"Dinner was wonderful, Rupert." Jo Christianson looked back over her shoulder and smiled at her escort as she unlocked the front door to her cottage. "Thank you for inviting me."
He returned the smile. "It was my pleasure."
She pushed the door open and then turned around and leaned back against the edge of the doorframe. "Not that I don't enjoy the food in the Coven dining hall, but I must admit that Baked Alaska makes a wonderful change from rhubarb pie."
Giles nodded his head in sympathy. "Dawn has developed an obsession for crème-filled chocolate cupcakes and insists on having them every evening for dessert." He pretended to shudder. "Between Xander's fondness for pizza and Dawn's attempts to send all of us into diabetic shock, I'd forgotten what a pleasure it is to sit down to a nice meal."
"We'll have to do it again," Jo said with a laugh, trying not to make it sound like the question it was.
"That would be lovely. Next week, perhaps. If you're not busy," he added hastily. "I wouldn't want to presume."
"I'm not busy." She glanced into the dimly lit living room and then back at him. "Would you like to come in for a cup of tea?"
"Yes, I would. But I'm afraid I can't." His tone was regretful as he reached out and took her hand.
"I received an email from Percy this afternoon about a report that he said he needed by tomorrow, and there is a lot of information I need to pull together before I can send it."
Jo linked her fingers through his and moved a step closer. "Is he still giving you a hard time because you stayed here rather than going back to England?"
"A deluge of emails and paperwork is his latest gambit in the ongoing battle. He's trying to keep me too busy to even job hunt in hopes that it will stop me from making further commitments to this area." His mouth curved into an amused smile. "Of course, as a Senior Watcher I was well within my rights to insist that all my correspondence be handled personally by the Director."
Jo couldn't hold back a giggle. "So you're punishing him as much as he's punishing you."
Wicked laughter gleamed in his eyes. "I certainly hope so."
She gave him a teasing smile. "Are you sure I can't tempt you to come in for...tea."
Giles cleared his throat and sighed. "You could probably tempt me to do all sorts of things." He paused and looked into her eyes. "But it will have to be another time." As they continued to look at each other, he slowly bent his head and brushed his mouth across her lips.
She sighed as he pulled back. "You don't know what you're missing. I make very good," her voice lowered to a sultry whisper, "tea."
This time there was no hesitation when he bent his head to kiss her. He felt her hands move to his shoulders, then steal around his neck. He deepened the kiss and urged her closer. As he pulled Jo tightly against him, he deliberately pushed the image of Buffy's face from his mind. Finally, he lifted his head and looked down at her. "Tea should never be rushed. To be fully appreciated and enjoyed, it should be lingered over and savored."
Jo slid her hands down and rested them on his chest as she tried to steady her breathing. "I don't know. Sometimes just grabbing a quick cup with a friend does the trick for me."
He curved his hands around her shoulders. "Perhaps in the future we may have the opportunity to test both theories."
"I hope so." She dropped her hands to her sides and stepped back. "Now go get those reports done, before Percy sends the - what is it Dawn calls them? The Moos? - after you."
Giles sighed and shook his head. "Centuries of belief, custom and tradition, reduced by an American teenager to a bovine utterance."
Jo examined his expression and then burst out laughing. "You can't wait to tell Percy that he's a Moo, can you?"
He studied her laughing face for a moment and then broke into a matching grin. "It's going to be the highpoint of the whole bloody report."
Giles drove home, his mind filled with thoughts of Jo. He liked her very much and enjoyed the time they spent together. She was bright, funny, attractive, desirable, and had a twisted sense of humor that was perfectly in tune with his own. When he decided to stay in Whispering Pines she had willingly accepted the inherent danger that went along with his position as Buffy's Watcher, even after her horror over the torture that he'd suffered at Drusilla's hands. The kiss had also been very intense and enjoyable, full of promise for even more enjoyment. In short, she was everything that he had always hoped to find.
He knew that his feelings for Buffy were the main reason that he couldn't bring himself to completely commit to the relationship with Jo. But perhaps it was time to put aside an old, wishful dream and move forward toward to a new, welcoming reality.
"Good morning, Dawnie."
"Hey." She waved at Willow who was standing on the other side of the kitchen taking something out of the oven and then dropped down onto the kitchen chair opposite Giles. Without asking, she reached over and took a blueberry muffin off his plate. "Did you have a good time last night and can you pick me up after school this afternoon and give me a ride to the mall?"
He lowered the newspaper he was reading and watched his breakfast disappear in three enormous bites. "Dinner was very nice and I thought you planned to go with Xander this weekend and do your 'after Thanksgiving, pre-Christmas, everything is on sale' shopping."
"I can't look for his present if he's with me." The mumbled statement was followed by what Giles thought of as the obligatory teenage eye roll that accompanied any interaction with persons over the age of twenty-one.
"When you asked Buffy last night, she said you needed to stay home this afternoon and study for your history
midterms. You missed class yesterday because you came home
with a headache." Willow put a full plate of hot muffins on the table and then grabbed one for herself before sitting down beside Giles.
He folded the newspaper with precise movements, put it on the table and pinned Dawn with an intimidating stare. "Have you already asked your sister?"
"Yes," she admitted in a sulky tone, refusing to meet his gaze.
"And what did she say?"
"What she always says. 'No!'"
Drawn in by the scent of food, Xander wandered into the kitchen. He stopped and poured a cup of coffee before sitting down with the others and helping himself to a muffin. "Hey, what's going on?"
"I'm getting yelled at for something that's totally not my fault." Dawn crossed her arms and leaned back in her chair. "All of a sudden it's like wanting to go to the mall is a major crime or something."
"No one is yelling," Giles corrected quietly. "However, it's completely unacceptable that you would ask me to do something after Buffy has already refused permission."
"It's not fair." Dawn sat up straight and tossed her hair over her shoulder. "I never get to go anywhere or do anything. Why should I have to stay home and study all the time when all my friends are having fun?"
"Buffy may be a little too overprotective right now." Willow paused and thought about it for a moment. "Okay, we're all
way too overprotective. But Whispering Pines hasn't turned out to be the quiet escape we thought it would be. I mean, really, think about it - house ghost and killer gnomes and empath demons and Dru--," she cut off abruptly, and then continued with a rush.
"It's all just because we love you and don't want anything to happen to you. Buffy remembers all the bad stuff that she was dealing with when she was your age and she just wants to make sure you don't have to do that."
"Just because she was totally stupid when she was seventeen doesn't mean I am. I'm not Buffy! I'm me!"
"And what about two weeks ago when she grounded me? Did any of you even bother to listen to my side of the story?" She gave a sharp shake of her head. "Of course not. You just assumed I had sneaked out to go to a party or something because that's what Buffy would have done!"
"You were halfway to the cemetery," Xander said. "What was Buffy supposed to think? That you were just out for a moonlight walk?"
"But I wasn't going to a party, I was …" She stopped.
"You were what?" Giles asked sharply.
"Nothing. It's not important."
Giles frowned. "Dawn?"
"It's not like I'm sneaking out to date a vampire or something," she said, refusing to look at Giles. "All I want to do is go to the mall with my friends."
Buffy walked into the kitchen just in time to hear the last part of Dawn's statement. "You already know that you can't go."
"But its not fair!"
"I don't care. Life's not fair." Buffy looked puzzled, but continued on more slowly, "Dawn, you haven't learned, privileges must be earned.
It's not a basic human right to go to parties every night."
Giles paused, his coffee cup halfway to his lips. "Pardon?"
"Dawn is trying to shirk very necessary work. Going to the mall won't do at all."
Buffy looked confused even as she spoke sternly.
Dawn rolled her eyes. "If you think talking like Dr. Seuss is cute, you are so wrong."
"Dawn, be quiet or I'll give you a boot. I'm not talking this way just to be cute." Buffy cast a panicked look toward her Watcher.
He put down the cup and went to stand beside his Slayer. "Are you all right?"
"Giles, something's wrong! It's like when we broke into song.
While I'm so not thinking in rhyme, it comes out that
way every time!"
Xander groaned and dropped his head onto the table. "Not again. First there's singing and dancing and now this."
He raised his head, his expression almost as panicked as Buffy's.
"Oh no, you don't think it's contagious do you?"
"Giles!" Buffy clutched at his sleeve. "Please make it end or surely I'll go 'round the bend."
The phone rang and before anyone else could respond Dawn made a flying leap and grabbed the receiver. "Hello."
She listened for a moment and then cast a gloating look at Buffy.
"Hi, Brad." Ignoring her sister's frantically waving arms and shaking head, Dawn continued, "I bet you're calling about your date tonight with Buffy." She paused and listened. "Oh, sure, I know all about you. Brad. Brad. Brad. You're all she's been talking about for weeks."
Buffy glared at Dawn and whispered, "Please, sister dear, say I'm not here. I can't have Brad anywhere near. I'll never get a kiss, if I'm talking like this."
Dawn ignored her and continued to listen to Brad. "No. No problem at all. Here she is." With a triumphant smile, she handed over the phone.
Buffy put the receiver up to her ear. On the other side of the room, Willow was staring with open curiosity, Giles was studiously polishing his glasses while carefully
not watching her, and Xander was still muttering under his breath, "Please, don't let it be contagious. Please, don't let it be contagious."
Turning her back on them, she focused her attention on the call. One word. That's all she had to say. Just one non-rhyming word.
"Hi." She was just about to breathe a sigh of relief when the second word popped out of her mouth. "Guy."
The sound of Dawn's pleased giggle made Buffy whirl back around. Everyone was in exactly the same place only Willow was smiling so much she was showing more teeth than a beauty queen, Giles' shoulders were shaking with silent laughter, and in the background Xander's litany had changed to, "Don't make me rhyme. Don't make me rhyme."
Ignoring her audience, she focused her attention on Brad.
"Uh, hi, Buffy." He sounded slightly confused. "Was that your sister I just talked to?"
"That was Dawn. She's demon spawn."
"Oh." The confusion in his voice grew more pronounced. "I was calling about tonight. I wanted to see if seven o'clock would be okay? I thought we could get something to eat first and then go on to the movie."
"Brad, I'd really like to, but I don't know what to do." She paused, trying to think up a reason for breaking their date. "Dawn and I had a fight, and to go out now just wouldn't be right."
There was silence for a moment before he finally spoke. "Are you sure you're okay? You sound kind of ... strange."
"A little tired but I'm okay. I'm just not sure what to say." She tried to clarify quickly, "To Dawn I mean, I don't know, but anyway - I shouldn't go."
There was a long baffled silence. "I guess we'll make it another time then. How about next weekend?"
Buffy sighed in relief. "That would be great. Let's call it a date."
Dawn slammed the front door behind her and stalked down the sidewalk. Why didn't they realize she wasn't a kid any more? When Buffy wanted to go somewhere she didn't have to ask permission. So why should her sister get to decide where Dawn could go and when she could go there? It just wasn't fair!
"Good morning," Alice Gilman called out from the carport beside her house. "You're out and about early."
"Hi, Mrs. Gilman." She crossed the yard and stopped to speak to their next-door neighbor. "I decided I might as well go to school. It's not like I'm ever going get to go anywhere else or do anything that's fun."
"All right, just what did you and your friends have planned that Buffy won't allow?" Alice asked, taking a bag of groceries out of the back seat of her car.
Dawn's mouth fell open. "How did you know?"
"Because I have two older sisters and they made it their mission in life to make sure I didn't have any fun. I couldn't leave the house without one of them demanding to know where I was going, who I was going with and when I would be back." She laughed. "I felt just like Cinderella did when she was kept from the ball by her wicked stepsisters."
Dawn rolled her eyes. "Tell me about it. So what did you do?"
"Pretty much the same thing you just did. Slammed the front door of our house a lot. Then I decided that wasn't accomplishing anything except loosening the hinges and that what I really needed was a plan to make them stop telling me what to do."
"Did it work?"
The older woman smiled mischievously. "Most of the time."
Dawn grinned back. "Care to share some tips?"
With a sigh of relief, Buffy put down the phone and turned back to find her sister's chair empty. "Where is Dawn? Is she gone?"
"She went to school. It's the rule." Willow took a bite of muffin. The others looked at her in horror as she slowly chewed and then finally swallowed. "It just seemed like it might be fun. Don't have a stroke, it was only a joke."
Buffy glared daggers at her. "In hell you can rot, because funny it's NOT."
Willow looked sheepishly at her and nodded. "Sorry. I guess it was a bad joke."
"Alright that's enough." Giles shoved his hands into his pockets. "Let's focus on the problem at hand
to see if we can find the cause. Did anything unusual happen last night while I was out?"
Buffy opened her mouth, but before she could say anything Willow held up her hand to stop her from speaking. "If you just nod or shake your head it'll be a lot faster."
"Or you can paw the ground once for yes and twice for no," Xander suggested.
Buffy scowled at him.
"I'll take that as a 'no'," Xander said dryly.
Giles removed his hands from his pockets, took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Which still doesn't answer my question. Did anything happen?"
Buffy shook her head. She placed her hands together, put them beside her cheek, tilted her head to the side and closed her eyes.
"You went to bed early?" Giles took a guess.
She opened her eyes, dropped her hands and nodded.
"What about you?" Giles turned his attention to Willow.
"I took a bubble bath and then came back downstairs and made some herbal tea." She frowned, thinking back over the previous evening. "I answered some emails from the Devon Coven about the First and the Hellmouth. On my way to bed I looked in on Dawnie. She was already asleep, so I asked Hedwig to turn off the lights. That was it. Nothing unusual at all."
"I didn't want to say anything because it sounds really stupid."
Buffy threw up her hands. "You're worried about that now? It would sound worse than me
"Yeah, I see your point." He shifted uneasily. "Okay, last night I could swear I heard chanting in the backyard. I got up and looked out the window but it had stopped by then; I didn't see anything so I thought I'd just imagined it."
"Did you recognize the language?" Giles asked, falling effortlessly into Watcher mode.
"Not a problem," Xander said with a nod. "It was English."
"Nice of them to save us the trouble of researching through dozens of books." Willow gave Xander a questioning look. "What did they say?"
"I don't remember all of it, but it was something about a candle to light you to bed and something to chop off your head."
Giles frowned. "Are you sure?"
"Yeah, the chopping off the head part is pretty hard to forget."
Willow glanced at Giles. "Do you recognize it? Is it some demonic alliteration curse?"
He shook his head. "It's part of a children's game called 'Oranges and Lemons'. I remember singing the rhyme when I played the game as a child."
Xander sighed. "You wacky English. A game named after fruit."
"What's the song?" Willow asked curiously.
"Oranges and lemons
Say the bells of St Clements
You owe me five farthings
Say the bells of St Martins
When will you pay me?
Say the bells of Old Bailey
When I grow rich
Say the bells of Shoreditch
When will that be?
Say the bells of Stepney
I'm sure I don't know
Says the great bell at Bow
Here comes a candle to light you to bed
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head
Chop chop chop chop the last man's head!"
Buffy shuddered. "Oh Giles, Eiewww! Really, how could you? That's not a game for a child to play. In the US they'd put you away. Or maybe send you to a shrink; I really can't think. And if I don't stop the rhyming, I'll have to start miming!"
Her voice reached a high pitch of hysteria on the last line, but before Giles could respond, a knock sounded at the back door. He crossed the room and opened it to find two children on the other side looking up at him.
"Good morning, sir." The boy pulled off an old-fashioned hat. "I'm sorry to disturb you but I hoped you might help us. My name is Hansel and this is my sister, Gretel. We're lost and can't find our way home."