“It’s okay. Don’t worry about it. I’ll clean that up. You just go get another egg out of the fridge.”
Rolling over onto her side, Buffy pried a sleep-sticky eye open and looked around. A stream of bright morning sunlight poured through the window, bathing the living room in a warm, fresh glow that announced the beginning of a new day. Wrapped in the comforting embrace of her fussy blanket, the teen listened to the sounds of the house around her. Off in the distance she could hear the creaky hinge of a cabinet door opening. Next came the unmistakable whump of the refrigerator door slamming shut, followed by the nerve jangling scrape of a kitchen stool being pulled across the floor. The hushed tones of a disembodied voice on the radio jabbered away in the background about the weekend weather, adding a surreal touch to the domestic cacophony that infiltrated her dreamlike state.
Buffy hugged her pillow, lazily drifting in and out of sleep for several minutes. Gradually her senses were aroused by the faintest of aromas wafting into the room. The tantalizing smell tickled her nose, seducing her with its heady bouquet. Her semi-conscious brain did a quick search of its data banks, attempting to pinpoint the delightful fragrance. Her mouth watering, she drew in a deep lung full of the scrumptious, tongue-tingling scent, and a rush of heady endorphins raced through her taste buds, screaming out in ecstasy.
Instantly, Buffy was awake. Tossing off her covers, she sat up on the couch, and slowly stretched her tired body. In her leg she felt the shadowing twinge of a sore muscle protesting the movement with some stiffness, a residual ache from her Rusalka battle, but it was nothing serious. A bit of gently rubbing loosened the limb. With a final flex of her toes she shook off the last vestiges of sleep, and stifling a wide yawn as she tucked her feet into her warm slippers then got up and slowly strolled toward the kitchen.
Shuffling zombie-like across the floor Buffy wandered over to the isolated island counter that dominated the room’s center. She mumbled a monosyllabic greeting toward the woman crouching on the floor, and scooting a hip up onto one of the nearby stools, took a seat.
“Morning, sleepyhead,” Joyce chuckled. “I see you finally decided to wake up.”
“Mmmmmm,” the teen acknowledged her parent with a tired sigh. Leaning her elbows on the countertop in front of her, Buffy plunked her chin into her upturned palms and watched as her mother straightened from the floor holding a gooey crumple of paper towel in her hand.
“Hungry?” Joyce asked. With one hand cupped beneath the other to catch any stray drips, she walked the mess over to the trash and tossed it into the bin. Drifting over to the sink, she paused long enough to wash any stray signs of goop from her hands before turning her attention toward her daughter.
“I’m famished,” Buffy obligingly replied to her parent’s query. Before her on the counter was a large ceramic mixing bowl. She peered curiously at the container’s viscous contents and sniffed. “Blueberries?” she asked, eyeing the profusion of dark bits suspended in the wet mass.
“Chocolate chips.” At the girl’s raised eyebrow, Joyce explained. “Rupert’s idea.”
At that moment a shaggy head popped up from behind the other side of the counter. Buffy coughed, covering her mouth to hide the laugh that burst from her at the sight of her watcher’s cherubic face. The small Brit’s boyish features were ringed with an impish grin, his nose white with a generous dusting of flour.
“I see you’ve been helping,” the teen said with a smile at her youthful friend.
Behind Giles’ back her mother made a comical face, her head shaking as she rolled her eyes in an exaggerated exasperation that demonstrated just how helpful the boy had been that morning. As if to prove her point the small Brit picked up a wooden spoon from the counter, and giving the batter a vigorous stirring, proceeded to slop the mixture over the sides of the bowl. With his shortened stature Giles was having a problem seeing what he was doing, and the spoon did very little actual blending, but he continued to swirl with concentrated effort, the puddle on the counter growing in volume with every few revolutions, enlarged by the overflow of his energetic efforts.
“I gave it some deliberation and decided to reconsider your breakfast invitation,” Giles remarked, frowning as he poked at a few dark chips floating atop the batter, immersing them beneath the goo. “It seemed only fair that I reciprocate the hospitality by offering your mother my services.”
“Bet that made her day,” Buffy chuckled with a perceptive glance toward her parent. The older woman sent her a return wink. She’s sure in a good mood, Buffy thought. And so, obviously, was Giles. The Watcher sounded much like his old self that morning, talking in genuine Gileseese, not a hint of kiddie rhetoric in earshot. Maybe I was wrong and he’s not as far gone as I thought. Looks like we’ve got a chance to beat this thing after all.
Moving back a step Joyce neatly avoided a disastrous spattering of batter that flew in her direction. “Honey,” she said to her daughter. “If you hurry up and change now, Rupert and I should have the next batch ready by the time you’re finished.”
“Sure you couldn’t use another hand?” The look her mother shot across the librarian’s head said she had quite as much help as she could handle. Easing down from her stool, Buffy gave her body a lazy stretch as she sauntered out of the kitchen. “Don’t start without me,” she called over her shoulder, and breaking into a spirited trot she made her way along the center hall and up the front stairs, leaving her mother to deal with Giles and the ongoing breakfast logistics.
She climbed the steps with a jaunty bounce, throwing off the last remnants of sleep within her. Passing the bathroom she stopped off long enough to clean her Rusalka wounds and apply fresh bandages, noting that the deeper cuts were already nicely closed and healing thanks to her slayer fortitude. Her bruises got a cursory inspection, and then finishing her more personal morning ablutions, she continued on to her bedroom to get dressed.
Stepping into her room, Buffy was struck by how neat and tidy everything looked. Someone had taught Giles well. The covers on her bed were pulled up and carefully tucked into place with crisp corners and smooth surfaces everywhere. Her pillows had been fluffed and arranged against the headboard with meticulous care. All of her stuffed animals were lined up in two rows with regimental symmetry according to their height, short ones to the outside and the largest in the center back. Nothing was out of place. Even the book Giles had been reading was back in its appointed slot on the bookshelf again. It was hard to believe that anyone had been in the room at all and she found herself wondering, if only for a moment, if she had imagined everything that had taken place there the previous night.
“Live in maid service,” she smiled, dreamily admiring her well kept surroundings. “A girl could get used to this.”
Crossing to her dresser, Buffy rummaged through several drawers to come up with something to wear. It was Sunday, so that meant something comfortable. A pair of worn, bleached jeans fit her mood perfectly, and she found a pastel yellow tank to go with them. Peeling off her night clothes she tossed them aside, drawing on her pants and shirt, and adding a pair of sneakers from the back of her closet to complete the outfit. She took a couple more minutes before her vanity mirror to put her hair into loosely plaited braids, then with some new earrings and a small silver cross fastened around her neck she was done accessorizing and ready to face the morning.
Buffy traipsed lightly down the stairs to join the others for breakfast. She was feeling very positive about her plans for the day. The Rusalka was out of the way, and she and the Scoobies could devote their complete attention to Giles and his problem now. There was still patrol to do, but that was later. In the mean time she had plenty of daylight hours to spend on researching and sorcerer round-up activities.
Giles was downstairs in the dining room laying out flatware on the table when she bounced in on him. A glass of fresh squeezed orange juice sat at each place setting, with a napkin neatly folded to one side, and a syrup bottle balanced dangerously close to the table’s edge in one corner. The only thing missing were the plates and the food, which Buffy could smell was on its way out even then.
“Hey, Giles! Nice threads.”
The small Brit had been standing behind the counter earlier and she had completely missed what he had been wearing. Gone was the over-sized shirt and worn hand me down jeans of the day before. Giles was all new and improved from head to toe, dressed in his acquisitions from yesterday’s trip to the mall. It was a shock to see him outfitted in something so trendy, and the Hawaiian inspired print shirt he had on was not like anything she would have suspected she’d ever see the librarian wear. The colorful top overlay an equally vibrantly single hued T-shirt, visible though the gaping unbuttoned front, and a pair of khaki cargo pants with multiple pockets up and down their baggy legs completed the overall casual look. There weren’t many occasions Buffy could recall seeing her Watcher in something other than one of his perennial tweed suits, and this was a moment that she knew would stand out in her memory for a long time.
Circling the small Brit, Buffy examined him from every possible angle. No, this was not her Giles. This was some strange little boy, a refugee from some socially upscale California school, a definitely cool kid. In a word, someone normal.
“Fess up,” she accused the young Brit, scrutinizing him with narrowed suspicion. “What’d you do with the real Giles?”
“I’m not sure as I follow-”
“Mom picked this out, right?” She shook her head. “Well, she’s certainly got good taste in guy stuff. I never would have guessed that’s what lay hidden under all those uptight layers of tweed. You look…okay.”
“Thank you,” Giles replied. A muddled pout pursed his mouth. “I think.” His puzzlement passed quickly, however, to be replaced by a couched indignation. “What makes you assume my choice of apparel was in any way influenced by your mother? I’ll have you know that I happen to possess a keen appreciation for fashion.”
Buffy exploded in a snorting titter. “Giles, you have about as much flair for what’s haute couture as I do a grasp of Quantum Physics. Face it. I’ve spent years shopping with Mom, training at the master’s side, and that outfit simply screams Joyce Summers Special.”
“Perhaps she did offer a few small suggestions,” the librarian grudgingly admitted. This earned him an eyebrow arched in skepticism from the teen. “All right, more that a few,” Giles corrected with some reluctance, his cheek pinked with humiliation. Finally, he blurted out an abject confession. “Oh, blast! Yes, yes! You’re right. But, it wasn’t as if I had any choice in the matter. She can be quite a persuasive woman.”
“Tell me about it. You two only spent a couple hours together. Try imagining what it’s like living with her full time. Uh, on second thought,” she cringed, unpleasant images suddenly springing to mind at her own words. “Delete that last part. We’re better off just not going there.”
“Going where?” he innocently inquired. Buffy waved the question away and quickly changed the topic.
“Take it your first time out as a mall brat went okay. Get everything you need?”
“I certainly hope so,” Giles sighed. Pulling out a chair the young librarian scrambled up onto the seat. “I don’t know that I could go though an experience like that again.”
“That bad, huh?”
Giles looked around, craning his head toward the kitchen where Joyce could be heard clinking dishes as she gathered them together. Lowering his voice the Brit leaned in closer to the teen.
“Buffy, your mum is a very dear woman. But last night in that mall, what I saw could only be described as positively frightening! She stepped into those shops, and it was as if some unholy demonic force took possession of her, charge card and all.”
“That’s my Mom,” the teen announced with pride. “Shop till I drop Summers. Let her motto ring loudly throughout the malls. Veni, Vidi, Visa. I came, I saw, I charged it.”
Giggling, the youthful Watcher nodded in understanding agreement as he recalled the woman’s jubilation during their shopping excursion.
“Personally, I suspect she was more than just a little delighted with the challenge,” he informed the attentive teen at his side. “It would appear that your mum has for years successfully suppressed a deep and heretofore unrealized desire to procure clothing for the brother you never had. Mind you, not that I wasn’t grateful for her assistance. Until last night I had never had the opportunity or need to set foot in the children’s apparel department of a clothing store, and it didn’t take me long to discover why. In all my years I don’t believe I have ever felt so completely and utterly baffled. The experience was simply overwhelming to say the least. The sizing system for children’s things was well beyond my level of comprehension. It was bad enough rethinking centimeters into inches, which I’ve become quite adept at these last few years, but to have to worry about fitting it all together with years and body build and height…” Giles shook his head. “It was a nightmare I tell you.”
“So, that the bad dream that woke you up last night?” Buffy asked. “Here I thought it was some monster lurking in the closet.”
Her mother breezed into the room during the last lines of the conversation. Distributing the trio of pancake-laden plates she carried in with her, Joyce paused before settling in a chair at the table’s end.
“Someone had a bad dream?” She looked from her daughter to the small boy, her face creased with motherly concern.
“It was nothing, really. A silly dream,” Giles confessed defensively, but his protests only served to deepen the woman’s worried frown. Redirecting her questioning gaze, Joyce turned to her daughter for an explanation. Buffy’s replay was a mute shrug as she took her seat, a gesture that, while it did little to mollify her parent’s qualms, at least squelched any further embarrassing inquires, if only for the duration of breakfast.
Buffy noted that Giles had put the moment behind him as well. She watched in mild amazement as the Brit turned his attentions upon the plate of food before him. After dumping out an obscene flood of syrup over the towering stack of pancakes, he licked at his sticky fingers, then picking up his knife and fork in tiny fists, attacked the repast with the gusto one would attribute to a starving animal. Once again Buffy found herself strangely unsettled by her Watcher’s age regression. Giles’ small hands lacked the refining small motor dexterity of an adult, and he grasped his tools like a typical eight-year old child, favoring an awkward, overhand clasp. Using his utensils more to tear than to cut, he ripped away a sizable chunk of the soggy cakes, and without a hint of hesitation stuffed the over-sized bit into his mouth, forcing his cheeks to bulge outward under the threatening pressure of the mass contained within them.
Somehow her mother ignored what Buffy feared would soon become an opportunity to practice the Heimlich maneuver on an actual choking subject. Ever the well-mannered hostess her parent began a running commentary designed to stimulate participation in conversation among her tablemates, and for the remainder of the meal led them from one subject to the next, orchestrating a polite, intermittent exchange between bites. Buffy joined in on the light banter, occasionally directing an apprehensive glance toward her Watcher, but Giles surprised her, and managed to graze his way without incident though two heaping helpings of the chocolatey sweet pancakes. And through it all he chattered non-stop, foregoing his usual Giles-like stuffiness, his bubbling childish repartee proving itself to be uneasily interesting for a change.
They were finishing up their last bites when a knock at the front door interrupted them. Joyce rose and began to clear away the first of the dirty dishes from the table, leaving Buffy to see who was at the door.
“Yo, Buff!” Xander greeted her with a jaunty thumbs up gesture before sashaying across the threshold. Two steps inside the house the lank teen jerked to a halt, his face breaking into an expression of instantaneous bliss.
“You alright?” Buffy questioned the motionless teen.
“What is that incredibly delectable aroma?” Holding up his hands to stave off any reply, Xander took a deep, long whiff. An appreciative smile wrapped around his features as he idenfied what he believed to be the source of the tantalizing odor. “Your Mom made chocolate chip cookies.”
“Pancakes,” Buffy corrected, leading him into the dining room. “But don’t bother workin’ the hungry pity angle on her for the leftovers, ‘cause…” she added with a nod toward the crumb devoid plate sitting in front of Giles. “There ain’t any.”
But Xander was blinking, gaping at the young librarian. Acknowledging Giles with the universal surfer body language display that included a slouched posture and some head bobbing, the lank teen raised his hand in a closed fisted gesture with his thumb and pinky finger extended horizontally, his wrist tilting side to side in a loose waggle.
“Whoa, Dude! Surf’s up!” Approaching Giles, Xander threw a hand at him for an exchange of high fives, but the Brit merely returned a look of affronted annoyance, leaving the older boy standing uncomfortably, his hand hanging in mid-air.
Sailing into the room again, Joyce Summers smiled at Xander as she gathered up another round of dirty plates.
“Uh, hey, Mrs. Summers,” he beamed, nonchalantly changing his high five into a wave. Flopping down into the chair next to Giles, Xander stretched out his legs beneath the table. “And how are you doing on this fine and fair Sunday morning?”
“I’m doing just fine, thank you, Xander,” the older woman returned. Clearing off the last of the plates Joyce disappeared back into the kitchen, where she could be heard busying herself with clean-up duties.
“Your mum shouldn’t be doing those by herself. I’ll go and help,” Giles said. Jumping down from his perch he followed in the woman’s footsteps, skipping brightly across the room. Xander grinned, inclining his head as a noisy clatter arose from the kitchen.
“What’s with the Mother’s Littlest Helper routine?” he asked the blonde. “If you’re not careful, your Mom might decide she likes him best, and change the locks on your room the next time you go out.”
“Must be something about the way Brit’s bring up their kids,” Buffy sighed, taking her seat again. She finished off the last swallows of orange juice in her glass and set it aside. “I dunno. Maybe Giles just doesn’t want her to think he’s an ungrateful guest. Or, it could be some compulsive thing where he needs to feel useful. Mostly I think he’s trying to prove he’s a big boy and can do big boy things.”
At Xander’s clueless expression she leaned forward and explained.
“Mom thinks Giles has lost it - his bigness, adultness – more than we originally thought.” Frowning, she traced out an imaginary pattern on the tabletop with her fingertip as she considered her own words. “Mom’s right, Xander. Giles might still have his moments when he’s all Giles, but…” Her voice trailed away, reluctant to say what she knew to be true.
“Things are not of the good,” the boy perceptively concluded.
“Most definitely not.”
As they sat staring at each other in silence there was another knock at the door. Buffy hauled up out of her chair to answer the summons, and found Willow and Oz waiting on the front porch. The couple joined her, moving into the dining room and regrouping around the table.
“How’d it go last night?” Willow asked, curling up into the chair across from Xander. Looking at her friends’ faces she could see that something was wrong.
“Oh, you know,” Buffy replied with a casual shrug, plopping back down into her own seat. “You slay one morphing fish-faced water demon, you’ve pretty much slain them all. I wanted to bring Xander a souvenir. Thought he might like to keep her as a pet, set up one of those aquariums with the little bubble diver and the pretty colored stones. But I couldn’t find a plastic baggie big enough to get her home.”
Xander, however, seemed contentedly relieved to hear about her failure. “They say it’s the thought that counts.”
“I meant, how did it go with your new Watcher, Mr. Dodd?” Willow scolded. Her inquiry prompted a cautioning gesture to lower her voice, and an accompanying grimace from the slayer.
“Ugh! Don’t remind me,” Buffy grumbled, leaning back in her chair. “The guys a bona fide dimento of the first degree. He tried to kill Angel. Almost did. Would have if I hadn’t stopped him in time.”
“Angel was there?” Xander’s tone held and edge of undisguised jealousy. Buffy ignored the inquiry.
“Dodd didn’t care that Angel was risking his life to help us out. You’d think if someone had just saved you from a horrible death at the hands of a bloodthirsty hellbeast, it would count for something. But, no! All Dodd saw was Angel had fangs, and he’s all ready to make use of the nearest pointy wooden object. ‘The only good vampire is a dead vampire’,” she mocked bitterly, affecting the elder Brit’s clipped accent. “The guys an undead segregationist, and his kind never learn any different.”
“At least you got the Rusalka,” Willow timidly ventured. It was obvious Buffy found the issue of Dodd a sensitive one. “You did kill it?” the red head continued apprehensively. “Didn’t you?”
“Whupped her immortal butt,” the blonde affirmed cheerily. “No more Missy Rusalka.”
Behind them the wall mounted telephone outside the kitchen entry jangled noisily. Joyce Summers hurried to snatch up the receiver before anyone else could move, and the teens listened curiously as she spoke with the anonymous caller at the other end.
“Hello?” There was a long pause as the woman listened. “Just a minute. I’ll get him.” Xander and Oz exchanged looks, wondering who would be phoning them at the Summers’ home, but they discovered they were both mistaken as Joyce turned toward the kitchen and called out. “Rupert. It’s for you.”
Giles came bouncing enthusiastically into view within seconds. Handing off the receiver, Joyce slipped away, returning to her work as the librarian began his conversation. Having determined the call wasn’t for any of them, the teens proceeded to ignore the young Watcher, and resumed their briefly tabled discussion in hushed tones. Debate moved quickly from the previous night’s slaying activities onto how best to go about tracking down the elusive Waldo. As their talk slowly increased in volume and heated intensity, Giles resorted to shielding his free ear in an attempt to keep out the voices jabbering away incessantly behind him.
His exchange was brief, lasting only a few minutes. Hovering attentively nearby in the kitchen, Joyce Summers kept an eye on the young boy Brit as she pretended to work. She couldn’t hear everything Giles said, but it didn’t take long for her to know he was upset by the conversation’s turn. The librarian’s small hands gripped the receiver tightly, and he paced with growing agitation as he listened to his caller’s one-sided dialogue. His tiny fingers ran through his mop of thick hair, nervously twisting the locks into knotted strands and tugging at the roots. He began to speak several times, but abruptly fell silent again, apparently cut off by the person at the line’s other end. When the call came to an end Giles gently hung the phone back in its wall cradle. Removing his glasses, he wearily rubbed a hand over his eyes and sighed, his young countenance pursed in deep thought. To the world around him the small Brit projected an air of forced composure, but it was a tenuous façade, a lie ready to collapse at any given moment. Inside he was in a state of confused turmoil, his head spinning uneasily as he fought to control the wellspring of emotions rearing up inside of him.
“Rupert?” Joyce approached closer, her voice soft with motherly concern. Placing a hand on his small shoulder, she guided the Watcher into the kitchen, moving him away from the teens that continued to hammer out their plans, oblivious to either his discomfort or presence. “What is it?” the older woman asked. “Is something wrong?”
Giles looked up, his face pale and drawn with visible anxiety. For an instant Joyce thought she saw terror in the wide blue pools the gazed back at her so intensely. But then it was gone, and Giles was smiling, his manner calm and polite.
“That was Mr. Dodd,” the librarian explained, stepping further from the doorway so that they could speak quietly in private. Folding his glasses, Giles tucked them absently into his shirt pocket. “He’s arranged to meet with me today. He’d like us to go over my journals before…” He hesitated, the unspoken words sticking in his throat. “Before I, uhm…”
Joyce lay a sympathetic arm over his shoulder. “It’s alright,” she coached encouragingly, trying to set him at ease. “I understand. It’s hard to talk about leaving. No one wants you to go, and the kids are trying to fix things so you won’t have to. And if there’s anything you need, anything at all, I’m here, too.”
The words were meant as a comfort, but all Giles could feel was the sting of tears burning in his eyes. Fighting down the wave of emotion crashing inside him, he choked back a sob.
“I appreciate what you’ve done for me,” he said, swallowing the thick sorrow that swelled within his chest. “You’ve been more than kind. All of you. And while I don’t want to seem ungrateful, I don’t see how anyone can help. There simply isn’t enough time.”
“I know that it can look that way,” Joyce consoled, giving his shoulder a squeeze. “But everything will work out. Trust me. Things will get better, and very soon.”
“No. They won’t.” The small Watcher shook his head, his face scrunching sadly. “This isn’t a fairy tale. It’s real. And there isn’t going to be any ‘happily ever after’. All your promises, your good intentions, they aren’t going to make it so. You can’t fix this. Not you. Not anyone.”
He could feel the tear trickling down his cheek. Embarrassed, Giles turned aside in horror. Damn! It’s happening again. What is wrong with me? Stifling a tortured sob he attempted to reclaim his dignity, but the battle had already been lost, and nothing could stem the flow of tears that now washed down his face.
Seventeen years spent raising a daughter had honed Joyce’s maternal instincts, and she reacted accordingly, gathering the small crying boy against her. She hugged Giles in the envelope of a warm, motherly embrace, a gesture of compassion that did not go unappreciated. In an impetuous rush of childish need the Brit threw himself into the welcomed protection of her powerful clinch, and burying his fears in the natural healing magic of her arms, he let go of all the frustration and helplessness that pained him.
The sudden quiet that had fallen over the kitchen did not escape notice. Buffy had seen her mother and Giles slip off together, and it seemed to her that enough time had passed for the two of them to do the dishes twice over already. Curiosity began to feed the teen’s imagination, until she couldn’t take not knowing what was going on, and getting up from the table she left her friends to go and see what exactly was happening in the next room.
She moved cautiously, not sneaking, but keeping reasonably quiet. As she passed by Willow the red head gave her a questioning look, watching her in amusement as she crept forward toward the kitchen doorway. Holding up a finger to her lips, Buffy pleaded for her friend’s silent cooperation. The rest of the Scoobies complied with her request as well, and the blonde teen approached the entryway, pausing just within the framework to cautiously poke her head around the corner.
What Buffy found in the kitchen made her gasp in shock. To say she was traumatized by what she saw was a gross understatement, with gross being the operative word. It took all her slayer might not to scream out loud, her horror fueled by angst driven disgust, for her mother was holding Giles in what was undeniably a very full-body contact kind of hug.
Reeling backward into the dining room, Buffy spun against the wall, her hand pressed to her mouth to hold back the sounds of nausea that threatened to fly out of her. Her animated gagging and the doubled over gesture of gut wrenching discomfort that accompanied it drew looks of bewilderment from the three teens at the table. With a final shudder the blonde threw back her shoulders, steeling herself to take another peek as her friends sat by, anxious for some explanation for her alarming behavior.
This time Buffy was braced for, if not ready to face the wigging image of her parent and her Watcher in each others’ arms. It wasn’t like it was the first time she’d ever caught them like that. Less than a month ago she’d had the unfortunate chance to encounter the two of them clutching at each other like hormonally challenged teens, which is what they had become after consuming several pounds of cursed chocolate candy bars. Again with the sweet tooth, Giles? This problem goes a lot deeper than I thought. She’d hoped to never have to see either of them in such a compromising position again. Apparently that wasn’t the way things were going to be.
Timidly, her eyes dreading the moment soon to come, Buffy followed her nose around the corner and once again scanned the kitchen with her gaze. She could see the pair, standing near the counter island, her mother cradling Giles’ head as she ran her hand gently through his hair. Something about their posture made Buffy rethink her initial conclusionary leap. There was nothing remotely sexual in the couple’s hug. From the trembling muffled sobs that shook Giles’ body she could tell he was crying. Her mother was rubbing the Brit’s back, trying to soothe away his tears and offering up quieting words of comfort. No, this was not the scene of forbidden passion she had thought, but just a mother doing her best to ease a small child’s pain.
The shame that settled over her conscience proved a heavy mantle to bear. I’ve got to stop spying on other people’s private stuff, she frowned thoughtfully as she watched the couple. All her nosing around had reaped for her was nothing but scary badness, and she had no one but herself to blame for that. It was time she put her life of sneak peek crime behind her and come out into the open, where things were clearer.
Stepping back, Buffy gave her friends a sign that everything was okay, and clearing her throat loudly to announce her entry, she took a deep breath and walked boldly into the kitchen.
“Hey, guys. What’s up?” Strolling across the room she made for the refrigerator, her eyes firmly targeted on the appliance. She pretended not to see Giles as he hastily backed away from her mother, breaking out of her embrace with guilt-ridden anxiety written across his young features.
“B-buffy!” The Watcher’s voice raised in a choking squeak, his cheeks bright pink. Swiping a hand quickly across his moist face, Giles sniffled and surreptitiously dried his telltale tears. Buffy tactfully continued with her assumed ruse, opening the fridge door and feigning interest in what she found inside. Selecting a bottle of spring water, she let the door swing closed again as she popped the container’s cap and took a deep swig of the cold, clear liquid.
“So,” she said, attempting what she hoped was a note of casual interest. “Who was that on the phone?”
“No one,” the librarian calmly replied.
“No one?” She didn’t believe him for one minute. “You mean, like a wrong number or something? ‘Cause, for no one, you sure spent a lot of time yakking like it was a someone you knew.”
Giles flashed a contrite grimace. “It was Mr. Dodd,” he confessed.
“Ugh!” The teen grumbled sourly, her nose wrinkling with unconcealed disdain for the elderly Englishman. “Well, I guess that would explain the convenient little lie that just happened to pop out of you. I wouldn’t want anyone to find out I’d been talking with him either. What earth shattering thing of importance did Unjolly Olly have to say about himself?”
The youthful Watcher didn’t respond right away. He looked toward Joyce Summers as if seeking instruction on how best to answer the blonde’s query.
“Giles?” Buffy’s prompt drew him back to her.
“Hmmm? Oh, yes,” the Brit replied distractedly. He watched as Joyce moved away, returning to the sink full of unfinished dishes. Releasing a sigh, Giles finally addressed the issue that had been raised. “Mr. Dodd told me that he spoke with the Council last night. He informed them of your success with the Rulsalka, and they were quite pleased.”
“And?” Buffy wasn’t stupid. She could tell there was more. Taking another drink from her bottle she waited for her Watcher to continue.
“And then he apprised me on the progress regarding the plans for my departure. The Council has made arrangements to have an operative to act as escort for my flight to London.”
“Why?” the teen scoffed cynically. “Are they afraid you’ll bet lost? Must be nice to know they’re so worried about what happens to you.”
Giles’ smile was a wry twist. “I suspect the precaution stems more from a suspicion I might take off on an unscheduled side excursion than from any concern for my personal well being.”
“They think you’re going to try to run away?” She snickered gleefully at the idea of her tiny Watcher leading the Council’s forces on some wild goose chase across the hinterlands of America. Her amusement was short lived. A somber frown darkened her face as she contemplated her youtful friend. “You wouldn’t actually do something crazy like that, would you?” she asked, her brow furrowing with distress.
There was a noisy clunk from the sink behind her as Joyce dropped a pan.
“Darn soap,” the older woman cursed nervously. She threw a sheepish glance over her shoulder. “That pan slipped right out of my hands.”
Her anxious expression said a lot more to Buffy. The subject of running away still invoked unpleasant memories in the Summers’ household. Buffy could certainly understand her parent’s obsessive concerns. After all, she had contributed more than her fair share of paranoia to that particular maternal hysteria. Thankfully, Giles had also picked up on her mother’s agitation, and knew its source. With a dismissive shake of his thatch-topped head the Brit tucked his hands into the pockets of his trousers and shared a smile designed to set the woman at ease.
“Buffy, I’m old enough to know I can’t evade life’s problems by trying to run away from them. No matter how far one goes, it’s never distance enough to escape those things that are carried along with you.”
The teen nodded in perceptive agreement with the offered wisdom. Releasing a resolute sigh, Buffy leaned forward, resting her hip against the counter. “Sounds like the Council’s moving right along there. Maybe we should be stepping up our plans, too. Did Dodd happen to mention how much time we had? Three, four days?”
Developing an interest in the floor, Giles averted his face, his feet shuffling softly as he rocked back and forth. Immediately, and alarm went off in Buffy’s head. She didn’t like where she thought things were going. Giles’ hesitation meant one thing. Badness was about to hit.
“Uh, Giles?” She prodded the Watcher cautiously, trying to get him to go on. “I’m not Buffy the Amazing Mind Reader. You’re going to have to say something if you expect me to hear you.”
The silence grew, extending from merely uncomfortable seconds to an agonizing minute. Joyce turned around, and drying her hands with a dishtowel, she edged in closer to stand beside her daughter. There was a shroud of tension that had fallen over the kitchen. Nothing moved. No one spoke. In the next room Willow, Oz and Xander had become aware that something was going on, and had abandoned any attempt at conversation, adding their muteness to the growing gloom.
“Tomorrow.” The word dropped dully in the quiet kitchen, a lead-like whisper from the librarian’s lips. “You have until tomorrow evening.”
Buffy felt her heart thump. She couldn’t breathe, and all ability to think became suspended in her disbelief. She couldn’t have heard that right. Giles hadn’t said tomorrow, had he?
“I don’t understand,” she said, finally finding her voice again. “You said it would take days for them to get their act together. Don’t you need a passport, a birth certificate or something before you can leave?”
“Both are being forwarded as we speak. Mr. Dodd should have them in hand before the end of the day,” Giles announced with a flat finality. Brushing back the hair in his eyes the youthful librarian forced a resigned smile. “I’m afraid that it’s finished, Buffy. It’s over. Done. And there isn’t a thing you, I, or anyone else can do that will change that. It’s time I went home and packed my things.”
He started to walk away. Rousing from the stunned immobility that had momentarily gripped her, Buffy hustled around the kitchen island, scurrying to catch her Watcher before he could leave. She grabbed his arm, pulling him around in mid-step to face her, a fierce determination blazing in her green fire gaze.
“No,” she pronounced vehemently, denying his words. “You’re wrong, Giles. It’s not over. It’ll never be over, not while the guys and I are around to do something about it. Okay, I get the whole impending deadline of doom urgency here. I mean, tomorrow, only a day away and all. That just means we work a little harder, and a lot faster. I’m not about to give up because some wrinkly ol’ Council guys a thousand miles across the globe wants to take advantage of some special air fare deal.
“I’m the slayer,” she reminded, her tone softening as she dropped to a knee before the small Brit and gave him a gentle shake. “Fighter of hellbeasts. Averter of the apocalypse. I face the scourge of the underworld every day. A couple of crusty beefeaters tanked out on tea and shepherd’s pie shouldn’t be too tough to handle.”
Giles shook his head, brushing aside her argument. “You don’t know these people. The Council has powers you couldn’t begin to fathom. Coming up with proper documentation isn’t a problem. They have the means to create a complete identity for an individual, down to the smallest, convincing details. Traffic citations, unpaid bills. Nothing is impossible. And just as easily they can eliminate a person’s entire life on paper, every trace of their existence. A fate with far more unpleasant consequences that I would care to discover. No. I may not be keen on the way things have gone as of late, but my life, such as it is, is still mine, and I’d very much like to keep it that way.”
“You’re just going to give up?” she challenged, frowning at the small librarian. “You’re going to sit back and let the Council walk all over you, dictate what you’re going to do for the rest of your life?”
“Of course not,” Giles replied. “Eventually, I hope to regain my equilibrium as it were. But in the interim, it isn’t as though I have much say in the matter. If the Council insists I bow out of the picture, then I shall honor that request. I wouldn’t want to do anything that might cause difficulties for…anyone.”
“You mean for me,” the teen countered, immediately grasping what the Brit had left unsaid. “I don’t care about that, Giles. I need you. You’re my watcher. And that isn’t going to change because I’m taller than you, or that the gray’s gone out of your hair.” Smiling, Buffy lifted her young friend’s downcast chin, bringing his gaze up to her own. “Give me time. I’ll find a way to put it back for you.”
“I don’t doubt that for a minute,” Giles chuckled appreciatively.
“Don’t you worry about me. I mean, what can the Council do, anyway? Send out a postcard saying how upset they are? Yeah,” she snorted derisively, her tone a mocking scold. “Oooo! Bad slayer. You’ve been a naughty girl. No more scones for you! Like I even care what they think.”
“Well, then perhaps it’s time you did,” the librarian returned, his anger suddenly flaring. “I have enough to deal with as it is. I don’t need you to go about mucking things up.” The sound of his childish squawk made even Giles wince. Remorse quickly deflated his momentary tantrum. Stealing a brief glance in Joyce’s direction he unconsciously sought out solace in the woman’s motherly presence. A supportive smile was his prompt reward, and thus encouraged he found the strength to conquer the infantile emotions that had forced their way to the surface.
“These past days have been trying,” Giles shyly prefaced as he addressed the teen apologetically. “For you as well, I’m sure. There have been moments I’ve seriously doubted my own sanity. Friday’s lunch in the cafeteria springs to mind. A word to the wise?” The Brit leaned in closer, his tone laced with the sobriety of one with experience. “No matter the severity of your hunger, never take seconds on any heavily breaded meat substance that cannot directly be identified through the camouflage of surrounding gravy. The latent consequences simply aren’t worth the short term gratification.”
Buffy laughed. “Maybe now you’ll believe Xander when he talks about the dangers of guinea pig syndrome. That’s when you try something ‘new’ from the cafeteria menu,” she explained to her puzzled parent. “Not a task for the faint of heart. Or those without the benefit of a cast iron stomach.”
“I certainly have learned my lesson,” Giles added in adamant concurrence to the girl’s observance.
The tension that had flared up so suddenly in the room had just as quickly dissipated, and a bond of easy camaraderie bloomed between slayer and watcher. Buffy was overcome with the urge to give the small Brit a friendly cuff on the chin, but remembering Giles’ reaction when she had pinched his cheek earlier, she stifled the impulse, and gave him a timid pat on the shoulder instead.
“Come on, Oh Wise and Learned One,” she said, rising to stand. “We’ve got a busy day ahead of us.”
She started toward the dining room where the other Scoobies waited. After several steps she realized Giles wasn't with her, and baffled, she swung around to see why he wasn’t following.
“Now what?” she demanded, crossing her arms before her to stare down at the small librarian. “Need a special engraved invitation? Let’s move those tiny feet, Giles. Time’s a wastin’.”
The Brit remained rooted in place, however. He threw out a troubled frown before turning his gaze downward to avoid the slayer’s disarming eye.
“I-I’m afraid that I can’t stay, Buffy,” Giles explained, muttering his words toward the floor. “I have an appointment.”
“Appointment?” Buffy echoed flatly. “You’re blowing me off for an appointment? What could possibly be that important?”
“Buffy’s right,” Joyce interjected, stepping forward to add her opinion. “I’m sure if you called Mr. Dodd back and explained things, he’d understand.”
Her interruption drew an intense glare from the teen. Sensing she had tread into dangerous territory Joyce meekly withdrew, retreating back to the sink and her dirty dishes as her daughter swung her challenging glower around and brought it to aim upon her young Watcher. An involuntary tremor shook Giles’ body as he confronted the intimidating blonde that hovered over him, and suddenly he suspected what it must feel like to be a demon facing that same, menacing stare.
“Tell me,” Buffy sighed, scowling down at her meek Watcher. “Why is it that every time that man’s name comes up in a conversation, bad news follows? We’re running on a kinda tight schedule here, Giles, so no skirt chasing around the issue or conveniently glossing over important factoids. Just lay it out. The whole story.”
“There isn’t much to tell,” Giles began feebly. As he took a breath to continue he realized despondently that he no longer cared, even about this. He was too tired, to emotionally spent to fight the world around him. Raising his chin, he calmly met the slayer’s eyes. “Mr. Dodd has requested that I go over my journals with him. He would like to inventory my books as well, help me decide which volumes would be of the most use to you.”
“What do I want a bunch of old books for?” the teen scoffed quizzically. “Giles, you know when it comes to dealing with the slaying and fighting of evil, I’m strictly a hands on devotee. I get my hands on it, and deal out the pummeling.”
A faint smile slid across the librarian’s face. It was a rather simplified explanation of Buffy’s approach to slaying, but it was nonetheless accurate. Chuckling inwardly, he realized how much he was going to miss his friend. She was a unique young woman. True, at times he didn’t understand her strange perspectives on life. And she certainly could be exasperating. But she was a brave soul, the most heroic he had ever known. He could always count on her to find something humorous in the worst of situations, and in battle her sharp witted tongue often proved as treacherous as her fists, and one had best steer clear of both when she decided to let loose. Yes, Buffy was indisputably a special girl, and he wasn’t going to ever meet anyone like her back home in England.
Home. England. Giles sighed, contemplating his imminent departure. A surge of trepidation stirred within him. What did he have waiting for him back in England? He had no work, other than that he did for the Council. He had no home. There were friends, of course, though there were few he could confide in and hope to have understand his present condition. Truth be told, he did occasionally yearn to hear voices that spoke actual English. His kind of English, and not that American pseudo babble that passed for the Queen’s tongue over here. Admittedly, it would be nice to visit some of his old haunts. London. The museum. That place by Finsbury Park where he used to go and listen to the pub bands. What was it? The Sir George Robey. But, all that aside, what did he have waiting for him back there, in his homeland? And, was it even possible to go back, to pick up his life where he had left it so long ago in those dreary, pre-slayer days? The answers to these questions filled him with an anxious uncertainty that offset any hopes he might have for a possible future happiness.
“Ground control to Major Giles!” The Brit’s wandering mind snapped out of its wistful reverie. It was Buffy’s voice calling him back to the here and now. She was waving a hand before his face, commanding his full attention. “Have a nice trip? You looked like you were about a gazillion miles away there.”
Giles smiled, coloring pink in embarrassment at his social faux pas. “I suppose that I was,” he admitted. His mood decayed quickly to a gray glumness. “Or, I will be soon enough. Which is why I can’t put off my engagement with Mr. Dodd. He’s already on his way to meet me at my flat. It would be in bad form to keep him waiting. So, I’ll collect my things and be on my way.”
“But,” the teen protested, a hand preventing him from walking away. “What about Waldo? Willow wants to try some kind of locater spell. She was counting on you to give her a hand with it.”
“I don’t think that would be a good idea,” he frowned, shaking his head. “Not the bit about the spell, though I’m unsure Willow’s prepared to take on something that advanced. Magicks can be quite volatile, and should never be attempted by someone with questionable emotional stability. And, right now, that would mean any participation in conjuring on my part is unwise. I’m simply not able to focus properly.”
It was the offhanded calmness of Giles’ assessment that alarmed Buffy. As if reading her mind the young Watcher expanded on his explanation.
“I may be a mere child, but being young does not equate with a lack of intelligence. I’m aware that my behavior of late had been somewhat erratic. I don’t aim to compound matters further and endanger others with my imprudence. What I do know is this. I need to stay in the Council’s graces if I’m to have a future, cured or otherwise. And that is why I have to go. Now. Believe me, if there were something I could do, some way around this…” Giles sighed, the timbre of his voice straining in a frustrated whine.
“But, there isn’t. I haven’t a choice in this matter. If I did, I wouldn’t be spending the hours I have left listening to some insipid git prattle on ad nauseum about the quality of my penmanship, or my poor posture. I’d much rather be here. Working. Talking. Or – or…” His voice caught, a thin wail escaping from his throat as he turned a pleading gaze on the slayer. “Oh, Buffy! I don’t want to go. I wanna stay with you!”
He delivered the declaration at such an intensified volume that Buffy was stunned. The noise brought the rest of the teens running, and they piled into the kitchen to see what was going on. Willow, Oz and Xander joined what had become a throng of faces that had made Giles the center of unwanted and uncomfortable attention. Feeling small and helpless, the Brit felt himself tottering on the brink of an emotional collapse. Tears sprang into his eyes, blinding him with their moist haze as panic flooded his tenuous hold on adult reasoning. The strange rush of immature hysteria had become too intense to ignore, and as the fragile shell of adulthood fell way in a rush, he let loose with a wrenching sob, blurting out an unintelligible apology. Then, bolting out of the kitchen he ran down the center hall, breaking down in an infantile display of uncontrolled weeping.
She was about to chase after her fleeing watcher when Buffy’s mother stepped forward to stop her.
“Buffy, don’t,” Joyce gently remanded her daughter, holding her back with a look.
“But, Mom…” The teen stared at her parent, uncomprehending. She could hear Giles clambering up the stairs, his tiny feet making more noise than she would have thought possible. His footsteps continued overhead, retreating along the hallway, his pathetic sobs increasing in intensity with every step. Unable to bear the misery in her friend’s wailing cries, Buffy ignored her mother’s warning and started down the hall.
“Let him go.”
Turning back, the blonde confronted her parent, anger burning in her expression of disbelief. “God, Mom! How can you stand there and listen to that? Giles needs me.”
“What he needs is a few minutes alone,” the woman countered. Setting down the pan she had been washing, Joyce grabbed a dishtowel to dry her damp hands and moved to her daughter’s side. A sad smile graced her features as she gently drew the objecting teen back into the kitchen and steered her over to one of the stools by the island counter. “I know that you want to help Rupert. And so do I. But this is something he has to work though on his own. Trust me on this one, dear. A little time will help change his perspective.”
“But - ” Plunking down on the stool Buffy chewed thoughtfully on her lip. She was trying to see the wisdom in her mother’s words. Her mother certainly had more experience with kids. Shouldn’t that mean she knew what to do? Still, it didn’t feel right to her, letting Giles suffer all on his own, without any comforting.
“The right thing isn’t always the easiest to do,” Joyce said, draping an arm around her daughter’s shoulders and hugging her close. “The hardest thing about being a parent is standing by and watching your child make their own mistakes. But it’s the only way they can learn to take care of themselves. And that is the whole point of growing up. Even when it’s for the second time around.”
Her shoulders slumping in deference to her mother’s advice, Buffy leaned into her parent’s embrace. Upstairs she could hear Giles’ muffled sobs continuing unabated.
“Poor, Giles,” Willow sniffled. “There must be something we can do for him.”
“He understands that you’re all doing the best you can,” Joyce assured the distraught red head. “Just don’t give up on him. He still needs you, now more than ever, even if it’s only to let him know that you care.”
Willow nodded, turning to her friends. “You guys have to help me with the locator spell. We’re going to need some stuff from the magic shop, and there’s some directions in Latin we’re going to have to translate. I was kinda hoping Giles would be able to do it, but it looks like we’re pretty much on our own with this one.”
“I can make an herb run later” Oz volunteered.
“And can we swing by my place, too?” Willow asked. “I think I have a spare Latin dictionary at home.”
“Sounds like we’ve got our alternatives all covered then,” Buffy pronounced. Leaning back she gave her parent a questioning look. “It’s okay if Willow does her thing here, isn’t it?”
“I’ll be careful, Mrs. Summers,” the red head vowed sincerely. “Plus, it’s a virtually no mess magic spell, just a little magick sand to clean up after. And I’ll run the vacuum.”
“That’ll be fine,” the woman replied.
“We won’t be long,” Willow informed her companions, and exiting the kitchen with her boyfriend in tow, the nouveau witch took off to run her errands.
“What now, O Fearless Leader?” Xander queried his blonde companion.
“I guess we wait,” the teen sighed. Her mother gave her another encouraging squeeze. Upstairs, the librarian continued to weep. His cries were slowly beginning to wind down, and his tortured sobs were less stabbing, but still despairing to hear.
Observing her mother’s face, Buffy could see her own discomfort mirrored in the woman’s concern. It seemed that her mother wasn’t completely immune to Giles’ pain after all. An uneasiness crept over the teen as she recognized the familiar lines etching her mother’s matronly features. There was a drawn tightness around her mouth, a weary sadness in the older woman’s eyes. Buffy had seen that look many times before, and she had been the cause of it then. Finally, she understood. Being a parent meant there were times you had to let go, even when your heart was telling you to hang on tighter. It was feeling someone else’s pain and knowing nothing you did would stop it. If this was what being a mother was all about, she didn’t want to have any kids of her own. It hurt too much.
Joyce Summers rested her chin lightly atop her daughter’s head and stroked her blonde hair. A silent bond had been fused between the two women, bridging the expanse of the generation in their ages. And as they listened to the distant whimpering overhead they knew that a deeper respect had been forged from their shared heartache, and that neither would take the other’s love lightly ever again.