CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

They lingered a few minutes outside of Angel’s mansion on Crawford Street, reluctant to call it a night, but damp clothing and the cool night air finally convinced Buffy it was time to go home. Making the most of a lingering good-night kiss she parted company with Angel, and continuing on alone, jogged though the dimly lit streets, her feet quickly eating up the sidewalk pavement. In no time at all she was bounding up the flower-lined path leading to 1630 Revello Drive, her mind already anticipating the sinful bliss of a warm, scented bubble bath.

The porch light welcomed her with a pleasant glow that was comforting after her long and frustrating day. Stifling a weary yawn, the teen clumped her way up to the front door, shoes squishing wetly with each step. She used her key to let herself into the house, and pausing in the foyer long enough to remove her footwear, re-locked the door behind her before trudging barefoot up the stairs, her damp pant legs flopping heavily with every tired step.

As she approached the top stair she could hear the innocuous strains from some movie-of-the-week soundtrack coming from her mother’s bedroom. An immediate stab of guilt twisted in the teen’s heart. Her mother had probably been sitting up, waiting for her. And though she realized it was all part and parcel of the whole parental scene, it still bothered her to think she was the cause of her parent’s worry. At least her mom had begun to move past the “smotherly love” phase that had nearly driven Buffy crazy. Those first weeks after her return from her summer of self-exile were pretty stressful in the Summers’ household, what with her mom vacillating between fearful emotional clinging and overtly cheerful demonstrations of permissive freedom, both of which induced their share of guilt. Well, tonight she would do the dutiful daughter thing for a change. She would put her mom’s mind at ease and let her know that she was home, and safe.

Poking her head into the bedroom, Buffy found her mother curled up in a chair in front of the television, watching some sappy, tear-jerking movie. The film was obviously working. Her mom was sniffling, dabbing at her eyes with a crumpled tissue that had seen plenty of use in the past hour or so.

Buffy leaned in the open doorway. “Whatcha watchin’?”

“Oh, nothing special,” Joyce replied, wiping at a tear as she reached for the remote control. Clicking off the set she got up from her seat and turned to greet her daughter, her face breaking into a puzzled frown. “Is it raining out tonight?”

“Rusalka pool party,” Buffy explained, sweeping back a shock of stiffly bedraggled hair. Her fingers found a blade of slimy weed and she wrinkled her nose, stripping the slippery vegetation from her tresses.

“You were at the pond again,” her mother stated with some concern. Buffy nodded. “Honey, don’t you think it’s a little cold to be fighting in the water?”

“I just fight the demons, Mom. It’s not like they let me pick where they live,” the teen quipped back. “But not to worry. There’ll be no more late night swimming, I promise.”

“You killed the swamp thingie?”

“Yup,” she grinned broadly, reaffirming her reply with a nod. “Chalk one up for team Buffy…oooo!” Her eye had fallen on a collection of bags next to her mother’s bed. Zeroing in on the stash, Buffy sauntered across the room to check out the promising sacks. “What’d you get me?”

“What makes you think anything there is for you?” Joyce chuckled as she watched her daughter paw excitedly through the bags. As the teen reached for a small, black sack Joyce suddenly reacted. Scurrying across the room she snagged the parcel out of the girl’s hands. “Later,” she scolded, attempting a stern face. “First, you need to do something about those wet clothes. You’re dripping all over my carpet.”

“Fine,” Buffy huffed, pretending she was hurt by the mild admonishment. “But there’d better be something good waiting for me in one of those bags.”

“Go!” Joyce ordered. She tried not to smile as she pointed toward the door, but Buffy’s squishing stroll toward the hallway brought on a case of uncontrollable giggles. With an exaggerated sigh the teen gave a dramatic toss of her wet head, sending out a spatter of droplets that forced her mother to jump back to avoid getting wet.

A satisfied grin lit Buffy’s features as she made her way toward her bedroom. She was feeling pretty good, all glowing and warm inside. Now it was time to make her outsides just as roasty with a long, hot bath.

The light in her bedroom was already on, but she didn’t think twice about it. Shrugging off her sodden jacket she draped it over the back of a chair, and with a tired yawn, collapsed back onto her bed. She kicked off her shoes with a soft groan of relief, her feet grateful for their release from the clammy prison in which she’d held them for so long. Wriggling her toes, she dug them down into the thick carpet, and began to peel off her dank, cold shirt.

Shifting on the bed she started to lift the hem of her top when she bumped something lying on the bed behind her. Her pulse instantly quickened, her senses on full alert, for the something she had felt wasn’t a something that belonged there. Leaping to her feet, Buffy whipped around to face the potential foe that waited to strike, hidden among the covers.

What she saw was an unruly mop of hair snuggled among the collection of stuffed animals that populated her bad. There, crunched up on his side, a book propped open on the spread next to him, was Giles. The small librarian’s eyes were shut, his glasses comically askew and pushed up over his forehead. His mouth gaped partially open, and he made tiny little breathing noises, his slim body barely moving as he rested in the swell of deep, unconcerned slumber.

Relaxing, Buffy smiled down at the peaceful vision of her Watcher. Giles looked much like any normal child at that moment. A delighted chuckle rumbled in her throat as she saw that one of his arms was crooked around a familiar lump of pink plush. Her toy pig, Mr. Gordo, was snuggled up under the Brit’s chin, his fuzzy snout poised in the arrested pantomime of a porcine kiss. It was a true Kodak moment, and the teen felt her protective instincts surface with an almost maternal intensity as she gazed down at Giles.

Quietly she tiptoed over to her dresser, taking care not to disturb the young Watcher. Gathering a change of clothing she sneaked back out of the room, flicking off the light and closing the door. She padded off to the bathroom, where she filled the tub with scented bubbles and shed her damp outfit, tossing the smelly garments on the floor in a soggy heap to deal with later. The bath filled, she shut down the taps, crawling into the hot, foamy water and immersing herself in its rejuvenating luxury. Within minutes her body had warmed to a rosy flush. She did several thorough latherings and rinses to rid her hair of the swampy slime smell, and then settling back, soaked her tired and aching muscles until the tips of her fingers had wrinkled into pale, pink prunes.

Stepping out onto the bathmat she drained the tub, and with a thick, terry towel buffed her body dry. She slipped on a pair of pajamas decorated with white, fluffy looking sheep, and took a few minutes to blow dry her hair and pin it up. A quick brush of her teeth and a follow-up flossing preceded a final inspection in the mirror. Satisfied, she tossed her pile of damp clothes into the hamper, and snapping off the light walked out into the hall, where she ran into her mother. Her parent was coming out of Buffy’s bedroom, and as their eyes met, the older woman placed a finger to her lips, cautioning the teen to be quiet. With a silent gesture she beckoned her daughter to follow, and the two women crept quietly down the hall and slipped into Joyce’s room.

“It’s getting kind of late,” Buffy commented as her mother eased the door shut behind them. “Shouldn’t we wake Giles? Send him home? What’s he doing here, anyway?”

“He wanted to talk to you when you got back from patrol,” Joyce replied, moving toward her chair in front of the television. “He was really antsy after the trip to the mall. It’s my fault. I probably shouldn’t have let him eat all that ice cream. Anyway, I suggested a book or something to help pass the time, so I sent him up to your room to get one.”

“’Cause, like, there aren’t any books anywhere else in the house,” the teen challenged sardonically.

“Nothing appropriate, you know, for his age,” Joyce countered. “Besides, I knew you still had that copy of Charlotte’s Web. When he didn’t come downstairs I went up to check on him and found him sleeping. On your bed. Guess all that shopping really tuckered him out. He looked so precious,” she mused wistfully, her gaze touched by a dreamy, maternal nostalgia. “I didn’t have the heart to wake him, so I just tucked him in.”

Heaving a sigh, Buffy perched on the chair arm next to her mother. “He was a sweet little slice of cutie pie, wasn’t he?” she agreed, a bemused smile finding its way across her face. “He and Mr. Gordo had a major bonding thing going on there. I think I’m feeling just a little jealous. Still,” she continued, embracing her knee up against her body. “We’re gonna hafta wake him sometime and send him home.”

“Why?” Her mother’s unexpected query made Buffy frown. “What I meant was,” Joyce went on, her fingers entwining with each other, fumbling apprehensively. “I’ve been thinking, and I don’t feel Rupert should be alone right now.”

“What do you mean?” Buffy could sense her mother was holding something back. “Did something happen that I should know about?”

“No, no,” her mother assured her, but her tone was unconvincing as she continued to twist her hands. “Not really. Well, maybe. I’m not sure,” she finally admitted. “How would you define something?” she asked, turning an anxious eye toward the teen.

“Mom…”

“Alright!” Joyce threw up her hands in conciliation and leaned back in her chair. “It’s probably nothing, just my overactive Mommy genes talking.” A somber intensity overcame her features, and she paused a beat before continuing. “I’m worried about Rupert. I don’t think he can look after himself any more. I know, technically he’s not a real child. Not a real one, anyway. He’s smart, and he has all the memories of a very well accomplished man and a whole lifetime of experiences behind him, but…” Again Joyce hesitated, as if afraid that voicing her thoughts aloud would make them true.

But Buffy knew what her mother was trying not to say. She had seen it too. Hour by hour Giles was changing. The longer he was a little boy, the weaker his hold on adulthood became. It was only a matter of time before the man she knew as her Watcher would exist no more.

“Giles isn’t doing too good, is he?” the teen pouted. Her mother shook her head.

“I think he knows he needs someone to take care of him, but he’s too proud to ask for help. Or too obstinate,” the older woman chuckled. Her smile sparkled with a soft amusement. “He’s a real handful, that one. I could hardly keep up with him. One night, and I’m totally exhausted. I don’t see how his mother kept sane all those years. The woman that raised that child deserved sainthood.”

“Sounds like I missed a fun night,” Buffy observed with an appreciative giggle.

“It was an experience to remember,” Joyce sighed. “Or maybe to forget. I’m not sure which.” Suddenly, she grew serious. “What’s going to happen to him?” she said, worrying aloud. “Who’s going to take care of him?”

“I don’t know.” Buffy had her own concerns about that very subject. Reaching down, she slipped her fingers gently around her mother’s hand and clasped it firmly. “But I know this. The guys and I, we won’t give up, not as long a Giles needs us. We’ll find a way to work this out.”

“For Rupert’s sake, I hope you’re right,” Joyce replied, squeezing her daughter’s hand. “He cares about you. A lot. The whole night all he talked about was ‘Buffy did this’ and ‘Buffy said that’. You’ve got yourself your very own Slayer Fan Club going there, with that boy the appointed President, Treasurer and entire membership to boot. You’d think the world revolved around nothing but you.”

An embarrassed flush colored Buffy’s cheeks. “Well, Giles has to be interested in what I do,” she rationalized, trying to downplay her parent’s frank commentary. “It’s like one of those terms of employment clauses. Part of the whole Watcher Union Code thing.”

“Don’t kid yourself,” Joyce smiled, giving the teen a hug. “I’m no expert when it comes to slayer stuff, and I’ve never met any other Watchers, well, at least as far as I know,” she frowned thoughtfully. “But I like to think I know about people, and that I’m a fair judge of character. So, trust me on this, honey. To that boy, that man,” she corrected. “You’re more than just part of his job. He believes in you. And not just what you can do as a slayer, but as a person. He’s proud of you. Just as I am. And if I didn’t feel that he cared for you, the real you, then I couldn’t sit here night after night while you’re out there fighting evil. And the reason is, I know that you’re not alone. Rupert’s there, with you. In spirit and thought, if not in body, and that’s why I know you’ll always come home again.”

“Giles does have a way of getting into your head when you’re not looking,” Buffy smiled. “He makes you think about stuff. Deep thoughts kind of stuff. He’s like my very own Jiminey Cricket. Only he’s taller. And he wears tweed. And he doesn’t have the hat and tiny little umbrella.”

“Right now I think he’s feeling more like Pinocchio. He’s turning into a real little boy, Buffy. A very frightened real little boy. And we can’t just send him home by himself. Not when he’s like this.”

“I know what you’re saying,” Buffy countered. She stood up and began to pace around her mother’s chair. “Giles and I even talked about this the other night. You should have heard him. He went completely berserk when I asked if he wanted to stay here. With us. He made it perfectly clear he wanted to be alone.”

“And was that before or after the big bad monster hiding in his closet tried to eat him?” Joyce queried with a raised eyebrow. “Considering everything that’s happened to him, it’s possible he’s changed his mind.”

“I suppose,” the teen conceded grudgingly. Noticing the strange gleam in her parent’s eye, she paused in her pacing, confronting the older woman. “What?”

“Oh, nothing.” Joyce grinned, a sly and devious look that gave Buffy an uneasy feeling. She could practically see the wheels churning in her mother’s head.

“That is not a nothing face,” Buffy accused. “You’re planning something.”

“I am not,” Joyce responded defensively, but the look remained. “It’s just…”

“Just what?”

“Well, he’s here now, isn’t he? What if we didn’t wake him up? I bet he’d sleep right thought the night.”

“Yeah, in my bed,” Buffy protested, but Joyce sensed a weakness in her daughter’s grumbling objection.

“You’re welcome to sleep in here with me,” she offered.

“Nah,” Buffy sighed, plunking back down on the chair arm. “I’ll bunk out downstairs. On the couch.”

“I’ll get you a pillow,” Joyce cheerily volunteered. “And a blanket.”

Popping up onto her feet Joyce scampered off to collect the promised bedding, with Buffy dutifully following on her heels. Then, blanket and pillow in hand, the pair quietly tiptoed downstairs to the living room. Her mother spent a few minutes setting up the couch, and with a final hug, turned off the lights and said good night. She then headed back upstairs to her room, leaving Buffy to snuggle down into her cozy cocoon of blankets and drift off to sleep.


She was dreaming. She was sure of it. Everything had that surreal, strangeness of detail which came with dreaming. At least it wasn’t one of her prophecy dreams. She had yet to encounter someone like Johnny Depp in any of her slayer visions. But there he was, running at her side, looking positively yummy. They were fleeing from something. Or was it someone? The setting was vaguely familiar. A cemetery. Actually, a composite of several. She recognized some of the names on the headstones as they raced by. Andrew Hoelich. Morgan Shay. And that big Alpert mausoleum.

Grabbing Johnny’s hand she led him through the twisted maze of graves. She could see their pursuers now. A gang of vampires. The undead were all around them. Clawing up out of the ground, leaping out from behind the tombs. The blood thirsting mob behind them was closing in fast. Their leader, a cute blonde that bore an uncanny resemblance to a young Keifer Sutherland, was signaling for his minions to surround them. Overwhelmed by the number of her enemies Buffy pushed Johnny Depp into the entry niche of a nearby crypt. Moving into a defensive stance, she used her small body to shield her companion, protecting him from the advancing wave of vampires.

With menacing growls and fanged grimaces the undead launched their attack. But they were no match for her churning fists and flying kicks. She kept the entire gang at bay. One by one they fell victim to Mr. Pointy, until only Keifer remained. With a forward leap she threw him to the ground, pinning him down to deliver her death blow. She saw the tortured anguish in his eyes, and then he was dust. And she was alone. With Johnny Depp.

Somehow, she wasn’t quite sure how or when, she was on her feet. Instead of the slayer clothes she’d worn moments before, she discovered that her body was sheathed in a stunning, pale blue gown that sparkled magically under the moon light. As she moved forward the long dress fluttered in the breeze around her, the diaphanous material glittering like a million tiny stars, her blonde hair fanning out in delicate, sensuous wisps, just like one of those high priced models in some ritzy fashion magazine.

Johnny was holding his arms out to her now. She ran toward him. Or was she floating? Her feet seemed to barely touch the ground. As she was about to throw herself into Johnny’s waiting embrace something distracted her attention. A noise. Buffy paused, and looked around. Nothing but darkness surrounded her.

With a shrug she turned back toward her companion. He was smiling. Leaning forward, she melted into his open arms and sighed. Their faces moved closer. She parted her lips and…

There it was again. That noise. Frowning, she turned away from Johnny, her eyes searching the night. She could hear it. A soft, faint whimpering. It sounded like the pathetic mewling of an injured animal. As she listened, it called out. This time the noise was loud, and it pierced through clean to her consciousness. That was when she realized it wasn’t part of her dream, but real. Something was wrong.

Johnny Depp’s face began to waver and dissolve before her. Reluctantly, she let go of her the handsome image, and saying good-bye to her fantasy she began to rouse herself up though the fuzzy layers of sleep.

Blinking her eyes, Buffy stirred beneath her covers. A flash of light cut across the darkness, jolting her awake instantly. Body tensed, she readied herself for possible danger. There was the muted shoosh of tires rolling over pavement in the distance, and she relaxed as the light passed by and faded away. It was just a car driving down the street outside, and nothing more. Lying on her back, Buffy stared up at the ceiling. An uneasy feeling was turning inside her. Something wasn’t quite right. The shadows around her seemed all wrong and out of place. Where was her lamp? And her nightstand? Then she remembered. She wasn’t in her room, but downstairs, on the couch, and suddenly everything began to find perspective.

Pushing back her covers, Buffy sat up and swung her legs to the floor. Her feet fished in the dark for her slippers, sliding them on. The house was quiet, but in her head she could still hear the echo of the cry that woke her. With a tired yawn she got to her feet, and picking her way carefully through the dark, made her way across the room to the front foyer. She did a quick reconnaissance of the entire first floor, even checking the cellar and both porches, but found nothing out of the ordinary. Still feeling restless, she decided to expand her investigation to the upstairs.

Creeping up the stairs she paused outside her mother’s bedroom and cracked the door to peek inside. Everything seemed okay. Her parent’s sleeping form lay bundled within a voluminous wrap of blankets, and the only sound emanating from the bed was a gentle, rhythmic snoring. Satisfied, she closed the door and moved down the unlit hallway, her cautious step avoiding the spot where she knew a loose floorboard creaked. Her ears were on radar alert for anything suspicious as she continued her rounds. But when her search failed to turn up even one encounter of the supernatural variety, or the natural for that matter, she began to have serious doubts she’d even heard a noise, and that it had just been one of those strange, unexplainable pieces of her dream she was never going to understand.

She was standing outside her own bedroom. Curiosity got the better of her, and easing the door open, she quietly slipped into the room. A street lamp cast its light through the open curtains, and she could see the outline of Gile’s tiny body curled among the menagerie of plush creatures that lived on her bed. At some point during the night her mother had stopped by to tuck him in. The Brit’s glasses rested on the nearby nightstand beside the closed book, his shoes on the floor below. Other than that, nothing else had been disturbed.

As she gazed down at her sleeping Watcher as warm sense of fulfillment came over the teen. It caught her by surprise, for the feeling was deep and as intense as any affection she’d ever known, ranking right up there with her love for her parents, or for Angel. She was overwhelmed by the fierceness of her need to protect, to keep Giles safe from the things that could hurt him. And it wasn’t her overactive slayer sense of responsibility at work, either. This was different. Primal. Where the urge came from, and why it was so strong puzzled the teen, but there was no mistaking the force of its message, and she silently vowed to do all she could to honor its demands.

The pile of toys suddenly stirred, and from beneath the bedspread there came a faint, muffled wail. Concerned, Buffy leaned in closer as Giles kicked out a leg and the bumper crop of stuffed animals shifted, convulsed. The whimpering grew steadily louder. A violent bout of thrashing erupted from beneath the covers as plush bodies scattered in every direction. Buffy felt her heart race as a piteous wail tore through the darkness, and she leaned down over the tiny form in her bed, instinctively reaching out a hand to comfort.

“Giles?” Pulling back the covers she gave the Brit a timorous shake. Immediately Giles sat upright, his eyes snapping open in terror. With a high-pitched scream he scuttled backward across the bed, plowing through the flock of toys to escape her touch.

His head fogged with the confusing images of his nightmare, Giles froze, staring up at the creature looming over him. The shadows shifted, and the hulking monster that had chased him through surreal landscapes of dark alleys and graveyards suddenly breathed with life. His dream world blurred with reality, his throat constricting around his frightened cry, and he shivered, cowering in fear as he choked out a pathetic squawk choked for mercy.

“Whoa! Reset the panic button there, Giles. It’s just me.”

“B-buffy?” In the slow awakening of sanity the librarian finally recognized the face before him. With an ecstatic yelp, he jumped at the teen, throwing his arms around her. “Thank God, it’s you!” he breathed, gratefully squeezing the girl in an impetuous hug. “It was so horrible. It had big teeth, and-and claws. And it wanted to eat me!”

Breaking down into gasping sobs the small Watcher desperately clung to his savior, his face buried against the warmth of her strong shoulder. Awkwardly, Buffy embraced the trembling child Watcher, and patting his back, attempted to quiet his crying before it woke her mother.

“Take it easy. Everything’s okay now. I’ve got you.”

Her reassurance seemed to have little effect in quelling the Brit’s hysteria, however. Giles only held onto her tighter, his slim arms strangling her neck as he tried to press himself closer. Giving in, she gathered the boyish librarian onto her lap, and sitting on the bed began to rock slowly back and forth, all the while keeping up with her verbal pep talk.

“Everything’s going to be all right,” she crooned tenderly. Her voice was a sympathetic whispering against his ear as she held him in her arms. “It was just a bad dream. You’re safe now. Nothing’s going to hurt you. I promise.”

She continued to shush him, stroking his curls. Suddenly, Giles tensed. Thinking he was about to scream she braced herself, preparing for a tantrum. Instead, the librarian cleared his throat, and extracting himself from her embrace, eased down off of her lap to sit on the bed beside her.

“I, uhm…I,” Giles stammered, too horrified by his irrational behavior to even look at the teen. “Sorry. I didn’t…” His words fading off into an uncomfortable silence, he plucked absently at a lumpy form beneath his leg as he shifted self-consciously on the mattress.

“Hey, it’s no big,” the teen shrugged, trying to make light of what had obviously become an embarrassing moment for them both.

“I was hoping to have a word with you, when you got back,” the librarian offered up in meek explanation. “Your mum said I could wait here.”

“Yeah, that’s what she told me,” Buffy replied.

Another uneasy silence dropped between them. As Giles retreated into the huddle of soft critters behind him, he unconsciously clutched the creature he had tugged out from under himself, hugging it to his chest. His gaze wandered around the darkened room, eventually falling on the window behind the nearby nightstand. Frowning, he stared out at the night sky.

“It’s late. I should go.”

As Giles moved to scoot off the bed a light hand on his shoulder stopped him.

“Giles, it’s the middle of the night,” the teen firmly informed the young Watcher. “You can’t go traipsing off across town all on your lonesome in the dark. And I’m not exactly dressed to walk you home.”

Noting that the blonde was indeed dressed in what passed for nightclothes, a strained frown fell over the young Brit’s features. It seemed it was much later than he had surmised.

“Now, I know what you’re going to say,” the teen continued, uninterrupted. “That you’re a big boy, you can look out for yourself, you don’t need a babysitter. And I’m totally on board with it. Really, I am. But Mom’s not buying into this ‘I can do it myself’ gig. Which, when you get down to it is probably my bad. I mean, since I came back from my summer of awayness she’s been, like, crazed with this maternal itch. Wants to set back the ol’ biological clock. You know, relive her glory days of mommy hood, back when kissing boo-boos and baking cookies for the latest school fund raiser was all she had to worry about, and not whether some unholy creature of the night was about to send her only offspring on a one way trip to the great beyond.”

“Yes, well, the maternal drive can be an indomitable force,” the Brit conceded with sage empathy.

“Tell me about it,” the teen huffed, her eyes rolling with a dramatic punctuation. “She’s been fussin’ and frettin’ over every little thing. A body can only take so much motherly concern. And then, just when I thought this thing had finally run its course, and she’d got it all out of her system…bam! We’re tripping back down Maternity Lane. The woman needs some serious help, Giles. She’s a hit and run victim of the mommy track, and there’s no stopping her. Believe me, I’ve tried.”

“You have my sincere sympathies,” the Brit remarked with dry acerbity. “But I fail to see what any of this has to do with me.” The comment drew a sharp glower from the exasperated teen.

“It has everything to do with you, Giles,” she informed the librarian. It’s those big innocent baby blues of yours that put that derailed train back on the track and set it steamin’ along again at full speed. And there’s no way I’m letting you walk away and stick me with this mess. No siree, uh-uh. You owe me, buster. Big time. So, shut up, suck up, and take what you got comin’ to you like a man.”

Giles pouted, affronted by her accusation of blame. “And exactly how, pray tell, do you expect me to repay this great debt that you claim I owe you?”

“For starters? You’re stayin’ put right where you are.” As Giles began to mount a protest she quickly cut him off, countering his objection with an imploring whine. “Aw, come on, Giles! It’s just for a couple hours. I really don’t see what the big deal is, anyway.”

“It wouldn’t look proper, my being here, overnight, with you and your, uhm, mother,” he argued. “People talk. And if Principal Snyder, or someone from the school board were to find out-”

“They’d what?” she challenged with a disdainful snort. “Giles, nobody even knows who you really are. As far as the world out there is concerned, you’re your nephew, Robby, remember? Besides, you’re eight years old. What could people possibly think you’d doing with my mother that’d be worth talking about?

“Look,” she continued, trying a new tactic to win him over. “If it’ll make you feel better, we can talk slayer stuff. You wanted to hear about last night’s patrol, right?” Her voice took on a coy, throaty purr as she moved smoothly into temptress mode. “Well, stick around and I’ll tell you everything that happened. We’re not talkin’ any half told tale, either. You’ll get the whole scoop on the poop. The annotated edition. With footnotes, and a full bibliography. It’ll be the patrol report to end all patrol reports. So, whadaya say? This is a limited time offer, so you have to act now, or you’ll miss out on the deal of a lifetime.”

“Very well. I shall stay,” the librarian capitulated, grumbling gurdginly. “But only until sunrise,” he added. “I trust this auspicious narrative of yours will have been completed by then.”

“We can hope,” she replied. Leaning back on the bed, she drew her legs up under herself, crossing them yoga-style. “Well, sit back, relax and get ready to be regaled,” she announced, gleefully rubbing her hands together. “You and Mr. Gordo are about to get the complete low down on what went down.”

As he settled back Giles paused, a confused look falling over his face. “Mr. Who?”

“Mr. Gordo,” the teen repeated. The information failed to bring any further comprehension, and Giles’ brow creased beneath the shaggy mop of his hair. “You’re little friend,” Buffy explained as she gestured toward the plush toy in his hands.

Giles stared at the fuzzy pink creature, holding it out at arm’s length, not quite sure how the object in question came to be in his possession. “This is he?” he queried the girl hesitantly. "Your, uhm, bear?”

“It’s a pig,” Buffy corrected, scoffing petulantly at his mistake. “You know like a gazillion different species of demons on sight, and yet you can’t tell the difference between a pig and a bear. Pathetic much? Now I realize that back in the ancient days, when you were just a tender lad growing up in the hinterland that is England, the wonder that is Sesame Street had yet to be invented. But that’s no excuse for ignorance. Couldn’t your parents have spared at least one afternoon away from those Watcher lessons to take you to the zoo? Or to a farm?”

Her words had been meant in jest, but no sooner had they left her mouth than Buffy found herself regretting them. Giles eyes held a dark, ghost of pain. She’d obviously touched a nerve, and it was something that ran raw and deep.

In an instant everything that had kept Giles an adult was stripped away. Clasping the plush toy to his chest, his arms squeezed Mr. Gordo in a desperate, emotionally compelled embrace. His lower lip began to quiver, and she could see the unmistakable glistening of unshed tears in his eyes. Cringing in guilt, Buffy braced herself, waiting for her the onslaught of sobs she knew gathered within the small Watcher and was about to burst forth. But to her surprise, Giles merely heaved a deep sigh. Sitting up as tall as his tiny stature would allow, the Brit ran a hand through his unkempt mane of hair, his gaze turning back toward the window and staring vacantly out at the blackness beyond.

For several long, unbearable minutes, neither of them made a sound. The quiet of the house slowly closed in around the uncomfortable pair. Buffy felt pressured to break the tortured silence, to say something, anything, even at the risk of it sounding profoundly stupid or inappropriate, but she bit her lip and managed somehow to stem the flood of nervous babble that fought to escape her mouth. And just as she felt her resolve waver, and the weight of her remorse threatened to shatter the dam holding back her sorely tested equanimity, Giles spoke.

His voice was a small whisper, somber and laden with the burden of years far greater than his actual adult age, and completely out of character with the youth of his features. Buffy could see the wistful spark of some distantly remembered existence smoldering within the librarian’s sad gaze as he wiped a sleeve across his face, nonchalantly erasing his tears.

“Years ago, when I was a very young, I wanted nothing more than to grow up. I had an almost desperate desire to be older. I thought that, somehow, that wondrous, elusive status known as adulthood would bring a magical transformation to my life. I’d be able to do as I pleased, and whatever I wanted to become was attainable. The future was so full of possibility.”

“Sounds like you had some big dreams,” the teen smiled, voicing a show of sympathetic solidarity with her friend.

“The biggest,” Giles concurred with another heavy sigh. “Of course, all this was before I’d realized that my father had already decided what my destiny was to be.”

“Oh, wait! I know this story,” Buffy interjected with animated pretense. “The boy hero is told of his great and sacred destiny, and after enduring years of untold hardship and confusion, he finally embarks upon a perilous quest in search of his birthright. Along the way he encounters dangerous temptation. A wicked sorcerer tries to lead him astray from the path of true righteousness and good, but eventually our young hero triumphs, and overcoming the dark forces of evil, goes on to live the life of adventure and glory he was born to.”

A strange expression shadowed across her companion’s youthful face. Even more bewildering to Buffy was Giles’ unexpected response.

“I don’t know that story,” the small Brit chirped back. His tiny voice fairly bubbled with unrestrained excitement. “I think it sounds quite interesting. Would you tell it again? Only, this time, I want to hear the whole thing, with all the once upon a time bits and everything. What was the little boy’s name? Why did the evil sorcerer want to trick him? Did he get to fight any dragons?”

Buffy’s glib smile slowly faded. Where her childish enthusiasm had been an act, Giles was being completely sincere. This was not a joke for him. He was actually asking her for a story. His little face was shining expectantly, waiting for her to comply with his request, and he wriggled with genuine impatience, his arms hugging Mr. Gordo with unabashed innocence.

A heavy sadness settled upon the teen’s heart. Staring down at her childish Watcher, she couldn’t decide what was more disturbing. That he thought she’d been relating an actual fairytale, or that in his guileless puerility he failed to recognize her blithe accounting was merely a fictionalized interpretation of his own life. Either way, the truth was hard to take. And it didn’t look like it was going to get any easier for her since Giles now seemed to have become stuck in his regressed childhood moment, and was unable to shift himself back into adult gear again.

“We can finish that story another time,” she gently admonished the librarian as she stood up beside the bed. “Right now, I think someone needs to go back to sleep.”

To her immense relief, Giles didn’t put up any fuss, and obediently lay down on the bed. He yawned as she pulled the spread up and rearranged the mob of stuffed animals that haloed his head so that he looked comfortable. Carefully, she tucked Mr. Gordo in next to her small Watcher, positioning the plush guardian at his side, in case he felt a need for its comfort later. “Now, go to sleep,” she firmly remanded. Giles closed his eyes, his body snuggling under the covers as he settled down. She waited a few minutes, and his breathing gradually began to slow, his tiny form relaxing into a state of untroubled slumber before her eyes.

Buffy smiled. Giles looked just like a real child. Worst of all, it was becoming too easy for her to accept him as such. With each passing regressive episode he went through, more and more of his adult mannerisms were slipping away. His subsequent recoveries were taking longer, too. Not a good sign. She had to find some kind of an answer, and soon, or Giles, her Giles, would become lost forever.

Bending over his sleeping form, the teen smoothed back and errant shock of her Watcher’s thick mop and whispered a goodnight in his ear. Giles stirred, and made a small, quiet noise of unrest. With a soft grunt, he rolled onto his side, his little hand reaching out from under the covers and searching blindly. His fingers closed around the soft pinkness of Mr. Gordo’s snout, and with a sigh of contentment he pulled the toy against his cheek in a bucolic embrace and settled back down into deep sleep.

Tip toeing out of the room, Buffy quietly eased the bedroom door closed behind her with a gentle click. After listening for a moment to make sure Giles remained asleep, she made a pass past her parent’s bedroom for one last check before heading downstairs tot he living room. There she crawled back into the nested tangle of her couch bed, and lying back, waited for sleep to come. Exhaustion finally won out over the worries swimming though her thoughts, and she soon found herself dreaming of a bliss filled world where she rescued cute guys who were only too willing to show their heartfelt and undying gratitude to a certain heroic blonde vampire slayer.

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