The phone rang again, and Buffy dropped her fork to her plate with a sharp clink. "If that's another telemarketer, I'm reaching through the line and ripping their heart out," she grumbled as she stood to answer the telephone.
"I put us on the ‘no call' list," Willow responded. "So it shouldn't be. Could you pass the salt, Xander?"
Xander handed the salt across the table, wincing as Buffy snatched the receiver from the wall. "Don't break it, Buffy. I'm tired of dry walling that same spot over every time you rip the phone off the wall."
"Hello?" Irritation filled her voice as she spoke. There was silence for a moment, as she listened to the voice on the other end. When her eyes slid over to Dawn, there was a collective sigh of relief from Xander, Willow and Giles. Dawn slunk down in her seat, as all heads turned to her.
"Oh, the Dawnster's in for it this time," Xander mumbled, returning his attention to his plate of macaroni and cheese. Buffy held out the phone to Dawn.
"It's Liz," she said shortly. Taking the phone, Dawn slunk around the corner so that she could speak in private. Buffy returned to the table, grumbling, and silence reigned at the table for a moment before Willow finally spoke up.
"So, Valentine's Day on Saturday…," she said brightly. "Who's got plans?"
"I heard that someone has a very romantic evening planned." Xander said in his best ‘dramatic announcer's voice,' nudging Buffy with his elbow.
"Huh? Oh," she said shrugging. "Yeah, Brad and I are going out." Her gaze slid to Giles who watched her with polite interest. She stabbed at her macaroni with her fork, pushing it around on the plate. "He hasn't told me where we're going yet. Says he wants it to be a surprise."
"Oh, that sounds romantic!" Willow bubbled. "A surprise Valentine's Day date. I'm sure it'll be wonderful."
Buffy nodded, never lifting her eyes from her plate.
Xander turned to Giles. "How ‘bout you? Got anything big and romantic planned for Jo this weekend?"
"Well, I'm not sure how big and romantic it is, but I'm taking Jo to Le Bec Fin," he said. The gang looked impressed and Buffy smiled stiffly.
"Le Bec Fin ?" Willow squeaked, her eyes wide. "Wow, you and Jo must be really serious if you're taking her there."
Giles shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "Well, she told me that she…," he paused and looked up in relief. "Ah, Dawn, how is Liz?" All attention turned from him as Dawn came back around the corner, still holding the phone to her ear.
"Ok, I'll ask…," she said into the receiver, glancing hopefully in Buffy's direction. Listening to something Liz was saying, she nodded absently in agreement. "Uh huh, ok." She raised her voice and looked at Buffy as she continued, "Well, don't forget… Wednesday night dinner time is sacred around here. Talk to you later after West Wing, ok?" Dawn hung up the phone and turned to the gang, a wide smile on her face.
"You know that Liz is having a Valentine's Day party, right? Well she wants Shannon and me to stay for a sleepover afterwards," she said excitedly, as she sat back down and picked up her fork. "Can I?" she asked eagerly.
Buffy eyed her sister warily. Dawn's face was flushed with excitement. "Are her parents going to be there?"
Rolling her eyes, Dawn nodded as she began shoveling food into her mouth. "Of course. Liz's parties are always carefully supervised," she said in mock seriousness.
Buffy glared for a moment before relenting. "Assuming that you don't get into any trouble before the end of the week, you can go," she said grudgingly.
Dawn squealed happily, shoving one last forkful of food into her mouth before leaping from her seat. "Thank you," she said, wrapping her arms around Buffy's shoulders and squeezing before running upstairs.
Buffy gave a reluctant smile at her sister's enthusiasm.
"Well, that's just it," Xander said, dropping his fork to his plate. "Everyone's got plans for Valentine's Day except me." He looked disgusted. "There's no more depressing holiday to be single for."
"Excuse me, Pity-Boy," Willow said indignantly. "But I don't have a date either. You haven't cornered the market on datelessness, so stop acting like a big baby."
"Well then let's you and me go out together. We'll be each other's dates," he suggested.
A smile stretched across Willow's face. "Oh, that sounds like fun!" she said, bouncing in her seat. "It'll be like the good ol' days, when neither one of us could get a date."
Xander rolled his eyes, but said nothing, rising with Buffy to start clearing the table of the dinner dishes.
"I think it's great," Buffy said, stacking dishes. "Now everyone has plans for Valentine's Day." She shifted her gaze to Giles. "Some of us having more romantic plans than others, of course."
Giles smiled almost sadly at her before turning away. "At least we'll all be with people we care about."
"Yeah-lo," Xander wedged the phone between his shoulder and ear, as he struggled to open a jar of pickles that been previously tightened by Slayer strength.
"Yes," he answered guardedly.
"Hi. It's Carrie Whedon."
"Oh, yeah." He discarded the jar and quickly repositioned the phone to his other ear, suddenly happy to hear the friendly voice on the line. "Howdy. Checkin' in on the Dawnster? She's doin' fine. I'll go get her...wait, I can't get her, she's in school. Do I have to go get her?"
"Actually, I was calling for you..." Her tone was apprehensive.
"For me?" Xander glanced around to see if anyone was loitering close by. He had the kitchen to himself. "I'm not sick, am I?"
"I hope not, for my sake. How does The Slamdunk at 7:00 on Saturday sound?"
"Probably like a sports bar at happy hour."
"That would be the general idea." He could hear the grin decorating her tenor. "You like sports?"
"Sure... bowling, pinball, air hockey."
"Could a tower of greasy onion rings with a side of chipotle sauce persuade you to spend the evening with me at one of the town's favorite local haunts?"
"Here's the thing... I'm not a fan of haunts. Trying to cut down on the ghosts at the moment."
"How about I throw in a couple frosty pints of Whispering Pines Black-n-Tan?"
"Tempting." He stared out the kitchen window and spotted a couple finches fluttering along together on a bush. "Promise me no hauntings and you have yourself a deal."
"I'll put on my Ecto goggles, equip my proton pack, fire up the containment unit and meet you there at 7."
"I'm sorry... I'm prematurely revealing my inner geek, aren't I?"
"I happen to speak geek fluently," he assured her. "The Slamdunk at 7:00, the day after tomorrow. I'll be the one with the PKE meter."
"You have one?" She giggled.
"Not really. Would a cell phone that plays ‘Another One Bites the Dust' do?"
"As long as you don't mind sing-alongs."
Ethan lay awake and fully-dressed on top of his bed, staring at the dim glow of the ceiling of his hotel room. The pink letters flashed on and off, as the "Vacancy" sign outside his window flickered. He waited impatiently until his alarm's shrill tones sounded. Turning off the clock, he rose immediately and turned on the lights.
He pulled the shopping bags out from under the table and started to set things up. Sifting through the contents of the bags, his face lit up at the sight of the tissue-swathed item buried beneath some baggies of roots. "Ah yes. Looks like I have company after all." He carefully removed the package and unwrapped it, revealing a skull cleaned of flesh but still stained from what it held before.
"You look like you've had better days, friend." Ethan grinned as he brought the skull closer, staring into the hollow of its vacant eyes. "I've been where you are. Well, not entirely there, but closer than most have ever been and I don't envy you." He positioned the skull atop the table and with a mocking pat, he continued to unpack his bags.
He worked in silence for a moment, but with a glance back at the skull, he laughed. "I shouldn't ignore you, should I? After all, you're going to help bring me what I crave." He pulled out several candles. "Forgive my rudeness, I'm just rather excited. I have a date tomorrow with a very special lady. On Valentine's Day, no less." He chuckled. "Poetic, isn't it? I guess I'm just an old romantic at heart."
He spun around, sprinkling powder about the room, almost dancing with enthusiasm. As he put the bag down, he tapped the skull affectionately with his knuckles. "You're going to help bring her to me, friend. She'll wrap herself in my scent and then I'll call her when the time is right; when I'm ready for her. She'll come to me. Dawn will finally be mine."
Ethan smiled as he took up the decorative glass bottle Dawn had selected and held it tenderly in his hand. "Now, as you know," he said seriously to the skull, "the most difficult task of the spell is to leave the original perfume scent. After all, what good would a truth potion be if the hidden seduction spell tainted it with the smell of compost?"
He peered into the liquid thoughtfully. "You wanted a truth spell which no man can resist, including myself. Very well, dear Dawn. When you come to me, I will reveal myself to you...," he snickered as he positioned the candles around the room, gathering up the vials of oils and bags of powders. With a flick of his lighter, he lit two candles.
He pulled back the curtains to check the color of the sky. There was a pale glow at the horizon. He smiled, "Perfect. Spell work at dawn for my Dawn. And on Friday the 13 th!" He looked at the skull. "We couldn't have asked for a more appropriate date, now could we?"
Ethan looked approvingly around the room. Towels blanketed the carpeting. Dawn's terracotta cup was placed in the center, caked with her dried blood, while three separate ingredient dishes filled with colorful powders encircled the cup. To the side lay several bags of dried roots. Ethan began to unbutton his shirt, as he reached into the final bag and removed a jagged piece of shiny obsidian.
"Mustn't go so deep this time, else my deposit will be a total loss."
He disrobed and sat cross-legged on the towel, repositioning the cup at the crux of his legs. He placed the perfume bottle across from him and then carefully capped it with the hollow skull. He gave it a mocking salute before wrapping his left arm with his belt. "Ready, old man?" He cocked his head at the skull and picked up the knife. He grinned and then closed his eyes and began to breath deeply.
His scarred chest rose slowly up and down as he began to chant.
"Glorious Janus, hear my plea,
Return my Life back to me.
Heal my wounds and end my pain
And your greater glory will I attain."
He opened his eyes and spilled the powder from one dish into the center cup. Smoke began to drift up. The temperature of the room rose substantially and he mixed in the contents of another dish. He added the roots and oils, feeling his body burn with yearning. A wash of light radiated from him and he lifted his arm above the terracotta cup with the obsidian stone at the ready. He paused; the sharp edge hovered just above his pulsing forearm.
"Here is her blood and here is mine:
Our life forces I now entwine!"
The jagged blade ripped down and Ethan lowered his hand to the bowl. He watched carefully as the ruby potion trickled down to join the mix of powders, oils and roots below.
"Blood for blood, life for life
Bond me with my mystical wife!
Let her powers merge with mine
Let our strengths intertwine;
Let her heal me with her soul
Let her life make me whole
After her energies I imbue,
Janus, this lamb I'll give to you."
He reached out and grasped the smoking bowl and carefully poured it over the grinning skull. The eyes seemed to glow at him and through the sockets he could see the perfume bottle shimmer.
His breath grew shallow as sweat dripped from his forehead onto his naked chest. As the bowl emptied, he collapsed and looked across the floor at the skull. "You sure know how to take it out of a guy," he tried to laugh, but ended up gasping. "You took enough energy from me, but don't worry, my Dawn will give it back to me a hundred fold tomorrow night." He rolled over to stare at the ceiling and tightened his improvised tourniquet.
"You know, luv, I think I'm actually a bit jealous of this boy you fancy." Ethan couldn't help but snicker. "I hope you get what you want, my sweet. Because I know I will."
"Will... can I talk to you for a sec?" Xander peeked around the dining room door.
"You've been acting weird all day, so yes," she smiled, closed her laptop and motioned to the chair beside her. "My auditory and vestibular nerves are all yours."
"We talked about this, Will. Say it in laymen terms or fund my medical career... your choice."
"I'm all ears," she corrected. "What's up?"
"About our date tomorrow..."
"I can't wait." She gestured excitedly. "We're totally gonna party like it's 1999 plus 5. Nonstop people watching like days of old and we'll mock those hipsters more hip than us and scowl indignantly at their pretentious ways. Who needs a date when we have each other, right? The few, the proud, and the single!" She waited for a response and then noticed the worry in his wrinkled brow. "What?"
"I have a date."
"Yeah, with me."
"No, a real one. With a girl who might actually find me attractive or possibly wants to suck my brains out along with a variety of other organs. The jury's still out."
"So you'd rather chance death than spend Valentine's Day with me?" Willow asked with a wounded expression.
"Is there any answer that could spare me your gut wrenching, guilt-tripping, sappy eyes?"
"Then yes... I will risk death for a chance at the company of a woman who might like me for more than my carpentry skills and isn't bound by law 13a of the 'We Hate Cordelia' club to honor thy fellow anti-Cordy representative."
"But we had plans..."
"I know Will, but can't you grant me a stay of execution until Sunday?"
"It just won't be the same." She said, but then wavered under his pleading look. "Well... I guess we can always snub the commoners Sunday," she said with frustrated sigh.
"Thanks Will. I owe you one." He smiled gratefully. "If I survive."
"Survive what?" Buffy came around the corner and claimed a seat across from them. "You have another date with Lessa and her poker pals? I told you, they'll skin you alive every time you try to fill a flush."
"You're half right," Willow grumbled.
"Which half? The skinning part or that our little Xander has a date?" At Willow's nod at her second guess, Buffy's already cheerful face lit up even more. "It seems like just yesterday we were teaching him to dispatch Reph-knar demons and now he's all grown up." She sniffled and crinkled her brow with false sadness.
"With my usual track record of Splatstick romance, I'm probably going to need those dispatching skills," Xander said wearily.
"Who's the lucky lady?" Buffy probed.
"Dawn's school nurse?" Buffy nodded approvingly. "So my dear little sister's wicked plot to get you two together has finally worked. If this goes well, maybe she should look into a career as a matchmaker."
"I want to hope for the best, but I gotta say I can't seem to get my inner cheerleader to rile up the crowd. Not that my heart should be in it so early. I mean... I'm just not sure I'm ready. Maybe it's still too early. Maybe I'm not good for anyone right now. Maybe she's a demon..."
"Maybe you're having a serious case of the wigsome nervous jitters because you really like her and you want it to work." Willow suggested.
"We just met," Xander shook his head. "But I do like her. She's... she's refreshing."
"And she makes you smile," Buffy said contentedly.
He hadn't even realized that he was smiling. "I guess she does."
The rusty, mud-splattered, mid-80's Dodge Ram pickup blazed through the outskirts of Whispering Pines. It sped through a quiet intersection, almost colliding with a small Korean import.
The tires squealed under the strain of a sudden turn into the warehouse district, as the rear skidded sideways, barely managing to straighten when the front wheels spun the truck back on course. It plowed through a street sign and finally came to rest with the front end perched up on a curb. The creaking doors swung open with a raucous crash as its inhabitants spilled out onto the roadway along with a cascade of crushed beer cans exclaiming their arrival.
"Home sweet home!" A tall, dark-haired man, sporting a frayed cowboy hat, a scuffed, brown leather bomber jacket and ragged black jeans yelled out heartily. "Well... for now anyways."
A shorter and younger blonde man, dressed in worn blue jeans, a thick red plaid flannel shirt and blue jean vest rushed up to the taller one and gave him a shove. "I thought we were going west, Randy!"
"This is west, doofus." The taller one answered, motioning to a sign over one of the warehouse doors. "Take a gander..."
"EBM Imports & Exports, Whispering Pines, Oregon?" The shorter man scratched at his faded baseball cap. "What happened to California?"
"Junior, I already told ya... too much sun. This place never sees sun. We don't have to worry 'bout bustin' inta flames here." Randy smiled. "Should make for a nice holiday weekend."
"Ooohhh… Valentine's Day..." Junior smile widely. "I love…" he stopped abruptly as a third man made his appearance from the wreck of a truck. He was dressed from head to toe in black, with only the emblem of some heavy metal band decorating his t-shirt and the faint logo of a high school football team on his baseball cap.
"You love Valentine's Day, Junior? Hoping to find yourself a proper date? One of those fillies not aimin' to charge ya for a peek?" He snickered.
"He don't need no date!" the behemoth of a man growled. "He's got me, ain't that right, sugar dumplin'? Gimmie a smooch, peckerhead!" He chased after the little one as the man in black watched with amusement.
"Randy, quit it! I already told ya I ain't leanin' that way."
"Randy, leave Junior alone." Bart scolded and Randy slowed to a halt, snickering. Junior smiled proudly at winning his older brother's support.
"Yeah!" Junior hollered triumphantly.
"But he's got such a perty mouth...," Randy sneered. "Catch you later, Junior."
"That's enough sass talkin', boys. We got us some work to do," Bart corralled his gang back to the truck and handed off a couple cans of beers to them. "We need a place to hang our hats, a place to get our bearings."
"Smells like rain," Randy grumbled as he snapped open his can and guzzled it down in a few gulps. "I don't much like rain."
"But rain equals clouds and clouds equal no sunshine... get it?"
"Randy never was one for the mathematicals. Maybe we should draw him a diagram," Junior said, quickly hurrying to the other side of his older brother for protection as Randy outstretched a long arm to get to him.
"Listen up..., Bart ordered in his most commanding tone. "Until I say, this is our new home. We'll celebrate Friday the 13th with a good ol' ass-kickin' barn-stormer later, but for now, we find shelter and some dinner." He grinned wide at his companions, his fangs elongating as his eyes paled yellow and his brow creased to reveal the vampire hidden beneath the human exterior.
"And for V-Day?" Junior asked eagerly.
"V-Day is Vampires Day, ain't it? Barrel huntin' at lover's lane, doofus." Bart gave him a playful shove and they all shared in a good chuckle.