"I hope you like ice cream," Buffy said, reaching in the freezer and pulling out several frost-covered containers. "We have the three basics: strawberry, vanilla and chocolate. Plus there’s some green-colored something-or-other that Dawn wanted and hasn’t touched, and half a carton of Banana Split that Xander’s touched way too often."
"All of it sounds just yummy." Pickles examined the small wine rack on the counter top and selected a bottle.
"Don’t forget the finishing touches." Willow used her hip to bump Buffy out of the way so she could get to the refrigerator. She started pulling our jars. "Chocolate sauce, butterscotch, whipped cream, cherries…" She looked over her shoulder at Pickles and then turned back to the refrigerator. "…hamburger dill slices, and Ginger Sweet Pickles."
"How about a little something to go with our dessert?" Pickles suggested, applying the corkscrew to the top of the wine bottle. "Rupert always did have the very best taste in wine."
"How did you meet Giles?" Buffy put the ice cream in the middle of the kitchen table.
"Oh, it was years and years ago. Samuel, that's my rat of a husband…"
"Who's not an Amy-type rat, just a regular husband-type rat," Willow added quickly. "He's really a tall, white rabbit who told an enormous rat-sized lie."
"Got it," Buffy said agreeably. "He's not a dirty, lying rat rat, he's a dirty, lying rat of a rabbit."
"That's rat, uh… right." Picked nodded, taking another sip of wine. "Anyway, we'd only been married for a couple of months and were living in London while he and Percy worked on an assignment. They’d been out all night every night for weeks and weeks trying to get information about some suspected demon invocations." Pickles poured red wine into three glasses. "Then one evening, Samuel calls and says that everything is fine and would it be okay if Percy and another friend came over for dinner."
Willow put the condiments on the table beside the ice cream. "The friend was Giles?"
Pickles nodded. "He was the skinniest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. If my mama had been there and gotten a look at him she would have fainted dead away right on the spot. And he had this look in his eyes…" She shuddered. "It was like he’d seen things that were just too awful to talk about."
"That must have been right after Randall was killed and all that stuff happened with Ethan," Buffy said grimly.
Pickles’ whipped her head around so fast her ears swayed from side to side. "You know about that?"
"Ethan turned up a few times when we lived in Sunnydale. He’d stay just long enough to make life miserable for Giles and then move on." Buffy rummaged in a drawer for some spoons. "He was here a few weeks ago trying to cause trouble and this time he used my younger sister to get to Giles." She stopped her gathering of silverware and stared at the wall. "He played her and used her, abusing her trust and innocence. And I think he would have done worse if we hadn’t found him first." Her voice was cold and hard. "Giles said he was alive when he left him, but I don’t care. I don’t care if he’s dead. If he messes with my family again, I’ll kill him myself."
Pickles reached out and patted her arm sympathetically. "He hides it well with his extraordinary charm, but personally I’ve always thought that there is a streak of true black evil in that man." She took a sip of wine. "And the bastard always did like ‘em young. Especially if they had power."
"Like Dawn… and Giles." Willow opened a cabinet door and took out three bowls.
Pickles nodded. She took her glass and the wine bottle and sat down at the table. "Rupert stayed with us almost a month before he went back to the Watchers Compound to complete his training. We spent a lot of time together and he told me bits and pieces about what had happened. I don’t know if anyone, other than Ethan, knows the whole story."
Buffy took the bowls from Willow and put them and the spoons on the table. "Yeah, he still doesn’t want to talk about it. It makes him all tense and twitchy. It’s the same with Dawn. She’s told me a lot, and I think she’s told Giles more about some things, but I feel like there's more we need to know than we do now."
"Ugh! Enough already," Willow said. "This evening has taken a U-turn toward badness, depression and gloom." She held up a bottle of sprinkles. "I say we break out the ice cream and get this party back on the road to happy thoughts and fluffy bunnies."
There was silence and then Pickles grinned. "I've got your fluffy bunny right here, sweetie."
Something dark and snarling sprang out of the shadows. Dawn yelped and leaped aside, but it caught the hem of her jeans, sending her crashing to the floor.
She looked down to see what had grabbed her and screamed with all the air in her lungs. If the creatures in the hall had been scary this was absolutely terrifying.
Even in the dim light she could tell it was the ugliest thing she'd ever seen. It was covered in coarse black hair and had a gaping maw filled with pointed teeth. The creature slowly opened its mouth and Ashley's high-pitched, childish treble emerged. "Hurry up, Cody. I got her."
With another screech, Dawn drew back her free foot and kicked.
"Who wants pizza?" Willow asked, pushing away her empty ice cream bowl.
"Not me." Buffy licked the last of the butterscotch, vanilla and whipped cream from her spoon before dropping it into an empty container. "But if you're still hungry, waddle on over to the phone and call."
Pickles started to laugh and then suddenly frowned and shifted her weight. "Girls... I think I may have a bit of a problem."
"I told you not to put dill slices on strawberry ice cream," Willow said, without looking up from the take-out menu hanging by the phone.
"It's not that." Pickles let out a low moan and put her paw in the middle of her back. "I think I'm about to start having eggs."
"What!?" Buffy pushed back from the table. "No, you can't do that here. You said it wouldn't be for days. You should wait and do it at home. Your home. Back in England . Miles and miles away from here."
"It was probably that last scoop of pistachio." Pickles tried to smile. "I suppose now would be as good time as any to mention that there might be one more tiny little problem."
"What?!?" Willow screeched just as the back door was kicked in and three large, scaly demons burst into the kitchen.
Buffy sighed as she stood and ducked under a slashing claw. "Don't tell me, let me guess. Easter Buffy eggs attract demons."
"I'm afraid so." Prickles grimaced. "Something to do with pheromones."
Buffy picked up a chair and hit the first demon in the head. "Just another quiet evening at home."
"I do expect to be invited to the wedding." Percy forked up a bite of alder smoked salmon and looked at Giles, sitting on the other side of the table. "And given sufficient notice, I’m sure I can even make it back for the bachelor party."
Giles looked up from his contemplation of an artistically arranged plate of grilled vegetables and pasta. "I didn’t realize that you knew someone in Whispering Pines who planned to be married. Do offer the happy couple my congratulations."
"Rupert, surely you’re not suggesting that your intentions regarding Buffy are less than honorable." He shook his head. "I’m shocked. Truly shocked."
"My intentions, honorable or otherwise, are absolutely none of your business," Giles said calmly, reaching for a dinner roll. "However, there’s no reason to take my word for it. You’re more than welcome to discuss the situation with Buffy. I’m sure she would be simply thrilled to know that you’re taking such an avid interest. Perhaps you could offer to be a bridesmaid… since Buffy’s already offered to help you in that area?"
Percy grinned. "Thank you, but I believe I’ll pass on that particular offer."
"A very wise decision." He buttered the roll. "I’d hate to send you home wrapped in pink taffeta."
"What’s wrong with these things?" Buffy demanded, pulling out the knife she had just buried in the chest of one the demons. The wound immediately sealed closed and the demon growled and backhanded her across the room. She jumped to her feet and kicked it in the stomach. "Why won’t they go ahead and die already?"
"I don’t know," Willow panted, hitting one their attackers across the back of the head with a broom. "I’ve never seen anything like them in any of the books."
Buffy grinned. "Nice to see you employing the tools of your trade, Will, but it’d be great if you could turn them into mice or pumpkins or something."
"That was a fairy godmother," Willow said. "I doubt that bippity-boppity-boop will do anything but make them angry." She ducked a fist aimed at her face and let it crash into the wall behind her. "More angry."
"I’m open for suggestions," Buffy said. "Any and all ideas will be given immediate consideration."
"I have one," Pickles called out from under the table.
Buffy punched a demon in the face and sent it reeling backward. "Care to share it with the rest of the class?"
"Excuse me, sir," said a quite voice. "Are you Rupert Giles?"
The waiter handed Giles a phone. "The young lady said that you had forgotten your phone and that this was an emergency."
‘Hello." He stared at the waiter who stared back, refusing to budge as if certain Giles would take the phone and bolt from the restaurant given half a chance.
"Yes, Willow , what seems to be the problem? What? How many? Can you describe them? Well, they all have horns, don’t they? How many? No, each, not a cumulative total. Hmmm, is the one in the center of the forehead in line with the others or is it slightly elevated? Buffy tried what? Well, of course that didn’t work. She knows better than to try to hack something to pieces before she finds out if all it will do is make it angry."
The waiter took a step back.
"All right, let me think. Do the markings on the scales run vertically or horizontally? Yes, thank you, do go take a look please." Giles picked up a bite of roll and popped it in his mouth.
"What? Vertical? You’re sure? All right then, they can only be killed with a gypsy cursed blade. I know there's one in the basement somewhere. Try the box in the corner. No, not the silver one with the runes, that’s the one that was dipped in the Ganges for dealing with some Indian demons… yes, that’s right, it’s the jade and ivory one under the newspapers that are to be recycled." He took a sip of water.
"If you can, please keep them out of the living room. The claws will scratch and if you kill them there, we’ll have to resand the floors to get rid of the blood strains." Giles shrugged at Percy who was calmly chewing a last bite of salmon, and whispered, "We just refinished the original Douglas Fir floors. They’re lovely, but really too soft for demon fighting."
He turned his attention back to the call. "Oh, and Willow, they can also be forced into hibernation by lowering their body temperature." He paused and listened for a moment. "I don’t believe that's even been tried, but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work." He paused again to listen. "Yes, we’ll run by the supermarket on the way home then. Orange juice and a loaf of bread, too? Certainly. See you shortly."
He handed the phone back to the stunned waiter. "Check please."
Dawn’s foot connected with the creatures’ jaw. It released her and she scrambled to her feet. She turned and was about to run when she realized the little demon was crying with heart-broken sobs that couldn't be anything but real.
She stared down for a moment, then sighed. "I just know I'm *so* gonna regret this," she said, kneeling down beside the sobbing monster. "Are you okay?"
It looked up with tear-drenched eyes and slowly began to morph back into the familiar shape of Ashley Wilson. The little girl scrubbed the tears from her face, but couldn't control the quivering of her lower lip. She looked at Dawn with an accusing gaze. "You hit me!"
"Don't get up," Willow said, pushing Pickles back against the pillows of her bed. "Another one should be here any minute."
That fact was proved when Pickles tensed again, a low groan again coming from deep inside her as another chocolate egg emerged.
Willow added it to the growing pile of rich, dark chocolate eggs she was neatly stacking on the bedside table.
Pickles let out a series of short pants as the contraction eased, and lifted her head to meet Willow 's eyes. "I wasn't trying to jump up so I could run a race," she snapped. "I need a drink of water."
"Oh. Sorry." Willow handed Pickles a cup of water. She drank a few sips before pushing it away. "How are you doing?"
"I’ve been better," Pickles admitted. "What’s going on downstairs?"
"Two of the demons are out cold… no pun intended… and Buffy’s got the other one cornered with what’s left of the strawberry ice cream." Willow shook her head. "The kitchen's a mess. Looks worse than it did that time Xander tried to make waffles."
"Guess it’s a good thing I didn’t have thirds," Pickles said through gritted teeth.
"Does it hurt?" Willow asked, nibbling on what was left of a fingernail.
"Sweetie, I’m laying giant chocolate eggs," Pickles said flatly. "What do you think?"
"That it was a really stupid question."
"Yes," Pickles panted. "It was."
Dawn handed each of the children a mug of cocoa. "So, your dad's a demon."
Cody nodded. "A Mimicker. That means he can change to look like any other kind of demon that he wants. He's an actor… what he really wants to do is direct… and he lives in California with his second wife. She's a Mimicker, too."
Dawn nodded. "That's nice."
"No! It's not." Ashley shoved away her cocoa. "He and Agnes are going to have children that will be real Mimickers and then he won't ever have to see us again 'cause we're not good enough monsters to even scare anybody. Mother tries to make us feel better by calling us 'little monsters' but it's just a joke and we'll never be real monsters."
Dawn frowned. "Where did you hear that? I know your mom didn't tell you that."
"Certainly not." Cody pushed the mug back toward his sister. "Mother has excellent parenting skills and would never intentionally relay information that would be detrimental to our relationship with our father."
Her lips tugged upward in reluctant amusement. "You sound just like a couple of friends of mine," Dawn said. "I bet you like tea, too."
Cody nodded. "Doesn't everyone?"
She turned back to look at Ashley. "What makes you think your dad won't want to see you anymore?"
Ashley sniffed back tears. "I heard Grandmother and Grandfather talking. They said Dad told them we didn't have any 'natural talent' for frightening people and that he was glad we lived in Oregon where his friends couldn't see us."
Dawn reached over and patted her hand. "I know that hearing that hurt, but you can't let your dad being a jerk make you do stupid things."
Cody rolled his eyes. "Yes, we've seen several television specials on self-esteem." He continued softly. "But it doesn’t seem to make it any easier."
Dawn pulled her hand back and drummed her fingers against the top of the table. "Okay, then how about this… you keep scaring people and you're going to end up getting hurt. Think how your mom will feel if something bad happened to you."
"That's good," Cody said in quiet admiration. "An admirable example of a reminder of our responsibilities overlaid with a layer of guilt. You'll make an excellent mother one day."
"Thanks. I learned from the best," Dawn said. "Now, let's talk about future plans. If things work out with your mom and Tad, then we're probably going to be seeing a lot more of each other."
"You're coming back?" Ashley gasped. "We've never had the same babysitter for more than one evening."
"That's because every teenager in town is terrified of you," Dawn said.
"They are?" Ashley asked, a hint of color coming to her cheeks. "Really and truly? You're not just saying that to be nice?"
"Absolutely petrified," Dawn promised. "But is that what you really want?"
"What do you mean?" Cody asked.
"You've talked about being all monstery and scary because that's what your dad wants you to be. But what do you want to be?"
The children exchanged looks of silent communication.
"You won't laugh?" Ashley asked.
"Cross my heart," Dawn promised.
"A ballerina," Ashley breathed, stars in her eyes.
"I'll talk to your mom about dance lessons," Dawn promised. She looked at Cody. "What about you?"
Cody ducked his head and mumbled something.
"Sorry. I didn't hear what you said."
He lifted his head. "I said, I want to be a fireman."
Dawn nodded. "That's a good thing to be. You want to save people?"
He shook his head, a gleam appearing in his eyes. "I want to ride in the big truck and ring the bell!"
Carrie handed Xander his black tie as they moved toward the door.
"Thanks. I had a great time."
"It was nothing," she smiled shyly, draping his suit coat over his outstretched arm.
"But it wasn't nothing. It was something... it was really nice."
"I'm glad you enjoyed it." She opened the door and held it for him as he stepped outside. "Sorry I changed the plans on you. I'm flakey that way."
"Good thing I like my women like I like my pie crusts."
"You're a strange guy, you know that?"
"Yeah, well... what can ya do?"
"Go with it." She stepped outside, wrapped her arms around him and brought him closer for a deep kiss. After a moment, she pulled away, suddenly shy. "Sorry. I just... I wasn't sure... I'm sorry."
"Don't be," Xander reassured her with a gentle smile. "Goodnight," he barely managed a whisper.
"Goodnight," Carrie smiled, pleased. "I'll talk to you tomorrow."
Xander nodded. As the door closed behind him, he began to walk back to his car with a little more spring in his stride.
Everyone was gathered in the living room. A cheerful fire blazed. The hearth tiles glowed in polished splendor and over the mantle the red axe gleamed merrily.
"How is Pickles?" Buffy asked, from her comfortable spot on the sofa wrapped in Giles' arms.
"Sleeping," Willow said with a yawn. "We decided to leave her in my room for tonight and I'll either sleep down here or bunk in with Dawn."
"You're welcome to share." The teenager yawned, too. "You don't hog all the covers like a certain sister I won't name."
"Are you a cover hog?" Giles whispered.
"Why don't you grab an egg and find out for yourself one of these nights?" Buffy whispered back.
"Why would I need chocolate induced desires when I have you?" Giles responded.
"You do realize that everyone in the room possesses normal hearing and can understand every word you’re saying?" Percy asked. "Rupert, I'm mortified by such behavior. Where is your sense of dignity and decorum?"
"Bugger dignity and decorum," Giles said mildly. "Look at the beautiful woman I’m propositioning."
Percy yawned. "Good point. Well made. Carry on."
Dawn sat up and stretched. "The Easter Bunny's asleep upstairs, we've got demons packed on ice in the bathtub, two little monsters living next door and none it is as deeply weird as the guy running the Council having a sense of humor and not wanting us all dead. That's just totally freaky. It even surpasses the Buffy-Giles snuggle weirdness."
"It does all take some getting used to," Willow agreed.
Xander strolled in the room. "Hi."
"Hey, Xand. You and Carrie have a good time?"
"Yeah," he smiled happily. "A great time. On a scale of one to ten a definite A plus."
"That's nice." Buffy rested her head against Giles' chest. "We should ask her over for dinner one night next week. One night when it's not Xander's turn to cook." She shuddered theatrically. "Every time I think about what he did to Elspeth’s recipe for Greek Chicken, I have nightmares. Are you *sure* he followed the recipe in the Coven’s cookbook?"
"It was open and in front of him while he cooked. Beyond that? No guarantees. Anyway, she can’t come over until we get a new kitchen table," Willow said.
"What's wrong with the old one?" Xander asked.
"It's kinda not there anymore," Dawn said.
"Demons again?" Xander sighed.
"I thought you came in through the kitchen," Giles said. "Didn't you notice the total chaosand destruction?"
"Uh… not really," Xander admitted. "I guess I kinda got side-tracked." He lifted his hand and displayed a half-eaten chocolate Easter egg. "Where'd the candy come from?"
Xander turned just to time to be hit squarely between the eyes with a furry, white fist. His body slowly crumpled to the floor.
Pickles dusted her paws together then leaned over and retrieved the partially eaten chocolate. "Never, ever touch a lady's egg without permission."