Giles stepped out of the heavy downpour and into the wagon shed. "I thought I might find you here." He stood just shy of the doorway, discouraged by Xander's aggravated emotional response to his presence.
"Don't really wanna be found." Xander was bent forward and busying himself with clamping some boards together, not bothering to look over at his visitor.
"Yes, well... I'd hoped you might make an exception in this case." Giles remained at the door, as if waiting for some kind of permission to enter further. He hoped it would come soon; the damp breeze was sending shivers up his spine and he was soaked to the bone.
"You thought wrong…" Xander said coldly, ignoring the unwanted concern Giles was unwittingly sharing with him. He continued working, though Giles didn't suspect it was anything pressing for attention. Besides, the dim, single-bulb lighting had to be hindering any real progress. Then again, Xander's adaptation to life with a solitary eye had proven quite amazing; perhaps his young friend didn't require as much light after all. Xander paused and looked over at Giles with his remaining eye. "I needed a solo… as in alone time…"
"Benefits of years of refined training… but I actually did pick up on that." Giles took a few casual steps forward. "Quite a performance back there…" He readied himself for a serious conversation. "Are you alright?" He knew Xander wasn't. He could feel the frustration simmering just below the surface of his young friend.
With a flick of his hand, Xander sent the clamp handle spinning closed. "I would be if everyone just stopped asking me that." He tightened the grip with a few secure tugs and focused on his toolbox.
"Yes, well… with the empathetic link, it's difficult not to pick up on…"
"Can we give the touchy-feely a rest? I'm peachy!" Xander interrupted sharply.
"If you say so. But I can't help but feel you're…"
Xander straightened upright and crossed his arms in an irritated stance. "Giles, what do you want?"
Xander shrugged impassively. "Understand what?"
Giles stepped forward and gingerly positioned a bottle of Xander's favorite microbrew upon the boards. "That's for you to tell…"
Xander could see that Giles was rain soaked and could sense his discomfort. "I don't know what you mean." He returned his focus to the toolbox.
"I know why you don't talk about them… your parents," Giles said plainly, inspiring a rush of adrenaline through his body to mirror Xander's. Xander glanced up for the briefest moment, visibly holding his emotions back though Giles could feel every infuriated cell.
"I don't want to talk about this!" Focusing on the boards, Xander ran a hand along the fibers, feeling every imperfection with his fingers that he could no longer see with his eyes.
"Neither did I, still don't…"
Xander didn't understand and didn't care to. "Then why the words…?"
"I feel we can help each other."
His young friend snickered callously. "No offense, but I don't want your help."
"I need yours…"
Xander stopped cold and looked over at the older man standing a few feet from him. Giles' shadowed face was calm, seemingly uncaring, but Xander could feel the sorrow and regrets masked behind the air of strength. He took in a deep breath, took up the bottle of beer, popped off the cap and motioned to a bale of hay beside the workbench.
A feeling of unfounded exasperation began to grow and Willow knew someone had to be coming, most likely Dawn after the young lady's irritation towards them earlier. When the kitchen door swung open and revealed the grumpy features of the younger Summers, Willow was almost proud of herself.
"Oh…" Dawn stopped when she noticed the redhead. "Sorry, I won't bother you… I'll just go do my homework or something."
"Hey… it's ok. I was about to make myself a snack. You wanna join me?" Willow put the kettle on and glanced over at Dawn with a hopeful smile.
"We got any cheesy chips?"
Willow took a quick inventory of the snack food supply. "Big null… Xander must have finished them off. But we have spray cheese and crackers… that's pretty close. You've got your crunchy and your cheesy?" Willow displayed the can of cheese and gave it a little wobble as if to further entice her company into joining her. "Cheese in a can… what's not to love?"
"Yeah, I guess…" Dawn unenthusiastically took a sat down at the kitchen table and sat there with crossed arms.
"Cocoa?" Willow was determined to bring a smile to Dawn's face though she could feel the anger masked by the not-so-ambiguous exterior of her young friend.
"Whatever… but no…"
"Marshmallows… I know," Willow grinned.
"Why don't they trust me?" Dawn's spontaneous question surprised Willow; she hadn't guessed Dawn would volunteer the information of what was troubling her so easily. "No offense, but they trust you and you tried to wipe out humanity. I go outside for a second one evening, not doing anything wrong, just getting something that fell out the attic window and I get hardcore jail time."
"I don't know about the 'trusting me' part…" Willow let out a discouraged sigh. "I think it's just that they don't need to worry now that I'm drained. Can't kill the world when you can barely manage stinky spells to make a pencil float…" She offered a halfhearted chuckle and went quiet.
Dawn knew the recent loss of her magicks and her dark history was bothering Willow more than she was letting on. She could feel Willow's disappointment and worry as she gathered up the fixings for their communal snack. "They trust you, Willow. They trusted you a lot with the activating the Potentials stuff while Buffy tried to send me outta town. They didn't even trust me enough to just tell me to leave. She had Xander drug me!"
"It's not that they don't trust you. They worry… it's what they do." Willow brought the crackers and spray cheese over to Dawn. "Being the sister of the Slayer comes with an extra helping of danger."
"I know that… they know I know that." Dawn took hold of the salt-shaker and began to fiddle with it. "I'm not a kid anymore… I can handle myself."
Willow returned to the stove and took out the jar of cocoa and accompanying mugs. "It has nothing to do with you being a kid, Dawn. Giles and Buffy worry about all of us; it's like… like their Slayer/Watcher motto."
"But at least you and Xander get to help out."
"You've helped Giles with research," Willow said.
"Yeah… well… he needed help then. Buffy was too busy with the Potentials and Spike to care…" She stopped when she caught sight of the creases in Willows brow; she'd said too much. "I don't get to help anymore, not like I used to. Now I get homework, I get chores…" Dawn slowly opened the box of crackers, stopping with a frustrated grunt and knocked the half opened package over on its side. "It's not fair!"
Willow moved the supplies over to the table and took a seat across from Dawn. "Fair?" She began to finish what Dawn started, working to tear back the top on the cracker box. "When Buffy was your age, she was saving the world on an almost weekly basis. She had school and chores, just like you but she also had the daily doses of Hellmouth high jinks to suck up all of her time; time away from your mom and you… time away from school… time away from her friends."
Dawn continued to fidget with the salt-shaker, trying to remain unimpressed by Willow's explanation.
"Buffy and Giles are just trying to make sure you have what she didn't… a real life… a normal life…" Willow took out a couple of crackers and set them down on the table.
"But can I have a normal life?" Dawn glanced up with a saddened expression and Willow could feel the concern churning in her stomach. "Can any of us?"
"I don't know… but we can try." Willow popped the cap off the spray cheese and began to decorate the crackers. "That's all they want, Dawn. I think we owe them that much." She finished her masterpiece and slid it over to Dawn. The, once plain, wheat cracker now stared up brightly at Dawn, beaming with an orange smile that couldn't be ignored.
"Thanks." Dawn smiled at the offering and took a nibble out of the very edge of it, feeling strangely disturbed by mortally wounding her happy cracker face.
"I lost my father in the Council bombing." Giles face was expressionless, distant.
Xander took a gulp of his beer and shifted on his increasingly uncomfortable hay bale as he tried to make out his friend's emotions. Giles' reaction was odd to say the least. The Watcher just sat beside him, detached, indifferent, no sense of sincere sorrow, and it sparked Xander's curiosity.
"All my life I'd primed myself for the possibility of losing him… inherent risks of the trade and all, but when I received the news…" Giles took a sip of his beer and shook his head, partly for the memory of the moment and partly for the awful, tasteless American beer. "Preparation was worthless. I often wonder if it would have been easier had I not readied myself."
"It's just as hard," Xander said softly. "One day, dad's drunk again, yelling at me over the cell phone I bought him, reminding me how useless I am… how I'd never amount to anything, then the next minute…" he let out a long sigh, "…nothing's left but dust. That's what he amounted to."
"You are not your father, Xander."
"Let's review the loser checklist here… jobless, broken, and the women-folk aren't exactly banging on my bedroom door so yeah, I'm thinking I better accept the bitter grapes of fate."
"Thanks to Anya's generosity, there's no need for you to rush into work. As for broken…" Giles chuckled sadly, "…shall we measure up my wreckage of a body? You've every bit of strength and stamina as when I first met you, though now you've the skills to defend against an army of the undead; not exactly the classification of a broken man. And as for love…"
"Who said anything about love?" Xander snorted. "Not looking for life partner material here… a simple flirt or two will do. But who am I kiddin'? I'd just mess it up, anyway."
"Don't sell your self short, you have a lot to offer, Xander."
"This from Professor Love over here…" Xander took a few swigs of his beer. "If it's so dang easy, Watcherman, why aren't you out there?" He sensed regret, thick and weighty and wanted to know what caused such torment within Giles.
Giles was ready to offer up dozens of excuses why he'd avoided the effort of relationships but knew every one was just as pitiful a story as Xander would provide. The sad truth of the matter was better left unsaid.
"See, not so easy." Xander grinned victoriously and then let out a frustrated sigh. "Maybe we should be out there, Giles. New town, new faces, fresh start. A couple of stallions rarin' to go…"
"I haven't the strength… it's far too late for me, my young friend, save yourself." Giles grinned, trying to make light of the rather pathetic subject.
"Don't go all monkish on me… I see the way the ladies look at you… all googly-eyed and melting. Figure if we hit the night life together, I'm bound to get some pity action."
"Something… anything… hey, even you're starting to look good to me!"
Giles cocked a curious brow. "Is that a bloody threat?"
"It's a bloody promise, big guy…" Xander said with a mockingly poor accent, feeling much better with the mischievous banter.
"You are a good man, Xander Harris. I am proud to call you my friend."
Xander could feel the depth of sincerity through the strange link they shared and was stunned, unable to offer one of his usually quick comebacks. He smiled a genuine smile, heartfelt. It did them both good. "Thanks, Giles. You're not so bad yourself. Now, shouldn't you be researching something, bookman?"
Giles nodded graciously and stood up, stretching out his back, feeling his muscles strain with the restricted movement from the long talk. He could feel the uplifted emotion within himself and knew Xander had to be feeling better. "I believe you have some duties of your own to attend to."
The next morning, Buffy woke early to a jumble of conflicted emotions. It took her a moment to remember the empathetic link but as soon as she realized the nature of her mixed-up feelings, she tried to go about her morning ritual as usual. After checking in on Dawn, she focused on clearing the blockaded halls outside her bedroom.
A few hours passed and she managed to get a lot done but rather than feel accomplishment from the task, an odd feeling of regret came over her. She noted that it was nearing eleven and she didn't remember seeing Giles. She glanced down the hall, curious if he'd even gotten up yet. He was usually the first to rise and the last asleep, besides herself of course, and she'd seen everyone else going about business as usual, minus one Watcher. The strange sensation of regret grew. Her heart felt heavy, a feeling she couldn't recognize as relevant for herself so she wondered if it was coming from someone in the house. As she moved down the hall, she felt the emotion intensifying until she finally reached Giles' door. It was open so she peeked in to find him fully pressed and dressed, sitting on the edge of his bed, staring at a worn and creased paper held limply in his hand.
"What's that?" Buffy's voice startled him and he struggled to slip the folded paper back into its tattered envelope. She immediately felt bad for bothering him, surprised he hadn't heard or sensed her approach. "Sorry… none of my business…" She turned to leave.
"No… Buffy, it's ok." He gave up on his attempt to hide the item, letting the crumpled paper fall to his lap as he rubbed his fingers along his troubled features, trying and clear his head of his bothersome thoughts. "What did you need?"
"I don't need anything. Just hadn't seen you yet… you were a no show for breakfast and I…" She could see his eyes fall again to the paper. "…Didn't mean to disturb your funk. I'll just go…"
"Eighteen…" he said softly, as if continuing on with some imagined conversation with her.
"Huh?" Buffy leaned against the door jam, hesitant to move any closer and intrude further on his emotions. It was useless, she could feel his sadness and his doubt; it twisted in her gut just as it was twisting in his. "Eighteen?"
"Timothy Chesterfield celebrated his eighteenth birthday three weeks ago." Giles' gaze moved to the rain-speckled window and Buffy was intrigued by the seemingly trite bit of information.
"Yippie for Tim… who's Tim?"
"The eldest son of a former council associate…"
"Former?" Buffy asked dazedly and remembered the bombing of the Council of Watchers headquarters. "Oh, I'm sorry. You lost so many friends in the explosion…"
"He's not dead," Giles interrupted with an appreciative smile at her attempt to console him.
"Be kind and rewind, Giles. Is this about that paper?" Buffy took a step forward and could feel her stomach lurch with her inquiry and she knew the answer before he spoke it.
"It's an invitation to Timothy's graduation. Seems like just yesterday he was a rowdy boy with never-ending questions, forever pestering his father for attention…" he smirked at the memory, letting out a faint chuckle. "…Now, he's a young man, head of his class, eager to face the world. Mark must be so proud." The small smile melted away, and Giles' finger nervously flicked at the ruffled edge of the envelope.
"You were a no-show on account of us… of me," Buffy said apologetically.
"Of my own accord, Buffy…" Giles corrected hastily, glancing up with a sorrowful gaze then returning his focus to the letter. "…Always been my choice…"
Buffy pushed off from the doorway and moved to the bed, delicately taking a seat next to her distraught Watcher. "Doin' the 'path not taken' thing, huh?"
He took in a deep breath, realizing the uselessness of trying to hide his feelings when she could sense each and every one. "Over the years, I'd become quite adept at ignoring those types of questions… what could have been… the 'what ifs' and so forth."
Buffy started to piece together the scattered bits of information Giles had presented to her and the only thing she could deduce from it seemed surprising to her. "Is this… is this about kids?" Buffy felt a wave of embarrassment wash over her and knew she'd struck gold. She smiled, touched at the thought and biting back the urge to go 'Awww'. "Why Mister Giles, I do believe you wanna be a daddy…"
Giles let out a discomfited sigh and rolled his eyes at his need to explain further. "I went to the coven today to see Jo…" He paused with a strange sensation of what seemed to be jealousy, and glanced over to Buffy who sat there, outwardly appearing calmly interested and waiting expectantly for him to continue. "Lessa was caring for some children. She needed to step away for a moment and asked if I'd watch over them."
Buffy was again fighting off her instinct to dote over such a sweet image as Giles with kids. "You went all maternal…" Buffy smiled, noticing the flush of his cheeks at her tease.
"Paternal might be more accurate…" he corrected gently."Apparently I'm not so good at burying those questions." Giles sighed. "It's ridiculous, I know…"
"No Giles. It isn't." She shook her head and smiled bashfully. "When I was a kid and mom was super career woman and the invisible dad was doing his usual absentee routine, I used to play mom to Dawn. Not like I do now; back then it was all fun and games. But I used to pretend I was the momma doing all the momma things."
"And now you are."
"So not the way I pictured motherhood, but yeah."
"It wasn't something I'd considered before, at least not consciously; but now… I can't help but wonder if the only things I'll leave behind will be obscenely impressive medical records and some dusty, old books. I don't know…" His eyes found hers for a flicker of an instant and he felt his heart lurch with the sight of her, and what could have been. "Path not taken and never shall be, I suppose." As his stare returned to his folded hands in his lap, Buffy wondered why he'd had such an emotional reaction. What had she done? There was something else, something so purposefully hidden that she couldn't pinpoint and it only fueled her on.
"Never say never, Giles… no one's stopping you. You could have it all; have the kids… have the family… take a big, juicy bite outta life!"
He gave her a gentle smile, but Buffy could still feel his regret and wanted to make it better. She reached out to console him, tenderly blanketing his hands with hers. Their eyes met in an instant connection. A rush of blood, a wave of heat, and Buffy pulled away as perplexed by her reaction from the innocently intimate contact as he was by her sudden recoil. They remained quiet; unsure of what to say or how to act when their emotions would betray anything they'd wish to remain hidden.
"You ok?" Giles asked.
"Yep," she answered quickly, focusing on the bedside table in a futile attempt to avoid Giles' truth serum stare.
She was worried, very worried and he could feel it. Every knot in her stomach, every quickened beat of her heart, every shallow breath and nervous twitch became his. He wanted nothing more than to reassure her but it would be futile, she could feel his doubt, his worry; she could even feel the ache in his chest from the need to reassure her, useless that it was.
"Not that I've mastered our newly acquired skills…" He leaned back. "But I sense you're not ok."
Buffy let out a long drawn out sigh and shrugged in frustration. "Can't help feeling this is exactly what we don't need right now."
"I know things have been a touch strained between all of us…"
"I practically bit your head off the other day for leaving the cap off the toothpaste. Strained is not the word for it." Buffy sighed. "We're bordering on postal here."
"We've managed through apocalypses, Buffy; I think we can work through a little visit by an empathy demon." Giles grinned confidently though Buffy felt his masked insecurities.
"Maybe… but it's the little things, Giles; little things that chisel away at us until you wake up one day and want to take a rifle up into a clock tower."
"With the exception of Xander on pizza night, I don't see any psychotic tendencies from any of us. What's really bothering you?"
"We've all been together for seven years now, Giles. We've laughed, cried, yelled, run the whole gamut of emotional settings, and now we're starting new lives in a new town and we're still together."
"You think it's unwise for us to remain so close?"
"No!" She answered quickly and Giles could sense her apprehension, her fear of being separated. "I love you guys, I really do. But you've seen how we've been acting lately? Maybe we aren't meant to live together. Maybe we need space." She was testing him, his reaction to her suggestion.
"It's common for people to need a bit of time adjusting to new circumstances."
"Am I what?"
"I won't lie to you… it's been…well… taxing… at times. Everyone has their own idiosyncrasies…."
"I'll say…" She agreed all too promptly.
Giles lips curled back to a playful smile; curious as to what habits he had that might irritate her. "And what are some of mine?"
"I-I didn't mean you… I was... Dawn, I meant Dawn!" Buffy said apprehensively. Giles gently shook his head, feeling the lie in her words.
"No you didn't, and it's ok. We can't resolve these issues if we don't talk about them."
"Issues? Who said anything about issues?"
"I didn't mean to suggest that you or any of us are suffering from some neurosis. I simply want to talk about this… to understand what might bother you." He gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze and cocked his head persuasively. "If it's something I can change…?"
"It's nothing… really. It's stupid."
"Then why are you trying to spare my feelings?"
"Fine…" Buffy took in a deep breath, prepared to bare all and get it off her chest. Now was as good a time as any. "You're an under, I'm an over… are you happy now?"
"The toilet paper roll… when you do manage to refill the empty doohickey, you always put it in the little dispenser thingy so the paper is under. I like it over. It's friendlier, more inviting, like it's ready to serve you and not trying to hide."
Giles brow creased with perplexity. "You… you h-have a preference for the position of toilet paper?"
"Well… I'm usually otherwise preoccupied with… um… activities to take notice of the arrangement of the paper."
"Yeah… see, postal!"
"Not postal. Obsessive perhaps, but in a charming way." Giles smiled warmly and Buffy felt relieved at his choice of words. "But now you've forever doomed me to pondering such mysteries while in the loo. And here I'd thought I'd avoided such bathroom etiquette faux pas by remembering to keep the seat down."