Act Four


"So how did the two of you meet?" Brad bit off the end of a heavily-salted steak fry and dragged the remainder through the ketchup on his plate.

"Who?" Buffy sipped at her iced tea. Deciding that it wasn't sweet enough, she added another packet of sugar and stirred it in. Around them, the noisy diner was filled with couples and families out for an evening meal. Next to their table, a rowdy two-year-old was being admonished for knocking over his water while crashing two of his Hot Wheels together.

Buffy smiled as she watched the exhausted mother mopping up her son. The woman had mistakenly thought that eating out would be less work than fixing a meal at home. In a booster seat on her other side, an energetic baby with pink ribbons in her hair was banging her spoon on the table, much to her father's dismay. Unbidden, the memory of her talk with Giles about children sprung into her mind. It was entirely too easy for her to picture Giles sitting at the table, trying to steal the spoon away from the infant with lead drummer dreams. And it was nearly impossible to picture Jo across from him in that scenario.

"Mr. Giles," Brad clarified, drawing her attention back to him. Suddenly he felt the need to defend his curiosity. "I don't mean to be all nosy, but—.”

Buffy nodded. "But I talk about him all the time. It's okay, we get that a lot." Nudging her cheeseburger aside, she took a bite of her pickle. "It's not your normal relationship." Buffy chuckled at her understatement of her relationship with Giles. 'Normal' was decidedly absent from the description.

Brad shook his head as he leaned over the table, fry forgotten in his hand. "No, really... I understand. I've had older friends before. Back in high school, I used to hang out with a bunch of frat boys." He shrugged. "They bought me beer."

"Not quite in the same league though, is it?" She smiled and then suddenly giggled. "And after my one outing with beer, it's the last thing that Giles would ever buy me." Her eyes sparkled as she tapped the mug of beer Brad had ordered with his meal. "Me and beer? Very unmixy things."

"So tell me," he prompted. "I want to know all about it."

"About my fateful run in with beer?" she asked with a raised eyebrow. "Well, you know how people regress to childish behavior? Let's just say I went way back." It felt good to look back on those years and be able to laugh now.

Brad popped the fry into his mouth, chewing it quickly. "See that's what I want to know," he said after he'd swallowed. "Tell me your life story. Everything. Leave nothing to the imagination."

"Now there's a loaded request."

Brad shook his head. "I'm not loading anything. I'm just -." He tried to steady himself. Everything about Buffy threw him off balance. There was something special about her, something he just couldn't put his finger on. All he knew was that he wanted to know what that something special was. "It's just, I really like you. I mean really. I want to know everything about you. The good and the bad."

"How 'bout the ugly?" she asked. At his eager nod, she shrugged. "Okay, let's see... I've been known to bite my nails on occasion, but I have an excellent eye for polish color. I once tried to volunteer at a clothing bank as part of a community service project when I lived in L.A. , but they fired me because I wouldn't accept last year's fashions."

"And Mr. Giles?” Brad asked coyly, trying to direct her back to the subject that he was really most curious about.

Buffy took a bite of her burger as she debated the best way to answer the question. He waited patiently while she ate.

"It feels like I've known him forever ," she said finally. "We met back when I was in high school. I was the new kid, and I had some problems with the bullies." She gave Brad a knowing gaze. "You know how that goes," she said. Brad nodded, motioning for her to continue with her story. "Well, I hung out in the library a lot, and it turned out that he had a knack for self-defense. So he offered to help me out. We've been friends ever since." Buffy prayed that lightening wouldn't strike her for her creative rendition of history.

Understanding dawned on Brad's face. "So he's like a sensei."

"That's one way to describe him, but really he's more than that," she tried to explain.

Brad shook his head quickly. "No, I totally get it." He gave her a considering gaze. "Think he'd be willing to teach me something? I've been meaning to learn Kung Fu for years. Maybe now's my chance."

His face was so hopeful; Buffy didn't have the heart to tell him that Giles was unlikely to take on any new 'students'. "Actually, he specializes in weapons, both the rare and not so rare ones."

"Cool." And the infant enthusiastically pounded on her plate in apparent agreement.

"Enjoying your linguini?" Giles asked, smiling as he watched Jo struggle with a stubborn noodle.

She giggled as she set the fork down on her plate, covering her mouth as she tried to finish the bite she'd just taken. "It's awful. Absolutely awful," she teased, dipping a small piece of sourdough bread into the cheese sauce. "I'm in denial, that's why I keep poking at it." She slid the plate away and popped the bread into her mouth.

"I see. Awful enough to warrant finishing it?" he asked. Smoothly, he poured more wine into her glass.

Jo shook her head, bringing the filled glass to her lips. She sipped at the wine, enjoying the mellow taste. "I'm afraid not," she confessed. "I'll have to take the rest home so I can reheat it and endure the awfulness all over again." She grinned as she set her glass down and reached over to cover Giles' hand with her own. "It's lovely, Rupert. I'm really enjoying it. Thank you."

Giles gave her hand a squeeze as he poured himself more wine. "You're quite welcome," he said. He looked around the Italian restaurant, pleased with the quiet evening he and Jo had shared. The clink of silverware complimented the murmured conversations. "I've been meaning to try this place ever since I noticed it on a drive last week."

"You haven't asked me for details about it," Jo said plainly.

Confused by the sudden change in topic, Giles blinked. "About the restaurant?"

Exasperated, Jo shook her head. "About my talk with Buffy. Aren't you the least bit curious about what was said?" she asked.

Giles shrugged. "You said it went well, and as Buffy didn't stomp up to me in a tirade about it, I assumed that it was none of my business." He took a sip of wine. He didn't think that the fact that he had talked to Buffy about the conversation and not Jo would go over too well.

"It is every bit your business, Rupert. Given your... um, should I say profession'?"


"No." Jo gave a laugh at his apparent confusion. "Your other job."

“Oh,” Giles sighed and set down his glass. "It's not a job, Jo. It's my duty, my calling." This was probably what Buffy had meant about Jo having odd ideas about their relationship.

Jo sat back and pulled her hand from his, a bit wounded by the correction. "Yes, of course. Well, the talk went well. She didn't give me much to work with, but one thing was perfectly clear...,” she trailed off for a moment, making Giles start to worry about just what Buffy had said.

"And what was that?" he asked with equal parts dread and curiosity.

Jo smiled indulgently, and took his hand in hers again. "She cares for you very deeply, Rupert," she assured him. "And she's a very good friend."

Taking another sip of his wine, Giles decided that a change of subject was in order. "So, what is the chosen entertainment for this evening?"

Xander and Willow found seats near the back of the coffee house. It was an old habit that was hard to break. Take up a position with a clear vantage point of the room and keep near the exits. Willow settled into the comfortable cushions and cast a careful eye over their surroundings.

Café Caffeine was filled to the brim with overstuffed chairs and couches, inviting patrons to sit and chat awhile. And tables with cushioned straight-back seats ringed the room for studying students. A lone guitarist was set up in the corner, playing some mellow jazz tunes. Friday night had the place filled to the brim.

Satisfied that there wasn't any imminent danger, Willow took a sip of her coffee and relaxed back into the couch.

"How's work treating you?" she asked, feeling Xander relax into the seat next to her. Obviously, he'd given the place the same once over she had.

"I love it!” he laughed, holding up his free hand to display a collection of small bandages.

“I haven't stretched my wood crafting skills like this before," he enthused. "One minute, I'm doing delicate finish work, the next I'm hacking at some old growth log to build a custom birdhouse." He took a drink of his coffee, a much more manly drink than the frothy concoction Willow had ordered. "I've found my niche... or in my case, I'm carving my niche."

"Can we go with less of the short-sighted environmental destruction and more with the artistic expression aspect?" she asked, giving a small wince at his words. "But yay you!"

Xander laughed. "I'll try." He grew thoughtful for a moment. "It's good, and I'm actually good at it."

She smiled and leaned over to nudge his shoulder with hers. "Well, we've all known that for ages. It's about time you caught on."

Dawn finished the dishes from her solitary meal, turning off the sink and wiping her hands dry on a towel that hung from the refrigerator door. It had seemed easier to wash them by hand, since putting them in the dishwasher would've meant emptying the clean dishes first. There were any number of lengths she'd go to in order to avoid studying, but doing actual chores wasn't among them.

Picking up her textbook, she opened it to the chapter on electricity and started towards the stairs. She read the definitions aloud as she walked, hoping to burn them onto her brain. Despite her poor showing last night on the practice test, she was hoping for an A on Monday.

A knock on the door halted her mumblings. She turned, trying to figure out who would be coming by. Liz had been really upset by the day's earlier events. Dawn had tried to reassure her that it had all been a total misunderstanding, and that she had actually known the person following them, but Liz remained upset. She'd had to explain to her mom why Dawn wasn't with her. Since she hadn't wanted to tell her that Dawn had gone to confront a possible psycho, Liz had been forced to lie.

Dawn knew she'd have to make it up to her friend. Liz had been one of the best things that'd happened to her here in Whispering Pines. Besides, if Buffy found out about it, Dawn would be grounded until the apocalypse actually happened.

Closing the book over her fingers to mark her page, Dawn cautiously checked the peephole. Surprised by the person standing on the other side, she unlocked it quickly.

"Randall?" she squeaked, swinging the door open. "What are you doing here?"

Ethan stood on the doorstep, trying to look as regretful and harried as he possibly could. "I'm sorry to bother you so soon, Miss Summers," he said quietly. "Is there anyone else home?" He asked knowing full well that there wasn't.

Dawn shook her head. "Um, no. Just me, my evil chemistry book, and Hedwig," she told him, holding the book up for him to see.

Ethan raised his eyebrows in curiosity. "Hedwig?" The name was familiar to him for some reason, but he couldn't immediately place it.

"Resident ghost," Dawn explained. She waved away any further questions as she leaned against the doorframe. "Long story."

Ethan gave her a charming smile as he recalled the newspaper article he had read. Naturally, it wasn't just bones Ripper had found, but an actual ghost. "A most interesting one, I'm sure." He moved a bit closer to the doorway. The pull of her energy was nearly irresistible.

"I don't mean to impose upon you so suddenly," he said mournfully. "But I'm afraid I've gotten myself into a rather sticky situation. I was rather hoping you'd be able to help."

"I don't know, but maybe I can try," Dawn said, straightening. She stepped back, opening the door wider so he could enter. She knew better than to issue an spoken invitation into the house. Ethan stepped inside easily, putting to rest any lingering undead fears.

"What's up?" she asked as he closed the door behind him.

Ethan gave a rather pitiful sigh. "Upon my return to my hotel, I found a message from the Council waiting for me. They're already requesting a progress report on my initial findings."

"And?" she asked, clearly not understanding what the problem was.

Ethan darted a look around the house. "I've got nothing," he said helplessly. "I think you mentioned that he and Buffy would be out tonight. Is there any chance I could take a quick look around Mr. Giles' office?" Ethan struggled not to show the joy that tidbit of information had brought him. His prize, all alone for the evening. He would've been a fool not to take advantage of the situation. Remembering his role, he glanced down at her textbook. "Oh, I'm sorry. You're probably studying for exams. I'll figure something else out." Ethan turned and started back for the door. As he hoped, Dawn stopped him.

"No. It's all right. I could use a break." She motioned him further into the house with the book.

"If you're sure it isn't an inconvenience. It shouldn't take but a moment," he assured her. "I don't want to pull you away from your studies any longer than necessary."

"It's cool," Dawn said, dropping the book onto a table. "I've been cramming for days now. I think it should be illegal to have tests." She smiled. "Besides, I sorta owe you a decent cup of tea."

"It's a romantic thriller," Brad said as he pointed at the marquee. The rain had finally abated, but much to his delight, Buffy still huddled against him in deference to the cold.

"Charade, huh?" They stopped in front of the theater. "Hey, I know this guy." Buffy pointed to the framed movie poster hanging on the brick wall. "He's in that Hitchcock film."

Brad smiled. "He's done a few, actually." He'd been a bit worried that Buffy wouldn't like his choice of movies for the evening. Not every girl was a fan of old movies.

Buffy, on the other hand, was impressed. Guys Brad's age usually went for the flashy blockbusters with macho buff men carrying guns. "I take it you're a fan?"

Brad blushed. "My grandfather made me watch the old black and white reels when he ran his own theater back in the day." Emboldened by Buffy's enthusiasm, he took her hand in his. "I think it was his idea of babysitting."

"Sounds neat." Buffy gave his hand a gentle squeeze as it rested in her. She stared at the poster and smiled as she imagined a young Brad sitting in the front row of a well-loved theater, snacking on popcorn and watching flickering black and white images. The thought was just adorable.

"I'll go get the tickets," he said, reluctantly releasing her hand. Still watching Buffy, he turned to get into line and accidentally bumped into a tall gentleman already standing there. Embarrassed, Brad stuttered an apology. "Excuse me," he said, stepping back. "I didn't see you..."

"It's quite alright," the man answered politely.

Buffy's well-tuned ear immediately recognized the cultured voice. She swung her gaze over in amazement to find Giles arm in arm with Jo, standing in line. Her movement caught his eye, drawing his attention to her. "Buffy? I didn't realize… I mean, what a surprise."

Having no other option, Buffy did her best to be cheerful. "Hey guys," she said brightly, despite the fact that Jo was the last person she wanted to see. Especially snuggled up with her Watcher. "Looks like we're not the only ones doin' the escape-from-reality thing." Buffy sidled up to Brad and slipped her arm in his.

"You must be Brad." Giles offered his hand, secretly pleased that the young man had to release Buffy's in order to shake it. "I've heard so much about you." He noticed Buffy's eyes go wide in distress. "And the nursery, of course. I'm Rupert Giles, a friend of Buffy's. It's nice to finally meet you."

"You're Mr. Giles?" Brad asked in disbelief. He seemed a bit unsettled that this was the man that Buffy always spoke of. His gaze swiveled to Buffy and than back to the older man.

"Please, call me Giles. Everyone does." He released the young man's hand as Jo elbowed him in the side. He wrapped his arm around her waist. "Well, almost everyone, that is." He pulled Jo close. "This is Joanna Christianson."

"Jo," she amended, reaching out to take Brad's offered hand. "Nice to meet you, Brad. You do nice work at Pershing Daisies. Deborah speaks well of your work with the herbs." She smiled warmly as the young man looked at them both with a befuddled expression on his face.

"Nice to meet you," Brad said quickly before focusing his attention back on Giles. "So, you're the Giles that Buffy's always talking about? The one that lives with her?"

Horrified, Buffy blushed furiously. Giles flashed an understanding smile at her, and even Jo looked like she was trying not to giggle.

"Yes, that would be me," Giles said, grinning. While they had been talking, a ticket window had become available. He stepped up to it and slid a twenty dollar bill to the cashier. "Two for Charade please."

"That's what we're seeing," Buffy blurted out, almost objecting to the idea that they were choosing the same movie.

"Really?" Jo's face lit up. "Why don't you two join us?" It was the perfect opportunity for Buffy and her to get to know each other better.

Buffy looked over at Brad, expecting him to object to the idea, but he seemed to be distracted watching Giles collect the movie tickets from the cashier. "I don't think Brad…, " she started.

At the sound of his name, Brad turned back to her. "Yes," he interrupted, stepping up to the available window. "Let's do that. Two more for Charade ."

Buffy watched with dismay as the cashier passed Brad two tickets, along with his change. "Great, we're movie buddies," Buffy mumbled. "A double date with my Watcher. What more could a Slayer hope for?"

"So what's next?" Xander asked, swirling the remains of his coffee around before finishing it in one last gulp.

Distracted, Willow looked over. "Well, I was thinking about trying that luck spell," she mused. "I mean, what could possibly go—."

Her words were halted suddenly as Xander clapped his hand over her mouth. "Don't say it!" he warned. "You know the rule on that particular phrase." He shook his head in mock dismay. "I meant coffee-wise, Will. Get your mind out of the cauldron."

"Hey! Non-constructive lifestyle stereotype!" She pointed a warning finger at him. "I don't even own a cauldron." She stood up and headed toward the counter. "I need to look at the menu again."

Xander followed close behind her. The café had cleared out, only the die-hard coffee drinkers remained. The jazz guitarist had left and there was now a blues CD playing in the background.

Willow studied the board, reading through the list of the usual tasty drinks along with the seasonal favorites. After the second time, she decided she was ready.

"What'll it be, beautiful?" the woman behind the counter asked. She grinned at Willow , who was oblivious that the comment was directed at her.

"Will, that would be your cue to order," Xander said, motioning towards the barista.

Flustered, Willow stepped forward. "Oh, yeah right. Um, I'll try the double tall gingerbread latte please," she stammered shyly.

The barista gave her a wink before turning to Xander. "And you?"

"Triple shot Americano," he answered promptly.

The blonde smiled, although it wasn't as bright as the one she'd given Willow . "Want that on the rocks?"

Xander shook his head.

"Nope, give it to me straight up."

"Comin' up." She went to work making the drinks as Xander and Willow stepped down to the pick-up counter.

"You are so wiggin' over this magic stuff," he said, continuing their earlier conversation.

Willow 's eyes were sad as she turned to face him. "Seems like just yesterday I'd have given anything to get rid of it, so I wouldn't hurt anyone deliberately." She glanced down at her feet at the memory. "Now, I still have it, at least I think I do, but I can't do anything at all because I can't be sure that I won't hurt anyone accidentally." She sighed. "It seems so lame."

Xander pulled her close in a friendly hug. "It's not gone, Will," he reassured her. "It's just a bit off right now." At her nod, he continued. "Besides, like Giles said, it could just be that your control is on vacation. Gone to the Bahamas and soaking up the rays so it can recover from the ringer you had to put it through with the axe." Xander glanced over at the flirtatious young woman preparing their drinks. She kept looking over at them as she worked. "Besides, I think there are much more important things to worry about here."

Willow looked up in concern. "What? What important things?" she asked. She gave a frantic glance around the café, concerned that there was trouble brewing.

Xander shook his head in disgust. "Things like why you're getting ogled by half the crowd in here, and I'm coming up as dry as those day-old scones."

"What are you talking about?" Willow asked in shock.

"Hey, distraction girl. There is a world of eager young people here just waiting to experience the pleasures of Willow , and you're standing there focusing on toadstools and eye of newt." Xander gestured in frustration around the coffee house. "Open your eyes to the possibilities here." He slid his gaze towards the girl behind the counter.

"You're being ridiculous," she stammered, suddenly feeling very self-conscious. Following the direction Xander had been looking, she realized that the barista was indeed watching her.

"Double tall GB latte," shouted the male barista as he set the drink up on the counter.

Disconcerted, she moved forward to take it. "Thanks," she said with a hesitant smile.

The man gave her a wide grin. "Becka made me put extra whipped cream on it for you."

"Case in point," Xander crowed with smug satisfaction.

Willow shot him an evil glare. "Oh. Tell her thanks," she said, turning back to the male barista.

If possible, his grin grew larger. "Tell her yourself. Her email addy's on the cup."

Picking up the cup, she turned it to examine the writing. "But, but," she stuttered. "There are two addresses here," she pointed out in wonderment. Written in bubbly female writing was 'Becka' followed by the email address. Underneath was another, prefaced with 'Jack'.

"The other one's mine." He winked and tried to focus on filling the next drink order, but his gaze kept returning to her.

Willow smiled shyly. "That's very sweet of you...," she paused to look at the cup again. "Jack."

"My pleasure," he said. "Be sure to use it. Any time." His words were fraught with meaning.

Xander watched in disbelief as he saw something he never thought he'd see again… Willow flirting. With a guy! All the signs were there, rosy cheeks, batting eyelashes, nonsensical giggling. And the big-eyes thing. Willow was definitely doing her big puppy eyes thing.

Xander was so shocked, he almost missed his drink being called out. Still watching Willow work her Willowy charms, he picked it up absently. Jack barely spared him a glance as he thanked him.

Sipping at the drink, Xander glanced around the café. Not a single person was watching him with undisguised lust.

"Definitely a day old scone."

Ethan wandered around the spacious house, taking in every little thing he could as Dawn prattled on about the history of the place. He wanted a sense of the new life Ripper was making for himself. He had to admit, it seemed cozy enough.

"Even though we've transformed the basement into a mini-library and den," Dawn was telling him. "Giles usually does his work in the family room." She pointed towards the room, directing Ethan's attention to it. "I think he just wants to keep an eye on us."

"An interesting blend of furnishings," Ethan smiled, moving about the room. Dawn shrugged.

"That's what you get when you have five very different people with five very different tastes. Everyone has a different opinion of style versus taste." She moved to a chair by the fireplace. "Xander is a carpenter. He's always working on stuff for the house. He made this chair."

Ethan gave an easy smile. "Charming," he said smoothly, even though he thought the chair was incredibly simplistic and far too rustic for his tastes. "He's quite talented."

Dawn glowed with the praise. "That's what we keep telling him."

Ethan looked around the house in amazement. Nothing hinted of the boy he once knew, of the man he remembered so vividly. Ethan remembered Ripper as being so wild and ready to tear the world to shreds. What had happened to that man? What had they done to him? He found it hard to believe that Ripper Giles could have been so easily tamed.

Shaking off the depression at the thought, Ethan turned back to Dawn. "The bedrooms are upstairs, I suppose?" he asked with feigned innocence.

Dawn nodded. "Yup. Everyone claimed the second floor. But I've got the best room in the whole house."

"The attic," he said, smiling slyly.

Dawn blinked in surprise. "How'd you know?"

Ethan's grin grew larger. "Intuition, my dear. Intuition."

"Okay, Will," Xander said as they settled back into the comfortable couch. "What's with the double dipping in the dating pool?" He glanced back at the flirtatious duo behind the coffee counter. They were still sending smoldering glances in Willow 's direction. "No wonder I don't have a snowball's chance in Hell of being noticed. You're playing for both teams now."

"I'm not playing on any team, Xander," Willow insisted. "I'm my own team. Team Willow ." Still, she couldn't help but gaze back at the counter.

"But you're curious," Xander said, leaning forward. He shook a finger in her face. "I can see the question marks in your eyes."

Willow slapped his hand away. "You're about to see an exclamation point!"

Xander sat back and sipped happily at his drink. He didn't care what 'team' Willow decided to play for, she was definitely distracted from her magical woes. He could see the wheels in her mind working frantically. And for the first time that evening, they weren't working on the latest luck spell that she'd found on the internet.

Mentally, Xander gave himself a pat on the back for a job well done.

"I found the whole thing rather silly, to tell you the truth. I was hoping for a more romantic story." Jo slipped her arm into Giles' as the group left the theater.

"Definitely not one of my favorite Cary Grant films, but it's always nice to see him in action." Brad tried to sound enthusiastic as he took Buffy's hand in his. She squeezed it encouragingly, giving him a bright smile. "I prefer Cagney films. All gangsters, moonshine, Tommy guns and 'you dirty rat'."

"He was a wonderful dancer," Giles added.

Buffy turned her beaming smile towards him. Leave it to Giles to offer another angle.

Realizing he'd lost Buffy's attention, Brad snickered. "Dancer? You sure you got the right guy?" he questioned, thinking back on all the gangster films he'd seen.

" Yankee Doodle Dandy, if I'm not mistaken," Giles explained. "Quite a distinguished singing voice as well."

"Do you dance, Rupert?" Jo asked in eager anticipation. Thoughts of being held close to him as they moved across the dance floor filled her head.

Giles shook his head ruefully. "Not as such. It's much closer to trampling, I believe."

"But you sing really great," Buffy burst out. She wanted to take it back the second she said it. It was obvious that she was unintentionally adding fuel to the out of control blaze that was Jo's interest in her Watcher.

"Thank you." Giles acknowledged the compliment with a nod and tried to remember when Buffy had heard him. Then he remembered the unfortunate musical condition that had stricken them a few years back. "So, what did you think of the picture, Buffy?" He wanted to change the subject as quickly as possible, to avoid recalling the events that had followed that mishap.

Buffy didn't seem to notice. "A hearty thumbs up," she said excitedly. "The action was suspenseful, the mystery captivating and the romantic moments ranked high on the smooch-a-licious meter." Quickening her pace, Buffy released Brad's hand so that she could catch up to Giles. "And I really like Joshua, Adam, Brian, whatever his name was." She fell easily in step with her Watcher, who was listening attentively, his head bent toward her. "He was mysterious and yet had that whole knight in not-so-shiny armor thing going for him. And Reggie was so graceful, and oh so pretty. I would kill to have those legs and her style."

"Audrey Hepburn was a beautiful woman," Jo agreed from Giles' other side.

Giles smiled down at Buffy's excitement over the film. "You're every bit as lovely as she was," he said, smiling down at her. "Only I'd wager you could have handled the whole ordeal without any aid from a maturing male counterpart."

Buffy shrugged. "So, there's a little age difference. Big deal. He was damn sexy. That shower scene? I'd have totally gotten in there with him. Besides, maturing male counterparts can be of the good." Suddenly realizing what she had said, she turned away abruptly.

Giles flushed bashfully at the compliment.

"I couldn't agree more." Jo gave Giles' arm a slight tug, playfully pulling him off balance and into her. Buffy quickly dropped back a few steps to rejoin Brad who was trailing behind them.

"Welcome back," he said with a smile.

It was Buffy's turn to blush. "Sorry. I just don't get to go out very often. It's been a long time since I've experienced the magic of moving pictures." She smiled softly. "Guess I really liked it."

"Then we'll have to do it again sometime," Brad said hopefully, taking her hand in his. "Next time, maybe we could go for more of a popcorn movie, you know, something with a cast that's still... um, alive."

Pleased with the idea of a second date, she nodded. Glancing forward, her eyes fell on the dimly lit park across the street. She noticed a gang of three hulking figures surrounding a teenage boy. Her Slayer instincts kicked into high gear and she reached forward to grab her Watcher by the sleeve. "Giles! I just remembered that we were supposed to do that thing." She shot a strained look at him, hoping he'd catch on. "Remember… that thing we're supposed to do?"

Giles followed her widened eyes as they darted from him to the heavily shadowed park. "Right, yes. That thing. I almost forgot about it."

Jo also followed Buffy's frantic look to the park and immediately caught on to what was happening. "I'm sorry, Rupert. I forgot to remind you," she said, jumping to the rescue. "Why don't the two of you run along? I'll keep Buffy's handsome young friend company while you check in on that park attendant friend of yours. His shift is almost over. You'd better hurry."

Amazed at Jo's quick thinking, Buffy gave her a smile and mouthed a silent 'thank you' before taking off in a run towards the park, Giles moving swiftly behind her.

"Friend?" Brad asked Jo in confusion.

Jo took him by the arm, leading him away from the park. "Yes. He's older, you see." She led him casually down the street. "Gets sort of lonely on these winter nights. Especially around the holidays. Rupert and Buffy like to check in on him," Jo explained. "It'll be quick. They'll just pop in to say hello and be right back before you know it."

"Hello boys," Buffy greeted, standing in the center of the paved path. "What's up?" She could feel Giles standing behind her at the ready, but leaving her enough space to maneuver.

"This doesn't concern you," one of the large figures growled, turning from his prey to face her. He wore his vampire mask and looked her up and down, his yellow eyes gazing appreciatively. "But maybe it should." He nudged his friends and soon Buffy had three pairs of yellow eyes leering at her. "Look boys," the first vampire smiled. "Dessert."

Buffy pressed her hand to her chest in mock surprise. "Oh my. Vampires. What ever shall I do?" she said, affecting a damselish tone.

Giles couldn't help but smile. While early on, the traditional Watcher in him had advocated for the more efficient "plunge and move on" method of slaying, he had come to love the flair that Buffy brought to her slaying.

Buffy turned to the teary-eyed teenage boy who was cowering in fear. "You can go now," she told him. Still too stunned to move, he stared at her for a heartbeat. She made a shooing motion with her hands. "Go on now," she ordered. "Shoo!"

As the young lad scurried off, Giles shook his head and chuckled. Some part of him piped up that it was highly improper to find entertainment in her slaying, but Buffy was never one for the mundane.

As the kid's sneakers pounded down the gravel path, carrying him to safety, the vampires turned to Buffy, noticeably upset at the loss of their meal.

"That was our dinner, bitch!" the second one shouted.

Buffy cocked her head. "Bitch? That's the best you can do?" She shook her head in disgust. "Seriously, in the time it took you to come up with that, I could've insulted your clothes, pointed out that your hair is still stuck in the 80's, and your complexion, well...” Buffy gestured offhandedly, seeing no need to belabor the point. "And yet, bitch is the best you can come up with to insult me?"

The largest of the three stepped towards her. "I'm going to enjoy sucking you dry," he growled. "But maybe I'll toy with you awhile first." He reached out to touch Buffy's hair, but just as his hands reached her blonde tresses, he froze and burst into dust. The ashes blew away with the cold evening breeze.

Buffy glanced over her shoulder at Giles. "Nice throw," she said.

Giles grinned his thanks.

"Although I had it totally under control," she added.

He shrugged. "We've heard all the threats before," he pointed out. "No need to listen to them all again."

Buffy considered this for a moment. Deciding he was right, she turned back to the remaining vampires. "All right, who's next?"

The two remaining vampires glanced at each other and then back at Buffy. In perfect unison, they turned and ran.

"Well, that was just weak," she said as she watched them run into the park.

Giles came up beside her and put his hand on her shoulder. "I must admit to a bit of disappointment myself, but still, we really shouldn't allow them to get away." Giles smiled and gave a polite bow. With a wave of his arm, he gestured for Buffy to take the lead. "After you?"

"Gee, thanks," Buffy muttered and then gave chase. Her Slayer speed enabled her to easily catch up to the other two. To make matters easier, they had circled a large hedge, only to find a small maintenance building blocking their progress. They turned in search of another route just as Buffy arrived.

Buffy looked over her shoulder for Giles, but he was nowhere to be seen. As she turned to look, one of the vamps leapt, tackling her to the ground and pinning her hands at her sides.

"Ooomph," she grunted at the impact. The vampire grinned at her and nodded towards her neck. "Guess I'm the one who gets to suck you dry." Buffy rolled her eyes and waited until he leaned down for a taste. As he did, she head-butted him. The vampire cried out and released one of her hands as he grabbed his nose.

He pulled his hand away, covered in blood. Anger quickly replaced the pain. But before he could attempt to bite again, Buffy used her recently-freed arm to elbow him in the face, strategically hitting his nose yet again.

"Ow!" he cried out. The blow sent him off to the side, and Buffy rolled the other way, springing up into a fighting stance above him. Seeing his friend writhing on the ground, the other vampire decided to make a run for it. Although Buffy had her back to him, her Slayer instincts easily tracked the demon without the need for a visual. Just as he ran by her, Buffy effortlessly swung her leg back, sending him sprawling.

"Not so fast, Shorty." She turned to find him staring up at her, fear in his yellow eyes. She sighed. Even though she was technically picking on someone her own size with the short one, she still felt a bit like a bully whenever she had to slay the wimpy ones. But pathetic or not, they needed to be dusted too. Fair's fair.

"At least get up, will ya?" Buffy complained. "Your friend already made me scuff up my pants."

In a move that would likely have pissed off his friend, if it hadn't brought about his dusty end, the smaller vampire's eyes widened causing Buffy to quickly step aside to let the broken-nosed vampire's momentum carry him right by her. He tripped over his friend and landed on the ground with a thud.

"Man this is an evening for the oldies, isn't it? I just had a little Cagney, and now I get to finish up with the Three Stooges. Please tell me you two are done playing around. I have a date to get back to."

Buffy thought she heard laughter, but didn't have time to look around, because the tall one got up, yanking his friend to his feet as well. The anger in his eyes was clear. "You're really starting to piss me off," he bellowed.

"Only just starting?" she asked.

Fury in his eyes, he pushed his friend to his left, while he started to move to his right, trying to flank her. Buffy followed his progress, figuring accurately that the tall demon would attack first. As he rushed her, she extended her leg in a high kick. <Ah, I found Giles>, Buffy thought as her foot swung through the dust where his chest had been.

She put off welcoming Giles as the last one made his move. As he jumped her from behind, Buffy swiveled, raised up her elbow and planted it in the remaining vampire's face. He stumbled, howling in pain. Buffy gave him several sharp jabs in his belly and as he started to fall, she grabbed his tacky shirt and yanked him around, ready to finish him off. But his moans were stopped abruptly as Giles planted a stake through his heart from behind.

"Hey, who's the Slayer here? You didn't even let me do one!" Buffy demanded, panting to catch her breath. "And where were you, anyway? I was worried."

Giles smiled, stepping forward to brush some grass from her jacket. "I was here. I just enjoy watching you work. And you were a pleasure to watch, as always." He reached up to pull some a few blades from her hair. "I just wish you'd be careful on the head butts. I so hate to see you bruised or cut there," he told her softly. His fingers rested for a moment on the side of her forehead as he looked carefully for any injury and then softly brushed her cheek as his hand returned to his side. Buffy was glad for the darkness that surrounded them, as she was sure she was blushing. They stood silent for a moment, each deep in their own thoughts, and then Giles took a step back and turned towards the park's exit.

"Although, I'm not sure how we'll explain away those grass stains."

Buffy nodded, disappointed that she'd lost his attention. "Maybe Jo can come up with something—she was good with the park attendant story."

"She caught on fast, didn't she?" Giles grinned at her as they walked out.

"Yeah, got it in one." She tried to keep her voice even. To be fair, she had to acknowledge Jo had been a help. "She did good."

"I so need to get back to studying," Dawn said regretfully, placing the cups in the sink. She made a mental note to clean them before the others got back in order to avoid suspicion. "But this was really fun," she told him, looking over her shoulder. Her eyes sparkled brightly.

"It was. Very much so." Ethan leaned against the doorframe and smiled warmly as he watched her clean up. "Thank you for this. Not only for the help with my preliminary report, but for the tea. It's been quite some time since I've had the chance to sit back, relax and just chat with someone. I was quite nice."

Dawn felt sorry for him, even as she beamed under his praise. If her experience with Giles was anywhere near typical of the life of a Council operative, Randall probably hadn't had a night out in years. "Well, if I live to survive this chemistry test, we can do it again."

Ethan pushed away from the door. "You know, I used to be quite good at overcoming pre-test anxiety. I could teach you a few tricks that might help you unwind, stay focused."

"Does all that hokey stuff really work?" she asked doubtfully, even as her eyes filled with hope.

"It got me through the basic Council training. Never could have learned that bloody oath had I not had something up my sleeves," he assured her. Outwardly, he appeared calm, but inside, he was nearly dancing with glee. He was unbelievably close to the one thing he wanted, needed.

Dawn shrugged. "Why not? I'm willing to try anything once."

"That's the spirit, dear girl." Turning a chair to one side, he sat down next to the kitchen table. Pulling out the chair beside him, he motioned to her. Nervously, Dawn slid into the chair and faced him.

"What do I have to do?"

"Just sit there quietly," Ethan mumbled, closing his eyes. He could feel the energies swirling around her, just ripe for the picking. "I'll do the rest."

"So, it'll help me with my test?" she asked hesitantly. While she had no qualms about spending time and having tea with Randall, this seemed more intimate somehow. Sensing her indecision, Ethan opened his eyes, pinning her with his gaze.

"It's a simple meditation exercise, meant to enhance your natural cognitive skills and intellectual strengths." Ethan's voice held a wounded tone, as if he were hurt that she would refuse his help. "If you've changed your mind, we can stop. I just thought since you were such a help to me, I could repay the favor."

Dawn seemed to waver for a moment before she made her decision. "Let's do it. I can use all the help I can get."

Ethan started to mutter under his breath as she looked on curiously. She'd just begun to wonder when something was going to happen, when her head started to swim with dizziness. She wanted to stop, cry out for Randall's attention, but it was impossible. Speaking was impossible.

Ethan's body quaked in ecstasy from the power he released from his companion's body. It was beyond anything he'd ever experienced before. Opening his eyes, he peered through the green haze that surrounded him at her swaying figure. She was on the verge of unconsciousness, about to pass out or worse. He reached out to grasp either side of Dawn's head and cried out loudly as a new surge of power flooded into him. He savored the sensation for a long moment, before he realized that Dawn had gone limp and was about to fall into his lap.

Reluctantly, he spoke the closing chant to his spell, halting the drain. As badly as he wanted more, Ethan knew that it was unwise to exhaust the energies so soon. Not when, if managed properly, she could offer so much more than the occasional boost. He leaned forward, pulling Dawn close to his chest, stroking her hair gently. He dipped his fingers into his pocket and then, while whispering a few extra words, rubbed a small trace of oil along the side of her neck.

"That'll have to do," he murmured. He could feel his body pulsing with power. "You've done well. It's time for you to rest." He swept her unconscious form into his arms, cradling her against his body as he moved through the house and up the stairs. As he walked along, he glanced into rooms as he passed. Everything seemed so normal, so average. But he knew better. That's what made it so sweet.

Ethan paused outside of what could have only been Giles' room. The bed had a thick heavy wooden frame, the bedclothes still rumpled. Ethan tsked at Rupert's carelessness. Hadn't his mother always taught him to make his bed? Cream-colored walls were nearly covered with loaded bookshelves, and from what he could tell, they were made by the same person who'd created the chair downstairs. A few knick-knacks vied with the books on the shelves for space. Centered on the bedside table was Ripper, and a group of young people who Ethan recognized as the Slayer, her friends from Sunnydale and the young girl in his arms. They were posed in front of the very house he was in now, grinning and pointing at a “SOLD” sign in front of it. Ethan turned in a complete circle, taking in every detail.

Ripper had certainly made a homey life for himself. Ethan felt the bitterness and anger rise within him. While he'd been sitting in jail, being tortured by the military for his magical secrets, Ripper had been enjoying the easy life with the Slayer and her friends.

Revenge would be very sweet, he decided as he stalked out of the room and back into the hall. Much to his relief, he could see the wooden ladder leading to the attic already lowered. He fumbled up the stairs, trying to balance himself and Dawn as he climbed. Once upstairs, he took a quick look at her surroundings as he moved to the bedside and gently tucked her under the covers.

Bright lights drew Ethan's attention to the attic window and he watched as two vehicles pulled into the driveway. He glanced down at Dawn, who lay perfectly still, barely breathing. Reciting a version of the forgetting spell that had worked so well on her friend's the day before, Ethan modified her memory of her evening. While she would remember him being there, she would now also remember him leaving early and returning to her chemistry homework. Kneeling down beside her, he leaned forward. He could feel the faint hum of her energy reaching out to him.

"Thank you," he whispered, brushing a stray strand of hair from her face, tucking it behind her ear. Outside, he could hear the slam of car doors and voices floating on the cold air. He felt a prick of excitement as Ethan's ears picked up Ripper's voice.

Moving quickly, Ethan slipped down the wooden ladder, sending it home with a gentle nudge. He wrenched open the second story balcony door just as there was a burst of voices below, and hurried down the stairs. As he reached the last step, he glanced down at his hand, which was glowing with an eerie green hue.

Ethan could see Giles moving through the house suspiciously, as if he sensed something. A grin formed on his lips. "Be seeing you," he said, saluting his old friend with a snappy wave. Ethan's eyes traveled upward to the attic. "Both of you."


Act 3   End Credits

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