Willow was not sure how long she was out, but as she forced her eyes open, she realized immediately she was not alone. At her side, sending her healing and thankful energies, were four watery figures of varying sizes, one clearly an adult and the other three, children of varying sizes. Their combined energy quickly rejuvenated Willow and she rose, greeting the family with a smile.
“I am Lina, Landon's wife,” the woman said. “And these are our children. You saved us.”
“It worked?” Willow asked.
Lina nodded. “Yes. Thank you,” she said her voice light and smooth like a calm stream of water. “And the others are safe as well.”
“You're welcome,” Willow said.
“Come with me to Landon?”
“Of course,” Willow said, picking up her bag. “Let's go.”
Buffy walked briskly across the sidewalk and pushed open the door of Pershing Daisies. The cheerful jingle of the bell above the door announced her arrival to an empty room.
She frowned as she went inside. Everything looked perfectly normal. The open sign was in the window, the radio was tuned to the classical station that Lyle liked, and there was a half-full cup of tea sitting on the order desk beside the computer terminal on top of a stack of orders.
"Lyle? Daisy?" She glanced around the deserted room. There was no reason for alarm. Just because more gnomes were missing, Stephanie wasn't at the register and Lyle, Daisy and Brad were no where to be seen didn't mean that something bad had happened.
Suddenly, her slayer hearing picked up on a skittering sound in the next room. She sighed and slipped out of her jacket. She should have taken the time to change clothes. Her new smoke-colored cashmere sweater and skirt just weren't designed for gnome smashing. She put down the jacket and purse on the counter and crept across to the door to the workroom.
She twisted the knob slowly. The door made a groaning sound as she opened it. Just as she reached for the light switch, the room was suddenly flooded with illumination.
Lyle, Daisy, Brad and Stephanie sprang up from behind the work counters.
Buffy hastily tucked the stake back into her boot just before Daisy enveloped her in an enthusiastic hug. "Happy Birthday, Buffy."
She looked around the room. Balloons and streamers hung from the ceiling and festive bows had been attached to everything in the room, including Primrose and Poppy who frolicked happily amid the colorful confusion.
Buffy blinked. "This is... Wow. I don't know what to say."
"I can't believe you didn't tell us," Daisy scolded, pulling the stunned Slayer toward a table where Lyle was lighting candles on an elaborate birthday cake covered in butter cream roses. "If Brad hadn't said something we would have missed it."
"And, gee, wouldn't that have been a shame," Stephanie muttered, nevertheless following the others as they gathered around the cake.
Brad leaned over and kissed Buffy on the cheek. "Happy birthday, Buffy."
She blushed. "Thank you. This is so sweet. I'm just really not much into birthdays," Buffy said, hoping the excuse didn't sound as lame to everyone else as it did to her.
"Nonsense," Daisy said. "It's only when you get to be my age that you start trying not to remember them."
"Now who's talkin' nonsense?" Lyle demanded, looking at his wife. "You just keep getting' more beautiful every year."
"And if you keep saying things like that people will know for sure that you need glasses," Daisy replied tartly, even as a rosy glow suffused her cheeks.
Buffy stared at Lyle across the brightly glowing top of her birthday cake. "What about the missing gnomes?"
"Found 'em," Lyle said, straight-faced. "Darnedest thing, too. Went back and looked again and there they were, right where they were supposed to be."
"Actually, it was your friend Rupert who came up with the idea on how to get you here," Daisy said.
Buffy began to smile. "Giles was in on this?"
Daisy nodded. "When Lyle told him what we wanted to do, he suggested the gnomes. Seemed to think that you'd get right over here if you thought they were missing. I guess he knows you pretty well."
"Yes, he does," Buffy agreed.
"I sure hope so," Brad said. "I made reservations for dinner tonight at a restaurant he said you liked."
"We're going to Sawadee?" Buffy asked. "I love Thai food."
"That's what Giles said." Brad gave her an odd smile. "I guess he really does know you."
"Better make a wish and blow out the candles before we burn the building down," Lyle suggested.
Buffy laughed, aware of a strange sense of happiness considering it was her birthday. For some reason her birthday didn't seem nearly as depressing as it had just a little while earlier. She closed her eyes and effortlessly blew out all the candles. Still smiling, she opened them again. "Okay, who wants a rose?"
Willow and Landon's family arrived to find Xander and the troops grouped in a circle. At the sight of their father, the young Nix's all squealed and flowed quickly over to him. Willow watched, amazed as she witnessed a Nix-form of an embrace. Upon connection with their father, the children and Landon melded into one liquid form. The energy vibrating off of the family unit began to grow and ring out like a song. When Lina joined them, Willow was overcome by the feeling of unity that emanated off the completed family unit. The resonating energy was so warm, so pure, and so powerful, Willow had to fight back tears. A hand on her shoulder drew her attention from the scene.
“Way to go, Will,” Xander said. “I knew you could do it.”
Willow looked up at him, her eyes still moist, and smiled. “Thanks,” she said.
“Any problems?” he asked.
“One little glitch,” she said. “But everything worked out just fine.” She turned her attention to the family.
Xander decided not to pursue the matter now, instead allowing Willow to enjoy the happy ending.
As the family separated and retook their family-of-five forms, Landon approached Willow and Xander. “I cannot thank you two enough for what you have done. I must admit to a complete lack of faith and love for our human element, but you two have restored my hope that one day all parts shall know the value, beauty and power of the whole.”
Willow smiled. “You're welcome.”
“No problem,” Xander said, a bit fuzzy on the waterman's speech.
The Dryad approached Willow . “Dear Wicca, your powers of magic are indeed great as you have shown, but know that today you have also shown that your connection with nature is even greater. With your balance and purity of heart, you are capable of great things.”
Willow felt a rush of energy at the Dryad's words. She nodded and smiled, silently hoping the small glitch wouldn't change the wood woman's opinion.
As if reading her mind, the woman answered, “You couldn't have done what you did, if your balance and control were not exceptional. All you need is practice and confidence.”
Willow was a bit caught off guard at the response to her unasked question, but smiled nonetheless at the offer of support. “Thank you.”
“Thank you. Both of you,” the woman said, turning her attention to Xander. “What shall happen to the men now?”
“Well,” Xander said. “If you can hold tight for a bit, Willow and I will go to town and get the authorities. They'll take care of these guys.”
“And they'll be able to remove the chemicals from the small area of land, I've contained them in. When they're done, your backyard will be good as new,” Willow said.
“On that note, we should probably get going,” Xander said. “The sooner we can get to town, the sooner the sheriff can get out here.”
After several more thanks from the other creatures, Willow and Xander set off for town. As soon as they were out of earshot, Xander chuckled and shook his head.
“What?” Willow asked, wanting to share in his amusement.
“We are so not telling Buffy about this.”
“No kidding,” Willow agreed. “But it is kind of funny that on her birthday and her first day off from the nursery in like a week, the only sign of trouble involved forests and rivers and creatures of nature.”
“And more roses than she'd probably ever want to see again,” Xander said. “Yeah, something tells me she wouldn't see the humor of the situation, Will.”
There was a brief silence as the two walked on.
“So, if a tree falls on a mime in the woods, does anybody care?” Xander asked, trying to lighten the mood.
“Ha, ha,” Willow groaned. Another moment of silence followed.
“More importantly, if a few trees fall in the woods and no one tells Buffy, does that mean her birthday still went off without a hitch?” Willow asked.
"You're getting better at this, Dawn," he sighed pleasurably, watching keenly as her back arched in a shapely curve. He'd never seen anyone with such a skillful body. She was a natural, every movement succinct and purposeful. Ethan couldn't tear his eyes away from her.
"It was weird at first," her voice was labored as she fell forward again. "But it's good."
"It really is." He guided her arms to her sides, shivering as always when he touched her. "If you do it right."
"So how long have you been into this?" She lifted herself upright again.
"Since I started working at the Council. Yoga and meditation are a mandatory part of training. They are a discipline within themselves." He tapped her arms into correct position and smiled as she followed his gentle commands. "Good. Very good."
"I thought it was silly but then I noticed Giles does it with Buffy from time to time. I figured if it's good enough for them, it's good enough for me."
"Indeed," Ethan nodded with a sly smile.
Buffy dipped a spoon into her Tom Yum Goong. The hot and sour soup was just as delicious as she remembered. She looked across at Brad who was sitting on the other side of the table. "Do you like the spring rolls?"
"Great," he said with a grin. "I'm really glad we came here."
Buffy sighed happily. "Me, too."
"How did you find this place?" Brad asked, trying a bite of satay. "I've lived here all my life and I didn't know about it."
Buffy wondered what Brad would say if she told him the restaurant was run by a mainstreaming demon who worked part time for the Council. "Giles knows the owner." She paused and savored another mouthful of soup. "He invited us to dinner one night."
"You and Giles?"
Buffy nodded. "And Dawn and Willow and Xander."
Buffy looked up from her plate. "Oh, what?"
Buffy frowned, feeling sure she has missed something in the conversation. She tried to think of something else to talk about. "It was really nice of Daisy and Lyle to have a party for me."
"Were you surprised?" Brad asked, willingly following the change in topic.
Brad laughed. "Daisy's been planning this for weeks. She and Lyle like you a lot."
"I like them, too."
"There's someone else who works there that likes you, too."
Buffy smiled flirtatiously. "Really?"
Brad nodded emphatically. "Really."
Buffy held back a grin. "Gee, and here I thought Stephanie still didn't think too much of me."
Brad groaned dramatically. Buffy grinned at him for a moment, then looked down at her meal. "Darn!"
"I spilled something on my sweater." She grabbed her purse and stood up. "Be right back."
It only took a few minutes to take care of the problem. If there was one thing slaying taught you it was that unless you wanted to buy a new wardrobe every week you'd better find a way to get rid of stubborn spots and stains.
Buffy grinned at her reflection. Since she was here, she might was well put on some fresh lipstick. When she opened her purse, she spotted the unopened envelope she had shoved in earlier.
This was ridiculous. She couldn't just carry it around for the rest of her life wondering what the letter said. If it was bad news, better that she know it now and be done with it. Besides, maybe Giles was right and the birthday jinx was finally over. So far, the day has brought nothing but good things.
Without giving herself time to think about it she ripped opened the envelope and opened the letter. She stared at it in silence for a moment, and then a smile slowly began to spread across her face. "I did it. I'm a college student again!"
She shoved the letter back into her purse and headed to the door. She was eager to share the good news, but then she stopped at the door thinking. She realized the first person she wanted to hear the news was Giles. He was the one who had always assured her that there was more to her than just being the Slayer. And then Willow needed to know after waiting impatiently all the time. And it would be an example to Dawn as well. And Xander couldn't be left out. Yes, the family had to know first. There would be plenty of time to tell everyone else later.
She was still smiling when she reached the table. "You know, I think this just may be the best birthday I've ever had."
Brad returned the smile. "I hope this will make it ever better," he said, handing her a small gift bag. Inside was an exquisitely wrapped package. "When I saw this, I thought of you."
"You shouldn't have," Buffy said. "But since you did." Without waiting, she tore into the paper. As it fell away, the distinctive logo of a famous perfumery was revealed. "Oh!"
"I hope you like it. The description said that a single ounce contains 10,600 jasmine flowers and 28 dozen May roses."
Buffy felt her throat tighten. "Joy.”
“I thought that would be good.” Brad looked suddenly shy. “I mean, my life has had more joy in it since you arrived.”
Buffy nodded a bit numbly.
“Oh, I'm sorry, that was corny.” Brad looked embarrassed . “You don't like it? I didn't mean to upset you.”
“Brad.” Buffy spoke in soft whisper. “It's okay. Joy, well, it was my mom's favorite. When I was little and she and dad were still together, when they'd get all dressed up to go out she would always come to my room to say goodnight. I can still remember her hugging me goodnight and how her perfume smelled."
Brad looked stricken. "I'm sorry."
"No, it's okay," Buffy hastened to assure him. "They're really good memories. Thank you."
"Absolutely." Buffy reached across the table and took his hand. "I was right earlier. This is the best birthday I've ever had."
Brad smiled glowingly at her.
The night was crisp and clear, and there was virtually no traffic on the way home. Buffy felt warm and snug inside the Jeep with Brad beside her.
Brad really was a nice guy, she thought as she examined his profile in the light of the dashboard. Sweet. Thoughtful. Considerate. She was lucky to have such a terrific guy interested in her.
Brad turned his head and glanced at her before focusing his attention back on the road. "There's going to be another Cary Grant film playing next week. Would you like to go?"
"That would be great."
"Maybe Jo and Giles would like to see it too," Brad suggested. "We could do a real double date this time."
Buffy shook her head, refusing to allow herself to think about why the idea was so unappealing. "Let's go by ourselves."
They were silent for the rest of the drive. When they reached the house, Brad came around and opened the door for Buffy. As they followed the walkway to the front door, Brad reached down and took her hand in his. "Thanks for spending your birthday with me."
Buffy turned to face him. "It was fun." She paused and thought for a moment. "Which is not a word that I ever thought I would use to describe my birthday."
Brad laughed. "See you at work tomorrow."
Brad released her hand and pulled her gently into his arms. "You're so slender," he said softly. "I feel like I could break you in half if I'm not careful."
Buffy giggled as she put her arms around his neck. "I'm a lot stronger than I look."
The kiss was like Brad; warm and heart-felt. Buffy relaxed against him, feeling as content as a cat stretched out in front of a warm fire. Then the kiss altered, becoming more coaxing and intimate. Buffy responded willingly. It felt good to relax with a guy, to have something without there being so many issues.
Finally, they broke apart. Brad cleared his throat and took a step back. "My grandmother used to say something about good things coming in small packages. Now I know what she meant."
He gave her a final kiss and returned to his car. Buffy smiled as he pulled away from the curb. Giving him a final wave, she opened the door. Her birthday hadn't turned out too bad after all…
She froze at the sight in the living room. Giles and Jo were locked in a deep embrace on the couch. She watched mesmerized as they kissed; as Jo's hand slowly slipped between the opened buttons on his shirt to tease his
golden chest hair; as Giles' hand ran repeatedly through Jo's long brown hair, pulling her head closer to his. She didn't see his other hand until Jo arched back and pushed herself against him.
Buffy's hand flew to her mouth to silence her gasp. She took a step back, but couldn't take her eyes from the couple. Giles was kissing around Jo's jaw now, moving down her neck, and Buffy could hear the soft whimpers the Wicca was making. Jo's hands began running through his hair and down his back. “Please, Rupert,” she sighed softly, “oh god, that's so nice. Don't stop.”
As Giles' head began to rise, Buffy turned away and ran as quickly and silently as she could for the steps and the safety of her room.
As she reached the top of the stairs, she could just make out a low deep chuckle and a soft feminine giggle. She ran into her room and started to slam the door, quickly stopping when she realized that she couldn't do anything to alert the couple below to her presence. She softly shut it behind her and then locked it. Only then did the tears start to fall.
She dropped Brad's gift on the floor, stumbled to the bed and began sobbing into her pillow. She gasped, straining to breathe, and curled herself tight into a fetal ball.
Dawn covered her mouth as a yawn came over her. Ethan smiled at her from across the table, pleased at just how comfortable she'd become with him. With another thought, he realized he hadn't felt so at ease himself in much too long a time as well.
"Perhaps you should be going?"
"Yeah, I guess so." She stood up, raising her arms above her head to stretch out her back. "I need to get back before Buffy freaks out."
Randall politely stood and moved to help her with her coat. "Thank you for coming. I needed a chance to talk and relax." He lifted the jacket up, watching as she slipped her arm in.
"Anytime. Well... anytime when we aren't trying to stop an apocalypse or when I'm not a slave to homework. I had fun." She slipped her other arm in and turned to face him, watching as he carefully straightened her collar to sit correctly. Somehow he looked better than he did when she arrived. She shrugged it off to hotel lighting. "But next time, we have to work on your Council report. No more gossiping about boys."
Ethan snickered and walked her to the door. "You wound me." He clutched his hand to his heart, feigning pain. "I need closure, my dear. Will I ever know the suspenseful conclusion to the thrilling adventure of Brian the Dreamy?"
"You'll just have to wait and see," she blushed and turned toward the door. She reached for the knob and turned it but the door wouldn't budge. She tried again and still nothing. As she lifted her eyes, she noticed a hand holding the door shut, knuckles white with strain. Her breath caught and she guardedly turned around to see Randall's dark eyes staring down at her.
"What kind of gentleman would I be if I didn't hold the door for m'lady." Randall tenderly guided her hand away from the knob and opened the door. "Goodnight." He stepped aside, holding the door open for her.
Dawn's smile returned. Even 'Brian the Dreamy' wasn't as polite and thoughtful as Randall. "Thank you." She stepped outside.
"My pleasure." He bowed with a faint smile on his lips. "Oh, and Dawn?"
She glanced back." Yes?"
Dawn gave him a slight wave. "You too, Randall."
As soon as door closed, Ethan hurried to the bathroom and ran the sink, splashing the cold water onto his feverish features. His body was still vibrating from being so close to her. It was the closest thing to bliss he'd ever known.
"I swear she's getting more potent with every visit." He mumbled. "Patience, ol' man. Soon."
Gradually Buffy's sobs quieted and she lay silent on the bed. Her eyes fell on the dresser and the picture of her mother. She stared at it for a long moment before getting up and taking it with her to the window seat. She curled up and once again, stroked gently around the image of her mother's face.
"I was right, Mom. Every Buffy Birthday is a disaster. And this one has to be the worst of all.
"You know what I didn't tell you earlier? It was about Giles. Maybe you guessed that, probably. You had a way of knowing these things. You were a good mom, you know that, right? I'm sorry I was such a bad daughter sometimes. It was, just... well, it was just my life, you know? I tried, but I know it wasn't good enough, and I'm sorry I hurt you." She attempted an ironic smile, but just looked pained. "But you shouldn't take it personally. I hurt everyone. I don't think there is anyone that I cared about that I didn't hurt. The more I cared about them or the more they cared about me, the more I hurt them.
"It's probably just as well that you weren't here for last year's Buffy badness. It hurts so much to think of what I did to everyone else, I can't think what I would have done to you." She looked at the gift bag on the floor. "I dreamed of you, you know. Maybe it was you. I think it was you. Maybe it was The First, I don't know. I'm going to believe it was you."
Buffy took a deep breath. "But that's not what I should be telling you about. It's Giles. I've been feeling weird around him lately and I'm always mad at Jo and I really don't know how to say this except to say it, and..." Buffy swallowed hard. "I think I love him. I mean, I know I love him, but I think I really love-love him. Am in love with him. And I can't be. He's got Jo now and a chance for a normal happy life and I owe that to him. I owe him everything and I've hurt him so much in the past, probably even more than you, Mom, and..."
Buffy clutched the picture to her chest, rocking slowly back and forth. "Mom, help me please, this hurts so much. It feels like I'm being eaten alive. I love him but I can't hurt him again. I have to let him go..." Tears rolled down her face again as she whispered hoarsely into the darkness, "He can't ever know how I feel, but, oh god it hurts..."