"What did I tell you guys?" Buffy demanded. "Did I not tell you the gnomes were following me? Y'know, you could all save a lot of time if you'd just listen when I tell you this stuff."
"My chagrin knows no bounds," Giles said, rolling his eyes. "After all, it was such a sensible theory to begin with." At his Slayer's glare, he backed down a bit. "Of course, I admit, this isn't the first time one of your nonsensical theories turned out to be right. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised anymore."
They all sat gathered around the living room, Except for Buffy who paced restlessly, occasionally slowing to hover near her Watcher. Giles was in his chair. Willow and Xander sat on the sofa, and Dawn lay on her stomach on the floor with her head propped up on her hands.
"Why garden gnomes?" the girl asked.
"It's got to be something connected to the other two deaths," Buffy surmised. "So, we've got one drowning in a birdbath, one running through with hedge clippers, and a tribe of hungry garden gnomes. I'd say we're looking for someone who can work mojo on garden stuff. Any ideas, Will?"
"There's no particular magic that just works on those things, Buffy. At least, not that I know of."
"Willow's right," Giles said. "Still, I did find an obscure legend related to an offshoot of the Kalupaya tribe that originally populated this area. Something about a protection spirit who could be channeled into earthenware figures to exact revenge on those who mistreat or harm the land. If someone was obsessed with plants and their care and chose to invoke the spirit, he or she might be able to make earthenware figures commit murder."
"Do you think plaster would be close enough?" Willow asked.
"Plaster in the bite marks," Buffy mused. "That sounds like the spirit isn't too picky about what its vessel is made of."
"So what're you gonna do, Buff?" Xander asked.
She sighed, picked up her jacket and headed rapidly for the door.
"I'm going back to work. Call me on the cell if you come up with anything."
She picked up a couple weapons and headed for the door.
"Kick some gnome ass for me!" Xander called after her.
"Buffy!" Giles called. It was too late; she was gone. "Damn! I hate it when she does that. I need to find a ritual to banish the spirit. Even Buffy can't last forever against an army of opponents who don't tire."
The gang scrambled for books and began to read feverishly.
Pershing Daisies looked very different at night, Buffy found. During the day, the plants looked cheerful and friendly. At night, certain ones took on a diabolical aspect. Even the commingled scents that seemed so inviting when it was light out smelled almost disturbing so late at night with so little moon to illuminate their source.
Buffy crept quietly along, unsure of precisely what - or whom - she was looking for.
There was a rustling in the bushes behind her. She spun around, heart pounding with adrenaline. Nothing was there.
Another rustle from another direction. Again, no sign of another soul.
Then came the chattering.
Buffy turned slowly. A gang of fifteen garden gnomes glowered at her, muttering foul things in tiny, high-pitched voices.
"Oh boy," she breathed. "I never stopped to count how many of you little creeps there were. This could take a little longer than I thought."
"Hey, Giles," Dawn piped up, "does this look like it'd work?"
She handed her book to the man in question. He scanned the ritual quickly, then passed the book to Willow.
"I think we've got it," he said. "If you'd be so kind as to perform the spell?"
"I think I could do that for you, yeah. It doesn't look too hard. But just remember the last time I was 'spell gal' things got a little funky. I don't think Xander can do this one if it doesn't work. It takes some innate magical power and a lot more practice than he's had."
"You'll be fine, Willow. And if worst comes to worst, I'm not entirely without experience in magical matters, you know."
The redhead nodded a bit uncertainly and began gathering materials.
"I just hope this works," she muttered uncertainly.
Buffy took a defensive stance. She didn't want to go on the attack until she had more information. The gnomes growled and circled her. They began to chant.
"Killer! Killer! Killer!" they squeaked.
"Y'know," she told them, "that would sound a whole lot more threatening if your voices were about three octaves lower. So why doesn't one of you just tell me what your beef is, and we can move on to the Slaying portion of tonight's entertainment."
"Who do you think I killed? Just tell me, already, you little plaster freaks! And I so hate gnomes. Have I mentioned that?"
As one, the gnomes charged.
"... juniper berries, chicken feet, cauldron on the stove, a handful of dirt from a grave...okay, I think I've got it all," Willow said. "I'm ready to go."
"Breathe, Will," Xander told her. "Keep cool, and you'll do fine."
"Yeah, it was probably some sort of weird thing about Drusilla that stopped the spell working last time."
Giles remained silent. He appeared calm on the outside, but inside his stomach was churning. For years, every time Buffy had gone out to face some horror, he'd swallowed his fear for her; presented a face of dispassionate confidence. Now that Drusilla had made him aware of how deep his feelings for Buffy truly ran, the facade was more difficult - but all the more vital - to keep up. All he could do was be strong for her until he could make a more or less graceful exit from her day-to-day life.
He watched as Willow sprinkled ingredients into the cauldron and chanted in an unfamiliar language - occasionally stumbling over the words. Nothing more seemed to happen.
"Work, dammit!" Willow gritted out. "I know I suck at languages, but I said it all in the right order and everything."
"Maybe it worked and you just didn't feel it," Dawn suggested hopefully.
"I'll call and see," Xander added. He dialed Buffy's cell number.
Buffy kicked out at the first gnome. It yelped in pain as it shattered. The others roared in rage and came at her.
"Not good," she muttered to herself.
Blows rained on her shins and kneecaps as she kicked wildly. Another gnome smashed, but one managed to get its teeth through her jeans and hit flesh. The pain was intense. She shook off her attacker. Blood dribbled from a corner of its mouth, making its grin still more fiendish. She braced herself to deliver the killing blow.
Just then, her cell phone rang.
"Perfect timing," she sighed. She kicked the gnome, then flipped the phone on. "What? I'm a little busy."
"Oh," Xander said, disappointment palpable in his inflection. "What about now? Any change?"
"No," Buffy gritted out as a gnome leapt up and bit her elbow. "Now go away! I'm fighting for my life, here." She flipped the phone off, then threw it into the bushes for good measure. "Still, I probably should have just shut it off," she mused.
Again, she faced off against the gnomes. Several had been smashed.
"Okay, that's six down. Nine, I can handle."
There was a scraping sound nearby. Several more statues appeared. There were wide-mouthed frogs and Chinese water bearers, and stone bunnies.
"Reinforcements, I hope?"
A water bearer smacked her in the shin with his buckets and yelled angrily in Cantonese at her.
"Too much to hope, I guess." Buffy sighed.
She kicked wildly.
"No good," Xander announced. "She sounded like she's in real trouble. I'm gonna head down there."
Willow made a frustrated little sound and prepared to try again. She felt a gentle hand removing the chicken feet from hers.
"I'm sorry, but we'll have to try someone else," Giles told her firmly. "It's my turn."
"But, Giles... you and magic... are you sure?"
He hoped he was telling the truth as he began to shake the chicken feet over the cauldron.
Willow and Dawn moved back and drew close together.
Xander rushed out the door.
"I'm starting to understand you, Anya," Buffy said as she deflected a bunny from her throat. "Lay off, Peter Cottontail!"
All at once, the stone and plaster creatures stopped as one. They retreated into a circle. Buffy stood panting in the middle. She was in pain from dozens of cuts, bites, and blossoming bruises all over her body. Still, she remained on her guard. When the flunkies stopped attacking, that was usually a bad sign.
A figure draped in a bearskin approached from the shadows. Buffy's jaw dropped.
"Bob?" Is that you?"
"Who were you expecting? Stephanie, maybe? Please! Like she could channel Earth magic."
"Why are you doing this, Bob? What did any of us do to you? Or is this about job security?"
"They didn't understand. Linda kept dropping plants, and she over-pruned the roses. I couldn't let her do that. And Becky... she was murder with a watering can. She was drowning the succulents. I had to stop her."
"And Jalil? What was his crime? Why did he deserve the death penalty?"
"I caught him in the herbs. He kept nibbling at the mint. He took too much. I told him to stop. He just took more. He taunted me. He was killing the plants. I had to stop him. My gnomes did well. It nearly took care of those horrible dogs, too. They dig, they pee, they bark and make me nearly drop plants. They need to die, too. And so do you."
"You couldn't just tell us what we're doing wrong? People can learn, you know."
"I did. I learned how to control my gnomes. At first, I couldn't do very much with them, but the power has grown lately." He grinned suddenly. "I'm kicking some serious mystical ass now!"
"You know this has to stop, don't you?"
"Because you've killed three people. Because you're about to drive Lyle and Daisy out of business. Because what you're doing is wrong."
"They started it!" Bob yelled petulantly. "Lyle and Daisy will hire anyone with a pretty smile and a potted cactus on their desk. They don't care what people know when they come here. And Brad gets all the raises. I've worked here longer than him, I'm the one the plants talk to - me, but he's the one Lyle says will take the place over when he's ready to retire. This place should be mine! The ferns told me so. But Lyle and Daisy think I'm only good enough to sweep the floors and haul heavy things around."
"So you kill people and drive the Pershings out of business? Yeah, like that's a smart move: biting the hand that feeds you. I really don't have time for this. Now, are you gonna behave yourself, or do I smash your army into bits, then take you on?"
Giles' voice rose in volume and passion as he chanted. Dawn huddled closer to Willow. She'd never seen Giles like this before, and it scared her a little. When the air crackled with energy, she felt Willow shiver slightly, and knew she wasn't alone.
"It's time," Bob announced.
"Time for what?"
He looked blandly surprised at the question...
"Your death, of course."
At a command in a tongue Buffy didn't recognize, the garden statuary army charged.
The Slayer braced herself for the end.
The Watcher's voice rose in volume yet again. Mist rose from the brew on the stove. He flung the handful of dirt into the mess and chanted another verse, louder again. With a final cry, Giles slumped to the floor. Sparks shot out from the cauldron. Willow and Dawn ducked.
Xander raced to the darkened nursery door.
"Buffy?" he called. "Buffy? Where are you?"
When he saw a flash of light across the grounds, he clambered over the fence and hurried toward it. Moments later, he found Buffy lying on the ground, surrounded by broken plaster statues. A few feet away, an empty bearskin lay crumpled on the ground.
Xander hurried to his friend where she had fallen. She was terribly still. For a moment he wasn't sure whether or not she was breathing. He heaved a sigh of relief when he saw her move slightly and heard a quiet 'ouch'.
"Buffy, Buffy," he called softly. "Are you okay? Can you stand? Can you walk? Do you need a manly pair of arms to carry you to the car?"
Slowly, she sat up, one hand lifting involuntarily to the gash on her forehead. She winced.
"I - I think I'm okay. Just kinda in need of a factory-worth of Tylenol."
"One more Pershing employee bit the dust tonight. Will's spell worked."
"Actually... Will didn't do it. She couldn't get it to happen."
"You better not tell me Dawn did that," Buffy said dangerously.
"No. The Dawnster had nothing to do with it. It was Giles. At least, he was on it when I left."
The Slayer blinked in surprise.
"No kidding? Giles?"
"No kidding." Xander looked around himself. "Man, this place is a mess. We better get out of here before the cops show up."
"Good idea." Buffy continued to sit.
"Need a hand up?"
Xander helped Buffy to her feet and led her to the car.
Two hours later, Buffy was home, cleaned, dressed in her pajamas and robe and drinking hot chocolate on the sofa while she told the gang what had happened.
"... then there was just this huge flash of light, and suddenly, poof. No more Bob. Nothing left but that cheesy bearskin."
"I don't understand." Giles shook his head. "The spell should only have returned the magic he used to his body when it was released from his vessels. That wouldn't have been enough to harm him permanently. It ought only to have given him a bit of a hangover, of sorts."
"I was there. He isn't, anymore."
"Giles is right," Willow said. "A spell like that couldn't hurt him... unless..."
"Unless he was using more power than was his to begin with," Giles finished the thought. "I wonder where it might have come from."
"I dunno," Dawn yawned, "but I'm going to bed. I've got so much to tell Liz tomorrow." At a chorus of hard looks from around the room, she rolled her eyes in scorn. "About Buffy's new job and stuff. Not magic and demonic gnomes. What? You guys think I never learned to edit in all this time?"
She headed up the stairs. With mumbled good nights, Willow and Xander soon followed. Buffy looked intently at Giles. Her face grew serious.
"We need to talk," she said.
She put down her hot chocolate deliberately, got up, took some papers from a desk drawer, and placed them in Giles' hand.
"What's all this?"
"Proof. Y'know, that what I'm about to say isn't about me shirking my duties or trying to get you to take over everything I'd rather not do. See, here's the paid bills, and my application for the university, and a permission slip I signed for Dawn to go on that field trip next week, and I'd put in my paystub, but I haven't got one yet. Anyway," she shrugged, "I'm not trying to make you take care of any of this stuff. I told myself I wasn't gonna do this, but then... well... I need to say this."
"I still don't understand what this is all about."
"Don't go, Giles. Stay here with us. With me."
"Buffy, I can't...."
"I know what you're going to say," she interrupted. "You have a duty. Well, you do, but I think you mean the wrong one."
"The wrong one? Buffy, what are you talking about?"
"Slayers. You think you have to go to England to help us. You don't. I talked with Willow, and she says everything you've told her you have to do for the new Council is something you can do from here by phone or email."
"Lord Percy wants me there. He's head of the Council."
"And I'm the Slayer - or a Slayer, anyhow. That trumps him. Lord Percy needs someone to tell him how to organize things. So send him a letter, make a phone call. Write him an essay. I don't care. The most important thing you can do is show him how it's done."
"Show him...? Buffy, you're not making any sense."
She sat next to him and gathered her thoughts for a moment.
"Giles," she said at last, "you're the only one who's ever done it right. The Guardians sat back and left us to fend for ourselves. They never even let us know they were there. They totally let the Shadow Men take over and did nothing but sit on their hands for centuries. The Shadow Men became the Watchers and turned the whole thing into a power trip for themselves. Nobody in the entire history of Slayers has stood up for us - except you. I know I can do this alone if I have to. You even taught me that. But I know I do my job better when you're here to help me find the answers and at least try to talk me out of doing dumb things. And after tonight, I kinda have to accept that sacred duty doesn't go away just because you've spread the duty around a little." A small, rueful smile flitted across her features, then she grew serious again. "I don't need a teacher anymore, but I could really use a colleague. And a friend. The kind who isn't afraid to tell me all the things I don't want to hear. The kind who goes out on a limb and does magic for me when I run off like a nut to get myself killed."
"Ah. You, um... you heard about that, did you?"
"You know Xander. He likes to brag about you, when he can. So, you'll stay, right?"
Giles hesitated. The others he'd been able to shake off. He knew they would miss him and want him back. He honestly didn't want to leave them, but he knew they would eventually accept his reasons. This, however, was Buffy. She had no idea of the power she held over him. If he stayed, he knew she would break his heart unconsciously, as she had done since the day they'd met.
He knew he could walk away. He could avoid the pain, the coming misery.
"I know you love England, and maybe you can go there sometimes, but you're my Watcher. That's got to count for something. Please. Don't go, Giles. Stay with me."
Who was he kidding?
"Giles...?" she faltered. "Where are you going?"
"To make a phone call," he sighed. "I have plane reservations to cancel."
Her eyes shone and her smile lit the room.
"Thanks, Giles," she said brightly. "I'm so glad you're staying. Now this place will really be home. Besides, Dawn would have gone crazy if you'd left again."
She stood and started toward the stairs. At the last moment, she turned back, went to Giles, and gave him an impulsive little hug.
He watched her go with a half-smile on his face.
How could she make him so happy and so sad with one, short speech?
He lifted the phone.