Chapter 8: Date

Chapter 8: Date

                Spike looked down at his cards. 

                *Fuckin' full house!  This is definitely my night!*   He knew his face had kept its bland, slightly bored expression perfectly.  He folded the cards up and laid them on the table - poured a drink and got a smoke and eyed the other players.  On his left was a vampire who'd won on and off half the night and was currently 'off' and sweating (metaphorical) blood.  Spike recognized the tell-tale signs of debt panic and had been milking it for hours.  A furry sort of demon that Spike had only encountered long enough to kill, in the past, and who was currently looking at Spike with beady, suspicious eyes sat across from him, huge and hulking and drinking Mai Tai's.   And Clem, of course, who just couldn't seem to stop playing even when he had the worst hand possible.   Spike took another drink and picked his cards up again - fanned them.

                "Right then.  I suppose...I'll see you and raise..." he reached into the basket by his side and counted by feel.  "Raise you ten."  The furry demon clicked to itself and the vamp sucked in a nervous breath.  Clem just slumped a little, looking sad.

                *Jesus.  None of these wankers can keep a straight face.*  Spike took a long puff on his smoke and glanced over as the door to the main barroom opened and Willy scuttled through.  There was the sound of shouting and glass being broken, abruptly cut off by the slamming door.

                "Hey, guys, hey, Spike," Willy said, and stood there for a moment, shuffling nervously from foot to foot.

                "Willy," Clem said, and Spike nodded to the man.

                "Well, mate, you gonna raise or call?" Spike asked the vamp.  The vamp looked at his cards and seemed to be doing some sort of mental calculation.

                "Hey, Spike -" Willy said, and Spike sighed.

                "You already said that, mate.  You need something?"  Spike looked at Willy, one eyebrow up, and Willy swallowed and brushed at his shirt - looked over his shoulder when a muffled crash came through the door.

                "Yeah, uh, there's - there's this little problem up front with - with -"

                "Spit it out, man, for fuck's sake," Spike growled, and Willy held his hands up in a 'don't hurt me' gesture. 

                "There's a little problem up front with your - friend."  Spike gave Willy a blank look as the man waggled his eyebrows and did some sort of hand-gesture, a sort of up and down motion that meant he was either gonna jerk off right there or -

                *Oh Christ.  The SLAYER?  Does he mean -*   "Are you talkin' about a...small, blonde problem?" Spike asked slowly, and Willy grinned in relief, wincing when something smashed into the door.

                 "Yeah!   That's the one!  That's the problem."  Willy looked pleadingly at Spike, and Spike sighed heavily, looking up at the ceiling.

                *Damn Slayer.  She was no trouble when she was dead.*   "All right.  Let me just finish here -" Spike lifted his cards just a little, indicating the table and Willy looked at them - blinked and pursed his lips in a low whistle.

                "Wow!" he said, and Spike briefly closed his eyes. 

                *Bloody bastard just gave away my hand.*   He deliberately let the demon come to the fore and opened his eyes.  Willy's own eyes went wide and he paled. 

                 "I mean - yeah, you - you finish that up then, Spike, and I'll just -"   Willy shuffled away from Spike's murderous glare and the rest of the table folded practically simultaneously.  Spike threw down his cards and grabbed his winnings, stuffing them into the basket he'd brought.  He shoved cigarettes and lighter into a pocket, grabbed his bottle and stomped out of the back room.

               

                "What in bloody hell were you thinking, Slayer?" Spike snapped, leading Buffy away from Willy's by one arm.  Buffy yanked her arm free - reeled a little - and Spike grabbed her again.

                "You just shut up, Spike!  I was - I was just - letting off some steam, and - having a drink!"

                "You're drunk, Slayer!  You beat up half the bar!  You broke Willy's Elvis mirror!  Bloody git loved that mirror!  I'll be hearin' about it for weeks!"  Spike whacked the side of his basket with the bottle and the high-pitched meows that were coming from it subsided.  Buffy's eyes went wide, and she leaned towards Spike, staring at the basket.

                "Are there kittens in there?  You have a basket full of kittens?"

                "Was playin' poker, wasn't I?  It's the currency 'round here, for certain sets."  Spike irritably got out a cigarette and lit it - looked hard at the wobbling Slayer who was still staring at the basket.

                "Listen, ducks, what were you really doin' down here?  It's not like you, the drinkin' and the fightin'...  Well, not the drinkin', anyway.  What's up?"  Buffy looked up at him and blinked, then abruptly pulled away and took a few steps down the street.

                "I just - I feel like I'm...lost, Spike.  I went with Willow the other day, to audit some classes?  And I didn't understand anything!  And - something weird happened.  It was like - time was all messed up, and - and I was at the shop and it happened again only it was this crazy loop-de-loop thing that - and - at work -"  Buffy sniffed and wiped her eyes, and Spike came up beside her, putting the basked of kittens down between his feet.

                "I know, Slayer - Xander told me.  Seems like you've got some enemies, yeah?  Somebody messin' with you."

                "It's just too much!"  Buffy kicked at an empty beer bottle, sending it rolling wildly down the street.  It crashed into the wheel of a large, black van and Buffy suddenly went still.

                "That van. I've seen that van.  It was at the site.  And - and outside the Magic Box.  That van - is stalking me."  Buffy moved, breaking into a trot and Spike cursed and darted after her, losing the bottle in the process.  It smashed wetly and he cursed again.   He could see someone - male - behind the wheel, frantically starting the engine and then trying to put the van in gear.  There was a grinding noise as he flubbed it and Buffy was at the door, yelling and pounding on the side panel.

                "What are you doing!  Why are you stalking me!"  Buffy yelled, and Spike snarled and reached past her, grabbing the boy by his shirt-front and yanking him half out the window.

                "Speak up, you bastard, what the hell -"   Recognition flooded the wide-eyed face of the driver and hit Spike at the same moment.  Warren, who'd made the Buffybot and who'd escaped Glory's penthouse, never to be seen again.

                "You," Spike snarled, and the boy jerked frantically at his shirt, popping a button.

                "Johnathan!" he yelled, and there was a scurrying tumble in the back.   Spike strained up on tiptoe and caught a glimpse of two more figures - blond hair and a pale face - and then there was a low sort of chanting and the whump of displaced air.  Buffy, who had been fairly successfully bending the door right out of the frame suddenly reeled back as a large, scaly demon slithered down from the top of the van right onto her.    She went down with a yelp and Spike let the boy go to grab a double handful of dry, horny hide and try to sling the demon away.  It whipped its head up, snarling, and lunged for his face and Spike stumbled back.  Buffy was struggling upright and she leapt onto its back, gouging with a stake.  The van's engine revved and then it peeled out, leaving smoking tire-marks on the asphalt.  A moment later Spike was snapping the demon's neck just as Buffy got her stake through its hide and the demon collapsed, dying twitches making it roll towards the gutter.  Spike kicked it, hard, and looked in fury after the van.

                "That bastard.  That little fuck -"

                "Who was that?  Did you know him?"  Buffy was looking in disgust at her jacket, which had demon slobber on it, and Spike grimaced and reached into his duster for his flask.  He took a long drink and offered it to the Slayer, who wrinkled her nose, refusing.

                "Yeah, I knew him.  It was that little wanker that made the 'bot.  Warren.  Wondered where he got to.  Guess he's the one followin' you, Slayer.  And there were two others.  He said 'Johnathan', and there was some blonde kid."  Spike drained his flask and put it away - walked over to his kitten basket and picked it up.

                "Well, at least I know who's been playing all those - stupid tricks on me."  Buffy finally put her stake back in her sleeve and stumbled over to the curb - sank down with her elbows on her knees and her head hanging down.   "Spike?  Are you guys gonna - are you gonna tell Giles?  What - I said about - being dead?"  Her voice was shaky and small and Spike sighed - sat down next to her.

                "You're just - making' Xan and everybody nervous, Slayer.  You're not actin' -"

                "Like somebody who's been 'rescued' from hell?  I can't help it, Spike."   Buffy looked up at him, and tears were making her makeup run, painting dark circles under her eyes and emphasizing the pallor and thinness that hadn't passed since her resurrection.   "Everything here is so - hard, and cold and...violent.  I was - glad to be done.  Done being the Slayer.  I was glad to be gone...  And trying to be - normal...trying to be...happy...  It's just so hard."  Buffy wiped her eyes - sniffed, tipping her head back to look up at the hazy sky.

                "And it seems like, the harder I try, the harder it is, and just getting up - just...living...is exhausting.  I don't - don't think I can -"

                "Now, Slayer," Spike interrupted, and she caught her breath in a sob and looked away, fighting for control.  "I know it's hard, pet.  I can't imagine - what you're feeling.  But the Bit needs you, Slayer.  Even if you give up on everything else, she needs you.  You should - tell 'em, Slayer.  Tell 'em what Red did, and what's wrong.  Maybe your Watcher can help.  Or Glinda.  They'd want to, you know."  Buffy pushed her hands back through her hair - just sat there for a minute, her fingers squeezing her skull and her eyes wide and staring.

                "I don't think I can, Spike.  They'll look at me....they'll pity me, and...  I can't - let them all down."

                "Not about them, Slayer," Spike said softly, and they sat in silence for a long moment.

                "Just - don't tell Giles, okay?" Buffy said finally, looking over at Spike.  "Let me - let me do it.  I owe him that."

                "Sure, pet.  If that's what you want."  Buffy smiled weakly at him and went back to contemplating her shoes - or maybe the gutter, Spike couldn't be sure.  He sighed and leaned back on his hands, looking at the thin curve of the new moon, idly finding Oz in the link, and Xander.  Oz was just a low hum, contentment and lust and Spike knew he was with Derio.  Xander was home, reading in bed and half asleep, tired from his week's work.

                *Be there in a bit, love,* Spike thought softly, and Xander sent back the mental equivalent of a hug and kiss; warm, gentle caress all through Spike's soul and he grinned into the night, shivering with pleasure.

                "How did you know, anyway?  You and Xander?"  Buffy said, and Spike blinked - looked over at her.

                "Xan saw it.  Used that gift, you know - saw your soul.  He could feel what you were feeling.  Could feel that death-wish all twisting up around you."  Buffy shook her head slowly, and looked back down.

                "It's not - I don't...  Damn it, maybe I do.  I don't know!  I'm just...so tired..."

                "Plenty of people to help you, Slayer.  All you have to do is ask.  You know that, don't you?"  Spike had to smile at the small face she made then, looking over at him and almost laughing.

                "You're supposed to hand me that totally illegal razor you keep in your pocket and tell me the best place to open up a vein, Spike.  You're not supposed to be all - 1-800-Life-Is-Great!"  Buffy grinned, sniffing, and Spike grinned back.

                "I wouldn't let you do that, Slayer - there are much better ways to go," Spike said, and flashed his fangs at her, leering.  Buffy choked on a laugh, snorting, and for a moment they just laughed together.  Then Spike pulled out a smoke and lit it, and Buffy sighed and wiped her eyes again.

                "Xan would hate it if you did that, Slayer.  They all would.  And I won't let anything hurt my boy if I can help it.  Or the Niblet, either.  So best buck up.  Go tell your Watcher and let him help, yeah?  I can't keep Xander from tellin' him for too much longer."  They'd had that argument, and Spike had finally convinced Xander to let Buffy have a little more time, but Xander was worried, and fretting, and Oz too, so Spike figured he could help them by pushing the Slayer a little in the direction they wanted her to go.

                "You...really love him.  I mean - more than...  You just...love him."

                "Everything to me, Slayer.  All," Spike murmured, looking straight at her.  Buffy nodded and then a funny look came over her face and Spike raised an eyebrow.

                *Jesus - is she gonna cry again?*   "You all right, Slayer?"

                "I think I'm gonna throw up," Buffy said, and Spike immediately scooted a couple feet away, tucking his duster protectively behind him.

                "You go right ahead then, better out than in," Spike said, and Buffy did.

 

 

                "Xander!  We need more mandrake root!" Anya yelled over the music and the crowd-noise, and executed a tight little spin around him on her roller skates.  He stared, fascinated, and she spun around and rolled away, graceful and...

                *Damn hot in those shorts.  Where'd she learn to skate like that?*

                *Been practicing all week,* Oz thought, sending a picture of Anya on her ass in the middle of the Magic Box, skates flailing.  Xander choked back a laugh and pushed his way through the crowd, heading for the basement and mandrake root.  They'd all agreed to help Anya with her big Halloween sale, and she had them all hopping like good little bunnies.  He was pretty sure the door-bell hadn't stopped jangling all evening.

                *Only no bunnies allowed.  Heh.  Should have dressed like a bunny,* Xander though, sighing with relief as he opened the door to the basement steps.  He pulled his pirate eye patch off and went down.  The damn thing was giving him a headache.  It eliminated his depth perception and he'd tripped on the stairs in the shop proper a half-dozen times already.  He so did not want to take a header down the steep basement steps.

                *Told you, pet,* faintly from Spike, and Xander stuck out a mental tongue.  Spike had opted out of helping - using his 'No self-respecting Child of the Night is out on this night' card.  Which Anya totally understood, which was unfair.  Xander had tried to argue that, as the husband - or whatever - of the evil undead he should be exempt as well, but Anya had just given him that look.  The one that said 'I wasn't the best Vengeance Demon for 1000 years for nothing, bucko', and Xander had caved.  He'd left Spike on the couch, curled up in his oldest jeans and t-shirt and one of Xander's flannels, a copy of 'Woe to Live On' propped on his knees, the big bowl of Halloween candy and his bottle of Jack beside him.  The couch was already littered with mini Hershey and Crunch wrappers and Xander had poked the vampire with his plastic pirate sword.

                "Don't eat all the candy, Spike!  There's gonna be tons of kids out here."

                "Sod 'em.  Little buggers can go begging elsewhere," Spike had grumbled, reaching out and snagging a Pixie Stix.

                "No, no, no.  You can't NOT give them candy - they'll TP the house!" Spike tipped his head up, pouring pale pink sugar-dust down his throat.

                "I'll just show 'em my real face, then they'll leave me be." 

                "No, they'll say it's the worst mask they've ever seen and throw eggs at the DeSoto.  Hellmouth kids are tough!  Just - leave SOME for the kids, okay?"  Spike's eyes had gleamed gold at the mention of the DeSoto and he'd looked enraged and then disgruntled.

                "Why don't you just stay, love?  Demon-girl doesn't need EVERYBODY -"

                "Can't do it, Spike," Xander said, gleeful now at the prospect of Spike stuck opening the door to hordes of sugar-hyped seven-year-olds all night.  "She'll do something nasty to my manly parts if I don't show up.  You know how she is."  Spike snarled a little but he nodded, defeated, and Xander leaned down and kissed him, chocolate and tart dust, cream and whiskey.   A heady combination.

                "You be good and don't scare anybody and I'll let you teach me a new trick tonight, hrmmm?" he murmured, and Spike yanked him close for a hard, sharp-toothed kiss and Xander had driven to the Magic Box with his lips tingling and his groin throbbing, willing the night to pass quickly.

 

                "Arrrgh!  Mandrake root for the bonny buxom lassie!" Xander passed the root to Willow, who took it with a distracted, smiling 'thanks', Scotch tape fluttering from her fingers and her 'Dorothy' braids looking a little frazzled.  Xander grinned and went off to stop a small Harry Potter from climbing a bookshelf and laughed at Oz, who was being harried by another Harry Potter and a fairy princess, both of whom were trying to out-do each other in the wand-waving department.  Dawn was behind the counter as well, decidedly not in costume, doing her best to wrap purchases in the fancy way Anya insisted on.  Giles was earnestly trying to convince a trio of older granola-and-hairy-legs kind of woman that yes, datura was a sacred plant in certain circles but they really did not want to make datura-brownies for their monthly moon-sabbat.  The women seemed determined and Giles was looking a bit panicky.

                "Hey, Giles, can I help you?" Xander asked, waving his sword, and for a moment it looked as if the older man might just ask Xander to make the women walk the plank.

                "Yes, yes you can - please get Tara for me, would you?  Perhaps she can talk some - explain."  Giles glared at the women and stepped closer, catching Xander's arm.  "Do you think it would be terrible of me to just let them have their datura?  It's not certain they'll die a horrible death," he muttered and Xander stifled the hysterical laughter that threatened.

                "You know - maybe I'll just take these ladies on over to Tara right now.  Why don't you take a break, Giles?" Xander couldn't help grinning and Giles smiled reluctantly back. 

                "There are just so many of them!" he said, and Xander nodded and patted Giles' shoulder.

                "Giles.  Stay British.  You'll be okay.  Now - ladies!  Let me take you over to our resident witch, she has all the answers."  Xander herded the ladies over to the cloth-draped table where Tara was doing the occasional Tarot reading and answering questions dressed in a 'traditional' gypsy headscarf and voluminous skirts.    The ladies squealed and descended on her, chattering.  Tara mock-glared at him and he darted away. 

                "This is nuts," Buffy said, using Slayer strength to separate a Jason and a Freddy who seemed intent upon eviscerating each other.    She was wearing a Xena costume and Xander poked her in the armor.

                "Yeah - but at least it's just plain human nuts and not, you know - Hellmouth nuts," Xander said.  Buffy rolled her eyes.

                "I'm not sure it's any better.  I can't actually slay any of the customers.   Stop that!"  Buffy darted after a miniature witch in a fluffy tulle costume who was trailing dried frogs from a torn-open box.  The door-bell jangled again and Xander glanced up to see Dawn's friend come in.

                "Hey, Janice!"

                "Hey, Cap'n Hook."  Janice grinned and waved at Dawn who shoved a wad of glittery tissue paper into Anya's arms and scurried out from behind the counter.

                "At last!  I thought I was gonna go crazy if I had to wrap one more idol.  Let's get out of here!"

                "Where are you going?" Buffy demanded, popping up from gathering dried frogs and Dawn made a 'duh' face.

                "To Janice's house?  I told you about this last week.  We're gonna hit the shops downtown for candy and then I'm spending the night.  Remember?"

                "That's tonight?"

                "No - that's the other Halloween, the one that happens in June.  C'mon, Buffy, you said yes already!"

                "But I don't remember saying yes!  That can't count."  Dawn started to frown and Janice was looking a little desperate and Buffy finally sighed, shaking her head.  "Right, fine.  It's Halloween, nothing's going on - you guys go straight home, all right?  No - loitering around in cemeteries or anything."

                "Ewww - as if," Janice said, making a face, and Dawn gave Buffy a quick hug, wincing a little when the costume's buckles dug into her ribs.

                "Ow!  That costume is hazardous," Dawn said, and Buffy took up a stance, fists on hips and chin at a haughty angle.

                "No more hazardous than my mighty cleavage!" she crowed, and Dawn broke down into snarfling laughter.  There was a running joke about 'the cleavage' that Xander wasn't privy to, but he'd caught muttered comments about duct tape and industrial strength glue, and decided he didn't want to know.  The costume did show off quite a bit of...Buffy.

                *SO not going there.  Oz, please, distract me,* Xander thought, watching Dawn and Janice hurry out the door. 

                *Spike in a Xena costume?*   Oz was sitting on the top step of the stairs to the loft and Xander looked up at him, giggling.

                *Oh god.  Distracted now.   How's it going?*

                *Pretty good.  He's staying nicely grounded.*   After some discussion with Derio and then with Spike and Xander, Oz had volunteered to teach Ethan what he'd learned in Tibet.  He figured if it could control the wolf than it might help the mage get his magic back under control.  It seemed to be working, to an extent, but Ethan had suffered real damage at the hands of the Initiative and no matter what he learned from Oz his control wouldn't be complete until he was fully healed.  Neither Giles nor Ethan knew when that might be, but the reduction in random magics - and the lessening of the out-of-control energy that had poured off the man for the first few weeks -was a relief to everyone.  

                Ethan seemed to have taken a liking to Oz, and at the moment he was sitting cross-legged up in the loft, meditating.  Oz had thought the distractions of the shop would be a good test and had stayed close to him most of the night.

                *That's great, Oz.  I don't think I could do that, in all this...chaos.*

                *I think the chaos helps.  It's his - baseline, I guess.  He gets power from it.  Only now he's controlling the chaos, if that makes sense.*

                *Sure - like...a band.  The crowd's all crazy and wild but if the band plays the right song they can calm everybody down - have 'em all swaying and holding their lighters in the air. Or have 'em riot.*   Oz grinned at him, his green eyes sparkling out from under the afro wig he was wearing.  He'd come as Jimi Hendrix and Ethan and Giles had both made him sing 'All Along the Watchtower'.

                *Exactly,* Oz thought.  Xander turned from the stairs and surveyed the shop.  Children milled and darted, fueled by the huge plastic pumpkin full of candy Anya had reluctantly provided.  Parents and other adults were busily stripping the shelves in a show of holiday greed.  Anya's fingers flew over the register keys and Xander noticed something sparkly on her left hand.

                *Wonder if that's the 'big announcement',* he thought.  Anya had declared that they all had to stay until closing because she wanted to tell them something important - she'd even offered to order pizza and Xander knew there was a cooler full of soda in the training room. 

                *Nearly done here,* he thought at Spike, and received a blast of relief and irritation from the vampire.

                *Little bastards won't stop coming!  THIS is why we hide out on Halloween - this is a bloody nightmare!* Spike complained, and Xander did a little jig over towards the 'Sumerian Mythologies' section of books where an elderly woman and a college age man seemed to be having a tug-of-war.

                *Only on the Hellmouth,* Xander thought.

 

                "Oh. My. God."  Buffy shut the shop door and locked it - flipped the sign over to 'closed'.  "That was...just..."

                "Incredible!  Absolutely incredible!"  Anya was still at her register, surrounded by piles of receipts, checks, charge slips and cash.  She was practically dancing, and after a moment she did dance.  "You guys are the best!  I mean - look at all this money I made!"  Giles coughed loudly and Anya paused in her hip-swivels.

                "We made, of course.  Isn't it wonderful, Giles?"

                "Delightful.  What are you doing?"  Giles was slumped at the bottom of the loft steps with Ethan a step up behind him, rubbing his shoulders.

                "It's my dance of Capitalist Superiority!  C'mon, join in!"  Anya picked up some bills and fanned them - flourished them above her head."

                "Ah - well, no, thank you.  I'm a bit -"

                "Exhausted?" Buffy said, flopping down on the other steps and tugging at her Xena skirt.  Tara sat down next to her and Buffy pulled a length of gypsy skirt over her legs.  "Jeez, how did she do anything in this?" Buffy muttered.

                "Well actually, you've worn...much more appropriate stuff on patrol.  Yeah, exhausted," Xander held up his hands to ward off the death-glare Buffy was directing at him and Tara giggled.

                "I can't believe there are that many people in Sunnydale into the occult!  It's amazing we don't have more wacky stuff happening."   Willow looked up from examining her stuffed Toto.  Someone had stuck a half-sucked lollipop to its head and she frowned, tugging at it.

                "Now if you guys'll just get cleaning -" Anya said, handing a broom to Willow and dustpan to Oz, "I'll order pizza."

                "Hey, why don't I just do a little cleaning spell?  Like Mickey in Fantasia?"  Willow sat up excitedly and Giles made a face behind her.

                "Yes, we all know how well that worked out.  How about we do it the old-fashioned way?"  Giles hoisted himself to his feet, groaning, and Ethan stood up as well.

                "Come on, old man, sit back down. I haven't done a thing all night," Ethan said softly, and Giles smiled at him.

                "It'll go quicker with all of us pitching in," he said, but dropped a quick kiss on Ethan's cheek.  They both moved over to the counter and started gathering up tissue paper and bags and Willow stood up, wielding her broom.

                "I'd like to think I'm a little more competent than a cartoon mouse," she grumbled, and Tara patted her arm as she walked by.

                "Sure you are, honey.  You've even got all your fingers, so no giant white gloves to over-compensate,"

                "Which really, thank god, 'cause the big white hands give me the creeps."  Oz followed Willow and Xander pushed away from the bookshelf he'd been leaning on and started gathering stray books into a pile.

 

                It took almost forty minutes to get the shop back into shape - for the Post-Holiday Clearance Sale! Anya announced happily.  She was met by a chorus of groans and Xander started babbling something about a post-Halloween blood ritual that he and Spike had to perform. 

                "Or we both die!  A horrible, painful, messy death!" Anya just glared at him and Xander slumped in resignation.  She went over to the loft steps and climbed up a couple - turned, facing them where they sprawled on the floor or sat at the table amidst a litter of pizza boxes and soda cans.

                "Everyone!  I have an announcement to make.  You all remember Drake, my boyfriend?"  They all nodded, and Anya looked thoughtful.  "Well, maybe you don't, Buffy, I mean you were dead for almost five months -"

                "Drake.  Tall guy, brown hair, glasses.  I met him last week, Anya."  Buffy looked a little peeved, and Anya nodded.

                "Okay, so.  Drake.  He asked me to marry him and I -"

                "He did?  Wow!  Anya, that's great -!"

                "Oh, c-congratulations, Anya!"

                "Marry.  Really?  That's - that's -"   Willow, Tara and Giles all spoke at once while Buffy just stared in shock.  Oz and Xander exchanged eye-rolls and Ethan surreptitiously grabbed the last slice of anchovy-mushroom off Giles' plate.

                "Well, I said I'd have to think about it, of course.  I mean, you don't just leap into something like that!  I had to talk to a couple of ex-girlfriends, and look over his retirement plan first.  Things like that are very important.  But yesterday morning, after we had our wake-up sex, I told him yes!"  Anya beamed, looking expectant, and after a moment to catch up, everyone started the congratulations over again.  Anya came down the stairs, holding her hand up and showing off her ring and Buffy, Willow and Tara bounced up to squeal over it, hugging the ex-demon.  

                *Jesus.  Do you think we'll have to be...IN the wedding?*   Xander had a sudden, horrible vision of a cousins' wedding years ago when he'd been tapped to be an usher.  The drunkenness, bickering, last-minute hysteria and mind-melting orange bridesmaid's dresses had made a vivid impression.

                *Scarred me for life.*

                *Maybe she'll just want us to play for free?  We can hide backstage most of the night.*   Oz had no better memories of family weddings, except his usually involved distant aunts and half-remembered second cousins pinching his cheeks and asking his mom when he was going to get his growth spurt.

                 *God, that's awful.  Maybe she'll elope.*

                *Nothing wrong with weddings,* Spike chimed in.  *Free food, free drinks, hordes of desperate, unmarried girls panting to dance with you and go for a snog in the broom cupboard.  Me an' Dru had brilliant times at weddings.*

                 *But everyone is supposed to survive this one,*  Xander thought, and he and Oz laughed quietly together, picturing Spike facing down a half-drunk Harris or a 'concerned' Osbourne.  

                "Oh, we should party!"  Willow was saying, and waved her hand.   Suddenly bright paper lanterns and streamers appeared around the shop, a little glitter of magical energy dancing in the wake of Willow's fingers.  Ethan flinched, looking sidelong at her, and Giles frowned while Anya clapped her hands.

                "Oh!  Very nice!  This is only the first of the parties, too!  There's my bachelorette party to plan, and my wedding shower - I'm told there are lots of opportunities for presents at all these traditional functions!"

                "Don't you think -" Tara said, and then bit her lip, turning away from Willow to pick up her soda and take a tiny sip.

                "What is it, honey?" Willow asked, stroking her arm, and Tara turned back around.

                "Willow, there's a party store j-just two blocks away.  We could have gone down there and bought some decorations.  You didn't need to do - this," Tara gestured around her and Willow smiled.

                "Well, we could have gone down there, but this was quicker!  And - these are extra-good 'cause in a couple of hours, 'poof'!  Nothing to put in a landfill!"

                "Yeah, but - magic shouldn't be used for...just anything.  For just everyday stuff."  Tara was frowning a little, and Willow's own smile faded a bit.

                "I just wanted to make Anya happy, Tara - it's not like I conjured up a - a Mariachi band or something!  Although, I think I -"
                "No!  Willow, you just - magic isn't for this!  It's -"

                "It's not a toy, little witch, and it's not a dare.  Best listen to Jiminy Cricket."  Ethan was still looking uneasy and Giles' hand was on his shoulder, rubbing just a little.    Willow bristled at his words and shot a glare at him.

                "You're one to talk.  All I'm doing is - harmless stuff!  Party balloons!  You made people die with your magic.  I'm not killing anybody!"

                "Not yet," Ethan snapped, and Willow opened her mouth again to say something but stopped when Tara touched her hand.

                "Honey, don't.  Please?  Let's...  I'm s-sorry, okay?  I just wanted you to - to think about what you're doing, is all,"

                "Tara, I do-"   Willow was interrupted by the phone ringing, and Anya waved her hand in the air.

                "Don't answer, we're closed!  Let's just look at these Bride magazines I've got."  She moved towards the counter and Buffy followed her.

                "Better answer, Anya - it might be Dawn."  Anya sighed, but flapped her hand at the phone.

                "Fine, go ahead.  But if it's a customer we do not do after hours deliveries.  Unless they want to pay triple."  Anya looked almost eager at that and Buffy just shook her head - picked up the phone.

                "Magic Box - oh, hey, Mrs. Penshaw...  No, we're not home, this is the shop number.  And Dawn's not here, she's staying over at your house...  But she said...  Well, no, but...  Look, I'll go find them right now, okay?    Yeah...  I'll call you."  Buffy hung up the phone and turned to them in the sudden silence that had fallen.  She was pale but her mouth was set in a hard line, and when she spoke it was obvious she was angry.

                "Dawn and Janice aren't at the Penshaw's - Janice told her mom she'd be staying over at our house.  So my little sister and her friend are out running around on the Hellmouth."  It took five minutes to designate areas of the town and then they were gone, weddings, decorations, and magical misuse mostly forgotten.

 

                "Don't know what you were thinkin', Bit, but don't you ever think it again."

                "But I didn't know he was dead!  I only met him tonight!"

                "So you were making out with a total stranger on your very first date?  Are you crazy, Dawn?"

                "It's not like you never kissed a vampire, Buffy!"

                "I knew he was a vampire!"  Buffy grabbed Dawn's arm and dragged her away at speed, lecturing at the top of her voice.  Xander, Oz and Spike watched them go - turned to watch Giles and Ethan climb into their car and wave a weary goodnight.  Willow, Tara and Anya had stayed at the store in case Dawn called or came by, the two witches still bristling and snapping at each other like wet cats.

                "Well, that was a fine ending to the day.  I think we need to go home and finish off the candy and watch 'Fight Club'," Xander said, and Oz raised his hand in the air, grinning.

                "I vote yes."

                "Two for me!  Spike?  What do you think?"  Spike started guiltily and tossed something away - a purple-and-white striped Pixie Stix tube.

                "I think we need to stop by the store," he muttered.  "Little bastards cleaned us out."ed and hioned way?"Giles made a face behind her.broom to Willow and dustpan to Oz, "I'll order pizza!"ar over a bo