Buffy and Tara sat across from each other at one of the tables that circled the Student Union. With an abundance of gusto, Buffy was making short shift of a gigantic chocolate muffin, while Tara sipped on a cup of tea and read an article from the newspaper. In huge print, the banner headline announced: "Evans Jury Hung; Judge Declares Mistrial."
"After ten days of deliberation," Tara recited, "Judge Franklin Prescott declared a mistrial in the prosecution of Casey Elizabeth Evans, charged with the first degree murder of her husband Richard."
"I'm not sure," mumbled Buffy, spraying crumbs. "Is that a yay?"
Tara regarded her thoughtfully. "Honestly? I'm not sure either. The evidence against her was pretty condemning, but there was just as much showing that he'd abused her really badly for a long time. It's messy."
"I'll say. And pretty gross, too," noted Willow, arriving on the scene with a mocha in-hand and settling herself comfortably between Buffy and Tara. "Honestly Buffy, do you even chew any more?"
With a glower, Buffy plucked a chip from atop the muffin and flicked it at Willow.
"Uhm, not the muffin," corrected Tara. "The trial?" She held out the paper so Willow could see it.
"Oh. Oh!" Willow turned to Buffy with a grimace and an apologetic smile. "Sorry."
"My muffin hates you," Buffy told her curtly.
Willow addressed the offended party with due seriousness. "Sorry, Mr. Muffin." Then out of the corner of her mouth, she replied in her best funny voice, "That's okay, Willow! All is forgiven!" She drew a hand across her forehead. "Whew, glad that's settled. Pastry can be so vindictive."
"Especially cream puffs," cautioned Tara. "It's a deceptive name."
"Doughnut make me come over there," warned Buffy.
At the unanimous wince from her audience, Buffy smiled. "I win."
"Right!" announced Willow in a bright tone, keen to put the terrible pun far, far behind. "So murder, because slightly less painful." She eyed the headline. "We were debating about this in my ethics class today. Hairy tangles. What do you guys think?"
"We'd officially decided on 'No clue'," Tara replied.
"See," interjected Buffy, nodding confidently. "This is why I like Slaying so much."
The conversation stalled.
"Feel free to start building the Golden Gate between points one and two any time now," Willow finally suggested.
"It's the demon world, so there's not a whole lot of these big moral questions," explained Buffy with a patient expression. "If it wants to kill you, you can pretty much assume 'evil'. Whole layers of doubt are blissfully removed."
Tara frowned. "That's pretty ..."
"Easy?" offered Buffy.
"I was thinking more 'dogmatic'," returned Tara.
Buffy considered this. "Not quite so harsh. How about 'puppymatic'?"
Tara didn't seem to fully buy into the theory. "Just that ... demon doesn't always immediately equal bad, right?" She looked to Buffy and then to Willow. "I mean, there was Anya—"
"Who, before being forced into her powerless human state, delighted in a thousand years of mayhem, torment and a frankly terrifying number of eviscerations in the name of scorned women," reminded Willow, taking a sip of her mocha.
Tara's sails were momentarily devoid of wind, but she recovered quickly. "Okay, well ... there's Clem."
Both Willow and Buffy nodded, neither able to find much bad to say about Clem.
"And ..." continued Tara slowly, thoughtfully.
She dug deep. So did Willow and Buffy.
"...Clem..." she finally added.
"But yeah, exactly," pressed Buffy. "Flashback to the part about 'killing me' being a pre-qualifier. I'm all for live and let slime, but the second they start killing people, then it becomes my job." She jabbed a finger emphatically into her chest. "A job which, I must point out, is not called 'The See It From All Sides-er'."
"Well, much as I'd love to stay here in the murky grayness ..." Willow got to her feet, taking her mocha with her. "We're still on for later?" she asked Tara.
Curiosity was getting the better of Buffy. "Where to, Will?"
"I've got a date."
Buffy blinked several times at the glib statement. "A date?"
"Should I be jealous?" probed Tara.
"Are they cute?" Tara probed further.
"One of the greats," affirmed Willow.
"Your love?" questioned Tara, arching an eyebrow.
"They must die," Tara told her with a heavy sigh.
Willow acknowledged the threat with due seriousness. "I'll make sure to warn 'em."
Willow pushed open the door to The Common Grounds and looked around until she spotted the object of her search. "I thought you should know," she announced loudly and cheerily, "Tara's gunnin' for ya."
Small chisel in hand, Xander looked up from his labors. With a leather toolbelt strapped around his waist, he appeared to be more in 'gainfully employed' mode rather than 'date' mode. Surrounded on all sides by wooden chairs, he looked like General Custer might have looked, had General Custer been attacked by furniture.
"Well if she hurries," he said, "she'll save me from the monotony that is this job. And for that, I would thank her heartily."
"Poor Xander," commiserated Willow, patting his shoulder. "Don't you chairish your work?" Quite taken with her clever pun, Willow openly snickered.
Xander apparently found it less than amusing. "Will? Me. Pain. Don't add."
Utilizing admirable control, Willow regained her composure. "Sorry. It's Buffy's fault, she started the whole bad pun thing and ..." It was plain that Xander had absolutely no interest whatsoever, and she wisely let the matter drop. "Anyway, so, chairs?"
"Chairs," affirmed Xander. "They decided they weren't interesting enough, so I now have an order to ..." He waved a hand vaguely at the surrounding circle. "... make them interesting."
A small frown crossed Willow's features. "But ... they're ... chairs."
Xander shrugged, obviously unable to dispute the fact that they were indeed chairs.
Willow glanced at a number of them set to one side, presumably now classified in the 'more interesting' category. They sported attractive carvings along the arms, down the legs and on the backrests.
"Though, now they're better chairs," she offered encouragingly. "Way, way better than those dull, boring things." She wrinkled her nose at the offensively bland outcasts and wiggled dismissive fingers in their direction. "Why, I wouldn't even consider for one single second sitting on one of those inferior, un-decorated pieces of ... of chair excrement!"
"Thanks," Xander acknowledged. "You can stop now."
"Oh, good," Willow sighed gratefully. "I was running out of ways to be indignant about the furniture."
Xander nodded appreciatively. "Big 'A' for effort, though."
Grinning, Willow checked her wristwatch. "So, I'm free for the next hour and a half. You wanted lunch?"
Xander perked up immediately. "Lunch is good. I'm thinking maybe classic Thai or Japanese. Someplace where you sit on something not a chair."
"Any place that's not a coffee house works for me," smirked Willow. "Too many of them for one day."
"Cool. Let me just ..."
Xander's reply was terminated mid-stream by the sound of raised voices.
"Would you stop?" came a woman's emphatic demand.
"But baby ..." a male wheedled in response.
Xander, Willow and virtually everyone else within earshot turned toward the source of what seemed to be an impending argument. A couple stood before the front counter. The young man was tall and muscular. He looked as though he could be intimidating, should he so choose. However, he was wilting badly in the face of his companion's wrath, instead resembling a repentant and chastised puppy. The woman was a figure more readily recognizable as Serafina.
"Don't 'baby' me," Serafina dictated firmly. "What does that— Why do you even use that word?" She threw her hands to the sides. "Am I like three-months old to you or something?"
"Naw, ba—" came the hasty rebuttal, but the man caught himself in time. "'Course you're not. Look, don't be mad. I'm sorry, okay? Just, that guy was flirtin' with you, and—"
"Flirting? Benny, he said 'Have a nice day'! He's in the service industry, he's supposed to say 'Have a nice day'!"
"But it was the way he said it," asserted Benny, intent on making a stand.
Serafina had clearly reached the end of her rope. Deliberately, she settled her purse upon her shoulder. "That's it, it's over."
Benny appeared stunned at the news. "Over?"
"Don't bother coming for your stuff," she told him crisply. "I'll have one of my brothers bring it by your place this weekend."
Benny's eyes narrowed as his lips set in a tight line, showing the signs of finally losing his temper. "We're not—" he protested, but Serafina was in no mood to listen. Turning sharply on her heel, she headed for the door.
"Don't you just walk away from me!" warned Benny angrily, reaching out and grabbing her elbow.
Whirling, Serafina tried to jerk her arm free, but Benny held on fast. The atmosphere in the coffee shop grew tense and there was the grating sound of chairs being shoved aside.
"Let me go," insisted Serafina, eyes flashing tiny daggers.
"We're talking about this."
"No, we're not," she refuted. "Now let me go."
Again, she attempted to free her arm, but met with no more success than before. It was then that she noticed Xander hovering nearby.
"I think the lady just made a request," he told Benny in a calm and quiet tone. "Maybe you wanna honor it voluntarily, while you've still got options."
"Who the hell are you?" sneered Benny.
"He's no one," snapped Serafina. She looked at Xander. "It's okay. Benny wouldn't hurt a fly, he's just excitable." Regardless, Xander stood his ground. "It's okay," she assured.
Both men continued to glower threateningly at each other for a second and then Xander, obviously against his better judgment, backed away. Pouncing upon the momentary distraction, Serafina seized the opportunity to wrench her arm from Benny's grip. Instantly, his demeanor returned to one of a whipped puppy.
"We're done, Benny." Serafina's face was a picture of determined resolution. "Go home."
Like a landed fish, Benny's jaw worked rapidly several times but no words emerged. It took a little while, but he eventually realized that any further objections were doomed to failure. Visibly crushed and slumped in defeat, he shuffled miserably toward the exit.
"All that for a latte," sighed Serafina as the door closed.
Shaking her head, she too made her way to the street, but before leaving, caught Xander's eye. She smiled and mouthed 'Thank you' before she, too, was gone. The Common Grounds remained hushed for a second after her departure, but soon burst into a hubbub of speculative chatter. Xander rejoined Willow, weaving through the jumble of chairs that he had hastily tossed aside not long before. He darted a sheepish glance in her direction. She regarded him with slightly exaggerated schmoopy eyes, hands clasped beneath her chin.
"You're so gallant," she all but swooned.
"Just for that," replied Xander, jabbing a finger in the air, "you're paying."
"'Gallant' means 'cheapskate' in French, right?" queried Willow with a sunny smile.
Xander didn't answer. Snatching his jacket, he tossed an arm over Willow's shoulders and steered her toward the exit. She put up no resistance but as they stepped out onto the sidewalk, glanced behind just in time to see Serafina disappearing around the corner. She looked up at Xander, who stared straight ahead, and a thoughtful expression crept across her face.
A small girl skipped gleefully along the street, corkscrew ringlets bouncing. She appeared to be unsupervised, but the fact apparently didn't worry her any. The sun cast a bright halo around the golden curls and with her big blue eyes and rosy cheeks, she might easily have been the quintessential model for one of Raphael's classic cherubs. She stopped short when she spotted a man approaching. Her eyes grew even larger and more round, but radiated with innocence and she was obviously unafraid. As he came closer, she rocked on her heels and treated him to an adorable smile. The man couldn't help but return the greeting in kind.
She swayed bashfully from side to side and whispered, "Hi."
The man crouched down so he was at eye level with the child. "Are you lost?"
The little girl emphatically shook her head. "Nooo. My mommy's over there." She gestured vaguely behind her and the man glanced in the same direction. He could see nobody that seemed to fit the part and frowned. But he didn't have time to dwell, since the girl promptly announced, "We're goin' out for lots of fun. Today's my birthday!"
"It is?" The man smiled. "Well happy birthday!"
"Thank you!" she beamed.
"What did you get for your birthday?" he asked kindly and was immediately crushed to note the expression of sadness that invaded the child's face. She shuffled her feet and stared at the sidewalk.
"My mommy says we can't afford to get me anything. We're goin' to the park, cuz mommy says it's free, an' we'll have fun, but ... I wanted a doll." She clasped her tiny hands together almost in prayer as she began to talk earnestly about the longed-for present. "She's the most beautiful doll in the whole wide world! She has the longest, bestest hair, an' her eyes actually blink!" Her little face became animated with expectant pleasure. "And this red and white dress, and she's just the most perfectest doll ever!"
Her enthusiasm had been mounting, but as the reality of her situation reasserted itself, the little girl's dreams slowly died. "It's all I want for my birthday," she sighed with yearning.
The man's face crumpled sympathetically and he was visibly moved by her plight. Without hesitation, he dug into his back pocket and whipped out a wallet. Extracting a twenty dollar bill, he offered it to the girl.
"Here. You go buy that doll. In fact—" He pulled out another. "Have a whole day. Go to the zoo or get dinner or ... whatever you want. Anything you want. Okay?"
As she accepted the proffered bills, the little girl's face lit up like a Christmas tree. Her delight was infectious and the man grinned in response.
"Oh thank you! Thank you!" she squealed. On impulse, she threw her arms around his neck and treated him to a huge hug. "This'll be the best birthday ever!"
"Enjoy it," he told her, gently patting her springy curls.
"I will!" she replied with a definite nod.
Releasing her, the man got to his feet and, with a cheery wave, continued his journey, a merry whistle on his lips. She returned the wave, money clutched tightly in her fist, and watched him walk off. As soon as he was a good distance away, she reached into the pocket of her coveralls and took out a roll of bills. The big blue eyes no longer shone with quite the same degree of naivety, becoming replaced with a certain devious cunning. She smiled with satisfaction as she added the two twenties to her stash.
"And that's rent," she chuckled as she resumed skipping along the street, singing softly to herself. "Nothing but a grand illusion, legend in my own mind ..."
She was still humming as she turned into a deserted alleyway and promptly began to morph. The childlike body grew taller, filling out with shapely curves. The flaxen curls became the color of polished mahogany and the round eyes narrowed slightly, changing from blue to jade in the process. By the time Sam arrived at the entrance to 'After Midnight', the transformation was complete. Producing a set of keys, she unlocked the front door of her club and stepped inside, flipping on the overhead lights.
Clearly in high spirits, she tackled the job of preparing the establishment for business. Removing chairs from the tops of tables, she set them neatly on the floor and then moved behind the bar to check on any items that needed to be restocked. It wasn't until she moved into the storeroom that she realized the back door had been forced open.
Sam's eyes narrowed as she warily ventured further into the area. Her hand traveled smoothly to the side to grab the first weapon she could find. It returned with a jar of olives. Irritated, Sam quickly replaced them and grabbed the broom instead. Holding it in front of her defensively, she crept slowly toward the rear exit. Reaching it without incident, she pushed the door closed once more.
Taking a swift but nonetheless in-depth survey of the room and its inventory, she came to the conclusion that nothing had been disturbed and deposited the broom in a corner before heading back to the main bar. She failed to notice the figure that emerged from the shadows behind her, moving closer and closer with every step.
Hands in pockets, Giles walked along the main hallway of Slayer Central, returning the greetings that came his way with an affable nod. Upon arriving at his office, he found Buffy inside waiting for him.
"Buffy, hello," he told her with a degree of surprise in his voice.
She was crouched down, peering at a section of wall, and looked over her shoulder as Giles entered.
"Got a little crayon down here," she informed. "I think it's supposed to be a picture of you." Her eyes returned to the doodle and she tilted her head to one side. "Though I suppose it could be a really angry toothpick."
Giles nodded as he approached his desk. "I was thinking of keeping it as a souvenir. Something to remind us all why I should never again be forced to celebrate a birthday."
"Oo, we can add to it," suggested Buffy, eyes opening wide. "It can be like a whole Toothpick Family special. The Sistine Chapel of crayon."
"I'm sure it's destined to be the brightest tourist spot for miles around," remarked Giles wryly, sinking into his chair as Buffy got to her feet. "Was this a social visit, or ...?"
"Sort of yes, sort of no," Buffy replied, moving to stand in front of the desk, hands clasped behind her back. "I was wondering how Lynn did with her team?"
Giles extracted a folder from a neat stack and flipped open the cover. "Quite well, actually," he reported, scanning the contents for verification. "They defeated three vampires on the east-end of town." He favored Buffy with a quick glance. "Nothing especially unusual, although she did report that it seemed the vampires were low-level warlocks, or shaman."
Buffy frowned. "Magick? But I thought vamps didn't like magick. Gave them the wiggins."
"They don't like it, as a general rule," confirmed Giles. "Lynn admits that she's not completely positive on that point, so it's possible she was mistaken." He replaced the folder on top of the pile. "We'll looking into it regardless, of course."
"Cool," Buffy said firmly. "Good."
"She did well, Buffy. They all did. You should be proud."
"I am," she instantly affirmed. "Proud Buffy keep on burning." She tossed a grateful smile in his direction. "Thanks."
With a nod, Giles returned the smile and then waited for a moment. Since it seemed as though Buffy had fulfilled the purpose of her visit, he presumed the chat to have come to an end and reached for a pen to begin work. He didn't get very far, however, before something was thrust forcefully under his nose.
"This is for you," announced Buffy. "Sort of a belated birthday present." Giles regarded the package suspiciously. "It's certified spell-free, I promise," she assured him.
Still, Giles blinked at the proffered item but made no move to accept. Buffy waggled it back and forth in tempting fashion until Giles took hold.
"You didn't have to," he said.
"Yeah, I did."
Somewhat puzzled, Giles ripped away the wrapping paper to expose an 8x10 photograph in an carved wooden frame. It had obviously been taken at his party, as evidenced by the cone-shaped hat perched atop his head. He was captured in the midst of a group hug, enveloped by Buffy, Willow, Xander, Tara and Dawn some time before the more interesting events of the evening transpired. Even Faith was visible, hovering nearby. She was not participating in the embrace, but given her grin, was apparently enjoying every minute of it nonetheless. In the center of the picture, Giles' face wore an expression that indicated he was trying very hard to be irritated but, for that brief moment in time, couldn't pull it off with any degree of success. The eyes glinting behind his glasses plainly revealed the fact that he was loving every second in spite of himself.
Giles stared at the picture for a long while before looking up at Buffy. She gestured around the room.
"It looks pretty bare in here. I thought a splash of joy would liven it up."
Still Giles didn't respond. He simply refocused on the framed photograph. Buffy said nothing further, content to let the image speak for her, and she slipped quietly from the room.
Still pleased from her visit with Giles, Buffy walked through the neighborhood wearing a satisfied smile. She even took the time to throw her head back and enjoy the clear blue sky before rounding the corner onto Wildwood Drive and continuing toward home. She'd taken no more than a few steps, however, before she felt that something was wrong.
Although the street was deserted, Buffy immediately became tense and on full alert. With narrowed eyes, she surreptitiously surveyed her surroundings, but nothing appeared untoward. She continued on her way, making no further indication that she was aware of anything more than the beautiful day around her.
When Buffy exploded into action, she took the young man directly behind her completely by surprise. Without hesitation, she encircled his windpipe with vice-like fingers and slammed him into the pavement. Before he could even twitch a muscle, she straddled him, knees pinning his shoulders firmly to the ground.
The man wasn't particularly intimidating or threatening – even less so given his current situation. Buffy might even have found him attractive in a different scenario, but as it was, she seemed only to find him irritating.
"Why are you following me?" she asked, tightening her grip on his throat.
"Wow," he gasped. "I knew I looked good, but right here? In public? I'm blushing." Despite his labored breathing, he conveyed an air of superiority that did little to endear him to the Slayer.
She clenched her free hand into a compact fist. "You'll be bleeding in about five seconds, if you don't tell me who you are."
"And here I thought the look would be perfect."
"If you meant 'perfect for getting my face bruised', then hey! You were right," snapped Buffy.
"Cold as ice, princess," he responded.
Frowning, Buffy searched his eyes. Slowly, she slackened her grasp and got to her feet, although she continued to survey him suspiciously. He rose up on one elbow and massaged his bruised throat while forcing out a smile that he hoped was cordial.
"I need your help."