Willow threw a handful of sparkling metallic confetti into the air. “Happy birthday,” she sang again. Sighing, Buffy closed her eyes as the sparkling confetti settled on her shoulders and hair.
“Exactly what part of ‘My birthday will not be celebrated this year' was unclear for you guys?” she demanded wearily. She could tell by the goofy grins on her friends' faces that her words would fall on deaf ears no matter how many times she said them. “It was really simple,” she said in resignation. “We don't acknowledge that it's my birthday and thereby manage to avoid all the horror and death that comes along with it. In fact, we agreed.”
Dawn snorted. “No we didn't. You ordered us and we simply ignored you.”
“Besides,” Xander interjected as Buffy glared at her sister. “The Chosen One lives another year? That's something to celebrate.”
“Giles, tell them.” Buffy's voice took on a whining note.
“He has a point,” Giles said with a shrug. He grinned when she pressed her hands to her eyes in frustration.
Willow stepped forward. “Buffy, we are not going to ignore your birthday,” she said firmly. “Now go get dressed so we can enjoy your birthday breakfast.”
“You don't have to ignore it,” Buffy said plaintively. “Just pretend it doesn't exist.”
Willow stared at Buffy. “Resolve Face,” she said, pointing at her countenance. “You know the Resolve Face.”
Buffy shrugged, admitting defeat as she turned back to her room. “Fine. But don't blame me when the traditional death and horror begins. It's all on your heads now.”
The gang flinched as Buffy slammed the door behind her. Dawn rolled her eyes at her sister's overdramatic display before scurrying downstairs. Willow and Xander exchanged a glance before following her, leaving Giles behind to stare at Buffy's abused door. He listened to the sounds from within the room. She was clearly upset, if the amount of banging and slamming noises from within were any indication. He raised his fist to knock on the door, but paused when he heard muttered curses from within. His eyebrows rose in astonishment at her inventive and colorful epithets.
Deciding that he was better off leaving her alone, Giles shook his head and headed toward the kitchen to join the others.
As the sun rose over the forest surrounding Whispering Pines, the woodland creatures began to awaken and start their day. Squirrels chattered at one another as they scurried over the wet ground or through the trees in search of food. Birds sang their morning songs, filling the air with music.
As one of the squirrels scrambled up a tree, an arm broke through the bark, followed by another, stretching lithely until a slim female form emerged from the trunk of the tree. Despite being dressed in a flimsy brown dress, the Dryad didn't even notice the cold. The elf-like creature looked around thoughtfully, sniffing the air. She coughed once and then frowned as she dropped her gaze to the ground. Sticking her toe into the dirt, she stood silently for a moment and then glided over to the creek that ran between the trees.
“Landon, are you alright? Wake up,” she called, dipping her bare toes into the running water. When the water's surface remained still, she jabbed a finger into the icy stream. “Wake up!” she demanded.
Slowly, the water began to rise, bulging at the center of the stream. The bulge slowly morphed into a pair of broad shoulders. A head rose from the shoulders, and as the silvery eyes opened, the Nix looked carefully around.
“Was poking me absolutely necessary?” Landon asked with irritation.
The woman gestured toward the distance. “They're back.”
The pair stood motionless as the sound of a truck engine faded.
With a nod of agreement, the Nix began to climb from his stream. As he did, the Dryad gasped. “Landon! What happened?”
He glanced down at his left arm where the crystal pale blue was now interlaced with rusty red veins. While his right arm bulged with muscles, his left hung limply at his side.
“A present from them,” he said.
“Can you move it?” she asked, her small voice filled with horror.
Landon shook his head, sending water droplets flying from his hair. He looked toward the sound of the trucks, his face cold and hard. “And the pain increases as my family ails. Even my children are suffering. Aegles can barely rise above the water surface now.” His voice cracked under the emotion.
Persephone gasped. “Oh, Landon, I'm so sorry.”
“It is not your fault. The fault lies with the humans. And this must stop.”
“We have very few options left to us, Landon.”
“Maybe so, but I'm finding little sympathy for those who have brought this upon us.”
Looking worried, she nodded. “But war, Landon?” she asked. “When we came here, we promised to live in peace with the humans. There must be some other way.” Persephone wrung her hands.
Landon turned, fixing her with a fierce gaze, his eyes blazing. “Then find me one before my family dies.”
Dawn stacked the dishes in the sink and made a shooing gesture at Buffy. “Go,” she said smiling. “My other present to you is a clean house without a complaint. You are going to have a stress free birthday this year.”
“I never have a stress free birthday,” Buffy grumbled. “Something always goes wrong. I don't know what will happen here, but something bad is going to happen. It will probably make mud monsters at Christmas look festive and fun.”
“Buffy, it's the first sunny day we've had in a month! Its beautiful weather, not a cloud in the sky! There aren't going to be any mud monsters and no other monsters at all. This is a monster free birthday for you, I guarantee it.” Willow put on her Resolve Face and pointed at herself. “See, ‘Resolve Face?' How many times do you need to see it today? That's your guarantee that today will be monster free!”
“No rhymes, Will, please,” Xander said. “Come on, let's give the birthday girl some space. You wanted to take that walk in the woods and I think a picnic lunch sounds like a good plan. Dawnie, do you want to come?”
“No, thanks, I'm going to the library with Liz. School starts next week and I want to see if I can do some extra credit in science.”
“Giles? You want to join us?” Willow 's head shot up at Xander's question, her eyes wide.
Giles looked up from his cup of tea. “No, thank you. I have some Council work I need to attend to and a quiet house will suit me just fine. In fact, if you'll excuse me…” He stood and smiled at Buffy. “Happy Birthday, Buffy. And just so you know, I agree with Willow . I'm sure nothing bad will happen today. You left all that behind.”
She smiled weakly at him as he headed towards the basement. “I sure hope so. But we'll see…”
Ethan hated this feeling; when every ache and pain sprang to life as if some incessant leech feeding off of him. He slowly opened his eyes only to squeeze them shut again, feeling the pounding of a thunderous headache creeping into his skull. It was mornings like these that had brought him desperately close to giving up in that cell of his. He slowly sat upright and twisted his legs off the edge of the bed, knowing that following on the heels of his discomfort would be the inevitable depression. He needed to take action to prevent it from setting in. As he carefully lifted his tired body, his eyes fell on the scribble-filled pad he'd used to take notes from Dawn's intelligence. He felt his encroaching depression wane at the thought of her.
A smile spread along his lips. "Dawn, my lovely. Come now and cure what ails me."
Back in the blissful solitude of her room, Buffy carefully arranged her birthday gifts on her dresser. She had endured the overly cheerful birthday breakfast, the repetitious singing of ‘Happy Birthday', and to top it off, frosted birthday pancakes. That just had to have been Xander's doing, because no other human being could stomach that much sugar in their system. Even now, Buffy could feel it coursing through her veins, making her antsy and hyper.
Opening and closing the jewelry box that Xander had made her, she gently ran her fingers over the polished wood, inhaling deeply the scent of the cedar. Next to the jewelry box sat the creative writing book from Willow. Everyone had given her strange looks when she'd opened it, with the exception of Willow, who'd just given her a hard stare. Buffy had thanked her with hearty enthusiasm, not wanting to get into another argument with Willow about the whole college thing.
Finally from Dawn had come a travel coffee mug, along with a gift card from Café Caffeine, to get her mornings started she'd been told. Buffy had been touched by all her gifts, so much that she'd almost forgiven them for ignoring her wishes about not acknowledging her birthday. Almost, but not quite. She was still sure that something awful was going to happen. The feeling of impending doom was seemingly inescapable.
Running her fingertips over the felt that lined the jewelry box, Buffy sighed. She'd gotten gifts from everyone but Giles. He'd just sat there and watched the gift giving festivities without a word, smiling when it was appropriate. She couldn't believe that he hadn't gotten her anything. Disgusted with herself for thinking that Giles had to give her something, she slapped the lid of the box closed and wandered to the window. Sitting in the window seat, she watched the cars drive by, her chin resting on her pulled up knees.
A soft knock on her door caused her to straighten up. Turning, she found Giles standing in the doorway, looking somewhat uncomfortable, a brightly wrapped package in his hands.
“I have a gift for you as well,” he said, shifting nervously. “However, I thought it best that I give it to you in… um, private.”
Curious, she uncurled from her seat, moving toward him. He stared at the floor as she approached, and she couldn't imagine what he'd be giving her that would make him so nervous. Still she smiled, joy swelling in her chest with the realization that he hadn't forgotten her.
“That's really sweet of you, Giles.” She took the package from his hands, her fingers covering his for a brief moment. Looking up, her eyes met his, and just like every other time when she was near him lately, her stomach twisted into knots.
“I hope you like it,” he said softly, slowly pulling back. His eyes caught hers before shifting away. Buffy felt inexplicably bereft at the loss of his touch. Clearing her throat, she focused her gaze to the gift in her hands. It was carefully covered in burgundy paper with a gold ribbon wrapped around the corners. To lift the suddenly serious mood of the room, she lifted the package and shook it next to her ear.
“Hmmmm. Doesn't rattle,” she said teasingly.
Giles grinned and gave a laugh. “That's actually a bit of a relief. Open it,” he instructed, gesturing at it.
Carefully, Buffy picked at the tape, trying not to rip the paper. Slowly, she removed the wrapping, revealing the back of a picture frame. She smiled as she turned it over, prepared to love the frame no matter what picture was inside.
Her words of thanks died unspoken on her lips as she stared at the picture behind the glass. It was a photo of her and Dawn with their mother. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she swiped at them with the back of her hand.
“Where did you get this?” she whispered, unable to tear her gaze from the photo.
“Your father,” he replied. “It took some doing, but I tracked him down and have been pressuring him to send the picture for quite some time.” Giles shook his head in disgust. “It was supposed to be your Christmas present, but the damned man…” He stopped abruptly.
Looking up, she smiled tearfully at him. “It's okay, Giles,” she said. “You can say it. ‘He couldn't be bothered.'” She looked back down at the picture and traced her fingers over the image of her mother's face. Walking across the room, she put the picture on her dresser, next to Xander's jewelry box. “It's the most wonderful gift ever,” she said softly, her back to him. She heard him move towards her.
“I didn't mean to make you sad,” he told her, placing his hand on her shoulder. Buffy turned, tears spilling over her lashes. Instinctively, Giles reached up and cupped her cheek, gently wiping at the tears with his thumb.
“You didn't,” she reassured him, her skin tingling from his touch. “I know I'm crying and all, but I'm not sad. It's totally the opposite. It's like you… I don't know… you gave me back something that was missing.” Impulsively, Buffy flung herself at him wrapping her arms around him. Automatically, Giles returned the embrace, holding her close, his cheek resting against her hair. He closed his eyes and pulled her tighter to him.
Buffy squeezed him back and then abruptly broke the embrace. “Thanks, Giles,” she said, suddenly feeling the need to put as much space as possible between them. She pulled away and stepped back towards the window.
Giles took a half step after her and then stopped. He took a deep breath and nodded. “My pleasure, Buffy,” he said with forced formality. Clearing his throat, he moved toward her bedroom door. “I… I'd best get to work. Percy is expecting a report on the location of new Slayers.”
Giles turned and walked from the room, pausing in the doorway to look over his shoulder. Buffy had taken the picture off of her dresser and had carried it to the window seat. She was curled up on the cushion, gazing at the photo. He smiled sadly as he pulled the door closed.
Willow and Xander wandered through the forest, inhaling the cool crisp scent of the air around them.
“Are you really sure today's the day to do this?” Xander asked in concern. “'Cause if you create some monster that's going to ruin Buffy's day, she'll kill us both.”
“This is the first sunny day in a month, that's why we're doing it today. Anyway, that's why you're here,” Willow said, peering around some trees. “Oh, it looks like there's a nice clearing over there.” She tramped through the trees, stepping over dead branches.
Xander remained rooted to the spot, a look of disbelief on his face. “What do you mean, that's why I'm here?” he demanded. “Are you insane? What in our life-long association makes you think I could handle some monster you might create? Do you not remember the troll?”
Willow turned back to him, her hands on her hips. “No, I haven't forgotten the troll,” she said. “I don't expect you to stop anything,” she said in exasperation. “You just have to perform a small counter-spell that will dissipate anything I create.” She urged him forward impatiently. “Now will you come on!”
Sighing, Xander picked his way carefully along the path she'd created. “I can't believe I let you talk me into this,” he mumbled as she waited for him to catch up.
“It's just a simple communing ceremony,” Willow said irritably. “A way for me to get back in touch with my energy and magic.” Annoyed, she stomped especially hard on a dead tree branch that was lying on the ground and listening to the crack with satisfaction. She and Xander had been round and round about doing this particular spell. It wasn't even really a spell, more of a ritual to help re-attune herself to her magic.
Once in the clearing, Willow dropped her backpack to the ground and knelt beside it. Taking a deep breath, she placed both hands on the ground and tried to connect with the central forces of the earth as Giles had taught her in England . She smiled at the thought of her Paraguayan flower and reached down a bit deeper only to pull back sharply as if bitten.
“What was it, Will?”
“I don't know, Xand. It didn't feel right and it surprised me.” She frowned at the ground. “It wasn't bad like the Hellmouth bad. It was more like something was sick. Let me try again.”
“Are you sure it's safe? I don't know if I want to count on me as Counter-Spell guy.”
“It will be fine. I'm just going to try to see where the energies are off, no magic yet.” As she reached into her backpack again, the trees around them began rustling.
“Willow…” Xander's voice was anxious.
“It's going to be fine, Xander. Stop worrying,” she interrupted irritably, without looking up.
“Uh, not gonna happen,” he responded in a strained voice. Willow glanced up in confusion. For some reason she couldn't understand, he was standing with his hands up, as if he were surrendering.
Xander motioned frantically with his head, causing her to look over her shoulder. Rising from her crouch, Willow stood, slowly bringing her hands into the air. They were surrounded by a very exotic looking group, impossibly dressed in flimsy clothing. Willow couldn't believe that they weren't freezing in the cool breeze. Their skin color varied between shades of brown and green, to some downright blue.
As they stood watching, more and more of these strange beings appeared from the forest, surrounding them. Xander's eyes widened in disbelief as some of them appeared from the stream, shaking the water from their eyes. It almost seemed like they were made of the water itself.
Xander and Willow exchanged a look as the crowd around them grew. Finally, Xander said the words that they'd both been thinking. “Buffy is totally going to kill us.”