranger like Dodd! But the library doors continued to taunt her, swinging slowly closed on their silent hinges, a mocking reminder of Giles’ hastily beaten retreat only seconds before. Giles had left in tears, without a single word of protest against Dodd’s cold-hearted sentencing. And he had been afraid. But of what? Or, who? Was it Dodd? Or The Council? She wasn’t sure even Giles knew that. Well, if he wasn’t going to fight back for himself, then it was just going to have to be up to her to do it for him.

“Tell me, Mr. Dodd,” she addressed the elder Brit. “What exactly is your damage? Do you like bullying little kids around and making them cry?”

“I was merely relaying a message, Miss Summers,” the Englishman defended haughtily. “That Rupert reacted in the manner that he did only goes to prove that he does not belong here.”

“Boy, is everyone where you come from as heartless and mean as you?” the teen sneered as she rose from her chair. “No, wait. That can’t be true. Giles hailed from the same little island over there across the Atlantic, and he has a heart. Or, at least he did until you came along and ripped it out!”

“Your immaturity may buy you a certain amount of latitude, Miss Summers, but there is only so much that I am willing to overlook. In our line of work there is no room for such luxuries as maudlin sentimentality. A slayer must by definition be strong, both physically and emotionally. As a Watcher I’m sure that Rupert would heartily concur, and that is undoubtedly the impetus behind his request to the Council for assistance. Even in his presently diminished capacity he must have been aware of his limitations and the strain that they would place on the performance of your duties. Touching as you fealty may be, it is nonetheless misguided. You must set aside these spurious feelings of attachment and focus your energies instead on the task at hand.”

“Lucky for you I have no clue what all that meant,” Buffy grumbled menacingly. “’Cause something tells me if I did, you’d be checking in to the local emergency room about now. Maybe you can function without all those pesky interfering emotions, Mr. Spock, but not me. I’m human. I can’t just turn off my feelings. I realize that must be a disappointment for you. Kinda makes your job a little tougher than you bargained for. Well, that’s the way it is. And if you can’t deal, then maybe you ought to think about looking into a new line of work, Mr. Dodd. I hear the Queen’s looking for someone. They say she has a new opening. In the Tower of London!”

With a curt flip of her head the slayer spun smartly on her heel and stalked away, heading for the library exit. As she slapped a hand against the door and pushed it open, she heard Dodd’s raised voice call out loud and firm to her.

“Where are you going? We still have this matter of the Rusalka to finish, or have you forgotten your duty to humanity?”

Stopping, the door cracked open, Buffy twisted to look back over her shoulder at the man.

“Humanity can wait a couple more minutes,” she tossed back smartly at the Englishman. “Giles I’m not so sure about.” Seeing the Watcher intended to deliver another scathing harangue the teen quickly cut him off. “And don’t bother with the ‘you are the slayer, the fate of the world depends on you’ crap. I know all about responsibility. It’s what I have instead of a normal life. So, don’t go getting yourself all bent out of shape. I’ll get around to the slaying. Later. I know, why don’t you make yourself useful. Research something. That is what you’re supposed to do, isn’t it.” Then, turning to her friends she used a less acid tone and added a jaunty “I’ll be back,” before stepping out into the hallway and letting the door swing shut behind her.

For a moment Dodd stared after the departed slayer, his trim mustache quivering with offended superiority. It was clear to those sitting around the library table that the Englishman was unaccustomed to having his orders brushed aside with such blatant contempt, especially by someone so young. Buffy’s friends, however, knew that the elderly Watcher had gotten off relatively easy. The slayer had spoken her mind, but she had also exhibited what was for her an accomplished degree of restraint. Dodd remained unbruised and alive. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the Brit’s ego, but that was soon remedied as the Englishman set to reversing the teen’s debasement by recapturing his composure and his command of the situation.

“Miss Summers has raised a valid point,” he conceded with a grudging sniff. “Preparedness is fundamental to any mission’s success. Our logical course of action would be to combine our research efforts thus far, pooling our resources and seeing what, if any, new information comes to light.”

His gaze predatorial, the emboldened Brit surveyed the young faces before him. Five pair of anxious eyes returned his stare, afraid to say anything.

“Come now!” Dodd chastised the group. “Surely someone here has something useful to contribute. Frowning, his piercing gaze locked upon Willow as the red head melted down meekly into her seat. “You must be Miss Rosenberg. The Council has heard some encouraging reports about your work here. Perhaps you can begin by telling us what you know about Rusalki.”

Called on the carpet, the budding young wiccan took a shallow, nervous breath, her thoughts praying to an unseen deity, asking for the earth to open up and swallow her within. The ground remained solid beneath her feet, however, and Dodd continued to stare, his pale eyebrow raised, waiting for her reply. There was no escaping her fate. With painful resignation, and a healthy dose of trepidation Willow sat up, and squaring back her shoulders made a pronouncement in the firmest voice that she could find within her.

“Well, I know they can swim…”

Buffy found Giles in the lounge area outside of the cafeteria. He was standing in front of one of the vending machines, rummaging through his pockets in search of some change. A smile broke over her face as she watched the young Brit run a sleeve under his nose, his other hand feeding a handful of coins into the soda dispensing apparatus. There was a loud, musical-like ching as the metal change cascaded down through the machine’s insides, and Giles took a moment to contemplate the selections before him. With exaggerated deliberation he finally pressed one of the buttons. Nothing happened.

Frowning, Giles hit the button again, pushing it harder this time.

Still nothing.

In a fit of frustration the Watcher clenched his small fists into balls, and delivering a series of vigorous punches at the uncooperative machine, unleashed a barrage of verbal explicatives.

“That’s not how it works,” she said, coming up behind the librarian.

Giles turned to look at her, wiping away the wet evidence of his tears. She pretended not to notice the furtive gesture, and gently brushed the small Brit aside.

“Like this, see?”

With her forearm she gave the machine a forceful slam to its midsection and stepped back. After a brief pause there was an answering thump from inside, and a can dropped down with a clunk into the dispensing slot below. Grinning smugly, she plucked the cold container from the tray and handed it over to her Watcher.

Giles examined the can’s label.

“I asked it for a cola,” he protested, frowning petulantly at the colorful proclamation that the container held something other than his choice. The slayer shrugged. “And you got root beer.”

“But, I didn’t want a root beer,” he countered, his childish features pursed with a churlish pout. “I wanted a cola.”

“Giles, deal with it,” the teen sighed in fatalist resolution. Seeing her Watcher’s lip trembling on the verge of another crying jag, Buffy softened her tone and laid a reassuring hand on the small librarian’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, but that’s the breaks, little guy. Sometimes you just gotta accept what life dumps on you. Either that, or you go thirsty. It’s your call. Of course, if you don’t want it…”

She held out her hand to take the soda back. Giles’ pout deepened as he seemed to contemplate her words of wisdom. With a sniffle the Brit opened the can with a sputtering pop and took a sip.

Wandering over to one of the low couches positioned about the lounge Giles sat down, curling his short legs under himself as he took another swig of his drink. Settling in next to him Buffy hesitated, afraid to broach the subject weighing so painfully on both their minds.

“What are you going to do?” she finally asked.

“What can I do?” Giles mumbled, replying between pulls at his soda. “If the Council decrees that I go, I go.”

“You could always not go,” she suggested. “You could flaunt your independence in their British faces. You know, be like the rest of us anarchist Americans.”

“What happened to ‘accepting what life dumps on you’?” the young Watcher quoted.

“I said sometimes,” the teen returned. “This time isn’t just sometime. It’s a different time. And that changes everything.”

“It changes nothing,” Giles replied glumly. He slumped down in his seat, his frustration obvious. “Buffy, if the Council insists, I have no choice but to go.”

“Why? I don’t need a new Watcher, Giles. Just because I’m suddenly taller than you, and your hair doesn’t have a distinguished streak of gray, it doesn’t mean you should have to go back to England. Give me time,” she smiled impishly, reaching out a hand to ruffle his boyish thick mop. “I guarantee I’ll put the gray back in there.”

“I don’t doubt that for a minute,” the Brit chuckled. Smoothing back his rumpled locks he readjusted the glassed on his nose. “But, I’m afraid the Council may be right. There is more to this than simply not being able to act as your Watcher. There are other…considerations.”

“Name me one for instance,” the teen challenged. Giles’ ready reply said that this was something he had been thinking about for a while.

“School,” he said. “I can’t continue to work looking as I do. However unflattering my personal opinions of Principal Snyder’s intelligence may be, the does possess enough gray matter to realize that something is amiss when I fail to show for work Monday. And I can’t expect to continue playing phone tag with him forever. Eventually he’ll ask questions, questions for which there are no reasonable answers.”

Buffy thought about that for a moment. “You could say you had a family emergency” she countered in suggestion. “A sick aunt or something. That should stall him for a while.”

“You want me to lie to him?”

“Well, uh, yeah,” she replied. “And don’t give me that ‘you’re asking me to do what?’ look. We both know it wouldn’t be the first time you’ve resorted to something less than the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And it would only be for a couple of days. Once we find a spell to change you into your regular self you could come back.”

“No,” he sighed, shaking his head. “It simply isn’t a feasible solution.

“So, that’s it?” Buffy pouted disapprovingly at her small friend. “You’re just going to give in? Let the Council tell you what to do?”

“It isn’t as though I have a choice, Buffy.”

“Yes, you do!” she emphatically returned. “You have a very big choice. It’s your life, Giles, not theirs. Tell the Council thanks for the invite, but you’re staying put. Here. With us.”

“Don’t make the mistake of underestimating the Council’s power. By ignoring their recommendation I could be creating impossible problems for you.”

“Right!” Buffy made a rude, dismissive raspberry sound voicing her view on that possibility. “Giles, those guys are six thousand miles away from here on the other side of the world. What are they going to do, send me a postcard saying how upset the are? Bad, bad slayer! No scones for you.” She gave a disdainful snort and pushed back her hair. “Like I care what they think.”

“Alright then,” Giles countered, leaning back. His face took on am almost adult expression as he postulated aloud. “Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that I stay. How do you propose I live?”

“Well, I guess you’d…”

Buffy’s voice died as she frowned thoughtfully at the small librarian. She hadn’t really considered that problem. As she chewed at her lip, mulling it over, Giles continued. “I have some savings set aside,” he offered up in answer to her quandary. “An emergency cushion, if you will. But that will only last so long. I won’t have a job to replenish my funds, and without a salary, how do you suggest I pay for the things I’ll need? There’s food, clothing, my flat.” Giles ticked the items off on his small fingers. “Insurance, heat, electricity, water, power…”

“Alright, alright!” Buffy grumbled grudgingly. “I get it. Money’s a problem. Oooo!” She brightened, her face glowing with self-satisfaction as the solution came. “Mom can help with the cash flow. She’s been saying the gallery’s doing a boom business lately. She could float you a loan to tide you over.”

“Very good,” the Brit acknowledged. Buffy smirked, pleased with herself, but the elation quickly deflated as her Watcher plunged on with his diatribe. “Let us say that you mother’s kindness exceeds my needs, and that by some great miracle I manage to get by. How long do you suppose it will be before outsiders begin to ask questions? I believe that an eight-year old child living alone might attract some attention. What do you suggest I say to the truant officer that knocks me up and demands to know why I’m not in school? Or, where my parents are.”

“So, there’s a few rough edges that could do with some ironing out,” the blonde admitted peevishly. “I’m sure we can work it all out. Just give me some time to think about it.” “Buffy, look at me.” As Giles regarded her with a haunting somberness, she was suddenly struck by how adult the little Brit could still appear at times. “In the eyes of the world out there I’m a child, no more than a boy. Society the way it is today simply won’t allow me to live on my own. And for good reason. The heart and substance of this situation is that I can’t…”

The librarian suddenly faltered, a knot of emotion tightening within his chest.

“What? Giles, what is it?” Leaning toward her Watcher, Buffy’s face creased with her growing concern. A disturbing shadow had crossed the young Brit’s childish features. “What’s wrong?”

Shaking his head, Giles fought the confusion of emotions that inundated him in an unceasing wave. He struggled to stay composed, refusing to give in to the threat of tears that burned in his eyes. His stomach twisted into a sour knot, the bubble from the soda he had been drinking exploding with his repressed agony. He could feel his adultness falling away, dropping him into the terrifying miasma of childhood’s uncertainty. And as the fragile shell of control cracked around him Giles’ lower lip began to tremble, his breath coming in rapid, panic-driven gasps.

“I-I don’t know, Buffy,” Giles whimpered. “I don’t understand what’s happening to me anymore. I keep having th-these feelings…inside. They hurt. And-and nothing makes sense…” A broken sob escaped with a loud gasp, a flood of tears running unchecked down his cheeks as he wailed. “I don’t like it, Buffy. I want it to stop. Please, make it go away. Oh, God!” Giles’ tears spilled freely, teaming rivulets of emotion that dropped from his chin to soak the front of his shirt. “I want to be big again!”

The shock of seeing Giles coming totally undone was paralyzing for the teen. She didn’t know what to do. Then from somewhere deep inside her came the answer, and reaching out she gathered the small Brit against her side, giving him a firm, if awkward hug. Taking his soda away she set it aside and out of harm’s way. From his trouser pocket she dug out the handkerchief he always seemed to carry to polish his glasses, and dabbing timidly at his face she dried his tears.

“We’ll make you big, again, Giles,” she comforted her little Watcher, tenderly patting his shoulder. “I promise. But you have to hang in there a little bit longer. Okay? Think you can do that? For me?”

Nodding, Giles sighed. He took the handkerchief from her hand, and wiping his face, sat up taller. The slayer gave the boy librarian an encouraging smile that he shyly returned, and with a last swipe at his damp face, Giles shoved the tear-stained hanky back into his pocket, his emotional apocalypse once again under control.

The quiet shuffle of a footfall approached from behind the pair. Looking up Buffy saw her mother walking up the hallway toward them. Joyce slowed, coming to a stop next to Giles, hovering apprehensively as she questioned her daughter with a silent look. Buffy recognized the familiar lines of worry that creased her parent’s face. She’d seen that same expression of concern many times before in the past, when she would come home late from patrol. But this time the tightly drawn grimace she saw wasn’t for her.

“How’s it going in there?” the blonde teen asked, inclining her head toward the library doors. Her mother offered a tepid smile.

“Not so great,” Joyce replied. “Willow is starting to feel a little, what’s the word I’m looking for here? Crazed? Poor thing’s heading for a breakdown. I think she could use some help.”

“Sounds like my cue to report back to the lion’s den.” Easing herself up to her feet, Buffy turned to Giles. “You coming with?”

Before the librarian could reply Joyce rushed in with a suggestion. “I was going to make a run out to the mall to pick up a few things. Maybe Rupert would like to come with me.” She dropped a pointed gaze over the small Brit’s outfit. “We could pick up something for you to wear that doesn’t look like it was salvaged from a Goodwill seconds box.”

Feigning mock indignation the young Brit pouted. “No one appreciates my keen fashion sense. Mark my word. In two months, this look will be all the rage on the Paris runway.”

“More like on Paris’ runaways,” Buffy snickered. She rolled her eyes over the librarian’s over-sized sweater and his knee-scuffed jeans. “Mom’s got a point, though. You could use some new threads. Something that looks tasteful, instead of tasteless.”

Joyce chuckled. “Don’t you worry. We’ll find him something decent. What do you say, Rupert? You up for a little shopping excursion? If we leave now we can be back in an hour or so.”

“There are a few errands I’ve been putting off since I’ve been without my car,” Giles mused, considering the woman’s proposal.

“You’ve got yourself a chauffeur, then,” Joyce pronounced. “And I’ll even cook you dinner when we get back. I still have some more of those brownies at home. And ice cream.” Her last statement got the enthusiastic response she was looking for. With an excited leap Giles hopped up off of the couch, springing to his feet at the woman’s side.

“Shall we?” he grinned, and with a little bounce he started off, leading the way toward the exit.

As Buffy looked on, she saw the worry lines lift from her parent’s face, softening away years in an instant. Her mother waved a hand in farewell, then turning, hurried off in pursuit of the fast retreating librarian.

“Good luck!” the teen cheerily called out after her retreating parent. But Joyce had already disappeared through the doors after Giles, who was well on his way across the courtyard and headed toward the parking lot beyond. “Believe me, you’re gonna need it,” Buffy sagely added under her breath. Then, with a final amused shake of her head, the blonde trudged soberly down the empty hallway toward the library to rejoin her friends in their ongoing dialogue with Mr. Oliver P. Dodd.

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