As far as the eye could see, holiday decorations and festive lights decked every store. Images of Santa Claus vied for attention with blinking lights and wreathes, all in some over-kill attempt to convince people passing by to stop and spend their hard earned money.
Dawn noticed none of this, her mind elsewhere, as she and Liz made their way down the puddle-covered sidewalk.
"So, how'd the practice quiz go?" Liz asked, breaking the silence.
Dawn glanced over, her expression dark.
"Oh. Sorry,” she said. “Well, don't worry about it. We'll try to get it cleared up today and if you still blow this, remember you can drop one."
"Yeah, being able to drop the lowest grade is a plus." Dawn cursed the headaches that had made studying last night so difficult. "Still, a big fat 'A' to shove in my sister's face would be my ticket out of Stalag Summers."
Dawn came to an abrupt halt, as her eyes fell on a lavender colored leather jacket. It was hanging in a store window amid an overabundance of red and green lights. "Wow. Check that out."
Liz glanced over and shrugged, unimpressed. "Maybe I'm just old fashioned, but I like my dead cowhide to come in colors actually found in nature." She gave Dawn a teasing nudge on the shoulder.
Dawn grinned and moved closer to the window. "Not me," she said, all but pressing her nose to the glass. "Give me bright and cheerful any day." Stepping back, she made a mental note of the name of the store. Maybe if she played her cards right, she'd find the jacket in a brightly wrapped box under the tree on Christmas morning.
The girls shivered as the wind shifted, blowing bitter rain directly at them. Dawn moved her umbrella to block as much of the rain as possible. She couldn't help but think of the bright warm sunshine they'd left back in California . Right now, she was so cold, she almost preferred the Hellmouth, if it meant warm sunshine. "All this rain's bumming me out."
Liz gestured enthusiastically at the lights that lined the street. "But all the holly jolly lights makes the raindrops shimmer so joyously."
Dawn narrowed her eyes at her friend. "If you're trying to be annoying, then job well done." As she returned her gaze to the window and the jacket inside, she noticed the distorted reflection of a dark figure looming behind them. She hesitated a moment, before deciding it was time to move on. "Are we still on for the library?" she asked, as they continued down the street.
"I'm game if you are." Liz shifted her black umbrella so that it joined Dawn's in blocking the rain. "So, you feeling any better?" She glanced over at her friend. "Any more dizzy spells?"
"Another one last night." Dawn sighed. "I was studying for the quiz and then ‘hello unconsciousness.' Next thing I knew, Buffy was calling me for dinner." She kicked at a puddle in frustration. "Stupid blackout. I tried the practice test after dinner, but just bombed it."
"That totally sucks."
"Tell me about it."
The girls were walking along, huddling together for warmth when a display in the front of a small handmade clothing shop caught Liz's eye. "Now that's a jacket!"
Both girls ogled the finely sewn leather. As Dawn stepped back so that Liz could crowd closer, she caught a glimpse of the same distorted reflection that she'd seen earlier.
"Now see, that's a real color," Liz teased. Dawn's gaze remained on the reflection.
When Dawn didn't answer her, Liz looked over. "Earth to Dawn. Come in, Dawn."
Grabbing Liz's arm, Dawn started moving again, her strides growing longer and her pace quickening. Liz scrambled to keep up, finally pulling her arm free of Dawn's grasp.
"Geez, if you don't like the jacket, just say so," she muttered, straightening her coat even as she tried to keep up. "And what's with the track and field routine?"
"I think we're being followed," Dawn said quietly. Horrified, Liz tried to look over her shoulder, but Dawn's strategically placed elbow to her ribs stopped her. "Don't look. We're safer if he doesn't know we know he's there," she hissed.
"You're freaking me out here," Liz whispered back. It took all of her self-control not to peer over her shoulder. "Where is he?"
Dawn pretended to point at a Christmas display. "You can see his reflection in the window," she said in the low voice. "About six feet behind us."
Liz glanced at the area of glass Dawn indicated and gripped Dawn's arm tightly. "What do you think he wants?"
"Who knows?" Dawn shrugged. It could just be a simple creep wanting to kidnap them for jollies, a vampire stalking its prey, or a demon that wanted to sacrifice young virgins to bring about the apocalypse. Dawn fervently hoped it was the first.
"We'll be fine as long as we stay out in public," Dawn assured her friend.
Liz tugged on her arm. "Hey, there's a cop. Why don't we go tell him?"
As they passed another storefront, Dawn caught a better look at their pursuer. He stood out like a sore thumb. He wore a beat-up leather jacket, and there was no sign of an umbrella or any of the REI raingear favored by the residents. Not the smartest outfit to be trailing someone in during a downpour. He was definitely not a local.
"I want to know who this guy is and what he wants," Dawn whispered. They got separated as they wove through a crowd of younger girls walking in the opposite direction. She glanced over to make sure Liz was still behind her.
"I still say we make nice with Mr. Police Officer and scare this freak off!" Liz said, shaking her head.
She spoke so loud, Dawn feared their pursuer might have heard. "You go talk to the cop," she said. "I'll lead him off in another direction." After all those years on the hellmouth, Dawn had grown tired of the victim role. She was going to find out what this guy wanted.
"No way!" Liz protested. "Besides, what makes you think he's following you? Maybe he's after my young hot bod' instead."
Dawn rolled her eyes and then cast another glance at the distorted reflection of the man. "Let's just say I have a feeling."
"This is crazy, Dawn." Liz sped up her pace, heading determinedly for a policeman who was seeking shelter from the rain in a storefront doorway. "Let's just go talk with the cute guy in the nice safe blue uniform and get this weirdo gone already." When there was no response, Liz stopped. She looked back just in time to see Dawn jaywalking across the street, the dark figure following.
Dawn moved quickly, tracking the figure's progress in the shop windows she passed. Darting between some nearby window-shoppers, she turned a corner and headed down a side street that housed some antique stores. She paused briefly at a bookstore, one of Giles' favorite haunts. One glance in the window confirmed that her pursuer was still with her. From what little she could tell in the window, it was definitely a man and he didn't seem familiar. She noticed a break in the traffic and took the opportunity to dash across the street. As she skipped up the curb, she made a point to make an impressive splash in a puddle. The minute she landed on the sidewalk, she stopped and spun around to confront her pursuer.
"I didn't order an escort!" Dawn slipped her hand into her bag, closing around the wooden stake she kept there for emergencies. Her other hand clutched her umbrella, ready to start swinging at the first sign of trouble. She was surprised to see the man standing casually in the middle of the puddle she had just hopped from, chuckling and looking down at his wet feet.
"How long have you known?" he asked, stepping up onto the curb and shaking the water from his shoes.
Dawn was caught a bit off guard by his British accent. She backed up a few feet, just out of snatching range. "Since Hollowbrook and First Street ," she said. "Who are you?"
Straightening up, the man glanced at the rain spilling from the sky and shrugged. "Wasn't prepared for this today."
She stared at his face. He didn't look familiar. He was tall, with rich brown hair that was now matted by the rain. There may have been some gray in it as well, but she couldn't tell for sure. A dark goatee masked his thin face, but what held her attention were the dark eyes. She couldn't quite pinpoint the color; it seemed to change with the light. He seemed to be about Giles' age, but something about him made him look so much older.
"Who are you and why are you following me?" she demanded again. Not even her raised voice fazed the stranger.
"I apologize if I've scared you,” he started.
"You didn't." Dawn assured him, her hand tightening over the stake. Vampires always tried to assure you that they weren't going to hurt you, usually right before they ripped your throat open.
"Is that so?” The stranger cocked his head. “Such confidence."
Dawn shrugged with what she hoped came across as casual indifference to his light sarcastic tone. "Yeah, well the gun in my bag goes a long way in building confidence." She raised an eyebrow, waiting impatiently for an explanation.
"I'm sorry,” he said, shaking his head with an amused grin. “I'm handling this all wrong. Can we start again? My name is Randall Page. I'm with the Council." He thrust a hand at her.
He raised an eyebrow in surprise when Dawn ignored his offered hand. She had to know that her sister was the Slayer, so surely she knew of the Watchers Council. Or had Ripper hidden it from her for some reason? "The Watchers Council,” he tried again.
She glanced down skeptically at his outstretched hand. "Still with the not caring."
At the hostile tone, Ethan pulled his hand back and wiped the outline of his damp beard with his fingers. "Yes. Well, I suppose your mistrust is to be expected.”
"Ya think?" Dawn snickered rudely. "I know how the Council works. Get all cuddly and then stab you in the back when you're not looking."
Ethan struggled to hide his smile of delight. Obviously the Council had caused some problems for the Summers girls in the past. That just might be something he could use.
"That was then, Miss Summers. Things have changed."
"You're trying to take Giles away!" Dawn shouted at him. "That's why you're here, isn't it? I've heard some of the phone calls between him and Percy. I know you want him. Well, you can't have him. Giles is...” She stopped suddenly. Taking a deep breath, she continued. "You're not taking him back to England ."
Ethan gave her an understanding smile. "Miss Summers, I can assure you that I have no intention of taking Mr. Giles away from you or Buffy. I'm simply here to observe." The words flowed smoothly off his tongue. And for the moment, they were the truth. He had no intention of taking Ripper away from the girl, although he couldn't promise the reverse wouldn't be true.
The rain continued to pour down as the two stared at one another – Dawn with mistrust, Ethan with sympathetic understanding. After a moment, Dawn spoke. "Are you a Watcher?"
"Christ, no." Ethan chuckled weakly, throwing himself into his act. "I'm bloody useless as a Watcher. That's why they send me on these paper missions. They figure I can't make too big a mess of them." Ethan gave a self-deprecating laugh. "Obviously they were wrong."
When she didn't waver from her defensive stance, he held his hands out to her pleadingly. "Please, allow me to buy you a soda or cocoa or whatever the customary beverage is in these parts. I'd like to explain. And get out of this rain." He looked up and gave a shake of his head, sending water flying from his hair. The gesture was useless as he was soaked again within seconds.
Dawn's resolve finally crumbled. Despite his suspicious appearance, he was quickly beginning to look like a waterlogged puppy. With the barest hint of a smile, she motioned to the Starbucks on the corner. "Make it a venti Caramel Macchiatto and you've got ten minutes."
"Of course." He started to walk towards the coffee shop, attempting to repeat to himself the name of the coffee concoction she'd just uttered. "However, it might be best if you placed the order." He gave her a swift glance. "They wouldn't by any chance have tea, would they?"
"I just don't know, Xander," Willow said, busying herself with the laptop. She was bound and determined to figure out why Giles could do magic without a hitch, yet whenever she tried even the simplest of spells, it went horribly wrong.
Xander pulled out a chair and turned it so that it was facing backwards. He sat, leaning forward against the sturdy wooden back. "Come on, Will." He flashed her a boyish grin. "Let's turn Whispering Pines into Party Pines."
Willow looked away, finding it entirely too tempting. "But I really wanted to try this new luck spell," she said, turning the laptop in his direction. "It's pretty harmless, and we could really use a little luck—."
Willow 's words came to an abrupt halt as Xander snapped the computer closed. "I know you're worried about this magic stuff, but neither Giles or Jo are of the happy when it comes to you dabbling."
"I don't dabble!" Willow protested. "I created an entire league of Slayers and may have almost destroyed the world, but I most certainly do not dabble!"
Xander held up his hands defensively. "I know, I know. But until they figure out why your magic's gone all wonky, maybe you should just let it rest for awhile." He looked at her with pleading eyes. "Work with me here, Will. Buffy has a date with plant guy, Dawn's got a study date, Giles is going out with Jo. And we have... well, we have each other."
"I guess I could use a break," the redhead said, biting nervously at her lip. She looked longingly at the closed computer.
Xander moved it farther out of her reach. "That's my girl, Will. It'll be just like the good ole days. The two of us Bronzing. Only now, we'll be clubbing it up at The Slamdunk or The Night Owl."
Willow bounced in her seat excitedly. "One vote for Owling. I bet that place is a hoot!" She giggled at her joke. "Hoot . . . get it?"
"Down girl," Xander warned. "Besides, I've heard that place is trouble."
"How 'bout Café Caffeine then?" Willow suggested after a moment's thought. "It's laid back and there's no obviously creepy crawlies to worry about. Unless you count the occasional overstressed student. Besides, it's loaded with those of the cool, youthful faction."
"Think we meet the entry criteria, Will?" he pondered. "Gotta say I'm feeling less than youthful and mucho shy of coolness."
Willow waved off his concern. "Just give off a 'seeking knowledge' vibe and we'll fit right in." She looked at Xander over the table, genuinely excited at the idea of going out.
He grinned back at her. "All right. I'm up for a little fronting as a knowledge seeker."
"So, you swear you're not here to get Giles to run back to Watcherland with you?" Dawn stared at Ethan over her coffee.
“Absolutely not,” Ethan said, shaking his head. “The Council is trying to rectify some oversights of the past." He took a sip of his tea and grimaced. The liquid in the cup before him did not resemble any definition of tea he was familiar with. His young companion must have noticed his reaction to the fruity blend, because he caught a hint of a smirk as she sipped her own drink.
"So you guys want to apologize?" Dawn asked, her gaze remaining on her coffee. Her memories of the Council were not pleasant, and she'd never quite forgiven them for threatening to deport Giles. The mere image of that Quentin guy made her want to puke. He had been a total jerk.
Ethan noticed her reaction and filed it away for the future. "In a way," he said carefully. "The Council isn't one to admit error easily or often." Ethan thought quickly, trying to formulate his words vaguely enough so as not to reveal his lack of real information. "But Mr. Giles' work in the field has been exemplary, and they've finally seen fit to offer him a long-overdue promotion. My job is to assess his working conditions and his performance."
Dawn looked up excitedly, her eyes bright. "He's up for a promotion already? And he can stay in Whispering Pines?"
"Of course he should stay with his Slayer. We both know that his years of service have been immeasurably valuable to the Slayer, I mean, your sister. He's managed to keep his Slayer alive. That is cause for celebration, don't you think?" Ethan knew immediately that he'd taken a wrong step when a dark look crossed the girl's face. She shifted uncomfortably in her seat.
Ethan's mind raced in search of a way to correct his mistake. Luckily for him, Dawn chose to ignore whatever memory was causing her grief. "That still doesn't explain why you're following me."
"I must admit, I'm finding it a bit difficult to properly evaluate Mr. Giles without revealing myself," he said. "You see, the Council likes to keep these things quiet so as not to encourage a change in performance. Also, they would prefer the promotion to be a surprise." Ethan leaned forward. "It would be incredibly helpful to have an assistant in my appraisal. If you could act as a kind of aide, it would not only help ensure that Mr. Giles gets his promotion, but also go a long way in convincing the Council once and for all that he can remain here with you all and still perform satisfactorily all his Council duties."
Dawn studied his face carefully, searching for any signs of deceit. "So you want my help to show the Council how great Giles is? Giles in America , that is. And if I do, he'll be able to stay for good?"
"Precisely," he said with a smile. He was winning her over. Obviously, losing Ripper was a serious concern for her. "But your help must remain a secret or the Council wouldn't accept my recommendation as unbiased. For this to work, no one must know of your involvement." Ethan decided he had gone far enough. He leaned back in the wooden chair, taking a sip from his cup and grimacing. "Interesting tea."
This time, Dawn couldn't help but giggle at the face he made. "Giles hates it too."
"Then why did you recommend it?"
Dawn rolled her eyes, in the way that all teenagers have perfected. "Entertainment."
Ethan lifted his cup in acknowledgement. "Touché." He gamely took another sip of the concoction. They sat in silence for a moment.
"You know, you don't look all that Councilish," Dawn said.
Ethan looked down at his attire in mock surprise, privately hoping like hell he didn't look like Council. "I'm undercover," he said. "What? Too flashy?"
"Not so good for the blending in," she pointed out. "I mean, at first I thought you were a vampire trying to be like all the 'cool kids'. Let's just say your low profile is running kinda high at the moment.” Leaning over, she took another look at his outfit.
Ethan chuckled at her way of talking. She definitely reminded him of the Slayer.
"And for sure you don't fit in with the locals. But I have to admit it's a major improvement over the tweed the Council seems to like so much. Well, Giles looked pretty good in it, but he's an exception. I mean, seriously, what kind of fashion statement is tweed anyway? It's like a big 'kick me' sign. I'm surprised Giles' car didn't get egged more often back at Sunnydale High, version 1.0."
Ethan listened to her ramble on with great interest. He found it curious that she seemed to have known Giles so long ago. He didn't recall ever seeing her with him or the Slayer on any of his visits to the Hellmouth. "You seem quite fond of Ri... Rupert."
Dawn nodded. "Yeah. It's taken seven years of tinkering, but I think I've finally gotten him just about how I want him."
"And how's that?" Ethan asked, sipping at his vile tea.
"With Buffy and me."
"Buffy,” Daisy called. "Your ride is here."
"Thanks, Daisy. And thanks for letting me leave early."
"But of course, dear. Now remember, try to act surprised at the roses when Brad picks you up," Daisy added as Buffy gathered her things. "I don't want Brad to know that I ruined his gift."
Buffy held up her hand solemnly. "It'll be an Oscar winning performance, I promise. See you tomorrow," she said as she hurried toward the door.
"Take care and thanks."
Buffy stepped outside the nursery door and headed over toward the black SUV. She tilted her head to get a better view of the driver and let out a sigh of relief when she saw Giles lift his hand from the steering wheel to give her a little wave. She didn't think she'd survive another heart-to-heart with Jo. She giggled at herself as she opened the passenger door and climbed inside.
"Expecting someone else?" he asked mischievously as he waited for her to buckle up before pulling away from the curb.
Buffy slugged him on the shoulder and he gave a cry of exaggerated agony. She rolled her eyes. "Don't be a baby. Like you didn't just kick my ass last night when we were training."
"True." A smug look crossed Giles face and then he tossed a glance in her direction. “Which begs the question, why is it that after seven years, you are still dropping your left shoulder and telegraphing your uppercut?"
"Less talk, more driving," she said, directing his gaze back to the road. As Giles focused his attention on the road, she took a moment to study him. He looked good, happy even. At the realization, a part of her inexplicably tied up in knots. "So…," she said with a deep breath, bracing herself for the conversation to come. "We talked."
"Who?" Giles raised a brow, feigning ignorance.
"You know very well who." Buffy glared at him and crossed her arms over her chest. "She likes you, you know."
"I was beginning to suspect as much," Giles grinned.
Buffy turned in her seat so that she could see Giles face. "You know what I mean," she insisted. "She really likes you."
"And I like her as well." He gave her a quick glance out of the corner of his eye.
Buffy fought back a sudden pain in her chest, taking refuge in her usual defense of sarcasm. "I sorta caught on to that. I think the entire state of Oregon figured that one out."
"Sounds like we're both very astute people." Giles sensed her shifting in her seat again. Something was clearly bothering her, and he was unfortunately able to connect much of her displeasure to specific mentions of Jo. "Did it not go well?" he asked. When Jo had called last night to say that she had spoken with Buffy, she had seemed quite pleased with the results and she hadn't mentioned any problems during his visit to the coven today.
He let the silence hang, waiting until she was ready to speak. Buffy had lost so many people in her life that she had a tendency to cling tightly to those still around her. Giles never faulted her for that. In fact, it was one of the things that made her such a great Slayer as well as a wonderful person. He knew that accepting Jo into their group would be difficult for her; she didn't trust as easily as she once did.
"It went fine, I guess," she finally said.
"You don't sound that convinced." Giles turned the corner that took them through the more residential neighborhoods.
"Well, the woman sure has some funky ideas about what we do. And what we are to each other." Buffy picked some invisible lint from her jacket.
“Pardon?” Giles coughed, and then quickly scolded himself for some of the images conjured by her phrasing. She must be referring to the Slayer training.
"Just forget it." There was another moment of awkward silence, and Buffy desperately wished she hadn't brought the subject up.
"Jo's very fond of you, Buffy."
"No accounting for taste," she replied dryly.
Giles took a deep breath as he rolled to a stop at an intersection. Since no one was behind them, he put the car in park and turned to face her. "Is it something specific?"
Buffy looked at him in confusion. "What?"
"The reason you dislike Jo," he clarified. "I mean, has she said something... done something? I trust you, Buffy. I trust your instincts and feelings. Please tell me what it is about her that bothers you so."
Trust. Giles trusted her. Her first instinct was to deny it, but she knew it was true. He was the one person who could see right through her. Sometimes, he knew her better than she knew herself. Her mind raced to mentally list any reason she could think of not to like Jo – she was too friendly, too eager to help, they really didn't know her all that well. Buffy frowned. Not one was a valid reason to dislike her. The truth was that Buffy had no clue why she didn't like Jo. She decided it was best to remain silent.
Giles watched the emotions play over Buffy's face, but nothing gave any indication of what was really bothering her. He looked up when a car behind them honked. With an apologetic wave, he shifted into drive and continued on. "Alright," he said, deciding he would just have to trust Buffy to tell him when she was ready. "How was work then?"
"I don't want her to hurt you," she blurted out.
"Hurt me?” he asked, shocked.
Buffy nodded. "It's been too tough, for way too long. For both of us. I just... I just want you to be happy, that's all." Even as she spoke, the words didn't sound quite right.
"I am," he said.
Buffy wondered if he was even aware of the hint of doubt in his own voice. Unsure of how to respond, she sat silently as he pulled into the driveway. He turned off the car and they both sat there for a moment. "I'll try to like her," she said softly, unsure if he even heard her.
Reaching over, he took her hand and gave it a squeeze. "Thank you."
"You could go with the Ex Officio Barometric Tweed Jacket," Dawn suggested, pleased with herself for being so up on the latest REI gear. If she could scrounge up the money, it was a serious gift possibility for Giles this Christmas. She slurped down the cold remains of her drink. "And it's much less a 'hey-look-at-me' look, and more of a 'see me blend in with my bleak surroundings' look."
"You certainly know your clothes." Ethan glanced outside. The rain still hadn't let up. "But, I've never been one for tweed."
Dawn shrugged. "It's a gift. We Summers women know our clothing and I know that that leather isn't gonna cut it here in Waterworld." Absently, she toyed with her empty cup. "Besides, it's not real tweed, but they won't know that when they see it on the expense report. I thought tweed was, like, the dress code for the Council, you gotta have it."
Ethan smiled. "Yes, well just one more reason I'm a paper pusher and not an active Watcher."
Dawn couldn't help but smile. Her eyes widened as she glanced at her watch. She'd been talking to Randall for over two hours. "Oh, I totally have to go," she said, slipping out of her chair. Grabbing her book bag, she tossed it over her shoulder. "Liz will be freaking, because the library closes soon and her mother'll be there. If I get caught doing this instead of studying, Commandant Buffy will shorten my curfew even more than it is already."
Always the perfect gentleman, Ethan got to his feet.
"Pity. And we were having such fun. It's a shame that they don't trust you more. You seem like such a mature and intelligent young woman." Ethan flashed his most charming smile. "We must do this again," he said politely. "It's painfully obvious that I'm in dire need of help with more than just my report on Mr. Giles." He straightened his damp leather jacket, and then snapped his fingers as if an idea had just occurred to him. "How does a shopping spree, courtesy of the Council charge card sound to you? That way I can be more properly outfitted for my assignment."
Dawn's face lit up with excitement. "You can do that?"
Ethan waved away her concerns. "Well, with your help in finding the proper descriptions for the clothing, I can write it off as a miscellaneous expense. One good thing about having a 'paper' position…,” he paused, leaning in close as if to whisper a secret to her. Dawn stepped closer, her head mere inches from his. Ethan could feel the power radiating from her, filling him with glee. "…you learn how to use creative accounting." He winked at her as he stepped back, still feeling the effect of her energies running through him.
Dawn flushed at the wink. "Oh. Well, thanks for the coffee," she mumbled, shuffling her feet.
"My pleasure." Ethan gestured towards the door, indicating that she should precede him. "Oh,” he said suddenly. "If it's not too presumptuous of me, might I have your email address? It would enable me to be more discrete in my communications with you," he explained.
The idea made perfect sense to Dawn. She dropped her bag on the chair and rummaged through it for a pen and her notebook. Ripping out a blank sheet of paper, she scribbled down the information in bright, sparkling purple ink.
"There," she said, handing it to him with a smile. "Anything to keep Giles here with us."
Ethan folded the paper and shoved it deep into a pocket, to make sure it remained unharmed by the still-pouring rain.
"Thank you for your time, Miss Summers. I'm sure you'll be a great deal of help."