"Not that it's not absolutely lovely to see you, Pickles, but what brings you to Whispering Pines?" Percy asked. "Under the circumstances, wouldn't it be safer for you to be at home?"
The rabbit settled back into a chair by the fireplace and crossed her legs at the ankles in a lady-like manner. "Don't fuss, Percy, I'm just fine and nothing’s going to happen. I was just feelin' a little blue and wanted to see my Samuel. When I talked to him the other night, he said he didn't know when he would be back in England because of the project that he's working on here with you and Rupert. Since he couldn't come home to me, I decided to surprise him by coming here."
Percy shifted uneasily. "Yes, well, he's certainly going to be in for quite the surprise."
"What's wrong?" Pickles asked. When Percy didn't respond, she clenched her paws into fists and a red glaze flickered across her eyes. "Why that big, fat, rat! He's not even here, is he? He's hiding somewhere until it's all over!"
"Calm down," Percy urged, a faint note of panic creeping into his voice. "You mustn't upset yourself. I'm sure it's simply a small miscommunication."
"Miscommunication my sainted aunt's fluffy tail! My husband lied to me!" Her voice rose in a glass-shattering crescendo. "I swear if he has another rabbit on the side, I'll make him regret the day that he was born. There won't be a patch of fur left on his mangy body when I'm through with him."
Percy winced. "Dear heart, remember your delicate condition. We don't want a repeat of that nasty incident three years ago. Her majesty was most understanding, but the chaps at the National Trust still haven't found a way to remove some of those stains." He gestured around the room. "I'm sure everyone here would prefer their lovely house remain the way it is… complete with walls and a roof."
"Are you suggesting that what happened was my fault?" Pickles growled. The fur across her cheeks and forehead flushed the same dark shade of pink as the roses on her hat.
"No, no, certainly not," Percy protested hurriedly, holding up both hands. "Everyone agreed that you showed an absolutely amazing amount of self-restraint considering the extreme provocation."
"What happened?" Willow blurted out, then clapped her hand over her mouth when she saw Percy cringe.
Pickles' frown darkened to a scowl. "All I did was ask one little question: 'Does this hat make me look fat?' And do you know what that imbecile had the nerve to say?"
Willow slowly shook her head.
"'It's not the hat that makes you look fat. It's the fat that makes you look fat.'"
Percy made a choking sound that could have been an attempt to hold back a laugh.
"That wasn't very nice," Willow agreed, reaching over to pat Percy on the back. "Everyone knows that fur makes you look a lot bigger than you really are."
"Exactly." Pickles' color slowly faded to its normal snowy white. "You really are the cleverest girl." She took a deep breath and swiveled her head to look at Percy. All traces of her previous bad humor had completed faded and she smiled happily. "You know, with all this excitement I think I may need a little something to help settle my nerves."
"Certainly." Percy rose to his feet as if propelled by springs. "How about a nice cup of tea?"
"That would be just lovely," Pickles murmured sweetly, fanning her paw in front of her face. "Of course, bourbon would be even more lovely."
"Let me see what I can find," Percy said, turning and almost running toward the kitchen.
Willow twisted her fingers together in her lap. "Are you sure you wouldn't like some else. Maybe a glass of nice warm milk?"
"Warm milk!" Pickles exclaimed. Her look wouldn't have been any more horrified if Willow had suggested a flagon of hemlock.
"Not that I'm trying to tell you what to do or anything," Willow said hurriedly. "But alcohol and a baby are very unmixey things."
Pickles looked puzzled. "Baby? What baby?"
"Uh… yours." Willow sat up straighter. Her cheeks turned pink, but her gaze never wavered. "Percy said something about 'circumstances' and 'delicate condition'. I sort of assumed that was just repressed English guy for pregnant."
Pickles stared for a moment then threw back her head and laughed. "Percy is a lot of things but repressed isn't one of them. Neither is Rupert for that matter… not even when he's hiding under a dozen layers of tweed. Why the stories I could tell about those two boys would make your hair curl… and heaven knows that you could use the extra body." She grinned wickedly. "And, sweetie, I'm not pregnant… just a tad hormonal." She smiled demurely. "I have just the teeniest, tiniest bit of trouble controlling my temper. Which probably explains why my dear husband wanted me to think there was an ocean between us."
"Uh… not to be personal or anything." Willow stopped and thought it over. "Well, actually being totally personal as well as incredibly nosey, which has never stopped any of us in the past…" She sat forward. "Is your husband really a rat?"
Carrie stared at Xander as he watched the opening rack of the championship. He tossed a kernel of popcorn into the air and caught it expertly in his mouth soon followed by another. "What's your high score?"
Xander glanced over, confused. "Huh?"
"For the popcorn, how many can you catch in a row?"
"I don't know. I never tried it. Wanna see?" He handed her the bowl of extra butter-topped popcorn.
"You want me to do the tossing?"
"I think I need an assistant for this. Ready?"
"Just a sec." She took a napkin and carefully laid it across his lap. "Okay. Go!" She tossed the first into the air and though it was a bit of a stretch, Xander caught it and chewed it triumphantly.
"You're keeping score, right?" he asked.
"I'm your assistant, aren't I?" she responded teasingly. "Ready?"
He gave her a nod and she tossed, successfully sending another to the target.
"Keep 'em coming," he prompted and she did as he requested, sending kernel after kernel flinging into the air and down toward him. Finally, after the seventh try, the kernel strayed too far from its mark and ricocheted off his nose into the napkin below.
"I call do over on account of wind sheer," Xander said. "And the light was in my eye."
"Too bad. It's my turn." She handed over the bowl and set up the napkin in her lap.
Xander smiled as she prepared. "You kinda have a competitive streak, don't you?"
"Yeah, scared off a few guys in my track record of bad relationships. Why, is it too much?"
"Naw, it's fun, seeing as how I am not the least bit competitive. Guess you make me wanna be a better man." He raised his brow and rolled his eye. "Tell me I didn't just say that."
"Sorry, you can't take it back. It's already out there." She giggled. "Perhaps if you manage to hit me with an oversized popcorn kernel you can cause amnesia."
"Is that your professional medical opinion?"
"I'm off the clock, so yeah." She tucked a napkin under her chin. "Popcorn me, baby."
"Here's a list of everyone that you might need to call." Monica Wilson handed Dawn three sheets of typewritten, single-spaced names and numbers. "The one at the top is my cell phone and the next one is the restaurant where Tad and I are having dinner."
Dawn scanned down the list, stopped and looked up at Monica. "The EPA Hazmat team?"
"Oh, that one is just a precaution," Monica assured her breezily. "Only one babysitter has ever had to use it. Afterward, I had a long talk with Cody and Ashley and they promised they would never, ever do it again. Besides, I don't know what their grandparents were thinking giving them such a big chemistry set."
Dawn looked over at the sofa to where the children were seated, watching intently. They were dressed in dark-colored sweaters that made the pale skin of their faces and hands almost glow.
"Don't worry, Mother," Cody said, fixing Dawn with an unblinking stare. "We gave our word that we would never do that again."
"And we never break our word," Ashley added.
"That's my precious little monsters." Monica held out her arms and the children rushed into her embrace. "I won't be late," she said, kissing one then the other. She stood up and straightened her skin-tight blue dress. "Do you think Tad will like it? The color seems kind of dull."
"You look wonderful," Dawn assured her. "I saw Erica on "All My Children" wear that very same dress."
"Really!" Monica beamed. "Well if it's good enough for Erica Kane it's good enough for me." She gazed over at Cody and Ashley. "I want you two to behave. Don't do anything to scare Dawn off on her very first night."
Dawn laughed. "Have a good time and enjoy yourself and don't worry about a thing," she instructed, walking Monica to the front door. "There's not much anymore that scares me."
Cody looked at Ashley. "Care to bet?"
She giggled happily and nodded.
"Rupert!" Percy burst through the kitchen door. "We have a problem." He looked around and discovered Giles sitting on a kitchen chair with Buffy in his lap. Her arms were wrapped around him and he was nuzzling her neck. "If it's not too much of an imposition, would you please stop snogging the pretty blonde Slayer for a moment and lend a hand with Pickles?"
"What's wrong?" Giles asked, lifting his head but otherwise not moving except to run his hand up and down Buffy's arm.
"Bloody hell, man, did you look at the rabbit? And if it wasn’t obvious by looking at her, look at the calendar!"
"Damn!" Giles leaped to his feet, almost tumbling Buffy to the floor. "Is it that time already?"
"Hey!" Buffy protested, when only her slayer reflexes kept her sprawling across the tile. "No dumping the Slayer… either figuratively or literally."
Percy scowled and ran his hands through his hair. "That blithering idiot Samuel must have been terrified to face her so he told her that he was on special assignment in Whispering Pines."
"Can you blame him?" Giles shot a glance toward the door. "Where is she?"
"In the living room with Willow ." Percy went to the refrigerator and opened it. After examining the contents for a minute, he pulled out a jar of dill pickles. "Maybe this will calm her down. Do you have any bourbon? She wants a drink."
Buffy shook her head as if she couldn't believe her eyes. "Uh… guys, you do realize that you're totally freaking out over the Easter Bunny? What’s the worst she can do, leave cheap candy and refuse to hide eggs?"
Percy looked at Giles. "Why don't you explain? I know you simply live for this kind of exposition."
"Yeah. Explain," Buffy urged with a teasing smile. "I'll just stand here quietly and gaze in awe and admiration at my handsome and brilliant Watcher."
Giles grinned. "I suggest you save the awe and admiration for another, more private, occasion."
"Works for me," Buffy breathed. "I keep telling you, just say when and where."
"Buffy…" Giles took a step towards her, eyes dark and serious.
Percy cleared his throat. "Not that I'm not enjoying this little excursion into verbal voyeurism, but an explanation some time this decade would be most helpful."
Giles stepped back with a sudden start. "Right. First things first." Giles glanced at Percy who rolled his eyes. "Very well. Pickles and her relatives may call themselves rabbits, but actually they are Lagomorpha demons. For the most part they are totally benign… except for the female of the species right before she lays eggs."
"Okay, back up a minute," Buffy said. "I admit to sleeping through most of my biology classes, but I copied all of Willow's notes and I'm pretty sure you only get baby bunnies when a mama bunny and a papa bunny have very special feelings for each other."
"The decline of civilization is upon us and it's beginning in this very room," Percy lamented, as he poured a large measure of bourbon from the bottle he'd just discovered in the cabinet.
"Lagomorpha demons eggs don't contain offspring," Giles said mildly, but with a twinkle in his eyes that said he couldn't wait to see her reaction to the next bit of information. "They're chocolate."
"Chocolate eggs?!" exclaimed Willow. "That is so cool."
"Not any of those silly little hollow ones either. Mine are solid, dark chocolate," Pickles said with a satisfied nod. "My younger sister, Eunice, does the creamiest milk chocolate you ever put in your mouth. My older sister, Margaret, is the family show-off and thinks she's something extra special because she can do truffles."
Willow clapped her hands together. "Then every year you and your sisters give chocolate eggs to little boy and girls everywhere."
"Give them away to a bunch of sniveling brats?" Pickles sat up very straight, her ears quivering in outrage. "Have you completely taken leave of your senses! Why, I've never heard of anything so ridiculous. I'll have you know we sell to some of the best confectionery shops in the world."
"Besides, our chocolate has very special qualities that wouldn't be at all appropriate for youngsters." Pickles settled back in the chair and folded her paws in her lap. "Oh, of course there are always rumors about bad chocolate events and family gossip has it that Cousin Peggy can be, well, a bit indiscrete about who buys her eggs and how they use them." She frowned thoughtfully. "Although I'm sure she'd never work for anyone who would do anything really bad. We do have the family name to consider and we always try to be very careful about where our eggs are sold. The chocolate in the wrong hands could, well..." She leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially, "You know the feeling you get from regular chocolate?"
"One bite of real Easter Bunny chocolate and you want to…" she paused, searching for the right words.
"Go at it like rabbits?" Willow suggested.
"Exactly," Pickles said with a smug smile.
"I'll cancel the dinner reservation." Percy reached for the phone.
"Freeze," Buffy ordered. "What exactly is the problem here? She's a rabbit with PMS. What’s the big deal?"
Giles and Percy exchanged looks.
"Pickles has been known to be a bit… physical when she's delivering eggs," Giles explained. "One year she threatened to rip off Samuel's ears and strangle him with them."
"The mood swings are quite frightening."
Giles shivered. "And if she thinks we knew of Samuel’s lies…"
"Which we did not!"
"I would hate to think where that hat might end up."
Buffy giggled. "I think the two of you would be a lot happier if you were somewhere other than here."
"Pickles did say it isn't her time," Percy offered quickly.
Giles nodded. "And Buffy is the Slayer."
"Nice of you to remember that." She crossed her arms. "Go frolic. Have fun. Do whatever it is that Watcher type guys do when they get together. Willow and I will hold down the fort and take care of Pickles. We'll have a quiet evening of girl talk and ice cream. What could happen?"
Giles and Percy exchanged a look and both men shook their heads sadly. Percy sighed. "I do wish you hadn't said that."