Strobe lights swirled above the crowded floor of the Vortex, which was packed to capacity. There were no vacant stools in front of the bar and almost every table was occupied. The driving pulse of the live band served one purpose and one purpose alone: to get their listeners on their feet and dancing. In this, they was undeniably successful. Willow and Tara danced to their own special kind of rhythm, while nearby Xander and Buffy moved in a manner that was likely more pleasing to the average spectator. Gleeful smiles were in abundance, and everyone seemed to be having a thoroughly good time – with one notable exception. At a small table, accompanied by her four friends, Dawn was apparently finding it difficult to get into the true spirit of the evening. She leaned on her elbows and rested her chin on entwined fingers. Her expression was glum and every now and again, she let out a deep sigh.
On stage, the number concluded with a dramatic flair – a twirl of drumsticks and an echoing riff – but the session was nowhere near at an end. Before the chord even had time to fade, the lead guitarist, without missing a beat, had launched the group into another equally energetic composition. Buffy immediately responded to the call but Xander, red in the face and completely out of breath, threw up his hands in surrender.
"Uncle," he puffed. "Uncle, and aunt, and every cousin ever conceived." He slumped forward and patted his chest. "I'm a poor working man. Have mercy."
"Nobody likes a quitter," admonished Buffy.
"But the quitter lives to dance another day," Xander countered. "So right now, I'll side with him."
Moving stiffly and painfully, Xander hobbled through the crush and made his way to one of the few empty tables on the perimeter of the floor as Willow and Tara bopped toward Buffy.
"Actually," said Tara, strands of damp hair clinging to her flushed cheeks, "I'm thinking a break sounds really good about now."
"Aww," protested Willow. "But we were just gettin' groovy."
Tara dragged a hand across her forehead. "I think I've depleted my groove reserves."
"A national emergency if ever I've heard one," declared Willow with a grin, linking arms with Tara and delivering a comforting squeeze. "A break it is. Coming, Buff?"
"No," returned Buffy crisply. "I thought I'd just stand out here and keep dancing, all alone, because I haven't really been humiliated lately, and I'm overdue."
With a roll of her eyes, Willow threaded her free hand into the crook of Buffy's elbow and the trio retired to the table recently reclaimed by Xander. However, much to the girls' dismay, upon arrival they discovered that their glasses had been drained. Not one solitary melting ice cube remained. Xander's drink had likewise evaporated. Blinking in disbelief, Willow peered into the non-depths of her glass, while Buffy turned hers upside down and jiggled it regretfully.
"My drink," squeaked Willow.
"Uh-huh," said Xander.
"You drank my drink."
Willow turned to him accusingly. "But it was my drink."
"I think you'll find the operative word here is 'was'," Xander told her with an affirming nod.
Tara sighed thirstily. "I'll go get us some more."
"No need," assured Xander, "for you see ..."
With a grand gesture, he wiggled his fingers in the air. As though on cue, a waitress materialized, suddenly appearing behind the girls and causing both Willow and Tara to visibly jump. Holding aloft a tray, she deposited four fresh beverages on the table.
"Xander taketh, and Xander giveth away," announced the giver-taker in regal fashion.
He was instantly forgiven for his transgressions as the girls settled more comfortably into their seats and reached for the welcome refreshment. But the waitress had not yet fully completed her mission. Beneath Xander's watchful eye, she made one more delivery, moving expertly through the crowd to another table not too far away.
Dawn started as a large, brightly-colored and obviously fruity concoction, complete with floating maraschino cherry on a stem, was thrust under her nose. For a long moment, Dawn seemed puzzled but then she glanced up at the waitress, who jerked her head in Xander's direction, identifying him as the mysterious and unexpected benefactor. Xander grinned, and Dawn briefly smiled her thanks, but it was cursory at best, vaporizing from her face as quickly as it had emerged. Her friends, on the other hand, treated Xander and his three companions to beaming smiles and enthusiastic waves before returning to their apparently self-appointed chore of bolstering Dawn's badly flagging spirits. Realizing that his attempt had done nothing to relieve Dawn's depression, Xander let out a small huff of disappointment.
"That was sweet," said Tara, offering comfort by patting the back of his hand.
Xander sighed. "And yet, ineffective."
"Yeah," agreed Willow with a sympathetic pout. "She's in a real funk. Poor Dawnie."
Buffy glowered darkly. "Explain to me again why I can't give Mr. Finlay a first-hand demonstration on Slayer strength?"
"Cuz that'll lead to police and jail, a life forever tarnished by the cruel reality of The Big House," replied Willow, slurping noisily, "and a rather girthful new love interest nicknamed 'Rita the Beater'." Willow's gaze flittered around the table as everyone stared. "What?" she mumbled around her straw.
Xander regarded her with a narrowed eye. "Your thoughts are not normal thoughts."
"You can't because Dawn asked you not to," Tara stated firmly. "And—" she quickly added as Buffy prepared to launch into a tirade that promised to be quite lengthy and vitriolic, "you can't be mad at Grip."
Buffy was far from convinced. "I think you'll find that being mad at people is something I'm actually pretty good at."
"But it's not his fault," insisted Tara.
Immediately, Buffy dismissed such an unfounded theory. "He broke my little sister's heart, and that's not his fault?"
"It's not all his fault," pressed Tara unwaveringly. "It's just ... I mean, you have to admit, it's a pretty big thing to swallow. I know when Willow first told me, about vampires and Slayers and stuff?" She paused, and her eyebrows knitted together. "Well, okay, I believed it—"
Widening her eyes, Buffy delivered a 'There, see??' gesture.
Tara had already prepared a defense. "But I already had a lot of evidence to back it up."
"Hello, witch," murmured Willow, smirking over the top of her straw.
"Right, exactly," said Tara. "Plus the 'you're a demon' stuff, and the scary floaty quiet men. I already had a frame of reference." She regarded Buffy soberly. "Grip doesn't have that."
"He's a good guy," added Xander. "Maybe in time ..."
Folding her arms, Buffy sat back in her chair. "I just hate seeing her so sad."
Instinctively, three pairs of eyes plus one, drifted toward Dawn's table. She had barely moved since the last time they'd looked at her and hadn't so much as touched her temptingly large, deliciously fruity beverage. Scooting closer, Ginny whispered in Dawn's ear and was instantly rewarded by a sliding of the glass in her direction. With an expression of sheer delight, Ginny popped the cherry into her mouth and then began to slurp. Glancing up, she noticed Xander and company watching – in particular, she noticed Xander. Pointing to the drink, she favored him with a huge thumbs-up. Somewhat awkwardly, Xander responded with a smile and reciprocating acknowledgment. A reflection of smitten dreaminess invaded Ginny's features as she continued to stare at Xander, wistfully and adoringly, while taking long pulls through her straw. Averting his gaze, Xander rapidly turned his attention back to his friends.
"She'll be okay. She'll be fine," assured Willow. "She'll be okay, then fine, a-and finally good. Great, even." She waited for confirmation but none was forthcoming. "It's— I mean, it hurts, but hey, we've all been there, with the relationship pain, and we all got through it without lasting damage. Right?"
Buffy and Xander offered nothing but a flat and level look. Willow's searching eyes darted nervously back and forth between the pair a few times and then became anxious.
"Okay!" she finally said, seizing Tara's hand. "Dance with me."
"But what about—" objected Tara, being pulled mercilessly toward the floor. She was obliged to yield to a force stronger than her own. "Yeah, okay."
The harsh tempo of the band's previous songs had been traded in for a soft, slow tune, and the frantic lighting of the Vortex had been toned down to match. For a minute or two, Buffy and Xander simply watched the couple dance. With closed eyes and contented smiles, they held each other tightly, Tara's cheek resting on Willow's shoulder while Willow caressed Tara's hair.
"Guess it's pretty easy to play the optimism card when your true blue defies death and you get a happily ever after," Xander speculated with a wry smile.
"I wouldn't know," said Buffy simply.
Xander nodded. "Yeah, me neither."
They fell into a companionable silence, a hush that was neither awkward nor uncomfortable, and continued to watch Willow and Tara for a while longer. Then Buffy lifted her glass.
"To happily every after," she announced.
She turned to Xander and they chinked glasses in a toast.