From across the kitchen, Buffy watched the children gulp down the food on the table in front of them. The muffins had been quickly consumed and were now being followed by large potions of milk and cereal. Xander was cutting up some apples for them as well.
It was Xander who'd seen what the rest of them missed. The boy and girl were desperately hungry. She wondered how many times as a child Xander had skipped meals or made do with whatever was in the house. Now that she thought about it, her mom had always made sure there was extra food in the house when she knew Xander would be there. She'd thought it was just because Xander had been a walking food disposal. At sixteen, she'd been a lot better at killing things than noticing what was going on around her, but maybe her mom had realized things were bad for Xander at home.
Willow came over and handed her a cup of tea. "Try this."
"Is it magickal tea that will be helpful to me?"
Willow shook her head. "It's an herbal blend to help you relax."
Buffy sighed and took a sip. At this point she'd try anything, even something that tasted like freshly brewed grass clippings.
Willow examined her closely. "Are you okay? Are there any other side effects of any kind? Dizziness? Headache? Blurred vision?"
Buffy gave it some thought. "I wouldn't say so, at least, not that I know. Why this discussion? It's not a concussion."
Willow sighed with frustration. "Mostly because I didn't know what else to ask. Giles is on the phone with Elspeth about the kids and you and the rhymes. He thought someone in the Coven might have some suggestions about what to do."
"Why didn't he just call Jo? I'll bet that she would know." Buffy scowled. "I may be in pain, but she'll want to remain right at
his side until these rhymes subside!"
Willow ignored the outburst and looked over at the table. "We've got to figure out what to do with them. If they really are Hansel and Gretel, who's next? Humpty Dumpty? 'Cause having a giant egg sitting in the living room eating popcorn and watching TV is going to be a little hard to explain."
Xander left the children with their apple slices and joined them just in time to keep Buffy from having to answer. She looked at the children and then back at Xander and traced a question mark in the air.
"Nothing new. They remember their father leaving them in the woods. It got dark and they went to sleep and when they woke up they were in our back yard."
"Which pretty much follows the story," Willow said. "Except for the part about being in our back yard. They're supposed to wake up and find the path leading to the witch's house."
Buffy and Xander exchanged a look.
"Hey!" Willow protested.
Xander shoved his hands in his pockets. "All I'm saying, Will, is if the pointy hat fits then … ."
The redhead took a step forward and poked Xander in the chest with her finger. "How would you like to be turned into a newt? It can be arranged."
Buffy giggled at the mock threat as she looked at Xander. "You'd be so cute as a newt."
"Buffy!" Giles hurried into the kitchen. "We need to get to the Coven immediately. Elspeth says something very odd is happening."
She sighed. It just wouldn't be her life if weird things didn't happen at least every other Tuesday.
Willow noticed Giles looking at the children. "Xander's going to Jerry's to pick up some lumber and things, but I'll take care of the kids after he leaves," she promised. "Better hurry. If Elspeth says something is odd it probably means that entire civilizations are about to crumble."
Giles picked up his and Buffy's jackets from the rack beside the back door. "Thank you, Willow. That's very reassuring."
Dawn tossed her history homework assignment into her locker and began to rummage through the stack of books looking for her English paper due the next period. From behind her, she heard whispers interspersed with giggles. She looked over her shoulder to see what was going on, and the girls who were staring at her quickly looked away before hurrying down the hall.
She turned back to her locker with a scowl. That did it. She was never, ever going to listen to fashion advice from Buffy again. She'd told her that this green sweater made her look like a geek, but Buffy had insisted that it was cute and just perfect for high school. That showed how much her stupid sister knew. People Dawn didn't even know were pointing and laughing about how goofy she looked.
"Hey, Dawn, can I borrow your algebra book?" Liz Hutchins skidded to a halt beside her friend. "I forgot mine and Ms. King said that the next time I came to class without it she was going to … what is that yucky stuff on your face?" she demanded, abruptly changing the subject.
"What's what?" Dawn ran her hands over her cheeks. She just knew that somehow this was Buffy's fault, too. She'd recommended this brand of make-up. So, not only had her sister talked her into wearing stupid clothes, she'd also found a way to make her look like Bozo the clown.
"The junk all over your face." Liz leaned in for a closer look. "It looks kinda like dirt."
"What?!" Dawn slammed the door to her locker ran down the hall to the bathroom. When she looked into the mirror, she discovered large black streaks smeared across her forehead and down one side of her face. She grabbed a paper towel, dampened it and scrubbed away the dark marks. "Oh, god, you don't think Brian saw me, do
you? I'll just die if he did."
"Uh, Dawn." Liz had followed her and was standing behind her staring at her back. "I really wouldn't worry about the stuff on your face. You've got bigger problems. Unless you really want everyone to know you're wearing a baby blue bra with matching bikini underwear."
Giles stopped the lilac-colored sedan in front of the dining hall. Witches surrounded them as soon as they got out of the vehicle.
Elspeth looked as close to panicked as it was possible for someone so naturally serene to appear. Deborah was struggling to retain her stoic demeanor, but it was clear that she was badly shaken. Jo appeared equally worried while Lessa, on the other hand, was nearly vibrating with excitement.
"I'm so glad you're here." Jo flung her arms around Giles' neck and gave him a long hug.
"My pleasure and I just hope we can help," he said with a smile, his palms sliding up her back to return the embrace.
Watching the two, Buffy felt her stomach tighten.
"Thank you for coming so quickly." Elspeth stepped forward, put a hand on Buffy's shoulder and directed her and the others along the pathway toward the gardens. "How are you, dear? Any change?"
"I'm still talking in verse, but not getting any worse."
"A most interesting condition." Deborah sounded as if only half her attention was focused on the subject of the Slayer's strange affliction.
Buffy shrugged. "It's rather annoying. So where are we going?"
"Much better if we show you rather than try to explain." Elspeth continued to hurry them along the gravel-lined path. "Lessa is the one who found it."
"I was checking the beds in the herb garden," Lessa explained. "We've been working on soil preparation for next spring," she added as an aside to Buffy.
Buffy gritted her teeth and forced herself to nod patiently. Any other time she'd be glad to discuss gardening techniques, but right now she just wanted to know what was going on.
"Anyway, I had just finished parsley and sage and was heading toward rosemary when I saw it."
Giles threw her a frustrated look. "Saw what?"
As they rounded the corner of a tool shed, Lessa lifted her arm and pointed. "That!"
Buffy's eyes widened. "You can stop your toil of 'preparing the soil!' Learn to judge when enough's been done…that green thing must weigh a ton!"
Rising up before them, twining tendrils and leaves fluttering in the morning breeze, was an enormous beanstalk. The base was the size of a small house and the height impossible to guess since it disappeared into the low hanging clouds of the overcast sky.
"It was only about half this size when I found it," Lessa said eagerly. "By the time Elspeth and Deborah got here, it was a lot bigger and it looks like it's still growing."
"Except for the extraordinary size, it appears to be an ordinary Cousin Jack's Zebra Bean." Deborah eyed it with distaste. "I can't imagine where it came from. We would never grow that particular variety."
Buffy looked at Giles and rolled her eyes. Looming over them was a beanstalk the size of a skyscraper and Deborah was ticked off because it was the wrong variety of bean for the garden.
"We can address that problem later," Elspeth said soothingly. "A more immediate concern is how to stop it from growing."
"I think to solve this case, I'll take an axe to the base," Buffy suggested.
"We talked about that." Jo sighed with frustration. "Then we realized we needed to be able to make it fall where it wouldn't do any damage. None of us know anything about cutting down something this size."
"Surely there is a spell that will reverse this." When his suggestion was greeted with silence, Giles looked from one to the other finally settling on Jo. "Is there something we haven't been told?"
"There is more," Jo admitted. "Last night Amelia found an abandoned goose. She didn't think anything about it since people are always leaving unwanted animals here. She put it in the pen with the other geese, and this morning when she went to feed them she found," Jo motioned to Deborah who pulled something from her pocket, "that."
Buffy blinked. "If that thing's for real, it's a majorly big deal."
"Indeed it is real," Elspeth confirmed. "It seems the coven has in our possession not just a golden egg but also the goose that laid it."
Giles frowned. "I'm sure you realize there are people who would stop at nothing to possess such a thing."
"Exactly." Deborah seemed pleased that someone else recognized what she perceived to be the paramount issue - danger to the coven.
Jo brushed her hand up and down Giles' jacket sleeve. "When you telephoned this morning and told us about the children who claimed to be Hansel and Gretel, I realized that the goose and the beanstalk were manifestations of yet another fairy tale."
"Well yippee, yippee, I shout, 'cause she's figured it out," Buffy muttered under her breath. When Giles frowned at her, she widened her eyes in mock innocence.
Elspeth cleared her throat, drawing their attention back to her. "If you will recall, in the story the goose was taken from a giant who then climbs down the beanstalk in search of his stolen treasure."
Giles shrugged, not sure where this was headed. "It's been some years since I heard the story but that seems correct."
"We think Buffy should climb up the beanstalk and take the goose back before the giant comes looking for it," Lessa blurted out.
"You are assuming there will be a giant," Giles said. "Jack doesn't seem to have made an appearance so perhaps the giant won't either."
"It's not a risk we can take," Deborah argued. "The goose must be returned."
Giles controlled a shudder. He had no interest in explaining his reluctance for Buffy to climb anything taller than a stepladder. "Since the beanstalk and the goose must have been created by magick, it would seem the best solution would be to remove them the same way. The coven certainly has the power to do so."
"Ordinarily, yes." Elspeth nodded. "But as you know, of late even some of the simplest of our spells have been, as young Willow is fond of saying, going kablooey.
While my friends in Devon are working with
us find the solution, if something as complicated as a vanishing spell went awry, we might inadvertently make the entire town of Whispering Pines disappear, instead of simply removing one bothersome beanstalk."
Giles thought about the combined power of all the witches in the coven. "I see your point."
"I truly believe this is our best option, Rupert," Elspeth said in a kind voice. "I would never have suggested it otherwise."
Buffy came to his side, linked her arm through his and gave it a reassuring squeeze. She understood how difficult this was for her Watcher. It brought back too many bad memories of another climb and the awfulness that had followed. Truthfully, she wasn't too crazy about the idea herself, but it had to be done. "It's not that tall. I won't fall."
"No. You won't," he agreed quickly. "Because this time your feet are going to stay firmly on the ground."
"Giles, I know how you feel. The thought doesn't appeal." She patted his arm. "But we both know that I have to go."
"Absolutely not," he insisted. "We'll find another way."
Jo looked confused by the adamancy in his voice. "The vine is more than strong enough to support Buffy's weight."
Giles shot her a look of such smoldering fury that she took an involuntary step back. "Which is hardly the point. I will not send my Slayer scurrying up a magickal beanstalk like some kind of trained monkey. For all any of us know, she could get half-way up the bloody thing and it could disappear."
"I'll be okay. It won't go away." Buffy tried to reassure him. "I'll take care; stay alert and aware."
Giles spoke so softly that only she could hear. "I stood over your broken body once. Never again."
Buffy did the only thing she could think to do. She threw herself into his arms.
Never in her life had anything ever felt so safe and secure as Giles did in that moment. The last thing she wanted to do was leave those arms to climb again, but finally she gathered the strength to move away.
"As Slayer I need to do this deed," she said seriously, before her eyes began to twinkle. "But do not fear. I won't fall on my rear."
"She's right, Rupert," Elspeth said firmly. Meeting her compassionate gaze, he realized the source of his emotional turmoil regarding Buffy wasn't at all hidden from this insightful woman. "Think about what would happen if an angry giant suddenly appeared."
The words had barely left her mouth when Buffy felt the earth tremble beneath her feet. Before she had time to worry about earthquakes or other natural disasters, a voice boomed down from overhead.
"Fee! Fi! Fo! Fum! I smell the blood of an Englishman!" As the words died away an enormous boot broke through the low hanging clouds. In seconds the giant had slid down the vine and was standing on the ground, glowering down at them. He surveyed the group for a moment and then fixed his belligerent gaze on Giles. "Be he alive, or be he dead I'll have his bones to grind my bread."
Buffy stepped in front of her Watcher and assumed a fighting stance as she glared up at the giant looming fifteen feet above her.
Whooptee doo, back at you! I say its Fee! Fi! Fo! Fum! You're going back to where you came from."