The library is a liminal space. So much more than a place to work, but not quite a home, either. It’s a place to strategize, a place to train, a place to learn. It may not often serve its original purpose to the swarms of high schoolers it was intended for, but it has experienced just as much and more as a meeting place for a small group of them, give or take a few adults at various levels of exasperation. It has felt affection; passionate, drawn-out kisses pushed against the circulation desk, and stolen, guilty kisses between the bookshelves. Loved ones leaning on each other for support and dressing each other’s wounds. It’s seen anger; spats between friends, violence between sworn enemies. Tears have fallen on the tile floor, tears of betrayal, of confusion, of grief. This place has known death, and will know more before its role ends. The ceiling has been shattered, bookshelves toppled, and one day, the floor will open up and reveal a mouth to hell itself.
Tonight, however, amidst papers spread out on desks and piles of books haphazardly deposited on chairs and floor, the library contains only two souls. A weary-looking man seated at the center table leans back from being hunched over a large volume, removing his glasses and running a hand through his hair, which is just beginning to grey at the temples. He replaces his glasses and blinks hard, trying to keep from nodding off. He reaches for a pale green mug beside him and closes his eyes as the warm liquid hits his throat.
Across the open library and through an office door, a redheaded teenager stares at him from over another book, her curled-up position in a plush armchair slightly more comfortable than his appears to be. She had read the same paragraph three times before giving up with a small sigh. She wouldn’t find what they were looking for tonight.
Instead, she watches the Watcher. He stands from his place at the table, a thud arising as he closes a formidable old book rather less delicately than he might have when they began this endeavor hours ago. He winces at the noise and looks toward her. She quickly looks back down at the page, forcing her eyeballs left to right in what she hopes is a passable imitation of reading. She lets a few moments pass, willing her heartbeat to slow before she chances another glance at him. His suspender straps are stretching as he reaches to replace a volume on a high shelf. His jacket discarded earlier in the evening, she watches as his shirt pulls tight against his broad shoulders, leaving less to her imagination than usual about the surprisingly toned physique underneath.
She’s overwhelmed by so much about him. He’s smart, witty, one of the only people around who seems able to match her instead of mock her when it comes to being a voice of reason. He exudes kindness, is full of sage advice, but is always ready with the kind of well-deserved snarky remark she wishes she had the guts to say herself. She knows he isn’t perfect- demon summoning is a hard thing to ignore, even if it was decades ago. But if she’s being honest, seeing him wild-eyed and unshaven that weekend, reeking of booze and regret was...kind of hot, actually. She feels guilt surface the moment she thinks it- she shouldn’t be romanticizing mistakes that he himself is so ashamed of. Still... there is a certain appeal of someone who, even in a wrecked state, can pull a man up by the hair with one hand and fight an undead corpse moments later.
Her breath catches as he shifts and she suddenly finds herself picturing being embraced by his strong arms; not in the familial, protective way he’d held her in the past, but something new, something she isn’t ready to name yet. Memories surface of watching him through the library window as he held a lovely face in his hands, kissing it like he was dying of thirst and his partner was the only water in the desert. The student closes her eyes for a moment and envisions herself there instead, allowing the indulgences her imagination provides…
“Willow?” His voice alarms her a bit, not least of all because it comes from mere inches away. How did he cross the library so quickly without her hearing?
“Giles!” she says, voice higher than usual. “Hi. Er- what’s up?”
The older man puts his arm on the back of the armchair, leaning in. Willow can smell a faint cologne or aftershave, a clean aroma that doesn’t quite mask the musk of being in the same clothes and working all day and night. The blend is far from unpleasant, however. A blush begins to creep up her neck, warming her face.
“I just wanted to check on you,” Giles says, ever the caretaker. “See how the research was coming along.”
“Oh,” she replies bashfully. “Uh, well, it’s not, really. I guess I might be tapped out, because the words aren’t making much sense in my head anymore.”
He gives her a small smile. “That’s alright. You should get some rest. Can I drive you home?”
“No!” She sits up indignantly, all of a sudden very close to his face, too close. She can see a golden brown spot in one of his eyes, something she’d never noticed before, and her words leave her. He takes a step back. She pushes her hair behind her ear, trying to slow down her racing thoughts. “I mean, it’s not alright. We need to figure out how to kill this thing, before-”
A look of concern crosses Giles’ face, knitting his eyebrows together. “Willow, the others went home hours ago. I appreciate your dedication, but you’ve more than done your part here.”
“I know, but-” Her voice is small and uncertain. She wants to do this, not only for the serious implications if they don’t find the information they need, but also because she has a deep desire to be useful to him, to stand out as important and special amongst her classmates, even amongst her friends. Buffy hadn’t understood why she was staying either; she was all too eager to be dismissed to go home. Willow could never tell her, whatever these feelings were. She’d be horrified at the thought of anyone thinking of Giles in that way, let alone her best friend. Xander wouldn’t be much better. He’d maybe laugh her off, then get all weird about it, staring between her and Giles every time they were together as if hoping to catch her slip.
“Listen,” she pleads, trying to focus again. “Let me just finish looking through the books I’ve already pulled out, them I’ll skedaddle. Deal?”
Giles glances at the small stack on the desk beside her, then sighs, resigning to himself that it will be easier to just let her have her way. He places a hand on her shoulder and grips it lightly. “You’re the best of all of us.”
Willow’s eyes go wide. She can’t decide whether to respond with a sincere, appreciative smile or a brush-off joke, but her brain gets stuck somewhere in the middle and all that comes out of her mouth are incoherent sounds from between bared teeth.
“I’m going to go raid the staff lounge for caffeine,” Giles interrupts her mercifully. “Can I get you a coffee? Tea?”
She rearranges her face into what she hopes is a normal smile. “Coffee, please. Extra sugar.”
His mouth twitches as he turns to go. Willow covers her face with her hands, mortified. Calm down, you weirdo, she begs internally. She spreads her fingers to peek out, just in time for a glance up and down Giles’ retreating backside as he leaves the office. Letting out a long breath, she pulls her legs onto the armchair and tucks them again, balancing her notebook on top. Small doodled hearts line the margins, in contrast to her tracings of demonic symbols she’d found while researching, along with her rather comical interpretation of a vampire. Seeing a tiny pair of spectacles sketched between bullet points, Willow hastens to scribble them out, in case Giles has any reason to look over her notes later. She bites her lip around a small grin, telling herself that at least, most girls with crushes on their teachers don’t get these kinds of interactions, long after the school day has ended. She is special.
She reaches for the volume on the top of her stack, scanning the front and back pages fruitlessly for a table of contents or index to narrow down her search. She lets out an exaggerated sigh and sets about thumbing through the book. Before long, her eyes begin to droop again.
Rupert pushes through the swinging double doors slowly, a full mug of coffee in each hand. His own jade mug had been refilled many times that evening, but he’d dug up an additional clean one, white china imprinted with a blue pattern of a willow tree. He thinks that will amuse her, and she deserves any small pleasure he can provide after she’s put in so much work tonight.
As he turns the corner with the drinks, he looks into his office again and sees Willow slumped down in the armchair, neck hanging at an angle that makes his joints ache to look at. Her eyes are closed, and an old book is open on her lap. Crossing to her, he sits the mugs down on his desk.
“Willow?” he says softly, gently nudging her shoulder. She doesn’t stir. It seems she is out for good this time. Rupert has a moment of conflict, whether he should let her sleep or attempt to wake her and take her home. He can only imagine what it would look like if his car pulled into the Rosenberg drive, with him dragging a half-asleep high school girl to the door. Grimacing at the implications, he decides uneasily that if she doesn’t return home at all, she can tell her parents she slept at Buffy’s. Feeling guilty for necessitating the lie, and for keeping her this late to begin with, he retrieves a cushion from another chair and slides it under Willow’s head, letting her neck rest.
He picks up the book from her lap and glances at the page. His eyes widen and his mouth drops slightly open as he realizes the book is displaying what they’ve been looking for all night. A rush of affection for Willow fills him as he marks the page and sets the book on his desk. She’d done it.
He crosses to and opens the weapons cabinet. Below the displayed axes, crossbows, and swords is a chest full of miscellaneous supplies. Rupert tries to sweep aside stakes and empty spell ingredient bottles without letting them loudly clatter. From the bottom of the chest, he digs out a rather garishly colored crocheted blanket. It will have to do. Returning to Willow, he drapes the blanket over her. She stirs slightly, but only grips the cover and pulls it up tight around her neck, nuzzling into the yarn pattern.
He is stricken by how childlike she looks in that moment. Logically, he knows that Buffy and Willow and Xander are still children, along with whoever else they drag into his library. But he’s so used to expecting the world of them, and having his expectations exceeded time after time, that it’s easy to forget how young they are. A pang twists his stomach as he thinks of the daily fears they face, horrors no teenager should have to endure. Life isn’t fair, and he’d take all their burdens if he could. As it stands, however, their stubborn dedication to the cause, and more importantly to each other, makes him prouder than he can say.
He picks up the book along with Willow’s notes to review, carrying them out of his office. In the doorway he turns back, looking fondly at the sleeping girl once more before flipping the light switch off. A moment letter he thinks better of it, and feels his way toward his desk to turn on a small lamp, which casts his office in an amber glow. She’s seen enough darkness on his behalf tonight.