Squealing with delight, a small toddler, sturdy legs pumping furiously, ran pell-mell down the hallway and pushed open the door to Grip's bedroom. He crouched low to the baseboard just inside the entrance and pressed a pair of chubby fists to his mouth in a vain effort to stifle the giggles. Carefully, peeking round the frame, his merriment became even more uncontrollable as he spotted an approaching figure. Quickly, he scuttled back into hiding.
Dawn hovered on the threshold before entering the room. Narrowing her eyes, she surveyed the area with all due seriousness, deliberately ignoring the tiny figure by the wall, who was now fidgeting with irrepressible excitement.
"Wow," she pondered loudly and obviously. "I wonder where Antony is?"
She moved further into the room and knelt on the floor, lifting the coverlet to peer under the bed. Again, she paid no heed to the burst of nervous giggling, simply getting to her feet and placing her hands on her hips.
"I could've sworn I saw him come in here." She looked behind the curtains and opened the top drawer of the dresser, calling his name as she searched. "Antony, are you in there?"
But of course, Antony was in none of those places – a fact that brought him no end of amusement.
Dawn returned to the open door. "Grip," she summoned, "I think your brother's disappeared!"
Grip was waiting just outside. "It's about time," he stated purposefully. "I've had my eye on that Potty Training Elmo forever."
He followed Dawn back into the room, but had only take one step when Antony launched his attack, firmly latching himself onto Grip's leg with a gleeful cry.
Pretending to be totally unaware of the little parasite squatting atop his sneaker, arms and legs tightly wrapped around his shin, Grip addressed Dawn.
"Do you think Mom and Dad will mind too much? We've only had him 18 months. Maybe they're not too attached yet."
Antony bounced up and down in an effort to get his brother's attention. "Gip! Gip!"
With an arched eyebrow, Dawn regarded the pair wryly. "I think you have a growth."
Grip continued to play dumb, walking around the room with one stiffened leg. "They could always have another," he pondered. "Third time's the charm, right?"
The toddler's tone became more insistent. "Gip!" It hovered dangerously on the fringes of a whine.
Feigning stunned surprise, Grip glanced down at his left leg. "Ant!"
"Gip!" came the joyous reply. No hint of a whine now.
Dawn rolled her eyes. "I'm so glad I was too young to remember this age with Buffy." But her smile betrayed charmed amusement at the scenario.
Raising his arms with a huge dimpled grin, Antony demanded to be picked up and Grip was only too willing to comply. He hugged his brother close.
"Someone had his Happy Flakes today," he announced before turning the little boy in Dawn's direction. "Who's that, buddy?"
"Gip!" declared Antony with conviction.
Dawn chuckled. "At least he's consistent."
"Nah, there's only one Gip," Grip told him, ruffling the toddler's russet curls. "C'mon, who's that?"
Hoisting Antony onto one hip, Grip pointed toward Dawn. With big brown eyes, Antony regarded Dawn solemnly for a moment then, overcome by embarrassment, threw his arms around Grip's neck, burying his face in his brother's shoulder.
"And did I mention cute?" Dawn all but gushed. "Because cuteness abounds."
Grip grinned. "Pretty girls make him all shy." As though her were about to reveal a magnificent secret, Grip leaned forward to whisper in Antony's ear. "Keep it up. Chicks dig a sensitive guy."
Dawn had easily caught the remark. "Is that how it works?" she questioned with a twinkle. "Why do I like you so much then?"
"The hair," Grip responded swiftly and with confidence. "He who has the brightest plumage attracts the best mates. Basic law of nature."
With a sly smile, Dawn sidled toward him and slipped her fingers through his belt loop. His free arm immediately encircled her waist.
"That's pretty cool, this nature stuff," she murmured. "So ... got any more laws I should know about?"
A roguish expression crossed Grip's face and although Antony was still held securely in the crook of his elbow, the toddler was nonetheless, momentarily forgotten.
"One or two," Grip confided softly. "Might be important." He tugged Dawn a little closer. She offered no resistance, looking up at him through lowered lashes.
"You'll have to teach me," she instructed.
Grip sighed dramatically. "Curse this duty of mine."
Dawn's fingers lightly traced the contours of Grip's bicep as he bent his head toward her, both heedless to the sounds of the front door opening.
The same could not be said for Antony. The moment was shattered as he instantly squirmed like a slippery eel. "Mama!" he shrieked delightedly.
Grip was barely able to set his brother safely on the floor before the toddler ran excitedly from the room. Indeed, the little legs were already pumping like pistons before he even hit the ground. Grip shook his head despairingly at the bad timing, but Dawn seized the front of his shirt anyway and yanked him into a kiss that threatened to incinerate them on the spot.
A female voice floated upward. "Agrippa? Dawn?"
Reluctantly, the couple broke apart and Grip treated Dawn to an intentionally goofy grin. "Duhh?"
Dawn permitted herself some smugness as she sashayed past him and exited the room. Standing tall, though unable to completely wipe the grin from his face, Grip followed behind as casually as possible.
Descending an elegantly curved staircase, they made their way through the living room and across a plush carpet to the modern style kitchen. Antony was perched upon an island counter of black marble, clutching a sippy cup.
"Hi Mrs. Finlay," greeted Dawn with a smile.
The woman peered around the open refrigerator with an equally friendly smile. "Hello, Dawn." She was perhaps in her early 40s with perfectly arranged hair, a little darker than her youngest son, but the same coffee-colored eyes as both her offspring. She wore a tailored suit of burgundy gabardine and a crisp white blouse.
"How was your meeting?" asked Dawn
Mrs. Finlay sighed disdainfully. "My first adjective would have to be 'unnecessary'. Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I thought emergency meetings had to contain an emergency of some kind?"
"You're right," teased Grip. "You're old-fashioned."
He lifted two chocolate chip cookies from a plate and gave one to Dawn before cramming the other into his mouth.
"Me! Me!" demanded Antony. He grinned hugely as Grip handed him a cookie, immediately trying to imitate his brother's mode of consumption.
Mrs. Finlay glared briefly at Grip, whether for his remark or for being a bad example to his baby brother was uncertain. Nevertheless, her disapproval didn't extend to Dawn, who was favored with yet another amicable smile.
"Thank you for helping Agrippa babysit," she told her gratefully. She cast a flat, sideways glance at her eldest son. "Without you, I'd probably have come home and found Antony sold on the black market."
"Do you have any idea what chubby little white boys go for these days?" asked Grip. "And the PSP launch date steadily approaches."
"What about lanky teenagers who eat too much?" was his mother's speedy retort.
"Absolutely nothing," Grip informed positively. "We're a gift to the world."
Both Mrs. Finlay and Dawn considered that declaration worthy of an eye-roll.
"Anyway, it was my pleasure," Dawn genuinely acknowledged. "I love kids, and Antony's just too cute. Plus, it's nice being the older sibling-figure for a change."
"Well would you like to stay for lunch? I stopped and got some fresh fish, I thought we'd broil it?" Mrs. Finlay nodded encouragingly in Dawn's direction.
"I'd love to, thanks," replied Dawn, "but I gotta get home. We're doing this big birthday family thing."
"Oh, your sister?" inquired Mrs. Finlay.
"No, my ..." Dawn's explanation floundered. She thought for a moment, obviously not quite sure how to refer to the subject in question. "My Giles," she finally blurted and then frowned. "Giles. Just Giles." She smiled brightly. "It's his 50th birthday."
Mrs. Finlay shook her head in sorrowful commiseration. "He has my condolences."
Grip snuck another cookie, making sure neither Antony nor his mother saw him. "But we're still on for movies tonight, right? I spent all day yesterday picking them out. Very thematic," he assured. "It's an emotional journey, spanning from birth to death, starting with Look Who's Talking."
"And miss all that?" Dawn protested indignantly. "I'll be here. But first, I must be there." A fond smile invaded her lips. "I can't wait to see the look on Giles' face."
The living room of the Scoobies' house had been transformed into Party Central. Twisted crepe streamers adorned the walls with colorful balloons positioned at strategic points along the way. Suspended above the fireplace, a prominent banner read "Happy 50th Birthday", with the number being fashioned from sparkly gold foil. Someone had made a rather attractive hand-written sign and pinned it just below the pennant that stated, "You're not old, you're youthfully challenged". The coffee table in the center of the room was laden with gifts of every conceivable shape and size, each wrapped in bright paper, some sporting large and shiny bows and almost all decorated with ribbons.
Seated on the couch, Buffy was blowing up balloons, cheeks puffed out like a trumpet player. Willow was balancing somewhat precariously atop a ladder, feet planted on the step that customarily bore the warning, "Danger: Do not stand here." She swiveled from side to side in an attempt to hang a fistful of balloons from the ceiling. Standing guard below, Tara kept a firm grip on the ladder and wore an expression of extreme concern.
"Willow, why don't you and Buffy switch jobs?" she suggested anxiously. "She sort of has that natural balance thing. Plus, if she falls, she heals fast."
Buffy tied a knot in the neck of the balloon she was holding and shot Tara a piercing look. "Thanks for that."
Frowning with concentration, Willow leaned further afield to affix her balloon bouquet in the desired spot. "Nope. I'm good. I just ..."
She extended her arm even more, and it seemed as though every law of physics was being defied just to keep her from plummeting to the ground. Immediately, Tara flinched and tightened her grip on the ladder with one hand. The free one was thrust out and held below Willow's body, as though it would somehow break the redhead's fall if gravity suddenly remembered it had a job to do.
"... want it ... to be perfect ..." finished Willow, the tip of her tongue protruding from the corner of her mouth.
With extraordinary delicacy, totally at odds with her strained expression, Willow managed to position the balloons in precisely the place she had intended. Standing straight once again, she appraised her handiwork, apparently unaware of the heart attack she'd nearly given Tara. She looked down at her girlfriend with a grin.
"Besides, I can't blow up balloons for too long, cuz then my head gets all fuzzy and my jaw does that poppy achy thing, y'know?" Willow tilted her head to one side questioningly.
Working her own jaw, Buffy replied, "Sadly? Yes."
Carrying four glasses, pinched together by their rims, Xander entered the room. "I declare beverage break," he announced cheerfully.
Willow quickly scrambled down the ladder, joining Buffy and Tara as Xander handed out the drinks. Sipping gratefully, they surveyed the room.
"It looks good!" adjudged Willow. "I think it looks good." She glanced to the others. "Don't you think it looks good?"
"It looks great," agreed Tara.
"I like the themeing," affirmed Xander. "A person wouldn't walk into this room and think to themselves, 'Hmm, when does the bat mitzvah start?'"
Buffy nodded emphatically. "This is true. There's very little room for interpretation." She considered her words carefully. "Though still some for bad puns, as it turns out."
Twisting her watch around to check the time, Tara informed, "The cake won't be done for another half-hour or so. When's Mr. Giles supposed to get here?"
"Yes, about that," came the breathless statement from the foyer.
Hannah struggled to maintain her hold on the large and cumbersome cardboard box she was toting while simultaneously attempting to close the front door. Quickly depositing his glass on the coffee table, Xander rushed to her aid.
"Thank you, Xander," she told him with much gratitude as she was relieved of her burden.
He placed the box next to the array of gifts as Hannah, finally having a free appendage with which to shut the door, followed him into the living room.
Willow hovered over the newly arrived packages with wide eyes. "Oo, more presents?"
"The Slayers and other Watchers have been quite keen to help us celebrate," replied Hannah, slipping off her jacket and hanging it on an available hook. "This should be the last of them, however."
Engaging in something of a struggle for supremacy, Xander and Willow began to unload the box and arrange the presents on the table according to their own personal aesthetics.
Tara perched on the arm of a nearby chair and sipped her drink. "You were going to say something about Mr. Giles?"
"Yes," Hannah nodded. "Buffy, I think you should be the one to bring him here."
Buffy paused in mid-puff of a glittery red balloon. "Me?" She shook her head. "Oh no, no, not me. I'm already more involved in this than I wanna be."
"If you do it, he's less likely to be suspicious." Hannah cajoled.
"Right," Buffy was swift to confirm, "which is trust." She waved the partially inflated balloon for emphasis. "Trust that is precious and should in no way be violated."
Tara was puzzled. "I don't get it. You don't like birthdays?"
Extracting an intriguingly shaped present, Xander examined it with much curiosity before adding it to the pile. "Yeah, I mean, it's not even yours, so we should be safe."
"It's not that," contradicted Buffy. "But we tried this once before, remember? Back in high school, after Willow hacked into the faculty records and saw his birthday?"
"Which was totally for important Scooby research," Willow hastily defended, "a-and definitely not just because I was bored one night."
"We planned, we decorated, we surprised, we got grumpy Giles for a week."
Holding a small package to his ear, Xander shook it before putting it next to the others. He nodded in grim remembrance at Buffy's words.
Willow's expression said she still hadn't entirely alleviated herself of the guilt. "I felt so bad I was stopping by after each class, just to make him tea and scones. Only I didn't actually have any scones, so- so I brought him those little butter flower cookies you can wear on your fingers." She wiggled said fingers, despite them being utterly devoid of cookie. "You know, like rings?"
"Those ruled," declared Xander with gusto.
Willow's head bobbed in enthusiastic agreement.
"He told me he hated birthdays, and just wanted us to forget about them." Buffy's tone contained more than just a suggestion of finality on the issue.
"I see," pondered Tara thoughtfully. "And of course you always do everything Mr. Giles tells you."
Buffy's narrowed glare was met with an unrepentant half-grin.
"I just think this could be good for him," insisted Tara. "Lately he's been so ... so not-Giles. He means more to us than doing Council paperwork stuff or whatever he does all day, and I think he's forgotten." Seriously, she regarded each face in turn. "It's up to us to remind him, and I think this is a great way to do that."
Xander nodded wisely. "Your lady's got a point there, Will."
Reaching into the cardboard container, he pulled out a wooden box. The donor had apparently decided to leave it unwrapped and its highly polished surface was engraved with almost childlike designs that were classic in their simplicity. Obviously impressed with the craftsmanship, Xander turned it around, inspecting it from every angle, and then peered at the underside. It remained as enigmatic as before, and with a shrug, he added it to the ever-growing stack.
Willow smiled mischievously at Tara. "Can I pick 'em, or can I pick 'em?" Tara shuffled a little in embarrassment, but she was clearly pleased.
"Tara's right," Hannah declared vehemently. "This could be what we need to get through to Rupert. Frankly, I'm concerned. We've all noticed it. There's something bothering him, but we need to reestablish a connection before he'll allow us to help him. It's either this, or I resort to violence."
The Scoobies chuckled at the threat, but when Hannah's expression indicated nothing but complete seriousness, the merriment faded.
Buffy looked at Hannah worriedly. "Buffy Summers, Fetcher of Giles, now on duty," she announced as she leapt to her feet and headed for the door.
Buffy paused in front of Giles' office. She took a depth breath before turning the handle and entering the room.
Giles was at his desk, frowning and working diligently as he sorted through charts and lists, the ever-present cup of tea forgotten at his elbow. She watched for a moment. He seemed unaware of her presence.
"You know what this room really needs?" she advised cheerfully.
Startled, Giles looked up with an expression of surprise to discover he was no longer alone.
"What?" he asked, his ears having not yet received notification that they should be paying attention.
Buffy forged ahead regardless. "I'm thinking plant," she pondered. "Or gerbil. Something living. Because all this?" She gestured vaguely toward the stacks of musty volumes. "Take it from a girl who knows – hanging only with dead things is no way to live."
"Yes, thank you," Giles acknowledged. "I'll note that down on my list of personal philosophies." His placed his pen carefully on the desk and regarded her seriously. "Did you stop by simply to dispense your special kind of wisdom, or was there a particular purpose to your visit?"
"I'm sort of hoping you'll give me a reason to not do something," Buffy admitted.
Giles waited patiently for expansion, but there was none. "Any random something, or was there a specific one you had in mind?"
Moving toward him, Buffy poked at the pile of papers. "Important stuff?"
Giles quickly re-tidied the stacks. "Uhm, yes, actually. A new regiment of Watchers is ready to begin field training. Hands-on experience working directly with Slayers and such."
"Ah." Buffy's nod was wise. "Having fun?"
Giles appeared perplexed. "Fun?"
Buffy perched on the corner of the desk. "Yes, fun. You know, that thing we lesser mortals have been known to have on occasion?"
"Oh, I see, fun," replied Giles, crossing his arms and leaning back in his chair. "Yes, this is an utter joy. Can't believe that Disneyland hasn't yet opened Scheduling World."
"And with that sarcasm, I segue into Section B, wherein I ask: So why are you doing it?" Buffy favored him with a penetrating gaze.
"Because it must be done," came the terse response as Giles retrieved the pen and focused on his task once more.
But Buffy refused to be dismissed quite that easily. "By you."
"No, not by me specifically," Giles was forced to admit, "but I—"
Buffy swung her legs back and forth. "Things are so hectic right now that you're taking on boring jobs that anyone can do."
Rubbing his forehead, Giles laid the pen back down with a heavy sigh. "Did you have a point?"
"I did, in fact," Buffy announced brightly, hopping off the corner with a sunny grin. "It revolved around you and being busy with these oh so lame excuses—"
"They're not excuses," Giles objected, but Buffy's lecture drowned out his words.
"—that you can't even come over for dinner anymore? And I know it's not the food since now Tara's back we have actual meals instead of Xander's unholy experiments with Velveeta."
For a long moment Buffy and Giles merely stared at each other.
"We miss you," Buffy entreated. "We want you back."
"I'm still here, Buffy," he reassured, "and I'm not going anywhere. But you're all adults now. You, Willow, Xander ..."
"We still need—"
Now it was Giles' turn to increase the volume and drown out any protest. "Our responsibilities are- are different now than they were before," he reprimanded, but not unkindly. "The world is different."
"But some stuff remains the same ... right?"
Her glance conveyed the essence of hope, but Giles said nothing, even as, for a fraction of a second, he seemed wistful.
The moment threatened to drag forever. "Well, that was a loaded silence," Buffy stated with some discomfort, but then her posture became resolute. "Okay then," she decided, "you leave me no other choice. You're coming with me."
Giles' eyebrows knitted together. "I'm what?"
"Coming with me," confirmed Buffy with a sharp nod. "Right now. No more schedules, no more excuses. You, me, leaving, now."
Giles glanced anxiously at the mounds of paperwork. "But my—"
"Ah-ah. No schedules," warned a determined Buffy.
"I have to—"
"I don't know what you're going to say, but it sounds excusey, and I'm fairly certain I just said no to those."
The Watcher's mouth opened in preparation for a new protest, but Buffy immediately interrupted.
"Whatever it is: no."
An expression of obstinacy glinted in Giles' eyes. "You can't force me."
"Actually," refuted Buffy, "I think you'll find that I can."
"What are you going to do, hoist me over your shoulder and carry me away?" he asked with a hint of scorn.
"Boy, I sure hope we haven't descended quite that far yet," Buffy replied. "I was really relying on the more subtle persuasive arts."
As Giles descended into a mire of confusion, Buffy remained rigid in her no-nonsense demeanor. But then, little by little, her attitude began to crumble. First her eyes, once narrowed and harsh, became forlorn and beseeching. Her posture, too, went from rigid and challenging to lost and alone. She even sniffed once or twice for good measure.
Giles squirmed in his seat, growing increasingly uncomfortable with every passing second. "That's not fair."
Buffy's lower lip managed to find an extra few centimeters to jut out. "Please come with me, Giles," she implored, not sounding at all a woman whose mere presence could send a chill down the spine of even the most evil of creatures. "I'll be so sad if you don't."
Giles maintained his stony expression.
Buffy's lip began to tremble.
Giles sighed with not particularly good grace. "I'll get my coat."
The transformation from despair to delight was instantaneous.
"I win!" Buffy declared happily. "Yay!"
The staircase was dark, shrouded in shadow. The upstairs hallway was no less gloomy, but Oringo was sure-footed as he made his way toward one of the rooms. He appeared to be in no particular hurry and moved at a leisurely pace. Reaching his destination, he opened the door and immediately recoiled, throwing up his hands as a shield.
The sunlit area was blinding in its brilliance. Shafts of light blazed through the windows, painting the walls and floor with a golden glow, but Oringo's instinctive shrinking had been unnecessary. The beams had not yet penetrated far enough to reach the doorway. With an annoyed frown, he quickly regained his composure, none too happy that his equanimity had been compromised.
The saffron-clad figure seated in the center of the room seemed oblivious to his entrance. She was also apparently unaware of the fact that the sun's rays were creeping perilously close to her person. With lowered lids, her expression was serene but otherwise devoid of expression.
"What are you doing?" he demanded curtly. "Do you have a death wish?"
The girl's lips barely moved. "I am not alive."
Oringo's gaze narrowed. "Spare me the semantics."
The girl arched an elegant eyebrow. "My interest lies in giving. Not receiving."
"Well that's good," replied Oringo tartly. "Good to hear it."
He carefully surveyed the room. Little, if anything, met with his approval. "They tell me you've been up here for days."
He waited for a reply, but there was no denial or confirmation.
"You haven't moved, they said. Not to check on things, not to issue new orders." His tone was challenging and somewhat recriminating. "Not even to eat."
The girl shrugged her slim shoulders. "They are especially observant."
It was a glib answer and one that incited Oringo's ire. "He's coming. You realize that, don't you? The General will be here soon, and he has expectations."
The response to this was equally nonchalant. "Yes, I expect that he does."
"I should let you fail," snorted Oringo with disdain. "I should stand back and simply wait for him to see with his own eyes what you've become."
The girl's mouth twitched slightly with mild amusement. "And what is that?"
"Pathetic," he spat disgustedly. "A shell. I remember when he first found me. I was stagnant, no purpose, like a benign tumor. Like you are now."
"I have purpose."
The simple statement, delivered so matter-of-factly, only served to fuel Oringo's mounting aggravation. "There is no purpose but his!"
The girl opened her almond-shaped eyes and turned to regard him over her shoulder. "Such blind devotion to your master." The shadow of a smirk invaded her lips, subtle and almost imperceptible. "You are a good dog, Oringo."
The look he shot in her direction was one of unbridled fury. "I am no one's dog."
She merely bowed her head, seeming disinclined to argue the point. Obviously unafraid and unimpressed in the face of Oringo's wrath, the girl assumed her former contemplative position and closed her eyes once more.
Oringo fumed at the implied dismissal. "Oh, how I would love to see you fail," he snarled. "But your failure is his ... and mine. That can't happen."
"You are dramatic," sighed the girl. "Where is this failure? Our army continues to grow. Daily, we come closer to locating the nexus. It is only a matter of time before we identify the catalysts. Soushikikan-tono will not be disappointed."
Her eyes opened again. Formerly unruffled by his accusatory outbursts, the girl's aura of sedate calm now radiated danger and there was the hint of harsh steel in her tone. "He will not be disappointed, nor shall I." She affixed Oringo with a penetrating stare. "My sister was taken from me. Ripped away. She was my light. This?"
Without warning, she thrust a hand into the direct path of a nearby sunbeam. Her expression remained unchanged, even as the flesh began to emit smoke almost immediately. She seemed immune to the pain, unflinching as she continued to focus steadily on Oringo.
"Shadow," she murmured, and there was a catch in her voice. "Everything is in shadow."
Flames began to lick around her fingers, but she didn't appear to notice and took no action to remove her hand from the fire. Oringo's eyes grew wide as he rapidly searched the room for something to stifle the blaze, but there was nothing. Without further hesitation, he ripped off his jacket and quickly threw it over the girl's exposed hand, smothering the inferno and protecting the blistered skin.
Oringo allowed himself a small sigh of relief. "Arriving and finding you a pile of ash ... The General would probably qualify that as a disappointment."
She said nothing for a moment and then looked at the scorched jacket draped over her wrist. Drawing it toward her, she patted her hand through the fabric, ensuring that all traces of the fire had been extinguished before inspecting the damage. The flesh was charred and wisps of smoke continued to trail from her fingertips. The injuries were undoubtedly agonizing, but the girl displayed no visible sign of discomfort. She tossed the jacket back to Oringo, who caught it on instinct and then held it away from his person distastefully.
"I will bring the shadow to my sister's murderer," the girl said softly, threateningly. She glanced at Oringo again. "I will not be stopped."
A solemn promise. An earnest vow. The eyes of both man and girl were locked for a long moment and Oringo was the first to break the gaze.
"I'll send up some food," he muttered.
The girl did not respond, simply returning to the sanctuary of her meditations as Oringo took his leave.
Dawn and Faith were the last guests to arrive. They entered the house together, Faith carrying an oblong package under one arm. It was tastefully wrapped in black tissue, criss-crossed by bands of metallic silver ribbon. Engaged in conversation, the pair was only vaguely conscious of the activity taking place in the living room.
Tara was carefully counting out birthday candles, trying to make sure she had an equal amount of each color, while Willow arranged the presents according to size. She nudged Tara's arm for approval, causing the blonde to lose her place. A tiny frown invaded Tara's features, but Willow's proud expression quickly dispelled any irritation and she nodded her approval. However, Willow was no longer so sure. Shaking her head in dissatisfaction, she began to recategorize them by shape. With an indulgent smile, Tara returned to her calculations.
Xander had set up an impromptu wet bar. He stood behind the makeshift counter and juggled bottles as though he were auditioning for a starring role in "Cocktail." Polishing glasses, Hannah kept a watchful eye on his antics and waited for the inevitable shattering crash.
"What I really wanted to get him was a bottle of Viagra," Dawn confided, much to Faith's surprise. "You know, for like a gag gift?" She frowned darkly. "Buffy wouldn't buy me any though."
"Should'a come to me," Faith told her. "I'd'a gone half. Be worth it to see Oxford's face."
Dawn sighed. "He'll just have to be happy with some records." She glanced pointedly at Faith's package. "What'd you get?"
"Cubans. Whole box."
From across the room, Xander gave a low whistle, obviously impressed.
"Aren't they illegal?" queried Willow.
Faith simply lifted her eyebrow at the question and handed over the present, which was quickly assimilated into the ever-changing topography of the gift landscape.
"Cigars?" Dawn questioned. "But ... Giles doesn't smoke." She looked to the others. "Does he?"
"In theory, at any rate," remarked Hannah, wisely placing a bottle of expensive Napoleon brandy beyond Xander's reach.
"It's not the smoking, Dawnster, it's the having," Xander painstakingly explained. "There's just something about the feeling of a cigar. It's a manly feel. " He became lost in his own thoughts. "The weight, the smell, the texture ..."
"Sweetie, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," Tara told him kindly, doing her best to repress a laugh.
Rocking on her heels, Faith inspected the area. "I'm impressed."
"Yeah," enthused Dawn. "It looks great!"
"Bettin' it looks even better since you didn't have to help," teased Willow with a sly smirk.
The teenager responded haughtily by sticking out her tongue and then went back to admiring the room and its decorations. "Do you think he'll like it?" she asked of nobody in particular.
"He'll hate it," professed Xander brightly.
"Hate it?" Dawn repeated with an anxious expression.
Hannah frowned in admonishment. "Xander."
"What?" asked Xander with an offhand shrug. "He will. He's gonna walk in, get that look on his face like my gran'ma used to get when she found out my parents weren’t gonna pick me up until tomorrow, and then spend the whole time smiling politely and counting down the hours until he can leave."
Willow glowered in Xander's direction. "That is not in the spirit of Birthday Fun."
"I didn't say I wouldn't like it," retorted Xander, popping a fistful of salted cashews into his mouth and crunching contentedly.
Dawn continued to register dismay. "I thought this was supposed to help?" She nervously searched each face, seeking reassurance. "That Giles wasn't gonna be this ... pod-Giles anymore."
Getting to her feet, Tara locked arms with Dawn and delivered a comforting squeeze. "That won't change overnight," she advised gently. "But he'll be here, and that's a good start."
"Yeah!" agreed Willow enthusiastically. "If he can't remember on his own how much he's missed us, we'll just have to remind him!"
And the time for that was apparently at hand. As though on cue, there was the sound of a handle turning and everyone rushed to gather on the threshold. Buffy's face appeared as she held the front door open for Giles to enter.
"After you," she announced grandly.
Shuffling inside, Giles stopped short at the sight of the small gathering.
Every face was frozen in a huge welcoming grin. Ostensibly at a loss for words, Giles absorbed the cheery scenario for a moment. Then his expression became a little pinched.
Still sporting his happy mask, Xander leaned down to whisper in Willow's ear. "It's like Grandma Harris came back just to be disappointed in me."
Willow's response was a disapproving elbow to Xander's ribs, but his smile remained firmly fixed. The redhead cocked her head as she refocused on Giles. She frowned. Perhaps Xander's observation hadn't been too far off the mark after all.
Apparently, Giles was delving into his vast vocabulary for a suitable reaction He finally settled on: "Quite."
He turned to Buffy, but she merely shrugged as though to remind him that he'd left her no choice. Giles' gaze narrowed as he eyed Hannah. The silent accusation was unmistakable.
The unspoken challenge didn't faze Hannah in the least. Stepping forward, she jammed a pointy hat of pastel swirls atop his head and snapped the elastic under his chin. Thin crepe paper streamers sprouted gaily from the top of the cone. Giles was clearly not amused, but Hannah simply patted his cheek and then stepped back to admire her handiwork. "Don't you look smart, Mr. Birthday Boy?"
Giles' eyes became little more than slits in his face but then, Dawn was suddenly upon him, bestowing a gigantic hug. "Happy Birthday, Giles!"
As he looked down at the teenager, Giles' stern façade melted somewhat. In less than a heartbeat, Tara was squeezing his other arm. "We're so glad you're here." Despite himself, Giles couldn't help but smile.
Unable to contain herself any longer, Willow wormed into the conclave, also finding a prime spot of Giles real estate to claim as her own.
"Of course he's here!" the redhead declared with gusto. "He had to be here. A birthday party without the birthday guy? Who's heard of that? Nobody, that's who! It's unheard of."
Xander's sentiment was much more succinct. "Hug!"
And with that, he gathered the huddle into his arms. Giles staggered backward, only to be thrown forward again as Buffy leapt from behind and captured his neck in a smothering embrace.
"You shouldn't have," Giles protested in a strained tone.
An expression of infinite pleasure crossed Buffy's face. "Pish. Thing nothing of it."
Giles visibly wilted beneath the weight. "My back," he muttered through gritted teeth. "You shouldn't have."
"Oh!" returned Buffy with a grimace as she dropped to the floor.
As the group hug began to dissipate, Giles ruefully massaged his spine.
"Sorry," murmured Buffy regretfully.
"Quite all right," replied Giles, wincing. "Nothing a handful of pain relievers and a few hours of lying completely still won't cure."
The atmosphere took an awkward turn until Willow decided to lighten the mood.
"Hey, you wanna check out your loot?" She almost twinkled with anticipation. "Y'got more swag over here than a- a pirate captain after a week of rape and pillage."
Taking Giles by the elbow, she steered him toward the living room, tossing a deliberate glance over her shoulder. The others seemed uncertain for a moment, but then followed.
The entire gathering sat in a circle on the floor, save Giles who occupied an armchair, a pillow at his back for support. He sat with eyes half-closed as they chatted animatedly among themselves, passing around bowls of chips and other nibbles.
The game of Pictionary was not faring well for Willow's team. She had drawn something largely unrecognizable on the whiteboard, but rather than embellishing her artwork, she just kept prodding at the unidentifiable lump with the tip of her black marker, wiggling her eyebrows as though the action would supply a much needed clue. The shouted answers were many and varied and wrong.
Xander sorted through a pile of DVDs, holding up each in turn, but apparently no majority decision could be reached regarding which one to watch. Undeterred, Xander reached for another stack.
In front of the whiteboard, Willow continued to poke meaningfully at her unintelligible masterpiece.
Bouncing a balloon from one hand to the other, Faith attempted to drum up support for a game of indoor volleyball. Giles politely declined.
With a delighted smile, Dawn was in her element with a camcorder, trying to be everywhere at once. However, the guest of honor always managed to slip quietly out of every frame.
Time had run out for Willow at the whiteboard. With a triumphant flourish, Hannah revealed the answer card: "The English Patient." Willow's team regarded her with befuddlement. Giles excused himself and went in search of an aspirin.
Sipping a drink, Giles was seated alone at the island counter in the kitchen when Hannah entered. Her expression plainly indicated that she was far from happy.
"Would it kill you to try?" she snapped.
Clearly not wanting to hear it, Giles sighed and rubbed his forehead.
In the living room, the former lively atmosphere had dwindled to almost nothing. The gifts sat unopened on the coffee table and to a person, each face wore a discouraged expression.
"He's hating every second, isn't he?" asked Willow miserably.
Xander flicked at an imaginary speck of dirt. "The man is clearly does not have his birthday groove on."
"They worked hard on this party," Hannah curtly informed.
Giles nodded. "And I appreciate their efforts."
The response was sharp and cutting. "As your hiding clearly demonstrates."
Curled in an armchair, Dawn lamented, "I really thought this would make him better." Mournfully, she surveyed the sad-eyed little group. "But it's not, is it?"
"Maybe he just ... I don't know." Tara heaved a heavy sigh. "Needs space? To sort out whatever it is on his own?"
"Maybe," mused Buffy, poking disconsolately at the mound of ignored presents. "I just wish we knew what it was. Then maybe we'd know what to do."
Hovering near the doorway, Faith stepped forward. "Hey, this idea may be sorta left field ... but has anyone thought about straight up asking him?"
"Ask?" scoffed Xander. "What kind of crazy person just asks?"
"What the hell is wrong with you?" Hannah snapped, fast losing patience. "The dismissiveness, the isolation ..." She marched back and forth with crossed arms. "You're cold, Rupert, and speaking honestly, what you richly deserve a right bloody kick in the arse."
Giles' reply was calm, practical and intensely irritating.
"What is wrong is that I have a job. I job that I must do in order for this world to keep turning and those in it to remain safe. We all know the stakes, the ... the absolute, vital need for the work we do. And yet here I am," he waved a hand vaguely in the direction of the living room, "preparing to play Pin the Tail on the Donkey."
"Is it written somewhere that you can't do both? Rupert, you and a group children defended the world for years on your own, and yet you still managed to find the time to be part of each other's lives. Nothing's changed."
He fixed her with a penetrating stare. "I've changed."
Hannah shook her head. "I don't understand."
"Neither would they."
At the entrance to the kitchen, Tara nervously cleared her throat. "Uhm ..."
The argument came to a screeching halt, with both participants appearing uncomfortable in her sudden presence – even more so when they spied Dawn hovering anxiously at Tara's shoulder.
Tara glanced downward then up again. "We, uhm ... We- We figured it was time. Cake time."
"Yup," Dawn agreed with faux brightness in an attempt to lift the mood. "Time for cake."
Giles resumed sipping on his drink as Hannah moved to the window and gazed outside. Neither said a word as Tara and Dawn busied themselves collecting plates, forks and napkins.
In the living room, Buffy absently traced the edges and carvings of the wooden box, smiling gratefully as Xander came and settled next to her. Faith paced nearby, her expression grim, as Willow sat across the table from Buffy and plucked at a ribbon that was beginning to fray.
"So what're we gonna do? If he won't tell us?" asked Willow plaintively. "It's all hypothetical of course, cuz he will," she assured. Doubt quickly resurfaced. "But what if he doesn't?"
"Maybe we're overreacting?" offered Xander. "He's been Joe Council since Sunnydale fall down, go boom. I mean, has the guy ever taken a day off? I know I start to go nuts when I hit one minute over 40 hours."
"He said he's changed," muttered Faith, more to Buffy than to anyone else.
Xander was confused. "Huh?"
"Slayer hearing," shrugged Faith.
"He's changed. Big duh there," announced Willow. "Isn't that sort of the problem?"
Leaning forward, Xander drummed his fingers on a nearby gift. "So what're we thinkin'? The pod-Giles joke a little too close to home?"
"I don't think so," pondered Buffy, continuing to absent-mindedly follow the designs on the wooden box with her fingertips.
"Well, but okay," Willow decided firmly. "Now we know that Giles knows something's up too. So he's got the answers."
"Question is, how to make him spill," added Faith.
"Better question: How to find the 'undo' button and get our Giles back," insisted Xander.
Buffy sighed. "Best question: Does he even want to come back?"
Willow looked worriedly from person to person. "Too many questions! Not enough answers!"
Buffy sighed again and without thinking, snapped open the tiny copper clasp of the box, lifting the lid.
"Maybe we just need to—"
But she never got the chance to complete her sentence.
A flash of blinding brilliance erupted from the interior of the box, and in a heartbeat, the vivid glow had bathed the entirety of the room. Ensconced in the kitchen, Tara was neatly cutting birthday cake as Dawn held the plates. Both looked up abruptly at the glimmering flare emanating from the living room. They regarded each other questioningly for a moment and then ran to the entrance. Giles was right behind while Hannah, who had noticed the shimmer reflected in the windowpane, brought up the rear. Together they reached the entrance to the living room, and with stunned expressions of shock, stopped short.
Tara's hand flew to her mouth. "Oh my god," she breathed.
"Buffy?" murmured Dawn, taking a hesitant step forward.
Giles restrained her by the arm.
Disbelieving, their eyes roamed the living room. There wasn't much changed, except for where Buffy, Willow, Xander and Faith had once been. Nothing could now be seen but four untidy heaps of clothing littering the floor. There was no trace of the people who had been wearing the apparently discarded clothes. Not one solitary trace.