Down the Rabbit Hole
Reaching out from beneath the duvet and mound of blankets, Giles switched off the pulsing screech of his alarm clock. Slowly he braved the morning and pushed his head out from beneath the covers, opening an eye to the garish morning light. There was frost on his bedroom window. England was in a deep freeze. It happened occasionally and mother nature had encased most of the country beneath layers of ice and snow.
His room was cold. He’d turned down the thermostat before bed, conserving energy and saving money on the electric, more out of habit than actual need, and he now regretted his action, cursing himself soundly as he snuggled back into his warm nest of covers and pillows. Most people in the city would no doubt be spending the day with loved ones going to the park, throwing snowballs, making snowmen and snow angels, and afterwards escaping to the warm indoors to fill their bellies with hot chocolate and biscuits.
Giles sighed heavily. His family was spread across the globe and it had been months since he’d last seen them. They all still kept in touch, but emails, phone calls, and instant messages weren’t the same. They eased the loneliness, but not the ache of not being together.
He should’ve called them all home. After all, it was his birthday, and to their credit, each member of his scattered little family had asked him what he wanted. His dearest wish was to be together again. If only for a little while... to shut out the world, but he couldn’t ask that of them. They had lives to lead and work to do.
He gathered up the courage and threw the covers off. “Come on, Giles, this won’t do. Stop feeling sorry for yourself.”
His feet touched the hardwoods and he hissed at the cold as it traveled up his feet into his legs and lower back, feeling every one of those seven years his battered body had served on the Hellmouth. Quickly donning his robe and slippers, he headed towards the bathroom to get ready for the day.
The world outside was overly bright and Giles changed into his sunglasses for the ten minute walk from his house to the tube station. As predicted, the schools had closed due to the weather, mother nature once again blanketing the city with another layer of soft snow. The cheery ring of excited children getting an early start playing in the park did nothing to brighten his mood. Another year older, another year far removed from the freedom of childhood. Although thinking back on it, he wasn’t sure his childhood was ever free, even before his father sat him down to discuss his destiny. Another disappointing birthday that was. He’d wanted a bicycle, had hinted to his parents for months. His father had saddled him with that sodding Vampyr book.
‘Christ, Giles, you prat! What were you thinking handing it to Buffy upon our first meeting?’ he asked to himself, shaking his head.
Before descending the steps into the tube station, the Watcher slipped into a coffee shop, picked up a newspaper, and ordered a celebratory hot chocolate and raspberry Danish. It certainly wasn’t his usual morning fare consisting of tea and toast, but it was his birthday, after all, and the weather seemed to call for it as well. When his order was called, he took his breakfast and made his way to the platform to catch his train. Not surprisingly it was rather empty and he took out his pastry and ate half of it before arriving at his station.
The office was deserted, as anticipated. It was still early and he couldn’t blame anyone for not braving the cold. After taking a quick sip of his hot chocolate, he juggled his briefcase, newspaper, and the bag with the remainder of his pastry in it, found his key card and entered the building, neglecting to turn on the lights as he made his way to the lift to take him up to his office on the top floor.
Upon entering his office, he again he opted not to turn on the lights, the natural light from the window providing just the right level for the moment. After putting his things down on his desk, he walked over to the coat rack, took off his gloves and placed them in the pockets of his wool coat before taking it and his wool fedora off and hanging them on the pegs. He left his scarf on and walked over to his computer to boot it up. His distaste for the blasted machines had lessened over the years and he now begrudgingly viewed them as a lifeline to his family members.
Giles quickly finished up his breakfast as he looked out over the frozen city. There was ice on the Thames, nothing major, just a thin sheen near the banks, and his body shuddered involuntarily at the reminder of the cold. Walking over to the thermostat, he turned the temperature up to a more comfortable level before sitting down to his desk to check his email.
A cursory review of his inbox revealed only work related messages, the majority marked urgent, of which maybe only a handful truly were. He let out a long suffering sigh. No cheery birthday messages, though he supposed the day was still young. Still, it wasn’t like Dawn to not be the first to send him a silly electronic greeting card with dancing rodents and a jaunty tune that would be stuck in his head all day.
As the morning wore on, Giles despaired that they’d all forgotten completely. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time his Slayer had failed to remember his birthday over the years of their acquaintance, but he had to admit that since their reconciliation right before the destruction of Sunnydale, she’d never once missed a special date amongst the gang, himself included. At least Carole, his executive assistant, had given him a card and a cheery flower arrangement.
The day continued to drag and he presided over a meeting, about which he cared not a whit. In fact, immediately after it had ended, he couldn’t remember whether it had been a meeting about the budget, personnel matters, policy, or just a meeting for the sake of holding a meeting. Probably the latter. There were too many of those these days. He needed a holiday, one preferably with a little adventure. The transition from Active Watcher to Head Watcher hadn’t suited him at all, but until he could appoint someone his Slayer could trust to run the new Council, he was stuck with the job.
Managing to avoid the post meeting discussions citing “a thing” - a lovely term he’d picked up in the States - he escaped back to the quiet of his office and checked his email again. Still nothing from the others and he swiveled in his chair to stare out the window. Well, they were busy. What could he expect? Giles was never the type to complain or impose his needs on others. It wasn’t his way, but he certainly could brood over his situation.
Giles twirled in his chair to break the monotony. Upon returning from his meeting, he’d found that his assistant had turned on the lights, but he’d turned them back off immediately upon entering his office. The fluorescent lighting only provided a garish glare on his loneliness.
Maybe he should just call it a day. Grab a takeaway on the way home and curl up on the settee with a good book and a cup of tea for a few hours before hitting the Hawk and Hound for a pint and a round or two of darts. Then he could finally put this miserable birthday behind him and look forward to the date several months from now when he would see Xander, Willow, Dawn, and Buffy again at the Midsummer Gala. And tomorrow, he’d probably find several apologetic emails in his inbox about his forgotten birthday and how each of them hoped he’d had a wonderful day, complete with Dawn’s dancing rodents.
Upon shutting down his computer, Giles walked over to the coat rack in the corner when he suddenly smelled a slight trace of ozone in the air. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up and he cautiously turned around, facing the room. He blinked in surprise at the black silk top hat that now sat upon his desk.
Giles carefully walked back to his desk to examine the hat, keeping his hands shoved in his pockets and thereby removing the temptation to touch the bloody thing. He didn’t recognize the magick signature that had brought the hat to him and he found no note to accompany it. He eyed it suspiciously, removed his hands from his pockets, and sank down into his chair, contemplating the hat.
The Gala was months away, and the Christmas ball had been held two months prior, and as far as he knew, there were no formal events on his calendar any time soon. He scanned his office for an accompanying dinner jacket just in case and came up empty.
Removing a pen from his desk drawer, he poked the hat. Nothing happened. He then used the pen to tip it in his direction, half expecting a rabbit to hop out, but it was empty. Feeling braver, he touched it with his left index finger. He could feel the magick, but it was benign, and so he picked up the hat with both hands and peered into it. Still, there was nothing.
Giles set the hat back down on his desk and started to pace his office. At least he was distracted. He was tired of feeling sorry for himself. Stopping for a moment, he drummed his fingers on the desk when a thought entered his head.
The Watcher picked up the hat again, taking a moment to examine it further. He resolved to reach inside it, and where he should’ve felt the top of the hat, he felt nothing. Pulling his arm out, he looked into the hat again. It was dark, but the smell of magick still lingered on the hat.
It was a portal, he decided, placing it back down on the desk. Simple and easy. But to where? And who sent it? On their last visit, he and the gang had watched Disney’s Alice in Wonderland camped out on the floor of his lounge. Of course, Ethan was always telling him “not to run down the rabbit hole” on those infrequent occasions they met for a drink. Giles had always been a notorious philosopher when drunk and that often led to more brooding, something Ethan, who just accepted life’s twist and turns with aplomb, could never abide.
On the one hand, it could be Ethan who sent him the hat to break up the monotony of his life. Ethan who still had a wicked streak, and whose favorite target was still Giles. On the other, the Scoobies could be waiting for him somewhere. But if so, why hadn’t they just called or sent an email? It puzzled him. And then there was a third and scary thought. What if the hat were sent by an unknown enemy? He pulled his glasses from his face, bit down on one end, and sat back down to consider his options.
Replacing his glasses, he took a deep breath and ran his hand through his hair. “What the hell, Giles, you’re sitting here moping over how lonely you are, how your family has all but forgotten you, and how life is passing you by as you sit here in your office day in and day out,” he told himself aloud. “Even if it is dangerous, it’s an adventure.”
He walked over to the coat rack again, but this time, instead of going for his coat, he bent over to pick up a leather carryall. In it were his weapons, including his sword. Best to be prepared. Then he made his way back to the top hat, picked it up, took a deep breath, and placed it on his head.
His stomach felt queasy as a kaleidoscope of colors swirled around him. He closed his eyes, willing the sensation to pass and feeling the temperature rise. When his stomach finally settled, his ears picked up the sound of gentle waves lapping on a shore and summery breeze caressed his face.
He opened his eyes and before him stood four young adults in their tropical finest, on a raised gazebo overlooking the ocean.
“You’re late,” Xander stated with a sly grin, handing Giles a fruity drink with one hand and taking the leather carryall from him with the other. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
Giles, relieved to not find himself in some demon dimension, blushed and gave his friends a shy smile. “Yes, well-”
“I think you’re a bit overdressed,” added Dawn, reaching out and tugging the scarf he still wore from around his neck. “You won’t be needing this.”
The Watcher took off the top hat, muttering something about looking like a toff and tossed it to Willow. “Not your handiwork,” he told her as she caught awkwardly.
“No, that would have spoiled the surprise,” the witch answered with a knowing grin. “A friend did it.”
“Happy Birthday, Giles,” Buffy said, throwing her arms around him and burying her head into his shoulder. “We’ve missed you!”
“I’ve missed you too,” he answered affectionately as he rested his cheek against her hair.
The rest of the Scoobies jumped in for a group hug, enveloping Giles in their affection, and for the first time in weeks he felt warm. When they finally broke apart, Buffy led him over to a table where a feast had been lain out.
He shrugged out of his suit jacket and waistcoat, accepting the invitation to his birthday luncheon. On another table nearby colorful packages were piled high on either side of a cake decorated with a very harried white rabbit holding a pocket watch. He chuckled as he sat down in the chair reserved in his honor.
“Where are we?” Giles asked, checking out his surroundings. Calm crystal blue waters and white sand stretched out before him and they were surrounded by a canopy of trees, exotic bushes, and vibrant plants and flowers.
“Antigua,” Xander answered, taking the seat next to him. “Thought it might be nice to get away from the winter weather.”
“You’ve been in Africa, hardly winter weather.”
“Yeah, but the parts I’ve been in ain’t paradise,” the younger man retorted with a grimace.
“Quite,” the Watcher agreed.
“The location was my idea,” Willow piped up. “Tropical, yet familiar. Antigua having been settled by the English and all. Plus, you know, a place to leave the real world behind for a while.”
“Very thoughtful indeed,” Giles agreed with a smile, reaching out and placing a comforting hand on her shoulder. There would be time for a proper hug later.
They sat around the table together feasting on fresh seafood and grilled vegetables, as well as exotic breads and fruit. By the end of their lunch, Giles had removed his tie, dropped his braces to his sides, and stripped down to his T-shirt, the tropical heat playing havoc with his winter worn body. There was still cake and presents to be had, but everyone was too stuffed to consider continuing with the celebrations until their stomachs were settled.
“Walk with me?” Buffy asked, as she stood from the table.
Giles smiled, placing his napkin down on the table. “I’d love to.”
Watcher and Slayer strolled down the private walkway to the beach together and before they stepped out onto the sand, he toed off his shoes, pulled off his socks, and rolled up his trousers.
“Had I been given instructions, I would’ve come more prepared for the weather,” he admonished lightly, looking at her over the rims of his glasses.
“I would’ve given anything to see your face with the trying to figure out who sent the top hat,” she answered, her face alight with mischief as they started walking along the shore. “Besides, that’s the fun of the surprise. I can’t imagine you’d have let us fuss over you like this if we told you what we were up to.”
“Certainly not,” Giles agreed.
“Then don’t complain of our methods to get you here, you stuffy Watcher-type!” Buffy chastised with a grin. They walked on. “But I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist such a mystery.”
“Your doing then?”
“Yup. Criminal mastermind.”
“Luckily you use your powers for good.”
When they reached the end of the little bay, Giles looked over at his companion. “What now?” he asked.
“We should probably return for cake and presents. Then maybe a rousing game of Monopoly before we hit the ocean for an evening swim.”
“Sounds like the day is planned.”
“Monopoly is Dawn’s idea, you can skip it if you want, but beach time is mandatory. I mean look, this truly is paradise.”
“It is lovely. Thank you, Buffy, for this.”
The Slayer reached out and threaded her arm through the crook of his elbow as they walked back towards their friends.
After ‘Happy Birthday’ was sung, the white rabbit cake dismembered and consumed, and his presents opened, Giles triumphed over all in a highly competitive and satisfying game of Monopoly. The gang had good-naturedly assigned the top hat token to him, fighting each other over the Scotty dog and race car. He couldn’t quite remember the last time he felt so comfortable and relaxed as he laughed and teased with this amazing group of young adults he knew and loved far better than his own blood kin. He leaned back into the chair and closed his eyes.
“Oh no you don’t, Giles. It’s time to hit the surf, so get to your room and change into your swim trunks, Mister!” Willow ordered.
Giles opened his eyes wide. “M-my room?” he asked, unsure of his place in this little holiday they’d planned out. He half expected to be transported back to London later that evening. He was sure they’d all have to get back to their hectic lives.
“Yeah, you didn’t check out the huge villa behind us?” Dawn asked, pointing to the colonial mansion he had somehow missed in his quick assessment of his surroundings. “Up the path, through the French doors, then down the hall, and up the stairs. Your room is the third door on the right.”
“We picked out some clothes for you. They’re in the wardrobe, but you’ll have to go shopping later in the week to pick up more,” Willow added.
The Watcher eyed each one of them closely. “How long am I staying?”
“We’re all here on sabbatical, Giles,” Xander stated. “A well deserved break.”
“How long?” Giles asked, fixing his eyes on his Slayer.
Buffy’s eyes shone with conspiracy. “It’s all been taken care of. We’ve cleared everything through your assistant Carole. She’s been in the know for a while.”
“How long?” he repeated, quickly glancing at the others who stood by in amusement.
“A month,” she replied, a grin spreading across her lips. “You’ll just have to put up with us for that long. The hat was a one way ticket.”
He stood up, shaking his head. If he didn’t know them all so well, it would be surreal. Instead, he returned her smile with a genuine one of his own. Picking up the top hat that had been sitting on the kitchen counter, Giles twirled it in his hands before setting it on his head at a jaunty angle, and headed up to his room to change into his swim trunks.
“I think I can manage that,” he announced as he climbed the stairs to his room, his heart full. He felt content. His dear Scoobies had, in fact, not missed his birthday, but instead had given him the gift of family. Entering his room and looking out over his ocean view he stated, “Yes, this will do quite nicely.”