Disclaimers in Part One:
It had been barely midday when they’d pulled into the motel. By the time mid-afternoon rolled round, the bottle of Jack was close to empty and Giles had managed to reach that moment of mellow warmth when he and the harsher edges of the world began to part company. To the casual eye he’d spent those few short hours sipping slowly at his glass while immersed in the paperwork he’d dug out of his briefcase and spread around himself. Financial reports, personnel rosters, assess registers … the flotsam of the administrative nightmare he’d managed to inherit by turning up at a discrete London Lawyer’s office and proving that he was the most seasoned and active Watcher left alive after the Bringer’s ferocious purge. One emergency meeting of the ancient order’s trustees later, and he’d found himself the newly appointed executive director of a whole slew of business holdings, nominated sponsor of the order’s Charity Foundation, head of the order’s International Acquisition and archiving organisation, and a senior member of the slowly being reformed Council – the one responsible for reconstruction and reorganisation. All of which meant he’d become a man with an almost permanent headache, submerged in the kind of financial accountability and organisational bureaucracy that he’d foolishly thought he’d managed to escape forever. Managing a school library had been a breeze compared to his days of juggling museum trustees, grant applications and council scrutiny committees, and retail? Retail – on a small scale- had been a surprising pleasure. The last thing he’d ever wanted to do was reacquaint himself with a soul destroying world of paper shuffling, petty power plays, diplomatic schmoozing and political bargaining that challenged every moral fiber of his being.
But Buffy, along with the rest of them, had automatically assumed he’d step into the breach, and – since he’d known that he had an entire army of young and therefore vulnerable slayers depending on someone to get it right – he’d accepted the inevitable, buckled down and was busy getting on with it as best he could.
Hence the paperwork. Which seemed to have accumulated at an alarming pace, and continued to present him with difficulties that demanded his attention night and day. None of which he could actually deal with, while snowed into a motel room, somewhere on the road between Buffalo and Cleveland, especially in the middle of a storm that was seriously disrupting any kind of broadcast signal – which was why that non-existent casual observer would be entirely wrong in his assumptions. True, Giles had worked fairly diligently for the first hour, sorting through and short-listing applicants for a couple of senior posts in the London office, but the on-going howl of the storm, the bland claustrophobia of the room and the slow, subtle fire of the whiskey had slowly, but surely distracted his attention.
He’d barely noticed when the words on the papers had started dancing – the inevitable result of tired eyes, a tired soul and the soft buzz of the liquor in his blood – because, by the time they did, he’d already found something far more fascinating to focus on.
The enigma of Andrew Wells.
He’d known the boy – peripherally – in his school days, of course, paying him little attention beyond the issue of library books and the occasional wince at his less than social graces. Back then he’d catalogued him as yet another victim of the American School system – too bright to successfully blend in with his peers, and far too innocent to accept that difference might be a good thing. Giles had always been of the opinion that too many young souls sported permanent bruises from the callousness of conformity and peer pressure that formal schooling imposed; Buffy – at least up until she had been called – had managed to escape relatively undamaged, but both Willow and Xander would carry their scars to the grave. He suspected that much of Andrew’s anxious over-eagerness had been forged in that particular fire, along with the less than sterling influences of his older brother, whose shadow Andrew had probably been trying to escape for most of his life.
Tucker Wells, Giles recalled, had been a self-centred, thoughtless, and equally rejected member of Buffy’s peer group. Andrew was – what? Two years younger? Twenty – twenty one - and already carrying the weight of deeds that, if he had any sense or even a hint of a conscience, would haunt him for the rest of his life.
A burden that Rupert ‘Ripper’ Giles knew only too well …
He, of course, had had the good fortune to attend a school where intellect was encouraged alongside the more physical activities, even if he hadn’t appreciated it at the time. His own bruises had been spawned by family expectations – by duty and tradition rather than through his interactions with his peers. Extra-curricular studies in demonic history and languages had imposed a savage mental discipline over and above the more usual round of academic study, while endless martial arts and weapons practice had challenged him to his limits. His only escape, prior to the freedoms he’d sought at university, had been the Rugby pitch – the fields of war on which ‘Ripper’ had been born, stripping the ball from his opponents with such enthusiastic precision that their Australian born coach had regularly greeted him with a cry of ‘Ripper footy, mate!’ whenever he left the field.
The name had stuck, from the fourth form through to the sixth, on into his Oxford days, and after, where it had earned him a completely different reputation. His wild days had been fired by the need to escape, to defy the chains of destiny; he suspected that Andrew’s dabbling in the dark arts had been a much more anguished cry for help than his own - a plea to be noticed, to prove himself.
He was still trying to prove himself, of course, looking for a place in the world he had partially helped to create and spending much of his time looking out of place instead. Like now – fiddling around with his laptop, trying to appear busy, when he was probably playing one of those infernal games – or watching a movie, perhaps. It was hard to tell; once he’d dried off enough to brush his hair back into it’s more usual perpendicular styling, he’d donned a pair of headphones and the only sounds Giles was hearing from the relevant side of the room was an occasional mutter – a quiet curse or a brief cry of triumph that were swallowed almost as quickly as they were spawned. The way that each of these hasty outbursts were followed - first by a wary glance in Giles’ direction, and then a just as hasty glance away, so as not to get caught doing it, had been mildly irritating to begin with. Its repetition might have eventually become seriously annoying, had the drink not wreaked the mellow magic he’d intended it too, as the hours had progressed. Right now, that cycle of sinking into absorption, spontaneous reaction, hasty realisation and the moments of tensioned anxiety that followed, had turned into an entertaining source of amusement. Giles would find himself tensing as the silence extended … then had to stop himself from jumping as the inevitable exclamation fluttered up. He’d hold himself still, resisting the temptation to react, to turn and look – just long enough to be sure that the young man would be looking away when he finally lifted his head. He was points ahead in the game by now – never once meeting anxious eyes when he glanced across, but still catching the guilty expression every time.
It was getting very hard not to giggle at it. Because with Andrew, anxious guilt was apparently a wholehearted, angst ridden performance – one that might have won Oscars, back in silent movie days.
It had to be the suit, of course. That, or the realisation that the man in the suit was now his employer, paid his wages, and was likely to be a large influence in the shape of his future, for good or for ill. Either way, the wary ‘on my best behaviour’ glances, and the intensity with which the young man was currently making his attempts to be as unnoticeable as possible was a new development. Back in Sunnydale, Andrew had obviously picked up the Scoobies general disrespect of their erstwhile mentor and had treated him with much the same level of tolerance and impatient disdain as the rest of them. Of course, in those final days, Giles had been making every effort he could to fade into the background, to let Buffy take centre stage and to not let his fraying temper, his spiraling sense of helplessness, or his bitter, inner demons, snap out at an inopportune moment. He’d been well aware that those internal battles had been every much a part of his defiance against the First as any of the external conflicts he’d been – or not been – involved in. So Andrew had never really seen him at his … well, best was probably the wrong choice of words, but, between Anya’s candid condescension’s, Buffy’s tight lipped antagonism and Xander’s usual –if affectionate – mockery, it was not surprising that a good many of the participants in that particular siege had dismissed him as bumbling and irrelevant.
He couldn’t entirely deny the bumbling, which seemed to have become something deeply ingrained into his everyday demeanor – but he was certainly not irrelevant, and the bumble was merely his workaday way of dealing with trivia while he focused on more important things. Like the welfare of his now myriad slayers, the auspices of as yet unfulfilled prophecies, or joining the dots across a multitude of disparate and un-provenanced facts to unearth the vital information needed before the demon of the day caused too much mayhem and carnage.
He tipped another slug of whiskey down his throat, and rewound that last thought with a wry grimace of self mockery. Since the fall of the old Council and the destruction of the central archives, that little skill of his had become one of the most vital assets that the new Council possessed. People called him day and night, to ask the most ridiculous of questions …
“Good lord,” he muttered, so surprised by revelation that he voiced it out loud. Andrew practically flew off the bed, a flustered jump of uncontrolled limbs and half panicked reaction; the laptop tumbled towards the floor, creating even further panic – and a momentarily frantic juggling act, as hands grabbed, the headphone cable went taut and the little plug-in data thing pinged out to land – with perfect precision – in Giles’ currently empty glass.
“Good shot,” he acknowledged bemusedly, watching the rest of the juggle resolve itself into a barely rescued computer, a highly skewed pair of headphones and a very wide eyed Andrew, who was staring at him like a startled colt. “Although if I’d wanted my whiskey on the rocks, I’d have just stuck my glass outside the door … Andrew, what are you doing? You get a shock from that – infernal thing, or something?”
“You good lorded.”
“You Good Lorded. Buffy said, when you Good Lord, then the next apocalypse is probably coming, and I was – hoping we were going to have the night off, really.”
Giles stared at him.
“Buffy said ..?”
“That if you ever said Good Lord, in a startled, I hadn’t realised that, kinda way, then I should really, really pay attention to what you were saying, because it would be important.”
He went on staring for a moment or two, torn between the desire to tug off his glasses and heave one of those deep and heartfelt sighs that he reserved for moments of utter exasperation, and a strong temptation to fix the young man with his most icy and intimidating glare. In the end, sense – and the mellow haze of the liquor – won out over indignant incredulity; he did reach to tug off his glasses, but he didn’t heave that sigh.
He started to laugh, instead.
“Oh, good lord,” he muttered, pressing his forehead to the back of his hand and leaving it there for a moment, feeling the chuckles bubbling out of him like the syncopated fizz of champagne. Once he’d started, he couldn’t stop, a release of – something – that wanted to be out. That needed to be out, dragging with it the myriad tensions he’d been carrying for days.
Maybe even years …
“You’re doing it again.” Andrew’s observation was taut, anxiously laced with potential to panic. Giles drew in a deep breath – one deep enough to slow, if not stop the onslaught of semi-hysterical laughter – and looked up, trying very hard to regain a modicum of dignity. He might have managed calm, but probably over reached himself aiming for somber – which collapsed the instant he took his second look at Andrew’s bewildered expression and the way his forgotten headphones were clinging to his hair like a pair of roped climbers, clinging to the peaks of Everest.
No – not Everest. Just Ben Nevis.
A wanna-be mountain, rather than a majestic one …
“Sit,” he commanded between resurging giggles, making a determined effort to stab his finger towards the abandoned bed. “Relax. I don’t care what Buffy told you, not every exclamation I make leads to an apocalypse. Not in the – usual application of the word, anyway.”
“Usual?” Andrew tugged away his headphones with a wary hand and did as he’d been ordered, sinking to the mattress with what Giles suspected was a sinking heart. He wasn’t quite quaking, but he might as well have been.
“An Apocalypse, from the Greek: Ἀποκάλυψις Apokálypsis; "lifting of the veil" or "revelation" … is literally a disclosure - usually of something hidden from the majority of mankind in an era dominated by falsehood and misconception … as opposed to the common interpretation, which is a misconception, or possible confusion with the term Armageddon – which in itself is often misapplied, since it is now thought to specifically refer to a battle, or possibly several battles actually fought at Megiddo …” He’d gone into lecture mode almost without realising it, and had to retrace his mental steps. How had he – oh, yes, that was it … “Oh, good lord.”
Andrew immediately tensed, inspiring another burst of laughter. “Oh – for heaven’s sake … I merely came to another moment of revelation, which are – normally the moments I tend to use that particular phrase, and – yes – often those revelations are the kind that accompany the implications of a particular prophecy or … the identity of a specific demon …” Giles reached for the whiskey to pour himself another shot, realised there was still something rattling in his glass, and took a comforting swig direct from the bottle instead. “But in this case, it was the revelation that – for the first time in many months – I am actually out of reach, unlikely to be disturbed, and can bloody well relax. Without feeling the least bit guilty. We are,” he pointed out, since Andrew was still staring at him, “snowed in, in an out of the way, unimportant, non-mystically significant, motel, in the middle of nowhere, for at least the next twenty four hours if not longer … and the world could come to a bloody end, and we would know nothing about it. Let alone be expected to do anything about it. So,” he wound down, “while Buffy’s advice is probably … sound, albeit extremely tongue in cheek and bloody impertinent – in this particular case, Mr Wells, my use of the phrase was merely indicative of a light bulb going on inside my head and not a sign of impending doom.
“Unless you happen to think that my choosing to shortlist both Palmer and Bolton for the senior accountant’s post will lead to the downfall of Western civilisation as we know it …”
That finally lifted a smile to the young man’s lips – a small one, hesitant, and not entirely sure it was going to be welcomed one, but still a smile. “No- no. No. I’m sure you … you’re interviewing accountants now?”
“Alas, so.” Giles tugged the data stick from his glass and threw it back to its owner, casually swept the remaining paperwork off the bed and onto the floor, and equally casually stretched himself out in its place. “Someone has to do it – and since Robin has his hands full with the new slayers, asking Buffy to employ accountants is a little like asking a wolf to herd sheep, Willow would both baffle and intimidate them, and Xander’s entirely likely to appoint a demon or two somewhere along the line … it tends to come to me. At some point I will get round to employing an assistant – or two – to take some of this stuff off my shoulders, but – these are senior people, and I need to sure they can be trusted. And not just in the ‘won’t run off with the money to South America’ sense.”
“Willow would – just send it back if they did ...” The observation was distracted. So was Giles, as it happened. Lying down had set his senses dancing, turning the room into a momentary fairground ride. It was an oddly liberating feeling, and he groped for the nearly empty whiskey bottle to see if he could help it along. “I could do that,” Andrew suddenly declared. “Help you out, that is, not run off to South America with the money. I could if wanted to. I’ve been that man on the run. A desperate desperado, searching for sanctuary with a price on my head …” His dramatic declaration tailed off, as much from self realisation as a result of the skeptical look Giles was giving him. “Okay, so we only got as far as Mexico, and there wasn’t any money involved … but that - wasn’t what I meant. I meant, I could be your assistant and help with the paperwork. I used to help my dad. He worked for the IRS, and they had to do everything in triplicate. Twice. I – um – actually quite like filing …”
Giles blinked. In terms of reluctant confessions the young man might make, that one was completely unexpected. “Good heavens,” he reacted. “Indexing and cross referencing?”
“Ooh, yes.” Andrew’s eyes lit up. “I even set up a system to catalogue Warren’s comic collection? Based on the one I have for my own, but – he had more first editions and mint covers, so I had to add a condition descriptor … but it was totally awesome – you could do a search on author or artist, or principle characters, but then select by a sub-category, so you could find – for instance, all the Fantastic four inked by a particular artist and interacting with your chosen villain, and listed in chronological order of publication. If you wanted to.” The young man’s shrug said a lot about how unappreciated all this enthusiasm and effort had been. “Warren rated his stuff on a T&A scale, so … he mostly used the system to – track down the She-Hulk’s guest spots and find the ones by the guy that drew the Huntress with … added endowments.”
“Sounds like a lot of effort for – not much reward.”
Andrew’s snort held a note of disdain. “Shows how much you know,” he muttered, then immediately tensed again, probably realising he’d spoken the thought out loud. “You don’t do stuff like that for reward,” he explained, a little hastily. “You do it because it’s useful. And because it helps make sense of stuff. So you know a collection’s complete – or if not, where the gaps are. What they are. And if you’re not sure of the order something happened in, you can find a starting point and work back, or forward … and you can keep track of things that happen across editions … or series … and when the story arc get referenced in someone else’s title, and – boy does it help you spot continuity errors. You know? When Batman mentions talking to Superman, but he couldn’t have done, because the Man of Steel was supposed to be in a different dimension at the time?”
Giles took a long, slow glug of whiskey, marveling at the sudden warmth and animation in his companion’s voice. He didn’t have a clue as to what the young man was talking about … content wise. But he understood the concepts, the principles, all too well. He hadn’t been entirely joking, that day he’d told Buffy that he viewed cross referencing as a hobby – having the ability to link snippets of knowledge, to track timeframes for prophecies and match hints of demonic behaviour with other, obscure facts, figures, and learned opinions was exactly the skill that benefited him – and her – over the years. He’d never stopped to consider that Andrew’s absurd obsession with comic book and media culture trivia – his ability to quote verbatim statistics for imaginary monsters, or to recall minute details of fictional lives - might actually demonstrate an extremely rare and highly useful talent.
One that – if he could be directed to discuss real and meaningful minutia with such generous fervor – might well make him one of the new council’s greatest assets.
Finding a way to encourage a little more of that determined passion wouldn’t hurt, either. When he stopped trying too hard to impress, and simply expressed genuine enthusiasm about his subject, Andrew apparently became a lot less annoying and a whole lot more … engaging.
Although, that might be the mellowing influence of the liquor at work …
“All right,” Giles said generously. “You know something about – keeping information in order. And to hand. That … might prove useful. From what I saw, you were … capable, at the sale. I’m still not entirely sure if you persuaded the agent appropriately, or merely beat him into submission by sheer persistence, but – either way, you achieved the desired aim. Without bloodshed. You really want to be my assistant? My apprentice? Then sell yourself. Talk me into it.”
Continued in Part Three