"Buffy, don't you think this might be a little too much?" Willow asked weakly. She pushed her orange juice glass aside and gazed in stunned disbelief at the most recent list of instructions before casting a pleading look at Xander who shrugged as if to say, 'You're on your own with this one.'"
"I want everything to be perfect." Buffy finished another list and handed it to Xander. "These need to be done right away."
"Yes, sir, General Buffy, sir." Xander sat up straight and saluted.
Buffy's eye narrowed in annoyance. "This isn't funny. We don't have much time."
"It's just a birthday party," Willow said, using a tone she would likely use to talk someone in off of a ledge. "You know… cake, ice cream, maybe a few balloons."
"All that stuff is on there."
Willow glanced at her list. "Along with about ten thousand other things."
"It has to be a birthday that Giles will remember," Buffy insisted.
"He's going to be fifty," Dawn mumbled around a mouthful of Cheerios. "Maybe he'd rather forget that he's well… you know… ancient."
"Giles isn't old!" Buffy protested.
"Since when?" Dawn swallowed. "You've always picked on him about being old."
"That was before."
Dawn cocked her head. "Before what?"
"Never mind," Buffy ordered. "It's time for school. Willow and I can drop you off and Xander will pick you up this afternoon."
"I don't want to hear any more but's! I swear I gonna slay the next person who uses that word." Buffy gathered her books and papers and stormed out of the room.
They sat in silence for a moment then Xander turned to Willow and Dawn. "Maybe she got bit in the butt by a Conjunction Demon." When Willow's mouth fell open he smiled smugly. "Bet you thought all I did in English was sleep."
"Actually, I thought all you did in English was stare at Cordelia's chest."
"It was English class." Xander's smile grew wider. "I stared at her butt, too."
"Sorry it took me so long. Traffic was awful."
Xander whirled around from the display rack and broke into a smile when he saw Carrie Whedon. "Hi. Thanks for coming."
She pulled off her rain cap and shook off the water. "I've got to admit this is the first time I've been called out on a balloon emergency."
Xander shoved his hand in his coat pocket and pulled out a list. "How was I supposed to know there'd be so many different choices for everything? If I bring home the wrong thing Buffy's going to rip out my liver... with a corkscrew."
Carrie giggled. "Dawn said something about Buffy being totally obsessed with everything being perfect for your friend's birthday party."
"She's gone nuts," Xander said bluntly. "I don't know what it is with the Buffster and special occasions. She's already cleared out most of Whispering Pines' party products but we apparently need still more." He gestured with the list. "I fear for our sanity. Twenty four hours until Giles gets back, and she's channeling Martha Stewart... with PMS."
Carrie shuddered. "That's scary on so many levels."
"Tell me about it." Xander made a face. "Think you can save me or should I just pick up some Fava beans and a nice Chianti on the way home?"
Carrie plucked the list out of his hand and examined it. "This doesn't look too complicated."
Xander snorted and pointed at one of the items. "'Teal?' Isn't he a character on Stargate SG-1?"
She gave him an amused look. "Teal is a blue-green color in the same family as aquamarine and turquoise."
Xander looked suspicious. "You just made that up."
"Nope." Carrie shook her head. "C'mon, let's talk confetti, streamers, and balloons with the nice salesclerk and then you can buy me that pizza lunch you promised."
Xander's cell phone rang. He looked at the number and sighed. "It's Buffy again. I think we're going to clear out Eugene too."
Giles saw her waving from outside the roped off security area as he came down the escalator. He waved back and then stepped aside to let a younger woman go past the security guard first. Three young children jumped all over her yelling for presents. He made his way around the crowd towards the bouncing redhead and a few seconds later, he found himself with his arms full of Willow in full babble.
"It's so good to have you back!" The words were accompanied by a rib-crushing squeeze. "How was your trip? Did you get the new slayer to the coven? How about Christina? Did you have a chance to see her? What else did you do while you where there?"
He returned the affectionate embrace before turning them both to follow the
small crowd to the baggage claim area. He ticked each point off as he answered. "It's wonderful to be back. The trip was long and tiring. Ellen is indeed settled in with the coven. I did speak with Christina, but only for a moment. Percy had a rather full schedule planned for me so I mostly worked."
Willow gave a playful slap at his shoulder, before linking her arm through his. "You're getting a lot better at that. Back when we first met, that many questions would have sent you scurrying for tea."
Willow gave him an amused look. "I guess dealing with teenagers wasn't something they taught you at Watcher's school."
"No. Although I believe Percy has added a sub-category to the Demonology curriculum that addresses the subject." They reached the baggage claim area and stood waiting along with everyone else from the flight. Giles looked around with studied casualness. "I thought some of the others might have come with you."
Willow bit her lip to keep from grinning. "Nope. Just me. Dawn was on-line, chatting with one of her friends, Xander was out in his workshop, and Buffy said something about soaking in a long, hot bubblebath before she had to start sharing the bathroom again."
"If she spent any more time in that bathtub she would need gills," Giles grumbled.
Willow laughed and hugged him again.
"What was that for?" he asked in bemusement.
"Just a thank-you for giving me an idea about some water saving measures I'm going to suggest to Buffy."
Dawn stuck the last piece of tape in place then picked up the box to examine it. Shocking pink paper covered with the images of flying pigs was encircled by bright purple ribbons and topped by an enormous bow of the same color. She held it out to the camera. "What do you think?"
"Very... festive," Ethan said agreeably.
Dawn put the package back on the bed. "That's everything then. I'd better get downstairs. They should be here any minute and I want to see Giles' face when he walks in and gets a look at everything."
"I have to admit, I would rather enjoy seeing that myself."
"I wish you could be here." Dawn sat down on the edge of the bed and stared into the camera. "It's not fair. If you hadn't told me about Giles' birthday we wouldn't even be having a party. You're the one who reminded the Council about sending a gift, too."
"Ah, so it did arrive." Ethan's voice was filled with satisfaction. "Excellent. I would have liked to deliver it in person, but under the circumstances, it just wasn't possible."
"The messenger dropped it off yesterday afternoon," Dawn confirmed. "Do you know what it is?"
"I believe it can best be described as a bit of Rupert's history."
"That's nice," Dawn said with a distinct lack of interest. "Probably a book or scroll or something."
"Or something," Ethan agreed with a laugh. "Now run along, luv. You don't want to miss any of the fun."
Willow parked the SUV and unclipped her seatbelt. "Xander said to tell you to leave your things and that he'd bring them in later."
Giles stifled a yawn. "Normally I would argue that I'm perfectly capable of carrying my own bags, but at the moment I'm just too tired to protest. I just want some peace and quiet and about eighteen hours of uninterrupted sleep."
"About that …," Willow began just as Giles opened the front door.
"SURPRISE! HAPPY BIRTHDAY!"
Giles got the impression of grinning faces but before he could say anything Dawn was hugging him and tugging at his hand. "You've gotta see this," she said, pulling him into the family room past balloons, streamers, and tables loaded with enough food to feed an army of hungry Xanders. "Tell me this isn't the craziest cake you've ever seen!" There, sitting alone on a table in front of the window, was a birthday cake sized jelly-filled donut topped with candles.
He looked over at Buffy who looked back with equal measures of love and laughter in her expression. She shrugged. "I wanted just the right cake and couldn't find anything that seemed to fit. You're not exactly a white cake and buttercream flowers type of guy."
"Hardly," he agreed lightly, swallowing around the lump in his throat. "Thank you. It's..."
"Really weird," Dawn supplied, grunting when Buffy elbowed her in the ribs.
He hesitated thoughtfully and then said, "Quite wonderful."
Buffy broke into a wide smile. "Really? You like?"
He smiled back at her. "Very much."
"Let's not just stand around admiring it!" Xander clapped Giles on his shoulder. "Light the candles and have the birthday boy make a wish so we can eat it."
"No!" Dawn protested. "Presents then food!" She tugged on his hand again and led him to the sofa. "Mine first." She looked at the table where the gifts were displayed. "Oh, no, I left it upstairs." She grabbed a box wrapped in silver foil and an elaborate black bow and shoved it into his lap. "Here, open this one. I'll be right back."
"Gee, I wonder where she learned to be so bossy?" Xander asked no one in particular.
Giles tried to suppress a laugh and failed. "I can't imagine."
Buffy sat down on the arm of the sofa. "Go ahead and finish laughing at your Slayer so you can rip into the loot. A messenger delivered this one and we've been dying to know what it is."
"It doesn't rattle," Xander added helpfully.
Giles gave them all an amused look and then tore away the outer wrapping to reveal a box containing the logo of an exclusive London shop.
Willow peered over his shoulder. "I think that's one of those places where they check your bank balance before they let you through the door."
"I would imagine it's from Percy," Giles said.
"Or Olivia," Buffy added sourly.
Willow grinned at the instinctive grimace.
Giles gave Buffy a wry smile. "I doubt it."
"Just open the darn thing already," Xander said.
Giles lifted the top off the box pulled back the tissue paper. When his fingers brushed against the soft material, his breath caught in his throat. He could hear a dull roaring in his ears as the enticement of long forgotten dark magicks danced over his skin.
"Wow!" Willow leaned in closer for a better look. "It looks just like the leather jacket you were wearing in the pictures… the ones we sort of looked at without permission and agreed never to mention… so, never mind. Great jacket."
"The G-man and black leather. I bet I know someone who likes that idea." Xander cast a teasing look at Buffy.
Buffy didn't respond. Her full attention was focused on her Watcher. Something about the frozen stillness of his body as he stared at the jacket sent all her protective instincts rushing to the forefront. "What's wrong?"
"I…" Giles thrust the box away, dropping it to the floor. "Please, excuse me." He surged to his feet and bolted toward the kitchen.
A screaming silence filled the room.
"Okay. That was really weird, " Xander said finally. "Even by Giles' standards."
"Wait here. I'll talk to him." Buffy got to her feet and headed to the kitchen.
Dawn burst into the room. "Here's my… Hey, where's Giles?"
The kitchen was deserted. Buffy stared at the back door for few seconds, then turned and sprinted up the back staircase to Giles' bedroom. She tapped lightly. There was no response and she knocked again, harder this time. This time she didn't wait to see if he would answer, she just turned the handle and went inside, shutting the door behind her. "You might as well go ahead and tell me what's wrong, because I'm not leaving until you do."
Giles got up from where he was sitting on the bed. He pulled his sweater over his head and tossed it down beside an open box of papers and photos. "This doesn't concern you."
Without ever looking her direction, Giles disappeared into the bathroom. She walked over to the bed and noticed an old photo of Ethan and Giles on top of the pile of pictures and letters. She heard the sound of running water and when he returned a few moments later the front of his t-shirt was splattered with drops of water and he was drying his face with a towel.
He tossed the towel on the bed. "I'll be down in a few minutes to apologize to Willow and Xander."
Buffy ignored the dismissal. "Forget the damn apology. What's going on? What made you freak out down there?"
He took a step towards her, then halted as if he were afraid to touch her. He turned and went back across the room, keeping his back to her and staring out the window. "The jacket was mine long ago. It has nothing to do with you," he said in a carefully neutral tone of voice.
"Of course it does. Anything that has to do with you concerns me."
"No. It doesn't." He spoke matter of factly.
Buffy jerked as she had been slapped in the face. "I thought…"
"I'm sorry, Buffy, but you thought wrong."
Willow picked up the box containing the jacket and set it on the sofa. "Remind me not to ever buy Giles any clothes."
"What happened?" Dawn demanded, looking from Willow to Xander
"I don't know. Everything was going okay, then all of a sudden Giles tosses this…," Xander reached down and plucked the jacket out of the box, "…on the floor and runs likes he's got demons chasing him."
Dawn shook her head. "Maybe the birthday curse skipped Buffy this year and whammied Giles instead."
"I would never have guessed that someone who wore tweed would be so picky." Xander examined the jacket more closely before slipping it on. "What do you think? Do I look more like James Dean or Marlon Brando?"
"You look more like Marlo Thomas." Willow tugged at the sleeve. "Now take it off before Giles gets back."
"I think I deserve an explanation," Buffy said sharply.
He gave no signs of having heard her, continuing to look out the window.
"Giles?" When he didn't answer, she closed the distance between them and rested both hands on his shoulders. "Talk to me. Whatever it is, let me help." Her voice was determined, emphasizing each word. "It's what people who love each other do."
He drew a deep breath. "While I was in England, I had a lot of time to think." He turned back to face her , taking both of her hands in his. He raised them up and pressed them against his chest. "You're so very young and I'm fifty years old."
"And you even have a giant donut to prove it."
For a moment, it looked as if he might smile, then he shook his head. "Buffy, that jacket is a reminder that even without the vast difference in age, there are things you don't know about me. Some of what I did, happened before you were even born," he paused for emphasis. "But there are also things I've done since… You don't know what sort of a man I really am."
Buffy squeezed his hands tightly. "Yes. I do. I know that you and Ethan were involved with dark magick and I'm sure you did things that I would hate. I met Eyghon and it took me a long time to get over that. But," she emphasized with a slight smile and repeated, "but you're a man who has helped save the world more times than I can count. You're also the man who devoted himself, heart and soul, to a job he never really wanted."
"I could never regret being your Watcher." He suddenly pulled her to him and buried his face in her hair. She felt a shudder run through him, swiftly suppressed. "I'm just not sure that I have the right to allow myself to be more," he whispered, his voice muffled against her shoulder.
"Just let me be your friend for now," she murmured softly. "Please don't push me away."
His embrace tightened in response.
Buffy rubbed his back for a moment, before speaking again. "Giles?"
"You said that the jacket was yours?"
"Who sent it?"
That got his attention, and he pulled away enough to look at her face. "What do you mean?"
"We thought it was something from the Council, but that's not the kind of thing Percy would do."
"Ethan," he said eventually, bitterness tinting his voice. "He's the one who had the jacket last. I should have known that he would show up sooner or later."
Buffy and Giles turned to find Dawn peeking around the opened door. She stepped inside, looking strangely unsurprised at seeing them in one another's arms.
"Ethan Rayne is someone I knew a very long time ago," Giles explained, dropping his arms from around Buffy and taking a step back.
"I remember that name," Dawn said. "He's the guy with the Halloween costumes who almost got Buffy eaten by vampires."
"That's him," Buffy agreed. "Good ol' Ethan. I can hardly wait for the chance to punch him again."
"He's probably on another continent by now," Giles said. "I imagine he has finally learned his lesson about sticking around to see what happens after he plays one of his little tricks."
Buffy realized Dawn had wandered over to the bed and picked up the photo of Ethan and Giles and was staring at it as if mesmerized. "Who is this?"
Buffy smiled. "You don't recognize Giles?"
"Not him," Dawn said impatiently. "The other one."
"That's the sleaze we've been talking about. That's Ethan Rayne."
Just as Dawn opened her mouth, Willow yelled frantically from downstairs. "Buffy! Giles! We've got a problem. Hurry!"