Small Fry

Part Two

"All right, who wants a burger?" Dawn held up a plate and walked over to the table. Six cries of 'me! me!' drowned out anything else she could have said. She set the plate down beside Willow, and returned to the kitchen. When she came out this time, she asked, "Who wants green veggies?" No one said anything. Dawn grinned. "Good, because I don't have any. Potato salad, though..."

Again, six cries of 'me' drowned her out.

As they passed the food around the table, there was a certain amount of bouncing in chairs. Probably because they all knew there was strawberry shortcake with ice cream and whipped cream for dessert. Willow and Tara weren't above bouncing in seats for strawberry shortcake, either.

"Hey -- Spike's stealing fries from me!" This from Buffy, who gave the vampire on her left a slight push on the shoulder.

"Was not. Like I'd want to eat anything you touched," Spike shot back. Then he popped a ketchup-laden fry into his mouth. Dawn glanced at his plate. Yep. *His* pile of french fries was covered with mustard.

Buffy apparently noticed, as well. She grabbed the ketchup bottle, and squirted some all over Spike's french fries.

"Hey! What was that for?"

She reached over and took one of the now-ketchuped fries, and ate it.

"Children, behave," Willow said in a calm tone.

"Stop kicking my chair."

"I'm not kicking your chair."

"Are too."

"Stop it!"

Willow looked over. "Xander, Giles, am I going to have to make you stand in the corners?" She was smiling, a little. Dawn thought it was probably because Giles had given in and played with the others for a couple hours, that afternoon. Still was, if you considered annoying each other 'play'.

Since it was raining, the park wasn't an option, so they'd all had to stay indoors during the day today, not just Spike. Giles had quietly wandered over and helped Xander build a Lego castle that still stood on the coffee table. Admittedly, a bit trashed, since Spike's horde of vampire G.I. Joes had attacked it soon after it was built.

Of course, the whole kid thing could be taken too far. Like for instance the fact that Giles and Xander *still* hadn't stopped kicking each other's chairs.

"Um, guys?" Dawn tapped Xander on the shoulder. One more kick, then Xander looked up with an inquisitive expression. "Don't you think you should act like grown-ups, now, and eat before your food gets cold?"

"That's what microwaves are for," Xander said, and gave Giles' chair another strong kick that made the chair wobble.

"Stop it!" Giles shouted, and began to kick back. Dawn pulled Giles' chair back out of the way.

"I think this 'acting like a kid' thing can take a rest, don't you?" Dawn leaned down between them. Xander and Giles looked at her, then looked at each other.

"I will if he will," from both of them.

"Excuse me?" She looked back and forth between the two of them. They looked perfectly serious, and perfectly willing to continue irritating each other all night.

"Well, he started it," Giles accused.

"I did not! You kicked my chair when you sat down."

"That was an accident!"

Dawn looked down at the other end of the table. "Willow?"

"Hey, Giles, Xan, cut it out for a while, huh?" Willow said gently.

"He's annoying me!" Xander complained, then stuck his tongue out at Spike when the vampire said 'right on, mate!'

"Guys, come on, this isn't fun anymore." Willow sighed, looking a little tired. Tara glanced her way, then squeezed her hand gently.

"*I'm* having fun," Spike remarked.

Buffy whapped him on the arm. Spike started to whap her back. "Not you as well! Please, guys. You're adults. Act like it." Willow's voice snapped, just a little, at the end.

"I will if she will," Spike said with a smirk. Buffy picked up her fork, loaded with potato salad, and aimed it for Spike.

"Stop it!" Willow yelled, standing up so fast her chair nearly tipped over. Everyone's eyes were on her, as she glared at each of the four-year-olds. "If you want to act like kids, then you'll be treated like kids! The next person who misbehaves is getting sent to bed this instant!"

There was silence around the table as four people who should supposedly know better looked at each other, then back at Willow with big, somewhat startled eyes.

"Er... sorry. Don't know what came over me," Giles said quietly. He really looked like he didn't, too. A bit confused and fuzzy.

"I'm not." From Spike, who grinned. "But I'm not gettin' sent to bed before strawberry shortcake."

Buffy rolled her eyes. "You know, if I'd known all I had to do to make evil vampires be good was give them dessert, I could've retired to Miami Beach by now."

"I'm not good. I'm just temporarily well-behaved," Spike protested.

"You will be *good*," Willow reiterated as she sat back down. "Or no dessert for a *month*."

Dawn refrained from pointing out that they wouldn't be kids for a month, when she saw how well it seemed to have worked: Spike opened his mouth -- then stopped, and shut it. He went back to eating his french fries. He glanced at Buffy's plate, then his own. Then he looked timidly up at Willow. "Do I have to give her back the fries I didn't take but might have rescued from falling off her plate?"

Willow just glared at him.

"Right. Here." Spike dumped a handful of fries on Buffy's plate.

"I knew you took them!" Buffy began. Then she shot a guilty look towards Willow, and went back to her dinner, as well.

The grown-ups all looked at Xander, who had been sitting quietly throughout. Xander just looked back. Not a grin, not a smile, not an eep-face, either. Utterly blank expression.

At least they didn't have to yell at *him,* too. Heaving a sigh of more than just relief -- it was exhausting, taking care of four not-really-four-year-olds -- Dawn turned her attention to her own plate. She had bitten halfway into her burger, and was just starting to come to the conclusion that Willow was a better cook than she had realized, when they all heard the little thud.

Followed by another.

Dawn looked up at Willow, who was scanning up and down the table. Every not-kid seemed to be firmly entrenched in ploughing through his or her dinner.

Willow looked around at each face more intently, before settling on the one who had been the most quietly unimpressed by Willow's earlier outburst. She turned her attention towards him, and waited until he looked up at her.

"Xander? Would you like a bedtime story tonight?"

Xander's innocent blank expression turned into one of excitement -- then almost as quickly into suspicion. "Yes?"

"Then stop kicking Giles' chair."

Xander glanced down, obviously weighing the benefits of chair-kicking and Giles-annoying, with getting a story from Willow. "How long of a story?" he finally asked.

~~~~~

Willow came down the stairs slowly, to join Tara and Dawn on the couch. "Well. That was..."

"Exhausting?" Tara supplied.

"How about freaky?" Dawn leaned her head on her arm and rubbed at her neck with her other hand. "I mean, I know Buffy's always lived to annoy me in her own I'm-older-and-I-know-what's-right way, but this is the first time I've ever felt like *I* was the big sister. For real." She stretched her neck back and forth and grimaced. "Exhausting works too, though."

"Yeah, it was like... they forgot, or something. That they weren't really kids." Willow shook her head in wonder. "Maybe it's because everyone treats them like kids. It's a subconscious reaction to being what everyone expects you to be."

"But when we try treating them like adults, they act like kids. Especially Xander and Spike," Tara said.

"Well, Xander and Spike *always* act like kids. I think it's a guy thing," Willow replied.

"I think it's a Xander and Spike thing," Dawn said.

"Hopefully they'll be themselves in the morning. I don't think I can take this much longer." Willow began rubbing her neck. Tara scooted away on the couch, a little, and turned so she could reach Willow's shoulders. As she began rubbing, Willow moaned. "Oo, I'm keeping you."

"It's only another week," Tara said quietly. "They really aren't that bad. Just... exhausting."

Dawn gave her a grin. "I bet you're gonna end up with four kids of your own, aren't you?"

Tara smiled, shyly. Willow glared at her. "Don't even think it. Not unless the oldest one is old enough to take care of the rest of them!"

"Well, hopefully not quadruplets," Tara agreed. "And no vampires."

"Ye Gods, I hope not. Then we'd have at least one permanent four-year-old."

"So we're back to talking about Spike?" Dawn laughed.

"Well, he *was* the loudest." They all grinned, though at the time -- fifteen minutes ago -- it hadn't been funny. Though they'd been more or less well-behaved throughout and after dinner, once they'd started yawning the threat of no-dessert and early bed didn't hold.

There had been whining, and pouting, and stomping about, before Willow, Tara, and Dawn had simply carried the smaller ones upstairs. Spike had shouted his head off that he was being murdered. Five minutes after Willow had plonked him down on the bed and held him there, his eyes had closed.

"Is there anything *really* morally wrong with putting Nyquil in their milk?" Dawn questioned.

Willow nodded. "I think there's a line between letting them eat themselves sick on sugar because they'll be adults next week, and actually drugging them."

Dawn shrugged. "Never hurts to ask." She glanced at the television. "You think it's safe to turn that thing on, or will it wake 'em up?"

"We can keep the volume down low," Willow said. Dawn nodded and picked up the remote, and started channel surfing.

She'd barely settled on a show, when they all head a footfall on the stairs. When they looked up, they saw Xander standing there, looking hesitant.

"Xander," Willow sighed. "Why are you awake? Never mind," she said without giving him the chance to respond.

Xander took another step towards them, and they could see there was something upsetting him. Willow was off the couch and over at his side before anyone could ask what was wrong. She knelt down in front of him, with him on the last step her head was below his. "Xander? What is it?"

"I'm scared."

Willow raised an eyebrow at him. "Really? Well, I'll have to come back upstairs with you and make sure there's no scary Spike-monsters in your bed or anything." She leaned down, and Xander reached his arms up to be lifted. Over his shoulder, Willow mouthed, "Pity-cuddles..." at the other girls, who smiled. She carried him up the stairs, whispering to him, "We'll just make sure the Big Bad doesn't hog all the bed-space, okay?"

Xander murmured something sleepily, and leaned his head against her shoulder.

She took him back to the bedroom, and tiptoed in so as not to wake the others. Giles was curled up on his side, facing away from the center of the bed where Xander had been. Spike was sprawled out across the entire other half of the bed, seemingly oblivious to everything. When Willow leaned over to put Xander back in the bed, he reached out and pulled Xander towards him and snuggled.

Willow watched as Spike wrapped one arm and one leg around and over Xander, glomming onto him as if to prevent him from escaping, again. Willow grinned and pulled the blankets back into place.

She waited a moment, to make sure Xander was really going back to sleep. Spike opened one eye and looked at her. She grinned, waved, and tiptoed out of the room.

They managed to have a quiet evening. Watching TV while Dawn did her homework, Willow and Tara helped without actually breaking down and giving her the answers. There were no more visits from should-be-in-bed-people, and finally they were all yawning, themselves. Dawn gathered her things and said goodnight, leaving Willow and Tara to put out the lights before heading upstairs as well.

The quiet lasted as they got ready for bed, and crawled under the covers and cuddled. Willow was almost asleep, and knew Tara was already asleep, when she heard someone come into the room.

"Huuh..." Opening her mouth to ask who was there also opened the way for a yawn. She sat up, and peered at the small figure in the doorway. "Xan? Once was fine, but it's not really funny anymore."

"Willow?"

"Yeah, Xander. If you were hoping for a peek at our nighties, I hate to disappoint you, but we're wearing sweats."

He shuffled a bit further into the room, until she could see the look on his face, in the faint light that came in the window from the back porch light. "Xander?"

"I'm scared."

"Xan..."

"Really scared. I don't know why, and I don't like it."

"Xander?" She could see that he wasn't kidding, this time. It occurred to her that he might not have been, earlier. She held out her arms, and Xander hurried forward, climbing onto the bed and into her lap. She held him close, and leaned down to see his face.

He really was scared.

"Did you have a bad dream?" she asked quietly, though she could see that Tara had opened her eyes and was listening.

Xander shook his head. "Don't think so."

"Did Spike kick you in his sleep?"

Again, he shook his head. "I just woke up. And it was dark." He looked up at her, and she felt something clench, in her chest. Right around her heart. It had been so long since she'd seen this face...

There were reasons why Xander had shown up at her window at dawn some days. Reasons why he'd spent the night, as well. The simplest one was that in the Rosenberg home, anybody who wanted a night light could have one. But most of them weren't very simple at all.

She studied his face, and he frowned. "Are you mad? I'll go away if you're mad. I'm sorry."

Willow put a hand on his head, brushing his hair out of his eyes, and closed her own, just for a second. When she opened them, he was still looking at her as if he was afraid he was going to be punished for being scared. Or for coming to tell her about it.

"Oh, no. No, no, Xan, it's okay. " She tried to sound as grown up as possible, while she was wondering where this child had come from who reminded her so much of the Xander she had known back then. She hugged him tightly, rocking ever so slightly back and forth. "I'm not mad. I won't ever be mad. It's ok."

Xander didn't move, for the barest moment. Then he clung to her, digging his fingers into her shirt and burying his face against her chest.

Willow spared a thought that if he *was* faking, he was one dead kid.

But it didn't feel like he was faking it. He seemed really scared. She looked down at him, and asked, "Do you want a night light in your bedroom?" She had no idea where she would find one in the Summers house, but she could always magick up a little fairy light, even make it a soft green color, which she knew Xander would like.

He closed his eyes, and nibbled on his bottom lip. Then opened them again, and shook his head. "Can I... Can I stay here? Please?"

There might have been just a tiny bit of 'Mom left me in the alley, can I have some ice cream' pitifulness in those eyes, but as far as she could tell, most of it was real.

And if there *was* some of that other look in his eyes, maybe it didn't matter. She couldn't imagine Xander ever having tried asking his *own* parents if he could sleep with them. Or if he had... Was it wrong of her not to want to know what had happened, if he had? She glanced over at Tara.

Who blinked once, then smiled, and nodded. Scooted over towards the wall to make room.

"OK, Xander. You can stay here with us." She turned to ease him down onto the bed between her and Tara; Xander was still holding onto her as he laid down. Willow half-expected him to stick his thumb in his mouth -- then she smiled. "I'll be right back."

Willow disentangled herself from Xander, which was difficult when he pouted harder at her. She slipped away, though, and sneaked down the hall to Buffy's room. When she came back, she had Mr. Gordo in her hands.

She found Xander curled on his side, snuggled up against Tara but watching the door for Willow's return. She came over to the bed and held out the stuffed pig. "I don't think Buffy will mind if you borrow Mr. Gordo."

Xander looked at her doubtfully for a moment, even though she'd seen his hand twitch towards the stuffed animal. Then he took it, still frowning slightly as if not sure it was proper for a boy to want to sleep with a stuffed toy, and held it tightly in both arms.

She shot Tara a look over his head, as he settled in between them. The 'we must talk later' look. Although half of what they needed to talk about was probably evident on her face. This was more than just subconscious childlike behavior at the table or over toys, because everyone *expected* them to act like kids. This was something different.

*What* it was, she couldn't be entirely sure of, but hopefully it would keep until morning.

One hand on Xander's shoulder, one tucked beneath his neck, she lowered her head to the pillow.

She wasn't even remotely close to sleep, this time, before another small figure appeared in the doorway. Spike, hair standing out around his head, rubbing his eyes with both hands, and blinking at her. Worried. "Where's Xan? He's gone. I can't find him."

She'd barely lifted her hand to wave him over, when Spike's eyes darted to Xander, and Spike was scrambling up onto the bed and wriggling under the covers next to him. Willow blinked, and stared at him. He wrapped himself around Xander, as he had when she'd taken Xander back to bed earlier, and closed his eyes.

Willow opened her mouth to ask Spike what the heck he was doing. Then she shut it. If Xander really was upset, then she couldn't very well demand that Spike go back to the other room and sleep with Giles. Willow glanced towards the door. Giles wasn't going to sneak in here too, was he?

She had almost decided he wasn't, when she heard the padding of bare feet in the hallway, and a little head poked around the door frame. "Er... did they come in here to bother you? I'm sorry. Come on, you two, come back to bed."

Xander popped his unsleeping head up. "Nuh-uh. Not goin'."

"Oh, come on, Xander--"

Spike looked up at Giles, and calmly stuck his tongue out. "He doesn't wanna go, he doesn't have to."

Willow took a deep breath, refrained from rolling her eyes, and *did* shake her head. "No, Giles, they're not bothering us. It's okay."

Blink of sleep-fuzzed eyes. "Oh. Well. All right, then, I guess." He peered at the two others in the middle of the bed, then turned around to go, carefully squaring his shoulders. Walking slowly back towards Buffy and Dawn's bedroom.

Willow sighed, to herself. "Giles? There's room for one more."

He stopped, but looked over his shoulder. "No, I don't need to. I don't mind having the bed to myself for once."

Willow scooted towards the edge of the bed as much as she could, and saw Tara do the same. They grabbed the SpikeXander amoeba and pulled them towards Willow, making enough space for one more four-year-old.

"Come on, Giles. Plenty of room." Tara patted the bed.

Giles hesitated, though he didn't head towards them, neither did he continue down the hall back to Buffy's room. "I don't really..."

Spike lifted his head slightly and grinned in Giles direction. "Bawck, bawck, bawckawckkk..."

"I beg your pardon..."

"He's calling you a chicken," Xander mumbled sleepily. "Get in bed already. M' tired."

"You don't wanna see him get grumpy," Spike warned.

Willow agreed. Grumpy Xander meant he'd give you the mad-face. Which could shatter mirrors and frighten small furry animals.

Giles shrugged. "I suppose," he said hesitantly, coming all the way into the room. "If you insist." He climbed carefully up onto the bed and lay down between Tara and Xander.

Willow waited until the three additional bedmates were settled, before she lay her head down again. Spike had stolen most of her pillow, and she briefly considered getting into a tug-of-war with him for it. She'd always won those with Xander, but she wasn't sure she could overcome even tiny vampire strength.

Besides, she had to admit, Spike and Xander -- and Giles -- looked too cute to disturb.

As long as Spike didn't kick her.

~~~~~

"I wanna watch Batman Beyond!" Xander had the remote, and was holding it over Giles' head.

Giles couldn't quite jump up and grab it, or he would spill his bowl of Fruity Pebbles, so he settled for whining. "What's wrong with Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood? They have puppets."

"'Cos it's silly. How could that little puppet king be that big human girl's uncle? What, her mum was human and her dad was a puppet?" Spike was ensconced on the other end of the couch with a *giant* bowl of cereal.

"Yeah, I always wanted to know that too," Buffy said. "And anyway, we've seen all those shows. The cartoons are new ones."

In the kitchen, Willow leaned over to Tara. "Now would *not* be the time to tell them about my mother's paper on the Freudian significance of the trolley going though the tunnel to get to the happy fantasy land, I'm thinking."

Dawn looked up from her cereal at the table. "What?"

"Nothing."

"I'm not sure they'd... get it," Tara said, glancing worriedly towards the four children arguing over the remote.

Willow nodded. "It's weird. Something's... definitely not-hunky-dorey about this."

"You mean how they're arguing over a TV show that two weeks ago none of them had ever heard of?" Dawn asked.

Willow looked at her. "I think Spike and Xander probably have watched it before."

Dawn raised an eyebrow. "At 9 o'clock on a Saturday morning?"

"Well, I think it was on in the afternoons... but that's not what's weird. I mean, it is what's weird. But not what's really weird. It's like they've all stopped trying to be grown-ups, anymore."

Dawn nodded. "Yeah. Buffy threw a real hissy-fit when she found out Spike and Giles and Xander got to sleep with you guys last night. I thought she was just kidding, you know, 'cause she started the pouting thing, but she sat on the bed with her arms crossed for twenty minutes, and wouldn't talk to me." She frowned, looking a bit worried. "Do you think that spell is messing with their brains, too? Like, brain damage kind of messing?"

Willow and Tara exchanged glances, confirming that they'd each had the same thought -- and weren't going to give in to it.

"No, I don't think so. Giles said the spell wouldn't do any permanent damage," Willow said.

"You mean, Giles who had already been affected by the spell when he researched it, Giles?" Dawn asked.

Willow just looked at Dawn for a moment. Then she turned to Tara. "I think we should call our other stuffy British former-Watcher good with the languages person."

Tara nodded, but as Willow went over towards the phone, said thoughtfully, "I don't think he's stuffy, anymore."

There were four screams from the living room -- difficult to tell if they were screams of delight or anger, but they were definitely not the "there is real blood and pain here" type of screaming. All three grown-ups ignored them.

Dawn frowned. "Do we need to get somebody else, then? I think stuffiness may be a requirement for the job..."

"I think we'll have to make do with non-stuffy language Watcher guy," Willow said as she dialed. "I don't *know* anybody else."

Soon she was exchanging greetings with Cordelia, and explaining the situation in between fits of hysterical laughter on the other end of the line.

"You mean they're *all* like three feet tall, and wearing Underoos?" Cordelia asked. "Even Giles?"

"No, Giles wouldn't wear the Underoos. Which was a good thing, because they only had two packages left, and Xander and Spike were fighting over who got Batman and who had to be stuck with Spiderman. Is Wesley actually *there*? Because there'll be plenty of time to laugh at them later, you know."

"Oh, sure. Hey, I don't suppose you took pictures?"

Willow found herself suppressing a sigh. "Yes, we have pictures. Lots of pictures. I'll give you copies of everything. Can I talk to Wesley? This is kinda serious."

"What, they aren't going to bed on time? OK, OK, hang on."

Willow had to hold the phone away from her ear as Cordelia yelled. She shook her head, then had to repeat her story once Wesley came on the line. He, at least, asked relevant questions, and listened to her.

He still chuckled.

When she hung up the phone, there were two expectant face looking at her, and four youthful voices still raising a minor ruckus in the next room. "Wesley thinks he's heard of the Urdeku, but he's not all that familiar with it. He wants to come up here and check out the books."

"Couldn't you just scan them and e-mail it to him?" Dawn asked.

Willow smiled mischievously. "I think he also wants to come up here and check out the kids." A bit more seriously, "He's never heard of it causing any lasting damage, and he thinks Giles was probably right, but he wants to see for himself how they're acting, so maybe between us we can figure out what's happening."

Dawn blew a raspberry. "He just wants to take videos of Giles that he can blackmail him with them later."

Willow's eyes went wide. "Videos! We need a video camera. Do we have a video camera?" she asked Tara.

Tara patted her on the arm. "Maybe we should think about getting them turned back into grown-ups, instead."

~~~~~

Willow was the one who opened the door. Cordelia stepped inside, looking around with an eager expression. Behind her, Wesley was carrying a satchel and looking over his shoulder. They both moved aside as a trench-coat-and-blanket wrapped figure sped through the door.

As he dropped his protection from the sunlight, Angel asked, "What's wrong?"

"They didn't tell you?" Willow began to ask, giving Cordelia and Wesley a curious look.

They were interrupted by a young voice screaming "DADDY!!!" and a small white blur flung itself at Angel. The vampire instinctively flung his hands up to ward off whatever might be attacking, then, just as instinctively, reached them out towards the scent of his childe. Who was... um...

"He's a *child* ?" Angel asked as Spike practically swarmed up his body until he was somehow being carried upright in Angel's arms, his head bobbing almost as high as his sire's. "Spike?"

"I am *not* a child." Spike whacked him on the head, and stuck his tongue out through thoroughly vampy teeth. "So there, you big poof-head."

Angel just stared at Spike for a moment, then looked at the others. "He's shrunk?"

"He's so cute!" Cordelia said, hand snaking up to pinch Spike's cheek. Spike growled at her, and she giggled. "I have got to have a picture of this."

She started digging through her purse. Wesley was merely watching, a distinctly amused expression on his face. Then they heard, "Hey!" They looked over in time to see Buffy bouncing off the couch... and towards Angel. Who caught her reflexively, holding her even as he sent the others a confused, bewildered, and totally lost look. "Tell your dodo-head childe that we are *not* watching Pokemon!" she demanded, in that imperious tone only little girls can ever manage.

"We're not watching bloody She-Ra repeats on the Cartoon Network! Ooo, I'm a girlie in a little white toga with a sword and a magic unicorn..." Spike's already high voice went off into falsetto-land, and he put one hand on his

hip and batted his eyelashes. Buffy smacked him on the nose. "Ow! Make her stop! I can't hit her back!"

"Buffy, don't hit Spike," Willow said, not quite suppressing a giggle. "It's not nice."

"I hit him all the time when we're big. What's the difference now?"

"He's not as cute when he's big," Cordelia said. Angel was looking from one grown-up sized person to the next, waiting for answers while trying to keep his childe and his ex-girlfriend far enough away from each other that they didn't get into a hair-pulling fight and accidentally mistake his hair for each other's.

"Am too as cute!" Spike protested.

"Yeah," Xander said from the couch. Where Giles was sitting more or less calmly, and Xander was waving the remote triumphantly.

Cordelia looked over, blinked twice, then turned to Willow, Tara, and Dawn. "I need more film. I need *lots* more film."

"That's ok," Dawn told her. "We have plenty. I went to Sam's and got one of those packs of 24."

Spike and Buffy were still trying to get to each other, so Angel set them down -- finally realizing the only safe thing to do was get out from between them. Spike immediately whapped Buffy, winced and cursed, then turned and ran. She ran after, yelling.

"It's been like that," Tara said with a shrug.

"Since they were regressed?" Wesley asked.

"Since Spike came back to Sunnydale, the last time."

There was a shout, and the adults all looked up the stairs. Dawn sighed. "I'd better go see what they're doing to each other." She turned and headed up, Tara following, to provide moral support and more leverage.

"Somebody want to fill me in? Because that was *not* just..." Angel faced the remaining adults, who pulled him towards the kitchen.

"Not in front of the c-h-i-l-d-r-e-n," Willow whispered.

"Um, they haven't forgotten how to spell, have they?" Cordelia asked, leaning against the table.

Willow blushed. "No. I just get in the habit of treating them like..."

"Kids," Angel finished. "They don't just look like kids, they're acting like kids. Sort of."

Willow nodded. "They don't seem to realize it. They think they're still acting normal -- well, normal for them -- and we're trying not to let them know otherwise until we're sure there's nothing really bad-wrong going on."

"But they're acting like children? More now, than before?" Cordelia asked, in a serious tone for the first time.

"Yeah. That's why we wanted someone else -- someone not four years old -- to translate the stuff on the statue they all touched. To see if we missed anything the first time."

Cordelia started to ask another question, when she stopped, and looked down. She smiled when she saw Xander standing there, looking up at her. His brown eyes were huge and unblinking, and Cordelia crouched down beside him.

"Hey, munchkin." Her tone held none of the laughter and teasing it had, before.

"Can I give you something?" he asked, seriously.

"Sure." Cordelia looked surprised. Her look of surprise increased when Xander leaned forward and planted a kiss on her cheek. It took her a moment before she could say, "Thank you. What was that for?"

"'Cause I like you." Then Xander walked over to Angel, not looking back to see the astounded expression on Cordelia's face.

Angel looked down at him, and the expression on his own face was one that only a few intimates-- which did include most of the people in the room-- had ever had the dubious pleasure of seeing: pure, unadulterated terror. Warring, of course, with attempted nonchalance. "Uh, hi," he said as Xander looked back up at him.

"Hi," came the earnest reply. "How come you're still wearing your coat? Aren't you hot?"

Angel sighed, and took off his coat. "Not really. I don't get hot as fast as humans do."

Xander nodded, as if that answered all the questions in the universe. But the torture couldn't possibly be over, could it? Of course not.

"Yeah, Spike's like that too." His eyes narrowed, like he'd just thought of something. "Spike gets cold at night. Do you get cold at night?"

"Um--"

"But not so much anymore, because we keep him warm. Does someone keep you warm?"

There were suppressed, and not so suppressed giggles throughout the room. Angel didn't try to answer.

"He's nice to sleep with, but he hogs the bed and kicks. Did he hog the bed when you made him? Did you spank him? I spank him and he likes it so he never stops hogging the bed even though I tell him he's a booger-head and sometimes I have to kick him back and did he ever kick you out of bed 'cause he did me once and said it was an accident and what's wrong with your head?"

Angel blinked. He started to touch his face, which was still in human guise, then aborted the movement as if telling himself he was *not* going to check his hair. He couldn't possibly have done anything to his hair.

Xander didn't seem to mind that so far, Angel hadn't replied. But then he asked, "Do you like me?"

"I... uh..." Angel looked helplessly at Cordelia, who put up two hands -- she wasn't touching it with a ten foot pole, and he could just help himself, thank you very much. It was probably revenge for his having vamped out on her most recent date, when he mistook an innocent kiss for a potential brainsucking. He looked back down at Xander, who seemed to have taken his hesitation as a negative sign. His lower lip was protruding slightly, and there was a glossy sheen in his eyes.

"Yeah," Angel said at last, bending down so he could look Xander in the eye. "Sure."

The lower lip stuck out even further. "You're just saying that 'cause you have to be nice to me or Buffy will kick your butt."

"That's not true," Angel said quickly.

"Is so, she'll kick your butt." Xander looked away. "Would you like me if I give Spike back?" There was the barest tremble in Xander's voice.

Angel crouched down, and put his hand on the four-year-old's shoulder. "Xander, I like you. And I'll like you even more if you keep Spike."

"Honest?" Xander peered up at him.

"Honest."

"For sure? Cross your heart and hope to get staked by a giant mold eating rabbit?"

Angel blinked again. "Um, yeah."

"Good, 'cause I'm not givin' him back, anyway. You didn't take good care of him." Xander frowned sternly at him, then smiled again. "You really like me?"

Angel nodded. Xander smiled a big, bright smile, and said, "Can I give you something too?"

Closing his eyes and hoping no one was aiming a camera their way, Angel said, "Sure," and bent his cheek to be kissed.

Xander blew a raspberry in his ear, and squirmed away, giggling hysterically.

Angel stood up, wiped his ear off on the sleeve of his sweater, and looked across at Wesley, who sat in a chair, a large reference book open on his lap. "I was an evil vampire for a hundred and fifty years. I guess I deserved that, right?"

"I'd say that was rather apparent." Wesley smiled, briefly, then returned to the book. Giles turned the TV off, and walked over. He looked over Wesley's arm at the book, leaning forward.

"I know that one." He pointed. "It means 'regale'."

"Er, yes, Rupert. It does." Wesley nodded, and continued reading. Giles leaned closer, tilting his head to try to read the book.

Then he pulled at Wesley's arm. Wesley let him have it, letting go of the book. Giles climbed up onto Wesley's lap and sat down, then pulled the book back onto their laps.

"I know what page to look on, you know," Giles told him. "It's page sixty-three." His voice dropped to a whisper. "It's got naughty pictures of naked nymphs on page eighty-two, though."

Wesley blinked at him for a moment, then smiled tentatively. "Perhaps we should start with page sixty-three, and work our way up?"

Giles nodded, then leaned his head over to whisper very closely in Wesley's ear. Angel wondered if he was about to regret his usually helpful preternatural vampire hearing.

"We can look at page ninety, as well, but don't let Spike and Xander see it. They're too young," Giles whispered earnestly.

"Ah." Wes managed not to react -- other than to give Willow a sharp look when she tried to sneak closer to peek at the pages. "Here we are," he said, turning the pages to sixty-three. He scanned the page, then nodded. "Yes, this is it. I do believe this will take a few minutes." He glanced up at everyone who was standing there, staring. "You needn't stand there and wait."

"We don't mind." Cordelia smiled innocently, then when Wesley looked down, brought her camera out from behind her back again and snapped two more photos.

"I wanna read, too!" Xander said petulantly, tugging on Angel's arm. Angel, who was trying to pretend he didn't notice and that Xander had somehow mistaken him for Willow, looked around for something to comment on that would give him a reasonable excuse to not reply. Xander tugged harder. "Read to me!" When Angel made the mistake of glancing down, he found Xander once again quivering his chin. "You don't like me. You lied!"

"I didn't lie, I just..." Angel reached one hand up to his hair -- just to make sure it was still there. "Fine. What do you want me to read?"

Xander grinned, and ran for the bookcase at the back of the living room -- the bottom shelf, where, Angel remembered from times long past, Dawn's old books were kept. When he came back and crawled up onto Angel's lap, he was grinning like a four-year-old lunatic. "This one!"

Angel examined it, expecting, perhaps, something from the Seusslike end of the literary swimming pool. Instead, he was presented with 'Johnny and the Big Squeaky Banana -- An I Can Read With One Hand Book.' He looked down at Xander.

"Spike put it in there. Been there for two years and nobody's noticed it yet."

"I don't think--"

"Read to me!" Xander pouted.

Angel looked at the book. He looked at Xander. He looked at the book. He looked at Willow.

He blinked as the flash went off.

He looked back at Xander, briefly, before focusing on the book. "I don't think I should read this to you. It looks more like a Anya book."

Xander looked up at him with a small frown. "No, it's Spike's book. Anya likes it too, though. How come you don't wanna read to me?"

"I said I would read to you. I just think you should pick another book." One that didn't have illustrations, preferably.

Or at least not pastel illustrations in the style of Richard Scarry, of Johnny and his... er... banana.

Xander just kept pouting. "But I want *this* book."

"Why don't I read... um..." Angel tried to go over to the shelf and pick out something nice, normal, and unembarrassing. Or at least something he didn't mind Cordelia and Wesley overhearing him read aloud.

Xander grabbed onto his pantsleg. When Angel looked down, he found the young face crumbling. "Read me."

"Xander, I *said* I would--"

The sharp tone was a mistake. Xander's chin began to quiver, even as the shocked surprise spread out over the young boy's features. Angel wasn't terribly taken aback to hear an outraged voice behind him.

"What did you do to my Xander?" Spike came barreling off the stairs, towards Angel. Tiny fists pummeled... his shins. Angel stood there and watched, until Spike stopped hitting him and looked up. "What did you do to him, you bloody overgrown pillock?"

Angel sighed. Not an 'I am responsible for every horror ever brought upon the world and now I must make amends' sigh. Just a 'Why me, Lord,' sigh. He'd come a long way. "Spike, I didn't do anything to him. I offered to read him a story--"

"You didn't offer! I had to make you." Xander crossed his arms.

"All right, he asked, and I reluctantly agreed. I just think it might be better to read a different story."

Spike reached up an open hand for the book, and Angel, trying not to actually say the 'Why me, Lord' thing out loud, handed it to him. Spike looked at the cover; it was hard to tell if he was reading it, or not. He looked back up at Angel. Xander was watching Spike, hopefully. Still milliseconds away from pouting again.

"So, read to us," Spike demanded.

Angel sighed. This was more of a 'why can't I kill my own childe?' sigh. "If you'll pick a different book--" he began in a reasonable tone.

"No! I want this one!" Xander yelled.

Spike frowned at Angel. It was bordering dangerously on a pout.

"I am not reading this book to you," Angel said, sounding very determined.

"You are mean and nasty and you don't care about your own childe's education and moral upbringing, and you don't like my Xander, and I don't like you," Spike said softly. Dangerously, lower lip twitching. "And you have stupid hair," he added.

Unsure which accusation to answer first, or whether to ask Spike if he was seriously upset or just trying to annoy the hell out of his Sire for the sheer pleasure of... well, pleasure, Angel was left completely vulnerable to the renewed assault of Xander's pout. Pow! A chin-quiver to the left. Bam! A blink of big brown eyes to the right. Zowie! A tiny, whispery voice, and a very soft tug on his pantleg. "You *don't* like me?"

Angel looked at Xander, sighed, and looked up at Cordelia who was doing a masterful job of not giggling out loud. "Couldn't you have had a vision to warn me away from this? Why did you bring me, anyway?" Cordelia rolled her eyes, mouthed 'd'uh', and snapped another picture as soon as Angel looked down at a Xander who was very close to tears. "I did not say I didn't like you, I just don't think it's appropriate for me to read this to you. Either of you."

Xander's chin quivered harder. Spike scowled at Angel. Angel braced himself and thought about going outside where it was nice and sunny.

"He doesn't like us," Xander said quietly, to Spike.

"He's mean," Spike replied. "A big ole meanie!" His scowl was marred by an impending pout of his own.

He was *not* a big old meanie. Angelus was a big old meanie. Angel was Shari Lewis, compared to Angelus. And he was getting sorely tempted to point that out.

If he did, however, he' knew they'd start singing 'The Song That Doesn't End' and he just didn't want to put it into their heads.

"Look, what if I read you... um... Cat in the Hat?" Everybody had that in their house, right? Well, everybody who wasn't a two hundred and fiftyish vampire with no living relatives to speak of, since he had no descendants and had eaten all the collateral lines.

"That's a baby book. We're not little kids!" said the one of the little kids who was closer in age to actually *being* one.

"Well, then what about Cryptonomicon?" Angel read the first title he saw, of the books on the top shelf. He wasn't sure who was reading that one, but it looked thick. A good, adult book.

Rather than the adult book they were *trying* to get him to read.

"I want Johnny and the Big Squeaky Banana!!!" Xander wailed, suddenly. Angel jumped, startled. He turned to Xander, crouching down and trying to get the boy's attention.

"Xander, Xander, calm down. I said I'd read to you."

Xander looked at him, sniffling. "Will you read anything I want?"

Angel hesitated.

Cordelia mouthed the word "Mis-take..." at him, then grinned cheerily.

"Well, I... Xander, it's just..."

The little adam's apple bobbed as Xander swallowed hard, and nodded. "I see." He turned around and walked over towards the bookcase, as if he were going to pick out another book. Instead, though, he simply sat down in the corner next to it, and stared at his shoes.

At which point, Spike started kicking Angel.

Angel ignored Xander for a moment, turning to Spike and grabbing him by one arm. He didn't shake him, not quite, but he pushed Spike back and growled. "What are you doing?"

"You're being mean to Xander! I hate you!"

Angel growled again, louder than he'd intended, but Spike was really getting on his nerves. Again. Like always. And he was small enough that Angel felt he'd be justified in picking him up and shaking him until his brain fell out.

No. Evil. That would be wrong.

Spike kicked him again. "Meanie! Stupid git! Nancy-pancy! Um... dumbo!"

"Stop it," Angel said. "I'm not going to read *anything* if--"

"YOU SAID YOU'D READ TO US!" Spike yelled at the top of his lungs.

Xander shot out of the corner, now. "Now you're being mean to Spike? Again? You... big wiener! I hate you too!"

Angel wasn't sure who to kill first, but the woman with the camera and the thousand-dollar smile who wasn't lifting a finger to help was pretty high on the list.

"Cordelia..."

"Oh no. Think of this as your redemption."

"This is *not* my redemption. This is *Hell*. I'm back in Hell and no one bothered to tell me."

"And he's saying we're demons, too! Jerk!" Xander snatched the book from Spike and threw it -- very gently -- at the couch, before launching *himself* at the floor, where he proceeded to kick and punch at the carpet. "I. Want. To. Be. Read. To!"

"I'm not a... Xander's not a demon!" Spike shouted, and threw himself on the floor beside Xander. Kicking, hitting, screaming, the two raised a tantrum the likes of which Angel had never seen. It was eerie the way they seemed to yell in tandem, and never quite hit each *other*.

Angel looked up at Cordelia. She was looking at him like this was all his fault.

"What's going on?" Willow asked, and Angel sighed in relief. Until she looked at the squalling children, then frowned at him, and said, "Angel, for pete's sake, can't you keep them quiet for two minutes?"

Angel blinked. "What? *Me*? I didn't do this!"

"Angel, really. It's just Spike and Xander. It isn't like they're real four-year-olds."

"That's the problem," Angel muttered. Then, "Fine. Like you can do any better?" He was about to explain to her which book they'd wanted him to read.

Willow quirked a brow at him, then walked up to the two caterwauling boys. "Hey, guys..."

They paused mid-kick-and-hit, and looked up at her. "Yeah?" Spike said, politely.

"You want a story?" Blond and brown heads nodded. "Okay, then get up and go sit on the couch."

And of course, because Angel was in Hell, they did. Willow followed them over, helped settle them with pillows, and turned back to Angel. "There. Was that so hard?"

"Sure, but..." He shifted his shoulders. He was *not* going to be made to look a fool by two four-year-old demons and their grown-up sized witch-demon. If he was in Hell, he was going to bear it with dignity. "Fine. I'll read to them. Just give me a book."

"We gave you a book," Xander said with a deceptively innocent tone.

Willow turned to Angel, and he found himself wondering if Xander had taught the look to her, or vice versa. He was pretty sure Spike hadn't taught them both.

Angel held the book out to Willow, who took it. Her eyebrow went up as she read the cover. She opened it, saying, "This is a joke, right?"

Angel watched as she read the first page. Then the second. As she began the third, Spike yelled, "Hey! That's *our* book!"

"Angel, please, can you keep them quiet? I'm trying to work," Wesley interrupted whatever thoughts of escape Angel had begun entertaining.

"Yeah! Bad vampire," seconded Giles.

Angel held out his hand. Willow, her face an interesting shade of red, handed the book to him. As he opened it, she gestured for him to bend down so she could reach his ear. Fearing the worst -- he didn't believe the real Willow would blow a raspberry in his ear, but this was the Angel's-personal-Hell version, after all -- he complied. "Read slow. In about five minutes, I'll call 'em in for cookies and milk," she whispered.

Trying to ignore his giggling childe and his giggling childe's giggling boyfriend, Angel settled on the couch next to them, wondering how long he could draw out the process of reading the title page. "I am *not* a bad vampire," he said to Giles as he was flipping the cover open.

"Yes, you are. Good vampires stay in Hell," Giles said primly.

Angel gaped at him for a moment. He watched as Wesley tried to shush the miniature Watcher, then when that proved unsuccessful, got him distracted with the book they were translating.

"No, that is *not* 'commodore'! Any first year knows that," Giles said haughtily.

"Ah, my mistake," Wesley said calmly, and Angel wondered if he could get Wes to trade places with him.

"Read," Spike reminded him, nudging Angel sharply with his elbow.

"Er, right. Um, 'Johnny and the Big, Squeaky Banana'," he began. He hoped to God that he wouldn't be expected to do different voices.

~~~~~

With the 'children' gathered in the living room hopefully eating more pizza than they got on the floor or furniture, the adults, sans the designated babysitters, sat or stood around the back porch in the twilight.

"So?" Cordelia asked, peering in the kitchen window at whatever antics they were getting up to now. Wesley picked up the top book from the stack on his lap.

"It would appear that Rupert's initial translation was mostly correct. The Urdeku did, indeed, initiate a physical regression to the age of four."

Cordelia rolled her eyes. "D'uh! We knew that part."

"Was he right about the part where... we can make them themselves again?" Willow asked the question to which they had all been half-fearful of learning the answer.

"Yes," Wesley said quickly, a note of apology in his voice for not having said so sooner. "The spell will work, as described. Under the waning moon, exactly six days from now. They'll be returned to their proper ages, physically and mentally."

"Right, but what's with the mental?" Cordelia asked. "Or with them *going* mental. Whatever. Willow said they started out normal, so why are they acting like they're really kids, now?"

"Well, they're not *totally* acting like kids. They know who they are; they have all their memories, and they can still read, and talk normally. They know they're *not* kids. It's..." Willow looked at Wesley. "It's kind of cool, but kind of creepy, too."

"Yes, it is a bit... disconcerting." Wesley paused, thinking about how easily Giles had made himself comfortable in Wesley's lap. It had been... nice. But definitely creepy. "But it is all a part of the regression. Their physical bodies affect their behaviour -- their hormones, their neural chemistry, have all reverted to that of four-year-olds. In short, they have all their memories, but their emotions and ability to... to deal with their memories, are that of children."

"Will it get worse?" Dawn asked.

"No, not worse, as such. They'll merely continue to act like children. I suppose they might find it confusing, to have twenty or more years of memories, and yet be for all other intents, a child. But it will only be a few days."

He glanced through the window, catching a glimpse of Spike, shrieking with laughter and throwing something at Angel. They'd left Tara and Angel inside to watch the children -- Tara because she could control them, and Angel because Spike and Xander had pouted when the elder vampire had tried to go outside without them.

"They really seem to get a kick out of Angel being here," Dawn said, taking in the same scene from her perch on the porch rail. "Even Giles seems to like teasing him."

Wesley suppressed a smirk. Or, rather, tried to suppress it. A bit. "Yes, well, it's not only four-year-olds who enjoy that, is it Cordelia?"

She put a hand on her hip. "Oh, because *I'm* the one who taped a blow-up picture of him to the bathroom mirror while he was napping, then videotaped him freaking out?"

"Actually, Gunn hung the photo. I just ran the camcorder."

"And whose idea was it?" Cordelia countered, while Willow started giggling. Wesley chose to ignore Cordelia, and turned his attention back to Willow.

"It will only be six days, but I know how much work taking care of children can be. If you'd like, we could leave one of us here..." He trailed off, glancing towards the kitchen again.

The two women looked, as well. "They *do* really enjoy having him here," Willow said in a tone that implied she wasn't planning something Truly Evil.

"Boys need a male role model," Cordelia added. "Even boys like Spike and Xander."

"Right. Who wants to tell him?"

The chorus of 'me' was almost deafening. In the end, they chose Dawn, because she pouted the best, though Cordelia was a close second.

"You sure you don't want to stay too, Wesley?" Cordelia asked him evilly. "Gunn and I can run the place just fine for a few days..."

He didn't even spare her a glance, but smiled when Willow seconded the offer. "No, thank you. Charming as the children are, I really think I'd like to go home and sleep with someone my own height tonight."

"Sleep?" Cordelia snorted.

"Yes, sleep," he answered. "Eventually." At Dawn's amused look, he coughed. "After we fill him in on what's going on, of course."

Dawn rolled her eyes. "I'm not a kid, you know. I know you two are together." She paused, while Wesley tried to decide if he could avoid swallowing his tongue in shock. "Spike showed me pictures."

"Dawn Susanna Summers! He did not!" Willow yelled. Dawn just gave her a look, and Willow looked towards the kitchen window.

"Yes, well, we'd best be going," Wesley managed to sound as if she hadn't said anything of the sort. "Let's tell Angel, and be on our way."

"I wanna stop at the Harry's on 5th, before we leave town," Cordelia said casually. Wesley gave her a dirty look.

"Shall I just drop you there, and pick you up in a week?" he asked, not really hopefully.

She narrowed her eyes at him, and pulled the back door open. "Hmm. I think I need some new shoes, too. I bet La Vida is still open."

Wesley admitted defeat, and ushered the three women into the house. His only consolation was Willow whispering to him as she passed him, "Actually, Harry's burnt down last week. Salamander attack. We're fairly sure Spike and Xander had nothing to do with it."

"Oh, Angel..." Dawn was saying.

Wesley was only partly buoyed by Willow's remark. But he distracted himself by watching Angel's reaction to finding out what duty he'd been volunteered for.

All four kids starting yelling "yea!" as soon as the words were out of Dawn's mouth. Angel looked like he'd rather be pressed into service at Wolfram and Hart as Lilah's secretary.

"I, uh, would love to, if I had time," he began. Xander stopped cheering immediately, and began pouting.

Cordelia grinned. "Think of all the evil karma you'll work off," she said quietly. "Six days with four four-year-olds? You'll be human this time next week."

Angel looked at them, and Wesley could almost swear that he was human already. "You know, that would be peachy, if I weren't already in Hell. I don't think they let you work off evil karma here."

"Don't say Hell in front of us," Spike said.

"Yeah, you'll corrupt our innocent brains, if you say Hell," Xander agreed.

"Say heck," Buffy prompted Angel.

The vampire looked pleadingly at Wesley and Cordelia, who weren't about to offer him any support. "Fine. I'm in Heck."

Wesley couldn't speak for a moment, because it would have been rude to laugh at Angel. Rude to laugh in front of the children, at least.

Cordelia didn't seem to be having the same difficulty.

"So, we'll come back and get you six days hence?" Wesley said, taking a step towards the door. Perhaps if he just *left*, Cordelia would let them leave Sunnydale and get home. In fact, if he reached the car first, he could drive, and ensure it.

Angel gave them a pleading look. Spike and Buffy had grabbed his hands, and were swinging on them. "Angel's staying! Angel's staying!"

"Er, no, I--" Angel started.

At which point Xander screamed, "You *don't* like me! You don't wanna stay with me, you hate me..."

Every adult in the room glared at Angel. Giles and Spike glared too. Buffy stuck her tongue out at Xander. "Angel likes me and he doesn't like you!" she sang.

"Oi! You don't be mean to my Xan. Only *I* can be mean to him." Spike pulled her hair, then rubbed his own head. "Ow! Not fair, not fair."

Xander was still wailing, and it looked like there were actual tears in his eyes. Was he that good an actor, Wesley wondered, or had they really already reached the point where their emotions were that out of control? "Nobody wants to stay with me! Everybody leaves me alone!" He ran from the room, and Spike shot a glare at Angel that was nastier than anything Wesley had ever seen on the adult Spike's face, before running after him.

"Come on, Xander, you know he's just a big ugly wally. Nobody's leaving you anywhere," Wesley could hear Spike saying to a sniffling Xander, who was sitting under the dining room table.

Everyone else was still glaring at Angel, except for Willow, who was alternating her glares between Angel and Buffy.

Angel sighed, and walked toward the table. He paused beside the table, then knelt down and crawled under it. Wesley moved to one side, where he could get a better look.

They could hear Spike saying sharply, "Go away! You're a mean Sire."

"Spike... Xander, I'm sorry. I'm not going anywhere. I do like you, and I'm not going to leave."

There was silence, and Wesley imagined the dark, thunderous look on Xander's face. Coupled with the tears and the pouting, and Wesley figured in about five more minutes, Angel would be reading 'Johnny' again.

"You're lying," Xander said. "You're just being nice because Cordy made you."

"No, that's not true. I'm a grownup. Cordy can't make me do anything I don't want to do--" There was a pause, while Cordelia laughed silently. "--and I want to stay. Really."

Xander's voice was very small, even for a child, as he echoed suspiciously, "Really?"

"Really."

"Enough to read us another story?"

Angel sighed, and Wesley motioned to Cordelia. "I think we should run while he's trapped under the table, myself."

"You don't want to hear the rest?" she asked, looking torn.

"If you want to watch, stay all week."

For a moment it looked as though Cordelia was going to take him up on it. Then she turned to Willow, and said something too quietly for Wesley to hear.

He did, however, hear Xander demanding, "Do you *really like me? Because grown-ups don't like me, except Willow does and her girlfriend and Dawn."

Angel's voice sounded quite sincere when he replied, "Of course I do. You're my favourite childe's friend, that makes you like a favorite childe of mine, too."

Wesley looked over to see Cordelia smiling. She mouthed 'Let's go,' and they began to tip-toe away.

"Where are you going?" Buffy wailed. "Don't we get hugs?"

Xander and Spike scrambled out from under the table. "You're gonna leave without hugs? Don't you like us?"

"Yeah, Wesley, don't you like them?" Angel echoed.

Wesley, before being engulfed in a squirming tangle of four-year-old arms, was pleased to note that Angel bumped his head on the table while trying to crawl out. "We simply didn't want to interrupt," Wesley managed, as he tried to return the hugs as enthusiastically as they were given.

Cordelia gave Xander a hug, then ruffled his hair. "What's this about grown-ups not liking you? *I* like you, and Wesley likes you. Aren't we grown-ups?"

Xander just grinned up at her, then Wesley saw him wink.

Wesley stifled a laugh. It appeared as though Angel would be in good hands.

~~~~~

Angel held the can in his hand, and displayed it to Willow. "What exactly is this? And why does Spike think I'm supposed to do something with it?"

She just looked at him. "I know *you* can read, Angel. It's Mr. Bubbly-O Blue Bath Foam."

She *had* to be kidding. "You *have* to be kidding."

"No, it says right there on the label, Mr. Bubbly-O--" Willow pointed, a trace of mischief on her face.

"I am *not* going to..." he trailed off as Spike and Xander came running into the living room in just their superhero underwear.

"BATHTIME!" the two of them screamed happily.

Willow gave Angel a somewhat apologetic smile. "Sorry. They really can't... do it unsupervised. Dawn deals with Buffy, and Giles... manages to not destroy the bathroom. But these two would drown themselves and remove the tiling." Her face turned a little pink. "And there's really no one better to do it."

Angel looked at the can, looked at Xander, looked at Spike, then felt his world sway. Maybe he had been poisoned? He was dreaming all this. Hallucinating, and when he woke up his friends would be gathered around him saying they were so worried...

"And I have to... actually go into the bathroom with them?"

"Unless you've developed telekinesis in the last few years," she answered firmly.

"Um... maybe I could start trying right now?"

She raised an eyebrow. "Okay, I'll give you a pencil to practice on, while you're giving Spike and Xander their bath. Just don't accidentally dust yourself or Spike."

"He can levitate my Willie-the-Whale," Xander offered. To Angel, he confided, "He spits water out his blowhole."

Angel shot a panic-stricken glance at Willow, who shook her head sadly. "It's a bath-toy, Angel. Go. I promise you'll still be dead when you come out."

Somehow he found himself actually walking *towards* the bathroom. Spike and Xander ran ahead of him, shouting out "I get the green towel!" and "Mine's the red!" As if anyone was going to make them use the wrong towel.

Angel was relieved to note that someone had already started the bath to running, so at least he didn't have to try to figure *that* out. What temperature was right for a human *and* a vampire? He saw that the tub was almost a third full, and he went over to turn the faucets off.

When he turned around, Spike and Xander were naked, and hitting each other with their underwear.

"Stop that, now!" he ordered. They both looked innocently at him.

"What?" Xander asked. "This?" He smacked Spike over the head with his shorts.

"No, I think he means the being naked," Spike said. "Sorry. Can't. We came this way."

"You don't have to enjoy it quite so much," Angel muttered. Then he motioned for them to get into the tub. They both grinned and shook their heads.

"Not tall enough," Xander informed him. "You have to pick us up."

Angel sighed, and bent over to pick Spike up. Spike shook his head. "Can't put us in, yet. It's not bubbly yet."

Angel restrained the urge to strangle his 'favourite childe'. He looked at the can of foam, and looked at the two boys. Well, honestly, there was no reason *not* to.

He shook the can slightly, then squirted Spike. As Spike squealed -- which made Angel pause, ever so slightly, then wish he had a tape recorder because William the Bloody would *never* admit to squealing -- he squirted Xander. Who also squealed.

When they were well covered in blue foam, Angel set the can on the counter, then grabbed Spike and put him in the tub. And heard the snick of someone about to press the nozzle of the can of foam...

Vampiric reflexes allowed him to turn and grab the can before more than his arm could get sprayed.

He grabbed Xander with the already-bubbly arm and deposited the giggling child at the other end of the tub. After a small amount of splashing at each other, they both looked up at him expectantly.

This would be the point where, in any just and righteous universe, he woke up, and told Cordy, Wes, and Gunn that he'd had a dream, and 'you were in it, and so were you...' Instead, there were just two pair of huge, positively evil eyes fixed on him, and he didn't even have any ruby slippers to click together.

"Oh come on, I *know* you can bathe yourselves."

Two heads solemnly shook. "Uh-uh," Xander said. "We're too little."

"We miss spots," Spike added.

Angel glared at them. It was, if he had to say so himself, one of his best, Angelus, I am going to burn down Europe, glares. "You are not too little."

Two heads solemnly shook back and forth. "We can't. Willow said so, and if you don't believe us ask her! We're little and we need help and you have to help us so you have to get the soap on the washcloth and wash us or we'll be dirty *forever* and Willow will hate you."

Angel watched, and wondered how Xander had managed that all in one breath.

"I don't think Willow will hate me, somehow. But maybe I should ask her, just to make sure," Angel said, stepping towards the door. "I mean, I wouldn't want her to be mad at me or anything..."

Spike and Xander just looked at him. Daring him to go out that door and let Willow know he had absolutely no idea whether a four-year-old could wash himself or not. Finally he turned around. Took a deep breath, and remembered why humans did that. It gave you time to formulate a plan of attack.

He looked sternly at both cherubic faces. Prepared, at last, to deal with anything they might throw at him.

Spike had bubbles in his hair.

"If you'll wash yourselves, I'll read you the squeaky banana story again," Angel said, and closed his eyes in shame.

"I don't want that book," Xander said, disdainfully.

Angel opened his eyes. Xander was looking at him with a very serious expression. Angel hated himself for doing what he was about to do. "Which book *do* you want?"

"Monkey Junkie and Squarely Harry," Xander replied. Angel had no idea what he was talking about, but he knew it couldn't be good.

"I suppose that's something else that's not fit to read in front of Dawn?" he asked, mostly rhetorically. Neither Spike nor Xander was making any move towards actual washing. They just sat there looking annoyingly cute. Waiting. For something. Something else to terrorize him with, to pop into their evil little heads?

Angel crossed his arms. Xander crossed his arms. Spike crossed his arms.

"What now?" Angel asked.

"What now?" Spike asked.

"What now?" Xander asked.

"What do you mean--" Angel began.

"What do you mean--" Spike echoed.

"Oh, come on," Angel said, and Xander repeated a split second afterward.

Of course, Angel *knew* what they were doing. Trying -- and succeeding -- in annoying him. The question was, did he threaten them with the violence that he really, truly, honestly wanted to use and hope that Willow understood? He suspected she would, since she'd already been taking care of these brats... er, unfortunate be-spelled friends.

Or did he annoy them back?

He moved over to the counter and leaned against it, and looked at the two spawns of-- er, no, he didn't want to go there. And waited. Patiently.

He'd show them hours of brooding had its advantages.

The mini-brats waited. And waited. And waited. For all of thirty seconds or so, before Xander looked at Spike and grinned. "He thinks we're gonna stop."

"He thinks we're gonna stop," Spike parrotted.

It went on from there. Angel merely waited, until at last the echoing contest ground to a halt. Two unhappy faces looked up at him. He raised an eyebrow, and made a completely-acceptable-in-primetime hand gesture. As in, "What," without actually saying it.

Spike's lower lip went into overquiver. "We're out of bubbles."

"Yeah?" Angel said, as if he hadn't been able to see it for himself. He reached over and picked up the can. Held it out to Spike.

Spike reached for it, frowning. Angel could see the confusion on both their faces and felt not an ounce of pity for them. Let them wonder what he was up to. It'd keep them distracted.

For at least two minutes. Then Spike apparently decided that Angel or no Angel, foam was too much fun. He squirted Xander, who squealed, and tried to wrestle the can out of his hands. At which point Angel discovered *why* these two had to be chaperoned. Although why they didn't just take their baths separately... Angel moved forward in time to prevent Xander from cracking his head on the tub rim, when he slipped.

Then he growled at Spike, when a small hand wiped foam all over Angel's head.

Spike growled right back at him, and he tried desperately not to associate the words 'adorable' and 'Spike' in his head, but he was fighting a losing battle. Perhaps if he just held Spike's head under the water for a while? The resulting struggles would undoubtedly distract him from thinking soppy thoughts about his sopping childe.

"Go ahead," Xander encouraged him. "I do it all the time. Not like he needs to breathe or anything."

Angel hadn't realized his hand was actually on Spike's skull until he looked down. Sighing, he removed it, and stared as sternly as possibly at the two of them. "Sit. No drowning, no splashing, no chin-ups on the handrail."

Spike and Xander looked at each other, then looked at the handrail.

~~~~~

"That's it. Bath's over." Angel stood, picking up each boy by the arm, dangling them as he lifted them out of the tub. Ignored their howls of protest and but we aren't clean and there's still foam left and I didn't bring my pajamas in with me. Who cared if they were dirty for a few days? Six days from now they could wash themselves, or each other, and Angel could go *home* and not know a thing about it.

Their protests grew louder as Angel grabbed each towel and flung it over and around each boy, and began alternating between them, rubbing hard and fast to dry them off -- or as close as he cared to get before he lost all shred of his soul.

Finally the two of them stood before him, pouts firmly in place, mostly dry. Okay, their hair stuck out at odd angles. Then again, thanks to Spike's impromptu salon bubble stylings, so did Angel's.

"I'm cold," Spike complained.

"Yeah, me too." Xander gave a good impression of a shiver, and pulled his towel tighter around him.

Angel shrugged. "Then go upstairs and put your pajamas on." He opened the bathroom door and gestured towards outside and away from me before I do things I won't regret in the morning.

"Okay!" The two boys raced off at high speed-- leaving, of course, two large, damp towels on the bathroom floor.

Willow's voice echoed in from the kitchen as Angel stared into the empty mirror, thankful he couldn't see the expression on his own face. "Spike, Xander? What's-- Angel, they're naked!"

"I noticed," he said, gritting his teeth.

"You didn't get them into their pajamas?" Willow had that tone in her voice like she'd discovered he'd given up drinking blood, in favour of kool-aid. Angel resisted the urge to bang his head on the doorframe.

"Be glad they're still moving," he said, even as he started down the hallway. It occurred to him that they *would* fall asleep, eventually. Dawn had said they fell asleep early - seven? Seven-thirty? He could last that long.

Right?

Willow whapped him lightly on the arm, and smiled. "Angel, go help them into their pajamas."

He stared at her. "Do I *have* to?" he whined. Oh God, he sounded just like Spike. Angel clapped his hand over his own mouth, but it was too late. Oh well. He wondered idly if it would completely ruin his image if he added an 'I'll be good, I promise' to it.

She grin-frowned at him. "They're not *that* bad."

Would it be wrong of him to direct a not-ready-for-primetime gesture in Willow's direction? Yes. Yes, it would. Angel walked past her and headed down the hall, muttering things in Gaelic that his mother would have been deeply ashamed of him for knowing, let alone speaking out loud.

He knew Spike and Xander hadn't gone to the bedroom to get their pajamas. He could hear them, now, downstairs in the living room, chasing each other around and screaming. Tara was down there, as well, but he couldn't hear that she was trying to get them under control.

Probably waiting for Angel. He sighed. Couldn't he just go kill monsters to earn his redemption?

He found the pajamas on the bed, and picked them up, then headed for the stairs. He amused himself thinking about just *how* he was going to catch them, and get them dressed.

"Oh, boys," he called as he walked into the living room, pajamas in hand. He took great pride in the fact that he didn't sound remotely maniacal. At least not to his own ears, though he might have been biased, of course.

Tara sat on the couch. In the lotus position, palms upward on her knees. When Angel stood in front of her, she opened her eyes and smiled. "It's really relaxing. You should try it."

He blinked at her. "Does it stop you from wanting to kill them?"

"No, but it takes you so long to get your feet untangled that they've gotten out of range by the time you can stand up."

"Ah. Sounds like a plan." He looked towards the kitchen, where Spike and Xander were hiding. As if he couldn't hear, smell, and feel exactly where they were anyhow.

As he stepped into the kitchen he heard a stifled giggle, and Spike's "Shh!" They were under the table, again. Not exactly a clever hiding place... but there they were.

A thought occured to him, and Angel pulled a chair out and sat down, putting the pajamas on the table. He looked around. "Huh." Another stifled giggle, and he could hear them shifting, a bit. Not ready to bolt, it didn't sound like. "I wonder where they could be. Can't be in the basement, the door's locked. Can't have hot wired the car and taken off for Baja; not tall enough to see over the dash."

"Am too," piped a small British voice.

"Shut up, dummy," Xander said. There was the sound of a smack.

"Ow! I'm tellin' Anya you abuse me when she's gone!"

"Anya *told* me to abuse you while she was gone. *Somebody* has to."

Angel ducked down and looked under the table, a carefully formulated expression of surprise on his face. Xander and Spike looked back, disappointed surprise on their faces.

Angel asked, "Have you two seen a couple of freshly foamed naked boys?" It occurred to him that that line might come in useful in other situations. Spike blinked at him, and Xander just shook his head. "You two wanna stand in for 'em? I'm supposed to be reading someone a bedtime story."

They started crawling forward, even as Spike asked suspiciously, "Which book?"

"I'm not sure yet. I don't think I can decide until I get rid of these pajamas here. They're too distracting." They really were. Tiger-stripes? What had Willow been thinking?

"Oh, we can help with that," Xander said proudly. Angel, though, was thinking on his feet, and stopped him before he could snatch the garments away and throw them in the wastebasket.

"I thought you were cold?" he asked as Xander reluctantly held up his arms and allowed Angel to drop the pajama shirt over his head. Xander's, unlike Spike's black-and-orange atrocities, were a fairly basic white, covered with red fire engines.

"You really are gullible, aren't you?" Spike said scornfully. His sardonic tone might have been a bit more impressive if he hadn't said it while swinging the tiger tail that someone had thoughtfully sewed to the back of his pajama pants.

"If you aren't cold, then you don't have to come upstairs and get under the covers with Xander and me," Angel said as he stood up and took Xander's hand. Xander stuck his tongue out at Spike, who looked rather put out.

Angel headed out of the kitchen, Xander skipping happily at his side. Two seconds later Spike was holding onto Angel's other hand and very deliberately not looking up at him.

"Aren't you gonna pick out a book," Xander asked as they passed through the living room and headed for the stairs.

"I noticed some books on the table in Buffy's room. One of them had a bookmark in it-- I thought we'd go for that one," Angel said as he started climbing. Hoping beyond hope that it was something he could read to them without rediscovering the ability to blush.

"Oh, *that* book," Spike said meaningfully.

Xander peered around Angel at his partner-in-crime. "Which book?"

Spike tugged Xander up the stairs ahead of Angel. "*That* book, stupid. You know." He put more insinuation into the simple word 'that' than Angel had heard on any phone-sex line that he'd never, ever called, ever.

Angel honestly didn't care if he ended up reading purple prose aloud to the diminutive delinquents. They were behaving, for the moment, and while he read they'd be more or less quiet. It would be worth it.

He followed them up the stairs to the bedroom, collecting a look of approval from Willow along the way. Angel wondered if she knew, or would care if she did, what he'd be reading to them.

At least Cordelia and Wesley were gone. He didn't mind so much Spike and Xander knowing what he was doing. But hearing about it from his co-workers... for the next four decades...

Which reminded him to find those cameras and expose the film.

They entered the bedroom to find it already occupied -- by Giles. Angel blinked. Well, at least it wasn't Buffy. Reading Spike's taste in bedtime stories to *her* would have been... just disturbing.

She was safely out on the back porch with Dawn, though, talking about whatever TV show the kids had been watching before dinner. The familiar voice in its unfamiliar key rose and fell outside, and though he couldn't quite make out what she was saying, the sound was strangely comforting.

"Shove off, Rupert" Spike commanded. " *My* Sire's gonna read me and Xan a bedtime story." Xander tugged on his arm and whispered in his ear, and Spike growled and rolled his eyes. "Oh, fine. I guess he can listen too," he grumbled. He pointed to the chair. "But only from over there. There's not enough room for all four of us in one bed."

Giles looked startled for a moment, then, very slowly, he began to move over towards the indicated chair. The look on his face made Angel think that Spike had absolutely nothing when it came to grand champion pouting.

Giles' expression was one of total whipped puppy, without a shred of evidence that it was done for effect. It really, honestly looked like Giles really meant the 'that's all right, I needn't be coddled, I'll just wait over here in the cold while you enjoy yourselves'. Maybe it was a parental thing.

Angel stopped him with a hand to his shoulder, and turned him around. "There's room," he said, even while he asked himself just what the hell he was doing. Maybe he was doing it to annoy Spike and Xander. Yeah, that sounded good. Hmm. It really was kind of a small bed. "How about if you guys get under the covers, and I sit in the chair?" he suggested.

Spike shot Giles a dirty look. "No, no, no, no, no, no..."

Xander picked up the chant, and for a moment even Giles looked like he was considering joining in. Angel gave his dignity up for lost, finally, and waved his hands. "Fine. We'll figure something out." He pulled back the covers and sat in the center, leaning against the headboard while he tried to come up with a logical way in which they would all fit.

How helpful of them to solve his problem by swarming over him like ants at a particularly appetizing picnic.

"Here! Read this one. It's brilliant!" Spike shoved the book so close to Angel's nose that he could hardly focus on the title, while Xander and Giles buried themselves with pulling the covers up and around them in a manner that would make ancient Egyptian funeral directors proud.

Angel didn't move to take the book from Spike, for a moment, trying to adjust to the fact that Spike was in his lap, and that Xander and Giles were half-draped over him, like he was Santa Claus or something.

Spike was pressing the book closer to his nose, now, so Angel reached up and took the book, holding it with one hand while his other arm lifted itself up and wrapped around Xander. He blinked at it. What the heck did it do that for? And why was he raising his other arm so Giles could fit inside it?

He looked down, and found three small faces looking up at him, expectantly. God, they were almost... cute.

Hansel and Gretel were cute, too, he reminded himself. And hadn't they actually been some kind of angst-demon, in disguise? Preying on people with no cuteness-resistence?

Spike popped his thumb into his mouth.

I hate you, Angel thought, and opened the book.

~~~~~

"Yes, you do!"

"No, I don't!"

"Yes, you do!" Giles shouted again.

"Do not!" Buffy shouted back, and Tara had to admit that the Slayer, even at this size, had her Watcher out-matched.

Giles glared at Buffy, and Tara began to revise her judgment. "Do so," he said with a veneer of calm. "I am your Watcher, and you--"

"You're too short to watch *anything*!" Buffy retorted.

"I'm tall enough to watch you clean up your room," Giles argued.

Buffy tossed her hair back over her shoulder. "I cleaned up *my* stuff. I'm just not cleaning up *yours*. And Pointy-face's and Puppy-head's."

"It's not nice to call people names," Giles said with a sober and somewhat priggish tone.

Buffy blinked. "What names? That's what Xander and Spike said I should call them."

It was true. They were running around the basement with towels tied around their necks like capes, at the moment, acting out the adventures of Pointy-face and Puppy-head, defending the city of Sunnydale from the Giant Mousse Monster. Poor Angel.

"You shouldn't do everything Spike and Xander tell you to do," Giles began, and Tara refrained from shaking her head. Normally Giles was quite brilliant with his logic and persuasion. Even as a four-year old, he'd been pretty smart -- master-minding the midnight forays into the kitchen which included pizza delivery and milkshakes. Tara still wasn't sure how they'd run the blender without waking anyone up. But in two more days it wouldn't matter -- which was why she just stood there, and watched, instead of intervening.

"Fine. Then I'll start now by not doing anything *you* tell me to do." Buffy folded her arms and gave Giles a determined look.

"Fine," Giles replied. "Don't clean up your room, then."

Buffy beamed and nodded, then frowned, and shook her head. Then looked at Giles. Then at her room. Then at Tara.

"He's being mean to me," she accused, pointing at Giles, who gave Tara the most innocent face she'd seen since... this morning, when Spike had sworn up and down that he hadn't been about to pour maple syrup on Angel's head when she walked into the kitchen.

Or maybe it was thirty seconds later, when Angel stood up and almost tripped over his tied-together shoelaces, and a cherubic-looking Giles had crawled out from underneath the table.

"I simply pointed out that since she has Slayer strength and the rest of us don't, she obviously ought to clean up all the toys and books and things herself. It's part of her duty to the world, as the Chosen One. I can get out the Watcher's diary that says so, if you like."

"It does not!" Buffy gave him a scornful look. "I'm a vampire slayer, not a vampire's maid! He's the one who made this mess, him and Puppy-head and you!"

Giles looked affronted, and Tara had to hold back a laugh. "I most certainly did *not* make this mess."

"Did."

"Did not."

"Did too!"

"Did not!"

"Did too times ten!"

"Did not times aleph null. Beat that, blond-for-brains."

Tara swallowed her smile, and decided it was time to interfere. "Um, why don't you just do it together? Buffy can show you where everything goes, and you can help her put it all away."

Buffy looked suspiciously at Giles when he followed her into the bedroom, and Tara, having become used to both their levels of resourcefulness, hung around in the doorway to make sure neither of them tried escaping out the window.

"You guys made a big mess out of *my* room," Buffy complained again, as she crossed her arms and surveyed the wasteland that had once been a fairly clean floor, in Tara's deepest, dimmest memories. A.K.A. yesterday morning.

She picked up a Candyland box from the floor at the foot of her bed, and handed it to Giles. "That goes in the bookcase. In Dawn's room."

Giles shrugged. "*I* didn't get it out. Angel wanted to play."

Tara suppressed a laugh as she tried to imagine just how much Angel had *wanted* to play. Then she noticed something. "Ah, guys, you might want to pick up the pieces that go *in* the box, too?"

"Yeah," Buffy said smugly, as Giles started to set the box down again. He stopped, and glared at her. "You put them away."

"No! *You* put them away!"

Tara stepped forward. "I think you should both put them back in the box." She held her stare as the two children looked at her, then at each other. She waited as they began digging out the pieces to the game, then as Giles dug one piece out from under the bed, she said very casually, "Oh, good, you're being very thorough, Rupert."

Buffy paused, then began looking under the bed, as well. Then she looked underneath everything nearby, for the rest of the pieces. "Found one!" she finally exclaimed, holding up one of the dice.

"Good work, Buffy." Tara smiled encouragingly.

Giles narrowed his eyes. "You like her more than me," he accused, even as he pulled a color-card out from under one of Spike's interesting bedtime-story books and tossed it into the open box.

"No, I don't," she said, and before Buffy could make the obvious rejoinder, Tara quickly added, "I like you both the same."

"But I'm the Chosen One," Buffy said, picking the other die out of one of Spike's shoes, and holding her nose with her other hand. "And eew. Stinky vampire feet."

"Yes, the Chosen One," Giles agreed. "Able to sense stinky vampire feet when she sticks her nose right in their stinky shoes."

Buffy responded by throwing said shoe at Giles, who ducked. Tara moved forward immediately, and grabbed Buffy's arm. "If you do that again, Rupert and I will go downstairs and we'll let you clean up your room by yourself."

Buffy glared at her. "It was just a stupid shoe."

"Yes, but you're a lot stronger than he is and you might have hurt him." Giles, who had been looking angry, suddenly looked vulnerable and in need of comforting. Tara ignored him.

Buffy stuck her lower lip out. "You can't make me clean my room. I didn't make the mess and you're not my mom!"

Tara pulled her over to the bed and sat down, looking at her. "Okay, all of those are pretty much true. I mean, I can pick you up and hold you upside down, but I'm not really strong enough to *make* you clean your room. And you didn't make the mess -- at least most of it. But you know Spike and Xander can't sit still long enough to do more than put their clothes on each morning."

"That's not my fault. I didn't make them boys," Buffy said unhappily.

"It doesn't have anything to do with them being boys," Tara corrected her. "They just have way too much energy. or something. The point is, you *can* help clean up, Buffy."

"I have as much energy as *they* do," Buffy said, still pouting. Tara didn't want to tell her that it wasn't as good as Spike's pout.

"But you can control yourself," Tara said. "Which makes you a lot... um... more grown-up." She wasn't sure this was going to work, judging by the way Buffy was still kicking at the bed and frowning.

"I don't *wanna* control myself." Buffy looked up at her. "But I have to; I always have to because if I don't I might hurt people. Even with a stupid shoe."

"You don't have to with Spike," Giles spoke up, surprising Tara just a little.

Buffy nodded, reluctantly, but Tara could see she wasn't mollified. Tara reached over and gave her a hug. "Tell you what. Why don't we make Angel and Willow get the boys to clean up their mess, and you, me, and Giles can go to the park? Just you two, for being so good?"

She carefully neglected to mention that it was three in the afternoon, neither Spike nor Angel could go to the park, and Xander wouldn't go without Spike. Or possibly he just didn't want to allow Spike to monopolize the Angel-tormenting time. Tara didn't know, and she didn't particularly care, as long as the older vampire's presence kept the two whirlwind children under some sort of control.

Buffy nodded eagerly, her unhappiness apparently short-lived.

Giles looked up with interest. "Oh, good. You can do some training exercises, Buffy."

"You can't make me," she said disdainfully.

"Maybe we can just play," Tara said quickly, cutting off Giles in mid-retort. "You can do training exercises in a couple days, when you're back to normal."

Buffy stuck her tongue out at Giles. Then she looked at Tara. "Why does he get to come? He's a boy, too."

"Because he isn't as rambunctious as Spike and Xander," she began. Then, leaning forward conspiratorially, she added, "And I'm afraid of what he, Spike, and Xander would do to the house if we leave them all here."

That made Buffy giggle, even if Giles looked offended. For a moment, then he apparently realized he was getting out of room-cleaning, as well.

"May we stop for ice cream on the way back?" he asked politely. Buffy grinned.

"Yeah, may we?"

"Mais, oui," Tara answered, and Giles smiled back at her.

"Well? Can we?" Buffy asked, bouncing up and down slightly.

"She already said yes, blond-for-brains," the mini-Watcher informed her.

Buffy pursed her lips. "I think it's mean to talk French when some people don't remember how to speak it cause they're only four," she complained bitterly.

"What was your excuse the week before last?" Giles wanted to know as they all descended the stairs.

"I can't remember. I'm only four."

"You've been only four your entire life, then," Giles said, followed quickly by "Ow! Watch it, you're not supposed to do that."

"I pulled my punch! Whiney-baby."

Tara stopped and looked at them. "If you're going to fight, we aren't going." She got two innocent faces looking back at her.

They were the 'we would never do such a thing as fight' looks, and she knew that as soon as she turned back around, tongue would be out and they'd be hitting each other, only keeping quiet about it.

And to think that Buffy and Giles were the *good* kids.

~~~~~

Angel sat on the back porch. Alone. He was still trying to comprehend exactly how that state of affairs had come into being. Alone. Isolated. Bereft. Desolate. Forsaken. Abandoned. Forlorn. Without Xander and Spike.

Hot damn.

He could stand up and get in his car and... Well, no, because Wesley and Cordelia had taken his car back to L.A. Well, fine. He could stand up and walk... to where, in Sunnydale? The all-night blood bank? He could go scare the hell out of Willy the Snitch, he supposed. Pretend he was Angelus again...

Except that Spike said Willy had redecorated since Angel had last been in town. He could barely handle the ferns and the crushed-velvet wall-hangings that had accompanied Willy's previous attempt to go upscale. This time... he drew the line at line dancing. So to speak. No. Shudder.

Maybe he would just sit here, and be alone. Not do anything. Not read embarrassing books or play silly games or growl in order to make his childe and his going-to-have-to-adopt-him child giggle.

Angel sighed.

"Whacha sighing about?"

Angel turned his head, and found Buffy standing behind him. How she'd snuck up... didn't matter. He returned the smile and scooted over a little, patted the step beside him. She came over and sat down, then looked up.

"What?" he prompted, when she didn't speak.

"You still have green stuff in your hair."

Angel sighed again, and ran his hand through his hair. Tiny pieces of green construction paper fell off his head. Once he'd been the Scourge of Europe. Now he was Scourge of BasementLand. He sighed again.

"You sigh an awful lot for somebody who doesn't have to breathe," Buffy informed him. "What's the matter?"

Angel looked down at her, and wondered if there were an answer that didn't involve humiliating himself. Probably not. "Promise you won't tell?" he asked.

"Nope," she replied cheerfully. "I promised Giles a long time ago that I wouldn't ever not tell him stuff about you ever anymore."

He nodded. "That's fair. Promise you won't tell Spike and Xander?"

Buffy made a face. "Them? Stupid dork-boys. They're in there watching Dumb and Dumber. Giles says it makes you dumber and dumber just to watch it."

"So what's Giles doing?"

"Watching it. He says he's smart enough that it can't hurt him, but I should go outside."

"Ah." He smiled, watching her frown. She looked so much like her older self, and for a moment he wanted to just reach out and hold her.

"So what's this big secret?" she asked, eyes lighting up again.

"Um, you promise not to tell Spike and Xander? I mean, really promise?"

She crossed her heart. "Promise. I'll never ever ever tell."

Angel leaned down towards her, and whispered, "I think I'm gonna miss this."

"Miss what?"

"Them. You, all of you... when you're grown-up again."

Her head tilted to one side, and she made a confused little sound. "But we'll be right here. You can always come visit."

"Yeah, but..." Angel sighed again. "You're right. I can." He stared at the moon, half hidden by the tree in the back yard, as the wind gently rocked the branches back and forth. After a few moments, he felt a small hand slip into his.

"You'll miss us being kids, huh?"

He smiled, not looking at her. "Well, you are kinda cute."

She looked at him, completely guilelessly. "I'm always cute."

He laughed. "Yes, you are. But it's a novel thing for Spike and Xander to be cute."

"That's because you've never seen them cooking. They wear these aprons, and get all serious and stuff, then they start putting food on each other's noses." She wrinkled her nose. "It's cute."

"I'll have to remember that." Spike? Cook? Where on earth had he learned how to cook? Rather, when?

"So you can still come visit us and we'll be cute. Um, well Giles won't be cute anymore. Not unless he's carrying that chainsaw."

Angel blinked. Looked at Buffy, but she was totally serious. Angel wondered if he really wanted to ask.

Instead, he simply looked at her. Being the child she hadn't been since she was fifteen and the power of the Slayer had appeared in her life, both blessing and curse. Being the child she'd always been, somewhere in his consciousness, the span of years between them finally illustrated for him in this portrait of snub-nosed innocence sitting next to him.

"Do you like it?" he asked finally, when she'd started to give him the 'what're you lookin' at' look.

She frowned. "The chainsaw?"

He had to laugh. It was a good thing Spike and Xander had given him so much practice over the last few days, or it might have come out a bit rusty. "No, being little again."

"Oh." She looked thoughtful, and it was almost comical how serious such a young face could be. If it weren't for the fact that it made her look a little less young... Finally she nodded. "I like it. I kinda wish--" She looked up at him, big eyes showing the sorrow in them she hadn't hinted at, before. "I miss my mom. It's hard to remember she isn't here. She's *supposed* to be here." She looked around, as if involuntarily searching for her even now.

Angel hugged her, and for a moment she just rested against him.

Then she laughed. "The rest of it is fun, though. Everything Dawn has *ever* done to me... I get to do back."

"Careful she doesn't just retaliate once you get the spell reversed." Angel couldn't help but smile, though.

"I'm not worried. I'll be... no, I guess I won't be taller than her. Darn growth spurt. But I'll still be big enough to kick her butt." She stuck her tongue out in the direction of the kitchen, where Angel could hear someone, presumably Dawn, running water for dishes. "I'm not tall enough to reach her butt right now. Unless I stand on a chair. Spike said I should stand on a chair. But I think he just wants to get me in trouble."

Angel nodded. "He's good at that. My advice would be to wait 'til you're taller, then kick Spike's butt."

Buffy grinned. "But I can do that now!"

"Um," Angel stopped as he realized he couldn't think of any reason why she shouldn't. Not any *good* reasons, at any rate.

"Can I go kick him right now?" Buffy asked, looking towards the house again.

"Why don't you sit with me for a while longer?" Angel suggested, feeling obligated to try to forestall chaos. Somehow Willow or Tara would find out he'd told Buffy to go kick Spike, and the resulting mayhem would be laid on his shoulders. He'd have to clean it up, *and* deal with Spike and Xander pouting at him for not loving them.

"Yeah, they're still watching that stupid movie," Buffy agreed, and stayed where she was, having no clue how relieved Angel was that she did.

~~~~~

Xander whispered in Spike's ear as they turned the corner of Mulholland Drive and onto the main road, then pointed out the window of the Range Rover. Spike looked out at the glowing golden arches, and nodded, grinning diabolically. As one, they tapped Buffy and Giles on their nearest shoulders, and pointed.

Just as Tara pulled past the "Welcome" sign and the entrance, all four of them chorused "We want fries!"

Buffy nudged Spike, and after looking at her for a second, he rolled his eyes and joined in on the delayed-reaction addition of "Please?"

Dawn snickered, but Spike was pretty sure only the vampires in the car could hear her. Namely himself. Xander was busy scooting forward so he could be seen in the rearview mirror, and giving Tara the puppy-eyes. Spike would have helped, but -- mirror.

"You had pasta an hour ago," Willow reminded them. Spike thought she was really getting too much into the whole 'mommy' thing. Granted, she always had, but this was going overboard. As if it *mattered* how long ago they'd eaten?

"We want fries!" Xander repeated in a loud, piteous tone. Spike was impressed by his volume.

When there was no immediate move to turn the car around, Spike helped. "It'll be our Last Meal! We want it to be a Happy Meal!"

Willow and Tara both groaned. "His mind may have regressed, but his sense of humor stayed the same," Willow commented. "It's just finally in the right-sized body."

Spike forced himself not to make a snarky comment about bodies and sizes and other things a four-year-old wasn't supposed to be thinking, and concentrated on something simple -- desire for fries. Those sweet, salty, greasy, luscious sticks of potato that, he and Xander agreed, had to have some sort of addictive drug as their secret ingredient, because the fact was, they were disgusting. And yet...

"We want fries..." he said dolefully. And he did.

"I want chicken nuggets," Buffy added.

"Cheeseburger!" Xander cried, and Spike echoed him a moment later. Not that he really cared what else was in the Happy Meal, but peeling off the cheese and whapping someone with it was always good for laughs.

They all watched as Tara looked over at Willow. They did their telepathic communication thing which Spike couldn't translate no matter how often he pretended he could. "They'll only get louder if we don't," Willow finally said. Spike, and the others, all cheered once Tara got into a turn lane to change directions.

Giles scooted forward. "I want a Sprite. With very little ice. And a straw that bends." He sounded imperiously demanding, much like he did when he was trying to get them to pay attention to a briefing. Spike goosed him, then pointed at Xander when he whirled around.

"I... um... don't know if they have the bendy straws here," Tara said, looking at Willow quickly, then pulling into the drive-through lane.

"Oh, we need the bendy straws," Spike told them gravely. "It doesn't taste the same without the bendy-straws."

Giles looked torn between smacking Xander for pinching him, smacking Spike for just being Spike, and going into the Giles-Pout to end all Giles-Pouts. Which was Spike's fervent hope. He loved the Xander-Pout best, followed by the Anya-Pout, but he got to see those every day. The Giles-Pout was a rare and endangered animal, and he did everything he could to encourage its survival in the wild.

He wondered if he could get away with goosing the mini-Watcher again, while the gray-green eyes were busy not quite filling up with tears.

"We'll ask, Giles," Willow promised.

But Giles wasn't convinced. Spike watched avidly as his face ever so slowly slid into the pout. Very subtle; if you didn't know what was coming you'd just think he was snarked. But then, there it went -- the frown, the eyes, and the chin all smoothly arranged into a pout.

Spike wanted to applaud, but he was afraid he'd startle the old boy out of it.

Willow sighed. "I said we'd ask."

"But McDonald's doesn't have bendy straws," Dawn pointed out -- but she was sitting where she couldn't see The Pout. "Just the same red and yellow things they've always had."

Giles' chin quivered. "I want a bendy straw," he said in a very tiny voice. Spike found *himself* ready to run out and buy him a box. He glanced over and saw Xander watching Giles with a rapt expression. Uh-oh. If that one started taking notes...

"Welcome to McDonald's, may I take your order?" a teenaged female voice echoed out of the speakers, startling him, and apparently Giles as well, who hiccuped.

"I want chicken nuggets!" Buffy yelled, at the same time as Xander was extolling the virtues of cheeseburgers, fries, and little motorcycles with army guys on them.

Giles just hiccuped again, and whispered "Bendy straw?" at Willow.

Spike couldn't be left out of the fun, so he shouted out over the lot of them, "I want a Big Mac Double Cheese Jumbo Burger and three large orders of fries Happy Meal. And a chocolate shake."

Even Dawn poked her head around the seat to peer into the back at him. "They don't have that burger; you made it up. And you can't even eat one large order of fries."

"Can so!"

But it was too late. Tara was placing an order for four Happy Meals, and fries for the grown-ups. Spike pouted, briefly, then started planning his attack. It all depended on whether the nits gave them gender-appropriate toys, or not.

Then he pouted at Dawn, again, because she was giggling at him. Or possibly at Buffy or Xander, but just in case... "I can eat four large fries; I've done it before."

"Yeah, and got sick half an hour later," Xander reminded him.

Spike wanted to whap him. Whose side was he on, anyhow? Spike grimaced at the little half-hearted twinge the chip gave him, as if it knew he was only thinking of Xander, and hitting Xander didn't really count anymore.

"So? I ate 'em," he protested.

"Yeah, and it was kinda cool watchin' you do the Exorcist-vomit thing." Xander pulled on Willow's sleeve. "Get him the fries. I wanna see him spew."

She looked sternly at Xander. "No, I will *not*. There will be no spewing in this car. Unless *you* wanna clean it when you're big again."

Xander shook his head quickly. "No. I wanna go drive *my* car when I get big again."

"I wanna go shopping," Buffy said, bouncing in her seat. "I wanna buy a new dress and go dance at the Bronze."

They all looked at Giles.

He sniffed. "I want a bendy straw."

Xander was the only one who looked at Spike. Spike agreeably told him, "I want to do things I haven't the bits for."

Then he grinned, as the boy handing over sacks of food, looked startled and nearly dropped the Happy Meal. Spike glared -- it better not have been *his* pickle-less cheeseburger.

Willow started handing Happy Meals into the back seat while Tara paid the boy and said casually, "Add that to the tab, hon?"

"Sure," Willow said in a breezy tone that instantly made Spike suspicious. Then he realized they were talking about making them pay them back for everything, and relaxed. He wasn't the one with a job, was he?

He saw Giles morosely holding his drink, and looking at the straw Dawn had put in it. Spike waited to see if they were going to get *two* Giles Pouts in the same day.

"We'll get you a bendy straw on the way to the shop," Willow told the unhappy-looking boy. Damn. No pout, just a suspicious little 'hmm' from Giles, who took a small sip of his soda.

"What's the toy? What's the toy?" Xander was asking, as he opened his bag and fiddled about, heedless of the actual food. Which was pretty much what they were all doing.

Buffy pulled hers out first. "I got... Van Helsing? Yuck! I want Dracula!"

Xander held up his own. "Lucy? Who's Lucy?"

Spike glanced at it. "She's the one gets vamped and goes out lookin' for kids to eat."

Buffy nodded. "Yeah, she sings that song about 'Come here, little boy...' I saw it in the commercial."

Willow was grimacing in the rear-view mirror, Spike could see. "There's something just... wrong about Disney doing 'Dracula, the animated musical.'

Spike pulled his own toy out. "Whadja get?" Xander asked eagerly.

Grinning, Spike waved it in his face. "Renfield. The bug-eatin' bloke."

Xander appeared suitably impressed -- at least Spike thought so, until Xander screwed up his face and stuck his tongue out. "Bugs, ick." Startled, Spike almost reached up and felt Xander's forehead. Bugs, ick? This was the four-year-old he'd come to know and love?

His concern was distracted by a smug Giles saying, "I got a coffin." They all turned to look, as Giles triumphantly held up the coffin which held... Dracula.

"Trade ya!" Spike, Xander, and Buffy all yelled at once.

Giles shook his head, his fingers closely tightly around the toy.

"I'll give you Lucy, and a french fry," Xander offered.

"Van Helsing and *two* french fires!" Buffy upped the ante.

"I'll give you Renfield, and a whole large french fry," Spike offered. When they looked at his in confusion, he pointed to the front seat. There were plenty of large fries to offer.

"You're not getting our fries," Dawn told him. But Spike saw her glance towards the Dracula toy. "I'll give you..."

"Dawn, no!" Willow shushed her. "Don't even think about it. Let Giles have his toy. Geez, it's not like you can't drive through tomorrow and get your own."

"It's not like he can't drive through tomorrow and get his own, too," Dawn pointed out, though she retreated into her seat next to the front passenger side window and didn't say anything further. Spike could see her perplexed reflection in the glass.

"It wouldn't be the same, Niblet," he said softly, putting his face up close to the back of her seat, while the others in the back showed off their toys and continued to try to get Giles to trade, with no success.

Dawn turned her head, twisting around to face him, though he could see her perfectly well in the slightly darkened window. As long as she'd known vampires of one sort or another, and she still wasn't used to talking at the reflection of thin air. "It's so weird to hear you call me that. You're little enough for me to call *you* the bite-sized one."

"What do you mean? I'm always bite-sized." He grinned, leering as best as he could without making anyone slap him. Except, hang on, the only ones who slapped him for leering at the little girl were all little, themselves. He leered harder.

Dawn rolled her eyes. "That looks so stupid on you, Spike. Thought you should know."

He blinked. "What?" How could his best leer look *stupid*?

"You're four years old," she explained, as if he hadn't noticed the PeeWee sized peewee in the bathroom this morning. "A four-year-old leering looks about as stupid as a four-year-old kicking the back of my seat." She glared hard at Xander. Xander stuck his tongue out, and went back to offering Giles everyone's fries, and a cash advance.

Spike tried his second-best leer. (The one reserved for times when he, Xander, and Anya were already in bed together and there wasn't a chance he wasn't going to get any, and he was saving his strength for other things.) "How's this one?"

"You look like you just found out you're lactose intolerant."

He stuck his tongue out at her.

She smiled, then looked measuringly at him. "You know, you have the longest tongue I've ever seen on a four-year-old, and please don't make any comments that I'll have to think too deeply about when I go to sleep tonight. Can you touch your nose with it?"

Spike raised one eyebrow, and stuck his tongue out as far as he could, almost touching the bridge of his nose with it. Flash, and he was effectively blind.

"Love you too, Little Bit," he snarled. "Remind me to show your next boyfriend those pictures Xan has of you in the Girl Scout uniform. With the braces."

"If he's anything like you, he'll think they're sexy."

Spike raised his other eyebrow. Hard to remember not to think 'the one with the scar' even though it wasn't there to make his face feel tight every time he stretched it. He hoped it wasn't permanently gone, or he might have to go out to Willy's and get in a demon fight, just to get it back.

"I don't think ten year olds are sexy," he protested. "They're too old for me."

"Oh yeah?" Then Dawn stuck her tongue out at him.

Spike reached forward as fast as his diminutive vampire reflexes would allow, and grabbed her tongue between his fingers. Startled, she slapped his hand. "Oau!"

Before he could respond to her witty retort, there was a sudden howling -- Xander, and in sincere distress. Spike let go of her tongue and turned to find Xander sitting on the floorboards, howling his heart out.

And no wonder. Scattered all over the floor, crushed and mixed in with things even Spike would have hesitated to pick a french fry out of, were Xander's french fries.

"What on earth is going on back there?" Willow asked. Spike ignored her, and crouched down beside Xander, pulled the screaming child towards him.

"Xander, what's wrong," Willow asked, more forcefully, poking her head back through the space between the front seats. How they managed to fit three people into the front of a Range Rover was something Spike could think deeply about at another time. Right now, he had a bawling Xander in his arms.

Buffy sniffed haughtily. "He tried to steal my slayer-guy to trade for Giles' Dracula, and his fries got all spilled, and it serves him right."

Xander wasn't making a lot of sense as he sobbed into Spike's faded Oscar the Grouch t-shirt, but Spike caught, "Woulda... give it back... my fries..." before another round of sobs obliterated any attempt at English communication.

"Come on, Xan. You can have my fries," Spike told him, even though he didn't really have many left. Not enough to satisfy him, now. Xander didn't even seem to have heard him. He did hear Willow trying to scoot closer, and glanced up to see her trying to reach Xander.

"Xander? Come on, you can have some of my fries," she said. But Xander was too busy trying not to breathe, in favour of screaming. And kicking Buffy, which Spike normally heartily approved of.

Now, though, he reached out and pulled Xander's leg away from her, where Xander couldn't reach, held his leg so he couldn't kick. "She didn't mean to, Xan. Don't kick her."

He found Willow blinking at him, eyes wide. "Spike?"

They were pulling to a stop, before he had to bother with explaining that Xander would just feel all guilty when he got big again, if Spike let him keep kicking the Slayer, and Spike would so much rather shag than watch him brood. Buffy and Giles piled out of the vehicle as soon as they could, Buffy still insisting she hadn't done anything deliberately.

Tara and Dawn came around to lead them into the Magic Box, both of them casting concerned looks at the still-blubbering Xander. Willow waved them off, and began to pull Xander from Spike's arms.

"No! I don't wanna..." Xander bawled, and now Spike knew he was just plain hysterical, because normally he'd trade ice cream for a chance to be picked up and carried around by Willow.

Spike tried to pull him out of the truck on his own, glaring at Willow when she reached to pick Xander up. She was only trying to help, but if he'd reached this stage of senselessness... "I can carry him," Spike said firmly.

"Spike, don't be silly, he's the same size as you are. I don't care how strong you are, you'd fall over if you try to lift him up." Willow pulled them both down from the back seat, and shut the door, reaching down to pick Xander up. "We really should hurry; they're waiting for us."

"Give him to me," he demanded, hurrying as she picked him up again out of Spike's arms. He bloody well too could carry him, and if not they'd sit out here on the sidewalk all night. He tried to grab her arm, but didn't, afraid she might drop Xander, who didn't really seem to notice, or care, who was holding him. Willow headed inside the shop, apparently ignoring Spike. Glaring at her, and promising to do evil things to her as soon as he was big enough and got rid of the chip so it wouldn't do what it was doing right now, he scrambled after. "Let me have him!" he demanded again.

Willow went up to Angel, and handed him the hysterical child. Spike spared a moment to approve, and enjoy the dumb look on Angel's face, before he realized why she'd handed Xander to him. Angel was strong enough to hold Xander *and* Spike. Spike practically crawled up his Sire's leg until Angel reached down for him, and picked him up. Finally.

Spike reached over and pulled Xander to him, once more, and held him while Angel held them both.

When Xander had finally settled down to a quiet sniffling, Spike ventured another look at Angel's gobsmacked face. Grinned.

"Uh..." Angel said, showing off the keen and incisive wit that had made him the leading quarter of the Scourge of Europe.

"French fries," Spike mouthed.

"French guys?"

"Yeah, they're terribly rude. One of 'em called Xan a poophead." Spike rolled his eyes. "Twit." He mouthed the words again, and mimed eating, then spilling, the fries.

Which obviously told Angel *nothing*, and made Spike wonder who had been the brains of the outfit. Certainly hadn't been Spike, since they'd never listened to him, anyway. He looked over at Xander, who was growing even quieter. Sniffling. Rubbing his nose on Angel's shirt. Good boy!

"Xan?" he asked carefully, not wanting to set off another round of whatever that had been.

Xander looked at him with such huge eyes and whipped expression, that Spike wanted to instantly promise to destroy everything that had ever hurt Xander. Except this time it had been Buffy, and whomever hadn't cleaned out the Range Rover so Xander couldn't just eat his fries off the floor. Which, um, was Dawn. So maybe he'd just growl. Softly.

Xander didn't answer -- he was trying to inhale gasps of air. Spike wriggled forward, trusting Angel not to drop him, and held Xander as tightly as he could.

"Perhaps we should get ready to perform the spell?" Wesley asked, though he sounded like he didn't mind if they had to wait some more. But Spike thought it was a good idea to get it over with -- maybe, once older, Xander wouldn't be about to burst into tears again as soon as he remembered what he was bawling about.

He nodded, and motioned with one hand for Angel to put them down. Across the room, Buffy was grinning and bouncing up and down on her toes. "I'm gonna be big again, and I can go out to the park and kick some vampire butt..." she chanted.

Giles, however, looked at the floor, and scuffed his shoes. He was clutching his toy in his hand, and moping silently, over what, Spike couldn't really figure. He'd managed to keep Dracula through all the hubbub, so the evening should have been a roaring triumph for him. Spike wondered if they were going to be treated to a mini-Ripper tantrum. After a few moments of watching Giles stare at invisible dust-bunnies on the shop floor as the adults busied themselves with the preparations for the spell, he decided it wasn't going to happen.

Which was both a disappointment for the theatrical-audience side of him, and a relief for the bit that just couldn't handle another screaming fit, even if the one doing the screaming didn't belong to Spike, this time.

"Look what I found!" Dawn said, coming out of Giles' office. She was holding a box, and walked over to Giles. Spike blinked as she pulled a straw out of the box, bent it at a rakish angle, and replaced the straight boring straw in Giles' soda.

Giles beamed at her.

Spike returned his attention to Xander, who was nestled up in Spike's arms with his head resting on Angel's chest. Blinking slowly, as though he needed a nap. Which he probably did. "Come on, Xan, let's get changed back then we can go to bed." He only leered a little, so why Dawn whapped him on the head as she walked past, he didn't understand.

"Oh, I brought the bathrobes," Angel said, nodding towards a bag sitting on the floor. Spike thought he needed to work on his hand motions, and did the 'set us down, you ponce' motion one more time.

Angel didn't see him. Or something, because he was still holding them.

"Can't put 'em on if you don't stop smooshing us, Mr. Potato-Head," Spike said to him.

Xander looked up. "Mr. Potato-head? Where?"

"I was talkin' to the big tuber-face here," Spike told him, nodding at Angel's head. Alert for any sign that Xander was going to go off again, like a defused bomb that might still have a booby trap. But Xander only gave a little -- very little -- grin.

Angel looked down at them, and he didn't look confused at all. Which was a rarity. Instead, the look on his face was much more frightening. It was... all mushy, and creepy, and...

And he was getting kissed on the forehead, and then Xander was, which was fine, and then they were both being smooshed again. Really tight. Spike wasn't worried for himself -- aside from the general fear that his Sire had gone round the bend again -- but Xander still had to breathe.

He decided quite firmly that he was going to count to five, or possibly ten, then he was going to bite Angel.

When he got to seven Angel set them down, and went over to grab two of the robes. Spike put his arm around Xander, who was still sniffling every once in a while. Xander grabbed onto him like Spike was his teddy bear -- which he was, but they were in a room full of people who weren't supposed to know about *that* bit. Spike stood still until Angel handed out their robes.

Spike blinked. "What's that for?"

"To put on," Angel said.

"So you aren't naked, when you grow up and your clothes don't," Willow explained. Buffy was already wearing her over-sized robe and waiting near the circle Wesley had drawn. Giles was trying to remove his shorts underneath his robe without flashing anybody.

Spike blinked at his Sire. "Yeah?"

Angel sighed. "We don't want to see you, naked. Put the robes on."

Spike considered protesting, then grinned. "Okay." He immediately began stripping off-- and helping Xander to do the same. Angel grabbed him firmly by the back of his size 3x jeans, before he got round to unbuttoning Xander's.

"I said we *don't* want to see you naked."

"Oh, we're kids. Get an unlife." Spike twisted out of his Sire's grasp and shucked off his jeans and shoes, smiling approvingly as Xander did the same.

"Okay, that's enough. Put the robes on," Angel ordered.

"But these underwear will be too small for us, if we leave 'em on," Xander said, flashing the big, still liquid-filled brown eyes at him. *Very* good boy.

"*Far* too small," Spike added, leering at anyone within leering distance.

"Which is why you're putting your robes on *before* you-- oh, hell. Fine." Angel looked away from Spike and Xander, who had both wriggled out of their underwear while Angel was telling them they'd better not. They did put the robes on, though Spike didn't quite manage to get his pulled closed.

Angel growled and knelt down, and belted his robe, then belted Xander's. Xander pouted at him, and Spike thumped Angel. "If you get him to bawling, again--!"

"Why don't you two come stand over here, in the circle?" Willow interrupted.

Spike was tempted to say he didn't want to, but he really *didn't* want to set Xander off again. He took a hold of Xander's hand, and stepped towards the circle -- and stopped. Looked up at Angel. "We're gonna trip and break our necks."

And they were out of the robes and running over to the circle before Angel could grab either of them.

Angel growled quite a bit louder, this time, and brought the robes over to the circle. "On, now," he ordered, in that 'I'm your Sire and you'd better listen or I'll do something nasty to someone's puppy' voice that he hadn't been able to pull off properly in years. Spike just giggled.

"Or you'll what -- spank us?"

Before Angel could answer, Xander gave Spike a big, fearful gaze, and opened his mouth wide. "I don't wanna be spanked!" he howled. "I didn't do anything!"

Neither of which was true, or at least the last one wasn't, and the first one wouldn't be if they could just get themselves back to proper, all-bits-working, size, but it was awfully hard for Spike to concentrate on how to convince Xander of that when he was screaming.

"Oh, bloody hell," he muttered, and picked up Xander's robe with one hand, grabbing onto Xander with the other. He wrapped the robe around Xander's shoulders as best he could -- getting a little help from Angel, who gave him a smug 'your fault' look which Spike *didn't* need, thank you. When he had Xander wrapped up tight, himself half-inside Xan's robe with him, he looked up at Wesley. "Reckon you can do the spell while he's carrying on?"

Wesley looked doubtful. Tara pointed out, "He'll be yelling for an hour, otherwise. We'd better just get started."

The witches and spellcasters and spellcasters' assistants got into position to begin the spell. Spike hung onto Xander, and gave Angel a dark glare until his Sire knelt down again and wrapped them both in his arms again.

They stayed that way throughout the spellcasting -- Xander's cries winding down into snuffles by the time the last of the mojo had been done. There was a flash of light, and Spike felt like the room had been tipped over.

When he could see again, he found himself much taller. Not as tall as Xander, of course, who was blinking, and grinning those few inches down at him. And nowhere near as tall as Angel, the mum-was-taking-steroids-when-he-was-conceived bastard.

Who was standing up, having been drawn upward with them as the reversal spell unfolded. Unfortunate, that, because Spike had come up with a list of lewd suggestions to use if Angel had come out of it still kneeling. He was, however, gratified to note that Angel was still hugging them. And hadn't yet realized that Xander was half-naked, and Spike was... suddenly happily aware of the bits he'd mentioned wanting to use earlier.

Considering that he was pressed up against a half-naked Xander, it wasn't surprising.

"Will someone get that undead white guy some clothes on?" came a complaint which Spike was happy to ignore.

"Xander? Are you OK?" came Willow's question, sounding half-tentative and half like she was about to start teasing him mercilessly at the first sign of embarrassment.

Xander turned to her, yawned, and gave her a puppy look. "I don't have any fries."

"I have," Buffy sang at them. Then she looked at Giles, and gave *him* a puppy look.

"No. I am not giving you my Dracula toy. It's mine and I am going to keep it."

Spike glanced over, and saw the toy still clutched in Giles' hand.

Xander sniffled, but Spike could tell it was completely fake, this time. "I was promised fries. I was, I remember."

Angel poked Spike hard on the arm, and he glanced over to see his Sire holding out the robe that Spike somehow never got round to putting on. Spike did the only thing you could do with Angel when he wanted you to do something -- ignored him.

"Yeah, you promised my Xander fries," Spike said accusingly to Willow, who still had a questioning look on her face.

"Are you guys... um... mentally..." Willow studied their completely innocent faces for a few quiet seconds, then turned to Giles. "Are *you* back to normal, Giles?"

Rupert coughed loudly and said, "Of course I am," before slipping his Happy Meal toy into the pocket of his robe.

"Buffy?"

"Yup. Full-size Buffy, completely compos mentos."

Willow blinked at her for a moment, then smiled, along with Spike, Giles and most of the other Latin speakers in the room.

Buffy frowned. "Not quite right?"

"Not unless you mean you're hidin' a package of the Freshmaker somewhere in that robe." Spike caught Xander's eye. "Wanna help her look for it?"

Xander shook his head. "Nah-- what if she actually said 'compos mantis,' and there's one of those bug-women in there with her?"

Buffy stuck out her tongue, showing off her newfound maturity. Willow looked torn between grinning and glaring sternly at Spike and Xander. "Well, I guess you're back to what passes for normal, too."

"But I still get my fries, right?" Xander asked. He turned his puppy face to Spike, who was already willing to go buy him more fries. Er, talk Angel into buying them both fries. Since he didn't have any money, nor pockets.

Spike tried turning a puppy face on Angel.

Angel snorted.

Then Spike couldn't see much, because there was a robe on his head.

~~~~~

Half an hour later, they were trying to relax. Socialize as adults for a while, before Angel, Wesley, and Gunn came to their senses and decided to head back to Los Angeles and away from Spike and Xander, as fast as Gunn's truck could take them.

All of the robed ex-children were now dressed in their own clothing, and Rupert, for one, was overjoyed to be out of those infernal kiddie fashions. Really. Which didn't exactly explain why he was still holding his Dracula figure in one hand, absently playing with the cape.

Xander was still pouting over not being able to wear the Underoos anymore, but he was obviously only doing it to make Dawn giggle, or perhaps to convince Spike that Spike needed to convince Xander to buy something similar in an adult size on their way home. He didn't look as if he were *really* disappointed to be an adult again. Especially considering that a blue-jeaned Spike was sitting on his lap, still trying to tease Angel, and having a reasonable amount of success even without the huge blue anime eyes.

Buffy was talking animatedly to Wesley about the lengths she'd been able to push her vamp-sensing abilities to, recently, and whether it was something new and weird, or just due to the fact that she'd outlived any previous Slayer on record.

All in all, they looked perfectly happy to be restored to their previous selves. As well they should be.

So why was Giles still wishing he'd taken more time to enjoy his bendy straw?

He tried not to dwell on it, uncomfortable enough with the memories of being held to see onto the table of t-shirts, or even more embarrassingly, of crawling into bed with the others. Waking up *snuggling*, for god's sake. Which reminded him, he had to find and destroy their film.

Rather than think about things he felt it best to put past him, he turned his attention to the Urdeku. Wesley had been re-reading the book, his progress slowed by stopping to chat with Buffy, Willow and Tara, and stopping to fend off his companion's advances. Or not fend off, Rupert noted as he glanced away in time to avoid seeing where Gunn's left hand was trying to go.

The statue needed to be destroyed, but he had to be sure it was safe to do so. Perhaps it could be rendered powerless, and it could remain as a reminder? Which meant first determining the source and extent of its power.

Which meant going over to talk to Wesley, of course.

Wesley, whose *lap* he had sat on while the other man was reading the book for the first time. Wesley, who had good-naturedly allowed a four-year-old Rupert to correct his pronunciation of the word 'bisquiscalium' and never once laughed at his lisp. Wesley, who was even now noticing the fact that he was looking in that direction, and was motioning him over with a disturbing little smile.

Sighing, Rupert crossed the shop to the chair in which Wesley was seated. His unformed suspicions were confirmed when Gunn stood up from where he was perched on the arm of the soft chair, and indicated Wesley's lap. "All yours, G."

*His* grin was wide enough to make Giles scowl reflexively at Wesley. Big-mouthed little tit. Wesley merely held up the book. "Did you want to share?"

"Information, yes. Your lap, no."

"Ah." Wesley managed to look as though Rupert had embarrassed himself anyhow.

He gave the other man a stern look, and held up the book he'd carried over. "Is there a reference to the Urdeku there?"

Wesley frowned at the book in his lap, then nodded. "Yes, actually. Here." He pointed out the paragraph. Rupert read it twice before showing Wesley the passage he'd found.

"My word." Wesley sat up straight. When he looked up, Rupert nodded. "Do you think it's safe?"

"We certainly came out of it unscathed," Rupert pointed out. "I say that having not seen the photographs Willow is hiding."

"What's safe?" Buffy asked, wandering over. Rupert's hand closed on his Dracula doll, and he saw Buffy frown.

"The Urdeku still retains its power -- limited power."

"So we have to render it harmless?" Willow asked, giving the Urdeku a dubious look and a wide berth, as she walked around it.

Rupert shook his head. "It isn't dangerous, as such. The huge 'beware, beware' notices carved on the side, and the writings about it in the literature, are merely a warning not to play about with it without another adult whom you trust being present. It's an artifact that you wouldn't have wanted to touch in battle, for instance-- you'd be instantly powerless."

"So how did it manage to get all the way here from wherever you ordered it from, without anybody accidentally touching it?" Buffy asked. "And why did you order it in the first place?"

Rupert blinked at her. And blinked again. "I didn't." He called over to Xander, who was busy not remotely trying to stop Spike from doing inappropriate things to him. "Xander, have you called Anya?"

Xander looked up, startled, with that familiar 'I didn't do it, whatever it was' expression. "No! I mean... wait a minute. Yeah, I called her. Before we all started acting like real kids. She said neat, cool, she loves us, take lots of pictures."

"And that you lot should keep track of everything annoying we do and give her a list, so she can punish us for it when she gets back," Spike added with a straight face. The frightening thing was that he probably wasn't lying. So did that mean that if they really wanted to fix Spike, they should all tell Anya that her boys had been as good as gold?

Rupert shook his head. Not the question at hand. "What I'm concerned about is whether she mentioned having placed the order for the statue in the first place."

"Nope. In fact, she'd never heard of it. I guess it's not exactly vengeance-related magic." Xander shrugged.

"Does it make any difference where it came from, if it's not dangerous?" Willow asked.

"No, I suppose not. Though it should still be drained of its power, if only so no one else gets regressed by accident, without the... er... extended support system that we had to help us deal with it."

"So how do we drain it of power?" Buffy asked.

"Well, actually, that's rather a... interesting thing." Rupert looked at the statue again, and stifled the urge to explain its origins and apparent purpose for being created. Normally he wouldn't have resisted the chance to explain, but he wanted to see the looks on their faces when he told them what they needed to do to render it inert.

He found them all waiting, looking at him. Except Wesley, who was staring at the statue as if worried it might tip over and land on someone.

"OK, enough with the dramatic pause," Xander said. "What's so interesting?"

"We can safely and effectively drain it of its power by using it again. Four times, to be precise."

Instead of the confusion -- and possibly complaining -- that he expected, there were general mutterings of 'cool' and 'who's next, then' and 'I'm *not* letting Angel play with my bubble foam.'

"I have no *intention* of playing with your bubble foam," Angel answered Xander with great dignity.

"Oh, come now, you *are* gonna get kiddified, aren't you?" Spike asked him. "You need to be raised up proper, after all."

"By you two? I don't think so."

Xander shook his head. "Oh no. All three of us. Anya gets back on Tuesday."

"I repeat: no. And also no."

"But Cordelia will be so disappointed," Wesley teased him.

"Nah," Gunn said, slapping shut the book that Wesley was holding, and pulling it from his hands. "She'll be too busy snappin' pictures of you, English."

"Me?" Wesley looked startled. "I won't be touching that thing."

"Why not? I bet you'd have fun." Dawn grinned at him.

Willow was waving her hand. "Me? Me and Tara? We get to, right?" She gave Tara a look, and Tara shrugged, then nodded with a small smile.

Willow grinned back. Xander said, "Hey! A four-year-old Willow. Who wouldn't want to see that?"

"And you better be nice to me, Mister," she told him, already pouting. "I expect fries. Lots of 'em."

"Oh?" Buffy asked. "And who was it took pictures of us playing in the sprinkler, naked?"

"Who was it took her clothes off, Missy?" Willow countered.

"I was *four*!"

"And Xan was just born to strip," Spike added with a grin. Which got him a smack -- from Buffy.

"You promised never to repeat that story," she hissed.

"What story?" Spike asked innocently. "We were talking about you naked in the sprinkler, right?"

"No, we were talking about what we're gonna do to Willow when she turns four. Like play airplane," Xander said gleefully.

"And read her bedtime stories," Spike said, a nasty gleam in his eye.

Willow nodded. "Yup. *My* choice in bedtime stories. I think you bozos might just manage to finish reading 'Little Women' in two weeks. If you get through that one, I figure we can start on the Camille Paglia."

Rupert decided he didn't want to know why Spike and Xander just kept grinning, as if they were actually looking forward to it. From Willow's expression, she didn't either.

"So who else is touching it?" Buffy asked, looking around the room. "We need two more volunteers! Dawn? You want a go?"

But Dawn shook her head. "Nah. If we had a statue that made people older - I'd like to be twenty." She looked hopefully at Rupert. He shook his head. Dawn's face fell. She pouted well enough that he was rather glad she didn't want to be four.

Buffy looked at the others. "Gunn? How about you?"

He just shook his head. "Nope. Somebody's gotta take care of the little pansy-ass squirt for two weeks, and it ain't gonna be Angel. Look at how *his* kids turned out." He nodded at Spike and Xander, who were back to... Rupert blinked. It almost looked like perfectly innocent necking. Perhaps he needed a new prescription.

"I am *not* going to..." Wesley was protesting again.

"Yeah, yeah, tell it to the guy who *doesn't* know your teddy bear's name," Gunn said.

Wesley looked hurriedly at Rupert, then away, and it took him a second to puzzle it out, before he had to grin at his countryman. Ah well, he did owe Wesley for being so patient with him when he was a child, Rupert supposed. "Gunn, we're British, and over twenty-five. *Everyone's* teddy bear was named Rupert."

"Not mine," Spike corrected him.

"Spike, they didn't have teddy bears when you were four," Angel said.

"Who's talking about when I was four?" Spike responded, giving Xander a mostly chaste bear-hug.

"Right, so we have Willow, Tara, and Wesley, as three of our four volunteers?" Rupert said quickly, before he got any closer to upchucking than he already was.

"I am *not*--" Wesley began again. Gunn took his hand, said, "Excuse us," to the group, and pulled Wesley away a few steps. Everyone pretended not to listen, though everything they said was perfectly clear. "Come on, Wes. It's a perfect chance. Be a kid again."

"No. I didn't enjoy it the first time; I have no desire to do it again."

"But he ain't here. You'd--"

"I said 'no'. I realize he isn't here, but I have no desire to be a child."

There was a pause, and Rupert glanced over to see Gunn facing Wesley, cupping Wesley's face in his hands. "I ain't gonna let anyone hurt you, Wes. You can be a kid, again, and actually *be* a kid. I'll make sure of that."

There was more silence, and Rupert didn't have to glance over to know they were either kissing, gazing deeply and meaningfully, or about to do either.

Wesley said something that was too soft for him to overhear, but Gunn responded, "You don't have to be. I'm gonna watch over you. Promise."

Rupert moved a bit further away, looking pointedly elsewhere. He wasn't sure why -- this lot explored their deep, personal relationship issues around him -- usually loudly -- just about every day. There was something different about this, though. Whether it was just that it was the L.A. group, or Wesley being another member of the no-fuss-please-we're-British club... at any rate, it felt wrong to listen in any further.

He was quite chuffed to know his conclusions were correct, however, when Wesley moved slowly back to his chair, Gunn at his side, and nodded. "All right. I do this under protest, however, and mostly because if I don't, Gunn has threatened to do nasty things to my bone china tea set."

"The Royal Doulton," Gunn muttered. "With the hand-painted friggin' periwinkles. Crash. Tinkle. Tinkle."

Rupert frowned. "Really, Charles. If he doesn't want to..." Not that he particularly cared about Royal Doulton, but it was the principle of the thing. Now, if it were Wedgwood, that would be another case entirely...

"I need pictures of him as a kid," Gunn replied, straight-faced and serious as though that were his only true motive. Rupert decided not to press -- Wesley was a grown man... for now... and could surely talk himself out of doing something like this, if he chose.

"Well, that leaves one more. Who would like it?" He glanced about the room, and found several people staring at Angel.

"No," the vampire said. Firmly. Politely. To Willow. To Spike, he said something in Latin that indicated his vocabulary was far too advanced for a potential four-year-old, in more ways than one.

"I know what that means, you know," Spike said, looking at Angel for all the world as if he were still four years old and his Sire had said 'Hell' in front of him.

"So do I," Willow informed him, "and you still haven't explained why. We wouldn't really let Spike and Xander take care of you, if you didn't want them to. Gunn and Cordelia could do it."

"Oh, even better," came the pained reply. "No, thank you, no."

"But it'll be fun," Willow insisted. "Don't you wanna be four again? No worries, no guilt, no brooding." She smiled, taking the edge off the teasing words.

"No curse?" Angel asked.

"Oh. I didn't... you think you'd be... um... happy?" Willow frowned, thinking. "Were you guys-- ok, dumb question. Anyone who can laugh for an hour over cereal commercials is completely happy."

"Hey!" Buffy protested. "It was a funny commercial."

"Erm, actually--" Spike interrupted, his tone one that made everyone look at him, and most sane people take a step back or grab a stake. "He wouldn't be *completely* four. Ish. Maybe 180."

Xander was the first one to speak after the few seconds of confused silence that followed. "What exactly are you saying? In English, Spike."

The sandy-haired vampire -- he had reacquired his scar, but not his peroxide-stripped locks -- squirmed a bit on Xander's lap. "Er... well... I might not have exactly..."

Willow shot him a sharp look. "You didn't regress! You were just acting like a brat because you were cute and could get away with it."

"Yeah, that's a major change," Xander snorted.

"I *did* regress," Spike insisted. "Just... well, I'm a vampire. Our body chemistry's different from yours."

"Regressed to what?" Buffy asked, her eyes narrowing in that 'pre-slay taunting' way she had.

"Er, well, I dunno. Felt like I was 60!" Spike looked insulted by the insinuation that he hadn't regressed at all, then returned Xander's grin. "Was having too much fun to really worry about it."

"You sneak," Xander told him, and Rupert could tell that in another moment he was going to have to be looking elsewhere if he didn't want to get an eyeful of Xander-Spike tongue-hockey.

"See? It wouldn't have any effect on me," Angel said quickly, as if he didn't want to be seeing it, either.

"Who, then? We *do* have to render the Urdeku powerless." Rupert turned his attention back to the statue. "I suppose someone could have a second go. There's no harm in it, according to the books."

"We could wait for Anya," Xander suggested, meanwhile doing something with his finger and Spike's ear that suggested they had no intention whatsoever of waiting for Anya, for anything.

"Ew, stop that, it's disgusting," Buffy said, wrinkling her nose. The she looked seriously at the two men. "You think she'd want to miss out on male companionship for *another* two weeks? Even yours?"

"Point. 'Kay, who wants to go again, and don't say you do, Spike."

"Wouldn't dream of it. Wouldn't be any fun without you, anyhow."

"Besides, he's already used to you being the short one. Wouldn't be any different," Dawn retorted, then looked innocent when Buffy, Willow, and Giles all gaped at her.

"That's it, she's not spending any more time with them. Ever." Buffy folded her arms and glared at the two oblivious guys who had corrupted her little sister.

Rupert was only half-listening, as Spike flipped Buffy the bird and got threatened with a wooden hairclasp in reply. It really was necessary that *someone* else utilize the statue's power. For the safety of... of unsuspecting adults the world over. Or something like that. So why was he glad no one seemed to be jumping at the chance?

"I say we take a vote," Xander announced. Startled by what sounded like a sensible suggestion, Rupert looked over to find Xander raising his hand. Xander wanted them to vote for him? Well, not surprising, and if Xander really wanted to he didn't think anyone would say 'no'.

Xander shocked him by saying, "Everyone who thinks Giles should go another round of kiddie-hood, raise their hand."

There were seven yeas and one abstention. Rather, one Rupert Giles protesting half-heartedly that there was no reason it had to be *him* and why didn't Buffy take another go and who said anyone got to vote on what would be his personal decision anyway...

"Giles, I'm the Chosen One," Buffy explained gently. "I don't know if you knew this or not, but into every generation is born one girl. One girl, in all the world, born with the strength and the skill to hunt the vampires, to stop the spread of their evil..."

"To open stubborn pickle jars with just the gripping power of her two dainty knees..." Spike chimed in.

Rupert couldn't decide who to glare at, so he sent a general nasty glance at that corner of the room. "Yes, I was aware of that, thank you. Did you have a point?"

"The first time was an accident. I can't get away with slacking off the Slayage for *another* two weeks. It would be..." She pursed her lips, and gave him a deeply troubled look. "Wrong. You wouldn't want me to do something like that, would you, Giles?""

"Ah. Quite," he said dryly. "And the reason Xander shouldn't take a turn?"

"Like we said, earlier -- wouldn't be any fun without me," Spike said.

"No, you said it wouldn't be any fun for you without... oh, forget it. Dawn, are you sure...?"

Dawn grinned. "I'm sure. I still remember being a kid. I mean, I know I *wasn't*, really. But I don't wanna be little again. Buffy will make me do all my chores."

"And that's different from now, how?" Buffy asked her.

Rupert looked to Gunn, the only other one who could do it. But he knew he wouldn't ask -- Wesley would never take his turn, without his lover there to watch over him. Then they'd still need a fourth...

Sighing, Rupert nodded. "Fine. But only because the thing *has* to be rendered powerless."

"And so you can finish that Lego-Land castle."

"I have no desire to finish..." Rupert looked down at the action figure in his hand. Dracula did need a place to live, after all. And if he pouted nicely enough, Buffy would probably buy him the Weird Sisters to fill out his collection.

Plus, they had a whole box of bendy straws to use up, and he'd be damned if he was going to let Wesley take off to L.A. with them.

Dear God, he was thinking like a four-year-old already.


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