"Have you seen what Susie's wearing?" Liz asked Dawn. "It's like totally indecent. I mean even J-Lo wouldn't leave the house showing that much skin."
"Susie has better boobs than J-Lo," Shannon pointed out. "And hers are way better than Janet's."
"The best her parent's money could buy," Liz agreed. "But I still think that blouse is just awful and I bet Brian does, too."
"It's okay," Dawn said. "I've been around Xander long enough to know that most guys never think anything is too low or too short - as long as somebody else's girlfriend is wearing it. Besides, Brian isn't here yet."
"When he does get here, he's just going to die when he sees you in that dress," Shannon predicted.
"With the kind of luck Summers women have with guys, I guess it's a possibility," Dawn muttered.
Liz looked confused. "Huh?"
"You'll never guess what I heard," Shannon said suddenly. "Jay and Emma broke up."
"What!" Liz shrieked. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"I just did," Shannon said. "Jay told David that he broke up with her because he found out she was cheating on him."
"Who's Jay?" Dawn asked.
"A senior," Shannon explained. "He's on the basketball team and the baseball team and the tennis team, and Liz has had a crush on him ever since the 6th grade."
"I have not."
"Have to," Shannon insisted. "You used to write ‘Liz loves Jay' all over your notebook." She turned to Dawn. "Isn't that just so juvenile?"
Dawn smiled weakly.
"Here he comes!" Liz hissed under here breath. She broke into a wide smile. "Hey, Jay. Are you enjoying the party?"
The tall blonde boy stopped and flashed a dazzling white smile at the girls. "It's almost as good as the one I went to in Aspen last month."
"Where's Emma?" Liz looked around as if expecting her to appear any second. "I wanted to ask her something."
Jay dropped his head and sighed dramatically. "We broke up."
"Oh, I'm so sorry," Liz said, her eyes gleaming with interest. "That's awful."
"What happened?" Dawn asked as she took a sip of her drink.
"She caught me making out with Mary in the chemistry lab." Jay's eyes widened in horror as if he couldn't believe what he'd just said.
"You did what?" Liz bleated.
"Hey, I didn't think we'd get caught," Jay protested. "I've done it lots of time before and Emma's so stupid she never found out." He turned pale. "I don't know why I said that."
"Because you're slime," Liz said, looking at Jay as if he'd just oozed out from under a rock. "And you know what? I'm going to tell everybody that Emma was the one who dropped your sorry butt." She looked at Shannon and Dawn. "C'mon. Let's go somewhere that isn't here."
"Those were great mushrooms, weren't they? If you want, next fall I'll show you how to pick wild mushrooms in the woods. You can make a lot of money that way, or if you prefer, just have some really good dinners." He smiled at her. "So anyway, after dinner, I thought we'd go for a walk in the park. I know you like walking at night since it seems like half the nights I call you, you're out walking around with Giles."
Buffy smiled across the table at Brad as her linguini was placed in front of her. "Sounds great," she said, forcing excitement into her voice. "A walk is good. I have to admit, I didn't think you could have an outdoor date in February in Oregon."
Brad beamed at her approval. He picked up his fork and dug into his lasagna with enthusiasm. "I knew you liked Italian food, so I thought this place would be great." He looked around the garden restaurant, which was filled with other couples celebrating Valentine's Day. "It has great atmosphere."
Buffy nodded. "It certainly does."
"So, did everyone else have dates?" Brad asked suddenly.
Cocking her head, Buffy looked at him with curiosity. "Sort of," she told him. "Dawn's going to a party at her friend, Liz's, Xander has a date with the high school nurse, and of course, Giles is out with Jo. Willow was the only dateless one." Buffy chuckled. "She's not real happy about it."
A fleeting smile crossed Brad's lips. "I imagine she's not," he said, leaning forward. "So, Giles and Jo… they're pretty serious, aren't they?"
Buffy frowned as she swirled pasta onto her fork. "I guess so."
Brad watched her intently. "Does that bother you?"
Surprised, Buffy lifted her gaze to his. "Bother me?" she asked uncertainly.
"Why would it?"
"You've been together a long time," he pointed out. "It's only normal that you might not like it if he started dating someone seriously.
"Yes, but we're not ‘together' together," she protested intently studying her plate. "Giles is a good friend and I just want him to be happy." She looked up at him seriously. "He deserves all the happiness he can get. It's been a long time since Giles was serious about someone."
"What happened with his last serious girlfriend?" Brad asked.
"She died," Buffy said sharply, her tone making it clear the topic was not open for any further discussion.
"Sorry," he told her softly. "I guess it brings up painful memories." He reached out and covered her hand with his.
"Very painful." Her words were short and clipped.
Taken aback, Brad removed his hand. Reaching for a breadstick, he broke it in two. "You met Giles when you were what? Sixteen?"
Buffy shook her head, her mouth full of food. She chewed for a moment before swallowing. "Fifteen," she corrected when she could speak again. "He was the librarian at my new high school."
He nodded eagerly. "I know. You've mentioned it before."
"Oh, sorry," she smiled embarrassedly. "Repeato Girl again."
"He's what... late forties or so?" Brad tried to be casual, shifting his food with his fork, but Buffy's eyes caught his with curiosity. "I mean... um, he looks young for his age."
Buffy raised an eyebrow at him.
"Well... I guessing you must've had a crush on him at some point in time," he said. "I mean, he's pretty darn good looking for an old guy."
"Brad! Should I be jealous? Or maybe Jo should be?" she asked with a laugh. "No, I was too caught up with my brooding boyfriend back in high school. I pretty much only noticed Giles when he told me I either had to do something I didn't want to or couldn't do something I wanted to."
Smiling, Brad nodded. "Yeah, I was that way with my teachers too." He dove into his food with renewed vigor.
Café Caffeine was hopping. Willow thought it odd that a café could be so busy on Valentine's Day but the place was packed to the rafters with giddy couples supercharged on caffeine. The festive atmosphere made her second guess her choice for a night on the town solo. She'd wanted a morose, lonely hole to crawl into. This seemed more like a syrupy greeting card.
"Hey! Witchy woman!" exclaimed Becka, the enthusiastic blonde barista behind the order counter. Willow nervously glanced behind her, expecting to see someone there but there was no one else. The welcoming young lady gave a little wave and Willow smiled, returning with an unsure wave of her own. She moved up to the counter and noticed that Jack, the other flirtatious coffee tosser, was there and working diligently on his coffee concoctions.
"W-witchy woman?" Willow asked suspiciously, wondering if Becka could somehow see her magic.
"That necklace you're wearing... some kind of witchcraft symbol or something, right?" She continued ringing up the previous order. "My other guess would have been Gothic Gal but I'd be surprised." She winked. "You're sporting way too much color."
"You're right. Not about the color. I like color... I mean, it is a mystical symbol. I'm surprised you noticed it... and remembered it. That's very Columbo of you... very observant." Willow stammered. "Am I wearing too much color?"
Becka grinned. "This job's equal parts observation and concentration with a sprinkle of 'kiss my ass' for flavor. I keep my eyes open just in case."
"Just in case of what?"
"Just in case I'd miss something I wanna see." She winked at Willow as she handed change to the customer. She passed the cup to Jack who finally noticed the redhead.
"Come to apologize, then?" he said in a scolding tone.
"Apologize? What'd I do?" Willow's forehead creased with concern and she racked her brain for her error. "We didn't tip enough, did we? I'm sorry, I didn't realize, that was my last dollar and..."
"No amount of money can mend my broken heart." His stern expression turned to a mischievous smirk. "You never emailed me. I've been waiting all this time and zippo, zilch, zero and other nonsensical 'z' words. I'm hurt, Red."
"Willow... call me Willow."
"As in 'weeping'?" Becka asked, cunningly detecting the gloominess in Willow's tone. "I hope not."
"Naw... just a bit blue, is all." Willow shrugged.
"I think someone's gotta case of VDD," Jack said with a knowing glance to Becka who nodded in agreement.
"Please tell me it's not life threatening, whatever it is."
"Valentine's Day Depression." Becka explained and took the order of the next customer. "It's not life threatening but a doosie of a downer. It is our sacred duty as purveyors of liquid bliss to cheer you up."
Willow smiled. "What did you have in mind?"
"Let me get this straight..." Carrie peeked over her pitcher of Guinness. "You share a house with three young women and an older man, none of which are actual blood relations but you consider them your family?"
"On the nosey." Xander nodded, expecting to hear the normal odd comments of the peculiar relationship between him and his longtime companions to go along with the suspicious glances. "Almost the Odd Couple cubed."
Carrie offered a warm, inspirational smile "That's simply amazing, that your friendship has lasted through tragedies which would shatter the most durable of camaraderie's. Heck, my best friend and I grew apart when I went away to college and we were only four miles apart. It takes dedication and real love to make it work."
"I think we're just addicted to each others' abuse." He scanned the room again. It was a tough habit to break. Every five minutes or so he'd find his eye wandering to inventory the faces in the bar. No one seemed demony which probably left the most obvious alternative, that Carrie was probably the mandatory demon in attendance.
"Naw. You're good people. I can tell. I admit I haven't gotten to know everyone real well yet. I know Dawn of course, and I've met Buffy and Mr. Giles..."
"Just Giles. He'd never admit it but I think he prefers to nix the Mister part 'cause it adds unwanted years to him. Respect your elders and all that crapola. He likes to think of himself as the responsible one that's also young at heart." He shook his finger warningly. "Just stay away from calling him G-man and you'll win him over in no time."
"He's quite the gentleman. Extremely polite. Truthfully, he kinda makes me nervous. I'm not used to polite in my line of work. Usually all grumbles and whining."
"Speaking of your work..." Xander was pleased to move the subject from his family. "Why don't you wear a nurse uniform like on TV? With the cute little hat and super short peek-a-boo skirt?"
"I'm thinkin' you've had limited access to real nurses uniforms." She giggled.
"Well, truthfully, I'm not crazy about hospitals and would prefer to avoid them. I know, Sick Bay uniforms on Star Trek. Does that count?"
"Perhaps we'll play dress up some time, you in your construction gear and me in my Scooby scrubs. But I think you'd be disappointed. The drawstring pants don't do me any favors in the backside department. "
"Scooby scrubs?" Xander couldn't fight back the smile that put on his lips. "Well, if you need a fresh perspective, I wouldn't mind giving you a second opinion, Doctor." Xander gulped down a chug of beer and wriggled his brow in his best Groucho Marx impression.
"Would saying 'Wow' make me sound hopelessly unsophisticated?" Jo whispered, glancing through the open archway to what appeared to be acres of candlelit white linen, sparkling crystal and gleaming silver.
Giles smiled. "I wanted to make this a Valentine's Day you would remember."
She linked her arm through his as the maitre d' glided silently toward them. "You've succeeded. It's absolutely breathtaking."
Liz pushed Dawn and Shannon into the bathroom, followed them in, and then locked the door. "I don't believe that just happened. My dad must have totally lost his mind."
"I thought for a minute your mom was going to hit him over the head with a lamp or something," Shannon said, sitting down on the edge of the tub. "She was like totally pissed off.
Liz turned to Dawn. "He was talking to you before Mom came in. Did he seem okay?"
"Yeah. He was fine." Dawn sat down beside Shannon. "He made all the usual parent noises. Asked how I was doing in school - like I'm going to tell him I suck at chemistry. Then he said something about hoping we had a good time and to be sure to try his world famous bean dip."
Liz closed the lid and sat down on the toilet. "Stay away from the dip. The last time Dad made it we had to make my brother sleep in a tent in the backyard."
"Definitely avoiding the dip," Dawn promised.
"We'll all appreciate it." Shannon grinned.
"That's it?" Liz demanded. "School and bean dip?"
Dawn started to nod and then stopped. "He did say he liked my perfume. But there wasn't much else he could say after you shoved my wrist under his nose."
"My birthday's next month," Liz said. "If I don't start hinting now I'll end up with something awful."
"The way you twisted her arm you're lucky that Dawn didn't end up with a dislocated shoulder," Shannon said.
They all started at the urgent rapping on the door.
"Use the one upstairs!" Liz yelled through the door.
"I wonder if your mom is going to ever forgive him?" Shannon asked.
"Would you?" Liz countered.
"She did ask," Dawn said.
Liz snorted. "Yeah, but they've been married like forever. He should know that when Mom asked, ‘Honey, what do you think of my new hair cut?' the right answer wasn't ..."
"'You look like a poodle'," Shannon and Dawn said together before breaking into giggles.
Liz rolled her eyes. "The man really needs to work on his little white lying skills."
Willow stood motionless, staring nervously at the beast of a machine before her. "I don't know guys. This is coffee, you know, it's like a religion here. One mistake and they could run me outta town."
"Relax, Willow, we'll be right here with you the entire time." Jack's voice was calming. "Go on, try."
"I really don't know about this..." Willow stepped back from the espresso machine. "It looks... um... angry. See..." she pointed, "it's steaming at me."
"It's supposed to do that," Jack chuckled. "Especially this piece." He motioned to a little tube darting off from the side of the machine. "That's the key to perfect cappuccino."
"Don't listen to him, his ponytail's too tight," Becka interrupted. "It's all about the coffee."
"Becka, my sweet, naive and misled associate, foam's the thing. Lather it, learn it, love it." He focused on Willow and gestured to the machine. "This little tube is the frother or steamer. It heats the milk or cream or... God help me, soy." He rolled his eyes with contempt. "And at the hands of a trained artist like myself, it creates heavenly foam."
"The man likes his milk!" Becka gave Jack's shoulder a playful push.
"So I gathered," Willow smiled. "So these little cup things with handles are for the coffee?"
"Espresso," he corrected teasingly. "Yep... the filter basket holds the espresso. Neat, huh?"
"If you say so," Willow could feel herself loosening up.
"I sense sarcasm." Jack shook his head.
"She's not a believer," Becka said while continuing to tend to the customer. "So make something."
"Me? What? No... I'll break it or the place will explode."
"Here..." Jack handed her a frothing pitcher. "Give it a try."
"What if your boss catches us?" Willow hesitated, uncertain if she wanted to be convinced to try it or not. "Or the health inspector. You could lose your permit..."
"It's a chance I'm willing to take to convert a nonbeliever." Jack insisted.
"He won't let you leave until you try it. It's his way. Sort of a bizarre mating ritual, I think." Becka snickered. "Personally, I go for more of a romantic walk along the beach at sunset, glass of wine, piercings for two... you know, a more traditional approach."
"Piercings?" Willow suddenly noticed the array of piercings along Becka's ears and the small eyebrow bar. "I don't think I'm the piercing type. Not that I don't like it... they're nice, in a shiny, heavy metal, stay away from magnets, kinda way."
"Yet another challenge for us, Jack," Becka nudged him again.
"Baby steps. First, we shall conquer foam."
Ethan paced around his spell casting area, checking his watch. The pain was great and he desperately wanted to call her to him, but he knew that the spell would be truly binding only if he cast it at midnight. He shook out another dosage of drugs and glared at the skull.
Their breath clouded in the cold air as they strolled silently hand in hand along the tree-lined path. "So what about now?" Brad asked suddenly.
Buffy turned to him in confusion. "I'm sorry?" she asked. "Now? I thought we were walking."
He gestured vaguely with his free hand. "What about now with you and Giles…," he explained. "You're not in high school any more. Do you notice him now?" He stopped and looked intently at her.
"I don't get what you mean."
"He's a man, you're a woman..." Brad prompted her but she remained silent. "I don't want to pry." He said apprehensively. "Well, actually, I guess do. I'm not blind, Buffy. I'm sorry, but I just can't help feeling like there's something between the two of you." He tried for a lighthearted tone. "I mean with all your night time walks and..."
"We're friends, Brad," Buffy interrupted. "We like to walk."
"It's just... well, when I see the two of you together, I get the sense that there's something there... something more than friendship."
"There is." She admitted softly. "But not in the way you think." She sighed and turned away. "It's complicated. We have a history, things we've shared, that bind us together. Even if we never saw each other again, we would always have a special bond. There are things about me that you'll never ever fully understand."
"But Giles does?"
"More than anyone else." Buffy blinked back tears. "A lot has happened to me … to all of us. Bad things that we'll never quite get over."
"If you'd just tell me about them…"
"I can't," Buffy whispered, her words nearly lost in the quiet night. "They're not things I can tell."
"Can't or won't?" He asked solemnly.
She offered no answer and they walked in silence for a moment both lost in their own painful thoughts.
If it hadn't been for the veil of night, the picnic area would be a sickening massacre. Four bodies lay strewn about like discarded drink boxes.
"I'm stuffed. S'like Turkey day around here," Junior sighed contently.
"Told ya. It's a frickin all you can eat Buffet, without the stupid lines." Randy licked his lips clean as he leaned back against the blood stained picnic table.
"Enjoy it while you can, boys. It's getting harder to find a Slayer-free territory in this day and age. They seem to be everywhere. Like skeeters." Bart said, picking at his fangs with his bowie knife.
"Too bad. I'm mighty homesick, Bart. And I kinda miss my Suzie-Q." Junior whined.
"Yeah... well, you shouldn't have eaten her, then."
"You told me I couldn't turn her," he said, giving the older vampire a frustrated shove to the shoulder.
"We don't need some bickering cow to mess up our fun. Remember it's all for one and one for none." He roughly gripped the vampire's dusty jean jacket and pulled him into a manly hug. "Sodbusters now, sodbusters forever!"
The other two joined in the rowdy cheer with flying fists and roaring voices, "Sodbusters now, sodbusters forever! Sodbusters now, sodbusters forever!"
After a few seconds of playful punches and roughhouse wrestling, the gang settled down and surveyed their surroundings.
"You know what?" Randy grinned. "I'm feelin' a bit peckish. I could go for another round..."
"Seconds?" Bart suggested.
Junior smiled widely with a flicker in his flaming yellow stare. "Keep 'em comin', Barkeep!"
"How's about we crash the party over yonder?" Randy suggested, motioning to a crowd barbecuing near the shimmering lake edge. "I could go for a burger."
Bart shook his head. "Too many. But like Grammy always said, patience is a virtue..."
"Better served cold." Junior finished proudly.
"Naw...you idiot!" He smacked the shorter one with his frayed baseball cap. "We'll just sit on the sidelines until they get good and wasted, then we'll crash the kegger."
"I don't remember Grammy saying that," said Junior has he picked up his beer. "But I think it's a good idea all the same."
"I've never seen someone do that," Jack was awestruck. Willow stood innocently beside the espresso machine with milk and milky bubbles sprayed along the front of the borrowed apron. "You have a gift, my friend."
"I told you I'd break it," Willow said regretfully.
"Don't be silly..." Becka turned a couple dials and pressed a couple buttons. "See, good as new."
"I think I should leave the java to the experts."
"Fair enough." Jack smiled warmly. "How 'bout you just supervise?"
"As long as it doesn't require working that demon machine, I'm game." Willow noticed the crowd was thinning. "It's getting a bit late for coffee, isn't it?"
Jack gasped with exaggerated horror.
"You'd be surprised actually." Becka explained. "The college crowd keeps us busy. Especially around finals. Marathon cramming often necessitates quantity caffeine consumption."
"Maybe they just keep coming in here for the excellent customer service," Willow said with a sly smile as she removed the drenched apron. "Or am I getting the VIP treatment?"
"Believe me... you'd know when you're receiving VIP treatment," Becka said low and smooth, as a playful smile curled along her lips.
"Oh." Willow felt her face flush but she was enjoying every moment of it.
The couple found a bench and sat down together. They stared at the clouds slowly covering the starry sky. Brad finally spoke. "I shouldn't have had that tiramisu. Too much sweetness makes me edgy. When I'm edgy, I talk too much."
"And then of course the waiter insisted we try the cappuccino. I can never say no to that, and of course you know that decaf is just *wrong.* It goes against the nature of the world. But that double shot sure got me going."
She nodded again.
Brad took a deep breath as he took her hand in his. "Buffy, I'm sorry I upset you. I shouldn't have pushed, but it's been on my mind for a while. I mean the way you talk about him at work… Well, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to ruin our Valentine's Day. We don't have to talk any more."
Buffy squeezed his hand and turned to look at him. "No, you were right to push. We do need to talk," she said.
She caught a glimpse of his face and could see the realization dawning in his eyes.
"You are such a wonderful guy, Brad. You're smart and romantic. And darn perceptive... much more than me and I'm sorry for that. I like you a lot, but I think we both know that it's just not going to work." Her voice was sad but firm.
Brad smiled sorrowfully. "The last few weeks, you've been even more of a mystery quiet-girl than you were before. I really had hoped that I was wrong, but I had a feeling that sooner or later we'd be having the 'we can still be friends' talk."
"I do want us to be friends," Buffy insisted. "I meant what I said. You are a wonderful guy."
"Just not your wonderful guy?"
"No," Buffy said. "As much I wanted you to be, you're not." She leaned forward and pressed a gentle kiss to his cold cheek. "I'm sorry."
Pulling away, he nodded sadly. "I understand," he assured her. He gave her a gentle smile and gestured with his head toward the car. "C'mon, I'll take you home."
Buffy shook her head. "You go ahead. It's not that far. I'll walk from here."
"I'm not going to leave you in the middle of a dark park in the middle of the night," he insisted.
Buffy kissed his cheek again. "I'll be fine," she assured him. "I've walked here a lot." She ducked her head sheepishly for a moment, "Yes, often with Giles." He smiled knowingly as she hurried on. "But plenty of times on my own as well. And I really want some time alone to think."
Brad gave her a quick hug and reluctantly left her. She watched as he walked back to his car. He turned to look at her, and she waved. Waving back, he climbed into the vehicle and after starting the engine, drove away.