Buffy took a deep breath of brisk night air. It had been a tension-filled few days for everyone; making arrangements, preparing the rotation for who would watch Giles, and when. Strange having to discuss babysitting a forty-nine-year-old man with a bunch of folks barely out of their teens but he needed the company. It said so in the doctor’s notes, physician ordered bonding time. He also needed a Santa-sized shopping list of prescriptions, some of which Willow was fast researching for suspicion of their necessity, some for holistic alternatives, all for frugality. The Council was footing the hefty bill, but something gnawing at Buffy’s gut made her determined to cover many of the costs herself. She worried that if the expenses got too out of hand that they might pay them an unscheduled visit which was never a good thing. So it was to be ‘everything’s coming up roses’ in the preferably long distance correspondence with the Council.
It seemed to Buffy that Giles was coping as well as could be expected. She noticed he spent most of his day sitting quietly in the backyard. Sometimes she’d join him, listening to the birds, the passing cars, the sound of bickering within the house and the sound of silence when his name was brought up. It made her wonder what he’d overheard her saying. It was as if no one knew what to say and when they tried, it always came out wrong.
Though Giles was never left unaccompanied for very long, there had already been casualties. The coffee maker had been mysteriously left running without coffee or water and was declared DOA by Tara the following morning. Willow’s laptop came dangerously close to drowning under a cup of tepid tea. Luckily, her mouse was the only fatality while the laptop itself was quickly rescued from impending doom by the ever watchful Tara. The worst happened on the third night, though Buffy hadn’t been made aware until Dawn brought it to her attention. The family photo of Dawn, Mom and her had been shattered somehow. While Xander and Giles were running an errand to the pharmacy, Dawn said she’d snuck into the room and found the picture tucked away high on the shelf in the closet when she was shopping for a new wardrobe amongst Buffy’s things. All the glass bits were carefully placed back within the frame, like Giles had attempted to fix it. Realizing it wasn’t working, he must have hidden it. Buffy considered confronting him but decided against it since it was so soon after his coming home. Things were hard for everyone, especially him. The last thing he needed was being humiliated by being found out. Still, it had been the stake that slayed the Chosen One and she was out for a night on the town... or at least some quiet time away.
Buffy was looking forward to a straightforward evening of slayage and mindless patrolling. She needed the time to defuse the anxiety that had her strung tighter than a tennis racket. Unfortunately, the local demons weren’t cooperating as she found the cemeteries uncharacteristically silent. By the time she’d made a clean sweep through the southern grounds of the Restfield Cemetery, she was getting aggravated by the serious lack of activity.
The snapping of a twig sent her spinning swiftly on her heels, stake raised and ready to strike. A tall and very familiar figure flinched back, startled.
“Giles?!” she announced harshly. Alarmed at the severe tone of her voice, he stumbled backwards, tripping up on a groove in the path. He was spared a grimy fall to the damp grass by Buffy’s speedy reaction in catching his arm. “God, I almost...” she paused, trying to cap her temper. “Never sneak up on me!”
“Are... are you angry?” his voice cracked nervously, still stumbling over his own feet a bit.
She steadied him then fixed her hands to her hips in an obvious display of disapproval. “Giles, why are you here?”
“I d-didn’t have my walk today and when I saw you l-leave I thought I might join you.”
“I’m not walking out here, Giles.”
“It looks as if you are,” he suggested shyly, eyes darting nervously from his shoes to her and back again to his shoes.
“I’m fighting evil, here, okay.”
He looked around for a moment and then his gaze returned to her, wearing a confused crooked brow. “Are you winning?”
“There isn’t any here, now,” she huffed. “But it will come and when it does, you shouldn’t be here. It’s too dangerous.”
“Evil? Like the bad men in the hospital?”
She’d forgotten she promised him an explanation but with all the activity lately, it’d slipped her mind. “Yeah and worse... much worse.”
“What do they want?” He searched the landscape for signs of shadows, for movement.
“I don’t know. What every monster wants, I guess; death, destruction, to rule the world.” Buffy rambled off quickly in frustration. “Then there are those who just want what we want.”
His gaze returned to hers, brows lifting in expectation. “And what do we want?”
“How would I know,” she said with an exasperated sigh. “Do you ever stop asking questions?”
“I don’t remember? Do I?”
“Just be quiet... just for a moment, okay?” Buffy slipped the stake back within her belt loop and took a deep, calming breath. “Here’s the thing, I’m a vampire Slayer. I fight against the forces of darkness... one girl in all the world...” Buffy stopped, shaking her head. “I can’t believe I’m having to do this spiel to you, of all people. This is just wrong on so many levels I can’t even wrap my head around it.”
“Did I know this before?”
“Yeah, you did. You knew this and that’s why you stayed home where it was safe and I didn’t need to protect you.”
“Then who protects you?”
That question took her by surprise and she responded with the only thought that came naturally to her. “No one, I’m the Slayer.”
He stared quizzically at her for a long moment, head cocked sideways in trying to work things out. After examining the tombstone speckled landscape once more, he stepped up to stand boldly at her side.
“Then I will,” he concluded matter-of-factly.
Buffy wanted to argue, to shake some sense into him but it was clear he didn’t understand. How could he? He didn’t remember what badness is out there. Even so, his naïve offer was as sweet as was his determination. All at once, it made her smile and cry and she fought off the impending tears before they showed themselves. It was obvious this was going to take time.
“You know what? Its way late and this is a big bust with the no baddies. They must be taking the night off. What’d ya say we get you home and make some serious cocoa?”
“Without marshmallows?” Giles asked hopefully.
“Dawn’s brainwashed you, hasn’t she?” Buffy asked suspiciously. “How does whipped cream sound?”
“I’d like that.”
When his fingers gently slipped in to interweave with hers, Buffy froze. It was instantly uncomfortable, an unexpected closeness she’d never expect from him. And though she tried to, she was incapable of pulling her eyes away from the strange spectacle of their joined hands. Collecting her wits about her, she finally managed to draw her gaze to his and in seeing he wasn’t bothered the slightest bit by it, actually seeming contented by the simple connection, she fought off the temptation to withdraw. It was the oddest sensation, holding hands with her Watcher. Then it struck her, he wasn’t really her Watcher anymore, not in the ways that counted on letterheads or in journals. He was a person needing the comfort of another, and so was she. And after a moment of feeling the weight and warmth of his hand in hers, she welcomed his gentle grip and they walked together, side by side, back home.
The suggestion came about when Dawn found Giles sitting on the floor of the training room at the Magic Box, legs crossed, something cupped in-between his hands that he was studying with serious intensity. She approached him casually, trying to give him a chance to realize she was there. He didn’t move, only stared down at the item, fascinated. It was a book, a journal to be exact, one of his old Watcher Diaries. Just as nosey as her, he’d found it and like her, was trying to discover himself in its annoyingly small handwritten pages. His fingers traced the writing, his green eyes squinting at the notes scribbled there.
“It’s yours,” she explained quietly. “In case you were wondering who it belongs to. That’s one of your...” They hadn’t told him what he’d been, carefully baby-stepping him back into their world. She chose to omit a word before carrying on. “Journals. You used to write, a lot.” She pointed toward the book. “And apparently doodle. There are some funny stick figures in the back.”
“What did I write about?”
“Lots of stuff. Mostly about Buffy, sometimes about me, us... the town. Anything weird in general.”
“It was kinda your thing.” This was getting harder by the second.
His eyes lifted to her, pleading as he held the book up toward her. “What does it say?”
And there it was, plain as day and yet she’d managed to forget. He couldn’t read. A man who’d once spoken multiple languages, who’d lived for books and had worked in a library, had been robbed of one of the fundamental gifts he’d had. To Dawn, it was like losing the ability to gossip or shop. It was a tragedy that needed to be set right. Before she knew it, she’d told him he’d know what the pages said soon enough and that she would teach him to read again.
The very next day, Dawn dug through her old trunk, retrieving a few of her childhood books, though calling them books was a far stretch of the imagination. In actuality, they were nothing more than leaflets with simplistic illustrations and boring sentences that hardly made up an honest story. But if ‘See Spot Run’ was good enough for her, it was good enough for Giles. And it was much better beginners reading material than ‘Ritualistic Sacrifices and Occult Practices’.
“The gang’s all gone doing their own thing today so you’re all mine, Giles,” Dawn said with a beaming smile as she set the booklets on the living room table and went in search of scratch paper and a pencil with a sturdy eraser.
“Can I ask you something?” Giles watched her gather the supplies as he remained in his comfortable spot; lying on his stomach along the floor, legs bent, calves and bare feet swaying aimlessly above.
“Shoot,” she said then with hearing the resulting long silence, glanced back to see his confused expression. “Sure, Giles, ask away.”
“My name is Rupert but you all call me Giles. Not mister Giles, just Giles. All of you are called by your first names; Willow, Xander, Dawn... why am I different?”
“I don’t know. It’s just what we call you, I guess. Why, you don’t like being different?”
“I... I want to fit in.” His eyes fell to the carpentry catalogue he’d swiped off the table. He leafed through the pages, trying to avoid looking at her.
Dawn joined him on the floor, sitting cross-legged and replacing the catalogue with one of the booklets.
“But you never fit in, Giles. Not really. You were like... like our coach or counselor or maybe a supervisor of some kind. It’s hard to describe.”
“Then I didn’t belong?”
“Of course you did... do. But you belonged because you didn’t fit in.”
She lay down facing him, settling in for a hard discussion.
“Listen, fitting in is way overrated. Trust me on this. I’m known as the local freak at my high school thanks to my overprotective, overly possessive Slayer sister. Can’t exactly win a spectacularly normal social life with all this hanging over you like some giant out-of-control pimple about to burst.”
“So what do you do about it?”
Giles was asking her for advice? The ‘go to’ man was asking *her* for advice. “Find other freaks to hang out with.” She smirked which prompted a gentle smile from him. “I don't know if you noticed but we’re not like the rest of the world, Giles.”
“We’re special,” he said it more like a statement needing confirmation than a question.
“Yeah, we are. Willow and Tara are witches. Anya is an ex-demon. Buffy is a vampire Slayer. I used to be a ball of green energy capable of tearing open dimensional portals and thereby causing the end of all civilization. And then of course, there’s Xander who is beyond explanation. Judging by your call sheet of current family characters, I’d say you passed step one of the freak meter with flying colors.”
“B-but… I don’t know what all that means,” he sighed in frustration.
“It’s okay. You will. It’s all in here.” Dawn took up the journal and gestured with it toward other older texts spread out on the table. “Until then, get all cozy like with your differences and roll with the punches. That’s what we do, or at least we try to. We may act like we got it together but we don’t. Every single one of us is dangling by a thread of our own self doubt. That’s what makes us belong together in a weird, sad way. We’re stronger together than we are apart.”
“Then why does Buffy pull away?”
Dawn could see the concern in his eyes and appreciated it. “That’s harder to explain.”
“Did something happen to her?” He asked softly, as if dreading the answer.
“Yeah, something really bad and she’s having a hard time with it.” Dawn pushed herself upright to sit cross-legged again. “Enough with this deep thoughts, sad talking. Let’s get reading, okay?”
When Willow and Tara came in the back door, bathed in the orange-yellow light of sunset, they found Dawn and Giles rampaging through the kitchen cupboards. The countertop was spilling over with boxes of cereal, bottles of soap, detergent, canned foods, liters of soda; everything and anything that had once been neatly tucked away within the confines of the pantry was now on display.
“Think we better have another look at Giles’ prescriptions. There has to be a circus of drug interactions going on here,” Willow mumbled anxiously, overwhelmed by extent of the mess.
“Whatcha been doing, guys?” Tara asked, barely containing her amusement. Both Dawn and Giles stopped with their looting and turned to greet the witches.
“I can read!” Giles said quickly, face lit by an exuberant smile.
“He can read!” Dawn echoed, giddy.
“You can read?” Willow could barely contain her amazement.
“I can read,” Giles repeated again, reaching out to snatch up a bag of snack crackers.
“G-Goldfish. This says Goldfish.” He tossed it carelessly aside, sending the small fish-shaped crackers exploding all over the kitchen floor. No one cared. He took up a bottle of dish soap, squeezing it to spurt out all over the four of them.
“This is... Dawn?” He chuckled and gestured to his teacher. “Dawn, like you.”
“Like me. You’re right,” Dawn giggled.
“He can read!” Tara laughed, overjoyed.
“I can read,” Giles repeated, suddenly sandwiched within a celebratory embrace of Willow, Dawn and Tara.
At that moment, Anya and Xander came through the back door to see the embracing foursome. Anya immediately joined in, wrapping her arms around as best she could, not caring the slightest bit what was going on and just wanting to be a part of it.
“Um... guys? What’s going on and tell me it has nothing to do with Giles and a love spell,” Xander pleaded nervously.
“He can read!” Dawn announced proudly, pulling away.
“What?” Xander’s face lit up with a hopeful smile.
“Show him, Giles,” Dawn encouraged, pushing the others aside so Giles could demonstrate his rediscovered talent. Giles pivoted on his heels, excitedly searching for something to read. He took up a crumpled magazine he’d found in the bread box and displayed it for all to see.
“P-Play-boy... this is Playboy Magazine,” Giles declared.
Xander worked to hide the horror of his abruptly discovered hidden stash used as an impromptu teaching tool but the joy of the moment got the best of him. Again, Giles was immediately tackled within a group hug of abundantly excited fans.
“Giles can read! Giles can read!” Dawn started to dance and chant victoriously around the kitchen. “And I’m the one who taught him. I’m the one who did it.”
“You mean *he* did it,” Tara corrected gently, offering a pleased smile to Giles.
“Dawn showed me,” Giles insisted. “Helped me.”
“Hey guys,” Buffy said as she came in the back door, arms loaded with grocery bags. “What’s with the party in the kitchen? Did I miss... Oh my god! What the hell happened in here and it better start with the word bomb or heads will roll?”
“We discovered Giles can read and someone is hiding pornography in your kitchen, Xander or quite possibly Willow. How was your day?” Anya asked cheerily.
“Who would hide porn in a kitchen?” Dawn asked, glancing over to see Giles browsing wide-eyed and red-faced through the nude-clad pages. She quickly snapped it away and threw it in the trash can.
“Giles reads porn what?” Buffy squeaked, completely confused and distracted by the mess.
Dawn rushed up to her sister, taking the grocery bags from her one by one and gloating excitedly, “I taught Giles to read. He can read and I taught him.”
The muttering crowd of friends hushed quiet, parting to get out of the way. Once free of the bags, Buffy approached Giles, looking hopefully up at his grinning face.
“Show Buffy what you can do, Giles,” Willow gave him a nudge.
He glanced around quickly for something to read. He lifted his hand and skimmed his finger along Buffy’s tank top, reading aloud the first words he’d found. “’Bite Me’. It says ‘Bite Me’”. He waited, eyes wide and hopeful.
The group remained silently stunned at the seemingly innocent but improper gesture, waiting for Buffy’s reaction with bated breath. It took only a moment for Buffy to wrap him within her arms and hug the stuffing out of him, much to everyone’s delight. Soon, the gang resumed their group hug and celebration of Giles’ achievement. It wasn’t much but at that instant, he felt like he belonged.