Summary: A view from the gallery.
Rating: FRT: Contains Some Mature Themes: Parental Supervision Suggested.
Word Count: 3,235.
Commas Brought to You By: Howard Russell.
Continuity: follows the events of Empty Spaces, story three Crossed Wires.
|Prompts:||#326 Sixth Sense at Taming the Muse.|
|#081 Heartache from Table B (modified) at Lover100.|
The library doors swoosh open. Before they’ve banged against their stops, I glance over my shoulder from where I stand at the foremost stack, shelving a few of the day’s returns.
As I suspected, my visitor is Buffy. She was due to put in an appearance. From her no-nonsense demeanor, it looks as if she intends to breeze through, strafe the study table in order to acquire some object—likely the cast off biology textbook that’s been there since this morning—and then leave, speaking a few superfluous platitudes en route such as the clipped, insufficiently affable, “Hi, Giles,” she utters now. Over the course of the past few weeks, except in times of crisis, this parody of interaction is what has been passing for discourse.
I, for one, am foundered.
I wait to speak until she reaches the apex of her projected course, as close as she will come to my location and still be facing me. “Do you have a moment? There’s an important matter I wish to discuss with you.”
“No. Sorry,” she says without a hitch in action or motion. “I’ve gotta run. I’m going to be late for class.”
I allow a brief pause for her to suggest another time at which we might meet. That would be the polite thing to do. My optimism costs me several precious seconds, during which she rounds the table, snags the textbook, and orients her trajectory toward the exit. My mistake. I had forgotten that politeness isn’t one of the elements of this revolutionary new method of conference.
She’s slipping away. Again. They’ve all been doing that of late and I wish to know why.
The carelessness with which I shelve the remaining text costs me an internal cringe. I can set it right later. Presently I need very much to be jogging. I need to be jogging like I need another hole in my head, but she’s left me with no alternatives. I have to seize this opportunity, else I will find myself in precisely the same situation tomorrow. The same situation I’ve been in for weeks. This intolerable state that is the norm now with all three of the young people in my charge.
Well, save for Xander. He doesn’t need to avoid me. All he has to do is remain obtuse—a task for which he has limitless talent—and I snub him reflexively.
I close in and match Buffy’s gait as she leaves the library. “Well then, you won’t mind if I walk with you,” I say, avoiding the seemingly obligatory slanting glance. I’d prefer not to run headlong into the door.
She doesn’t protest, which isn’t terribly surprising. My statement wasn’t a question at all. I didn’t phrase it as such. I care little for what she thinks. She will be stuck with this ‘old man’ until she reaches class. She can, as the young people are so fond of saying these days, ‘get over it.’
The door swings in my wake. Oh dear. The matter with Xander sounds very much like psychological reactance. I hope to heavens I’m wrong. The thought of being outmaneuvered by such a juvenile ploy is troubling to say the least.
I put the horror of that insight out of my mind and focus on my present problem. By her silence Buffy seems to indeed be resigned to my intrusion.
This is nobody’s business but hers. I lean in to speak, “I’m completely perplexed by your actions. Believe me, had I been able to sort this out on my own, I would not be—”
We nearly collide with a pair of students coming the other way when she abruptly rounds the corner into the first right hand passage. My dodging and subsequent, polite, “I beg your pardon,” divides us. It’s inconvenient, but I can’t be rude.
It seems very convenient for her. I have to work to catch up. The effort leaves me seething. At any moment she is going to duck into a classroom, completely eluding me.
The damnedest part of this entire irritating fiasco is that she really hasn’t been doing anything wrong. Every single challenge the Hellmouth has presented her with, she’s faced with admirable resourcefulness and valor. What she isn’t facing is some rift in the group dynamic that I cannot grasp. There’s a detail that I’m missing. The most frustrating thing about it is that it was she who insisted that a group dynamic exist in the first place. She created the situation, now she’s casting it asunder like a broken toy.
Her continued silence, the intransigent haste of her pace and her unwavering focus on minutia—anything other than me—tells me that I am about to waste my breath.
That’s all very well. It’s my breath to waste. She will listen, or she won’t. At the very least, she will be inconvenienced.
“Look,” I say with sufficient force to suggest that I hope she will. “It worries me that you’ve become so closed off.” It’s no use. She remains fixated on something at the end of the hall. “Perhaps if I understood the situation, I might be of some help.” My exasperation comes across as a palm out, twitch of my hands, a mockery of a shrug. “At the very least I wouldn’t feel so—”
She stops. I nearly run into her as she turns, fixing me with a steely gaze. “This is none of your business, Giles,” she says, her tone threatening.
I stand stalk straight and stupefied for a moment. Long enough for her to turn away.
Her attention returns to me when I agree, “Very well.” I would prefer we handle this in a civilized manner. However, if she wishes to be uncivilized, I am quite capable of that as well. “The Slayer is meant to be a solitary warrior. Involving others was undoubtedly a mistake. It’s good that you’ve realized that. I’m sure it’ll be for the best if these social ties are dissolved with all due expediency.” The eruption happens as I speak. I see the signs in her expression and ignore them.
She doesn’t strike me. I choose to view that part as good. She does however shout, “You don’t know anything about this.”
I maintain my composure. “And whose fault is that?” Perhaps it’s age, but whatever the case, I’m able to be acerbic without causing a scene.
Unfortunately, I don’t have to. The instructor in the nearest class, Mrs. Gant, comes to her door. She glowers at us reproachfully as she shuts us out. Wonderful.
While my attention is taken by imagining the bushel of fun I will have answering her complaint to the administration, Buffy replies, “You can’t help me with this.”
I shift my attention back to her. If we’re going to have it out, we may as well muck things up thoroughly. Though after that little drama, all that remains to ask is the obvious, “How would you know? You haven’t allowed me an opportunity to even try.”
“I just know,” she replies.
That’s it. It’s that simple to her mind. I couldn’t possibly have anything to offer.
I wish she felt differently.
The impatient way she regards me isn’t exactly conducive, but I’ve stood my ground in order to speak my piece. She hasn’t stalked away, so…
“You’ll pardon me. I appreciate that my statements were inflammatory. However you must understand that this truly does concern me. With everything that is going on, the last thing we should be doing is bickering amongst ourselves.”
“I agree,” she acquiesces. That would’ve been adequate, but she just has to add a barb, “So why are we?”
I actually roll my eyes. I should be ashamed. Perhaps puerile behavior is catching? “Because I’m concerned about you,” I explain unnecessarily, letting all of the exasperation I’ve been feeling seep out through my voice. “You touted these relationships you were fostering as invaluable. A few months later you appear to have abandoned them. You can see how that might lead me to wonder what has happened. If indeed they are so precious, why aren’t you doing everything in your power to resolve the issue?”
Miracle of miracles, I finally get through, which results in an inordinate amount of her examining my shoes. “I will,” she mumbles dolefully. “Just give me time.”
“Please do,” I reply as she turns away. I touch her upper arm to delay her. “I’m not convinced that your assessment was incorrect.”
The front door opens. I finish rinsing the plate I have in my hands. My sense of timing is so refined I glance over my shoulder just as Buffy enters the kitchen. I suppose that means this place is finally beginning to feel like home. That’s good.
“How was your day?” I ask, scooping up a bowl to wash.
“Fine, Mom,” she replies in a tone so chipper it clashes with the hints of melancholy I just witnessed.
She’s putting up a front again. I have to ask, “Are you sure you’re okay?” Badgering her is pointless. I know it is. We’ve been having similar conversations for weeks, but I have to try. I let the bowl slip back into the dishwater and sweep up the dishtowel from the countertop to my left as I turn to study her reply.
“Yeah, I’m great.” She glances at me, her expression changing from a ‘not you too,’ put-upon glower to a mildly dejected smile, warming into something that looks actual and honest. A picture of stoicism is the final impression. That’s what I see, which isn’t what she wants me to see at all.
The whole transformation happens in less time than it takes for me to dry my hands. I could choose to ignore it. This is the sort of thing that Buffy has described in the past as ‘spooky Mom mojo.’ One corner of my mouth pinches in a fleeting, crooked grin. She thinks that my insights are in some way extrasensory, when in fact, they’re very much sensory. I’m just observant. That happens when you’re concerned.
In the end, she isn’t half the actress she believes she is. Not that it would matter much if she was. The details she thinks I’ll miss are persistent. Willow hasn’t been to visit in weeks. There’s been some sort of misunderstanding between them and it’s weighing heavily on Buffy’s heart.
It’d probably be kinder to allow her to believe that she’s put one over on me. I don’t. I can’t. “Honey, you know if there’s something troubling you, you can always talk to me.” She has to understand how much I care.
She replies, “I know,” through her sweetest, plastic smile and turns away.
I let her go. I’ve done all I can for today.
Someone’s coming. They just entered through the side street gate—a thing so old and rickety that the long-drawn-out screech of its opening sends a cringe surging upward from the soles of my feet. My jaw clamps tight against the shivers that skitter through my bones…and due to that major ‘nails on a chalkboard’ suckage, I vow to bring an oilcan with me next time I come here.
The chills that prickle tension into the nape of my neck pass. Time to consider my options. That gate’s far enough away. I have a little slack to make up my mind. One thing’s for sure: I shouldn’t stay here. I’m not the sort of person who can afford to be perceived as a girly-man so pathetically mawkish and mockable that he’d stop by his late friend’s grave after school to mope. Sorry, Jesse, I’d stand up for you, buddy, if you were capable of standing up, but given the givens, I should do the manly thing and sneak away.
’Cept when we hopeful manly-men get sneaky, we call it ‘stealthy.’ Same thing, but the difference is vast, like the one between ‘awesome’ and ‘marvelous.’ Say the first, you’re one of the dudes. Slip up and use the substitution, better hope you like tweed ’cause you’re a pair of blotchy spectacles and a hanky away from permanent Giles-dom.
Free thinking will not be tolerated.
I could probably cut and run and not bump into them, whoever they are—I don’t even think it’d be that hard—but I’m not ready to leave. The only place I have to go is home. Even a dark, dirty crypt is better than that, as long daylight holds out. After dark, things get debatable. Depends on how hammered Dad is. The crypt might be less traumatic.
Really, I can’t be sure that my mystery guest, or guests, will pass this way. Even so, the crypt isn’t a bad idea. I head for one nearby. It’s a good size, big enough for a coffin, not big enough for a convention. Which is also a good, given that this is Sunnydale and vacant crypts here are like Motel Sixes to the undead.
I touch the rough stone surface of the crypt. This should be a workable place to hole up until my company gets bored, provided I can get in. Causing the same sort of ruckus would kind of defeat the purpose, so I gently test the latch and hinges. Whoever’s been taking care of this gate should seriously check out that other thing. The only noise this one makes is a slight clack when I release the latch. I slip through the doorway and shut myself inside.
There are three small windows overhead, one at the top of each doorless wall. They aren’t much, more like horizontal arrow slits than windows, but they let in some light, which is a comfort. A single sarcophagus occupies the space so fully that there’s barely room to walk around it. I hop up to get comfy, or whatever passes for comfy considering where I am.
As I sit, twiddling my toes, it occurs to me that if I stand on top of the sarcophagus, I might be able to look through the window. I do and I can, but not without ducking. And if I stand on the stupid floor, I’ll be too short. It’s a no-win situation that’ll quickly lead to a pain in my neck. Best of all is the opportunity to mop the cobwebs off the ceiling with my hair. I’m not sure I’m curious enough to put up with this long enough to see who it is, if they even walk past here. And that’s a pretty big ‘if.’
The universe is nothing if not spiteful. It just has to throw me the most obvious curve, prove me wrong and make me feel like an idiot, all in the same instant that Willow walks up. She places something on Jesse’s headstone and says, “Hi.”
She moves her hand, allowing me to see that the ‘something’ is a pretty polished pebble. So she’s the one who’s been leaving those. I wondered.
I should leave. Instead, I sit down and try not to listen. Not that it works. Willow isn’t that far away. Her voice comes through so loud clear when she tells Jesse that she misses him. I can even tell that she’s nervous.
The whole thing’s a little weird. I didn’t think they were that close. But I guess it doesn’t matter. He was my friend, which meant she saw him every day. For Willow, that’s close enough for friendship.
“I feel weird about this,” she says, echoing my point. “I hope you don’t mind. I didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
You could talk to me.
“I know you probably think I can talk to Xander.”
“But I can’t.”
“It’d just be weird,” she says, trailing off into a bitter laugh. “Weirder that this, if you can believe that.”
This is messed up. I actually feel myself growing upset. Why would it be weird for her to talk to me? Weirder than her talking to herself in a graveyard? That’s like crazy homeless person behavior. She’s my oldest friend. I thought that meant something. I want to go out and ask. See what she has to say for—
“It’s true,” she says. “I’ve really made a mess.” And again with the echo. “I didn’t mean to.” But it’s more than just the uncanniness or the weirdness. Her voice is strained, like she might be on the verge of tears. “He feels the same way I do. It’s weird.” A hissy, scornful snicker carves a pause in her ramble. “I know I’ve already said that, but it is. It’s just weird.”
Impressive that I hear what amounts to a rush of air. Of course, I’m less worried about that than what way she thinks I feel.
“I don’t know how I feel,” she says, anxiety lending strength to her voice. “Or why I feel the way I do. I just know that when I’m with Buffy, she makes me feel better about me. I feel special when I’m with her.”
“I feel like my heart’s too big. The same way I feel about Xander sometimes. He looks at me sometimes and I feel like I’m about to burst.” I strain to hear her mumble, “Not that he notices,” which is really sad. Minutes ago I didn’t want to listen because I thought it would be wrong. Now I’m straining to hear things I’m not sure I want to hear.
“That was bad enough,” she admits, her voice crackles, threatening tears. “Now I think I love them both.”
No, not ‘threatening.’ I can just hear her fretting. I feel sorry for her. Really, I do.
It’s quiet for long enough that I wonder if that’s it. Is she going to leave? She hasn’t yet. I should feel something about this besides sorry for her. It should bother me.
“And I can’t! I just can’t!” She blows up, bawling as she rants, “I’m afraid I’ll lose them—” hiccupping “—that they won’t feel the same way—” sobbing “—that’ll drive them away—” sputtering “—and I need them. I really, really need them. I don’t know what to do.”
Oh. My. God. That’s what she meant? That’s why she got so upset? I was joking about the ‘date’ thing. Apparently she wasn’t. She thinks she’s in love with Buffy.
And she thinks she’s in love with me. That’s bad enough. Strange enough. I’ve never even thought about Willow that way. I’m not even sure why. Maybe she’s too much like my sister?
I don’t know.
But Buffy? She thinks about Buffy that way? In what world would that work?
Will thinks that’ll work? She has to see that Buffy’s into guys. Will’s just going to get herself hurt. Buffy would never in a million years—
I’m wiggling my foot. It’s making a tapping noise. I stop. Nerves. If Will wasn’t crying her eyes out, she probably would’ve heard me. Fortunately…or would that be ‘unfortunately’?
I feel bad for her. I have a better chance with Buffy than she does. And how will that work?
Will Willow be mad if Buffy likes me? Will she resent seeing two people who she thought she loved together? I mean, I might not be tall, dark and fangsome, but I’m a whole lot closer to Buffy’s type than Willow is. Once Buffy gets her head around the idea that fangsome is bad…
What will that do to Willow?