The next morning, Buffy went back to work. Despite the fact the gang had researched until the wee hours of the morning, nothing had been found to explain what happened to Jalil.
The Slayer yawned and turned back to stocking the seed display.
"You didn't sleep too much, either, did you?" came a voice from behind her.
Buffy jumped and dropped several packets of carrot seeds.
"Oh! Brad, I didn't hear you." She bent down to pick up the envelopes. "Sorry. I'm a little jumpy this morning."
He got down to help her.
"I shouldn't have snuck up on you like that. Not after yesterday."
"It's okay," she shrugged. "I didn't sleep a lot last night. Not so good for the calming of the nerves. And the four cups of coffee I had to help me stay awake probably aren't helping my nerves too much, either. I think it sort of put me in fight-or-flight mode."
He handed her the last of the seeds and they stood.
"Me, too," he said affably. "Have you seen Daisy yet, this morning?"
"Only for a minute. She and Lyle were on their way to Animal Control. I think if the pencil pushers don't let the dogs loose, our bosses are going to try to pull a Great Escape."
"I still can't believe it. Primrose and Poppy are the best-behaved dogs I've ever met. And talk about spoiled. They think everyone on the planet is their friend. I don't think they did this. And I hate what it's doing to Daisy."
"You really like her, don't you?"
"I like them both," he said simply. "The Pershings are good people. I don't like to see them hurt this way. They don't deserve it."
"I know. Somehow, that never stops the bad things from happening."
"No, I guess it doesn't."
"If bad things only happened to people who deserve them, the world would be a lot simpler to deal with. Nobody would get hurt unless they'd earned it. Things just don't work that way. They keep on being messy. But at least it makes things interesting."
"You're probably right," Brad laughed.
"Keep on telling me that, and I might start to agree with you, sometime."
"Has anyone ever told you what an intriguing person you are, Buffy?"
She raised her eyebrows.
"Intriguing? Not lately. At least it makes a change from 'freaky' and 'nuts'."
"Who calls you that?"
"Seems like almost everybody."
"Look, I know we're not all that welcoming to Californians here, but that doesn't mean anybody thinks you're a freak. Just... misguided enough to have been born in the wrong place," he grinned. "Once people get to know you, they'll forget where you came from and remember that you're friendly and you have a nice smile. That'll be enough. Trust me."
"Okay, I'll trust you, oh native guide." She grinned back at him. "You really think I have a nice smile?"
"Let's just say if we keep you happy enough, we can stand you in front of the African violets and they'll get more than enough light to thrive nicely."
"Do they take a lot of light?"
"They're from Africa. Yes, they need a lot of light. And heat."
"Then I'll take that as a good thing."
Suddenly, Buffy stiffened and looked around herself.
"What is it?" Brad asked.
"Did you hear something?"
"No voices? No rustling in the ferns?"
"No. Nothing. Look, after what happened to Jalil and not much sleep and too much coffee, you're probably still a little jumpy. Why don't you take a few and take some deep breaths?"
"You don't believe me."
"It's not that. We're all a little on edge right now. Take a break, and I'm sure you'll feel better."
"Actually, if I sit still, I'll probably go nuts. I think I'll keep working."
"Okay, but if you need a break, just take one. I mean it, Buffy. You have to take care of yourself if you're going to take care of the plants. They know when you're upset, and it upsets them."
"I'll keep that in mind," she assured him solemnly.
As he walked away, she peered into the ferns. There was no sign of anyone. When she turned, there was another garden gnome at her feet.
"Jeez!" she exclaimed. "Where did you come from? Don't tell me. Hell, right?" She picked up the statue and headed for the outside display. "I know it's raining again, but that doesn't mean you can come inside. Now stay out!"
Giles sighed and turned yet another page. It was frustrating trying to do serious research with such limited resources. Most of his library was still sitting in Bath, in his neglected home there. The rest sat at the bottom of the sinkhole that used to be Sunnydale, along with the Magic Box and virtually every other scrap of evidence of his years in California.
He lifted his head and looked out the living room window. If he concentrated, he could almost pretend he was in his study in Bath. The front lawn was green and lush. The chair he sat in was overstuffed and comfortable. The gang had even chosen it with him in mind - in case he visited a lot, Buffy had insisted. By unspoken consensus, nobody else ever sat in this chair.
Well, nobody except the teddy bear Jo had given him as a get-well gift. Dawn called it his 'place keeper' and kept putting it where he'd nearly sit on it. The girl seemed to take a perverse pleasure in making him do that. The time he'd actually sat completely before realizing it was there, Buffy had laughed and snickered about it the rest of the afternoon. In the end, even he had given in and chuckled about it - but only when Dawn was well out of earshot.
With a shake of his head, Giles returned to the present, and Buffy's dilemma. He'd gotten no closer to an answer, yet. Of course, that might be in part because there was so little to go on. Bites smaller than a medium-sized dog might make could mean several things, depending on other circumstances. Even the wererat theory had been exploded by a quick consultation of the calendar. The moon was in entirely the wrong phase.
He looked across the room where Willow typed away at her laptop, intent on finding evidence that could be distilled into a solution for Buffy. A wave of nostalgia hit him hard. Nothing looked the same, but it felt like the old days in the Sunnydale High library. He, with his books, Willow, with her computer, Xander on a donut run, and Buffy checking back in when the research had been done. All of them had worked together so smoothly for so long that it had become like breathing. One never thought much about it, except that every now and again, it felt very, very good.
Willow's exclamation startled Giles.
"What have you found?" He rose from his chair and crossed to lean over her shoulder.
"Autopsy report's up." She scanned the text while Giles did his best not to look too closely at the photographs. "He was definitely eaten."
"Well, we already knew that. Is there any indication of what ate him?"
"Something with a really, really small mouth."
"We knew that, too," Giles snapped impatiently.
"I know we knew that, but Dr. Whipple doesn't know we knew that. I'm guessing she didn't write this report just to tell us stuff we didn't know already. At least this is gonna let Daisy's dogs off the hook. She says right here that the mouths were too small to be beagles."
"Wait a minute, did you say 'mouths'? Multiple attackers?"
"Mouths. Plural. As in more than one flesh-eating fiend."
Giles whipped off his glasses.
"Well, at least I can stop looking at creatures that act alone. I'm looking for something that works in packs."
"The way dogs do. Have you considered werechihuahuas?"
"Wrong moon phase, remember? No, it's something else entirely. Can you find anything else in there to help me find a direction to research?"
"I'll keep looking. There's usually a bunch of pages to a good autopsy, though, so it might take a while. Dr. Whipple seems to be pretty thorough. I wonder if she's single..."
"Just get on with your reading, please. I think I'll make some tea. Would you like some?"
"No thanks. Maybe later."
He headed for the kitchen. When he got there, he pulled down the teapot and set the kettle on to boil. While he was waiting, the front door opened. A moment later, Xander and Dawn entered the kitchen with a large bag from Half Baked Goods, the local bakery.
"Hey, Giles, the donut guy's here," Xander announced cheerfully. "I even got extra jellies so you and Buffy won't fight over them. What's the news on the research front?"
"Nothing yet, but I hope Willow will have something for us soon. Tea?"
"Nah, I'll have a Coke."
"I'll have some," Dawn piped up. "Have you heard from Buffy since she went to work?"
"No, not as yet. I'm hoping that's a good sign."
Buffy stopped in her tracks yet again. This was the fourth time she'd thought she'd heard voices only to find a gnome somewhere it didn't belong. She sighed and picked it up.
"You guys really need to get it through your little plaster heads that you belong outside," she admonished the statue. "Leave me alone, and maybe you won't get stepped on, okay?"
"You mean like that rose you dropped yesterday?" came a voice from behind.
"Bob, I've told you before it's not a good idea to sneak up on me. I... I've taken self-defense classes and I might hit you if I get startled enough."
Bob just shrugged.
"I don't care what you do to me. I just don't like to see the plants suffer."
Without another word, he slipped silently away.
"Great," Buffy muttered. "Another cryptic guy in my life. Just what I needed to feel at home. I keep trying to retire, and the weirdness just keeps on happening." She looked again at the gnome in her hands. "Don't go telling your gnomey buddies this, but I think Bob is sorta funny in the head. Now, let's get you outside where you belong."
Giles, Willow, and Xander continued researching while Dawn did her homework in her bedroom. Several times Giles looked up to see Xander's eye on him. He ignored it as best he could. Finally, the younger man came over and cleared his throat.
"Could we talk, Giles? Man-to-man?"
"What did you wish to discuss?"
"This stupid idea of you leaving."
"Do you usually begin man-to-man talks by calling the other person stupid?"
"Well, it's what Willow does when she has a man-to-man with me, so I thought I'd try it as an opener."
"It's actually not considered standard form, you know."
"Don't get off the subject. We were talking about you ditching us again."
Giles closed his book with a thump and glared at Xander.
"Ditching you? Is that what you call it?"
"When I'm not calling it running like a weasel, yeah."
Willow raised her head from her computer screen.
"Getting mad at him isn't going to help, Xand. I already tried it."
"Can none of you understand that I have obligations?" Giles snapped. "Somebody has to speak for the Slayers with the new Council. That someone is me. Do I want to go? Of course not. We don't always get what we want in life. You two, of all people, ought to know that. Buffy seems to be the one person who accepts that I can't stay."
"I guess that's why she went all quiet and hid in her room after I told her you got your tickets," Willow said.
"You what? You had no business telling her that."
"Then who was gonna tell her? And when? You'd had hours and you didn't say a word. Didn't you think she'd need to prepare herself for this?"
"You got your tickets?" Xander demanded. "When?"
"Yesterday, and I planned to tell you all after we got this mess at the nursery sorted. Thank you, Willow, for deciding to tell everyone first." He took a deep breath and went on less sarcastically. "Now that Anya's estate is dealt with, there's no need for me to stay here. You're all settled and doing well. If I'm going to leave, now is the time to do it."
"And what are you gonna tell Jo?" Xander asked. "She's gonna be real unhappy about this. Women don't give teddy bears to guys they aren't seriously interested in."
"I'm sorry to disappoint her, but that doesn't change the fact that I've been expected in London since June, and I can't put this off any longer. There's work to be done, and not many people to do it. I've been a Watcher all my life. I trained for it at an age when neither of you knew anything about vampires except what you saw in horror films. Our numbers are at their lowest at a time when there are suddenly more Slayers than there have ever been at one time before. I don't have a choice in this. The Council may have originally been based on a lie, but that doesn't change the fact that it's the only organized way we have of supporting and training Slayers." He moved into Xander's personal space, challenging him. "Do you really want these girls to try to cope with this on their own? Can you really believe I would turn my back on them?"
"What about Buffy? Can you turn your back on her? Oh, wait a minute, I guess you can. You did it before. I guess that makes it easy this time, huh?"
"Xander!" Willow exclaimed. "Look, we don't have time to yell about this right now. We have dogs to save, and Buffy to save. We can fight later, okay?"
The two men glared at one another, but Xander eventually backed down.
"Okay," he said. "Right now, we help Buffy. But later on, yelling will happen. A lot of yelling."
He returned to his book. Giles sighed heavily and began to read again, too. A moment later, Willow frowned at her computer screen.
"What's weird?" Giles asked.
The girl looked up to explain.
"Not only are the bites really, really tiny, but there's something that doesn't belong in them. Plaster."
"That's what it says."
"Why plaster?" Xander asked.
"Possibly because Buffy's right," Giles said as he whipped off his glasses. "The gnomes really are following her."