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He starts out wrong. Sits in Red Jimmy's place, right under Greta Garbo. Falls into the booth, looks up at her pouty lips, her soulful, melancholy eyes looking down from that black and white movie poster and nods: slow, deliberate, drunk as hell.

I vant to be alone.

Yeah, right: you and all the other sorry excuses for men that drop by once the bars close.

Listen, buddy, I don’t have time for it. For all the misty-eyed, self-pitying 'my-wife-doesn't understand-my-boss-is-a-jerk-my-kids-are-ungrateful-bums-smoking-bans-violate-the-Constitution' *crap*. My shoes have shrunk half a size, we're out of toothpicks and if creepy Pedro tries to grope me one more time I swear I'll serve him up as the Chef's special. Flame grilled.

"Can I take your order?"

"Hmm?" Glazed eyes, loose mouth, what ought to be a damn good-looking guy under the haze of alcohol and the granddad outfit of sweats and shit-brown crumpled shirt. What is it makes 'em think they never have to try, but women have to diet and primp and dress better than they can afford and *still* their man skips town taking everything but the kids and his debts?

"Something. I. Can. Get. You?" One more chance, then he's history.

Hasta la vista, baby.

The regulars will be in soon, and if I flirt just right, it'll be a new pair of sneakers for Brad and a Barbie doll for Janet for Christmas. Yep, you heard right. Brad and Janet. Once upon a time, we were just a couple of young movie buffs, necking at the late night double feature science fiction picture show, high on life and celluloid. Then he found a better drug. Wild Turkey.

"I told the stewardess liquor for three." - "Who are the other two? - "Oh, there are no other two."

'Cept he weren't no James Bond. Nor's this one, despite the fact that when he gets it together enough to form actual words, he's got an accent straight out of 'Henry V'. Bad news. It's a known fact that British guys don’t tip too good.

"Um, I'll have a…" Eyes roaming over the menu card, stopping at the greased lard standards and swaying in his seat, half-gagging. His stomach isn't having any of it. You throw up on me, and Bubba and the Yellow Grits Combo Band will make you wish you'd stayed in England, mister. Provided they got paid this week, they'll be by come two-thirty, stand me a lime soda like always, maybe serenade me a little.

If I've told them once, I've told them a hundred times: store extra coffee

"Coffee. Black. Sure. You want sugar? Okay."

Chang Ho's started the music system up again. Where in hell he gets those tunes beats me.

"Bells will be ringing, the glad, glad news,
oh what a day to have the blues…"

That's Chang's favourite this year: he thinks it's a traditional carol for the season. Even if he could understand me, I don't have the heart to tell him it's just another lame misery ballad cashing in on the C-word.

The British guy swings the cup up too quickly - you can tell he's used to drinking out of earthenware, not cheap plastic – and spills half of it on his pants. British cussing sure is colourful.

I dab at his lap with paper towels, close enough to his ear to hear him singing along with the stupid song, making it his own, wallowing in the cheap sentiment of it all.

Drunks. Pathetic.

Although, I'd like to hear him sing sober. Quite a voice.

"Not true, y'know." I try and cheer him up, don’t know why. "We all got friends to wish us greetings."

He gives me a look that'd turn milk. "Really?" He waves unsteadily round the room, speaks with the swallowed, careful edges of someone who ought to have too much pride to be this wasted. "Funny how suddenly invisible all my 'friends' have become. Probably something to do with them all being *dead*." He smacks the cup on the table to drive home the point.

"*She* don’t look dead." I point to the skinny little redhead who slips into the seat opposite him with a sigh and a sorrowful:

"Oh, Giles. What are you doing here?"

"Willow. Run along, now. Since I'm not rolling in any gutters you don't have to walk past pretending you don't know me. None of you ever had to pretend to know me in the first place. Sorry I cramped all your styles all these years."

The misery! The exquisite tragedy! The Susan Hayward of it all!

The kid was – not his daughter, she wouldn't use his first name. Not a student, too familiar too: plucking at his sleeve like that … Not a kid at all, now I look closer. I don't think, a lover. What?

Upset and furious, that's what. Big eyes flashing, little fists curling to bang on the table, making the saltshaker jump. Is it my eyes, or did it just hover up there for a second? Jeepers, I'm tired. Seeing things.

"Giles, we all love you, but you talk some real crap sometimes!"

He blinks, sits back heavily, and meets her eyes. Then he turns away, sniggers and lets out a smidgeon of a liquid belch, on purpose, just enough to make her sit back in her turn, with her mouth open.

"What's got into you this visit? No-one can say anything to you without you going all sarcastic and mean, and not in a 'hey, let's all not forget I'm British and I can do that deadpan irony thing so much better than you can' sort of way. And then you stomp off in the middle of dinner and disappear for five hours."

"Didn't that give you enough of a hint that I *wanted to be somewhere else*, hmm?"

Speaking of which, I move off. Couple of girls in high, stacked heels and low, stacked halter tops just came in. Don't know 'em personal, but I know the type. There's always a lower place to be, no matter how tight the funds are. Waitressing ain't so bad when you look at the alternatives. Still, hookers' money is the same colour as everyone else's. I serve up their cheeseburgers, fries and Cokes, slip a dollar bill that smells of cheap weed in my apron front, and keep an ear open as I clean the tables. The Odd Couple have taken off the brakes and are nose-to-nose across the table. He's hissing like a viper with a megaphone:

"Oh, so she didn’t *mean* it like that. Well, that's fine then, just me going senile, I expect. And I'm obviously losing my memory, too: it sounded just like a hundred other put-downs that I recall coming out of that pretty mouth over the past seven years. My mistake."

She frowns, not getting it, not seeing the bitterness coming off him in waves. Too young, too full of hope, too confident that she knows him inside out. "Now you're just being childish, Giles. You used to have a sense of humour; okay, a pretty odd one at times, but you knew not to take everything she…we… said to heart."

He scowls into his coffee, doesn't reply. Her 'front' falters a little.

"Didn’t you?" She's expecting him to agree, willing him to put her world safely back on track, to plaster over the cracks, put it down to the drink, whatever. But he isn't going to play the game.

"I was waiting for you all to grow up, and now you have. Brilliant. I've outlived the last of the limited usefulness I had. Heaven knows I've nothing to teach any of you, if I ever did, so I'll just piss off again and leave you to it."

Sure is articulate for a half-cut, coffee-stained pity party.

"Who said it was about 'teaching'? You're our friend."

He snorts, loudly, and wipes his nose on his sleeve, making her face screw right up.

I'm way too into this. I stop even the pretence of cleaning tables, sneak a look at the counter, but Chang's out back with a Marlboro. That fucking song's on repeat again:

"This is Christmas, Christmas my dear;
The time of year to be with the one that you love…"

Or not. Mostly not, in my experience. I slip quietly into a seat nearby, under the watching eye of Jack Nicholson.

What if this is as good as it gets?

What if? Then, Jacky boy, we take it by the collar and shake every last bit of good out.

"So when's my birthday, then, Willow?"

"Huh? Don't you remember? You don't seem all that far gone."

"Answer the question. When? Where was I born? Which town?"

"England. That's easy. And…and I don't know, you never said."

"You never asked…and for your information, 'England' is not a town. I'm your 'friend', and not one of you knows the simplest sodding things about me, let alone who I am, what I'm like. It's not like you even give a shit or bother to try. Dunno about you, but that's a bloody funny way to be 'friends'. It's an empty word to make *you* feel better. What do I like to eat? Where do I shop? What brand of Scotch'll get me drunker, so I don't have to listen to this? It's all *bollocks* and you know it."

"Stop it! Stop with the potty mouth of non-Giles, stop with the twenty questions, stop with the 'no-one cares' riff. We *do* care. Okay, maybe we're still a bunch of shallow people, and we never got around to interrupting the apocalypse of the month to bring you cake and presents but…but we love you. We really do. What does it matter about dates and places? If my back were up against the wall, I know who I'd count on and I don’t care what Buffy says, it wouldn't be Spike. Or Angel."

"Perhaps it should be. Either or both of 'em. Handsome, tough, hard-as-nails, eternal heroes. Not clapped out, over the hill, 'boring, old and English' ex-shopkeepers."

"There you go again with the…the crap. You're tough. Maybe you don't act tough, but you don't need to. You just get on with it. Maybe you don't get to play the hero, but they say limelight does nothing for the complexion. And…and *I* never thought you were boring. I used to…heck, I used to crush on you in high school, and at the Espresso Pump, when you sang. So did Anya, even Tara…" She looks down, stricken, for a moment. He's come out of himself, or sobered enough, to notice and reach over to take her hand, even though he's hanging onto those grumps for dear life.

"Bloody marvellous. Two lesbians and an ex-demon fancied me for thirty seconds. All my problems are clearly over. Pity I left my guitar in England."

Demon? What the hell? Must be some sorority thing, I guess. Wouldn't'a pinned her for a lipstick licker, either.

She grins for a second, then shrugs sadly. " And only one of them lived to tell the tale. C'mon Giles…Listen to the song. Please come home for Christmas. We're sorry if we made you feel this way."

"If I have to listen to that damn song once more I might just be sick into the loudspeakers."

"Eww. Okay, forget the song…"

"Oh, yes, *please*."

"Remember everything we've been through, Giles. Remember how we saved each other's lives, computers and spells, books and swords. How we both loved Buffy more than was good for us and disagreed about nearly everything else and how I never properly did what I was told with the magicks and that one time I tried to kill you…"

What the hell, what the hell, what the frickin' *hell*? Whatever she's on, she should shop her supplier.

"… you were so exactly Dumbledore in Devon, only the younger version of Richard Harris, and every time I read a spell I could hear you saying it in proper Latin and I'd never heard of a glottal stop in my life before and will you *always* know more than me because, most times, I think I really, really like that you will…?"

She stops, panting, and he laughs without a sound. The history she's talking about has its hand on his neck; his head is down and he shakes it very carefully, so it won't be dislodged . He looks up at her as though nothing in this world will ever replace her, and if it tried, he'd send it back and complain to the management.

"We're sorry. Sorry for being young and dumb and American and all the things you wished you could have taught us not to be, but we didn't need those lessons. Seeing it Through and Being a Grownup and Dealing with the Consequences – honestly, you were wasting your breath. But knowing it was even possible, seeing you do it every day the best you knew how...okay, even then we didn’t learn. So no, 'teaching' has nothing to do with it. You're just…Giles. We love you. That's what there is. Come back home. Tell us all that stuff – your birthday and your shoe size and why British beer is warm and you like it that way. We probably forget it all in the morning, but we'll never, ever forget who told us. C'mon. If you can't get up, it's Buffy and the Fireman's Carry again…"

He growls and pushes himself upright, pulls a pair of steel-rimmed glasses out of his coat pocket, cleans them and puts them on, like a ceremony.

"I believe I can manage, thank you, Willow."

They walk out slow, her arm around his back, his faded head of greying hair resting on her bright, bottle-copper locks as they stumble into the night.

Ali McGraw and Ryan O'Neal smirk at them from the wall opposite the door.

Love means never having to say you're sorry.

Yeah? Well, that's a total crock.