Giles accepted the cup Xander handed to him. "Thank you."
"No problem." He settled into the blue padded seat beside the older man and took a cautious sip of the hot coffee. The airport seating area across from the check-in area was almost deserted. The only other early morning traveler, a young woman sitting near the wall, was focused on the screen of her laptop. "Seems like the least I could do after yapping about my date with Carrie all the way here."
"I'm glad you had a good evening."
"I'm glad she's human."
Giles laughed at the heart-felt comment. "I also appreciate you getting up so early to drive me to the airport, especially when you were out so late last night."
"You know me," Xander said cheerfully. "Never miss a chance for a good cup of joe."
Giles choked on his tea and groped for a napkin.
Xander frowned. "You okay?"
"Ummm… yes." He cleared his throat. "I assume from the colorful idiom that you and Lessa have been watching gangster movies again"
Xander grinned. "You've gotta see her Edward G. Robinson impression to believe it. She does 'you dirty rat' better than anyone else I know."
"You're quite fond of her, aren't you?"
"Yeah." Xander set the coffee cup on the chair arm began to idly spin it in circles. "You know, in a weird way she reminds me of Anya. Not in a we-wanna-date kinda way, but more we-enjoy-doing-goofy-stuff-together kinda way."
"Anya was a very special person," Giles said. "I miss her too, perhaps more than I ever thought possible."
Xander continued to spin his coffee cup. "I really let her down, Giles. She lived such a short life as a human, and I should have made it easier for her. Instead of telling her how I felt, I ran out on the wedding and just left her standing there all by herself. But even after what I did, she didn't leave us. She died fighting for us because she thought it was the right thing to do."
He interrupted with a desperate rush of words. "If you're going to say I'll get over it in time, then just don't say anything."
"That's certainly not what I was about to say," Giles said sharply, before continuing more gently. "We all make mistakes. All you can do is try to correct the ones you can and learn to live with the ones that you can't."
Xander leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. "Sure sounds easy, but how do you do it? Haven't you ever done anything that you know there's no way to fix, no matter how much you want to?"
Giles stared at him in silence for a moment and then began to laugh in a way that held no amusement. "I just realized there's a certain irony in giving advice on relationships when I've managed to muck up my own so thoroughly."
"Jo and I have gone our separate ways," Giles said, staring down at the worn carpet.
Xander contemplated the older man for a moment. "Is that Giles-speak for you guys have broken up?"
"That would be an accurate translation." He continued to stare at the floor.
"When did this happen?"
"Ouch." Xander sat the coffee cup on the floor, leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. "Does anyone else know?"
"Buffy." Giles shifted restlessly. "It seems that she had a similar experience with Brad. Although, I believe their good-bye was much more cordial. She mentioned something about still being friends."
Xander flinched. "Double ouch."
"Not that I'm surprised. About Buffy and Brad, I mean. He's a nice enough guy and everything, but even with just one eye I could see the overwhelming non-chemistry between them."
"You could?" Giles sounded dubious.
Xander shrugged. "Sure. I guess on the surface it looked like a good match, but for Buffy there was one great, big problem with him."
Xander smiled smugly. "He wasn't you."
"Hey, Buffy." Willow looked up from screen on her laptop. The top of the kitchen table was covered with papers and open textbooks and sitting on top of a stack of papers was a half-eaten bowl of soggy cereal. "What are you doing up so early? I thought you didn't go in to work today till after lunch."
"I don't." Buffy took a glass out of the cabinet, opened the refrigerator and poured a glass of orange juice. "There's something I want to tell you and since Xander's taking Giles to the airport and Dawn is still at Liz's sleepover, it seemed like a good time for some serious girl talk."
Willow hit 'save' and pushed her chair back from the table. "What degree of serious are we talking about? Darjeeling with a dash of lemon or Fudge Brownie Ripple with mounds of whipped cream?"
Buffy paced to the far end of the kitchen, swung around and started back toward the table. "Giles and Jo broke up last night."
"Oh, that's too bad. He didn't say anything when he left this morning, but I guess that's not the sort of thing you just blurt out. Which you did, but then again, blurting out is much more a Buffy thing than a Giles thing." Willow stopped and took a breath. "I'll make tea."
"Brad and I sort of broke up last night, too."
Willow stood up. "I'll get the ice cream. You get the bowls."
Buffy took a quick sip of juice. "We're still friends, so it's all of the good. That's not what I want to talk about."
"Okay." Willow sat back down. "Breaking up with a boyfriend no longer requires ice cream. My entire perception of the universe just shifted on its axis."
Buffy stared at her for a moment and then burst into tears.
Willow jumped to her feet, grabbed a fistful of napkins and hurried over to her friend. "There's absolutely no problem with the universe. None whatsoever. Okay, still struggling for a unified theory of the classical fields of gravitation and electromagnetism which complies with the geometric paradigm of Einstein's theory of relativity, but otherwise everything is just peachy keen."
Buffy exchanged the glass of juice for the napkins and dried her face. "I'm okay. It's just that when you made with the snark you sounded so much like him."
Willow frowned. "Brad, Mr. I'm-so-polite-I'm-probably-some-kind-of-demon, was snarky? When?"
Buffy shook her head. "Not Brad. Giles."
"Why would that make you cry?" Willow tipped her head to the side. "Unless, he's not coming back. That's it, isn't it? You're crying because Giles is going back to England for good and that's what the serious talk is going to be about." She tossed the half-full glass of juice into the sink, completely ignoring the sound of shattering glass. "Get your coat! We're going to go to the airport and drag his British butt off that plane."
"Calm down," Buffy said. "Giles is coming back."
Willow paid no attention. "What if him leaving is partly my fault? I really hurt his feelings when I didn't believe him about Dr. Forrester. What was I thinking? Why wouldn't the she-bitch from hell hit on Giles? I mean, I'd hit on Giles."
Buffy's eyes widened. "You would?"
"Well, sure. If it wasn't really Giles and just some guy who looked like him and talked like him and played the guitar like him, I'd be glad to take a walk on the Gilesy side of the street."
Buffy bristled at the perceived insult. "Why just some guy who looks like Giles? What's wrong with the real thing?"
Willow snorted in disbelief. "Well, duh, Buffy. He belongs with you."
"I can't believe you've been sneaking around meeting this guy. I really can't believe you didn't tell me before." Liz snapped her gum. "You do realize that a secret rendezvous with a weird, old guy at the mall is so last year's movie-of-the-week."
"He's not weird," Dawn defended. "Besides, I told you, he knows Giles. Can you imagine Giles being friends with anyone that's not totally trustworthy?"
"No," Liz admitted. "He does sort of always want to know where you're going and what you're going to be doing. He may not be as nutszoid as your sister…"
"No one is."
"…but he's still a lot more strict than my dad."
"Then go away already," Dawn ordered. "Randall's supposed to be here any minute and I don't want him to see you."
"Fine," Liz huffed. "But when your face shows up a poster, I'm going to be there to say I told you so."
Giles gazed at Xander, dumbfounded. "What do you mean the problem was that he wasn't me?"
"C'mon, G-man. Don't you know by now that you're the guy that the Buffster measures every other guy on the planet against?" Xander frowned thoughtfully. "Although I'm not sure she's figured that out yet. So maybe the reason you never knew was because she doesn't know."
"That makes no sense whatsoever."
"Sure it does," Xander insisted. "After we got here, while I was sitting around feeling sorry for myself, I had a lot of time to think about things. One of the things I thought the most about was you and Buffy."
"What about us?"
"Well, among other things, I think you should ask her out."
"Belongs with me?" Buffy's voice rose to a squeak. "What do you mean?"
"He's your Watcher, isn't he? That's always been the most important thing in his life. Even back when you were being a total bitcha…"
"Hey." Buffy pouted for a minute. "Okay, not denying it's true, but still, let's not stomp all over the Slayer's feelings."
Willow rolled her eyes. "What I mean is that Giles always puts you first. Well, except for the going away when you were, well, um, newly back and all, and I'm still trying to figure that one out. But anyway, since Giles isn't dating Jo anymore and you aren't dating Brad this is the perfect time."
"For what?" Buffy asked suspiciously.
Willow bounced in place. "For you to ask Giles out on a date."
"You think I should date Buffy?" Giles couldn't have sounded any more astonished if Xander had suggested a romantic weekend getaway with Elspeth.
"I can see this is not a suggestion you were expecting."
"That's something of an understatement."
"Think about it," Xander prompted. "The two of you make the perfect team. Didn't you ever wonder why she was so pissed off at you last year? It was because she was still angry that you left her."
Giles frowned with suspicion. "Have you talked to Buffy about this?"
"No!" Xander cleared his throat. "But…"
"I'm beginning to understand why Buffy dislikes that word," Giles said half under this breath.
"Never mind." He fixed Xander with a glare that sent vampires scurrying for cover. "Exactly who have you been discussing this with?"
"Xander thinks I should date Giles?" Buffy walked to the nearest chair and sat down.
"When he first told me, I wasn't sure about it. I mean Giles was dating Jo and you were dating Brad, but the more Xander talked about how great you and Giles would be as a couple, the more sense it made."
"You think it makes sense?"
"Totally! I mean, you've always been so incredibly possessive of him. Even back in high school it was pretty obvious that you were jealous of Faith. You can't even hear the name 'Olivia' without making a weird grimace… There! That's the one!" There was a long silence while Willow looked at Buffy expectantly. "Well? Was Xander right or has he been snorting too much sawdust?"
Buffy started to smile. "Xander's a genius."
The redhead clapped her hands together. "You're really going to do it then? You're going to ask Giles out?"
"The minute he gets back from England," Buffy promised.
Giles glanced at his watch. "I'd better be going. The line at security isn't very long, but with my luck, I'll be called over for the strip search."
"A visual I didn't need, Giles." Xander stood up and smiled. "But hey, have a good trip and promise me that you'll think about what I said about you and Buffy, okay?
Giles pushed himself up out of his chair. "Xander, I assure you that I shall be thinking of little else."
"Where are you?" Dawn demanded, holding the cell phone to her ear and searching the field of faces in the crowded mall. "You said you'd meet me by the carousel and I've been waiting and waiting."
"Ah yes, waiting... pity that," Ethan purred, his voice giving away no hint of the burning pain still racking his body. He stared across the busy food court at his frustrated young friend pacing back and forth beside the line for the carousel. "Sorry, luv. There was a last minute change of plans and I had to run out of town. Rupert isn't my only active case you know." He could see her face fall with the news and it made him smile. A couple of mall patrons eyed him curiously as they passed and he stepped back, slipping deeper into the shadows of a corner utility closet.
"You're leaving?" Dawn couldn't keep the disappointment out of her voice. "Without saying goodbye or anything? Is this like some English guy habit or something?"
"I thought you wouldn't even notice I was gone." His voice lowered to a tone that vibrated with feeling.
"You know I would," Dawn assured him, wandering across the way toward a jewelry store.
"No need to patronize, luv," he said in a bit of a huff, watching hopefully as Dawn unknowingly headed right for him. "You've been so occupied lately, with school and your social life..."
"What do you mean?" Dawn asked. "You're like a regular part of my schedule now, with our yoga sessions and our diet-be-damned snack attacks afterward. And what about our shopping sprees and long mall walks and..."
Ethan began to close the utility closet door, leaving only a sliver for him to observe his Dawn's approach. "Yes, well..."
"I'm not done," she interrupted firmly. "With all the late night emails and the sound of your voice talking to me from my crappy computer speakers, telling you about my day and listening to your advice. Falling asleep on you...," she giggled with a shy smile. "I'd miss you, Randall. I'd miss you a lot."
Ethan felt something stir, low and burning within him as she stopped at the window of the jewelry shop, barely ten feet from his grasp. So close, he could feel her energies calling to him. "But you have young Brian to keep you company." His voice rumbled.
"You can forget about Brian." She stepped closer still and Ethan raised his hand to the door, pressing his palm to the painted metal, trying to feel her reaching out to him. "I am so over him."
"Are you, now?" Ethan sounded incredulous. Perhaps the spell hadn't been unsuccessful after all.
"Totally." Dawn tossed her hair over her shoulder, almost bumping into someone with the gesture. She shuffled out of the way, moving to the wall and facing out toward the passing herd of shoppers. "I can't wait to tell you about Mark."
The silence stretched for several moments. "Then we will certainly have to get together soon." He tensed, preparing for a single swift motion. In a heartbeat, he could capture her wrist, haul her into the closet, shove her up against wall and do what he pleased with her as the sounds of playful children masked her cries. He cracked the door open, readying himself as she unwittingly stepped backwards to him.
"Seriously?" Dawn breathed a sigh of relief. "You can come back? When?"
"Well, I should be back in time for your Mr. Giles' birthday," he said softly, slipping his hand out, inches from her wrist. His pulse pounded.
"Giles' birthday?" Dawn blinked. "When's that?"
Ethan froze. He couldn't help the smile that spread along his lips. "Why this Friday, my dear. Rupert turns 50. Didn't you know?"