Small Fry

Part One

The back room of the shop was utter chaos. Not the normal type of 'we're about to go to war/class/we're just training, but doesn't it look cool' chaos. This was the worst sort of chaos.

This was too many people trying to help.

Normally, Rupert Giles would have enjoyed having assistance lugging all the boxes that had arrived. But the number of boxes he'd received warranted only the assistance of one, perhaps two people. What he had, instead, was Buffy, Willow, Xander, and Spike, all shuffling boxes, opening them, and God help him, unpacking them, while Tara watched the front of the store.

He was going to misplace half his new inventory in one afternoon.

"Buffy, for God's sake, put that down, it's absolutely priceless!"

Buffy quickly set down the large jade figurine. Then she frowned at him. "It's nine ninety-five, marked down from eleven-fifty."

He gave her a stern glare. "That's a correction on the date of origin, not the price."

"That's Anya-territory, then," Xander said, hefting a large box of terribly breakable objects on his shoulder. "Stick it on her desk so she can ID it when she gets back."

"Xander, please be careful!" Rupert said, for the dozenth time. Xander nodded, and continued carrying the box on his shoulder, over to the desk. Spike helped him set it on the table, and Rupert leaned back against the counter.

"Oo, what is this?" Buffy held up an object that looked like a pink plastic sword.

Rupert glanced over. "It appears to be a pink plastic sword. Does anyone have the manifest?"

"Hey, watch it!" Xander snapped, then when Rupert looked over with dread and suspicion, Spike and Xander just smiled at him.

"Oh, dear lord," Rupert breathed. He waded through the piles of packing material, and gave a genuine smile to Willow, who at least was being careful with the box she was unpacking. Then again, she was unpacking books, so she was only being careful because she was stopping with each book and skimming through it. Heaven only knew what she and Tara were learning that they shouldn't -- but he was long past ever trying to stop the two of them from delving into Things Man Was Not Meant To Know. Willow would (and had done in the past) just point out that neither of them were 'man' and keep on reading.

"Hey, Watcher..." came Spike's voice. Particularly innocent, which made Rupert 's blood run cold. It always had, it always would, no matter how more-or-less decent Spike was these days. Of course, these days it was usually because he'd...

"What have you broken, Spike?"

"Broken? Broken! I like that. Here I was going to be helpful and... well, now forget it. Not saying a word." Spike turned his back to Rupert, and peered into the box.

Rupert sighed and walked over. "What did you break, Spike?"

"Hey, Xander, do you have the tall and funky pile?" Buffy asked, handing something to him.

"Yeah, over there." He took it from her, and looked at it before nudging Spike. "Hey, put this with the other 'tall and funky' things."

"Tall and funky?" Rupert asked, still trying to see what Spike might have done. "Haven't you people learned *anything* in the years you've-- good lord! Spike, put that down at once!"

"Why, don't it qualify as tall and funky? Only thing taller or funkier I've seen round here is this git." Pointing to Xander with the object, then handing it to him.

"Xander, don't--"

Xander took it, then mimed sniffing his armpits. "I am *not* funky; I showered three hours ago."

Rupert was trying to make his way over to them, past the piles of styrofoam-peanut-overflowing boxes. "Xander, honestly, put that down now!"

Xander obediently set it on a nearby table, still sniffing-- and Buffy picked it up. "I think it's tall and funky. We'll never get it filed properly if we put it in *my* stack, which is the 'short and green' stack." She held it back out.

Xander took it once more, and handed it back to Spike, who took it and turned towards the tall and funky pile.

"I'm serious!" Rupert snapped. "Put that down at once!" He'd just made it to Spike's side, when he realized that Spike had got rid of it.

By handing it to him. Which he'd taken, apparently by reflex.

"Oh, bloody hell." He set it down on the table, and sighed. "Please, no one else touch it; no one who has touched it, touch it again."

Xander, Spike, and Buffy looked at each other, then looked at him, faces beginning to show real fear. "Should we be looking for a spell?" Buffy asked. "To undo whatever it is we just did?"

Rupert looked at them, and honestly wondered if he had a shop full of legal adults, or pre-schoolers. They all looked as if they were afraid they would be sent to their rooms without supper. Which didn't sound like a half bad idea. "That would be wonderful. If I *knew* what you just did. All I'm certain of is that you've touched an ancient Mesopotamian artifact, the literal translation of whose name is "The thing you shouldn't touch if you know what's good for you." That actually wasn't entirely true. The *literal* translation was 'tall, funky thing'. But it was commonly translated as "the thing you shouldn't touch" by those who commonly translated from ancient Mesopotamian.

Several long strands of hair had escaped Buffy's ponytail during her stint as an unrequested helper, and she blew them away from her face. "I don't believe ancient Mesopotamian guys would give something a name like that. Maybe the "Thing that's tall and funky and won't fit on the discount shelf."

Rupert pointed to the inscription on the base of the tall and funky item in question. "I can give you a dictionary, and you can translate it for yourself." Which was not bloody likely, so he was fairly safe from having to confess that she was right. " In the meantime, the rest of us will have to do some research to figure out what it is and what it... oh, bugger all."

The four of them looked at each other.

"Oh my goodness!" Willow exclaimed, and Spike, Xander, Buffy and Rupert looked up at her.

"My jeans're falling off," Spike complained.

"And your voice is all squeaky," Tara said from the doorway. "Have you been sucking the helium again? You know that's only for the free balloons, Sp.... Oh my goodness."

"I said that," Willow pointed out.

"It bears repeating," Rupert said as he looked up at both of them. Quite far up.

"You're a little kid!" Xander said, laughing and pointing at Spike.

"So're you-- and your jeans're falling off too," Spike shot back.

And they were. Little kids, that is, although it was true that Xander's jeans were also falling towards his knees. Xander made no attempt to grab them -- neither did Spike, though Buffy was clutching her skirt, and Rupert... suddenly looked down and found his trousers puddled about his feet.

His size ten feet. The *wrong* size ten. "I believe I know what the artifact is for," he commented.

"Does this mean there's a reversal spell?" Willow asked, and when Rupert looked up at her, she giggled. "You four are just so adorable."

Spike scowled. "I am *not* -- well, yes, I am. Go on."

Xander smacked him on the arm, and Spike smacked him back. Buffy waded through the styrofoam peanuts and the fabric of her skirt, and grabbed Xander's shirt. "Stop it!" she said in what was meant to be a stern Slayer voice. Spike and Xander stopped, long enough to stick their tongues out at her.

"Well, at least the thing didn't affect our personalities," Rupert observed.

"He has a personality?" Xander asked, pointing at Spike. "He must've pulled it out of one of these boxes, then, 'cause he didn't have one this morning."

"What part of 'stop it' didn't you understand?" Buffy asked him, yanking on his shirt. He stumbled forward, knocking her into Spike.

"And Buffy still has her Slayer superpowers," Xander said, rubbing his head where he'd cracked it against Buffy's.

"But not necessarily her natural grace," Rupert commented softly. Somewhere between a snide aside and a legitimate observation of the spell's effects, and also apparently not softly enough, because Buffy stuck her own tongue out at him.

"Well, my legs aren't as long as they usually are," she said, with only a trace of whine in her voice.

Xander was still rubbing his head, and Spike offered to kiss it for him. Rupert turned back to Willow. "I suspect we are going to need some assistance getting the books down off the shelves so we can research this." Willow and Tara just stood there for a moment, looking at them. After a moment, Giles put his hands on his hips and glared. "What?"

Willow and Tara exchanged glances, grinning now, then as one they moved forward.

All four 'kids' got their cheeks pinched.

~~~~~

"Hey, I'm here... Where are you guys?" Dawn's voice echoed into the back of the shop, and Willow came up to meet her.

"They're in the office. Did you have enough money to get clothes for everybody?"

Dawn nodded, blowing a purple bubble-gum bubble at the same time. "Yeah, no problem. Um, as long as I get paid back. I *am* getting paid back, right?"

"Of course!" Willow assured her, then smiled, and walked over to the cash register, where Tara was ringing up a sale. "Give me the receipt."

Dawn handed it over, and headed towards the office with the bags. She stopped in the doorway, and stared. Willow walked up behind her after a moment, and couldn't help smiling at the sight before them. Giles was sitting at his desk, reading something. Buffy was sitting on the desk with another book, and Spike and Xander were in separate corners with their noses pressed to the wall.

"Don't Spike and Xander have to help?" Dawn asked, with a remarkably straight face.

"They *are* helping," Giles replied. He looked up. "Ah, good. You have clothing, I presume?"

"Yeah." A tiny grin appeared. "I had to buy what was on sale. I hope you guys like the Power Puff girls." She began pulling out t-shirts, shorts, and underwear -- all pink and white.

"I want Buttercup!" Spike shouted, and jumped away from his corner.

"Who said you could get out of the corner, Spike," Willow asked, though she was grinning. She couldn't help herself. The sight of a pint-sized Spike -- four, five years old, maybe? -- was enough to make anybody grin. His hair fluffed out around his face in a light-brown cloud, curling naturally, and his eyes were about the size of the bubble Dawn had just blown.

"Only did it in the first place 'cos it was fun, so sod off, witchy woman," he answered, reasonably politely for Spike.

"I want Buttercup," Buffy said, jumping off the desk. "You can have Bubbles." She tried to grab a shirt and shorts out of her little... younger sister's hands, and got thumped on the arm by Spike.

"Children! Please!" Giles snapped, but it did no good. Though he was standing in his chair now, so he could attempt to tower over them, he looked as four-year-old-ish as the rest of them, and his voice of authority was no longer anything of the sort.

Dawn held out a set of clothes. "You can have Mojo Jojo," she offered.

Spike made a face. "Bloody git can't ever pull off a plan properly 'cos he always has to brag about it. What kind of villain is he?"

"The sort that I'm going to be wearing in about five seconds, and you'll be stuck with the blonde one who talks to squirrels, if you don't just take it and put it on, Spike," Giles said, his irritation becoming more and more obvious.

"I guess we know who's gonna be Blossom, then, don't we," Xander said with a grin. "Bossy, bossy, bossy." He was already pulling the Bubbles shirt over his own head, with a little what-the-hell-I've-worn-stupider-clothes-for-a-living shrug.

*He* looked... Willow couldn't really remember what Xander had looked like as a four-year-old, because she'd been four herself. But she had pictures, and the goofy wide grin was the same. The easygoing confidence that it didn't matter if he looked like an idiot-- that was new, and so was the sparkle in the big brown cartoon-boy eyes.

As was the way he was copping a feel of a certain changing-clothes vampire beside him. Then Xander scrunched up his face. "Eew. OK, that just seems wrong."

Spike turned around. "What? Was I not in the right spot? Got a bad angle?" Four-year-old Spike wriggled his butt.

Xander shook his head. "You're *four*, Spike. I can't. I just..."

"So're you."

"Yeah, but--"

Spike sighed. "All right. Close your eyes, then." Xander did so. "You feel four years old?"

"No."

"Right, then." And Spike kissed him.

Xander grinned. "Cool."

"I've asked you not to do that in front of me," Giles said with a sigh. He glared as everyone started giggling. "What?"

"Giles..." Willow pointed at him. He looked down at his shirt, then his shorts, then his bare feet.

"What?"

"You're *four*!" Willow said, then she collapsed into giggles. Along with everyone else in the room.

"Oh, for Christ's sake."

"Giles, watch your mouth," she said sternly, or tried to, through her laughter.

"Do *you* need to go in time out?" Spike asked with an air of deep concern.

"I am *not* four years old," Giles protested, "no matter how much I may look it. I believe Xander and Spike have just given evidence that they aren't either. Please--" He held up one hand. "Save the comments about them always behaving like preschoolers. While accurate, they don't further our researches into the ramifications of our current condition."

Dawn mirrored him by raising her own hand, and Willow felt the insane urge to call on her. Giles saved her the trouble. "Yes, Dawn?" he asked patiently.

"Could you say 'ramifications' again? It just sounds so sweet with that cute little lisp!"

~~~~~

It took them a few minutes to get everyone sorted out -- Tara fetched more books, and soon everyone was studying. More or less studying, Spike and Xander were tussling over who got to lie on the rug where the floor wasn't cold, and everyone else was taking turns denying that it was their turn to separate the two.

When Dawn asked Buffy, who was seated with a book of her own, if she needed crayons, chaos erupted again for a moment. Buffy demonstrated that she still had her Slayer powers -- and Dawn proved that being tall could make up for a lot. She held Buffy upside-down until her sister promised not to knock her over, again. Giles' scolding them did no good, and finally he followed Tara into the other room, and climbed up the bookcase to fetch another book he wanted.

And was grabbed by a customer, who started scolding him for doing something so dangerous. "Look, I am *not*..." Giles spluttered, and Tara had to come to his rescue-- and get him to shut up.

"Supposed to be out here by yourself, young man," she covered quickly. "Now get right back in there and sit down."

"But I want..." He obviously realized she was right, as his experience with smoothing over Slayer-related situations came to the fore, and he lowered his voice to a sullen whisper. "Just wanted the LaVaux Treatise."

"Well, next time, let a grown-up get your mom's book for her. You're too small to be out here climbing shelves and getting into trouble!" She smiled brightly and thanked the man who had 'rescued' Giles, before grabbing the book in question and shooing the four-year-old Watcher into the back room before her.

Giles went, muttering under his breath in what was obviously not English.

He stomped over to his desk -- then stopped, and shook himself. He turned to Tara and accepted the book she was holding out, with much more dignity than he'd shown. "Thank you, Tara. Perhaps it would be best if we closed the shop for the time being."

"Shouldn't be too hard. There's nobody left but that last guy, anyway, and he's just pricing crystal balls and looking at the pictures of naked dryads -- not planning on buying today." Tara stood in the doorway, where she could watch both the shop, and the goings-on in the back.

"Oo! Is this it? Tall and funky?" Buffy called out, and jumped up with the book she was holding. It was as large as she was, though she carried it easily over to Giles. "The... Urdek-uh?" she read slowly.

He peered at the page, and nodded excitedly. "The Urdeku. It is! Wonderful, now let me just see..." He trailed off as he read, the others gathered around watching him. Finally he looked up. "There is a reversal spell. A rather easy one, at that."

There was a brief scuffle, as Xander and Spike rolled around on the floor, yelling, " Me! Me! My turn! I wanna say it!"

Xander, having won by dint of the fact that he was sitting on Spike's head, effectively cutting off any attempt Spike might make, finally wheezed, "Okay-- what's the catch?"

"Have to eat bugs?" Buffy guessed. It was a reasonable, if gross, thought. Tara had never come up against a bug-eating spell, herself, but some of the cures for curses tended to be as nasty, or worse, than the original effects.

"Eew! I'm not staying to watch that, thank you," Dawn said, wrinkling her nose in that way that she swore was totally and completely different from the way Buffy did it.

"No..." Giles began, but Spike pushed Xander over and shot his head up.

"Tantric? 'Cos I can do tantric. I mean, it's a big sacrifice and all, but anything for you lot."

Xander gave him a finger flick to the ear. "You can *not* do tantric, you're four years old!"

"Can too!"

"Can..."

"Shut UP! Shut up! Shut up, shut up!" Giles climbed up on the desk again. "Be quiet, all of you!" They actually subsided, and looked at him. Three pair of round, wide eyes looked up at him, and he sighed. "I am never having children of my own. I'm saying this *right* now, and I mean it." He rubbed at his face, looking a tad startled when his hand encountered no glasses, then he continued. "The spell is rather easy, and we have all the ingredients right here. However--"

"I *knew* there was a however," Buffy muttered. Dawn whapped her lightly on the head. "Ow!"

"Baby. I didn't hurt you."

"What's the 'however', Giles?" Willow asked hurriedly.

"We have to perform the spell under the waning moon. Which is two weeks from now."

He definitely got his requested silence then, as tall people and short people looked at each other with varying degrees of shock and horror.

"Two *weeks*?" Buffy repeated eventually. "But... I've got classes! Wait, what am I saying-- yay, no classes. But... patrolling!"

"You won't miss more than a few classes. Spring Break starts this weekend." Xander pointed out. "You know, girls, fun, sun, beer, all those things I don't do these days."

Spike smacked him, then gave his requisite 'ow.' They'd stopped listening for it after the first week. "What, I'm not fun and Anya's not a girl?"

"Yes, you're not fun, and no, Anya's not a girl, she's a woman. Which I'm..." Xander looked down at his Powerpuff shorts. "Not equipped to deal with for two whole weeks. This sucks."

"Hey, look at it this way, mate," Spike said, slinging an arm around Xander's shoulder. "You can wander about and get 'lost', and pretty girls will pick you up and give you treats while they try to help you find your mum."

Xander frowned at him for a second, then grinned. Willow walked over to them, and stood there, hands on her hips. "Am I going to have to put you two in daycare for two weeks?"

"You wouldn't!" Spike protested. "I'd turn into ashes the first time we got sent out to the playground."

"Sun allergy. They'll keep you inside and make you play with clay."

Willow glared back at him until Spike grumbled his defeat. "It's not fair, she didn't used to be that much taller'n me."

"Nope. Only a little bit taller," Xander teased. "Shortie."

"*Don't* you start up again, young man," Willow ordered, giving him a glare that had always made even his adult-bodied self behave.

"Hello? Spring break equals no classes equals nice, but who's gonna help me patrol?" Buffy had a little bit of whine in her voice, like 'Hey, nobody's paying attention to me...'

"*Help* you patrol? Um, I hate to say this, Buff..."

"Then don't, Will. No *way* am I not patrolling."

"But you're three and a half feet tall!"

"Yeah, you'd need a stepladder just to stake vamps in the bits that a four-year-old ain't supposed to know exist!" Spike said helpfully.

"Look who's talking, mini-vamp!" Buffy turned on him, and Willow put a hand on her shoulder.

"Not you, too. Look, Tara and Dawn and I will take turns patrolling."

"I get to patrol? Awesome!" Dawn shot a power-fist into the air.

"No! You are *not* patrolling," Buffy folded her arms, and for a moment looked exactly like herself.

Dawn just gave her a look. "Do I have to hold you upside-down, again?"

"Look, there's no reason why Buffy can't patrol," Giles began, and was interrupted by a cheer and some shouts. "As long as she doesn't go alone," he concluded at a much louder volume. "It would be very dangerous -- Buffy, you remember when you tried to kick Spike? Your balance is all off, and you could easily be hurt."

"I can practice! Come here, Spike!" Spike ducked behind Xander.

"In the meantime, we have to figure out what we're going to do. I would suggest we simply stay home, and out of trouble..."

He looked around the room, and Tara followed his gaze. Buffy was trying to crawl over Xander to get to Spike, and Spike was taunting her and keeping Xander in between them. Dawn was laughing, while Willow tried to stop doing so long enough to separate the three. "Oh, dear lord." Giles sat down on his desk. "I need a drink."

"No, you don't," Tara said firmly. "That stuff'll stunt your growth."

~~~~~

"Oh, I like these. They'd look so cute on you." Willow held up a pair of Osh-Kosh b'gosh overalls against Giles, measuring them. The brown-haired little boy tried to adjust the glasses he wasn't wearing, then just settled for crossing his arms.

"I am *not* wearing that... kindergear."

Willow put the blue corduroy overalls in her basket anyway. "I'm sorry, but they don't seem to *have* any tweed suits in your size, Giles."

"Oh, very funny. I haven't worn tweed in at least two years. But there's a difference between casual attire and something that has a large giraffe embroidered on the front pocket. I'm not too keen on wearing anything with one front pocket, to begin with."

"You can put your dignity in it, Rupes," Spike called out from where he was standing, looking at the pint-sized jeans.

"Thank you for your support," Giles told him. "Now, even *I* know that they do manufacture clothing for children which does not make one look like an idiot."

At that, Xander came jumping out from behind the other rack of clothes. "Look! Look! I found one!" He was wearing a red shirt with a yellow lightening bolt on it. "In my size!"

Giles rolled his eyes as Willow giggled. Tara came around the rack, then, and gave Willow a smile. "Sorry. I keep trying to control them, and...."

"And they act like four-year-olds," Willow finished. "Maybe we should send them to look at something else, while we pick out the clothes."

"Yeah? Like what? They got dirty mags, here?" Spike wandered over, tossing a pair of black frayed jeans into Willow's basket. Willow whapped him on the butt. "Oi! That *hurt*!" Spike rubbed his shorts-clad behind. "I'm littler than you now."

"Oh, don't be a baby. You're as bad as-- Buffy, put that *down*!" Willow ducked around the three pseudo-children to grab a twenty-pound barbell from Buffy's hands.

"Why? I can lift it, no problem. I still have my Slayer strength."

"Yeah, but you can't let people *see* a four-year-old girl lifting a barbell!" Willow sighed. "Look, the four of you know you have to keep your cover. Either behave and let us pick out clothes you can wear -- or you'll be wearing Power Puff girls for two weeks. Or wander around and look at *something* and stay out of trouble!" She shook her head, trying to remind herself that the four-year-olds were *not* four. Even if they were acting like it.

"Hey, I saw that first!"

"Did not! It's mine!"

"Find your own!"

"Give that back!"

She stomped over. "Spike, Xander, don't *make* me send you out to the car."

Both boys stuck their tongues out at her. "Like we couldn't drive it away," Xander said.

"You couldn't even see over the dashboard," she reminded them.

"Could if I sat on someone's lap," Spike said with a leer in Xander's general direction.

"Okay, that's just disturbing. Don't do that." Innocent blue eyes. Spike really should have been wearing the Bubbles shirt. She rolled her own eyes. "What are you two fighting over?"

Xander looked down at the floor. Spike looked up at the ceiling.

Willow heaved a sigh that Anya probably heard in New York City, where she was attending a convention on commercial uses of magic, and not-so-incidentally schmoozing up an old friend from her demon days who was in possession of a rare text that Giles desperately wanted to add to his collection. If *she'd* been here-- well, Xander and Spike would still be acting this way, but at last there would be someone around who had a more immediate influence over them than Willow did.

Reaching between the not-really-boys, Willow pulled out... "Legos? You're fighting over Legos?"

"It's the pirate cove," Spike muttered.

Xander turned evilly puppy-ish wide eyes on Willow. "I've always wanted the pirate cove Legos, Willow. You know that."

"So why haven't you gone to the toy store before now, and gotten it?" she asked him. Buffy started giggling, standing behind Willow, and she could hear Giles telling Tara to get that nice solid blue shirt down from the rack.

"Bloody hell, it's got a turtle on it. What is *wrong* with this culture? You can't dress children in decent, un-embarrassing clothing?"

Willow was still staring at Xander, who was silent, apparently still trying to think of a reply. Spike took advantage of his distraction and tried to slip the Legos out of Willow's hand. "Uh-uh! Bad Spike." Buffy grabbed the box from him. "I think since you guys can't play nice, I should get 'em."

"Oh, please, like you'd even know what to do with them." Spike was smart enough not to try to mess with a Slayer who still had all her strength and was now about the same height as him, but he could still taunt her. "This looks like it's about your speed." He grabbed a ratty-haired, completely unclothed Barbie from the shelf and shook it at her.

"Huh. That anatomically incorrect airhead?"

Willow took the doll out of Spike's hand. Looked at it. "She has a point. I mean, when I was your age-- I mean, the age you look now-- I didn't know any better, but really. What kind of role model do they think she is for young girls? Teeny waist, perfectly comb-able hair..."

"No nipples," Spike added helpfully. "Ow!" he said a moment later, rubbing his arm and glaring at Buffy.

Willow shook her head without sympathy. "Maybe you should go look at... the... um..." Where could they *possibly* stay out of trouble?

"Oi, where are you going?" Spike turned and walked after Xander, who had wandered down the aisle a ways. Willow and Buffy followed, curious, Tara and Giles coming along behind them to see what was up and to help corral

Spike and Xander if necessary. Giles was holding a jump-rope, with an 'Try me, see if I don't' expression.

Xander was holding a red plastic fire engine, a peculiar smile on his face.

"Um..." Buffy said, staring at him as he ran it along a tabletop, still lost somewhere. "Xander?"

He looked up guiltily. "Oh. I just... kind of always wanted one like this."

"And the pirate cove Legos?" she teased.

"Hey, like there wasn't anything you wanted when you were little, and never got?" Spike was suddenly protective, hands on his tiny hips, standing between Buffy and Xander. "A pony, maybe? Your own personal palace?"

"Just what the heck do you mean by that? You really think I was some kind of overprotected princess?" Buffy was right in his face, and Xander put down the fire engine. He wandered a little way away and just looked upset, like he'd started the fight instead of it just being Buffy and Spike, albeit the bite-sized versions.

Willow stepped around Buffy and Spike and went after him. Caught up quickly enough, and she put her hand on his shoulder. When he looked up at her, all she could see was a four-year-old -- the one she'd known long, long ago, who had come over to her house and played with her toys and always put them away carefully before he left, despite all the times she told him he could borrow one.

Tara and Giles were trying to calm down Spike and Buffy -- or drag them apart, or possibly bean them each on the head. Willow just held out her other hand to Xander. He blinked at her, confused. "Come on, Xander. You know you want to. You're small enough now, and I can."

He frowned, but slowly raised his other hand. Willow leaned down, and picked him up, and settled him on her hip. Xander let his head rest on her shoulder. "It's just a stupid fire engine," he said quietly.

"No, it's not," she said, just as softly. "I remember." He didn't answer, but he also didn't squirm, as she expected he would, when she put her hand on his back, and just left it there.

So she carried him around for a little while, stopping to look at clothes that might please Giles or cause Spike to make puking noises, which was always of the good. She was standing next to a table full of folded-up t-shirts when Xander asked, a little more of the adult in his voice, "You did burn down the house next door, didn't you."

"No." Though she'd thought deeply about pulling the fire alarm at school the day after Xander's birthday. Had guilt pangs for weeks.

In a more four-year-old whine, he said, "Buy me the fire engine?"

She smiled. "Maybe. Here, would Giles wear this?" She held up a plain brown shirt -- which only had one very small bit of cartoon decoration on it.

"I think Giles wants that one," Xander pointed.

Willow looked at the shirt, and glared at Xander. "Be nice, or I'll let Giles pick out *your* clothes."

"I think he'd look cute." Xander leaned over and grabbed at the shirt -- missing when Willow stepped aside.

"I sincerely hope that was not *Xander* saying *I* would look cute," Giles said dryly.

Xander stuck his tongue out. "You *are* though. You're four -- everyone's cute when they're four."

Buffy took a considering look at Giles, and nodded. "Yeah. You kind of look like somebody just made you swallow cough syrup, but still cute."

"Ate worms," Spike corrected. "Definitely got that 'go outside and eat worms' look to 'im."

"Ugh-- remind me not to ask you about *your* childhood." She was still eyeing Giles critically. "You really have to loosen up, Giles. Four-year-olds are supposed to run around pretending to be Superman, not Middle-Aged Man."

"I *am* a middle-aged man. A middle-aged man who happens to be under the influence of a spell. It has made me short, not young." Giles gave her a stern look.

"Too short to see over the edge of the table," Dawn said, as Giles was trying to do just that. "Don't you trust Willow to find you something you like?"

"When Xander's helping her?" Giles replied, but his tone wasn't as stern as it had been.

"Well, here," Dawn said, and she was lifting him up. Settled him on her hip, just as Willow had done with Xander.

Giles looked very nonplussed. "Really, Dawn, this isn't--"

"You can see, now, can't you? Go on, find something you want."

"Yes, well, I..."

"Either you do it, or Xander's gonna do it," she reminded him.

Xander grinned at him. "There's the one I saw." He pointed.

"Remind me to do something horrible to you when I grow up," Giles muttered, staring at the Ren and Stimpy t-shirt.

"You mean, more horrible than sending Spike to live in my basement?"

Giles screwed up his face for a second as if in deep concentration, then shook his head. "Actually, I can't think of anything more horrible than that." Xander pumped his fist in the air, like he'd just gotten away with something major, and Giles glared at him. "Give me time." He reached down and picked up a plain blue polo shirt with a small appliqué of Winnie-the-Pooh in the spot where the alligator would have gone on a grown-up's shirt. "This isn't too terrible."

"Winnie the Pooh? He's English, isn't he?" Dawn asked.

"Course he is. All the great ones are," Spike said, reaching up for the shirt. Giles held it out of his reach, and Spike pouted, then put his hands on his hips. "Didn't want it anyway. Don't even like the bloke."

"You just said he was one of the great ones," Buffy said. "Besides, don't you have the entire text of When We Were Six memorized?"

Spike gaped at her. "I certainly do not! And if I did, it would be Dru's fault. She liked me to read to her and I don't remember a bloody bit of them. Besides, it's Now We Are Six," he added.

"Hey, there's a Peter Rabbit one over here," Xander said, making a good show of trying to distract Spike.

"Yeah? They got Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail, too? Maybe Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle?" Spike snorted, or tried to. Four-year-old bodies just aren't made to snort. "I do have *some* standards."

"Oh. Then I guess you don't want the Barney one."

Spike glared up at him, then tugged on Willow's shirt. "Would you put him down so's I can kill him, please?" He sounded terribly polite, and she almost did it just from the shock of it all.

"You can't kill him," she said in a reasonable tone. "What would Anya say?"

"If Anya heard him saying that word, she'd help me do it. She saw one of his shows, once. Locked herself in the bathroom for hours, saying it was no wonder they didn't need her as a vengeance demon any longer."

"It took us all evening and a vat of chocolate to calm her down," Xander added.

"I found one for you," Buffy interjected, thrusting a shirt at Spike. It was pink, and when Spike held it up, they could see the Care Bears all over the front.

Spike held the shirt out to Willow, and said, still politely, "Excuse me." Then he tore after Buffy, who squealed and ran away.

"Aww, they like each other," Tara said.

"Yeah, Spike always tries to kill people he likes," Xander agreed. "I mean, he's hit me over the head, threatened to eviscerate me..."

"No, that was Anya," Willow corrected.

Xander frowned. "Are you saying I have some sort of pattern of self-destructive relationship choices?"

She grinned. "No, I'm saying lots of people like you."

"Yes, well, I have a shirt, could you possibly put me down, now?" Giles was saying to Dawn.

"You're gonna need more than one, Giles. Two weeks wearing only Mojo Jojo and Winne the Pooh - when are we gonna do laundry?"

He sighed. "Fine. Why you wouldn't just take us to Gap Kids, like I'd asked..."

"Because we pointed out that we'd be taking Buffy, Spike, and Xander to the Mall. As four-year-olds. Remember? You said you'd rather be painted green and tossed to a pack of wild Ziphoriu demons?" Dawn made no move to put him down.

"I wanted to go to the mall," Buffy pouted.

"Me, too!" Spike pouted, beside her. The others looked at them for a moment, wondering why they were standing there, not running around and not screaming, throwing things, and hitting each other. Like any other normal day.

"Can I ask why-- specifically-- you wanted to go to the mall?" Giles did the infinite patience thing really well as a four-year-old. It was uncanny.

Buffy grinned. "Easter Bunny! Pictures!"

Spike looked around, like something nasty was going to jump out in Goodwill and save him by distracting everybody. Finally he said, "Well, yeah. Thought I might get one of me and Xan, so Anya could ohh-ah over it when she gets back."

"You mean so she could squeak and freak out, and we'd have to comfort her," Xander said. After a few seconds, he grinned and added. "Good idea."

"Perhaps we should," Giles began, though he sounded as though he were being talked into letting the gang invade a nest of vampires with only three stakes between them. "I'd rather pay for photos with a large rabbit, than wear any of these."

"You're paying?" Xander perked up. "I want some cotton candy!"

"And I want a hot dog, and some caramel corn," Spike added.

"Can we stop at the shoe store? They're having a sale," Buffy said. "Oh, but I guess I can't really try on the ones I want." She frowned at her feet. Then she smiled. "But I can get those pink sandals! They came in kids' sizes!"

"No, I've changed my mind. I'll wear this." Giles picked up a Superman T-shirt. "That's three, that will get me through the next two weeks. Put me down."

Dawn rolled her eyes, but she let him down, finally. "Sure, spoil all my fun."

"I'm quite certain Spike would love to be picked up and carried around," Giles said stiffly. "Or... no, I think not."

Spike glared at him. "What, I'm not allowed to get any attention?"

"I think he was thinking you'd use it as an excuse to stare over her shoulder at that girl in the tank-top," Xander said. Spike looked far too innocent for his own good, in response.

"Actually, from down here you can see up her sk-- what am I saying?" Buffy shook her head, and thumped Spike again.

Spike, however, was pouting again. "Nobody loves me," he said, jutting out his lower lip. He wandered quickly away, towards the woman in the tank top and skirt. "My mummy doesn't lo--"

"Oh, no you don't," Tara scooped him up around the waist, and held him, giving the puzzled woman a smile. "Sorry."

"That's okay, he wasn't bothering me. All of these can't be yours, right? Are you babysitting?"

"Something like that."

"Oi! I'm not a baby!" Spike wriggled wildly in her grip, but she held firm. Willow was impressed. Even Xander looked impressed.

"No, a baby wouldn't get into nearly as much trouble. You're just an evil four-year-old."

"Oh, you shouldn't tell him he's evil," the woman said sincerely. "You'll damage his psyche."

"Yeah!" Spike agreed happily, still wriggling determinedly.

Tara smiled... evilly. "You're right. Whatever was I thinking." She lifted Spike up and cuddled him. "Who's Auntie Tara's widdle morally challenged toddler, huh?" Then she tickled him unmercifully, until he was laughing so hard he couldn't say anything coherent enough to get any of them in trouble.

The woman smiled at them, and moved away -- the look on her face said she was happy she'd encouraged the harried young woman to be kind to the youngster. Rather than having a clue that Spike was planning to bite Tara just as soon as he could get away with it.

When Tara carried Spike back to the others, Spike wriggled out of her grip, glared at Giles and Buffy for laughing at him, then gave Tara a dirty look. "That wasn't nice."

"That's not what you say when *I* do it," Xander observed.

"I think we'd better head for the cashier, and get these kids someplace where they can't do any more damage." Willow handed the last of the clothes they'd picked out to Dawn.

"What damage? We haven't done any damage," Buffy said, looking around the store. "Everything's still standing."

"I mean to my sanity." Willow gave her a smile, though. She looked down at Xander, who was wriggling determinedly himself. "Careful, or I'll tickle you, too."

"S'what he wants. *He* likes it," Spike said sullenly.

"Not in a 'you can't tickle me, that would be wrong' kind of way," Xander said quickly.

"Oh, good," she replied, rolling her eyes. "If I put you down, will you stand still and actually act like you're a twenty-some year old guy in a four-year-old body?"

"Um." Xander's expression grew thoughtful. "What was my third option, again?"

"Behave, or you have to go to Bozo's Burgers for lunch, and sit on Bozo's lap."

Xander looked stricken, then held very still. "I'll be good. I swear." Willow set him down, and he went over to stand beside Spike, who had never been to Bozo's Burgers as an adult, much less a child. The group made their way towards the cashier, Spike nudging Xander along the way and trying to get him to explain. "There's this big... clown guy. With fluffy red hair. And.. um... I don't like clowns."

"Was that why you freaked out when Anya put on that red nose at the Christmas party?"

"No!" Xander denied vehemently. "I just didn't like the idea of her leading Santa's reindeer, when Giles was playing Santa."

"You two really should take that act on the road," Giles observed. "In fact, why don't you get a head start and leave now?"

"Why don't you make me?" Xander retorted, stepping over to Giles, hands balling into fists.

"I don't believe this," Giles shook his head. "I'm far better trained than you are." He grabbed Xander's arm, and before anyone could blink, Xander was sprawled on the ground.

Giles blinked, then he was bending down and helping Xander back to his feet. Xander -- and everyone else -- looked a little startled. "I'm sorry. I'm just... well, a bit stressed I suppose. I really don't know what came over me, are you all right?"

Xander blinked, then said, "I think someone needs to buy me ice cream. Then maybe I'll be OK."

"Yeah! Me, too. I had to endure the agony of seein' him thrown to the floor," Spike interjected.

"I had to endure the agony of being with Spike. Can I have ice cream?" Buffy asked.

"I... um... like ice cream," Dawn said cheerfully. "Can I?"

"Honey? Do you actually want to give them sugar?" Tara asked. From the floor, Spike and Xander started in on a high-pitched rendition of 'Sugar... ah, honey, honey...' until Buffy whapped them both upside their respective heads.

"Well, they're not *real* kids, no matter how much they're acting like it at the moment," Willow answered. "And I wouldn't say no to some pralines and cream, myself."

"Yea! Ice cream!" Xander and Spike shouted. Which was pretty much normal behavior for them. Or as normal as they got.

Tara shrugged. The look on her face was one every parent knew -- you're gonna regret this. "Just remember their bedtime is at 7," she said calmly, then gave Willow a grin as four high-pitched voices protested.

~~~~~

"Honestly, I'll be fine." Giles looked up at Tara and Willow, his face as composed as ever.

"Are you sure?" Willow asked, again. "I know you're not *really* four. But... you are awfully small. What if... if... something falls and you can't pick it up? Or someone comes to the door, or if someone calls and wants to talk to your parents?"

Giles looked at them patiently. "If something falls and I can't pick it up, I'll leave it there. But honestly, what do I have in here that's heavy enough that I couldn't pick it up, aside from the furniture? And obviously I won't answer the door or the telephone, unless it's one of you lot. I *do* have an answering machine."

"Yes, but it's still blinking 12:00," Tara teased. Actually, she couldn't see it to tell *what* it was blinking, buried as it was under a stack of books and papers.

"No, that's his VCR. His answering machine still says 'Hello. Insert your name here is not at home. Please leave a message.' " Willow shot back.

"I can still hear whoever's calling." Giles narrowed his eyes. On his four-year-old face it looked adorable.

Willow must have had the same thought, because she reached out and patted his head. "Sorry, I can't help myself." She giggled as Giles sighed.

"Why don't we, um, stay for a bit, and make sure he'll be OK?" Tara suggested.

"Fine, stay if you like -- but at 8 o'clock I'm chucking you all out. You're warned." Giles headed towards the kitchen.

"What happens at 8?" Buffy asked from where she was bouncing on the couch.

"Passions' documentary is on!" Spike yelled. "We have to stay -- or be home by eight."

"That is *not*--" Giles called back from the kitchen.

"Relax, vamplet. We've set the VCR," Xander told Spike.

"Who're you calling vamplet, you... humanoid!"

Xander frowned. "Okay, you realize that wasn't actually an insult?"

Spike stuck out his tongue, Xander dove for him, and Willow plopped down on the couch between them. "Do I have to separate you two? Really?"

Xander rolled his eyes. "I wasn't gonna *do* anything to him."

"I was more worried about the furniture. And the lamps. And the books..."

Tara followed Giles into the kitchen. Not that she was checking up on him or anything, she was just... checking up on him. She found him standing precariously on the kitchen counter, trying to reach up to the top shelf. She stood behind him, watching for a moment.

"Bloody hell." Giles lowered his hand and began looking around.

"Need some help?" Tara asked. "Because you look a little... short, to reach the bag of tea you keep stashed on the top shelf."

"I was not--" Giles began. "Would you be so kind as to get it down for me?"

Tara looked at him, looked at the tea, then looked at him again. She reached up and got the tea down, but held it in her hands. Looked at Giles.

Who sighed. "Fine. I'm too small to fix my own bloody tea. I'll come home with you. But I am *not* wearing footie pajamas and I am *not* going to bed at seven."

"Agreed. We don't have any footie pajamas, anyway." She waited until he had preceded her out of the kitchen before leaning down and whispering "Seven-thirty."

"I heard that!" Giles turned around and gave her the sternest glare a four-year-old could possibly give. "I am *not* a child, no matter how much I may look like one, and I am perfectly capable of staying up until midnight if I wish."

She raised a hand. "You know best. As always."

He glared again. "I'm also old enough to recognize when people are quoting Mary Poppins at me, thank you." He proceeded into the living room, the most middle-aged preschooler she had ever seen.

Tara just smiled, and Willow and Dawn giggled. Spike, Buffy, and Xander were too busy trying to see who could bounce the highest.

~~~~~

"They're *adorable*," Willow whispered as softly as she could.

"You said that already," Tara whispered back. But she was smiling.

"Five times, actually," Dawn added in a whisper of her own. The three were standing in the living room, staring at four young children fast asleep on the couch.

Willow giggled. "We should have gotten footie pajamas. And a camera."

"We would've had to drug Giles before he'd put them on," Tara said.

"But I have a camera," Dawn added, a glimmer of mischief in her eyes. "It's on the bookshelf over there. Even has film in it."

Willow and Tara looked at each other. "It would be very bad," Willow whispered.

Five minutes later, they were starting their second roll of film.

"Okay, I think we've gotten as many different angles of Spike sucking his thumb as we can," Tara said, finally. "We should really put them to bed. It can't be good for them all to sleep on the couch."

"Hmm." Willow looked at the four, and considered. "There's only three beds. Dawn's, Buffy's, and-- um, Joyce's."

"Buffy can sleep with me," Dawn said. "And you and Tara in mom's room, leaves Buffy's bed for Spike, Xander and Giles. It'll be big enough, won't it?"

Willow shook her head. "You don't know Xander. He's the 'take the entire bed and then some' type. He'll have Spike and Giles kicked out of bed in half an hour."

"But, doesn't he, I mean, he's used to..." Tara stopped, and blushed.

"All right. We'll put them in together, but if Giles wakes up first tomorrow morning, *you* are explaining it to him."

Dawn picked up Buffy, easily, and stood there, just holding the sleeping girl. "You know, she used to carry me around like this."

Willow had lifted Xander into her arms, and was rearranging him as he snuggled sleepily against her shoulder. "It's weird, I know." Weirder that Dawn remembered something that Buffy probably remembered too, and it hadn't really happened. But she didn't say it, and Dawn didn't say it, and Tara had already carried Giles into Buffy's bedroom, so *she* certainly didn't say it. Willow passed her girlfriend on the stairs a moment later, as she came back empty-handed for Spike. "Adorable?"

"Tucked in with the covers pulled up to his chin."

Willow took Xander into the bedroom. "Well, Xander, this is your chance to sleep in Buffy's bed." She laid him down gently in the middle of the bed, under the blankets. He was as sound asleep as she'd ever seen him -- so she leaned over and kissed the top of his head. She moved aside as Tara brought Spike in, who was asleep as well, but tossing a bit in her arms, and muttering. He quieted as soon as he was laid down on the other side of Xander, whom he immediately grabbed and cuddled like a teddy bear.

Willow and Tara stood there for a moment. Then Willow began, "Oh, we need--"

"This?" Dawn asked, holding the camera over Willow's shoulder.

"How much film do we have?"

"We can buy more. It's only seven o'clock."

~~~~~

"Oh, God, what time is it?" Dawn yawned. "I've still gotta get up for school in the morning." They had been sitting on the couch, mostly getting silly about how cute the pseudo-kids looked. They'd been talking a little, too, about what it might be like to have kids of their own, and how if they were anything like Spike and Xander, they might just want to babysit for the rest of their lives, and stick to cats and goldfish.

"It's eleven-fifteen. Yeah, I suppose we should get to bed. Especially if we're gonna be up at the hour that *those* bodies are probably gonna wake up." Willow stood and stretched.

"You think they're really wake up early? Even Xander?" Tara asked.

Willow paused in her stretch, and faced her girlfriend. "Tara, when Xander was four, he would show up at my window at five o'clock in the morning."

"Oh." Tara looked upstairs. "Maybe we should have gone to bed earlier."

"Hey, I still have some film. Should we go check on them?" Dawn asked, with a mischievous smile.

"I think we should." Willow nodded, and led the other two towards the stairs. "For their own... safety."

The sight that greeted them was enough to make Willow overjoyed that she'd just *happened* to bring the camera upstairs with her. Buffy was asleep against the wall in Dawn's bed. There were three little figures in the bed acros the hall. Xander in the middle, flat on his back, taking up as much of the space as possible. Spike curled up next to him, still hugging him like a giant-size Winnie-the-Pooh. Pretty much the sight they'd seen the last time they left the room, except that on the other side, the half-pint Giles was doing exactly the same thing.

"We're gonna need more film," Dawn whispered. Willow just kept taking photos.

~~~~~

Rupert woke up last -- as usual. He hated it; he'd much rather be the first one awake so he could extricate himself with some semblance of dignity. It would have helped had he *known* why he snuggled up in his sleep. But he didn't. He had no idea. He didn't even *like* Xander that way.

He tried to tell himself he was offering support to the young man... er... other four-year-old. But that didn't account for Spike, on Xander's other side. Xander didn't need any more support than an octopus-limbed vampire. Who was currently grinning at Rupert, over a grinning Xander's shoulder.

"All right, get on with it." Rupert sighed. Three mornings in a row, now, he'd had to deal with...

"Get on with what?" Spike smarmed. "*I* wasn't gonna say anything. Were *you* gonna say anything, Xan?" Silent back-and-forth shake of a grinning face. "Nah, didn't think so. I mean, you want to share the fun, Rupes, be my guest. Not like Anya would care, long as we got pics. Hell, we had a bigger bed, I bet she would've invit--"

"Yes, all right, very funny, that's enough." Rupert carefully pulled his left arm out from under Xander, who gave him a pouting face that he would probably have found irresistible if he were his own age, looking at a real four-year-old. As it was, he had the bizarre urge to smack Xander on the head with a pillow.

Not that it was an uncontrollable urge. It was just there, somewhere beneath the surface.

"Not leaving already, are you?" Spike said, in an almost perfectly-guileless tone. "Because we can still--"

Rupert had been scooting towards the edge of the bed. He stopped, and turned to face Spike. "Stop. Stop it right there. Spike, you are four years old and you are not having sex. And if you are, you are not doing it with me in the same bed, the same room, or even the same bloody house."

Spike and Xander blinked at him. Then Xander asked Spike, "You were right! He didn't hear us."

"Excuse me?" Rupert stared at them.

"A few months ago, we--"

"No, I didn't ask, I don't want to know I am NOT LISTENING!" He pushed himself off the bed and ran for the door.

He could still hear the giggling behind him as he made his way cautiously down the stairs. Ever since the first time he had tried to take them at his usual speed and almost tumbled from the landing to the living room, he'd been quite careful about climbing down, while still trying to look as if he *wasn't* being consciously careful.

And if he took his time concentrating on the stairs, he didn't have to think about where or when Spike and Xander might have done whatever it was that he didn't want to know and hadn't been listening to. When he got to the foot of the stairway, he looked up, finally, to find Willow sitting on the couch. "Hey! Morning, Giles. You want breakfast?"

"Thank you, Willow, I can manage." He headed towards the kitchen, though he should have known better. They hadn't let him try to make his own meals since the first morning after, when he'd dropped the milk. He had grabbed it with one hand, and been shocked to find it so *heavy*. Buffy had demonstrated proper 'strength of a four-year-old two-handed carry'... before lifting a twenty pound bag of potatoes with one hand to get it out of the way of the spilled milk.

"Oh, I don't mind," Willow was saying as she passed him. "You want cereal? Because I can make toast and eggs, too."

Rupert sighed, and made his way to the barstool at the kitchen counter. "Cereal will be fine." He pulled the stool out, and started to climb -- and Willow picked him up and plopped him on the chair.

"Oops." She smiled guiltily at his expression. "Sorry, I just saw you, and thought, well I didn't think, I just... well, you're short now, and I, um... cereal, you said?"

He nodded.

"Huh. Fruity pebbles, Captain Crunch, or Cocoa Puffs?"

"Do we have nothing that neither snaps, crackles, pops, nor comes with a secret decoder ring?"

Willow shook her head. "You finished off the Cinnamon Life yesterday, and that's the only thing Buffy and Dawn have in the house that comes remotely close to grown-up cereal. Unless you want instant oatmeal?"

"Yes, that would be fine."

"Milk?" she asked. Rupert rolled his eyes.

"I may *look* four, but I assure you, I will do fine with coffee. Or tea."

Willow gave him a measuring look. "I don't think I want to see a four-year-old Giles jacked up on caffeine."

Rupert gave her a measuring look right back. "And I don't particularly care to see a grown witch turned into a frog. But I will, if I must."

"Giles, for shame. Resorting to threats? Why don't you just ask her to make some tea?" Tara came into the kitchen, and went over to the stove and picked up the kettle. Willow was giving her girlfriend a dirty glare, for picking Rupert's side.

He, of course, knew that it was decaffeinated herbal tea -- and Tara knew that he knew, but she was playing along. Or perhaps he was playing along.

"I *know* he's a grown-up, but he still has a four-year-old body, you know," Willow said, a bit reprovingly.

Tara smiled. "And it's not *really* gonna stunt his growth over the next two weeks if we let him have a few grown-up pleasures. Relax, sweetheart. Sit down and eat your own breakfast -- you have a class to get to in an hour."

"Are you sure? I can skip," she looked worriedly over at Rupert, doing a terrible job of pretending she wasn't looking at him and thinking about leaving Tara and Dawn home alone with four kids.

"Yes, because without you here, we might destroy the house. Like we've done every day since actually *being* four. Willow, go to class." Giles accepted a mug of steeping tea from Tara. "Thank you."

Willow glanced at Tara, question on her face. Tara opened her mouth -- but what they all heard was, "BANZAI!"

~~~~~

"I guess they found the cardboard," Tara observed as they reluctantly left Giles in the kitchen to fend for himself while they investigated the newest emergency.

"I thought we threw it out!" Willow headed for the stairs, Tara on her heels. There they found Xander and a large piece of cardboard in a pile at the foot of the stairs.

"Um..." He looked up innocently at them. "Ow?"

Willow looked up the stairs, and sure enough-- "William the Bloody, don't you *dare* toboggan down those stairs again!"

Spike shrugged-- then quickly jumped feet-first onto the piece of cardboard he'd just dropped onto the floor. "Gangway, then!"

She grabbed him halfway down the stairs, just as he was about to be launched headfirst past the last four steps and probably get airborne in time to smash his head against the lower landing wall. "What?" he grumbled as she carried him down the remaining steps under one arm. "You didn't say anything about snowboarding!"

"I swear, you're acting more like a four-year-old than normal. Which for you -- you *two*, Xander Harris, get back here when I'm scolding you! -- is saying a lot!"

Xander froze, then snuck back to stand beside Willow. As soon as she set Spike down to scold him further, Xander grabbed him by the neck. "You can't yell at us! We're adults and can do as we like. Even if it means breaking Spike's neck."

"Oi! Speak for yourself," Spike wriggled. Xander didn't let go -- which meant Spike wasn't wriggling very hard. Willow glared at them both, regardless.

Xander gave her a slightly more reasonable look. "Come on, Will, it's not like there's anything Spike can do to really hurt himself. Aside from playing with fire. Or holy water. Or pointy sticks. Or... um..."

"Sunlight," Buffy supplied from the top of the stairs.

"Right, and what's your excuse, Xan? You're little, your bones are little, you could go smoosh-crunch just like... Buffy, for God's sake!" Willow planted herself in the middle of the bottom step, waiting to catch a certain little girl with long brownish hair who was even now slide-thumping her way down, butt plastered against a third piece of cardboard.

"Ow!" Xander screamed behind Willow, and she turned, taking a step towards him reflexively. She found him grinning at her and calling out, "Who-hoo! Go, Buffster!"

Willow turned around again to find Buffy at the bottom of the stairs, lying on her side with the cardboard still firmly clasped in her hands. "I'm going to class. Then I'm going to the library. *Then* I'm going... somewhere. For mochas. I'm not coming home until you four are *in* *bed*."

"All in the *same* bed?" Spike grinned cheekily. "Cos... er... not that it's ever been a fantasy of mine or anything..."

"Eew!" Buffy whapped him with her cardboard. "Leave me out of your icky sex fantasies, please. Or at least don't tell me I'm in them." She whapped Xander over the head, too.

"Hey, what was that for?"

"It's fun?"

Whap. Anti-whap. Et cetera. Willow stalked out of the living room, letting the cardboard fight progress as it would. There wasn't much in that half of the room that they could damage, anyway.

She could hear the giggling, and ignored it as she went into the kitchen, gave Tara a kiss, collected her school bag, gave Tara a kiss, glared at Giles because he was there, and gave Tara a kiss before leaving out the back door.

~~~~~

Giles and Tara looked towards the sounds emanating from the living room. "You know what's remarkable," Giles remarked after a moment, sounding much older than his appearance for once. "They actually get along better *now* than before."

"Why don't you go..." Tara began, nodding towards the lively noises.

Giles managed to look put off. "I think not, Tara," he said gently. He couldn't seem to resist glancing in that direction again, however, before turning around and resuming eating his oatmeal.

"Okay. It's *your* second childhood," she teased.

"I am *not* senile," he said calmly, without looking up from his bowl. "I'm merely under a spell."

She wisely refrained from pushing the subject, going instead to make sure the war of the cardboard hadn't spread to the more dangerous bric-a-brac zones. "I don't suppose you guys want to do something nice and quiet?" she asked the three ruffled, red-faced individuals in the living room. "Like, say, clean the basement?"

"You want to trust them alone in the basement? With power tools?" Buffy pointed out. Xander and Spike giggled.

"Well, then, you could go... no, you can't go outside, can you." She thought for a moment. "I suppose you could help me practice a spell."

Xander and Spike leapt into the air. "Yes! We wanna help! We wanna help! "

"Er, without Willow?" Xander added.

Tara narrowed her eyes, then smiled as innocently as she could manage. "I'm trying to learn how to turn people into frogs, like Mr. Giles can do."

Spike gave Xander a look. " I get the feeling Goldilocks thinks we're major suckers, or something."

Xander pointed to Spike. "I volunteer him for the first casting!"

Buffy shook her head. "That won't work. He's not people."

Spike stuck his tongue out at her, and vamped out at the same time, so he was waggling it between pointed teeth. Xander giggled. Then giggled some more.

Tara smiled, then placed her hand in front of her mouth. Buffy walked up to Spike and said "Aw! Innit he cute!" She patted Spike on the head.

Spike growled, and glared at each of them, which only made them smile and giggle more. "Oh, for cripey's sake," Spike muttered, and stomped into the kitchen.

The small harrumph of laughter from Giles probably didn't improve his mood.

"I'm hungry..." came the growl, in a four-year-old Cockney accent. "I want blood..."

"He sounds like those kindergartners from Halloween," Buffy giggled.

Xander looked at her a little nervously. "The ones from *this* Halloween? Or Halloween of our Junior year?"

She shrugged. "Either/or. Pint-Sized Demons 'R Us. C'mon. I wanna see him try to drink blood from a sippy cup again."

Xander gave her a mild glare as he let her drag him along to the kitchen, Tara following. They walked in and found Giles watching with amusement as Spike climbed up the chair that he'd dragged over to the cabinets where the mugs were kept. Buffy giggled. "You shouldn't tease Spike, you know," Xander told her.

Buffy gave him an incredulous look. "Are you kidding?"

Xander shrugged, and went over to hold the chair as Spike continued on his quest for a mug. "Found it! She hid the Gossamer one in the back!" Spike pulled a large orange mug out of the cabinet.

It wasn't *really* a sippy cup. But it *was* pretty much impossible to spill from. Spike yanked the refrigerator door open, and grabbed a bag of blood from one of the lower shelves. Then glared at all and sundry. "Anybody gonna try to tell me I'm not allowed to play with *these* sharp objects?" he asked, snapping his teeth shut on the edge of the bag and ripping the corner off.

"No," Tara replied, "but if you spill it on the floor again, I'm gonna make you clean it up. Pour it over the sink."

"Can't *reach* the bloody sink," Spike grumbled.

"Then give it to somebody who can." She pulled the bag carefully from his grasp, poured it into the mug -- over the unbloody sink -- then put the mug in the microwave. Spike glared at her, then, his attention arrested by the Fruity Pebbles on the table, slithered into a chair next to Giles.

"And gimmie a spoon, too," he demanded.

Tara stopped in mid-step, and folded her arms. For a moment she felt like Willow. "You can reach the silverware drawer, Spike."

But Xander had gone over and gotten two spoons out, as well as a bowl for himself, out of the dish washer. He carried them over to the counter, set them next to Spike, then returned to the fridge for the milk. Tara started to help him with the gallon jug, but he had it firmly in both hands. By the time the microwave beeped, he'd got himself up on the stool between Spike and Buffy and was making his bowl of cereal.

Tara brought the mug of warmed blood over, and Spike promptly poured Fruity Pebbles into it.

"Oh, that's disgusting," Giles said.

"Says a man who spreads yeast extract on toast," Spike shot back. "At least mine has entertaining colors."

"Yes, I've always based my nutritional choices on how attractive the meal would look splattered against a wall," Giles agreed dryly. Well, he was obviously trying for dry, but there was a bit of a pouting sound to it, as if the four-year-old larynx just wasn't made to *do* dry.

"Well, the blood's the nutritional part, for him," Xander pointed out, crunching happily into his own cereal-and-milk, unperturbed by Spike's meal sitting next to him. Then again, he was used to it. "The cereal's just for..."

"Texture. I remember." Giles shuddered.

Spike opened his mouth to show Giles a mouthful of partially-chewed, brightly colored cereal.

"Appearance," Xander finished.

"Yes, remind me again why I don't eat breakfast with you two more often?"

"Cos' you're sexually repressed, and you won't take Anya up on her offer of a swing-night?" Spike suggested while still crunching.

Giles spit his tea out all the way across the counter. Tara grabbed a towel, and Spike and Xander looked at him like he should have been expecting that. "I think I'm going to go to the shop, and get some work done on the inventory," he said, setting his cup down and sliding off the barstool. "Er, that is, Tara, if you don't mind driving me..."

"Maybe we should all go?" she asked. "I don't think I should leave Buffy, Spike, and Xander here alone."

"Yes, you should!" Spike countered. "We'll be good, we promise."

Spike and Xander gave Tara their best innocent us faces. Buffy looked up from the donut she was blissfully attacking, Spike hissed at her, "Look innocent!"

She looked surprised for a second, then turned an equally 'innocent me' face towards Tara.

Tara blanched. "I'm afraid. I have fear. I am a frightened person. And you are all coming along. Or we're all staying here."

"Why d'you want us along, if we scare you," Spike asked reasonably. Pseudo-reasonably.

"*You* don't scare me. The thought of what you could do unsupervised scares me."

"Oh, come on. We're not *really* kids. And this *is* my house -- it's not like I'm gonna let 'em demolish it," Buffy protested.

"Who got the cardboard out of the basement?" Tara asked.

Buffy bit her bottom lip before answering, "Spike?"

"I did not!" Spike retorted immediately. "I was trying to sit and read and be good, and *you* came running up all 'hey, let's play on the stairs like I haven't done since I was five the first time'."

"Yeah, but this time I--" Buffy stopped. Bit her lip again, and Tara instinctively took a step towards her. Buffy half-smiled. "Mom used to get mad at me for doing it."

There was a silence that no one seemed to know how or whether to break. Then Xander said, "I used to get yelled at, too. I didn't use cardboard, though. I had a dinner tray that my dad had broken."

Spike looked up from his crunching. "You slid down the *basement* stairs? Onto *concrete* ?"

Xander shrugged defensively. "I put the couch cushions at the bottom."

"I'm not surprised you got yelled at," Tara said. "You could've broken your skull."

"S'pect that lot were more worried about the concrete," Spike mumbled into his cereal.

Xander grinned. "I *do* have a pretty hard head."

"Not what I meant," Spike said even more quietly. When he'd actually swallowed his food, he perked up. "Fine. So we go to the magic shop. Not as if we can't have just as much fun there..."

"That is *not* why we're going. We're going so Mr. Giles can do inventory. We're not going to have fun." Tara paused, and looked at Giles. "I mean... if you *like* doing inventory..."

"That's all right, Tara. I don't. But I appreciate the thought." Giles began looking around the kitchen.

"Um, can we help?" Tara asked after a moment when he didn't find whatever he was looking for.

"Lose something?" Buffy asked, unhelpfully.

"If it's your mind, I'm sure we have an extra one. Buffy isn't using hers." Spike took another bite of his cereal, in time to get walloped by the tiny Slayer. "Hey! You make me choke on my cereal, and I'll... um... choke. Really hard."

"Which, since you don't breathe, would pretty much just be for the purpose of entertaining us?" Buffy pointed out. "Get a life. So to speak. What are you looking for, Giles?"

"My... er..." he trailed off, continuing to look -- under the table, in the below-counter cupboards...

Spike continued to look completely innocent.

"Giles?"

At last he stood up, to his full three and a half feet. "My shoes?"

"Your shoes?" Buffy repeated. Then she turned to Spike and Xander. "Xander. Where are Giles' shoes?"

Xander blinked. "Why aren't you asking the evil undead guy? He does things like steal shoes, break VCR remotes, and leave empty cans of beer in the fridge."

"Because I'm asking you. Where are they?"

Buffy glared. Giles glared at Xander, as well. Xander tried pouting, but it really didn't work as well on fellow four-year-olds. "Fine. They're in the bedroom under the bed."

"Thank you," Giles said with a tone of long-suffering. "Er, which bedroom?"

"Ours," he said, and smiled when Giles blushed faintly and left the kitchen.

Tara shook her finger at Xander. "You really shouldn't tease him like that. You used to blush just as hard."

"Yeah, but that was before the bookends of bluntness double-teamed me. With both Spike and Anya around, I either had to get over it or resign myself to losing all feeling in any other parts of my body besides my face," Xander replied cheerfully.

Tara frowned, slightly, about to ask exactly what he meant. Then *she* felt herself blushing, and turned away. "Um, does, um anyone still need breakfast?"

Xander raised his hand. He waited patiently until Tara looked at him. "I am in need of coffee."

Tara was confused. "I didn't know you drank coffee. Um, I thought... you drank sodas?"

Xander looked innocent as he said, "I meant for Giles."

"Oh. Well, okay, I guess. He'll drink instant, won't he?" She reached for the jar on the counter. "Otherwise we'll never get out of here."

"Oh, yeah. This early in the morning, he'll drink dishwater." Xander looked guiltily towards the ceiling. "Not that I've ever substituted that for anybody's Earl Grey in the middle of a research all-nighter."

Tara paused. "Xander? Why do you want me to give you Giles' coffee?"

Xander looked up at her with all the elfin angelic innocence a four-year-old Xander could muster. Fortunately for Tara, she'd been exposed to Willow for long enough to be partially immune. She looked sternly at him. "Xander? I don't think you have Giles' best interests in mind."

"How can you *say* that?" Spike objected around a mouthful of cereal. "Here the lad is all eager to show how much he cares for-- oh, nevermind."

Giles came into the kitchen with his shoes. "Giles, did you by any chance want some coffee?" Tara asked, one eyebrow lifted.

He stopped in the act of pulling his left shoe tight with its Velcro fastening, and looked up at her. "Er... coffee?"

"Xander thought you might like some. He was even going to take it to you himself."

Giles looked at Xander. "Really. Isn't that thoughtful of you. Almost makes me sorry I ever told your English teachers about the papers you copied from someone else's homework."

Xander stood there for a moment, gaping. Spike smirked, though it wasn't clear whose bit of evil he was proud of. Then Xander started yelling. "I never cheated! More than once! And besides how did you know and you *told* on me?!?"

Giles simply looked smug, and asked Tara, "Are we almost ready to go?"

Xander leaned over to Spike. "Are you sure you didn't turn him? I remember you saying you wanted to suck on his--"

"Xander!" Tara said quickly.

"Well, that too," Spike agreed.

She threw up her hands. "Yes, we're ready to go. Oh, please, let us be ready to go."

"I'm ready!" Buffy called out, loudly.

"I'm ready!" called Xander, equally loudly.

Spike looked at his bowl of cereal, then looked at Xander's. He picked up each bowl one at a time, and slurped as fast as he could. "OK, I'm ready," he said, still munching cereal.

Tara sighed. "Thank goodness. All right, everyone's, let's go." She began herding them towards the door.

"I have to go to the bathroom," Xander announced.

~~~~~

"Let me down! Mrrmpph rhmph frryum!" Tara rolled her eyes and set the struggling contents of the blanket down on the countertop at the Magic Box. It changed shape several times until a pouty-faced Spike finally appeared from within its folds, hair sticking out in every direction.

"Did Spikey not like his blankey-ride?" Buffy asked, quietly pulling on his dangling shoestring.

He kicked out at her lightly, then grasped his head. "Ow!" It didn't improve his hairstyle.

"I want a blankey-ride!" Xander pouted, and grabbed the blanket Spike was still sitting on. He pulled, and tugged, and Spike began sliding towards the edge of the counter.

"Watch it!" Spike snapped, and tried to scoot backwards. Xander pulled again, and Buffy giggled and gave Spike's shoestring a yank, as well. Spike came crashing down off the counter, onto Buffy and Xander.

Tara sighed.

"I will be in my office," Giles said calmly, pretending not to notice the wrestling match that had broken out on the shop's floor.

"Are you guys about finished?" she asked a few minutes later, as the game of Twister-without-a-board slowly ground to a halt. It had taken them half an hour just to get out of the house, because a similar not-really-fight had broken out over who got to wrap Spike up in the blanket in the first place.

Xander because he was used to it, or Buffy because she could pretend to be smothering him.

"Er..." Spike pulled an arm out of the pile of limbs, and luckily for all concerned, it was attached to him. "Yeah. S'pose so. Was getting boring, really. No fun feeling the Slayer up when you don't get any enjoyment out of it."

"Ew!" From Buffy, of course.

Then a whap from Xander. "I"m gonna tell Anya--" Spike gave him a bewildered, 'what will that do?' look. Xander continued, "That you did it when she wasn't here to see." Then Xander was scrambling out of Spike's way, and another wrestling game began, interspersed this time with bouts of 'tag' and target practice.

Tara went to Giles' office. He was sitting at his desk, kneeling in his chair and bent over a large book. He looked up as she entered, and his face for a moment bore the same studious expression the elder Giles always had. "Yes, Tara?"

"Are you *sure* it'll be two whole weeks?"

There was a shriek and laughter, then "Look out!" from Buffy. A moment later there was a crash.

Neither Tara nor Giles moved.

A moment after that, Spike yelled, "I didn't do it!"

"If it's any consolation," Giles said kindly, "it'll *seem* like much longer than two weeks."

She stared at him for a while, then burst into laughter. "Oh... ha... oh. Wow. Heh. Okay, am I the *only* one who's noticed that those three are having way too much fun pretending to be kids?"

"No. Trust me, you're not the only one." He looked so terribly serious, kneeling there in his chair. He kept reaching for his face, to push back the glasses he wasn't wearing.

"So how come you're not joining in the fun? Taking advantage of it while you can, and all."

He barely glanced at her. "Because I am not, in fact, four years old."

Tara frowned a little. "But, you could... you know. Have fun. No one will know you aren't really four."

"*I* know I'm not four, Tara. Thank you, really, I appreciate what you're saying. But it isn't necessary."

From the shop, they heard, "Ow! Ow! Ow! Monster!!" from Xander.

From Buffy they heard, "I am *not* a monster!"

"Yes you are, you're a hair-pulling, cookie-stealing monster."

Tara glanced out the door. "Where did they get cookies?"

"I believe they got them from the cookie jar, where such things are usually stored."

"And the fact that the cookie jar is on top of the fridge didn't have anything to do with Xander's sudden need to run back into the kitchen to find his lost sock, with Spike's expert tracking skills."

"They're quite resourceful," Giles paused, and half-grinned, "Children. I sometimes think I would get Buffy to train harder and better if I hid chocolate in the training room."

"There's chocolate in the training room?" Two tiny faces peered around the office door. "Chocolate?" Buffy repeated.

"I heard him say chocolate. You said chocolate." Xander repeated.

"There is no--" Giles began. Then he blinked. "If I told you where it was, it wouldn't be hidden, would it?" Two loud squeals, and the two pint-sized adults ran off -- towards the training room.

"Was that nice?" Tara asked him.

"Am I required to be nice?" Giles asked. "It'll keep them in a relatively safe environment for a while, anyway. There's nothing in there that can be broken by even a full-size Slayer."

Tara stared at him, wondering when the last time he'd actually dealt with *real* children had been.

"Would you like to make a bet on that?"

In the distance, they could hear Spike shouting, "All right, who took the screwdriver?"

"No," Giles answered.

~~~~~

"We *promise* we'll bring some back for you." Buffy looked earnestly at Spike. Which would have been enough to make her sick, if the chance of chocolate weren't looming happily on the horizon.

Spike scowled. "I don't think I trust you."

"Spike, come on. If we could get the blanket, we would. But it's up front, and Tara will see us. You wait here and we will be *right* back."

Spike kept scowling. Xander looked cute -- just a little. Spike growled. "Fine. But I want dark chocolate!"

"Absolutely!" Xander said even as he was grabbing Buffy's hand and dragging her towards the door. There wasn't much dragging, because she was as determined as he was.

Out on the sidewalk, Buffy looked both ways, and pointed. "There. Cafe Borgia has ice cream treats, and cookies, and double choco-fudge mochaccinos."

"I don't think they'll give us mochaccinos, Buff."

"You haven't seen *me* look cute yet."

"Yeah, actually, I have. But I don't think the whole looking cute thing will work when it comes to handing out grown-up beverages to four-year-olds."

"Wanna bet?"

"Nope. Want chocolate. Come on, let's try it."

Buffy looked at him. Xander shook his head. "Nope. Gotta make your eyes go wide. Wider. Wider -- yeah! That'll do it." He grinned, then his expression instantly turned into the most pathetic, starving, kick me I'm nobody can I have a piece of chocolate, Buffy had ever seen.

"Wow, you're good at that. How'd you learn how to do it so good?"

Xander shrugged, but his face looked shadowed. "Come on. Let's go tell 'em we're lost and hungry." He headed towards the Cafe Borgia.

"You know, we could have borrowed money from the Magic Box till," Buffy pointed out as they walked down the sidewalk.

"Where's the fun in that?"

She giggled.

Luckily for them, the door was propped open to let in the spring breeze, because the heavy glass would have been too much for a normal four-year-old to move. Buffy, of course, would have had no trouble, but it wouldn't make them look very hungry or pitiful for her to start showing off her superpowers.

Soon they were standing in front of the counter -- which was too tall for them to see over the top of. It didn't deter them in the slightest. Buffy went up on her tiptoes, trying to peer over the counter. Xander walked around her towards the ice cream, which he could almost see into, if he stood on *his* tiptoes.

They both looked hungry, but just a little bit sad.

"Can I help you?" the cashier leaned forward, giving Buffy a cheerful smile even as she spoke in a over-done condescending tone.

Buffy jutted out her chin, and slowly shook her head.

"Look," Xander said in a tone of awe. "They have chocolate." He carefully did not read the label that said 'Super Chocolate Double Fudge Marshmallow Ripple.'

"Umm... chocolate? Ice cweem?" Buffy moved over next to him, and he gave her a quick look, which let her know that yeah, the lisp was a nice touch, but don't overdo it. She nodded. Check. Got it.

"Uh-huh," Xander said sincerely, pointing.

Buffy looked, and she made her eyes get even bigger if that was possible. "Oh." They both stood there, not quite looking the cashier in the eye. Just staring at the thick brown ice cream with the dark fudgy stripes and the white marshmallowy stripes running through it.

The cashier followed them over to the ice cream part of the counter.

"We have some little cones just your size," she half-teased, half-sales-pitched, "or you could share a big one, if you two can convince your mom that you wouldn't fight over it."

Xander and Buffy looked at each other, then slowly looked back at the cashier. "That's OK," Xander began. "We were just looking."

"Xan," Buffy began in a little girl's tired, make it better for me tone, "I'm hungry."

Xander took her hand. "I know. But Mommy will be back soon. We'll have breakfast then." Buffy gave the ice-cream an extra wide-eyed look of longing, and Xander tugged her hand gently.

"Come on, Mommy told us to wait in the alley for her."

"But I'm hungry!" Buffy said again.

"Your mother told you to wait in the alley?" the cashier asked, frowning slightly.

Xander gave the cashier his best brave little boy look. Buffy whined, very quietly as if only for Xander to hear, "I want ice cream."

"Honey, how long have you been outside in the alley?" the woman asked, concern spreading across her face.

Buffy shrugged. Xander looked up earnestly and said "Dunno. A little while."

Buffy shook her head. "A long, long, time. I didn't eat in forever."

A little tap on her shoulder where the cashier couldn't see -- don't ham it up too much, Buff. Check, got that too.

"I think you two should sit down for a minute," the cashier said, coming around the counter. "There's some nice kid-sized seats right here." She pointed to a mini-table with matching sweetheart-type soda fountain chairs. Xander shook his head.

"No, thank you. We should really go back and wait."

Buffy pulled on his hand, and said to him in a stage-whisper, "But I want ice cream!"

"We don't have any money," Xander told her, patiently. "Mommy will buy us some when she gets back this time. I bet she will."

He took a step towards the door, and Buffy gave the ice cream counter a devastating look of disappointment.

The cashier crouched down beside them, putting her arms around them, and giving them a blatantly forced smile. "How about if I give you two an ice cream cone each, while you wait?"

Buffy squealed, "Yea! I want chocolate!" Xander, however, looked doubtful. Buffy turned on him. "Please? Please, I want some ice cream!"

"It's all right, dear, your mommy will be able to find you here," the cashier said.

Xander gave a slow nod, and put his arm around Buffy, pulling her toward the table. 'Nice touch' she mouthed.

Soon they were each gleefully licking at their own adult-size ice cream cone. Buffy had a chocolate smear on her nose, and Xander was doing his best to lick all the way around his ice-cream before one side or the other dripped down the cone.

"So... how exactly are we supposed to get chocolate for Spike?" Buffy asked under her breath. "Tell her we left our baby brother sitting out in the alley, and could we please have some for him too?" If only getting rid of Spike were as easy as abandoning him in an alley...

"I'm still working on it," Xander said, equally quietly. "Maybe just say we have to go back and wait, and maybe can we have a candy bar to take with us?"

Buffy frowned. "I don't think he'll be satisfied with just a candy bar."

Xander glanced at his ice cream cone. "I suppose I could *share*--"

"Buffy! Xander! What are you two doing?" They'd never heard Tara shout, before. Hadn't known she had it in her. Nor did they known she had it in her to look quite so furious.

"Eep?" Buffy replied.

"Nuthin' ?" Xander tried valiantly. Possibly the chocolate smeared all over his own face made that statement seem a little farfetched, but Buffy had to give him points for effort.

"You couldn't wait an *hour* ? I was gonna bring you guys over here anyway."

The cashier came out from behind the counter again, looking at Tara like she was something extra-icky that you would have to get a newspaper just to scrape off the bottom of your shoe.

"Excuse me," she said very icily. "Are you their mother?"

Tara blinked. "Their what? No, I'm babysitting." She glanced at Xander and Buffy, and her expression changed into one they'd seen a lot in the last four days. "What did they do?"

The cashier seemed a bit off-balance, as she said, "They said... their mother left them in the alley. They hadn't had any breakfast and they--"

"Wanted ice cream?" Tara finished, nodding. "I'm so sorry. Let me pay you for those cones." She gave Xander and Buffy another sharp look as she pulled out her wallet.

Xander started easing out of his chair.

"You mean... they aren't...?" The cashier seemed confused, now, though she accepted the money Tara was handing her. Buffy began to eat her ice cream as fast as she could.

Xander had made it out of his chair, and began ever so slowly easing towards the door.

"Don't even think about it, Alexander." Tara said it without even looking back at him.

"I fear her," Xander whispered to Buffy, who was too busy licking her ice cream to do more than nod.

Suddenly Tara was standing in front of them. "Hands, please. Not the ones with the ice cream cones."

They glanced at each other. At least they hadn't lost the cones. Yet. Each of them held out a hand, and Tara began to lead them out of the shop.

"How'd you find us, anyway?" Xander asked. Good idea. They needed to know where they'd gone wrong, for next time.

"Spike. He got bored and told me you weren't really bringing him any ice cream." She stopped, and looked down at them, and their cones. She glanced back at the counter. "I can't get three more cones *and* make sure you two stay out of trouble on the way back to the store."

Xander looked as offended as Buffy felt. "We won't get into trouble!" she protested indignantly. Tara gave her a look. Buffy wilted, a little. "Anymore. This morning."

Tara sighed, and dragged them back towards the counter. "You two are going to have to carry Spike and Giles' ice cream. If you drop one -- they get what's left."

"Eew! I don't want Spike eating my ice cream. I might get reverse Spike-germs!" Buffy wrinkled her nose.

Xander frowned as Tara rolled her eyes and paid for three more cones. "Don't you mean he'd get Buffy germs?"

She sniffed. "I don't have germs. Besides the regular ones. He's the one with vampie-cooties." That last said low enough so that no one else in the store could hear it. Hopefully.

"I always thought he had to bite you. Didn't know you got it from cooties," Xander grinned.

"You should learn more -- do more research," Buffy said with a superior air. Xander stuck his tongue out at her.

"All right," Tara interrupted them. "Each of you take one of these." She handed Xander another chocolate fudge marshmallow ripple cone, and handed Buffy a pistachio cone.

Buffy wrinkled her nose. "Eew. I am *so* not dropping my cone."

"As long as no one trips you," Xander taunted. Buffy gave him a killing glare, to which Xander once again stuck out his tongue.

Tara sighed.

The cashier said, "I can understand why you might have left them in an alley."

Tara glared at Xander and Buffy again. "Yes, and we're going to have a *talk* about that when we get back to the shop." Turning to the woman again, she smiled politely. "Thank you for putting up with them. If you ever need any hensbane or bladderwort... or... um... a tarot reading, feel free to stop into the Magic Box, and I'll fix you up."

"Anya would be so proud," Xander said.

That got him another glare and Buffy whispered, "What do you think she meant by a *talk* ? Like one of those, "Now Buffy, you really shouldn't do things like that without consulting me,' lectures from Giles? Or one of the 'Giles thinks I almost got myself killed and now he's gonna finish the job' ones ?"

Xander gulped silently. "Hoping for number one, betting on number two."

"Maybe she means something else entirely," Tara said from behind them. Buffy and Xander looked up, startled, and Xander had to quickly move his hand to avoid dumping Spike's cone on the floor.

Cowed, and trying to figure out what she *did* mean, Xander and Buffy headed out towards the Magic Box. Every time either glanced back, Tara was right there, enjoying her ice cream and giving them a 'wait til I get you back to the shop' look.

When Tara opened the door for them, Xander preceded Buffy inside -- and was instantly beset by a tiny, excited vampire. "Chocolate! Mine!"

"No, I think the pistachio is yours, Spike," Buffy teased. Which earned her a fang-faced glare, then a chocolate-covered tongue stuck out in her direction, since Spike had already snatched the cone out of Xander's hand.

"The pistachio is mine, actually," Giles said from his spot perched on top of one of the counters. "And don't you *dare* drop it."

Buffy mimicked him as she walked over. "Don't you *dare drop it... Bossy, bossy, bossy."

"I *am* your Watcher. It's my job to boss you around."

Buffy stopped, halfway across to the counter. Held up the ice cream. "Say that again?"

Giles jumped down and started towards her. Buffy waved her hand a bit, making the ice cream sway.

"Remember what I said about sharing?" Tara reminded her.

"But he doesn't like chocolate fudge marshmallow ripple," Buffy replied.

Giles got closer, and Buffy took a step back. Tara walked up behind Buffy. When Buffy grinned up at her, unrepentant, Tara said sadly, "I can't believe you'd be so mean to him."

Buffy huffed once, rolled her eyes, didn't *quite* stamp her foot, and handed the cone over to Giles. Who took a lick, and a look of indescribable joy came over his face for a few seconds. Then he looked at Buffy, grinned smugly, and said, "Told you."

Buffy narrowed her eyes and pressed her lips together. For about half a second, then she opened her mouth. "You did *not* boss me around. Tara just appealed to my better nature."

"You haven't got one," Spike said with a mouthful of ice cream.

Buffy was about ready to hurl something at the vampire -- when she realized the only thing she had handy to throw was her ice cream cone. She gave Spike a dirty look, and went back to eating her ice cream.

Tara looked at them all, then shook her head. "If I had known having your hands full of ice cream would make you behave, I would have bought some yesterday."

"That was Spike's fault!" Buffy shouted.

"Was not!" Spike countered.

Buffy paused for a lick of her cone. Then, "Was!"

Spike swallowed a mouthful of his own ice cream, then said, "Was not!"

Neither of them made any move to strike the other, as they normally would have done. Tara smiled.

"Now. About sneaking out of the shop by yourselves, without telling anybody where you were going..." she began.

"We did too," Xander protested. "We told Spike!"

"Xander, you're not helping," Buffy said.

"Hey, I'm somebody!" Spike piped up.

Xander shot him a glance full of sunshine -- vampire-burning sunshine. "Yeah, somebody who was supposed to keep his big fangy mouth shut."

"If Spike hadn't told me where you were, I'd have been looking up and down the street for you, convinced you'd been kidnapped, or run over, or dragged away by trolls." She held up one hand to cut off twin protests from the two sneakaways. "Please don't tell me you're adults in kids' bodies again. First of all, you're at about half your usual strength, Buffy. If something big had run up and chomped on Xander, do you think you could have beat it up in time?"

"Yes," Buffy immediately. But she glanced guiltily at Xander. "Of course I would have," she said, but she knew she was trying to convince herself.

"Secondly, if you were being responsible, you would have come and told me you were going. I would even have given you money for the ice cream."

"But our way was so much more fun." Xander grinned, then wiped it from his face when Tara frowned at him.

"Yeah, I was only worried about your welfare," Spike put in. He looked sincere, even as he took another lick of his ice cream. Amazingly, he didn't have any chocolate on his face. Xander grumbled quietly that it was probably another evil, vampiric super power.

"You were worried we weren't going to bring you back any chocolate," Xander corrected him.

"Would you do that to me?" Spike pouted.

"As a matter of fact, no. We were just trying to think of a way to get some for you when we got... um... rescued."

"Oh." Spike went straight from pouting to happy, with no detour to 'guilty' on the way.

"And speaking of welfare," Tara really frowned this time. "Did you not get that that woman was about to call social services on me? Or whoever your imaginary evil mom who left you in the alley was. What if I *hadn't* got there in time, and we'd had to try to explain this to the police, instead of just one cashier?"

Buffy and Xander looked at each other. "Um..."

"If you want us to remember that you're adults in there, you should really try to act like adults. Not four-year-olds." Tara walked away from them, moving to sit at the table near the books. Giles went over to join her, looking smug. Buffy noticed that the green smear of pistachio on his cheek didn't help.

Xander, Buffy, and Spike looked at one another. They kept licking their ice cream, but Buffy found that she wasn't really hungry for it anymore.

"So," Xander said after another moment of silent reflection. "I guess we should behave ourselves?"

Spike and Buffy looked back at him. They all grinned, and mouthed 'nah.'

~~~~~

"I want the one with the Pelican head!" Buffy and Xander were racing for the boingy spring animals, while Spike stood back and laughed.

"Those things don't even *go* anywhere!"

The diminutive vampire was climbing up the 12 foot slide -- the slide, not the steps -- by the time his cohorts had decided that the one with the Pelican head looked kind of evil, and they were going to play on the swings instead.

"Could you explain to me again how this is 'training' ?" Giles asked Willow as they sat on the park bench.

Willow smiled and held her finger up to her lips. "It's really a time honoured technique of child-rearing. Called 'tire them out so they fall asleep when they're supposed to'."

"Ah." Giles nodded, and turned to face the playground, watching as Xander and Buffy started competing to see who could swing higher. Spike was still slipping more than he was climbing, on the slide.

"Um, you know you could go..." Willow began. "Um, if you wanted to."

Giles shook his head, though he didn't break his gaze. "That's all right. I don't need to be tired out before bed."

"Yeah, but, Giles," Willow leaned over, gesturing at the playground equipment. "How often do you get a chance like this? To play on stuff that you're the right size to play on?"

He shook his head. "I don't need to play, either, Willow. I know that Buffy and Xander enjoy it because you're not that far out of childhood yourselves, all of you. And Spike... is Spike. We should be grateful he's merely attacking defenseless playground equipment."

Willow blew bangs out of her face, as if this were an argument they'd had several times -- which it was. "It's not like it'll break your dignity as an apparent four-year-old to be seen playing in a park. In fact, you look a little weird just sitting here watching." She gave him a stern eye. "And no Watcher jokes, please."

"Willow, it's dark -- no one is out here, but us."

"Well, what if someone comes by? They'll think you're being punished, and they'll look cross at me and say how cruel, letting the others play and keeping him over here, what could he possibly have done--' " She broke off as Giles climbed off the bench.

"All right, fine," he muttered. "I shall go... er...." He looked around the playground. "I shall go sit on those bars, is that all right?"

"I think you'd like the tire swing, better," she said brightly.

Giles glared at her, but turned without saying anything. Willow watched as he went over to the monkey bars, and climbed up to sit on one.

"They'll look cross at you?" Dawn repeated with a giggle as she leaned over the bench from behind Willow.

"Giles-speak. Hey, it worked, didn't it?"

"You do realize that you and Tara are *way* too good at this stuff?"

Willow blinked. "Well, in my case, I've babysat for years. *You*, for instance." Dawn gave her a small smile, and Willow ducked her head. "Well, I *remember* babysitting for you. Granted, you weren't four, you were nine. But the principle is still the same. You just required more ice cream."

"I think they're going to require a *lot* more ice cream, if it keeps preventing them from trashing the house while they're eating it."

"I have to keep telling myself it's OK to constantly give them ice cream... until they're sick and pass out. Which also keeps them out of trouble." Willow smiled.

She glanced over at Buffy and Xander, who were still trying to reach orbit on the swings. Spike was sliding down the slide on his stomach, though whether it was intentional or not, she didn't know. When he reached the ground, he jumped up and ran over to the swings and grabbed the one on the other side of Xander.

Giles was still watching, sitting on the bar, swinging his legs.

"Okay, at least I got him off the bench, so he *looks* like he's playing," Willow said.

"Think I should go bug him?" Dawn asked, staring across at Giles as well.

Willow shook her head. "Nah. He'll just go all 'I'm Super Stuffyman in my four-year-old secret identity' on you. Let him do what he wants." She glanced back at Dawn. "Of course, *you* could go play..."

"Race you to the merry-go-round?"

The two girls jumped up, and raced towards the merry-go-round. They reached it at the same time, jumping on and yelling out, "You have to spin it!" They looked at each other and began laughing.

A moment later, Xander was climbing onto the merry-go-round with them. "Who's spinning it? Don't look at me, I'm only four."

"Here, I will - the first time," Willow said, giving Dawn a look. Dawn beamed, and sat in the center. Xander crawled to one of the bars along the edge and grabbed on.

"Let'er rip!" he cried out.

"Xander, if you fall off--"

"I'll regret it in the morning. I know! I know! I'm hanging on."

Willow gave it a good running push, then climbed on. Soon the artificial wind was blowing her hair all over the place, and Xander was shouting "Cowabunga!" Dawn of course, sat in the middle like a Buddha, pretending she wasn't getting completely sick to her stomach.

Spike and Buffy were looking at each other with evil grins. At least from what Willow could tell every time her section of the merry-go-round strobed around to let her see the swingset. It was kind of frightening, how similar they looked, for two people who were supposed to be mortal enemies.

Her eyes narrowed as it clicked in her head exactly what they were planning. "Don't you..." They had jumped off their swings at the highest point of the arc before she even got the word 'dare' out. Tucked, rolled, and come up in a puff of grass and dust right at the foot of the monkey bars. "I suppose I'd be wasting my breath to point out that you could've busted your heads open?"

Spike and Buffy ignored her, no doubt pretending they were too far away to have heard her. She could hear them clearly, of course, as they went up to either side of Giles.

"I bet he's just here because he's afraid of heights," Spike said, climbing onto the lowest bar.

"He isn't," Buffy retorted. "He just probably *can't* climb higher." She climbed up to the second lowest bar.

Spike climbed up after her, neither of them looking down when Giles said, "I most certainly could if I wanted to."

"Whatever," Buffy said, climbing still higher.

"Oh, for... I could. It's not as if I'm a..."

"Great big scaredy cat?" Spike supplied as he passed Buffy and reached for the top rung.

"Vampire with a mouth that's bigger than his ability to back it up..." Giles responded, and started to climb.

"Tweed-for-brains!" Spike called down.

Giles said something they couldn't hear from the merry-go-round, but Spike laughed. Giles climbed up, quickly reaching the top. "Now who's--" He stopped, as Spike and Buffy were already climbing down the other side. "Where are you going?" he yelled after them, and began climbing down.

Spike and Buffy reached the bottom, waiting there until Giles was almost upon them. Then they ran for the tornado slide.

Buffy ran up the steps properly, Giles close behind. Spike, of course, had to do things the backwards way. He was halfway up the corkscrew slide when Buffy yelled 'Look out below!" and she and Giles both came shooting down at him. The three of them landed in a tangle of arms and legs at the foot of the slide.

A sandy-haired, grin-covered head popped up from the mess. "Can we do that again?"

"Yeah, but this time *you* get to be the one that gets slammed into!" Spike replied.

"No, I think it should be Buffy," Giles countered. "Let's see if she's really strong enough to catch us."

Buffy, who had been about to protest, took this as a challenge. "Oh, I am! I'll show you." She went to the bottom of the slide. When Spike and Giles had climbed the stairs, she called up, "Ready?"

Spike made shushing motions to Buffy. "In a moment!" Then Spike and Giles hurled themselves down the slide.

Willow put her head in her hands.

She wasn't precognitive, really. So why did she know with a sort of doomed certainty, what was going to happen? She peeked, and sure enough, as soon as Spike and Giles got past the point where they could remotely slow themselves down, Buffy stepped aside. "Oops!" she said as the two boys hurtled off the slide and rolled into another heap, this time quite a bit further away from the foot of the slide. "Guess you're right -- I'm not strong enough to catch you."

She giggled as Spike and Giles exchanged a glance. "Get her!"

Buffy screamed and ran away, Spike and Giles on her heels. At first.

The diminutive Slayer was still faster than normal mortals, and though Spike was faster than Giles, Buffy soon left them both behind.

Spike kept after her, but Giles came to a stop near the merry-go-round. Xander held out a hand, and Giles climbed on. "Willow, spin us again!" Xander told her.

"Wait, let me get off... uh, I think I should go after Spike and Buffy," Dawn said, looking green and woozy.

"Only if they're heading to the bathroom," Willow said with a not-unkind laugh. "You shouldn't have eaten quite so much ice cream yourself, tonight."

"Bleagh," Dawn replied, climbing unsteadily to her feet and stepping off the merry-go-round.

"Ready?' Willow asked as soon as Dawn was clear. Xander nodded; Giles just rolled his eyes.

Xander elbowed him. "Hang on-- she pushes fast."

Willow grinned, and gave the ride another spin.


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