The grand house located in Trillium's high-class residential district no longer displayed the "SOLD" sign on its front lawn. From the outside, the dwelling was equally innocuous as its neighbors and exuded nothing that would cause it to be the object of attention to a casual passerby. Inside, however, it painted a different picture.
As the pale fingers of an early sunrise crept over the horizon, a myriad of busy vampires tackled the business of general housekeeping. Some diligently polished furniture while others wielded brooms with an energetic ferocity. A few, who had apparently not been assigned any menial chores that morning, had gathered in one of the larger rooms, performing Tai Chi in synchronicity. Further along the expansive hallway, still more of the house's inhabitants inventoried the contents of wooden crates and checked supply lists. In virtually every area, the walls were peppered with charts and contoured maps, together with a smattering of aerial surveillance photographs.
From a landing overlooking the foyer, a tall and somewhat rangy vampire watched the hubbub below for a moment before descending the staircase. His uniform was essentially the same as that of the workers, except for a ribbon of slim gold braid decorating the lapels and cuffs of his jacket. As he walked the halls, the individuals he passed respectfully deferred to his presence. He paid them little mind as he moved through their ranks with the stealthy grace of a panther, but the dark, penetrating eyes missed nothing.
Arriving at a room toward the rear of the main floor, he stopped at the open door and looked inside. Here, the age of modern technology had all but erased the sedate elegance exhibited by the rest of the house. Several monitors had been connected to a vast variety of systems and server racks littered the area. In the center of this computer haven, tapping expertly at a keyboard balanced on her knees, sat one lone female. She seemed young and almost pixie-like in an eccentric way, perched cross-legged upon a stool with her dark brown hair layered close to her head as though it were a skullcap. The man's formality waned a little as he watched her at work. Intent on the task before her, the girl didn't look up as he entered, but it was evident she was well aware of his approach.
"Oringo," she greeted cordially. "Hey. Been a while. Just get in?"
"Last night," he told her crisply, legs astride and hands clasped behind his back. "I spent some time acquainting myself to our new home."
The girl's fingers flew over the keys as she nodded her approval. "Mm, good idea. Did you get German for dinner? I hear it's good. Little salty for my tastes, but ..." She shrugged her slim shoulders.
"Local, I think," responded Oringo. "Filling, but not satisfying." An expression of disappointment clouded his prominently-etched features. "It hardly fought back."
The girl chuckled. "See, that's how I like it best."
Through disapproving eyes, set in a strong face that wore its undiluted African heritage with much pride, Oringo regarded the girl soberly. "All that fast food isn't good for you. Besides, the hunt is half the fun."
"I have simple tastes," she returned nonchalantly. "I'll just keep the half where it tastes good."
Oringo shook his head in defeat. "So Oracle, what ar—"
"It's not 'Oracle' any more," came the swift rebuttal. "It's 'Keres' now."
Confused, Oringo ran a hand over his hair, cropped and obviously utilitarian in style. "What?"
"My name," she clarified. "I changed it to Keres. From the Greeks, eh?" Her blue eyes sparkled. "Bloodsuckers, personification of death, that whole thing?"
"But you just changed your name to Oracle last year," Oringo pointed out with a frown of frustration.
"I know, I know," affirmed Keres, "but it didn't really sit right. It's eternity. You gotta have just the right name." She tossed a chagrined look in Oringo's direction. "Plus, I sort of stole it from Batman. The Matrix did too," she hastened to point out, "so—"
Oringo's lips twitched into something of a sneer. "Louise." The girl visibly grimaced at the considerably less impressive name. "This conversation grows banal." His tone was clipped and verging on aggravation.
Displaying a flicker of apprehension at his stern reprimand, Keres quickly returned to her project and wisely allowed the issue to drop.
Oringo moved closer. "What are you working on?" The question was asked with overt calm.
Keres' apprehension turned to fear.
"Just, you know ... assignments," she muttered, head bent over the keyboard.
The huge sigh she received in response made it clear that Oringo's patience had been stretched to the limit. "Keres," he began, speaking her name with exaggerated emphasis as though conveying a concerted attempt to be reasonable, "your value to this campaign is unquestionable. Your ability with these machines is truly brilliant. And, in truth, I rather like you." He paused briefly before delivering his warning. "Don't make me fickle."
"It's for her!" the girl blurted in a miserable rush of explanation. "She has me trying to hack into the Watcher's Council systems!"
Oringo seemed genuinely stunned and concerned by the announcement. "What? Is she trying to bring the Slayers on our heads? What reason did she give?"
In a large upstairs room, its many windows stripped of any form of drape or curtain, a figure with eyes lightly closed sat in the depths of meditation, heedless of the sunlit shafts that glimmered upon the floor. She had abandoned her red cloak for a traditional kimono of saffron silk and her features were as still as a statue. Adorning the walls were even more maps and charts similar to those found throughout the house, including a zodiac wheel of elaborate design and a celestial graph of the heavens. The most impressive of these ornamentations, however, was an immense map of the United States. A heavily-outlined triangle connected three locations, all in the topmost northeast quadrant. The center of this area had been clearly designated with a marking that resembled the sun being obliterated by the moon. A smaller map of Trillium was also present. It too exhibited assorted markings, but presented no apparent pattern.
Keres' voice was faint and muffled, but still somehow audible. "She didn't. But it's not too hard to figure out."
As it journeyed across the sky, the sun intensified through the upstairs windows and began to snake its way toward the saffron-clad figure. Still, the girl appeared oblivious to its path. From below, the sounds of gainful employment grew louder and threatened to shatter the serenity, but it was an empty threat. Unmoving and tranquil, the girl remained focused in her contemplation.
Alone in his office, Giles had decided it was time to reorganize. He stood before a shelf containing a selection of personal items, including a framed photograph of Buffy, Willow and Xander. He moved the picture to one side and out of the way, filling the now empty space with a small collection of reference books.
"Many Happy Returns"
Story by: Jet Wolf and Ultrace
Scripted by: Jet Wolf
Prose by: Novareinna
Edited by: Jet Wolf and Novareinna
Original Airdate: Tuesday, 21 June 2005, 8pm ET
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.
Mystified, four anxious faces scoured the living room for a reasonable explanation, some sort of sign or clue – anything that would make sense of the sudden disappearances.
Hannah shook her head in disbelief. "Where did...?"
Abruptly, all eyes turned to a heap that had begun to move slightly. The heap consisted of the clothes Willow had been wearing and Tara immediately rushed forward.
"Tara, wait—" cautioned Giles, stretching out a hand to restrain her, but Tara refused to listen.
"Willow?" she asked nervously.
"Tara?" came the muffled response.
The pile started to thrash violently. Though confused, Tara instinctively went to help and then took a step back as a head thrust its way through the jumble – a small head topped with a shock of bright copper-colored hair adorned by a lacy black bra. Tara's hand froze in mid-air and a very odd expression crossed her face.
"Willow?" she questioned doubtfully.
The little redhead swiped fussily at the bra and brushed it to the floor.
"Yeah, hi, already established," announced Willow peevishly. "The ..."
Slowly, Willow leaned back to look up at Tara looming over her. Her eyes grew very round. "Oh my god, you're a giant!"
"No, I'm ..." Tara glanced over her shoulder at the trio still hovering in the entranceway, her bewilderment only too plain. "I'm normal Tara-sized ..." she finished weakly.
One by one, the other three disheveled mounds began to stir. Without hesitation, Dawn hurriedly made her way to what was apparently a buried Buffy. In a state of shock, Giles and Hannah could only continue to gawk open-mouthed at the scenario. Rummaging deep, Dawn unearthed a little blonde sitting on the carpet and rubbing at her eyes with the back of her hand.
"Oh, no way," murmured the teenager.
Xander and Faith emerged at about the same time. Faith's neck swiveled from side to side as she surveyed the piles of clothes.
"That's new," she remarked curiously.
Giles' mouth worked rapidly for a moment until he was able to jolt his vocal chords into action. "Good lord."
"What happened?" demanded Xander irritably. "Everything got all bright, and ... and why do I sound like a castrati?"
He looked up – way up – at Hannah's approach and let out a strangled, "Ahh!"
He inspected his hands. They were not manly hands. This time, the strangled "Ahh!" was shrill.
With an expression of dread, he peered down. His worse fears were realized. That wasn't manly either. The "AHH!!" that followed was truly more of a shriek. "Who took my puberty?!"
"Bad," announced Buffy with ever-widening eyes. "Oh, very bad. Giles!" She turned toward her Watcher, as though he might not have yet been aware of these latest developments. "Bad!"
Blinking in double-time, Willow teetered on the brink of hyperventilation. "Okay. Okay. Okay. Logical reason. Think. Need to think."
Tara laid a soothing hand on the small head. "You need to breathe first."
"Think," gasped Willow.
"Breathe," insisted Tara sternly. In a calm fashion, she demonstrated the necessary steps.
"Breathe," agreed Willow in a whisper.
Tara smiled encouragingly. "There you go."
Willow's hands fluttered up and down. "Breathe," she echoed again.
Kneeling next to Willow, Tara clearly wanted nothing more than to gather the agitated redhead into the comfort of her arms, but seemed uncertain whether it was the right thing to do. She glanced worriedly in Giles' direction.
Dawn, however, was utterly entranced by little Buffy. "It's like one of my Cabbage Patch Kids came to life," she stated delightedly.
Buffy's eyes narrowed. "Don't you dare find this funny," she warned.
"Come on," pooh-poohed Dawn. "You're like four. There is nothing but funny here."
Inactivity having never been Faith's strong suit, she was the first to get to her feet. She grabbed her shirt and tied it around her small body with haphazard and not particularly secure knots. Still, it sufficed for the moment, even though the sleeves were trailing on the floor.
"Okay, put me way the hell down in the 'fix this' column," she announced curtly. "There ain't no way I'm—" Stumbling on the shirttail, she landed face down.
Everybody stared, but nobody said anything.
"First one that laughs, I swear t'god, I'll bite off your ankle," Faith threatened, voice stifled by the thick carpet pile.
Immediately, every face adopted a suitable 'Laugh? Wouldn't dream of it' expression. As Hannah moved to help Faith, Giles approached his ex-wife.
"Do you know anything about this?" he questioned in a hushed tone.
Hannah favored him with a flat stare. "Yes, it was one of our party games. Right before 'Pass the Parcel', I thought we'd have a round of 'De-age the Adult'."
"All right, all right," Giles soothed, and he began to pace. "What happened?" he asked the group. "Does anyone know?"
Buffy was the first to try and explain. "We were just sitting, and talking and ..."
In casual fashion, so as to not draw any undue attention, Tara made her way toward an edgy and jittery Xander. Obviously mortified by his state of undress, he quickly tried to cover himself as she came closer, although it truly wasn't necessary since he was virtually swimming in the depths of his clothes.
"Xander, your ..." Tara began gently, but she seemed reluctant to broach the subject with words. Instead, she gestured to her eye.
Instantly, Xander's searching fingers discovered that the patch, like everything else he'd been wearing, had fallen off. Horrified realization dawned that the empty socket was now visible to one and all. It was a little disquieting to be sure, but in no way repulsive. The skin was puckered, but the wound had healed very nicely and there was no need for Xander to be embarrassed. Still, an expression of shame invaded his features and he immediately averted his face. Scrambling to retrieve the patch, he struggled to put it back on, but the elastic strap was now far too wide and refused to stay put.
Without a word, Tara removed the patch from his flustered hands and positioned it in place, tying the elastic into a neat bow at the back of his small head. Though still flushed with embarrassment, Xander threw her a look of supreme gratitude.
Turning, he noticed Willow, hovering at his shoulder. The redhead had managed to find and don her tee, although it hung on her tiny frame much like an extremely oversized nightshirt. Still, at least she was decently covered. The pair exchanged a comforting smile, kind of worried and kind of scared, but not alone.
"Deja vu, huh Will?" he offered sheepishly.
His answer was a bear hug around the neck. He held her tight and kissed the top of her head.
Thanks to Hannah, Faith's shirt was no longer in danger of slipping or tripping her up, and Buffy too had been given back her modesty. She stood with legs astride and arms crossed, glaring at Giles who was peering curiously, examining her from every angle.
"Fascinating," he pondered, eyes glinting behind his glasses. "Complete and total age regression. I-I've heard stories of spells, of- of wizards extending their lives by hundreds, thousands of years by turning back their biological clocks, but ..."
"Sort of not the issue right now," Buffy prompted sharply.
Giles tugged off his glasses and began to polish them sheepishly. "No, I suppose it's not," he agreed.
"We have to figure out who, or what, did this," stated Buffy crisply.
Faith climbed onto the couch and stuck her legs out in front of her. "The girl with the action plan," she smirked. "Add us kickin' someone's ass for this, an' I'm in."
Willow hoisted herself onto the cushion next to Faith. She tried to scoot backward but only succeeded in snarling the shirt underneath her and nearly strangling herself in the process.
Doing her best Sherlock Holmes impression, Dawn cruised the room in search of clues. She paused by the coffee table and eyed the wooden box with much suspicion. "Hey, this wasn't open before."
Willow continued her valiant efforts to reach the back of the couch, but her feet were trapped in the hem of the shirt and the endeavor seemed destined to fail miserably. She scrabbled at the neckline and started to look panicky.
"What is it?" asked Giles, standing at Dawn's shoulder.
Buffy hopped onto the couch and began to unscramble the bunched shirt that was now hopelessly wrapped around Willow's legs. The redhead gave an agonized gurgle.
"One of your gifts," Hannah replied, staring at the box curiously. "I brought it over from Slayer Central this afternoon, just before the party."
Waving his hands excitedly, Xander remained on the floor and attempted to supply intelligent suggestions for the disentanglement of Willow while Faith looked on with amusement.
"Who's it from?" queried Tara, also peering at the offending gift suspiciously.
Leaning forward, Giles subjected the box to careful scrutiny. It appeared innocent, but nonetheless, he employed extreme wariness as he removed it from the table in order to check it over more thoroughly.
With a mighty tug, Buffy freed Willow from the clutches of the stubborn t-shirt and the redhead hastily clutched the hem before it could transcend the borders of respectability. Muttering an apology, Buffy settled herself down comfortably, while Xander gazed nonchalantly at the ceiling and Faith shook her head and smirked.
"It doesn't say," pondered Giles thoughtfully.
Hannah frowned. "It was on the table with the others. I didn't see who put it there."
Xander squirmed his way onto the couch between Willow and Buffy.
Willow fidgeted uncomfortably. "I hate this not wearing underwear."
"You get used to it," Faith replied with a shrug.
Holding the box aloft, Giles showed it to the company seated on the couch. "Did anyone open this?"
A small crease appeared on Buffy's forehead. "Uhh ..." She concentrated for a moment. "Yeah, I did. Just before ..." Her jaw dropped as her eyes grew wide. "That's what zapped us!"
Recoiling, Xander burrowed further into his cushion. He thrust his hands forward, making random warding gestures. "Away! What's next, Xander the Fetus? Xander the Embryo? I'm runnin' outta years to spare here!"
Dawn studied the box and its decided lack of glow. "It looks like it's out of juice."
"'Looks like'?" echoed Xander, not at all comforted. "We're staking my development beyond two cells on a 'looks like'?"
Tara reached out for the box. "May I?"
With an absent-minded nod, Giles relinquished it and Tara took her time in examination.
"Look at these markings," she finally stated. "They could be important. Maybe we should get into research mode?"
Giles threw her a quick smile. "I think that would be best. Tara, you and Dawn go to my office and—"
"No." Willow's emphatic denial was met with much surprise.
"No?" questioned Hannah.
"No," confirmed Willow. "Well yes, but no." She crossed her arms and set her jaw. "Clothes."
Xander was wholeheartedly in favor of the proposal. "Clothes. Yes. Yes to dressed."
"Gotta agree," added Buffy in support. "The baggy look? So 1990s."
Dawn's eyes sparkled. "Oh, I am totally part of this."
"But the spell could- could wear off at any moment, and ..." began Giles. He took note of the skeptical expressions. "I suppose that is unlikely," he conceded. "All right then. Hannah and I will begin research, while—"
The declaration from Buffy and Dawn was in perfect sync. "Mall!"
Leaping from the couch, Buffy raced Dawn to the door, skillfully managing somehow to avoid taking a tumble along the way.
Faith rolled her eyes as she slid to the floor with an air of confident cool. "Sure didn't take her long."
Xander was right behind.
Shaking her head, Tara moved to help Willow, who was once again experiencing t-shirt difficulties.
"Need help?" she offered, unable to disguise the fact that despite everything, she plainly found Willow's struggles to be adorable.
"Stupid shirt!" grumbled the aggravated redhead. "Won't stay on until I'm trying not to asphyxiate, oh but then? It's everywhere!"
With a smirk, Tara scooped Willow into her arms and easily untangled the oversized shirt. Willow seemed to thoroughly relish her current position and appeared exceedingly chuffed with the entire situation.
"Suddenly, I'm seeing all kinds of advantages here." She pointed imperiously at the front door. "To the car!"
Arching an indignant eyebrow, Tara planted Willow firmly on the floor. "You have two perfectly good legs. Use 'em." Without another word, she took her leave.
"But I'm all little and cute and stuff!" protested Willow loudly. "What's the point if I can't abuse it?" She waited for a moment, but Tara didn't look back. With a heavy sigh and an even heavier pout, Willow hurried after her.
As the door closed, Hannah and Giles turned to face each other.
"I suspect we escaped with the better part of this arrangement," he revealed in all honesty.
Hannah nodded. "I was just thinking the same thing."
Within the sanctuary of her room, the girl continued her ruminations. The sun had changed its position, although shafts of light still flooded vast areas. However, she appeared to have chosen the perfect location – a place of security where the rays would dance about the perimeter but never venture fully into the circle.
A timid rap upon the door was quickly followed by the appearance of a vampire lackey. The newcomer said nothing, keeping her head respectfully lowered. The girl in saffron silk ignored the other's presence and her lids barely flickered when the vampire reached behind and shoved a child into the center of the room by the scruff of the neck. The little girl, perhaps around ten years of age, landed with a sickening thud on the wooden floor. Her bottom lip trembled as she whimpered softly, tears threatening to spill from the terrified green eyes. The flunkey maintained her silence as she bowed and swiftly took her leave. Just as she had not acknowledged the arrival, the meditating figure did not acknowledge the departure.
Crawling on all fours, the child scuttled into a far corner and shrank against the baseboard, all but paralyzed with fear. Apprehensively, she looked around and then audibly gasped when she realized that the inhabitant of the room was staring directly at her. Cowering, the child curled into a tight ball. There was nothing threatening in the penetrating gaze, although it conveyed little comfort. Indeed, the dark eyes were almost stark in their neutrality.
"Do you know why you are here?"
The child was unable to respond. Sheer panic had frozen her vocal chords.
The girl in saffron silk waited patiently for a moment before closing her eyes and resuming the serene contemplations.
Surrounded by dusty volumes, Giles sat at one of the long tables in Slayer Central's library. Nearby, Spencer awaited his assignment, snappily dressed as always in a navy suit with matching tie and pale blue shirt.
"Books on time theory," Giles instructed. "Any histories of witches or- or warlocks with questionable longevity, and of course, any spells on age or time. I want every available Watcher working on this until we know what caused it and how to reverse it."
Spencer nodded. "Yes sir. It's interesting, isn't it? Our primary witch and two lead Slayers, both rendered essentially powerless."
A frown crossed Giles' forehead. "You may be right. Alert the Slayers also. This could be the prelude to an attack."
Spencer shook his head. "No," he corrected. "I meant I really find it terribly interesting. I wonder how Ms. Buffy and Ms. Faith will instruct the Slayers now? We may have to find them little booster stools. Perhaps we should acquire more child-friendly weapons." He pondered the proposition for a moment. "A 'wiffle bat', possibly? They could teach through the power of wiffle."
Giles' sigh was aggravated. "Yes, thank you, Spencer."
"Should I see about opening an account with Toys R Us, sir?"
"Just— The research." Giles' tone betrayed his irritation.
Spencer allowed the matter to drop. "Very good, sir."
With a brisk stride, he exited the library, presumably to begin gathering Watchers. Pushing back his chair, Giles joined Hannah at a smaller table, where she too was elbow-deep in musty text. Hannah smirked at his approach.
"Cheeky, isn't he?"
Giles grumbled. "Not to mention infuriatingly good at his job."
"I like him," she rejoined.
The smirk widened into a grin. "Why thank you."
Giles gestured toward the books. "Nothing yet, I suppose?"
Hannah leaned back. "No, but then we did only just start." She watched Giles reach for one of the volumes. "I've already checked Caplan's Symbololatry," she advised.
Giles' hand changed direction as he selected a different source of information, then took a seat across from his ex-wife. For a moment, the pair concentrated on their research, occasionally glancing at the wooden box between them for reference. Before too long, however, Hannah's attention began to wander.
"Who do you think is the cutest?"
"Hm?" queried Giles, semi-distracted by what he was reading.
Hannah clasped her hands behind her head. "See, you first want to say Willow, because she's just so adorable full-sized. But then the way Faith still has that scowl and attitude despite only being three foot tall ..."
"Oh. Uhm, I don't know," pondered Giles uncertainly. "They're all ..." He poked around his vocabulary database for a more suitable word other than that which sprang instantly to mind. There didn't seem to be one. "Cute," he finished lamely.
"I almost sort of envy them, you know?"
"Not really," responded Giles dryly.
"Oh come on," Hannah urged. "Getting to relive your childhood? Literally? You don’t think that would be exciting?" Her eyes sparkled.
Giles peered at her over the top of his glasses. "I've already been through it once." His eyes exhibited no reciprocating sparkle. "Why on earth would I do that to myself again?"
"You're not looking at the bigger picture," responded Hannah, waving a dismissive hand. "Think of the things you could do differently this time. Save your pocket money instead of buying bag upon endless bag of dolly mixtures. Pay more attention in school." She arched an amused eyebrow. "Not push Cecil Pratchett down the stairwell."
Giles was immediately defensive. "He had that coming. 'Prat' was in his name for a reason, and ..." He shook his head. "And this has absolutely nothing to do with anything. I wouldn't wish to be that age again, and I suspect that Buffy and the others feel the same."
Hannah was inclined to disagree. "Oh, I don't know. I bet they're having a great time."
Had they heard it, the Scoobies might have seen fit to disagree with Hannah's choice of the words "great" and "time". The group could hardly be classified as run-of-the-mill customers, considering that the "kids" were dressed in unconventional clothing at best. Those salespersons not otherwise engaged regarded them with a suspicious and skeptical eye.
As the senior in the outing – by straightforward visual inspection, at least – Tara was doing her utmost to maintain an air of dignified control for the benefit of the high-strung employees. Her success was questionable at best. Faith had almost immediately wrinkled her nose at the inventory, while Willow and Xander were dashing haphazardly from rack to rack, seemingly unable to settle down. Dawn and Buffy, however, had instantly launched into the swing of things.
"How about ..." began Dawn, holding out a pinafore dress of pale lilac. Buffy tilted her head, but Dawn had already whisked it away. "Ugh. No. Okay, maybe ..." She offered a rose red blouse with tiny pearl buttons, but dismissed this also before her sister could even get a decent peek.
"Maybe you let me take a look?" suggested Buffy, hands on her hips.
Dawn grinned. "Aww, widdle Buffy wanna dress herself. That's so cute."
She reached down to pinch Buffy's cheek, but Buffy angrily slapped the hand aside. "Wouldja cut that out? What is your deal?"
"Buffy," cautioned Dawn under her breath. She gestured with her eyes toward the salesperson hovering nearby, who appeared utterly aghast at the diminutive blonde's behavior.
Buffy was not impressed. "Oh for ..."
"Uh-oh, did someone forget to take her Ritalin this morning?" asked Dawn, loudly and meaningfully.
The employee scurried away, obviously having no desire to become involved.
"Ritalin?" echoed Buffy in disbelief.
Dawn brushed off the comment. "I dunno, they give it for everything these days." She rummaged through the rack next to her. "Now could you act the part? I don't think we really wanna try to explain all this."
"Fine," agreed Buffy sulkily. "But could you not enjoy it so much?"
"Oh come on," Dawn cajoled. "You know if you were me and I were you, you would so be enjoying this."
Buffy sniffed and did her best to look and sound superior. "That would be different."
"Oh yeah? How?"
"Because ..." Buffy thought for a moment. "I would be big and you would be little. Which, by the way, is how it should be. Plus, I completely wouldn't care, because hello – been there, done that."
"Exactly!" announced Dawn, apparently happy her sister had finally seen the light. "So now it's my turn to be Big Sis, and your turn to suck it up."
Buffy expelled a disgusted huff, but held her tongue as Dawn thrust another outfit in her direction. This time, neither of them could comment, as Dawn's eyes settled on a new prize. A gleam of excitement crept over the teenager's face as she squealed delightedly. "Barrettes!"
Closing her eyes, Buffy groaned.
Across the store, Tara slowly sifted through an extensive rack of clothing. She deliberately avoided anything flouncy or frilly, but it wasn't easy. So much fell into the flouncy and/or frilly category. Eventually, she selected a relatively plain plaid dress. Hopefully, she showed it to Faith.
"How about this?"
An expression of disgust invaded Faith's features. "Oh, but no."
"Oookay," agreed Tara as she expanded her seeking range.
Rocking on her heels, Faith's eyes roamed restlessly over the store displays. Her sneer of disdain was only too evident. Her gaze returned to Tara as the blonde dangled yet another garment from its hanger.
"This?" Tara smiled expectantly.
Faith simply stared. "Y'know, it's a good thing you're gay an' all, cuz I'd be feelin' all kinds'a sympathy for any kid you might'a had."
"A 'no' would've sufficed," rejoined a frowning Tara.
Faith was agreeable to that. "No."
With a sigh, Tara resumed her search while Faith continued to take stock of the store.
"Damn, I'm glad I can't remember bein' four the first time," she muttered darkly. "Think the embarrassment'd put me in the ground."
Tara peeked around the rack. She was plainly discouraged. "This is all pretty much more of the same. Can you maybe just pick something for now? We can go somewhere else tomorrow."
Faith's aura of cocky defensiveness began to waver a little, and for just a moment, she looked like a typical four-year old. "You really think we'll still be like this tomorrow?"
It was clear that Tara wished she had something more concrete to offer, something more encouraging. "I don't know. I hope not."
Faith puffed out her cheeks and stared at the ceiling. "Yeah."
Kneeling down, Tara sat back on her heels and regarded Faith eye-to-eye. "I know it must be scary," she empathized. "I-I mean I don't know know, but I can imagine." She smiled reassuringly. "We'll figure it out."
It didn't seem possible for Faith to stop fidgeting in place. "Like this ... We're almost helpless. Can't really defend ourselves. Sure as hell can't defend anyone else. It's like all we do, the stuff we were born to do ... it's gone."
"We're gonna fix this," Tara promised with no trace of doubt.
"No, Glinda, you don't get it," Faith told her with an emphatic shake of the head. "I don't know if I want it fixed."
Several racks away, Willow and Xander had joined forces in their quest for ideal outfits.
"Is it wrong that I'm finding stuff I'd wear now?" asked Xander, almost unable to contain his glee. "If I were, you know, Big Xander."
With wide eyes, Willow held up a pair of overalls and brightly-colored shirt. "It feels like I only just got away from clothes like this. All I need now is a- a big funky hat, and I'll have no idea what age I'm supposed to be."
The pair visibly jumped and stared at the saleslady who addressed them from her lofty position. She bent at the waist, lording over them with a patronizing air that could only be cultivated over time. "Hello, dears."
Willow and Xander shared a look.
"Hi?" ventured Willow with a tentative smile.
"Where's your mommy?" She flashed a smile that involved far too many teeth.
Willow rolled her eyes. "Off on another lecture tour. I think she's in Germany today, or maybe Brussels. One of those Anglo-Saxony countries, I can never—"
The redhead's jaw abruptly snapped shut at Xander's elbow in her ribs. The salesperson's smile had vanished and her expression had been replaced with one of complete bewilderment. It was the sort of look one might expect to find on a pet owner, had darling Snooky-Wookums decided one day to politely suggest that a switch from Alpo to Mighty Dog would be a smashing idea, please and thank you.
"Uhm ... Mommy away," Willow clarified, hastening to dumb it down into more easily acceptable kiddy-speak.
"Mommy ride on silver bird over big water to new land." Xander's recitation came complete with broad hand gestures to emphasize each new detail. "Speak funny words, like 'volkswagen' and 'wienerschnitzel'."
The statement did little to reassure the now utterly stupefied employee. She regarded the pair as though they might possibly be Rosemary's Twins.
Willow and Xander stared back for a moment, before their voices raised in harmony.
In less than a second, Tara was there. "What's the—" She stopped short upon spying the salesperson hovering uncertainly nearby and gave a nervous smile. "Hi. Are- Are the kids bothering you?"
The woman shook her head. "No, I just ..." Her eyes examined Tara from head to toe. "Are you their mother?"
For a brief second, Tara appeared to be offended, but soon recovered her composure. "Uh, no. I'm their ... cousin."
"Yup!" announced Xander cheerfully. "Cousin Tara! We love our Cousin Tara."
"Pick me up, Cousin Tara!" demanded Willow, holding out her arms with mischievously twinkling eyes.
Tara favored the redhead with a covert glare, but Willow continued to beam, broad and full of smug. Only too aware of their close inspection by the suspicious employee, Tara wore a pasted smile as she scooped up an armload of Willow.
"You are in such trouble," Tara grumbled into her girlfriend's ear.
In response, Willow hugged Tara's neck tightly and planted a loud kiss upon her cheek.
"Wow," noted the salesperson with some surprise. "They seem extremely advanced for their age."
"They're precocious little rascals," agreed Tara, staring pointedly at Willow.
"Why I bet you can even do some fun stuff with numbers, can't you?" cooed the employee. She hurried over to the front counter, reached behind it and quickly returned. Opening her hand, she revealed several individually wrapped confections. She made sure that Willow could easily see them. "If I have five pieces of candy—" The woman demonstrated that, yes, there were indeed five items in her hand. "—and I give you three pieces of candy—" She clearly separated three, nudging them up her fingers toward Willow. "—how many pieces of candy would I have left?"
Her question now posed, the salesperson waited expectantly. The smile she wore was nice enough, and yet somehow still irritating, as though she were expecting her pet to perform wondrous tricks any moment now.
Willow wasn't feeling especially wondrous. With the boost in Tara's arms, she was nearly eye-level with the employee, and thus didn't have to strain her neck in order to deliver the most narrow, unamused stare ever to cross a toddler's face.
"I have a bachelor's degree in computer science," Willow replied in flat voice.
By the back wall, Faith watched a vintage electric train and its tiny carriages rattle along a track encircling the store. The engine bore a label that read, "Lionel." Faith's eyebrow rose speculatively. She glanced nonchalantly over her shoulder, but nobody was watching. On the next circuit, she deftly removed the dining car and the caboose, concealing them about her person before sauntering toward Dawn and Buffy. Tara also joined the group with Willow, now deposited back on the ground, shuffling behind.
"You guys find anything?" asked Dawn, juggling the mountain of clothes she was carrying. "Buffy's good to go."
Tara gaped. "Do you really think we'll need all those?"
"I am taking no chances," Buffy informed seriously. "If you think I'm wearing the same pair of Garanimals for the next week, you are very sadly mistaken."
The befuddled saleslady had apparently given up on trying to makes sense of the whole deal. She hovered expectantly, clearly anxious for everyone to be on their way so she could pretend it had been nothing but a perfectly normal day.
"You guys go ahead," Xander directed. "I'm just gonna try a few things on."
He marched toward the changing room with a nice selection of outfits draped over his arm, but the uneasy employee headed him off at the pass. "Sorry dear, you need an adult to accompany you."
Xander was stunned. "Say wha huh?"
"Maybe your cousin?" suggested the saleslady.
Xander's face visibly blanched. Tara turned a little pale herself.
"Oh no. No no no," he stammered, emphatically shaking his head. "Mini-me? Not even in my full glory would this be good."
Faith seemed to find Xander's discomfort far too entertaining. "Be funny as hell though."
"No! No way!" protested Willow firmly. "My girlfriend is not seeing my best friend naked! I call definite 'no way' on this issue!"
With a shaky smile, the employee inched toward the back room. "I'll just be over here if you need me." She quickly took refuge in the safety of inventory.
Buffy sighed a ragged sigh and massaged her temple. "Because my day couldn't get any more surreal" she muttered miserably.
Tara looked at Xander. He had backed defensively into a corner.
"I could close my eyes?" suggested Tara, trying to find a way around this that was acceptable for all parties. "I could start closing them now."
"No need," he readily assured. "My vanity is dully squashed."
With as much dignity as he could muster, Xander lumped his clothes on top of the ones already in Dawn's arms. Willow quickly followed suit. Dawn wilted a little beneath the weight. Reluctantly and still plainly unhappy with the choices, Faith tossed her meager selection to the pile.
"Okay, see? That wasn’t ... so bad, right?" asked Tara brightly.
Dawn simply grunted and nobody else truly had anything to offer by way of agreement. Tara's exaggerated enthusiasm deflated and she made her way to the checkout, pulling out her wallet. The others followed in an untidy line, Dawn bringing up the rear. Her eyes were barely visible above the mound of soon-to-be purchases.
"You know," she puffed, "it's days like today when I wish I had a Blog."
Beyond the windows of the meditation room, the sun was setting with a muted orange glow. From all appearances, neither of the inhabitants had stirred for hours. The child still crouched fearfully in the corner. She seemed utterly exhausted and there were dark smudges underneath her eyes. Occasionally, her head would nod drowsily and her chin would fall heavily upon her chest, but in less than a heartbeat, she was wide awake once more, clearly far too terrified to sleep for more than a few seconds at a time.
The figure in saffron silk maintained her contemplative position and made no movement, either aggressive or otherwise toward the frightened child. Fatigue now the overriding factor, the little girl spoke for the first time.
"You're gonna kill me." The statement was delivered with certainty and a trembling of the bottom lip.
"That is not why you are here."
The child cowered, but asserted a modicum of defiance with a half-glare at the almond-shaped eyes that now burrowed into her own. She took note of the tiny smile. It wasn't a scary smile or a comforting smile – just a smile.
"What is your name?" came the quiet question.
"Paige," was the reply.
The figure nodded, echoing "Paige," but adding nothing else. She watched the child in silence for a moment.
"If you can tell me why you are here, Paige, I will let you return," she eventually prompted.
An expression of hope invaded Paige's careworn features. "I can go home?"
When she received neither confirmation nor denial, the promise of freedom seemed to slowly evaporate into nothingness. Paige clasped her hands around her knees and tucked herself into a tighter ball.
"Are you gonna hurt me?" she whispered.
Again, the child's captor didn't respond, either verbally or physically. Indeed, her expression never changed. Paige became increasingly upset. The weariness and the unending dread – it all grew to be too much. She blinked rapidly and then began to cry, softly and despairingly.
"Shhh," soothed the saffron-clad figure. "Quiet now, aiko."
Paige sniffled. "I'm not that! I'm Paige!" she reprimanded in her misery. "And I'm tired and I don't like it here and I wanna go home!"
The outburst was accepted with infinite patience and no display of anger.
"Sleep," the vampire instructed gently. "We will speak again in the morning."
Paige huddled close to the baseboard. "I can't! They'll hurt me, they'll—"
"I will be here."
Sobs catching in her throat, Paige swiped at the tear-drenched lashes with grubby fingers. The eyes that captured her own appeared to inspire at least a sufficient degree of trust, as Paige curled into a ball on the floor, her back protectively against the wall. She kept watchful vigil for another moment or two, but her lids were so very heavy. Her small body slipped silently into slumber.
"Pleasant dreams, aiko."
Removing the price tags from Buffy's new clothes, Dawn folded them neatly before placing them in the dresser drawer. Using her shoulder to brace the cell phone, she was able to use both hands and still chat at the same time.
"Grip? Hey, it's me." She listened for a moment and then laughed nervously. "Yeah, about that. You know how I was really looking forward to the movies tonight and everything, right?" An expression of deep regret crossed her features. "Uh-huh. It's this ... Something's come up and it's pretty big. Or, actually not big, which is kind of the problem. I mean—" Her face fell and she grimaced. "You're disappointed, aren't you?" She nodded at the response. "I'm so sorry." She smoothed the box pleats of a little tartan skirt. "Yeah. Yeah, me too." She listened again, obviously crestfallen. "Okay. I'll see you tomorrow?" She nodded once more. "Okay. Bye."
With a huge sigh, Dawn disconnected the call, and set about putting away the remainder of the clothes.
Downstairs, the front door opened and Hannah entered. She had some books tucked beneath one arm and a spare pillow and couple of blankets under the other.
"Hello?" she called.
"In the kitchen," Tara responded, accompanied by the rattle of pots and pans.
Making a detour into the living room, Hannah deposited her load onto the couch, where Buffy and Xander were sitting next to each other. Both wore brand new outfits and Xander had taken possession of the remote control. He clutched it tightly in his small fist.
"I see this afternoon went well," Hannah observed with a smile.
"I got Spider-Man Underoos," beamed Xander.
"Very exciting," acknowledged Hannah. "What about you, Buffy, did you get ..." She was clearly unfamiliar with the word. "Underoos also?"
Buffy rolled her eyes. "Underoos are for boys."
"Ah, well, I guess you wouldn't then," admitted Hannah wryly.
Buffy indicated the blankets with a tilt of her chin. "Sleeping over?"
"It's for Faith," replied Hannah. "I talked it over with Rupert, and we thought it would be best to keep you all together until we work this out."
Xander grinned. "Slumber party! Cool."
Without warning, Buffy's mouth opened wide in a huge yawn. Since such an action is almost always contagious, Xander was compelled to follow suit.
"Looks like it's somebody's bedtime," remarked Hannah with an air of indulgence.
"I'm the Slayer," Buffy stated firmly. "My bedtime is like ..." Her words trailed away as she rolled smoothly into another yawn. "...like 4am," she added sleepily.
Hannah was nothing if not sympathetic. "It's been a harrowing day."
Crossing her arms, Buffy frowned. "Stupid kid constitution."
"Cartoons!" announced Xander blithely, settling back against the cushion.
"I don't wanna watch cartoons," Buffy protested. "You watch cartoons all the time."
Xander regarded her with disbelief. "But look, it's 'Dexter's Laboratory'!"
Totally unimpressed with this snippet of vital information, Buffy grabbed for the remote but Xander held it at armslength. The pair began to bicker back and forth and Hannah, deciding such would be the ideal time to make good her escape, moved quickly toward the kitchen.
With an expert hand, Tara chopped lettuce and tomatoes for a salad, while Dawn leaned on the island counter, pouring over a musty book. Willow was perched on the counter next to Tara's workspace, not looking particularly happy with life in general. Faith was nowhere to be seen.
Tara smiled and reached for a cucumber. "Hi, Mrs. Giles. Did you find anything yet?"
"Not just yet," replied Hannah, snagging herself a crouton, "but Rupert seems confident that they're narrowing the field considerably. He's supposed to come over shortly so we can consolidate our findings so far."
"Sounds good to me," sighed Dawn. "I'm going nowhere on a ten-speed here."
Hannah gestured toward the living room. "I brought over a few more volumes that might help shed some light."
Dawn's eyes sparkled with pleasure. "Oo!" she enthused, hopping down from the stool. Halfway to the exit, she stopped short and turned back. "I just totally lost some cool kid cred there, didn't I?"
"But'cha gained some with the geeks," Willow countered, "and everybody knows that we really run the world."
"Don’t worry, we won't tell anyone you slipped," Tara reassured.
"Whew!" breathed Dawn in relief. "Tentative social acceptance maintained!"
At a more sedate pace, she left the kitchen as Tara returned to her rhythmic chopping.
"Where's Faith?" queried Hannah, "I wanted to talk to her about sleeping arrangements and such."
Tara jerked her head toward the door leading to the rear of the house. "She said she was going outside for a little while."
Hannah moved to the window. Faith stood on the lawn, gazing upward at the second level. Her expression was one of intense concentration. She apparently had much on her mind.
Tara sprinkled the salad liberally with grated cheese. "I think she's taking all this a bit hard."
"And who can blame her!" huffed Willow.
Hannah glanced over her shoulder. "Something wrong? Well, something besides the obvious."
"I'll say there's somethin' wrong!" exploded the diminutive redhead. "A-And not just a little, easily brushed-over something either, no sir! We're talking, big, unignorable, Godzilla-in-Tokyo-sized wrong!"
Hannah regarded Tara with some alarm. Making sure that she was beyond Willow's range of vision, Tara delivered a wry smile, indicating she didn't exactly share Willow's feelings of unimaginable horror. Meanwhile, Willow waited impatiently for Hannah's expected inquiry, which surely would materialize at any second.
"What is it?"
"Well I'll show you then!" blurted Willow, in need of no further prompting.
Turning her head, she glowered at something across the room. The glower was dark, deliberate and focused. So very focused. Hannah's eyes tracked Willow's intense stare. With a tiny smirk, Tara resumed her kitchen duties. After a moment of riveting silence and no activity, Hannah felt obliged to speak up.
"So we hate the potholders now?" she questioned.
"Do you see it?" asked Willow, neck snapping in Hannah's direction.
Hannah appeared far from sure. "What am I supposed to be seeing?"
"How about anything?" questioned Willow curtly. "I'll take an anything right about now with very little complaint!"
Hannah was confused.
"Willow's not finding the magick thing too easy right now," explained Tara.
"'Not too easy'?" Willow's voice climbed an octave. "I can't even—"
"You were able to float me the zucchini earlier," comforted Tara, effectively bringing to a halt Willow's journey toward an enraged outburst. "Honey, you're probably just tired," she added soothingly. "Your little body's not really made to be so witchy just yet."
Willow crossed her arms with a huff. "I hate my little body," she grumbled.
"Then I'll just love it enough for both of us," rejoined Tara, treating the redhead to a gigantic hug.
Hannah's mouth formed an involuntary and soundless 'aww' at the sight.
Tara's lips brushed Willow's bright hair in a gentle kiss. "Are you sure you don't want me to stay home tomorrow?"
Willow emphatically shook her head. "Nope. Buffy's got the right idea – it's bad enough that we can't go. You and Dawnie are school-bound tomorrow, and that's that. Promise?"
"Promise," the blonde seriously vowed.
Suddenly, a shattering of glass emanated from the living room, immediately followed by Dawn's exclamation of surprise. Hannah and Tara dashed toward the commotion, leaving Willow on the high counter.
Dawn was standing in front of the couch, open books littering the cushions. A table lamp lay broken on the floor and in the center of the room, Buffy and Xander were wrestling – literally – for the remote.
"Give it!" demanded Buffy, straddling Xander and pounding him with clenched fists.
Xander squirmed and covered his head. "No! It's mine! Wanna – watch – Dexter!"
"Oh my god," breathed Dawn scornfully, "how old are you?!"
As the oddness of her question began to sink in, Dawn was left with no suitable follow-up. For her part, Hannah appeared to be totally shocked.
"They're mentally regressing as well!" she commented wonderingly.
Tara shook her head. "No, this is normal."
Dawn nodded her confirmation.
"Oh," responded Hannah, deflating a little.
As the front burst door open, the pair continued to fight, not caring if their behavior met with approval or otherwise. Giles barely spared them a glance. Wearing an expression of grave concern, he had a book tucked under his arm and was using his finger to mark one of the pages.
"I think I've found new information about the magicks used," he announced worriedly. "I'm afraid that very soon ... those affected will begin to mentally regress as well." His eyes traveled to the couple grappling on the floor.
Hannah immediately reinflated. "Oh!"
Nobody could seem to do anything but stare at the rapidly deteriorating squabble, when suddenly there was something new to attract their attention.
Over their heads came the sound of pounding boots from the roof. Every adult eye tracked its progress as it moved at an ever-increasing speed, and was soon accompanied by jubilant shouting in a familiar voice – Faith. With a final triumphant battlecry, the boots abruptly ceased their pounding, and the whoop of victory echoed into the evening air. It was a sound of pure delight, punctuated all too soon by the thud of a small body making impact with the earth.
On the floor, Xander and Buffy continued their full-fledged battle for supremacy. The quartet of caregivers seemed torn, unsure of who should get inbetween Buffy and Xander, who should check on Faith, and who should begin working immediately to sort out this mess.
Suddenly, a plaintive little voice drifted in from the kitchen.
As the fingers of an early morning sun probed her corner of the room, Paige awoke cramped and hungry. She stretched and glanced at her captor, whose position appeared to be unchanged from the night before. Much of Paige's terror had dissipated; she remained nervous, but now curiosity seemed to be the vastly overwhelming emotion. Her eyes flickered with interest as she examined her companion from head to toe, gaze lingering over the vampire's hand. It was the only feature that seemed at all out of place in the uniform neatness that was the saffron-clad girl. The shiny new skin still looked red and raw. Paige's eyes drifted back to the girl's serene face.
"Do you ever move?"
"Yes," came the soft reply.
Paige inched closer. "Then why aren't you moving?"
"I am thinking."
She moved closer still. "What about?"
Paige took a small step backward as the almond eyes opened and fixed her with a steady gaze. Casually standing in the heart of a sunray as though it was something anyone could do, the child was bathed in a golden glow.
Paige smiled and clasped her hands behind her back. "You have a sister? I have a sister too!"
The words spilled from her tongue excitedly, but then almost immediately, her expression became sober.
"I did have a sister," she corrected quietly. "She's dead now."
"My sister is dead also."
It was a shared moment. A bond, of sorts. Paige actually seemed to be a little happy at the news, as though she had finally met someone who could understand.
"Lauren died of …" Paige frowned, struggling to remember the correct terminology, "... lemontidus." She vigorously shook her head and tried again. "Neminditus." She whispered the word to herself. Was that it? Maybe. Probably. "Did your sister die of neminditus too?"
"No. My sister was killed."
Horror-struck, Paige's hand flew to cover her mouth, as if she couldn't possibly imagine anything so awful. "Someone killed her?" asked Paige, voice no more than a whisper.
"But sisters are special," she stated firmly, obviously having trouble reconciling. "My mommy told me so. Sisters are a gift from God."
"Your mother is very wise."
Paige sat cross-legged on the floor. "Do you know who killed your sister?"
The child seemed confused.
"I will know soon," the girl clarified.
"You'll hurt them, won't you?" It was more of a statement than a question and Paige received no answer. Her expression indicated that she hadn't truly expected one.
Paige nibbled at a ragged hangnail. She appeared torn as she mulled over the information. On one hand, Sisters Are Special, but on the other, hurting people is wrong. It was a moral dilemma that a child of her age wasn't really equipped to process logically.
The girl watched all this play across Paige's face before inquiring, "Do you know why you are here, Paige?"
The words shook the child from her conundrum. "You want us to be sisters?" she ventured.
The enigmatic smile that followed, and the white teeth that peeked between the ruby lips fascinated Paige, but she had guessed incorrectly again.
"That is not possible."
She concentrated hard to come up with an alternative response, but nothing sprang to mind. It didn't seem to matter though.
"I wish to hear about Lauren," came the gentle command.
More than delighted to divulge all she knew, Paige settled herself more comfortably in the sunbeam, sitting across from the figure who remained in shadow. She rested her hands in her lap.
"I remember when Mommy and Daddy brought her home. Her face was all red and she was so ugly!"
She continued to talk animatedly about her little sister, while her audience of one listened with undivided attention.
"An'," continued Buffy, "her face was all squished up like this!"
By way of illustration Buffy placed both palms flat against her cheeks and squeezed hard. Her eyes were clamped tightly shut and her lips protruded like a cartoon fish in search of a kiss. She had done an excellent job in contorting the hell out of her little features.
Willow and Xander both erupted in a fit of hysterical giggles.
Across the room, standing atop a desk and apparently none the worse for wear after her recent attempt to defy gravity, Faith was playing with whatever happened to be handy and within easy reach.
"You always look like that," she sneered.
An expression of righteous anger crossed Buffy's face. Willow was no less irate.
"She doesn't always!" protested the redhead indignantly. "Only sometimes!"
Buffy's display of wrath was swiftly transferred to Willow.
Xander had apparently transformed into the poster child for A.D.D. He spied something that attracted his attention and ran over to the desk where Faith has assumed the enviable position as king of the castle.
"Ooo, shiny!" he marveled, holding up a sharp-bladed letter opener with a carved ivory handle.
Faith scowled and reached down to snatch it from his hand. "I was playin' with that!"
"Nuh-uh," denied Xander with an emphatic head shake. "It was over here an' you were over there."
Faith's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Well I was gonna play with it!"
Xander stubbornly jutted his chin. "You can play with it when I'm done …" His tongue poked out insultingly. "In about five gabillion years!"
Leaping from the desk, Faith launched a full force attack in Xander's direction. His eye grew wide, but before she could make contact, a muscular arm ensnared her around the waist and held her fast, trapped and dangling in mid-air. Her legs continued to wheel and she strained forward, as though the action alone would restart her momentum, but no such luck. Carefully and solidly, Spencer deposited her back on terra firma, while smoothly plucking the letter opener from Xander's clenched fist.
"What I find most interesting, Ms. Faith," Spencer observed dryly, "is that I can't be entirely be certain you've joined your friends in mental regression."
Hopping ineffectually from one foot to the other, Xander tried to retrieve his prize. "That's mine!"
Spencer shook his head regretfully. "Nine-tenths of the law, dear boy."
"Yay!" announced Willow with much gusto. "It's Spencer!"
"Spencer! Spencer!" cried Buffy, rushing toward him.
"That was fun!" Faith decided, clambering back on the desk. "Again!"
"No again," Spencer advised, deftly removing her once more. "One of us is bound to get hurt, and I'm inclined to hope that it's not me."
Faith swiped at her nose with the heel of her hand. "Then what can we do?"
A dejected Xander sank slowly to the floor. "I'm booo-o-oo-ored," he complained.
"I'm borededer," Buffy countered.
Spencer was inclined to agree with the consensus. "Your life is a hard one." His omniscient gaze drifted across the room. "Ms. Willow, are you trying to turn me into a puppy again?"
Perched on the edge of a chair, Willow wore an expression of intense concentration. She visibly started at Spencer's comment, guilt radiating like a supernova.
"No," she denied in a thoroughly unconvincing way.
"Well don't," instructed Spencer. "It's annoying."
"There's nothin' t' do," sniffed Faith, swinging her arms in ever-widening circles.
Xander sighed the sigh of the downtrodden. "We never have any fun."
"What about that copy of Armod's Abridged Demon Anthology I brought you to look at?" Spencer reminded. "Its very existence is fun, in hardcover."
Buffy gestured vaguely over her shoulder. "We colored it already."
Horror-struck, Spencer sought out the volume. He found it lying amid the debris of several crushed Crayolas, where it did indeed appear to have been colored within an inch of its life. Spencer cradled it in his hands mournfully. "Let's all pretend that was Mr. Giles' copy, all right?" he suggested to the children.
At the mention of the name, Buffy visibly brightened. "Giles! Where's Giles?" she demanded. "I wanna see Giles!"
"Mr. Giles is trying to find the information he needs to make you all marginally less immature," explained Spencer patiently.
"Giles said he'd be back in a minute but that was forever ago," pouted Willow. "And that's way longer'n a minute!"
"Yes, well I think he was lying."
Faith kicked the leg of the desk. "I bet Giles'd have cool stuff for us to do."
"Yeah, Giles'd play with us!" Xander affirmed, snapping the elastic of his eye patch.
Spencer was openly doubtful on that score, but sought to pacify. "Unfortunately Mr. Giles, as head of the Watcher's Council, has seen fit to abuse that position and entrust your care to me. He made it quite clear he wasn't to be disturbed unless new information came to light."
Buffy stomped her small foot. "Want. Giles."
"So I've gathered," acknowledged Spencer.
"Giles'll make it better," Willow informed nobody in particular, but everyone in general. "Giles makes everything better."
"Yeah!" enthused Xander. "Giles can do anything! Giles could beat up Superman and the Hulk and Stone Cold Steve Austin all at once!" He jabbed small fists at the empty space in front of him.
"And it's gotta be better'n here," huffed Faith.
Suddenly, Spencer found himself in the middle of a clamoring mob. A cacophony of insistent, shrill and piping voices, each determined to make itself heard above the rest. An expression of thoughtfulness crept into Spencer's eyes, almost as though he were fervently wishing that child abuse was not a crime punishable by law.
Surrounded by tall stacks of research texts, Giles was virtually buried behind his desk. Close at hand was the enigmatic wooden box. He referred to it often as he scanned page after ancient page, sometimes scribbling hasty notes on a yellow legal pad. The cell phone in his pocket vibrated. He seemed to wonder for a moment why it wasn't ringing, but managed to locate the contraption without raising his eyes from the volume in front of him. After the third attempt, he actually made contact with the caller.
"Hello?" He listened for a moment and then a frown creased his brow. "'Look out'? I don't underst—"
He almost dropped the phone as his door abruptly burst open. Four small bodies bounced gaily across the threshold, followed by Spencer who was holding his own mobile to his ear.
"Yes sir, 'look out'," repeated Spencer. "Simply precious bundles of raw energy are rapidly coming your way."
"So I see," Giles stated flatly into the mouthpiece.
As both men broken the connection, Giles glowered darkly in Spencer's direction. Spencer accepted the unspoken accusation with his customary flair and displayed no sign of remorse. He straightened the silk tie that had been tugged slightly askew, and smiled indulgently upon the four holy terrors now running amok in Giles' office.
Faith was already scaling one of Giles' bookcases while Xander had wrapped his arms lovingly around Giles' left leg and was squeezing tight enough to cut off the circulation. Holding hands, Buffy and Willow were hopping up and down, alternately 'Yay'ing and 'Giles'ing in perfect unison.
Removing his glasses, Giles tossed them onto the desk and began to massage his forehead.
"They were rather adamant about visiting you, sir," Spencer informed briskly, easily extracting Faith from the fifth shelf of the bookcase and setting her on the floor. She scowled her annoyance.
"I thought you were going to keep them occupied," sighed Giles.
Moving sneakily, Buffy swiped Giles' glasses from under his very nose. She beamed with delight at her stealthy skill and jammed the glasses onto her face. They were, of course, far too big, but by tilting her head back a little, she managed to balance them in place.
"Look at me," she declared. "I'm Giles!" She blinked as everything became blurry and her eyes started to cross. "Whoa, Giles, are you blind?"
"Buffy, Giles can't be blind," Willow told her in all seriousness. "See how he's lookin' atcha?"
Indeed, Giles was not a happy man. With lips set in a tight line, he extended his palm. Buffy returned the booty, but not with a particularly good grace. Spencer's mouth twitched with amusement, but he disguised it seamlessly with a miniscule cough.
Since Buffy was commandeering the center of attention, Xander and Faith found themselves free to wander at will. Nudging Xander with her elbow, Faith pointed to a large chest residing in a corner of the room. Without a word, they both sidled toward it.
"As sir can doubtless see," Spencer was insisting. "Keeping them occupied is more easily said than done."
"Yes, well, you've seen me now," Giles informed the children. "Hello," he added with a quick nod to all. "So if you'll just run along with Spencer—"
"No!" objected Buffy firmly. "We wanna stay with you!"
Giles sighed. "Buffy, don't be childish." He frowned and tried again. "I need you to be a good girl and go with Spencer, so that I can—"
She shook her head obstinately. "No! I don't wanna go!"
Giles was losing patience. He adopted a more severe tone. "Buffy, I need you and others to leave," he told her sternly. Tears began to well in Buffy's big blue eyes and Willow's bottom lip started to quiver.
"Why?" asked the redhead miserably. "Don’t you love us any more?"
The question was so plaintive and so innocent that Giles visibly crumpled. Xander and Faith came to join in the earnest plea. Faith had found an ornate cloth in the corner trunk and had draped around her shoulders like a cape. Xander, his little face wearing a wretched expression, clutched an Owl plushie to his chest that had also been lifted from the depths of the ancient trunk.
Clambering on a chair, Buffy hoisted herself onto the desk and then climbed into Giles' lap. She sat there quietly, hanging her head, while the remainder of the gang stared at him through mournful, puppy-dog eyes. Giles regarded each of them in turn. There was no salvation. He was indeed a lost man.
He heaved a heavy sigh. "Oh, bugger."
Spencer tutted his disapproval. "Not in front of the children, sir."
Licking the traces of peanut butter from his fingers, Xander hungrily eyed Faith's remaining sandwich. She promptly stuffed the whole thing into her mouth and tauntingly opened it wide so he could see what he was missing. Buffy hastily scooted her plate to the other side, well out of reach. Xander crossed his arms and pouted darkly.
Seated at his desk, Giles stared intently at the wooden box. Perhaps if he simply concentrated hard enough, he could miraculously unravel its secrets. His brow was furrowed in deep contemplation.
Standing on a chair next to him, Willow also furrowed her brow as she focused upon the box with rapt concentration. Resting his elbow on the desk, Giles cupped his chin in his hand. So did Willow. Giles took a deep breath and held it for a second before releasing it with an exasperated puff. Willow did the same. Giles scratched his head in perplexed thought. Willow quickly followed suit. She was a miniature facsimile, imitating his every move to near perfection.
Their snack done, the other three returned to an interrupted game of Candyland. The board and pieces appeared to be brand new and probably were, given the cellophane wrapper that had been tossed to one side, still bearing the price sticker. It was failing to hold their attention, however, and they were beginning to grow restless.
Drawing a card, Buffy moved her gingerbread man to the corresponding colored square. She glanced at Faith and Xander, neither of whom were paying close attention, so she stole a few more spaces. She gave a self-satisfied smile to have gotten away with her ploy scot-free and poked Xander's arm.
Mechanically, he grabbed the top card from the pile but didn't even look at it. "I'm booo-o-oo-ored," he complained loudly.
A wicked twinkle surfaced in Faith's eyes. "Wanna play Slayer an' Demon?"
Xander shook his head in an emphatic 'no'.
"We should go somewhere," decided Buffy.
Faith was in favor of that. "Go where?"
Buffy shrugged. "Somewhere."
Xander tossed his card into the center of the board. "Giles, we wanna so somewhere!"
But Giles wasn't truly listening. "Why don't you play a lovely quiet game of Candyland?" he suggested.
Tentatively, Willow's fingers wriggled toward the wooden box, but Giles took her hand and laid it back gently atop the desk.
"We've been playing Candyland forever," whinged Buffy.
"Now we're booo-o-oo-ored," added Xander.
Faith simply glowered. "I don't wanna be inside. I wanna go outside."
Again, Willow's fingers snaked toward the wooden box. And again, Giles placed her hand back on the desk. Willow frowned in irritation.
"Given your last adventures outside, I don't think that's a very good idea," advised Giles. "You're lucky you didn't break anything."
"I won't do it again," Faith immediately swore. She craftily hid the crossed fingers behind her back. "I promise."
Giles didn't appear to put much stock in the vow.
"I promise I promise I promise I—" she chanted in a sing-song voice and then abruptly stopped as the door opened.
Each small face immediately broke into a beaming smile when they realized the new arrival was Hannah and there was a gleeful chorus of her name. She grinned in friendly fashion and seemed genuinely pleased to see them.
"Hello, everyone," she greeted cheerfully. "How are you today?"
"I'm booo-o—" began Xander, but Willow effectively cut him off mid-whine.
"I'm helping Giles!" she stated proudly.
"Well done, Willow!" Hannah told her approvingly.
Willow's expression became smug, while Xander looked very put out.
"Smarty-pants," he muttered.
"Can we go outside?" Faith pleaded with the new authority figure.
"It's such a beautiful day, I don't see why not."
There was a resounding cheer.
"Splendid," agreed Giles. "You can take them."
Buffy jutted an insistent finger in Giles' direction. "You have to come!"
"Absolutely," stated Hannah. "In fact, I just came to tell you that we've narrowed the search further, and that Margulies and his team believe that the designs on the box are a Crinthok demon derivation of classical Indus Script."
"Excellent job," Giles told her enthusiastically. "Now we need to—"
"Done," interrupted Hannah.
"You don't even know what I was going to say," returned Giles petulantly.
"You were going to tell me to add two teams to Margulies' group." She arched a questioning eyebrow.
Giles shifted in his chair. "But I might not have," he felt compelled to point out.
The room radiated a definite fidgety aura. On one side of the room, Faith was performing handstands and Willow had now joined Xander on the floor. Snickering uncontrollably, the pair created bubbles in their glasses of milk by blowing down the straws. Xander giggled so hard that he sucked when he should have blew and the liquid erupted from his nostrils. Willow rolled on the floor clutching her sides while Xander noisily choked, but still couldn't stop laughing. As for Buffy, she had resumed playing Candyland even though she was the only participant. Dutifully selecting a card, she moved her gingerbread man to the appropriate square. Then, making sure she was unobserved, methodically cheated and moved her piece further along the rainbow path. She waited for a moment and then repeated the process.
"So as you can see, everything is completely under control, leaving you the whole day with your kids," Hannah assured.
"Yours." Hannah crossed her arms and allowed herself a tiny grin at Giles' expense. "It looks like you're a daddy, Rupert."
Strangely, Giles found little comfort in that. "But … but what am I supposed to do with them?"
"You'll figure it out," Hannah told him. "I have every confidence in you. I'll make certain that unless it's a dire emergency, you won't be disturbed until tomorrow."
"Tomorrow, Mr. Giles."
With a sweet and satisfied smile, Hannah favored him with a farewell wave and made good her exit, closing the door firmly behind her. Giles was dismayed to say the least. Aghast even. But he had no chance to dwell on his misfortune. Xander attempting to sound out a word swiftly diverted his attention.
"Lap … ro ..."
Glancing down sharply, he noticed that Willow and Xander had opened the side drawer of his desk and were staring at the bottle of scotch, prominently displayed within. Making sure than no small fingers would be pinched, Giles hastily slammed the drawer shut. Xander gazed at him with an inner wisdom that was beyond the comprehension of any true four-year-old.
"You shouldn't," he reprimanded soberly.
For a moment Giles looked ashamed at being chastised, but he didn't have long to reflect on his shortcomings.
"Oo! Oo! HappyfunWorldLand!" suddenly burst forth from Willow's vocal chords.
Buffy caught on immediately and rushed over to grab Willow's arm, the game of Candyland instantly forgotten. "HappyfunWorldLand! HappyfunWorldLand!" she chanted.
Giles peered at both of them. "Are you even speaking English?"
"I saw it on TV!" Faith offered gleefully, her eyes bright as she regarded Giles from her upside-down position. She waddled toward him, walking on the palms of her hands. "They have rides an' games an' adventure an' happyfun!"
"'Kids, tell your parents to take you to HappyfunWorldLand today! Off Highway 220 on Old Mill Road,'" Xander recited, enunciating every syllable with respectful precision like a polished television announcer.
Giles' frustration hit its limit. "For the—" He settled his glasses deliberately on the bridge of his nose. "No. I have work to do here. Important work. For you, I might point out."
The austere tone had a severe dampening effect on everyone's enthusiasm.
"But Hannah said—" Willow reminded meekly, shuffling her feet.
"I don't care what Hannah said," fumed Giles. "This is what I'm saying: you're going to go back to your game – quietly – and I will remain here and figure out what I need to do save you all."
Suitably subdued, the quartet exchanged glances of heartfelt disappointment. Even Faith's handstand wilted and she tumbled to the floor in an untidy heap, gazing morosely at the ceiling. The awkward silence was eventually broken by Buffy.
"But … we don't want you to save us."
"Anybody can save us," added Faith glumly.
Willow sadly shook her head. "Nobody can be Giles."
Xander blinked rapidly at Giles with his lone eye. "Nobody but you."
Giles ran a hand through his hair, discomfited by the unwavering stares. He hunched his shoulders and returned to his research. He retrieved his pen, but it dangled idly between his fingers. Exhibiting phenomenal restraint, the waiting group didn't fidget, didn't murmur, didn't make one solitary peep.
With a sigh, Giles finally regarded them over the top of his glasses.
HappyfunWorldLand. The multi-colored, strobe-flashing, neon-garish title said it all. Every square inch was crammed to the gills with bright lights, happy tunes of video games and the lively sounds of playtime. It was big and shiny and loud. It was the quintessential money-maker and it was packed. It was a kid's dream and an adult's worse nightmare.
Amid the chaos, Giles was clearly out of his element. Willow was holding one of his hands while Xander had claimed the other. Both were tugging him along. Buffy was riding piggyback, her arms wrapped around his neck, much as she had the day before when she was full-sized. Luckily, Giles found her diminished weight to be much less of a strain this time around. Faith was barely able to contain her excitement. She kept scampering ahead and then dashing back, repeating the process over and over, as though an invisible tether prevented her from wandering too far afield. She screeched to a halt and began hopping up and down.
"I wanna play in Junglefun Land!" She jabbed a finger toward an area that was obviously safari-themed. Her eyes sparkled. There were vines to swing from, fake trees to climb – complete with dangling coconuts – furry monkeys and huge plastic crocodiles.
"Piratefun Land!" insisted Xander, pointing at an area proudly displaying a huge Jolly Roger. Through the arch of criss-crossed bones, there was a giant pirate ship. A barrel of toy cutlasses stood by the gangplank, available for the taking. On the deck, several small boys were engaged in a deadly duel. A clockwork parrot perched atop the crow's nest squawked, "Pieces of eight" with monotonous regularity.
Giles sighed. "I see they spared no creative expense in the naming process."
"Arr!" agreed Xander. His eye patch made it all the more an apt response.
Much to Giles' dismay, Buffy began to bounce on his back while continuing to maintain a strangulating hold. She gestured with much gusto toward an area that was outer space themed. The overhead canopy twinkled with fairy lights. There was a large silver rocket ship and gargantuan craters. A group of luminous green-skinned aliens beckoned a jerky invite and emitted a low whir as their heads twitched mechanically from side-to-side.
"OuterWorld SpacefunLandWorldfun…Land!" she stuttered, lost somewhere in the midst of the title.
"Ice cream!" announced Willow, beaming as the rest of the gang took up the rallying cry.
Giles was relieved. "Oh thank god for two common words used correctly."
Elbowing her way through the crowd, Faith led the way to a candy-striped ice cream bar that dominated one of the walls. As with everything else in this wacky place o' fun, it was larger than life. The costume of the young employee behind the counter would have rivaled that of Bozo the Clown, but he didn't seem to mind or even be aware of the fact. He smiled happily as he worked, apparently one of those rare and twisted individuals who actually loved their job and was prepared to give it 350%.
"Hi kids!" he greeted cheerfully as they approached.
"Hi!!" came the consolidated cry.
"Yeah!!" was the enthusiastic and unanimous response.
"What kind of fun?"
"Super HappyfunWorldLand fun!"
The employee's grin was so broad it almost split his face in two. "Glad to hear it!" He turned to Giles. "How about you, Dad?"
Faith, Xander and Willow stared up at Giles. Buffy leaned over his shoulder, craning her neck to try and get a good view.
"Fun," acknowledged Giles doubtfully. "Yes. Quite."
Ice Cream Guy wagged an admonishing finger. "You can do better than that!"
"I don't think I can, actually," Giles responded, gazing at the ceiling.
But the employee was not going to be put off that easily. "Sure you can!" he urged before winking at the open-mouthed quartet in Giles' custody. "What kind of fun is Dad having, kids?"
"Super HappyfunWorldLand fun!" came the immediate sing-song chorus.
"Super HappyfunWorldLand fun, yes," Giles dutifully, if exasperatedly, repeated.
"Yaaay!!" proclaimed the four in unison, along with Ice Cream Guy.
"Because this is exactly how I wanted to see in my 50th birthday," muttered Giles to himself.
But with the admission gained, the group had ceased paying attention to him. Giles gave a sigh of resignation before making a valiant effort to be a little more upbeat.
"All right then, what would you like? Xander?"
Xander had his nose and hands pressed against the glass, trying to check out all the choices before making a selection. The only thing he managed to verbalize was, "Yum!"
Giles waited for a moment and when nothing else appeared to be forthcoming from Xander's mouth, moved on. "Willow?"
"I dunno," pondered the redhead, a tiny frown creasing her forehead. "What if I get one, but I don't get the best one?" She gnawed at her bottom lip. "What if I want somethin' else but don't know it and I don't know it until I get it and it's not right?" Worriedly, she turned to Giles. "I dunno!"
"Well how about strawberry?" he suggested gently. "When I was a young boy, it was always my favorite."
Willow was only too pleased to have solved that dilemma. "Okay, I want that too!"
Giles instantly brightened. Perhaps this wouldn't be so bad. After all, one-fourth of such a major decision had already been dealt with rather efficiently. "One small strawberry," he told Ice Cream Guy.
"One small Veryfun Berrysome Strawberry, coming up!"
Unable to contain an eye roll, Giles continued down the line. "Buf—"
But Buffy didn't get the chance to voice her favorite.
"I know! I know!" clamored Faith.
"Oh, all right then," agreed Giles amicably, while Buffy glowered down upon Faith for stealing her limelight. "What would you like, Faith?"
"That!" She pointed to the placard of a rather large sundae.
Giles frowned. "You don't think that'll be too much for you?"
"Nuh-uh!" denied Faith, puffing out her chest. "I'm the Slayer."
Having heard enough, little Buffy leapt down from Giles' back and grabbing Faith by the shoulders, gave her a hearty push. "I'm the Slayer! You're not the Slayer!"
Faith quickly returned the shove. "I am so the Slayer!"
"No! I am! You're a big stupid-head!"
"You're a stupid-head!"
Peeking around the sanctuary afford by Giles' leg, Willow clutched her ice cream cone tightly in one hand and blinked anxiously at the fracas. "Giiiiiiles, make them stoooop…"
"You're both stupid-heads!" declared Xander, throwing his two cents into the ring. "Stupid girl poo-poo heads!"
With scowling faces, the pair of miniature Slayers focused on the unfortunate Xander. He ran to hide behind Giles' other leg.
"That's enough," Giles informed everyone abruptly. "No one is a … a 'stupid-head'."
"But I'm the Slayer!" pouted Buffy. "Giles, tell her!"
Faith refused to be outdone. "I'm the Slayer!"
Giles' eyes glittered with annoyance behind his glasses. "You're both Slayers, and I am your Watcher, and that's the end of it!" He glanced sharply at the placard Faith had indicated, clearly struggling to get a grip on his rising temper.
"Now," continued Giles firmly to Ice Cream Guy, "I'd like an 'Ultra-tazzy Chocolate-razzy Makes-you-spazzy Funtime Treat'." As the words echoed back, Giles couldn't help but blink as he confirmed that yes, his voice had in fact spoken them.
The HappyfunWorldLand employee handbook clearly had no guidelines for dealing with little girls who loudly bickered over which of them was a killer, and as such, Ice Cream Guy was entirely at a loss for what to do in the face of such an unfunlike exhibition. He regarded Giles and the four youngsters with an expression that clearly indicated he believed they might well be crazy.
"Sure. Sure thing," he reassured before slinking away to prepare the dessert.
"You're copying!" accused Buffy. She tugged on Giles' jacket. "Giles, she's copying!"
"I got it first!" protested Faith.
"But I was gonna get it!"
Willow licked at her ice cream. "That's not copying," she advised. "Faith didn't copy. You copied her, Buffy."
A look of supremacy crossed Faith's face.
Buffy, by contrast, was utterly crestfallen. "I thought we were friends," she told Willow in a very small voice.
"We are friends," insisted the redhead.
Buffy sniffed. "You were my best friend."
"She's my best friend now," Faith gloated.
"No I'm not!" Willow promptly denied, glaring in Faith's direction. She turned to Buffy. "No I'm not!"
"You said you were my best friend!" accused Xander.
Xander was so not convinced. "Giles, Willow's lying!"
Running a desperate hand through his hair, Giles gritted his teeth and clenched his eyes shut.
"No. No, no, no, this isn't right at all," came a voice from over his shoulder.
A frown appeared on Giles' forehead and his eyes snapped open. He turned to the owner and his gaze narrowed dangerously.
Hands in pockets, Ethan Rayne looked at the tableau disapprovingly.
"Ripper, what have you done?"
"Ethan Rayne," murmured Giles, jaw set in a grim line. His eyes were watchful, vigilant and cold behind his glasses.
Ethan tilted his head and studied Giles. "Honestly Ripper, how long have we known each other? Surely we're beyond first and last names by now."
Faith regarded the newcomer with curious suspicion before looking to the others for explanation. Willow remained half hidden behind Giles' leg, but her little face was scrunched into a hostile frown. Xander harbored no such desire for security. Boldly leaving his place of concealment, he stood protectively at the forefront, legs astride and hands clenched into fists at his side. As for Buffy, every ounce of animosity that had been directed toward Faith only moments before had now been compounded and transferred.
"Who's that?" asked Faith impatiently.
"A bad man," Buffy told her, eyes focused unwaveringly on Ethan.
That was all Faith needed to hear. Hands on hips, she favored Ethan with a dark glower.
"What are you doing here?" Giles demanded.
"Checking on you, actually," replied Ethan with a charming smile. "I wasn't exactly expecting to find you like this. I thought you'd be shorter."
He took a step forward and apparently, that was all the provocation Xander had been waiting for. Running like a bat out of hell, he kicked Ethan's shin as hard as he was able. "You're bad!" he blurted fiercely.
Ethan winced visibly at the pain. "That's subjective, don’t you think?"
Without warning, Buffy threw herself into the fray. Drawing back her foot, she rammed the toe of her Mary Jane into Ethan's other shin. "I don't like you!"
Ethan's mouth formed a silent 'ow' as he grimaced. "Can't say I think much of you either!"
Pushing between Buffy and Xander, Faith began to hammer punches on both of Ethan's kneecaps in a rhythmic pattern. She uttered not a single word, save for the occasional grunt, but her grin said it all.
Not to be left out, Xander and Buffy quickly rejoined the attack and Ethan found himself assaulted by three tiny terrors who were doing their utmost to pound him into a pulp.
From her well-protected position, Willow narrowed her eyes with concentration in Ethan's direction. "Frog. Frog. Frog. Frog," she chanted, although to no effect.
Gritting his teeth, Ethan reached down and scooped up a squirming armload of whoever was most convenient. It turned out to be Buffy.
"Adorable little delinquent, aren't you?"
Feet flailing, she swiveled and punched him squarely on the bridge of the nose. In almost the same instant, Giles was there to snatch her away.
"Good girl," he whispered approvingly, causing Buffy to beam with pride. Stretching out his free hand, Giles gestured out to the others. "Xander, Faith, come away," he cautioned, his tone calm and soothing. "It's all right."
Reluctantly, Xander backed off and so did Faith, after delivering a hard-driven stomp onto Ethan's foot. Guardedly, they inched their way toward Giles.
Ethan dabbed gingerly at his nose, checking for blood, but there was none. "Hurt first, ask questions later," he stated with nod of commendation. "You've taught them well."
"Don’t make me ask again," Giles warned. "What are you doing here? And what did you mean, 'this isn't right'?"
Pulling out a handkerchief, Ethan polished away Faith's dirty footprint from the top of his Italian leather boot. He chuckled. "It's a bit of a funny story." He looked expectantly at Giles and his army of four munchkins. None of them appeared amused. He shrugged. "Well funny to me, anyway."
Making his way to the counter, he accepted the sundae that the gawking and immobilized Ice Cream Guy was offering and helped himself to a napkin. Digging a spoon in the melting chocolate, he sampled the dessert. "Delicious."
He sauntered past Giles, who instantly shepherded his wards out of harm's way, and with a leisurely stride, headed toward the main pavilion.
They watched him in silence but made no move to follow.
"Come on," Ethan tossed over his shoulder. "Do you want Happyfun, or don't you?"
In the very heart of HappyfunWorldLand, Ethan and Giles sat across from each other at a small table. Ethan was relishing his pilfered sundae while Giles kept one wary eye out for any sudden movements and the other upon the kids.
They were playing in a huge pit of multi-colored plastic balls. Netting surrounded the area, but Giles could see them from his location without too much effort. In the middle of the pit, like a giant spider in its web, sat a jungle gym. There were monkey bars to climb on, plastic tubes to run through, platforms to dive from and all manner of intriguing nooks and crannies in which to hide.
"Would you like a bite?" asked Ethan, sliding the dish toward Giles and offering the spoon. "It's quite good."
Ethan shrugged and dragged the dessert back again. "Your loss." He dug deep and included a maraschino cherry in the scoop.
Giles' tenuous patience was rapidly evaporating. "This is all your doing."
It was an accusation, not a question.
Ethan considered for a moment. "Not entirely," he responded. At Giles' ensuing frown, he gestured in the direction of the play area. "I'd lay at least part of the blame on whoever opened that box. And then I'd probably give them a stern talking to about sniffing around other people's presents." He tutted disapprovingly under his breath. "There's no excuse for rudeness. You'll want to watch them, Ripper. No telling what kind of people they'll be when they grow up."
Giles rested his elbows on the table. "Reverse it." His tone was deceptively calm.
"It's not that simple."
The library at Slayer Central was a hubbub of activity. Watchers were everywhere. Research books were everywhere. Legal-sized pads with hastily scrawled references were everywhere. Photographs of the wooden box, taken from every angle imaginable, were spread around the room. Several white boards covered with notes, carefully worked through theories and a multitude of arcane symbols, lined the walls.
At a long table, one of the younger Watchers checked his scribbles and then quickly cross-referenced his findings. His eyes grew very wide and very round. "Oh, no," he muttered.
To be on the safe side, he repeated the process before raising his hand and calling out, "I found it!"
Hannah and Spencer rushed toward him immediately.
"Make it that simple," insisted Giles, leaning across the table.
Ethan shook his head. "Oh, if only such things could be determined by will alone."
Forcefully pushing back his chair, Giles rose to his feet. Instantly, Ethan's coward-senses went into alert mode. Alarmed, he thrust up his hands to ward off what he believed to be imminent blows. "Wait, wait, wait!" he urged hurriedly, relieved when Giles resumed his seat.
"It's magick, old man," he relayed persuasively. "You know as well as I do you can't bully magick. And I'm afraid now it's too late."
Hannah and Spencer, together with the majority of Watchers inhabiting the library, had gathered round the table waiting impatiently for answers.
"The problem was that we were looking for the answer in one spell, when this," the young man gestured toward the box, "is really made up of three separate temporal magicks." He shook his head, clearly impressed. "It's phenomenal. These spells should not work together, but whoever cast them ..."
Hannah cleared her throat and the Watcher cast her a nervous glance before hurrying back on track.
"Right. The thing is, it was originally meant to be as it sounds – a way for spellcasters to knock off a few years here or there. But mixed in with these other spells ... this is a curse. A deadly one."
"I don't accept that," Giles denied with the shake of his head.
"Well that just makes it all untrue then," replied Ethan.
"Being children again ... Too old to forget what they know, but too young to realize what it all means. I won't let you do that to them," he warned. "I won't force them to live through that again."
"Funny you should phrase it like that ..."
"The victims – Buffy, Faith and the others ... they'll begin to regress further," the Watcher explained. "Physically and mentally. Until ... until there's nothing left."
Hannah's eyes widened in alarm. "What?"
"What are you implying?" Giles questioned warily.
"What I'm saying, mate, is that you better enjoy them while you can."
Digging into the ice cream, Ethan raised the heaped spoon to his lips. He never made it. His chair rocked violently as Giles lashed out and grabbed a fistful of shirt. The ice cream slid and instinctively, Ethan tried to catch it in his open mouth before it fell. It landed with a dismal 'plop' on the table, soon to be followed by the clattering spoon.
Ethan blinked dazedly as Giles jerked him across the table until they were practically nose-to-nose. The eyes behind the glasses glittered like granite and Ethan floundered as Giles shook him like a rag doll.
"No more games, 'mate'," snarled Giles. "Are you saying this spell will kill them?"
"Yes," the young man confirmed regretfully.
Hannah's face registered horrified shock. "But ..."
"How long?" asked Spencer.
"24 hours from when they were affected."
Spencer looked at Hannah, whose eyes flew immediately to the clock on the wall.
"Less than three hours from now," she informed in worried voice.
Ethan's mouth began to twitch. Then, he began to chuckle. It soon turned into a full-fledged belly laugh. The merriment was short-lived though, as Giles swiftly released the shirt and instead, gripped Ethan by the throat. The laugh was cut off mid-stream, turning instead into a wet, strangled noise.
"I'm joking!" Ethan gasped, scrabbling ineffectually at the vice-like fingers cutting off his air supply. The grip on his windpipe tightened. "It's a joke!" he vowed desperately. "I swear! It's harmless!"
Giles' expression didn't change. "You're lying."
"Less than three hours," muttered Hannah, running a hand through her hair. "God. I've got to tell Ziggy." Looking extremely distraught, she hurried to the door.
"Wait!" the Watcher called out, and Hannah stopped in her tracks. "I think I found ..." He ran a finger over his notes and quickly rechecked the reference. "Yes ... Yes! I've got it!" he announced triumphantly.
"The reversal spell?" prompted Spencer.
The Watcher glanced up at him. "What?" He shook his head. "Oh, no, there is no reversal spell."
The air of expectation in the room instantly deflated, and the Watcher hastened to provide reassurance.
"But it's okay! I made a mistake. I thought the translation was saying they only had 24 hours before regressing to their original state. But it's revert to their original state. See?" He held the volume toward Hannah, but she only glared at him through narrowed eyes for giving her such a scare.
Shrinking a little in his chair, he tried to explain. "The root words are extremely similar, and ..." He glanced around the room, looking extremely sheepish. "It'll wear off on its own," he offered as penance.
Spencer peered down at the Watcher. "Are you certain?"
"Of course I'm certain!" rasped Ethan, almost choking. "I cast the bloody thing, I should know!"
Giles relinquished his grip slowly. "This won't kill them?"
Chest heaving as he gulped lungfuls of oxygen, Ethan shook his head. "It won't kill them, I swear," he puffed painfully.
Cautiously and somewhat reluctantly, Giles released his wretched victim and eased back into his seat. Ethan ruefully massaged his throat and somehow managed to look offended. "Really, Ripper. I'm not the murderer." He pointedly looked Giles in the eye. "I was never the murderer."
Giles' relief was evident. He ignored Ethan's wounded pride, and instead turned to watch the little gang playing in the pit of squishy balls. Worry-free, they seemed to be as happy as clams.
Faith was halfway to the domed top of the monkey bars, while Willow was still struggling valiantly to make it to the third rung. Climbing like a chimpanzee, Buffy zipped past the redhead with relative ease, jostling Faith on the way. The pair stuck their tongues out in unison for second and then glanced down to see that Willow had slipped back down to the second rung. Both Slayers extended a hand and then glared at each other, but neither was willing to retract the offer of help. Regaining her balance somewhat, Willow reached up to the waiting hands, but she was too far away. Then, with a huge grin, Xander appeared and bracing Willow's feet against his palms, provided the necessary boost. Before long, she was right behind Faith and Buffy on her way to the summit. Xander quickly brought up the rear. A soon as they all reached the platform on the dome, they hopped up and down, whooping a triumphant cheer. For a moment, they were on top of the world.
Unobtrusively, Ethan leaned across the table. "That was supposed to be you," he told Giles in a low voice. "Carefree. Enjoying the simple pleasures. Every right to be selfish, no worries, no responsibilities. Responsibilities have defined your whole life, Rupert, and they still do. You're not young any more ... isn't it high time you lived your life the way you want?"
Giles continued to watch the little quartet in silence as they noisily celebrated their victory. Joining hands, they backed along the platform and then began to run. They hit the edge at full tilt, leaping into the air as they sailed toward the pit of squishy balls, laughing all the way.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor, Paige rested her weight on her elbows and stared through the tall window at the immaculate front lawn below. Nearby, still seated in shadow, the pale girl still remained focused in her meditations.
"My daddy says that Lauren is in a better place now." Paige glanced over her shoulder. "Is she?"
It hurt to hear, and Paige's shoulders slumped, but nevertheless, it seemed to be the answer she was expecting. For a long moment, nothing else was said.
"Did Fate kill my sister?" Paige eventually asked.
"When Fate chooses, it may kill any of us," responded the girl without emotion. "We are all subject to Fate's mercy."
Paige scooted round to face the girl. "Did you pick me to come here because your sister died and my sister died too?"
"I did not choose you."
"Well they did!" exclaimed Paige. "The monsters!"
"They brought you here, true," the girl admitted, "but you were a convenience. They did not choose you."
Detecting a weakness, Paige argued, "If it doesn't have to be me, then it can be someone else!"
"Who would you have take your place?"
"I don't know! Maybe ..." Paige searched desperately for someone, anyone, who could fill her role. "Maybe Scotty Hall, or Mary Blanchard, or Christopher Ryan. I don't care! I just wanna go home! I'm scared and I want my mommy."
"Why are you here, Paige?"
The child was in no mood to play twenty questions. "I wanna go home!!" she all but shouted, clenching her hands into tiny fists.
The figure in saffron silk didn't flinch at the outburst. Indeed, she didn't even flicker an eyelash. It seemed to have no effect on her whatsoever.
"Why are you here?" she persisted.
Paige's lips began to tremble as tears trickled down her cheeks. She made no sound as she cried, her body racked with dry sobs and her wretched little face a mask of misery.
The girl watched for a moment and then held out her arms. "Shh. Come here, aiko."
Paige accepted the invitation immediately, thankfully. Scrambling to her feet, she rushed into the welcoming embrace, desperate for comfort and solace. She clung to the arms that wrapped her in a protective cocoon and rocked her as though she were a tiny baby.
"You have been a very good girl. I will keep my word: I will let you return."
Paige's tears began to flow more freely. They were tears of relief and joy. She took comfort in the promise and in the gentle hand that stroked her hair.
The large recreation room at Slayer Central was conspicuously devoid of Slayers and uncharacteristically quiet. A vast assortment of board games littered the floor, some still in their original shrink-wrap. A pair of partially put-together Cooties lay upside down on the pool table and tiny baskets from Hi Ho! Cherry-O were scattered around the room. A Care Bears checkerboard, lacking many of the pieces, was shoved off to the side near five empty Happy Meal boxes. On the television screen, a looping DVD menu continually displayed the choices for classic Warner Brother's cartoons, but nobody was watching. Not Giles, and certainly none of his young charges.
In an overstuffed easychair, Willow and Xander were sound asleep, heads lolling together as they slumbered. Every now and then, Willow would violently twitch an arm or jerk a leg. Without waking, Xander simply scooted himself further to one side in order to give her more room.
Sprawled on her stomach atop the back of a couch, Faith resembled a contented little napping cat. It looked as though somebody might have hoisted her in the air and then gently draped her there. One cheek was squashed flat against the upholstery and she wore Giles' tie as a headband.
On the same couch, snoring lightly and stretched full length along the cushions, was Giles. Barefoot and jacketless, there were smears of dried ketchup on his trousers and a pickle juice stain on his collar. The head of a plastic Tenderheart Bear sporting a tiny crown protruded from his breast pocket. Face down, Buffy's head was resting on Giles' chest. She too was sleeping soundly as she clutched a bunched-up wad of his shirt in her slack fist. His arm was curled protectively around her shoulders. On the floor by the couch were two impromptu sock puppets.
Leaning in the open doorway, Ethan stared at the peaceful scene.
"Isn't it sweet?" he remarked. "Now this, I think we'd have to call 'a Kodak moment'. " He glanced over his shoulder to find Hannah standing there. "Wouldn't you agree?"
"Shouldn't you be off crawling back into a hole somewhere?" she asked, arching an eyebrow.
Tutting, Ethan shook his head in reproach. "Well I didn't get any birthday cake, so I thought I should at least see how it ends."
"Happily ever after?" Hannah queried with a wry smile.
"Only in fairy tales."
Hannah positioned herself at the opposite side of the doorway. "I can't decide which would have surprised me more: you actually daring to show up, or if you'd done the smart thing and stayed away."
"Villainy without enjoying the spoils?" Ethan seemed appalled at the very idea. "What's the point in that? Besides, then I would have missed this riveting conversation." He shook his head in denial at the mere thought. "No, can't have that."
Hannah's eyes moved to her ex-husband, who was stirring slightly while still keeping a firm grip on Buffy. Ethan watched her watch Giles for a moment.
"Do I detect uncertainty? A touch of regret, perhaps?"
Hannah shook her head. "To borrow a colloquialism, I don't do regret."
"I was, of course, referring to the spell."
She didn't answer immediately, giving due consideration to Ethan's words.
"I thought that reliving his youth, even for just a day, would be the greatest gift I could give him." Her smile was melancholy. "That it might help him remember why we're here. That the fight, without context, is meaningless."
"How very noble," Ethan patronized.
Hannah emerged from her reverie with a scowl. "When are you leaving again?"
"And we were just beginning to re-bond so famously," he responded smoothly, then waved a dismissive hand at her glare. "Not to worry," he reassured. "A bit more sightseeing, and you'll never know I was here."
His gaze returned once more to Giles and the slumbering little gang. A look of mocking adoration invaded his features.
"And quite a sight it is. Ripper and his darling children." He cast Hannah a sideways glance. "Were any of them in on it?"
"No. I'd say the past 24 hours were a surprise for everyone." Digging into her pocket, Hannah pulled out a check and offered it to Ethan. With a gracious nod, he accepted, and then promptly tore it down the middle. Flicking the two halves to one side, he seized Hannah's hand and brought it to his lips.
"Your grateful smile and the satisfaction of a job well done are all the payment I need," he purred with a grin.
Snatching her hand away, Hannah didn't reciprocate the smile. Instead her eyes narrowed.
"And may I keep the change?" he inquired.
"You're lucky I don't demand a refund," Hannah rejoined. "The spell was only supposed to affect Rupert."
"But where's the fun in that?"
Pushing away from the door, Ethan winked at Hannah and then presented her with a sealed envelope.
"Give him that when he wakes up, would you love?" He looked back at Giles. "Ahh, the turns life takes," he sighed before turning and leaving the room, quietly humming 'Happy Birthday' under his breath.
The vampire lackey paused outside the meditation room for a moment and listened before politely knocking. She strained her ears for a response and when there was none, tentatively turned the handle and opened the door.
"You sent for me, Lady?"
Standing in the center of the room, the girl was now dressed in a formal robe of heavy white linen that swept the floor. Piping of smooth black satin trimmed the hem, collar and cuffs. It was an elegant garment that enhanced her aura of majesty. The dark hair had been pulled into a high chignon and secured with two onyx combs. The newcomer made sure to keep her eyes respectfully lowered.
"Alert Oringo that I wish to discuss our progress."
"Yes, Lady," acknowledged the vampire. She gestured meekly toward the baseboard at one side of the room. "Should I dispose of that?"
The girl's gaze lingered on Paige's lifeless body. The child had been positioned carefully, almost reverently, upon the floor beneath the window. Her clothes were arranged tidily and her small hands, wiped clean of any grime, were folded neatly across her stomach. Her eyes were closed and were it not for the two prominent puncture wounds in the hollow of her neck, she would have appeared to be sleeping.
"Yes," came the command. "See that she is buried with respect. We taught each other much, aiko, did we not?"
The lackey was clearly interested, but didn't dare ask any questions. However, the girl must have been feeling generous because she decided to expand upon her statement.
"I sought enlightenment and I received this child," she explained. "She did not have the answer, but I failed to ask the correct question. 'Why' is unimportant. 'Why' demands reason that Fate will not give. Fate does not care about our needs or desires. She is accountable only to her whims."
It seemed as if the girl were now speaking to Paige alone, as though her little captive still retained the ability to listen attentively and garner wisdom from the words.
"You taught me this, aiko," she acknowledged, "and I am grateful. I can only hope that you find my lessons as fulfilling." She inclined her head in deference to the unmoving corpse. "As promised, I have returned you to your sister."
At the abrupt look in her direction, the vampire cast her eyes down even further in a humble apology for being so forward. She waited for castigation and when none was forthcoming, became encouraged to continue.
"What did you teach her, Lady?"
"That Fate has no mercy. And neither do I."
Opening the door to the bar, Giles scoured the area until he spotted a familiar figure. It was a relatively quiet little place. Not too rowdy and not too noisy, but then, it wasn't exactly overflowing with patrons either. He headed toward a booth near the rear of the establishment, where Ethan was sitting at a table with a beer and shot glass of whiskey in front of him. He seemed to have been nursing the beer for quite some time and looked up with a smile as Giles approached.
"Got my invitation, I see." He gestured across the table. "Have a seat."
Giles slid his way into the booth and arched an eyebrow at the beer and shot glass that had apparently been awaiting his arrival. He looked to Ethan, who raised his whiskey in a toast. "Cheers."
Throwing back his head, Ethan drained the shot in one gulp. Giles waited for a moment and then followed suit, setting the empty glass thoughtfully on the table.
"And how fare the little tykes?" asked Ethan with all due politeness.
"Back to normal. No thanks to you."
Ethan sighed wistfully. "They grow up so fast. No lasting damage, I trust?"
"Not on the surface at any rate," confirmed Giles through tight lips. "Their memories seem a bit hazy, but aside from that, they say they're fine. Xander swears his love of Lincoln Logs predates yesterday afternoon."
Ethan nodded. "All's well that ends well." As a waitress passed by, he flagged her down and gestured to himself and Giles. "Another round, love."
As she scurried away to fill the order, Ethan resumed his scrutiny of Giles' dark and threatening glower.
"Oh come now, Ripper," he cajoled. "Why so gloomy? Nobody died, there was no lasting damage, and I dare say it was a damn sight more interesting than whatever they had planned for you." He tilted his head and regarded Giles critically. "Or have you fallen so far that you actually respond better to tired old platitudes?"
Without waiting for a reply, Ethan lifted his beer. "Congratulations on making it to fifty; it's all downhill from here."
There was no reaction from his subject and Ethan opened his mouth to try again. When nothing came out, he lowered his drink. "That's all I know, I'm afraid," he stated with some regret. "I'm sure there's a terribly witty book with more that we can find if you like."
"You have no clue what you're talking about," Giles muttered.
"No book?" queried Ethan, lifting his arms and resting them along the length of the booth. "Perhaps an insightful cocktail napkin, then."
"Do you have any idea how ... how difficult you've made everything?" accused Giles angrily.
Ethan gave it some thought. "Uhm ... nooo?"
The waitress came and delivered the drinks, receiving a smile from Ethan and nothing at all from Giles, who was absently swirling the beer in his half-empty glass as he elaborated.
"My life, my work ... The things I've done. The things I must be prepared to do." He removed his glasses and placed them on the table. "To see their faces and know that one day, for the sake of the world, they may be sacrificed. That I may be forced to sacrifice them. I used to think I could juggle all my roles, but ..." He shook his head. "And then you come here and you make me remember how much I love them. Bastard." In one smooth motion, Giles downed his second whiskey.
"Well, I'm certainly no stranger to the insult," remarked Ethan, not appearing offended in the least, "but I must admit the reasoning for it is new."
Giles rubbed at his forehead. "I thought I had the answer."
Ethan shrugged. "Sounds to me like you're not asking the right question."
"And what is the right question?"
"Damned if I know," Ethan admitted merrily, tossing his hands in the air. "You're the thoughtful one; I'm perfectly happy making it up as I go along."
Not surprisingly, this did little to sweeten Giles' mood.
"You try too hard," Ethan reprimanded. "That's always been your problem. If you don't like where you are, then don't stay there. Go back. Start again."
"What if it's too late for that?"
"Only time it's too late, old man, is when you're cold in the ground," he advised, downing his own second shot.
"And if it doesn't matter?" insisted Giles. "If Fate always brings you back to the same point, no matter what road you choose?"
Ethan rolled his eyes despairingly. "God, you're dull when you're morose. Did you learn nothing after all those years in your precious Council?" He took a swig of beer and then got to his feet. "There's no such thing as fate, Ripper. Change it or don't, it's your choice. Always has been."
He pulled a handful of bills from his pocket and tossed them on the table. "Happy birthday, mate."
Giles didn't acknowledge his departure and Ethan didn't look back. If he had, he would have seen Giles gazing thoughtfully into the depths of his empty shot glass.
Main Page | Episodes | Grr. Arg.