The sky hinted at blue and the air was cool and damp, evidence left behind by the downpour Friday night. Ethan strolled down the empty sidewalk and casually turned up the driveway to the Scobie Manor, confident that no one would be stirring at this early hour on a Saturday.
Ethan did so enjoy the thrill of such risks and loved giving his Dawn gifts. He placed the red satin wrapped package at the doorstep and straightened the handmade paper note card.
He was turning back towards the sidewalk, when he spotted the familiar SUV coming up the street. He moved quickly into the bushes flanking the door as the car pulled into the driveway and screeched to a halt. Dawn quickly leaped out and ran toward the front door, giggling gleefully. Giles followed, carrying a large pastry box. She danced around him, waving a paper just out of his reach. She squealed as he caught her.
"Dawn... you'll make me drop the donuts, now let me see it." Giles attempted to sound stern as he successfully claimed the paper. "Why do you insist on hiding it? We were informed by your science instructor yesterday that the test requires Buffy's signature."
"It's nothing." Dawn shrugged, looking innocent.
Giles smiled. "Then why were you refusing to hand it over?"
"Because it drives you nuts."
"No... youdrive me nuts." He put the box down on the step and unraveled the paper. After a moment's study, he looked up at her delighted. "This is remarkable improvement, Dawn. Buffy will be so proud of you. And since you have successfully managed to avoid causing any catastrophes, I think your attendance at that party this evening is assured."
"Yeah, Buffy can't complain about an A minus." She paused and looked up a bit shyly. "And what about you?"
"I'm proud beyond words." He pulled her into his arms and hugged her warmly.
Ethan glared as his stomach churned. "She's mine, Ripper." He growled, teeth grinding and fists clenched. He could feel the happiness radiating from her and he forcefully held himself back from tapping into it. "You have no idea what treasure you have there, and I don't intend for you to ever find out."
"What's this?" Giles noticed the package on the doorstep and reached down to pick it up. It was beautifully wrapped with a matching black ribbon and delicate note card. "It's for you. Perhaps your Brian has finally sent an invitation to the party." He handed it to Dawn. "I'll let you open it privately, but come in soon. Buffy will want to see your test." He smiled, "And if you don't hurry, Xander will eat all the donuts." He picked up the box and went inside.
Dawn stood at the door for a moment, scanning the immediate area for any sign of the sender. She slipped the note out of its envelope and smiled a quirky smile at the single word handsomely inscribed there.
She looked quickly in the box and saw her perfume. With another puzzled look at the note, she shrugged and went inside.
"Say goodbye to your precious little one, Ripper. You don't deserve her. And after tonight, you won't have her."
Buffy sighed as she looked in the mirror. "This one's not any better than the last three."
Willow looked up from her spot on the bed where she was stretched out on her stomach reading a magazine. "Where's Brad taking you?"
Buffy shrugged. "Dress casual was all he said."
"Jeans casual or skirt casual?"
"Who knows?" Buffy threw up her hands before turning back to rummage through her closet. "It would have been nice if I had a just the slightest clue as to where we're going." She pulled out the dress Giles had given her for Christmas and ran her fingers over the rich material.
Willow sighed. "Giles has wonderful taste. Particularly for a non-gay guy," she added dryly.
Buffy held the dress in front of her, twisting back and forth and allowing the skirt to swirl around her legs. "Maybe someday I'll get to wear it someplace like Le Bec Fin."
"Not unless Brad gets a second job. And perhaps a third one too." Willow propped her chin on her hands. "But you still might get to wear it. Giles said something about all of us going there for a special occasion."
"Just what I'm dreaming about; a drop-dead gorgeous dress and a group date with my best friends and my little sister." Buffy turned and put the dress back in the closet. "Nope, tonight it's casual. Bet I'll get flowers though. Brad always brings me roses."
"Yeah. I make sure to keep them in here so Giles doesn't see them." Buffy sighed. "Brad brought them the first time we went out, and I guess I overdid the happy reaction. So he keeps bringing them and I haven't got the heart to tell him to stop and that I don't even like them that much." She looked at Willow knowingly.
Both women were silent for a moment. "I wonder if Giles still misses Miss Calendar," Willow finally said.
Buffy leaned back against the closet door. "He loved her. I don't guess you ever stop missing someone you love. I think about my mom every day."
"I think about Tara, too," Willow admitted.
"Do you think Jo reminds him of Miss Calendar…, of Jenny?" Buffy asked unexpectedly.
Willow thought it over. "Not in a she's-anything-like-her sort of way, but maybe in a having-someone-special sort of way. And at least she knows about his job, you know, as a Watcher and all. She's like Jenny in knowing more than regular people about the world we all live in."
Buffy turned back to the closet. "Sometimes I think about that. I wonder if I'd been stronger and killed Angelus when I had the chance if Giles would still be with her."
"Life doesn't work that way," Willow said gently. "Wondering about all the things you should have done differently doesn't help. Trust me."
"I suppose." Buffy looked over her shoulder. "I just want to be sure that it doesn't happen again. You know, now that Giles has found someone, I don't want anything messing up his chance to be happy."
"What could mess it up?" Willow asked.
"Nothing." Buffy turned back and began sorting through hangers. "I've got to have something in here that I can wear to my undefined casual date."
"At least you have a date." Willow frowned. "Some of us got dumped and are rather date-challenged tonight."
"You promised you weren't going to sit home and brood." Buffy pulled on a red cashmere sweater and shimmied into a pair of black jeans.
"No. I'm going to go out and have a good time if it kills me … in the metaphorical way, not the literal way."
"Good for you!" Buffy did a pirouette. "What do you think?"
Willow rolled over and got off the bed. "Not too dressy. Way classier than the baggy sweats you had on earlier. All-in-all just about perfect for any 'dress casual' social occasion."
Buffy pulled on a pair of black boots. "Now the wardrobe's taken care of all I have to do is finish my hair and make-up."
Willow opened the door into the hall. "Have fun."
"Thanks." Buffy smoothed her hand across her hair. "You, too."
At the sound of Xander's voice he turned away from his bedroom window, from where he'd been surveying the grey February sky. "Come in."
"Whatcha' doing?" Xander asked, strolling into the room.
"Actually, I was thinking about England," Giles gestured at the window and the rainy soaked landscape, "when it suddenly occurred to me that Oregon has become home."
"Yeah." Xander nodded his head in understanding. "It kinda surprised me too the first time I said home and realized I was talking about Whispering Pines." He smiled and held out a strip of bright red cloth. "Here. The Dawnster and I got you a little something for your first Valentine's Day in Oregon."
Giles looked at the tie and smiled. "It's certainly… festive."
Xander grinned. "Dawn wanted you to add some color to your wardrobe."
"It will most definitely do that." Giles glanced at the bedside clock and looped the tie around his neck. "I didn't realize it was so late. Jo will be here shortly."
"Jo's nice, Giles," Xander spoke hesitantly. "We all like her."
Giles looked at him for a long moment. "I'm glad. I know she likes all of you."
Xander paused, and then seemed to change his mind about his response. "Well of course she does: we're all very likeable! That's why we all have dates tonight with people who like us." He waved dismissively. "And I need to get ready for mine." Xander started toward the door and stopped. "Can I ask you something?"
"What do you think of Brad?"
"Well, to paraphrase you, he seems likeable enough," Giles said cautiously. "Why?"
Xander shrugged. "It's just that he reminds me a lot of Owen."
"The guy Buffy dated back in high school. You remember. A little too smiley. A little too nice. Turned out he was a danger junkie."
Giles gave him a look of mild surprise. "The boy at the morgue?" He smiled at the memory, "I remember scolding her for bringing a date when there was slayage to be done. I think we can trust Buffy not to make the same mistake again."
"I dunno. You'd think she'd have learned from the badness that was Angel, but that was followed by the obvious insanity that was Spike."
"Buffy's an adult and entitled to choose her own path," Giles said neutrally.
"And make her own mistakes."
"Being a grown-up sucks."
"Yes." He offered a mild smile. "Sometimes it certainly does."
"What about this one?" Dawn twirled in front of the mirror. The full skirt of her dark green dress billowed around her.
There was one rap followed by silence.
"Yeah, you're right. Too junior high." Dawn stopped spinning. "You've got really good taste for a ghost."
Two raps sounded.
Dawn unzipped the dress, stepped out of it and tossed it on the bed with a dozen other rejected outfits. She walked across the room to her closet and peered inside. She reached in and pulled out a burgundy colored sheath. "I dunno. What do you think, Hedwig? It's kinda got that Audrey Hepburn thing going for it. Should I try it on?"
There were two more knocks. They were immediately followed by a chirping sound it took Dawn a few seconds to locate.
"Randall," she muttered to herself. "I forgot he was going to call." She hurried back across the room and dug the phone out from under the pile of clothes. "Hello."
"Good evening. May I please speak to the lovely, gracious and charming Miss Summers?"
Dawn giggled. "Has anyone ever told you that you're crazy?"
"It's been suggested on multiple occasions," he confirmed. "And what new and interesting happenings are going on at Scobie Manor this fine evening?"
"Not much," Dawn said. "I was just trying to decide what to wear to the Valentine Party."
"If you wouldn't mind an ancient perspective, turn on the camera and let me have a look," Ethan suggested. "Back in my day, I used to be something of a connoisseur of young lady's fashions."
"You are not that old," Dawn protested. "Just give me a second to get dressed. I'm sort of sitting here in my underwear."
"Oh, don't mind me," Ethan said airily. "Just think of me as your kindly Auntie Randall."
Dawn giggled again. "See you in a sec." She clicked off the phone and moved over to the computer. By the time he appeared on the computer screen, she had shimmied into the dress. "What do you think?"
"My lord...," he paused. "You're lovely. Really brings out your..." His gaze slowly lifted to her face "… your eyes. Quite lovely," he said, after a moment. "Very Audrey Hepburnish."
"That's exactly the same thing I said. But without the 'my lord'? Is it really 'my lord' worthy?" Dawn turned her back to the camera and peered over her shoulder. "What do you think? It's kinda tight. Does it make my butt look totally enormous?"
This time the silence lasted longer. "N-not in the least. It's perfect for..."
"For the party? You think so? You're not just saying that?"
"It would be a pity not to wear that gown for such a special evening." His voice was low, sultry. "You're a vision. Even without the perfume, no man could resist your spell."
Dawn turned back to the camera. "Are you okay? You sound funny."
"I believe I may be catching a cold."
"Take some aspirin and drink plenty of liquids," Dawn ordered. "Remember we've got a date at the mall tomorrow to hit the after-Valentine's Days sales and find you a new jacket."
He laughed. "Yes... the mall indeed. Very well. Liquids it shall be. I must be healthy and vigorous for our date."
"And I'll let you know how it goes with Brian," Dawn promised. "Talk to you later."
Thirty minutes later, hair in careful disarray and make-up artfully applied, Buffy rushed from her room. As she turned the corner of the hallway, she collided with Dawn who was hurrying in the other direction.
"Hey, watch it!" Dawn demanded, clutching a crystal bottle tightly, her hands wet with the liquid. "You almost made me drop my new perfume."
"You watch it!" Buffy snapped, checking her sweater to make sure none of the perfume had spilled on it.
"No one asked you to come running around the corner without watching where you were going," Dawn replied, her voice filled with annoyance. Lifting her head regally, she swept past Buffy towards the bathroom she shared with Willow and Xander. "Great, now I need to clean this up."
Buffy lifted an eyebrow at her sister's attitude. "I can still ground you, you know," she reminded.
Dawn turned. "So what else is new?" she asked snidely before flouncing around the corner.
Sighing, Buffy let her go. For some reason it seemed the two of them were constantly annoyed with each other these days. And there was something else going on too. A boy maybe. She wasn't sure what it was, but Dawn was definitely hiding something from them.
"We're out of here!" Xander yelled up the stairs. "You guys have fun and don't do anything I wouldn't…, no wait, forget I said that. Just have fun." He turned grabbed his jacket off the rack. "Come on, Will, if you want me to drop you off, we have to go now."
"I'm coming, I'm coming. Boy, you're impatient for someone who thinks they're marching off to their own death."
"Yea, well, it's a new year and a new city. Got to get to know the latest in demon dates, right?"
Buffy heard the doorbell downstairs, hurriedly checked her appearance in the mirror then rushed from her room down the stairs. Leaping over the last few steps, she swung around the banister, barreling toward the front door.
For the second time that night, Buffy found herself on a collision course with another person. At the last minute, she spun out of the way.
"Goddess!" Jo exclaimed, her hand to her chest in surprise.
"Sorry," Buffy said. "I thought you were Brad and I didn't want to keep him waiting."
Jo chuckled. "Well, definitely points for not wanting to keep your date waiting, but I don't think he's here yet. At least he wasn't when I got here a few minutes ago."
Buffy looked over her shoulder at the front door. "Guess I'm hearing things."
Jo smiled. "Maybe you're just anxious to see Brad."
Buffy nodded, "Sure." Trying to be friendly to Jo, she gestured upwards. "I think Giles is almost finished getting dressed. Why don't you go on up?"
"Thanks. I think I'll do that."
"Bye Xander! Have a really good time! Hope she's human!" Willow laughed as she shut the door and walked towards the coffee shop.
"Another demon..." Xander sighed as he put the car into gear. "So what if she is? I've dealt with demons before. She could be a good demon. Can I cope through another good demon encounter?" He took a right and stomped a bit too hard on the accelerator, jerking the vehicle forward only to release the pedal, lurching to a slower pace.
"Who am I kidding? I have the dating intuition of a banana slug. She's gonna be a ripping fangs, pointy clawed, drooling, sticky, man eater with a preference for cyclopsian studs. I'm doomed." He turned into the jam-packed parking lot and much to his surprise, noticed a car beginning to back out of a spot near the door.
"It's an omen... I had one lucky shot and wasted it on a good parking space." He pulled into the stall, shut off the engine and checked his reflection in the rearview mirror. Hair in place, breath minty fresh, pressed and straightened button-up, deep blue shirt and his most edgy eye patch; his "lucky" eye patch, if ever a thing could be claimed as such. "Oh well, at least I'll get some onion rings out of the deal."
Jo climbed the stairs, moved towards Giles' bedroom and gave a brisk knock on the door. "Rupert?" she said, poking her head around the door. "Are you ready?" She jumped back as he appeared from the other side of the wooden barrier.
"Hello," he said, cleaning his glasses absently before placing them on his face. He glanced over at the clock. "Time already?"
Laughing, she stepped forward, smoothing her hands over the lapel of his jacket, openly admiring his choice of a black silk shirt tucked into a pair of black slacks and the bright red tie. "Did you get all caught up in some demonology text again?"
Giles shook his head. "Just lost track of time, I suppose," he admitted. He leaned down and pressed a kiss to her lips. "I was thinking about old times, when Buffy first arrived at Sunnydale High School."
Jo pouted. "It's Valentine's Day and you're remembering things that happened when the kids were in high school? That's not very romantic."
"I was just thinking about how Brad reminds me of a boy Buffy dated in her sophomore year. It was a rather short-lived relationship." Before she could question him further, he held out his arm. "We have reservations to keep. Shall we go?"
Wrapping a hand over his forearm, she gave a small nod.
A knock on the door distracted Buffy from her thoughts. "I've got it!" she called out to no one in particular. Striding over, she pulled the door open.
Brad stood on the front step, bundled up against the cold, a bouquet of roses in his hands. "For you," he said, proffering the flowers.
"Thank you," she said automatically. "They're lovely." Wordlessly, she gestured him into the house. She could hear footsteps moving toward the stairs behind her. "Let me just put them into some water," she said, looking up at the ceiling. "I'll be right back," she assured Brad as she moved towards the kitchen.
She was staring at the flowers when she heard Giles and Jo greet Brad in the hall. She stood listening as they exchanged pleasantries and well wishes for the evening and jumped slightly when she heard the front door open and close. She took a deep breath and thrust the bright red roses into the garbage under the sink.
Pasting a smile onto her lips, Buffy returned to the living room. Brad was still standing in the middle of the foyer, waiting for her. Buffy grabbed her coat and Brad rushed to help her with it.
"Ready?" he asked, holding the jacket open as she slipped her arms in. Buffy nodded.
"As I'll ever be," she replied.