Transformations - Chapter 3

Though he'd long since intended to go home, Giles had been at the hospital all night and well into the day. The hospital staff, appreciating his help, had put him alone in a small room with a telephone and the Sunnydale directory, and he'd made call after call, talking to the injured children's families until he was hoarse. Still, fully a third of those children's parents, even some of those to whom he'd already spoken, had yet to arrive.

Why, he wondered, did the mothers and fathers of Sunnydale appear to love their children so little? Even Willow's mum and dad, blessed with such a wonderful daughter, provided her with material goods, but only intermittent care. Was it that they, like parents of other places and other times, expected their offspring to die young, and so did not make the deep emotional connection that was ususal? They couldn't all be like his own family: his father too burdened by duty to truly act in that capacity; his mother too flighty and self-absorbed. Nothing flighty about Willow's mum--she was like a force of nature, something hard and unstoppable. Like a rockslide, perhaps.

A glance at his watch told Giles it was almost one in the afternoon. Nearly a full day since the Ascension. Nearly two full turns of the clock since his library had been destroyed. From half-past ten on he'd sat with Larry, talking of random things: his own boyhood in Salisbury, the parts that bore repeating anyway; his work, during his twenties and thirties, as an archeologist. From time to time he'd stopped speaking, and the boy's weak grip had tightened on his hand. Perhaps Larry needed the sound of a human voice to anchor him into life.

At one-thirty Jonathan--the small, timid boy who'd presented Buffy with her Class Protector award--arrived. Giles had spoken with him the previous evening, when he'd been tearful, trembling, in pain. A great bruise marked Jonathan's forehead and he bore one arm in a sling, yet otherwise, by light of day, he seemed nearly elated.

Jonathan laid a hand on Giles's sleeve; he was quite a small boy--shorter, even, than Oz--with kind brown eyes. "Why don't you go home, Mr. Giles? You look really tired."

He surprised Giles, then, by bending to press his lips sweetly to the grey cheek of the injured boy. At the prom, hadn't he danced with that tall, attractive girl? One oughtn't to make assumptions, he reminded himself--perhaps the girl had been a relative, or a close friend. Or perhaps this was a brother's kiss.

"It's okay, Larry," Jonathan whispered. "I'm here."

Giles touched Jonathan's shoulder in return, then made his way silently from the room. He'd every intention of looking in once on Wesley, then going home to his own bed. He couldn't remember the last time he'd slept.

The younger man lay sleeping, one leg elevated on pillows, a brace about his neck. Giles backed silently from the room, not wanting to wake him, and collided in the doorway with a immovable human body. Instinct made him whirl, defenses at the ready.

To his utter amazement, the obstacle blocking his path proved to be none other than Moira Bannister-St. Ives, the last person in the world he expected to see in that place, or at that time. Though why it came as such a surprise he couldn't be sure: only natural that the Council should send someone to deal with Wesley and Faith. Moira, after all, had been Wesley's Handler.

"I-I thought you were in England," he stammered.

Instinct prevailed again: old habits died hard. In plain sight of the bed, they caught hold of one another tightly, the briefcase falling from Moira's hand as she raised her arms around his neck. Perhaps tiredness and his sense of unbalance governed his acts, but Giles found his hands on her firm, well-shaped bum, her hips pulled in close to his. Their lips touched, fiercely, remembering passion, and then their tongues got involved as well. Tasting her, feeling the strength of her body under his hands, he nearly lost himself--until he recalled where he was.

Em pulled away. "Good God, Rupert!"

"Good God indeed." He touched her lips, tidying a bit of lipstick that had got smudged. Smiling, Em brought out her handkerchief, wiping Giles's own mouth.

"Summer Fire," she laughed. "A good shade on you--but I don't think we want your kids to wonder if you've begun a new life as a cross-dresser."

"No danger of that, Em. They firmly believe I wear tweed pajamas to bed, and that I am, if fact, the dullest man alive."

"Wrong on two counts, as we both know." Her green eyes danced. "How's Buffy? How are the others?"

"No casualties among the 'Scooby Gang.'" He paused, noticing her laugh. "Do you actually know what a Scooby Gang is?"

"Scooby Doo is an animated Great Dane, who shares adventures with a group of young people as they investigate mysteries of a quasi-supernatural nature. If you'd like, I could tell you to which of the young people each of your own Scooby Gang members corresponds."

"No, no. Quite unnecessary."

Em laughed again. "By all means, Rupert, you must avoid popular culture at any cost. The road to hell is paved with Saturday morning cartoons."

"I believe it might well be," Giles answered with mock alarm, then sobered. "Not all of the students were so lucky. I've been doing what little I can--in loco parentis, as it were."

"You're a good man, Rupert," she said, giving him a second, more tender kiss upon the cheek. "I'd like to sit a bit with Wesley. See you later, though?" Em produced a card, as if by sleight of hand. "Call me, when you've had some sleep. You look done in."

"I shall." He glanced at the card, which bore her name without the title, and the telephone number for her digital phone. "I am."

"Soon, then." She moved into the room, shutting the door behind her.

"I don't think..." he began, then shrugged. Em would do as she would, and it wasn't for him to stop her. He turned again, and for the second time that day, collided with a beautiful woman--who also caught him in a fierce kiss, to which he, in his surprise, responded--until he realized that the woman who kissed him with such fire was actually Cordelia Chase.

Smiling, she stepped back, and said, "C'mon, Giles. You need tea. I need coffee."

Still trying to catch his breath, Giles could only nod. It wasn't until they stood alone in the lift that he could manage to recover his wits enough to ask. "What was that about?"

"Science," Cordelia answered. "An experiment."

"Do I closely resemble a white rat?"

"No." His companion grinned. "Right now you resemble an old guy on a serious lack-of-sleep jag. Which is just about right, since that's what you are."

"Thank you," he said drily, as the lift doors opened, then, "I'm not old."

"You get that little sleep, it makes you look old. Kinda faded, or like when the maid doesn't sort your laundry right, and your dad's black sock gets in with your white things? Like that."

Giles had no idea what she meant to say--but that was Cordelia.

"Eight hours a night. Sleep deprivation's for losers."

"Which I am. Or so someone informed me."

Cordelia gave him a look, and suddenly her bravado crumbled. Her firm arms flew round his waist, and she was crying into his shirt. "Hold me. Just hold me."

He did, stroking her silken hair, rubbing her shoulders, the two of them thoroughly blocking the doors to the cafeteria, heedless of the people trying to exit or enter. Cordelia didn't take long to weep herself out--she was a strong girl always. Even lying injured in a hospital bed of her own, a few months past, she hadn't liked to cry in front of him, and yet she had, begging him not to tell anyone.

"I won't tell," he assured her this time, as well.

"Yeah, like the whole world hasn't already seen us." Cordelia shook her head. "Come in, sit down. I'll get us breakfast, but you're paying."

Giles let her lead him to a small table by the window. In daylight, one could still see a pall of smoke or dust overhanging the ruins of Sunnydale High.

"Giles. Money." She nudged his shoulder. He surrendered his wallet without comment.

Giles leaned against the window, watching the breeze pull the smoke into streamers, the sun warm on his face. He felt like a cat about to fall asleep on a bright windowsill.

Moments later, Cordelia returned with a cup of coffee for herself, a cup of tea for him. "Earl Grey, with milk, the way you like it," she said.

Giles smiled his thanks.

"I got myself a fruit salad. At least five a day for better health."

"I've heard that."

"They're cooking yours, because I bet you haven't eaten for hours, or days, or whatever. You shouldn't let your bloodsugar crash like that. Take care of yourself. You'll live longer. Unless, like, a demon kills you, or a vampire sucks your blood or something."

Cordelia pulled the lid from the bowl of mixed fruit, leafing idly through his wallet. "Hey, your driver's license picture turned out nice. And somebody gave you a Gold VISA? Did you lie about your income, or something?"

"No, I did not," Giles said laughing. Such a relief to sit with tactless Cordelia, so full of life, after so many hours amongst the wounded. He sipped his tea, watching her pretty face.

"You have pictures in your wallet. I never thought you'd have pictures." She pulled them out of the protective plastic, to see them better. "Hey, you have a picture of yourself in your wallet, and who's the babe? Did your hair used to be red? Why's it darker now--is that some sort of Grecian Formula haircolor thing?"

"You're mistaken," Giles told her, knowing which photograph she'd found. "That's my son Sebastian and his wife Celeste. Look at the date on the back."

Cordelia looked, frowning slightly. "He looks about Wesley's age. How could he be Wesley's age--are you way older than we think you are?"

"How old do you think I am?"

"I don't know." Cordelia shrugged. "Middle forties?"

Giles nodded.

Cordelia, never a stupid girl despite her manner, did the math. She looked troubled, curious but not wanting to ask--rare for her.

"He was raised by some very nice people called Delacoeur. He's an Anglican priest. The woman you saw in the corridor is his mother."

Cordelia slipped the picture back into his wallet, obviously seeking safer ground. "Hey, here we are--all of us, even me."

"Naturally even you, Cordelia."

"And Ms. Calendar," the girl continued. "And here's one of a bunch of stuffy British people."

"My colleagues from the British Museum." He couldn't say, really, why he'd even kept that picture--but he had. Those people had mattered to him, and still did, though perhaps they'd never meet again.

"You looked happy. Were you happy?"

"I was, I suppose." Giles glanced up as a woman delivered his breakfast: scrambled eggs, whole wheat toast with no butter, of which Cordelia immediately stole a slice. The eggs tasted bland, but he knew better than to add salt with this particular young woman present, and so he settled for a sprinkle of pepper.

"I feel..." Cordelia dabbed her perfect mouth with a paper napkin. "Like I'm already homesick, when I haven't even left yet. I keep wanting to hug Willow. And if Xander asked me to marry him right now, I'd say yes without a minute's hesitation. This is not normal."

"I felt exactly the same way directly before I left England." Giles touched her hand. "But it turned out all right. I was just thinking what a strong person you are. Wherever you go, you'll do well."

Abruptly, her eyes flooded, and she hastily blotted them with the napkin, before the tears could smudge her mascara. "Don't say stuff like that," she told him fiercely. "Just...don't."

"Whyever not?" Giles asked her.

"Because it's nice, and I always said mean things to you, and then I'll be sad, and I already have so many serious thoughts my brain's about to explode."

"I said a few mean things to you as well, now and then, and for that I'm sorry. Such words were uncalled for."

"Giles, they were totally called for. I'm a bitch. I know that. And you're a nice man, and not bad looking in an old-guy sort of way--and even caught off guard, you kiss way better than anyone else ever, except maybe Xander. You should give Wesley lessons."

"I'm not entirely certain he'd enjoy that."

Cordelia laughed and got to her feet, pushing Giles's now-disorganized wallet in his direction. "Look, I'm gonna go see Wesley, 'cause that's the nice thing to do, and then I have to go home and pack."

"Call me when you've settled," Giles told her. "Let me know how you're doing. I may be gone for a bit, but I'll always collect my messages."

"You mean that?" She put her hand on his shoulder and bent down, tears still brightening her eyes as she gave him, this time, a sweet, daughterly kiss. "I'm gonna miss you, old guy."

Giles rose--because one did, in the presence of a lady--and squeezed her hand. "Take care, Cordelia. Remember what you've learned--Sunnydale isn't the only place that has dangers." Unable, for some reason, to resist, he took her in his arms once more, and held her, just for a moment. "And I will miss you, Cordelia."

"Oh, great, tell me that!" she tossed over her shoulder, already heading briskly away, her high heels clicking on the tile. "Now I'm gonna have to redo my makeup."

Alone, Giles finished his breakfast. The smoke, by this time, had nearly cleared, revealing only too plainly the pile of rubble that marked the site of their battle.

Buffy, Willow and Oz ended up at one of those places that specialized in gooey appetizers, huge burgers, and the kind of big fruity drinks that came with funny straws--a restaurant located right across the street from Sunnydale General Hospital. Maybe so you could go straight to the ER after all that cholesterol blocked your arteries.

Buffy hadn't thought she was hungry--she'd actually expected the sight and smell of food to make her queasy--but the minute the three of them stepped through the doors her stomach began to growl so loudly the noise could probably be heard through the entire restaurant. Talk about total embarrassment.

They had to wait a long time for their table. There hadn't been a lot of early risers in Sunnydale that morning, and apparently nobody had the energy to cook for themselves. While they were still squeezed up together on the long padded bench, watching the tropical fish in the foyer fishtank flit aimlessly around their pretend underwater world, Xander and Cordelia came through the door--Cordy forging in first and letting the door fly back in Xander's face. Each of them wore a different strange look: Xander's almost giddy, Cordelia's unusually sober.

Willow waved them over, and an awkward moment of silence fell, only broken when a hostess, in khaki shorts and polo shirt, came to lead them to a big table on the sun porch.

Buffy brushed the fronds of an encroaching fern out her face and let the others order. Before long they had a table full of laden plates, and a round of virgin strawberry margaritas served in glasses the size of serving bowls.

Xander sucked down half his drink at one go, then gave a sigh of contentment. Cordelia looked at him and shook her head. "Just when I think there's hope for you--there isn't."

"Why, thank you for your kind words, Miss Chase," he answered in a bad, fake British accent that still managed to sound strangely like Wesley's.

Cordelia glanced down into her glass--she looked different, Buffy thought, almost nervous, like she wasn't sure she had a right to be there at all.

"It's okay, Cor," Buffy told her quietly.

"How pathetic am I?" the other girl blurted out suddenly. "I got up this morning and I couldn't think where to go. I mean, school's all over--not that that's so much a bad--my mom and dad are living in a one-bedroom apartment, and I have to sleep on the hide-a-bed. Me. On a hide-a-bed."

Any other time it might have been funny, but they all shook their heads sympathetically.

"So all I could think of to do..." She twisted the strap on her purse, scowling at the unmarked high-quality leather. "The only place I could think to go was the library. How sad is that? And I actually walked all the way there..." Cordelia's voice trailed off. "I. Walked."

"Cordy, the library isn't there now," Willow told her gently.

"Don't you think I know that?" Cordelia laughed at herself, but she didn't sound happy. "But for a little while I was kinda hoping that was a dream, you know? So I went."

"What did you find?" Oz asked.

"What do you expect? A big mess. And I stepped in something icky. Dead demon-slime, maybe. And when I wiped it off my shoe wasn't shiny anymore. So I wondered where Giles lived now that he didn't have the library to hang out in anymore? I can't believe how much I wanted to talk to Giles. God, like I said, pathetic much?"

"What did you need to talk to Giles about?" Buffy asked. "The slime-stuff? 'Cause I could ask, if I see him, maybe."

"What do you mean, 'maybe,' Buff?" Xander picked up a big, dripping, bacon-studded potato skin and engulfed it in one go--reminding Buffy of the way Mayor Wilkins had engulfed Principal Snyder. "You and the G-man, you're like that." He crossed his greasy fingers to indicate the "that."

"No, I don't need to anymore," Cordelia said. "I mean, I saw him at the hospital. With Wesley and the Watcher-lady."

"What Watcher-lady?" Suddenly worried, Buffy returned her own potato skin to her plate. "What was she there for? Is Giles okay?"

"I guess. I dunno." Cordelia started munching carrot sticks. "Nobody said. Only the two of them were in the hallway when I came out of the elevator, and I'm telling you, if I'd known Giles could kiss like that, I'd have passed on Wesley and gone straight to..." She glanced up, noticing their looks. "What? I'm just saying. They were old friends, or something. And this one was not a Gwendolyn Post. Nice tailoring."

Willow looked at Buffy, her lips opening as if she wanted to say something, then closing again. "Giles doesn't kiss people," she murmured at last. "Not since Jenny."

"Will..." Xander started.

"Well, he kissed this lady, and the angle was bad, but he maybe had his hands on her butt, and you couldn't have slipped a dollar bill between them. He had such a funny look on his face when she'd gone I tried him right then and there. I don't think he knew what hit him."

"Cordelia!" Buffy snapped.

"I just had to, and it was..." She noticed Buffy's look. "Not icky. Sweet and nice if I were in love with him--which I'm not, 'cause that would be weird--pretty damn sexy. We went down to the cafeteria and we had kind of a nice talk, 'cause I wanted to say sorry about calling him a loser, and goodbye and all that." Cordelia took a potato skin off the serving plate, looked at it a minute and handed it to Xander instead. "I found out Giles never hated me, and I never hated him either--though he did tick me off with that toadstone thing--which is pretty funny if you think about it. And he gave me the sweetest hug. So, I'll miss him when he's back in England, and I'm in L.A."

"What are you talking about?" Buffy asked sharply. "Giles isn't going to England."

"Uh, when did you want to take off for L.A., Cor?" Oz said, obviously trying to change the subject.

"Oz is driving Cordy down," Willow, the peacemaker, added. "'Cause he and Devon had to go. To do stuff. Before the tour. And I'm coming too. For fun."

"I don't know," Cordelia answered. "After the funerals, I guess."

They sat quiet for a few minutes before Xander raised his glass. "To Larry," he said, with unusual seriousness.

"But Larry's not dead," Willow responded. Xander gave her a look.

They all drank.

"To Harmony," Cordelia said.

They drank again.

"You'll look at me funny," Buffy told her friends. "But, I guess, to Snyder?"

They did look at her funny, but after a minute, they drank to Snyder too.

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