Son of Small Fry

Part Three

Willow gazed at the main galleria of the Sunnydale mall with undisguised glee, and tugged at Spike's hand. Geez, for a guy with supernatural speed and reflexes, he could be so slooooow. "Come on! They have a sale at Gymboree. Tara would look so cute in those little overalls with the elephants on the pocket. Hurry up!"

"Would somebody like to explain to me, slowly, again, how we got roped into this?" Xander was asking.

"You said you'd take care of us if we got little, duh," Willow told him.

"No, I meant, how did Spike and I get roped into taking you two to the mall, by ourselves. You'd think Anya would have learned, after the supermarket incident. And the bookstore. And the Toys R' Us."

"Yeah-- we got sent for one book on day trading, and came back with the entire Louisa May bloody Alcott section," Spike grumbled.

"Well, Tara hadn't read them. It's classic literature, from your generation. I don't see what your problem is."

"It's sniffly girly books from my generation, is what it is."

"Anyway, we didn't do anything to you in Toys R' Us -- you bought more toys for you than you did us," Tara pointed out innocently.

"Which is another reason why Anya should have known better than to let us loose with you two," Xander riposted. "Anyway, I think two hundred bucks' worth of software comes out about even with Spike's and my Lego sets."

Willow had to admit, they had a point. Anya had told them, each time they'd gone off somewhere, not to spend too much. She'd given them lists. The first time she had given the list to Spike, then she'd given it to Xander, then finally to Willow -- a list of approved purchases from whatever store they were being sent to. They invariably had failed to get less than $100 over the cost of the approved list.

Did Anya think her boys would eventually learn how to shop properly? Through rote repetition? If so, surely she would have realized that it hadn't worked thus far. Maybe she simply didn't like to shop, and felt that letting Spike and Xander go nuts was a small price to pay to avoid the mall and shopping centers. Anya definitely liked pretty things, but that didn't mean she was a shopaholic like Buffy or Cordelia; her shiny things were usually showered upon her by one or more guilty-acting men.

Then again, who cared why she'd let them loose with money to burn? Anya had given Xander her credit card this morning. Which meant -- "Oo! Spike, look, they've having a sale!" Willow tugged on his hand, wishing she could risk a small levitation spell because a certain vampire was acting like his feet were made of lead.

"That's not the Gymboree," Xander pointed out. Willow rolled her eyes -- like she'd forgotten how to read?

"But we need shoes," she pointed out, stopping in front of the store, and looking up at her oldest best friend with her very best pleading eyes.

"Should I just give you the credit card, and Spike and I can wait out here on the old man benches?"

"Don't be silly-- we need you to hold things for us!"

Spike groaned. Xander shot him a commiserating look, as if Willow was actually asking them to do something difficult, or horrible, or embarrassing. "It could be worse, I guess," Xander said as they walked into the store. "We could be shopping with Willow as an adult. 'Here, just hold my purse for me while I look at this rack of absolutely identical skirts, to find the one that goes just right with the hat that looks like a squished pumpkin'..."

"Summer squash. But thanks for reminding me -- here -- hold this." Willow shoved her little pink vinyl Powerpuff change purse into Spike's open hand, then wiggled out of his grasp, heading for the kids' tennis shoes. When she peeked back around the corner, Spike was still holding the purse up, staring at it as if she'd put a live aardvark in his hand. She giggled, and pointed him out to Tara. "Suuuure, he was willing to wear Mojo Jojo, when he was four, but look at him now. Poor manly baby."

"I heard that," Spike shouted. Which just made her giggle harder, since, of course, he'd been meant to.

Then she heard a quiet "Oops," followed by what sounded like a dozen shoes falling onto the floor. She turned around to where Tara had been standing, to find her girlfriend standing by what had been a lovely display of children's footwear. Now in a pile on the floor.

Tara looked up at her, eyes wide -- as if that sort of expression worked on fellow-four-year-olds, Willow thought. For a second, then she was beside Tara, holding her hand. "It's all right, honey, you didn't mean to."

"I wanted to see the Winnie the Pooh shoes," Tara explained. "They were on top."

"Maybe you should ask Xander to get them next time," Willow began. But Tara was already moving away, towards the display of shoes on the walls.

"Oh, look! They have Batgirl shoes. Can I have Batgirl shoes?"

"Don't ask me, Tara. Ask the fatherly-types with the credit card."

Tara ran over to Xander, who was trying to pretend he was interested in cheap work boots, and didn't really know the kid who'd made a mess of the display.

Willow watched as Tara tugged on Xander's arm, trying to get him to come look. She knocked them both into the stand-up 'sale sale sale' cardboard sign, which fell over with a soft whomp. Tara looked up at Xander, and there was that "Oops..." again. While Xander was busy picking up the sign, though, Tara was already tugging at Spike. "Come see, please. I want these shoes." Spike was still doing his molasses-walk, so Tara was practically hanging off his arm, dancing.

He transferred the aardvark-in-my-hand expression from Willow's purse, to Tara, but allowed her to drag him down the aisle. Which thought made Willow giggle again, as she tried to picture anybody managing to drag Spike down the aisle.

"Er, which ones?" Spike was saying, and Tara rolled her eyes.

"These-- right here!" She pointed at the ones that were several shelves above her and Willow's heads, and when Spike didn't immediately get the box down, Tara began to scramble up the shelf, climbing first onto the fitting stool, then the shelf proper.

"Um, Tara, maybe you shouldn't--" Willow started to say, before Tara looked questioningly back at her, slipped, and started to fall from the fourth shelf up.

She squealed loudly. Willow ran toward her, though what she thought she was going to be able to do, aside from have another four-year-old land on her head, was anybody's guess. Spike beat her to it by a mile, anyway, proving that his vampiric speed was still working when he wanted it to. He turned around with an armload of Tara, and they all three looked up to face Xander, who had raced down the aisle with a worried look on his face at the sound of Tara's shriek.

"That was a real scream, right? Not a found-my-bracelet-aren't-these-shoes-cute-isn't-it-a-pretty-day-outside-just-remembered-I-like-ice-cream scream. Wasn't it?"

"Yes," Willow replied, absently -- still staring in relieved amazement that Tara had almost fallen, almost really busted her head open, and was only not bleeding because they'd brought a vampire along with them. She was trying to get up on her tip-toes to see if Tara was really really all right, though from the sound of the babble, she guessed Tara was.

"Thanks, Spike, can you hold me up to reach those shoes? Aren't they cute? They have Batgirl on them -- real Batgirl, not new-replacement-fake-Batgirl. Aren't they cool?"

Spike seemed a bit disconcerted, as he shifted Tara so he was holding her -- right-side-up -- in front of him, from which she reached over for the shoes. "Er, Tara, you-- Yes, they're nice. But you--"

"Willow! Do you want a pair? We can match!" Tara leaned over Spike's arm, looking as though she'd over-balance and fall again to her head-splatting, if it weren't for the supernaturally strong grip on the back of her shirt. And around her middle -- apparently Spike was taking no chances.

Willow was about to scold her for scaring them all like that over shoes. Then she realized what Tara was talking about. "Batgirl! Those are real Batgirl shoes! Those haven't been out since the movie came out!!" She leapt forward and took the shoe from Tara. "Do they come in our size? What am I saying, of course they come in our sizes!" She held it up to Xander. "Two of these, please."

"That is so not fair," Xander muttered. "Do they make Batman shoes in my size? I don't think so."

Spike snorted at him. "Well, if you didn't have feet the size of the Batmobile, they might." Tara was squirming in his arms, and he set her down, after giving her another peculiar look.

"Excuse me, but why should the size of my feet have anything to do with my options in buying superhero footwear and Tara, where are you going?" Xander reached out and almost snagged Tara by the back of the shirt as she raced past all three of them, heading for the brightly colored display of purses and bags on the far wall. Willow blinked and followed, a bit more slowly, the boys right behind her.

Tara was pointing at the row of Powerpuff purses. "Look, they have the whole set. I can get the Bubbles one, since they didn't have it at Carsons. Then we'll really match." She giggled. "And I'll have a purse to make Xander carry."

Xander was looking fearfully at the bright electric blue purses. "Are you sure you don't want a nice, manly, leather briefcase, Tara?"

Tara put her hands on her hips, non-existent as they were -- and shook her head. "No, Xander. I want that one." She pointed.

Xander started to reach for the purse, and stopped. He looked at Spike. "Did we torture them this much?"

"Oh, yeah."

Xander sighed as Spike nodded. Then he brightened. "But only for two weeks! We're gonna owe them two weeks of torture, once this is over."

"You're assuming we'll survive?" Spike asked, then scowled at Willow. She blinked at him, shocked and hurt that he would dare suggest such a thing as that she would ever be misbehaved. Spike snorted. "Right. I think I'm becoming immune to that look, Red."

"Then why are you still holding my purse?" Willow asked.

"Er--" Spike stared at it, then shoved it at her. "Take it, then. I'm gonna go look at the... um... Actually, there's nothing here I would wear, dead or alive."

"These! You can wear these!" Tara came running up, holding a pair of bright yellow running shoes. Willow was impressed -- she hadn't even seen Tara leave to get them.

Spike stared at them in actual horror. He backed up slightly, still holding Willow's purse, and moved behind Xander. "Help me, Xan -- those things are evil!"

Xander snorted at him. "Spike, you're evil."

"Yeah, but there's evil and there's evil. Those're like... Darla's level of evil. Fact, I think she had a pair that color."

"Of running shoes?"

Spike just gave him a 'you're a twit' look -- though Willow noticed the vampire didn't move out from behind Xander.

Tara jumped up and down as she held out the shoes. "Come on, try 'em on, Spike. I bet you haven't bought shoes in a hundred years."

"These boots are from nineteen sixty-nine, I'll have you know," Spike protested.

"Yeah, but you didn't buy 'em, you stole 'em," Willow said. It was a guess, but the look on Spike's face proved her right.

"Wasn't like the fellow I took 'em from would be needing 'em anymore," Spike retorted. "Anyhow, they're perfectly fine, and I'm not trying on those lace-up bananas. They might be radioactive!"

Tara's eyes got, if possible, bigger than Spike's had been when he was four. Her lower lip stuck out, and even trembled a little. The whole picture might have been a bit more convincing if she hadn't still been bouncing, but Willow had to give her points for effort. Spike looked impressed, anyway. "If you loved me, you'd try them on," Tara said.

Spike laughed. "Who said I loved you?"

"But you need new shoes," Tara pointed out, skipping the chance to really go for the pitiful me routine. Maybe she was trying to get Spike and Xander off-balance, Willow thought.

Tara bent down and started unlacing Spike's boots. Spike stepped back, away from her. "I do not need new shoes. I don't need any, Xander doesn't need any, you don't need any, nobody needs anything--"

He stopped, because Tara was looking up at him, her face the very picture of shattered hurt. Willow could tell the second before she did it, that she was going to scream. Loudly.

Spike had his hand over her mouth a split-second later, but it didn't really help. Willow held her hands over her ears, and went over to give Spike a stern look. "You're going to buy us Batgirl shoes," she said clearly, knowing Spike's sensitive hearing was probably just ringing, right now. Spike nodded. "And Tara's Bubbles purse." Spike nodded again. "And the running shoes," she said.

"Fat chance," Spike mouthed at her.

"I want Batman shoes," Xander added.

"You can't even wear them!" Spike said, his hand still over Tara's mouth, though she'd begun to quiet down.

"Maybe the statue won't be completely out of power," Xander said with a shrug. "I'll have them just in case. Besides, they're on sale."

"Well, there is that. Sales are good. Anya likes it when we buy things on sale." Spike walked over to the boys' shoes racks, and grabbed a pair of the Batman shoes, while Willow laughed, not even bothering to suppress it. He still had his hand over Tara's mouth, and was dragging her along with him.

He finally had to remove his hand, in order to pull the Batman shoes out of the box and show them to Xander-- which was when Tara made her move. She held up the running shoes. "These are on sale too..." she said cheerfully, all trace of upset wiped from her face.

Willow could see the options being ticked off in Spike's head. Argue, and risk permanent eardrum damage if Tara decided to scream again. Say yes, buy them without trying them on, get yelled at by Anya when they got home, and stick them in a closet somewhere, forever. Or -- and she could see the light go on in his head -- possibly mail them to Angel.

He grabbed the shoes from Tara. "Fine. I'll buy 'em. Not wearing 'em, but I'll buy 'em." Willow thought it was a good choice. It wasn't as if he wouldn't end up getting yelled at by Anya for something anyway.

"You should try them on," Tara said.

Willow giggled as Spike sighed. She could see he was considering it all over again. Screaming Tara, or the mortification of wearing yellow shoes, even for a second. Xander didn't seem to be helping much, by laughing behind his hand. Spike gave him a death-to-infidels scowl, which made Xander stick his tongue out at him. Willow rolled her eyes; she'd seen this before. It usually lead to 'Why don't you two girls go watch TV, loudly, for a couple hours?'

"Try them on, Spike, come on," Tara repeated, oblivious to the fact that she was losing Spike's full attention.

"Tara, why don't we just get our shoes and your purse, and we can go try on every pair of overalls that Gymboree has?" Willow suggested.

"Oh! What about this one?" Tara dropped the shoes, and jumped over to grab something else. Willow watched her, slightly worried. Tara hadn't ever been this flighty as an adult, and hadn't said anything to make them think she had been as a child.

"Spike, remind me never ever to give Tara sugar, again," came a weary sigh from behind her.

"You think the ice cream was too much?"

"Well, no. But possibly the cotton candy."

"Nah-- that can't have much sugar in it-- it's mostly air, right?"

Xander looked doubtful. "Well... Yeah, but the part that's not air is all sugar. Or maybe it was the fudge?"

"Or the gummi bears," Willow offered, watching Tara bounce with another pair of shoes in her hand.

Spike turned to her. "We didn't buy you Gummi Bears!"

Xander looked sternly at her. "Where did you get the Gummi Bears, young lady?"

"A nice strange man gave them to us," she said brightly. At Xander's horrified look, she burst into laughter. "Dork-head. I bought them for her, from the gumball machine."

"They were good," Tara said. "Here, Spike, try these!"

Spike absently accepted the shoes from Tara, looking at her rather as if she were a suspicious package left on a seat in the airport-- might have somebody's tasty treats from Grandma in it, might be an unexploded bomb. Then he brightened. "Yeah, okay, I'll try these on."

Willow blinked, and looked to see what kind of shoes he was actually willing to consider. When she saw why he was trying them on, she laughed. They were black runners, with a small Tony the Tiger tastefully embroidered on the tongues, and a long striped tiger tail running all the way around to the back of the shoe.

By the time they'd purchased everybody's shoes and accessories and impulse-buy-at-the-counter-oh-please-can-we-get-those-glow-in-the-dark-laces , Xander and Spike were looking suitably broken in. Which meant it was time for the real shopping to start.

"JC Penney!" Tara sang as she pulled Spike along. He seemed to be too shell-shocked to actually answer. Or maybe it was the fact that he was still carrying Willow's purse, and he didn't want to draw any attention to himself. At least Xander now had a matching one, in electric-powder-blue, which Tara had insisted he take out of the bag and give to her -- only so she could rip the tags off and hand the thing back to him to hold.

He'd been holding it for almost two minutes before he'd pointed out there was no reason to carry it, since it was empty. That had got him pouted at until he'd pulled some change out of his pocket and put it in the purse. Willow wasn't sure Spike and Xander would ever learn. But it was fun driving them nuts, in the meantime.

They got to the department store, and Willow had to try to remember exactly where the kids' sections were. Second floor? First? She craned her head looking for a sign, and heard Tara saying, "Come on! It's this way."

She was tugging on Spike's hand, again, managing to pull him along through sheer willpower and enthusiasm. Spike looked a bit frightened, but Willow supposed it might have been the florescent lighting.

"I thought we were going to Gymboree?" Xander asked.

"JC Penney's is first," Willow told him. Silly men didn't get it -- they were on their way to Gymboree, which meant they had to stop every place along the way.

"Willow, you do know that... ah, hell with it. Fine." Xander sighed.

Willow gave his hand a tug. "Hurry up. And don't say 'hell' in front of me. I'm young and impressionable."

"Be nice, or I won't forge Anya's signature on the credit slip."

"I'll pout," Willow countered. They were slowly catching up to Tara and Spike -- but just barely. Willow reminded herself never to give Tara this much sugar... without Spike and Xander around to foist her off onto.

"I'll hold you upside down 'til you puke," came Xander's counter.

"Not in public, you won't. Cause I'll scream. And it'll hurt Spike's ears. And he'll glare at you." Which, come to think of it, wasn't much of an argument, since Spike glaring at him almost always ended happily for Xander, as far as she could tell. He seemed about to point this out, when Tara squealed.

"Willow! Look!" She was jumping up and down and pointing with her not-Spike-holding hand at a rack full of fuzzy footy pajamas. "They have glow in the dark witchy stuff on them!"

Willow came up close and looked at the pj's -- which came in blue, green, and yellow. Sure enough, they had little suns, moons, and stars on them in greenish glow-in-the-dark paint. She looked up at Xander. "We don't have any pj's, you know. Except for t-shirts."

"You said you didn't want any," he argued.

"Duh-- that was before we saw these!"

Tara was bouncing up and down. "Let's go try them on!" She ran for the dressing rooms -- two steps, before she was being held by Spike, again.

"What part of 'slow down' don't you understand?" he asked, sounding a bit exasperated.

Tara wrinkled her forehead at him, as though thinking real hard. Then she smiled. "Spike, do you want to help us try them on?"

He let go of her as though she'd been doused in Holy Water. "Ugh! No, don't want to, thanks." He grabbed another set of pj's off the rack and held them out to Willow. "You keep an eye on her for a while."

Willow stuck her tongue out, knowing she was perfectly safe from making Spike think those kinds of thoughts. She took the pajamas and ran after Tara, who was already halfway to the dressing rooms. They'd give the boys a few minutes' respite, while they tried on the pj's, then they could go back out for round two. Or three. Willow caught up to Tara outside the dressing rooms, where Tara was trying to convince the salesclerk that they could try on clothes without parental supervision, thank you.

"Our dads are right outside the door, there," Willow said, pointing in the general direction of Xander and Spike, who were standing about in the women's underwear section, trying not to look suspicious. They'd better not think of picking out anything for Anya at JC Penney's, not a with a perfectly good Victoria's Secret just a few shops away. She'd kill them.

Willow shrugged and followed Tara into one of the little curtained changing rooms, ignoring the dubious look the salesclerk had given them. Willow was about to help Tara off with her shirt -- or rather, Willow's shirt -- when she felt a hand on her arm. She looked up to see the salesclerk, who had her other hand on Tara's arm. "Shh, honey. Come with me, quick."

Before Willow could think enough to say 'What the hell are you doing?' or try to come up with a four-year-old version of the phrase, the woman was hauling them out of the dressing room and out a side door, marked 'Staff Only'. "Hey, let go of me..." she said as they were pulled through a dark storage area. The woman, who, now that Willow looked at her, wasn't wearing any kind of uniform or nametag at all, bent close to her.

"Just be quiet, little girl, or you'll be sorry-- and so will your sister," she hissed in Willow's ear. Then they were being pulled out into the store proper, quite a ways away from the women's clothing section. Willow and Tara both struggled; Willow tried to think of a spell that would turn this woman into a mushroom or something.

"Let us go!" Tara shouted. "Help, we're being kidnapped!"

The woman stopped, and bent down to threaten them again -- Willow glared at her, knowing that in about two more seconds Spike and Xander would be there to rip her entrails out.

"What's going on?" came a voice from behind them -- male, but not Spike nor Xander. Willow twisted around in the woman's grasp, to try to explain, but the woman spoke first.

"Oh, sir, you have to help me! My ex-husband kidnapped my two babies and I've only just found them. You have to help me get away!"

Willow turned her glare on the woman. "You are not our mother! Help! Help, daddy!" she screamed.

"What the bloody hell is going on, here?" Willow was grabbed suddenly, and she found Xander behind her, on his knees and wrapping his arms around her. Spike had done the same with Tara, only he'd been able to get her out of the woman's grip.

"Who the fuck are you and what are you doing?" Xander demanded.

"Please, help me!" the woman said to the JC Penney's employee who'd stopped her, retaining her hold on Willow's arm. Until Willow bit her. She let go of Willow with a small shriek, and Willow found herself folded in Xander's arms. After a moment of rubbing her hand, the woman knelt down. "I know you don't remember me, sweetie. It's been a long time. But I really am your mom."

"You're crazy!" Willow said loudly. "You're not our mother."

The Penney's clerk was looking more and more worried and confused, and reached over to the red courtesy phone near them, calling for a manager. Xander was sputtering at the woman. "Who are you? I've never seen you before in my life, and you're certainly not their mother."

"And if you ever lay a finger on either one of 'em again, I'll happily rip it off at the shoulder," Spike growled.

After a few minutes of the two men fussing over Willow and Tara, and the woman still insisting insanely that they belonged to her, the manager showed up. He brought along a security guard, just to make the party complete. Willow was torn between wanting Xander and Spike to get them out of there as fast as possible -- because being almost-kidnapped was still way too scary, even now that she was safe in her best friend's arms -- and finding out what on earth was going on.

That was what the manager wanted to know, too. "Somebody start explaining now, please. Before I decide whether we need to call the police."

"Fine, call the police!" the woman said, sounding desperate. "They can arrest Alex for kidnapping!"

Willow looked up at Xander, to find him exchanging a confused look with Spike. Had this woman mistaken them for someone else? Surely if Xander had two kids, he'd have mentioned it? Even if they weren't her and Tara... Willow shook her head, and kept quiet while the store manager tried to calm their would-be-kidnapper down.

"Look, no one is going anywhere with these two children until we know who they belong to," he was saying.

"They belong to us!" Xander snapped. "They're ours -- they do not belong to her. We don't even know her." Willow, Tara, and Spike all glared at the woman, with nearly identical expressions of 'so there'.

"Can I have your names, please? And some identification?" the manager asked.

"Xander and William Harris," Xander said promptly, indicating himself and Spike. He hauled his wallet out of his jeans, without loosening his hold on Willow. "These are Willow and Tara Harris."

The managed took the license Xander handed him, and studied it carefully. Then he stammered, "And who... that is, which of you is the... um... natural father?"

What happened next was a bit breathtaking for Willow-- because she'd thought only she and Tara could do the 'read each other's minds without actually wasting the magical energy to do real telepathy' thing. She'd never expected that in a real emergency, Xander and Spike were capable of it as well.

Xander gave Spike one quick look, and Spike lifted Tara all the way up and settled her on his hip. Proudly. As if he really would have tried on the yellow running shoes, if Tara had just pouted for a few more seconds. "Willow's mine, and Tara is William's," Xander explained.

"They're the same age. They look like twins to you?" Spike raised one eyebrow at the man, as if encouraging him to see the obvious-- which wasn't true, of course, but looked pretty good. Tara and Spike had the same colouring, down to Spike's not-yet-re-bleached waves.

"Of course they're twins," the woman said. "And Alex is their father. He is just the man who helped my ex-husband kidnap our children."

"Your ex-what?" Xander said, at the same time as Spike was saying, "Excuse me? If I'm gonna be accused of a crime, I'd like to have had the pleasure of committing it!"

"Can either of you prove any of this?" was the manager's next question.

The woman promptly pulled out some papers from her purse. Willow couldn't imagine what they were -- nor how Spike and Xander could prove that she and Tara belonged to them. Since they didn't, really. The woman handed the papers over. "I've been searching for so long... I carry these with me, in case... I've been hoping to find them..." She broke down, then, sobbing brokenly for a moment. The salesclerk awkwardly reached over to pat her shoulder, while the manager read the papers.

"A marriage license for one Debbie and Alex Harris. Birth certificate for twin girls, Willow and Tara Harris." He glanced over at Xander and Spike.

"Those are fake," Xander insisted. "Willow and Tara's mothers... They were together, and wanted kids. William and I agreed to be the fathers. When Elisabeth and Dawn were killed a couple years ago, William and I got custody." Willow stifled a laugh at their 'mothers' names, and looked suitably woe-be-gone at being reminded of her moms' deaths. Xander never used to think this fast when they were trying to get out of trouble. Maybe Spike was actually a good influence on him -- by getting him into trouble more often, so he could practice.

"I miss my mommies," Tara said quietly. She had her arms around Spike's neck, looking as though she might have been choking him, if Spike had had to breathe.

Willow could tell the store manager didn't know who to believe. Despite the faked certificates, it was obvious she and Tara didn't know and didn't like this woman claiming to be their mother. And who was she? Where had she gotten that paperwork, and why? Those were questions to be answered not in the middle of a store, where crowds might gather, and police might come, and they all might have to deal with the fact that Spike didn't actually possess any ID of his own, as far as Willow knew.

"Look, my husband-- ex-husband, has had the girls for two years. He's obviously told them all sorts of lies, just in case I ever managed to find them. They were two when they last saw me, and they don't remember me. It doesn't make any more sense that they'd remember these imaginary women who died that long ago, either."

Willow saw Spike frown slightly, as if thinking, then he gave another of those brief telepathic looks to Xander. Or, more specifically, at Xander's wallet. Xander opened it again, also frowning, then smiled, as he thumbed through its contents. He pulled a picture from one of the little plastic sleeves, and handed it over to the manager.

"These are the girls' mothers," he said, with a fond little smile that Willow was going to have to give him a kiss for, sometime later. Because the picture he had handed over was one of her and Tara. Adult her and Tara, sitting in the magic shop, no more than a week ago, leaning against each other and smiling.

He didn't try to explain who the two boys were in the background, holding something which looked like a big water balloon. It reminded her why she maybe wouldn't give him a kiss, later. The manager dutifully took the picture and compared the images to her and Tara.

"They do look very much like these women," he allowed. Well, duh, Willow wanted to say.

"That's a photo of my sisters," the woman explained. "He must have stolen it."

Willow stared at her. She was way too prepared for this. Willow tightened her grip on Xander's arm, which in turn made him tighten his grip. It made her feel safer, knowing that nothing would wrestle her away from him, nor Tara from Spike. "She knows who we are," she whispered to Xander. He gave her a blank look, then his eyes cleared and he nodded.

"The statue?" he whispered back.

She mouthed the word 'later' to him, then turned back to the store manager. They had to get out of this, first, so they could go back to the Magic Box and figure out what was going on. Preferably after they'd also bought the glow-in-the-dark pj's.

"Could I see some ID, Mr. Harris?" the manager asked, of Spike. Willow didn't have to be telepathic to hear the collective 'Oh, shit' that was ringing in the minds of the 'Harris' party.

"Don't carry it," Spike said fairly smoothly. "Don't drive. House husband, so I don't need it for work."

Well, the part about not driving was true, if it was supposed to be a rating of how good he was at it. Willow had to stifle more than one giggle at the image of Spike in an apron, being a house husband, though. "Daddy stays home with us, and Papa goes out and builds big houses. All by himself," she said helpfully.

"Well, with a little help from a crane, a wrecking ball, and an entire construction crew," Xander said, playing along.

The woman shook her head. "He" -- pointing at Spike -- "doesn't even have a green card, which I'm sure the INS would be happy to hear."

The manager put up his hands. "I think I've heard enough. I have no idea which one of you is telling the truth, and this is way too complicated for store security to sort out. I'm calling the police, and social services, and they can deal with this." As if suddenly realizing what he did for a living, he added, "I hope this doesn't ruin your shopping experience. Er, whichever set of you doesn't end up being arrested."

"Oh, thank you," the woman said, with loud, apparent gratitude. Spike and Xander only glared.

"You're a bad lady! I don't like you!" Tara yelled at the woman, who responded with such a perfect expression of heartbreak that Willow wondered if she were a professional actress, or actually insane.

It didn't look as though they were going to learn anything more from her, and the longer they stayed the more chance there was of the police arriving in time to make things harder. Willow wriggled her fingers and chanted a spell, and the woman, store manager, security guard and clerk, all froze.

There was silence for a moment. Then, "Er, Red, why didn't you do that earlier?"

"I wanted to know who she was, so we can find out who's behind all this," she explained. "But it will only hold for a few minutes, so we should--"

"Already escaping," Xander said, standing up and hurrying away. Spike was on his heels, with Tara in his arms, who was again leaning sideways to catch up the two pair of pajamas.

Spike wrestled them out of her hands. "Calm down," he said when she started to pout. "I'm not leaving them behind. Just have to--" and he crushed the theft-detection devices.

"So that's how you do it!" Willow exclaimed.

"Yeah, and if you ever tell anyone," he looked around. "Er, um, I'll probably be spanked. Tell anyone you like. Tell Buffy!"

Xander whapped him on the head, and they continued out of the store, moving quickly but as inconspicuously as possible. As they exited the store into the mall proper, he said, "We'd better get out of here before the cops shut down all the exits, again." He looked over his shoulder. "You realize this is another store we can never come back to?"

Willow looked at him closely. "What do you mean 'again'?"

He turned bright red. "Um, there might have been some nakedswimminginthefountain. Last year. But I was under the influence, dammit."

"Influence of what-- naked Spike?" Willow retorted as he carried her swiftly towards the exit to the parking garage.

Xander glared at Spike. "Pixie dust."

"Uh-huh. Sure." Then Willow blinked. "Wait, Spike knows where to get pixie dust?" Neither of them would answer, but Spike was still snickering by the time they found the car.

"Spike, get in the trunk," Xander said, and he made it sound like a punishment rather than a 'so you don't turn into ashes.'

"Nope. Sitting in the backseat with a blanket over my head."

"Can you stay that way always?" Xander asked.

"In the back seat?"

"With a blanket over your head."

Spike whapped him, and Xander glared, and Willow gave Tara a smile. "Isn't love grand?"

~~~~~

They were all seated around the table at the Magic Box, with the phone in the center. Books were scattered about, and Willow was sitting at the laptop, still typing away. Tara listened as Giles explained the last of what they knew to Angel and the rest of the LA group over the speaker phone. She yawned.

"Yes, that's right. Willow's looking through the police mugshot databases now, and she's set up a program to search the internet for any sort of picture of this woman, as well. We've no idea if we'll find anything that way, since she may never have been in trouble with the law, but every bit helps."

Tara could hear Cordelia's voice saying something in the background, then Angel came over the speaker, much more clearly. "Do you think we should come back down there, all of us?"

"Eggzinabasket," Tara murmured. Anya looked at her.

"What did you say?"

Tara blinked, and sat up straight in her chair. "Sorry. Um. Eggs. Basket. If they're there and we're here, we've got lots of people in different places." Anya was still looking bewildered. Well, it made perfect sense to Tara. Then again, so did a lot of things that got that look from everyone except Willow.

"Tara means, if whoever was behind this tries to do something to us again, it's better that we're not all in one place, where they can strike at us all at once," Willow called from the computer.

Yeah. That's what she'd meant. Tara yawned again.

"Finally coming down from your sugar rush, sweetie?" Willow asked. Tara nodded, and opened her eyes again. She hadn't realized she'd closed them.

"Yes, the sugar rush you two inflicted on her," came Anya's accusation. Tara didn't have to look over to know she was scolding Spike and Xander.

"Hey! Willow gave her the Gummi Bears!" Xander protested.

"I did not!" came Willow's protest, and Tara looked at her, confused. Willow winked, and went back to her typing.

"You did so!" Xander began.

"Children! Please!"

Everyone stopped, and stared. Tara giggled. "That's so funny, when you say that. I mean now. Since you're a kid, too," she told Giles.

"Yes, and I'm a child who would like to prevent the world from ending, or whatever plot it is that's the point of all this."

"I don't think it's another apocalypse," Buffy said. "Usually we get a memo when it's an apocalypse, and we didn't get one this time. Must be something else."

Tara gave Buffy a confused look, but Buffy didn't see it, and no one else was asking her to explain. Tara yawned again, and wondered if there was a good spot she could lie down. She saw one, and crawled down from the chair and walked over. It took a moment of tugging, but Spike finally sat down on the floor, cross-legged, so Tara could curl up on his lap.

Angel had said something, but Tara missed what it was. She heard Spike's answer, though, which was, "Looked pretty real. Somebody's got some connections, to pull off that many fake docs. Think it's your friends, the evil ambulance chasers?"

"They've been pretty quiet lately, but it's a possibility," Angel said.

Xander was shaking his head, Tara noticed between slow blinks. "Yeah, maybe. But that stuff wouldn't have mattered much, after a couple of weeks when the girls get big again. We could always have just kidnapped them back and stashed them somewhere until we could do the restoration spell. It was more like this woman was trying to get us in as much trouble as possible, right there and then. She knew Spike wouldn't have any ID, which could really have screwed up our lives royally. Speaking of which, Dad -- think you can do something about that? I know you've got kennel club papers. Can you get some for Spike?"

There was no immediate response. Then Tara heard Angel stammering, "Xander, I'd rather you called me 'Deadboy'." Then he sighed. "But yes, I can get Spike some ID. Probably take a couple days, so until then try to stay out of trouble."

"Oi! I always try to stay out of trouble." Tara opened her eyes, again wondering when she'd closed them, and found everyone staring at Spike. "Well, I didn't say I was very good at it."

She giggled, and shifted a little, trying to get comfortable. This time she meant to close her eyes, and she listened to the conversation. It felt weird, being held by a room-temperature body with no heartbeat. Nothing at all like snuggling with Willow, or like her memories of being held by her mother, when she'd really been four. But it was nice, in its own way, if primarily because she knew everyone else in the room was snickering at how easily Spike was accommodating her. That would teach him to use her favorite sweater as a superhero cape.

"It's odd, though," she heard Angel's voice again. "Wolfram and Hart have never bothered Sunnydale before. Why would they start now?"

"That we know of," Buffy corrected. "Who knows what else they've been doing?"

"Still, we should look into the other possibilities," Giles said. "It could be anything."

"Biker Mice," Tara said.

"What's that?" Spike asked her, his voice quiet.

"From Mars," she explained. "Biker Mice from Mars."

"What's she saying?" Xander asked.

"Don't think it's helpful, Xan." Spike replied.

"Couldn't be much less helpful than 'it could be anything' " Dawn pointed out. "No offense, Giles."

"Well, if you have any suggestions, I'm sure we'd all be happy to hear them," Giles said in his funny, stuffy, preschooler voice. Tara giggled.

Dawn shrugged. "No, not really. Um... we could make a list of everyone who's ever tried to mess with us, and isn't dead."

"Oi!" Spike said, startlingly loud in Tara's ear. She jerked a little, and tried to tell him to shut up and let her sleep, without actually expending the energy to open her mouth. Didn't work. "Dead people can mess with you just fine, you know. I've done it, on numerous occasions."

"Okay, fine, deceased weirdo. Everybody who's ever messed with us and is still out there roaming around somewhere. I mean, they seemed to know a lot about us, or at least some of us-- so it wasn't just random Hellmouth badness."

"Not unless the random Hellmouth badness is getting much better organized," Giles observed. Tara giggled again. She felt something brush her nose, and she pried one eye open. She found Spike diverting his gaze away from her face.

"Do you really wanna make that list? We'll be here all night," Buffy said.

"Should we narrow it down to people who have been in Brussels recently? Since that was where it was last seen, albeit in the 17th century. We don't know where it was shipped from -- it wasn't on the packing manifest."

"Like who?"

Tara closed her eyes again, and a moment later felt the same sensation of something brushing her nose. She opened her eyes and found Spike watching the planning meeting with great interest.

"Like... well, no one I know of," Willow admitted. "This stupid website won't give me any information!" She thumped the keyboard, then muttered something Tara didn't know she knew how to pronounce.

"If you turn the laptop into a salamander, it won't give you any information," Giles pointed out.

"What are we looking for? I can help," came Cordelia's voice over the phone.

"The usual -- hotel reservations, airplane reservations. Anything. Look for a name you recognize," Willow replied, and Tara thought that maybe she wasn't the only one who needed a nap.

"That could take days!" Cordelia protested.

"Well, if anyone can come up with something better..." Willow repeated Giles' words.

"I have one," Xander spoke up. Tara prised one eye open again. Everyone was looking at Xander expectantly, and with varying degrees of surprise.

"Anya can do some of the web-surfing, as can Cordy. You," he had gone over to Willow, and was picking her up, "need a nap."

"I do n--" Willow started to say, then she looked over at Tara, who smiled sleepily. "Sure. Why not."

Xander moved to sit beside Spike, and settled Willow in his lap. Tara squirmed around in Spike's arms until she could lean against both Spike's chest, and Willow's shoulder, then shut her eyes again, perfectly content. She heard several people chuckling, but she couldn't imagine what could possibly be funny.

Then there was Giles' voice saying "Oh, someone must get a picture of that."

Tara didn't particularly care what they got pictures of, as long as no one tried to make her move from where she was, to do it. She wondered if they could get Anya to make more brownies, after the meeting was over. Then she fell fast asleep.

~~~~~

Cordelia tried not to sigh with impatience. She'd voted to stop for supper, as well. She just hadn't had any idea it would be this difficult.

"I don't want a kid's meal," Wesley was saying. For the fortieth time. She didn't understand why Gunn didn't just buy him what he wanted. Who cared if they threw half of the food away?

"But it has everything you're asking for," Gunn pointed out. Again. If this is how it usually went between them, Cordelia was no longer surprised why they only ever went out to eat to the same one of three restaurants. If you could call an English pub, a pancake house, and Denny's, restaurants.

"You think this will take much longer?" Angel asked her, leaning against the counter beside her.

She nodded. "Oh, yeah. Taco Bueno is open 24 hours -- we'll be here."

"Why didn't we go through the drive through, and just order the first thing on the menu?"

Cordelia gave him a look that communicated clearly just what a dumb question that was. "Because Wesley said 'I want to go inside'."

"Ah. Good point."

Wes was sitting on the counter, his chin stubbornly stuck in the air. "I don't want my nachos in Pokemon shapes. I want nice, normal, non-animated nachos."

Cordelia leaned over, inspiration striking. "So why don't you get the kid's meal, and I'll trade nachos with you? I don't mind Pokemon-shaped chips."

Wesley started to argue with her, then stopped. "Er--" He frowned, like he was desperately trying to come up with something wrong with the arrangement, but couldn't. "I suppose," he said at last.

Cordelia felt like cheering. And it would be a damn fine cheer, given how good she was at it in high school. But she wasn't quite dressed for it, and Wes might take it the wrong way, so she settled for smiling.

"But I want an adult-sized drink," he told Gunn, sternly.

"You got an adult-sized stomach to hold it?" Gunn asked.

"Gunn, for god's sake, just buy him a regular soda," Cordelia said.

"I don't want soda, I want iced tea. Not that it's anything like real tea, but it's better--" He'd stopped, because Angel was holding out a cup. Regular adult-sized, with tea in it. Wesley smiled. "Thank you. Now, will someone help me down?" Gunn grabbed him under the arms, and lifted him down. Wesley strode over to the napkins and straws were kept, and looked over at them. "Would someone please get me a straw?"

Cordelia walked over and grabbed four straws, and held one out to Wesley.

"You two are gonna spoil him rotten," Gunn said.

"Excuse me?" She turned on him. "Since when is handing a straw to a polite young man, spoiling him?"

"And who took him to Hawley's Museum, three days in a row?" Angel put in.

"That wasn't spoiling him-- I was practicing my dinosaur wrangling," Gunn protested.

"Which accounts for Day One, but since you brought three remote control dinobots home with you that afternoon, Days Two and Three land you smack in the spoilers' club," Cordelia put in.

"Day Two was 'cause I forgot to take enough money with me to buy the marble sets, on Day One," Gunn said firmly, sitting Wesley in the booth next to him. Wesley's chin was only a few inches above the top of the table, but nobody had the balls to suggest a booster seat. Not even Cordelia.

"And Day Three?" Angel asked smugly.

"Day Three was... help me out here, Wes."

"You were spoiling me," Wesley replied, picking up a perfectly normal nacho and putting it in his mouth.

"I was not!" Gunn said, giving Wesley a glare like he thought Wesley was looking. Wesley was looking at his child-sized burrito, and picking at it.

"What's wrong, now?" Cordelia asked.

"It has lettuce on it," Wesley said, sounding disappointed.

"Did you ask for no lettuce?" Gunn pointed out, making no move to get out of the booth to allow Wesley to carry it up to the counter to complain. Or do so himself, which was what Wesley was obviously hoping for, given the pitiful look he was giving Gunn.

"Lettuce is good for you," Cordelia told him. Then she decided she needed some fresh air, because Wesley was not really four, and knew perfectly well how sadly lacking in nutrition the iceburg lettuce was.

Wesley just picked at the burrito, pulling off tiny strands of lettuce, one at a time. No one moved to do it for him. Cordelia glanced at Angel, then Gunn, and saw them very determinedly not watching. Wesley got a piece of lettuce stuck to his finger, and tried to shake it off. Once, twice, then three times -- still stuck to his finger.

"God! Here, geez!" Cordelia reached over with a napkin and wiped the lettuce off. When she leaned back, she found Gunn and Angel smirking at her. She opened her mouth to yell at them, then thought better of it. All she had to do was wait a few minutes, after all, and they'd do something even more Wesley-whipped, and she could prove that she was the bigger woman. By laughing her ass off.

So she simply smiled at Wesley again, and bit into her taco. A few minutes later, sure enough, Wes was leaning forward, trying to drink out of his straw, which was about level with the top of his head. He said nothing, simply craned his neck and tried to tilt the cup without putting so much weight on the top that the lid came off. After the second time he almost poked himself in the eye, Gunn sighed, and shifted Wesley onto his lap, where Wes was almost tall enough to eat like a normal person. Cordelia raised an eyebrow.

"What, I'm gonna let him lose an eye at Taco Bueno?" Gunn said defensively.

"Did I say anything?"

"Yeah, you raised an eyebrow. In Cordelia-speak that means 'nyah, nyah, told you so'."

Cordelia was tempted to explain otherwise, when Wesley suddenly lost his grip on his burrito, and it slid sideways. "Be careful!" Cordelia was saying, reaching forward to stop the food from sliding onto the floor. Not that she'd had a chance of stopping it... unlike some vampires, who were now holding a burrito in their hands and setting it back on the table.

"I've had a lot of practice catching Cordy," Angel explained with a shrug.

"It wasn't my fault -- my seat moved," Wesley explained, craning his head upwards. Cordelia wondered if he could glare, from that position.

"Sorry," was all Gunn said. Cordelia waited a moment, to make sure nothing else was going to happen, then resumed eating her taco.

She got one bite in, before Wesley sighed. When he looked up from his lettuce-picked burrito, he found three pair of eyes watching him. He seemed startled by the attention, which made Cordelia want to snort. Yeah, right. "Is there something fascinating about my burrito?" he asked.

"You sighed," Angel explained.

"Is there something fascinating about my breathing? Aside from the fact that you don't do it anymore?"

"Um... no. Guess not."

Wesley nodded, and went back to staring at his burrito. Then he sighed again.

"Wesley, is there something you need?" Cordelia asked tentatively. Gunn crossed his eyes at her, over Wesley's head.

"Oh, no. I was just thinking that this might be nice with cheese on it."

Gunn looked down at him. "Then why didn't you order the cheese burrito?"

Wes frowned. "They had a cheese burrito?"

"Wes, you can still read the menu," Gunn reminded him. Cordelia wondered if being with Wesley nearly 24 hours a day, for the last seven days, had numbed Gunn's brain.

Sure enough, Wesley countered with, "I couldn't see the menu. You sat me down on the counter facing away from it."

"And you couldn't turn around?"

Wesley started to argue, then just nodded. "You're right. I should have ordered the cheese burrito. But as I'm stuck with this, I shall have to eat it."

"Don't look at me," Cordelia said. "I'm not getting up to buy him another burrito."

"Did I ask you to?" Gunn asked her. It didn't stop him from making that 'pleasepleaseplease' face, but he didn't do it as well as Wesley did. Four-year-old Wesley, at any rate. Cordelia was suddenly glad they hadn't both decided to become four-year-olds.

"No, no, Charles is right. It would be a waste to purchase another burrito, when this one is perfectly... fine..." He pulled another strand of lettuce off his burrito.

"They should put you in a commercial," Cordelia told him. "You really do look pathetic." Wesley glared at her -- then smiled in surprised delight when Angel came back to the table and handed him a wrapped burrito. "Wimp," Cordelia told him. "Didn't sitting for Spike and Xander teach you anything?"

"Taught me when to give in," he said simply.

Gunn said, "Which was whenever one of them blinked at you, I bet."

Angel was giving Gunn his 'not going to dignify that with an answer' face -- which meant he was gonna hold out another two seconds, then say something dorky. "So what. They were cute, and I love 'em," he said after two point five seconds. All three of them stared at him in shock. "Um, I may have been possessed when I said that," he said after another second.

They were still staring at him.

"What?" Angel growled.

"You're eating Cordelia's taco," Gunn said.

Angel looked down and registered that he had, in fact, picked up Cordelia's taco and was about to bite into it. He put it down quickly. Cordy snickered. "No, be my guest. You want something to shove in your mouth besides your foot, go for it. I can always get Wes to give you the big puppy eyes and make you go get me a new one."

"No, that's okay--"

"I insist. After all, you got your undead germs all over it. Not like I want it anymore. Or were you just picking it up because you were nervous ?" Cordelia challenged.

Angel scowled, and picked the taco back up. "Fine. I'll try it. Can't kill me, after all."

He had just bitten into it when Wesley looked up and asked innocently, "Does this mean you love me, too?"

It was to Angel's credit, Cordelia thought, that he didn't even hesitate before saying "Of course, Wes." He took another bite of taco -- probably to keep from saying anything else. Cordelia was glad, because she'd been perfectly ready to stomp on his foot if he'd done anything to ruin the look that had appeared on Wesley's face with those words.

Wesley rubbed his nose, and picked up his cheese burrito. "I need some hot sauce," he said a moment later, sounding a bit subdued, as if he weren't really just saying it in order to make someone jump when he said 'frog'.

"Here," Cordelia said, handing him over a couple of packets she'd gone to fetch. Then she gave Gunn a dirty look. "What?"

"Welcome to the club. You want a membership card with that?"

"How is hot sauce spoiling him?" she demanded, and tried to go back to eating, then realized no one had gone to buy her another taco.

She glared at Angel, who said around a mouthful, "This isn't bad. I think I wanna try some hot sauce." He reached over to pick up one of the packets in front of Wesley, and Wesley looked at him, stricken. Angel's hand froze. "Um. I'll go get..."

"Get me another taco while you're up there, huh?" Angel looked back at Cordelia as if to say 'and your legs got broken when?' -- but he obviously decided to err on the side of his own continued existence, and simply nodded. As he walked away, Cordelia stuck her tongue out at his back. "Cha-ching," she said with a smile. "Ba-da-bing."

"Is that supposed to mean something?" Wesley asked curiously.

"Yeah, it means you're too old and too British to get it, so eat your burrito, gramps." She thought he was going to protest for a moment, then he suddenly smiled, like he'd figured out that for once, no one was teasing him by saying he was too young for something.

Angel returned to the table with three more tacos, a handful of hot sauce, and a large order of cinnamon crisps, the last of which he placed in front of Wesley. They all looked at him. "What?"

"Did we say anything?" Cordelia asked, reaching for two tacos. "Er, unless two of them are yours?" She'd been teasing, but Angel's sheepish expression said that yes, they had been. "Oh, my, god. Angel! You like cheap greasy tacos? Your first human food in forever, and it's tacos?"

"Maybe it's just an association," he said, as he picked one up.

"Association?" Cordelia narrowed her eyes. Angel looked too guileless to be trusted.

"Well, they make me think of you," he said.

She told herself it was a line and she ought to be annoyed. But she couldn't make herself stop smiling long enough to say so. She was able to when she heard Wesley and Gunn snickering. "What?" she demanded of them.

They didn't say a word, just grinned and ate their food. Until she turned her attention back to her own taco, which didn't taste all that greasy, to be honest. Then she heard Wesley sing, "Cordy and Angel, sitting in a tree..."

"You are so dead, mister, if you finish that phrase." Wesley gave her the big, 'who me?' eyes. She shook her head. "I'm not falling for it. You keep your mouth shut and finish your burrito -- and don't tell me that's logically impossible. Do it, so we can get out of here."

The 'who, me' eyes went away -- and were replaced by kicked-puppy eyes.

"Oh, god, I never thought I'd beg for a vision..."

"Speaking of," Angel said, looking up from his taco. "You didn't get any that you might have forgotten about, right? About whoever sent Giles that statue in the first place, or..." He shrugged, stopping short of mentioning recent events. "Anything like that?"

Cordelia looked at him like he was an idiot, which he was. "Like I'd ever forget a giant freakin' migraine-inducing vision?"

He had the grace to look sheepish. "No. Of course not. That was stupid. It's just bugging me. All the supernatural firepower we have on our side, and we know nothing."

"We know whoever's behind it doesn't mean us any permanent harm," Wesley said. He had the last bit of burrito in his mouth when they all started staring at him, so his 'what?' came out as "Whadb?"

"Don't talk with your mouth full," Cordelia said automatically. Then she blinked. "How do we know that?"

"Well," he said after dutifully swallowing his food. "I should have said 'immediate harm,' I suppose. But it seems to equal out to the same thing. Of all the things anyone would send to Rupert and his group, there could have been many more dangerous objects. Why send something that, at worst, simply resulted in a bit of insanity, and at best, a great deal of enjoyment for most of the parties involved?"

"A 'bit' of insantiy?" Cordelia asked. "Who's insane, who wasn't before?"

"I simply meant, there was the possibility of someone touching the statue who wasn't able to cope." He closed his mouth and seemed to be trying not to say something. Then he got that Eureka look on his face. "We should look into the path the statue took, as it was being shipped to Sunnydale, to find out if there were any peculiar incidents--"

"Already done," Cordelia interrupted him. "We finished that this morning, while you and Angel were playing with the marble things."

"You were playing with my marbles?" Gunn demanded. Then, "That didn't sound right."

Wesley laughed, and Cordelia forgot what else she'd been about to say. It wasn't that she'd never heard him laugh, before. He'd laughed a lot, since he'd become friends with Gunn. But he'd almost stopped laughing entirely, once he'd become a kid again. Until today, when she'd heard him laugh twice. She found Gunn watching her, with a knowing look on his face.

"Yeah, he's adorable," Angel said, in the thickened Irish brogue he hardly ever used. Wesley suddenly realized they were all watching him. He scowled.

"Shouldn't one of you have a camera, or something?" he said bitterly, though it sounded to Cordelia to be mostly faked. Another improvement.

"Actually," Cordelia said, as she reached into her purse.

"I was joking!" Wesley dove under the table with his cinnamon crisps.

She laughed. "So was I, sucker." He peeped his head tentatively back above the table after a few seconds, and she showed him the stick of sugarless gum she'd retrieved from her purse. "Hey, you guys may want to have bean-breath all night, but some of us are going to be minty-fresh."

"For sitting in a tree?" he asked, wide-eyed. She stuck out her tongue at him, and he laughed again. "No thank you, I only french-kiss my boyfriend."

"And you thought 'playing with your marbles' sounded wrong?" Cordelia said to a suddenly-choking Gunn.

"I didn't mean it sounded wrong that way. I meant it sounded wrong in an 'I'm insane' kinda way." Gunn looked around, then frowned at Wesley. "You're not trying to get us thrown out, are you?"

Wesley looked back at him with the wide, innocent eyes Cordelia was so glad she had on film. It meant she could sit back and enjoy the sight, now, without diving for her camera. "Get us thrown out?" Wesley repeated.

"Everyplace I've taken you, you've told some stranger that I'm your boyfriend."

Cordelia laughed. "He has not!"

Gunn turned to her. "He has! I swear, I'm waiting for social services to show up on the doorstep and arrest me for child abuse."

"You're exagerating, Charles," Wesley said in that stern voice that made Cordelia want to giggle.

"You told the museum docent," Gunn said. "And that lady on the bus, the cashier at the grocery store, the telemarketer who called the hotel..."

Wesley was looking innocent again. Cordelia dug into her purse, anyhow. Who cared if she already had that expression on film a thousand times? It was just too cute to pass up.

"But I can't ever say it when I'm an adult," Wesley explained. "Don't you ever feel like being able to tell people?"

Gunn opened his mouth to argue, and didn't say a word. Instead, he reached into his pocket, pulled out his wallet, and handed it to Cordelia. "What's this for?" she asked.

"He's gonna ask me to buy him a pony. Don't give me back my wallet, when he does."

"I am not going to ask you for a pony," Wesley protested, the poster-child for aggrieved innocence. Cordelia smirked, and started to hand Gunn back his wallet. Gunn put up a blocking hand.

"Uh-uh." He glanced down at the top of Wesley's head, and waited.

Wesley waited. Cordelia waited. Angel wisely shoved his other taco into his mouth, and pretended he wasn't waiting. Finally Wesley said, "I could eat another order of cinnamon crisps, perhaps. A small one."

Gunn glared at Wesley's skull, then at Cordelia, who was still holding out his wallet. Finally he reached to snatch it back, but Cordelia pulled it away. "No, you're right. I shouldn't let you give in..."

The look on his face was enough to send her scrambling for her camera, if her hand hadn't already been full with his wallet. She caught the look on Wesley's face, next, and she returned the grin. "You aren't even pretending to be doing this on accident, are you?" she demanded.

Big eyes. God, those things were dangerous. "Doing what?"

"'Doing what'," she repeated, then laughed. "Wesley, you're being spoiled."

Still with the big eyes. He slowly shook his head, and somehow that made the eyes-thing even more... eyey. "No, I'm not."

"Oh, right." That sarcastic comment was from Angel. The big-eyes turned on him, and he added quickly, "Not that there's anything wrong with that."

Cordelia sniffed. For a vampire, he had no backbone. "You are being spoiled. Admit it."

"I'm not," he insisted. "If I were being spoiled," and he swung that deadly gaze on Gunn, "I'd have another bag of cinnamon crisps."

Gunn looked guilty, then looked guilty for looking guilty, then looked helplessly at Cordelia, who just snickered. Finally he said "If I get you cinnamon crisps, I'll have to put you down." Wesley just looked back up at him with the eyes of doom. Gunn turned the pleading look back at Cordelia. "God. Cordelia, would you please get Wesley another bag of cinnamon crisps? And never let me have my wallet back?"

Cordelia shook her head. When Gunn turned his own big-eyes on her, she laughed. "Won't work, buddy." Granted, it would only not work because she was on the inside of the booth, trapped by Angel, the taco-eating vampire.

Which was where Gunn turned his eyes next. "Hey man, you owe me."

Angel looked up at him, taco paused halfway to his mouth. "I owe you for what??"

"Not telling Cordelia that you hide her cookies in your pockets and pretend you ate them?" Wesley offered.

"I don't do that!" Angel sputtered. "I tell her right up front that I don't eat, and..." He looked down at his taco. Then he snatched Gunn's wallet out of Cordelia's hand and hurried away.

Cordelia watched him go, and wondered what sort of torture was best to use on a 250 year old vampire who used to torture people for amusement. Bake him more cookies, perhaps? Stand there and make sure he ate one? "Stupid vampire," she muttered. "My cooking isn't that bad." When she turned her glare away from the pretending-he-doesn't-know-he's-being-glared-at vampire in line at a Taco Bueno, she found Wesley looking at her, uncertainly.

But he turned to Gunn and asked, "Was I not supposed to tell her?" He sounded sincerely uncertain, not like he was still teasing them.

"She knows," Cordelia answered for him. "She's still annoyed, though. He told me he liked my cookies." She gave Angel's back another glare, and could tell he was pretending he didn't have vampiric hearing.

Wesley looked back up at Gunn, again, who said, "Don't worry about it." He pressed a kiss on Wesley's forehead, and Cordelia had to stifle the urge to whip out her camera. Stifle it, only because the kiss was already over and any photo she got now would be of the two of them flipping the bird, or something worse.

She opened her mouth to say something, and Wesley looked at her. She closed her mouth again. "Maybe we could make him wear sunglasses?" she suggested to Gunn. Wesley looked hurt, so she hastened to add, "Hey, you'd look cute. Sort of that mini-rebel look. Have you ever seen those posters of babies on Harley's?"

Which made the Wesley-eyes swing back in Gunn's direction. "Speaking of which..."

Gunn shook his head. "No. Absolutely no way on earth."

Cordelia raised her eyebrow, now that she was safely out of Wesley's firing line. "What?"

"I am not gonna take him riding on the motorcycle."

The look of sheer superior logic on Wesley's face was priceless. "But it's my motorcycle."

"But you're four, and it's not safe."

"They make motorcycle helmets for four-year-olds."

"They make nipple-rings for four-year-olds too, but I'm not gettin' you one of those, either."

Wesley blinked up at him. "They do?"

"NO!" Gunn said. "No, no, no, no no."

Cordelia shook her head, and accepted the wallet back from Angel, who was sitting down with a tray -- with a bag of cinnamon crisps and two tacos. Wesley was still staring at Gunn, reaching out a hand and accepting the crisps Angel handed over, without even looking. "Please?" Wesley asked.

"No."

"But I want one."

"No."

Cordelia watched as Wesley wriggled, a little. Pushed his face closer to Gunn's, and said, "Please?"

"Why didn't we bring the video camera with us?" Angel whispered in Cordelia's ear.

"Because Wes pouted when we tried," she whispered back.

"Man, he's gonna be dangerous when he's fully regressed," Angel whispered.

"I think he's regressed enough," she whispered. Which they all already knew, after the phone call from Sunnydale. They'd decided not to tell Wesley about it, when Gunn had had to spend half an hour calming Wesley down after he'd missed a documentary on Ancient Italy on the Discovery channel.

So Wesley's suppositions about Bad Guy X not having done anything really dangerous were true-- as far as he knew. Trying to kidnap Willow and Tara in the middle of the mall went beyond the 'bit of insanity' Wes had described, but they weren't about to scare him with that news. Instead, they were just being careful. They'd agreed that keeping him at the hotel at all times would be just too mean -- whether to themselves or Wesley, Cordelia wasn't sure.

They couldn't deny him the pleasures of being a kid -- going out and playing, visiting all the places any kid would want to see in L.A., just when he'd finally relaxed enough to be able to enjoy them. And they couldn't deny themselves the fun of seeing him enjoying things -- though if it had been just that, vs. keeping Wesley safe, he would have been in the Hyperion under lock and key right now, instead of sitting in Taco Bueno pretending he wanted Gunn to buy him a nipple ring.

The compromise was simple -- safety in numbers. They all went out together. Wes wouldn't notice anything weird, since he was expecting them to all want to fuss over him anyway. And with one vampire, one insanely protective lover, and one dead-shot with a tossed high heel as his bodyguards, Wes would be as safe on the town with them as he would cooped up in the hotel.

Whether they would be safe from those big, blue eyes... well, they could always make Wesley pay them back, once he grew up again. She settled back in the booth to eat Angel's fourth taco, and watch Wesley try to wheedle a bike ride and nipple ring out of Gunn. It really was more entertaining than the movies.

~~~~~

Dawn watched as Giles sat on the small horse, and it moved slowly back and forth. The look on his face was priceless -- or rather, it would cost about 5 cents to develop the picture she'd just snapped, and 2 cents a print for copies... It wasn't a typical four-year-old 'wheee! I'm riding the horsie!' look. It was a 'someone just stuck a lemon in my mouth and told me it was ice cream' look. When he caught her watching him, the look deepened. "This is it?" he asked.

"Well, yeah. What'd you expect for a quarter -- the Kentucky Derby?" She sucked on her raspberry slushee and smirked. Giles frowned, then slid off the horse as it came to a stop.

To the next three children in line, he announced firmly, "That experience is vastly overated." The two girls and a boy looked up at their mother, who gave Dawn a peculiar look. She just grinned and shrugged, and handed Giles his slushee back.

"You wanted to ride it," Dawn reminded him as they walked away. She could hear the other kids clamoring 'me, next!' so apparently Giles' warning hadn't any effect.

"Because whenever I saw children riding one of those things, they appeared to be having a great deal of fun." He glanced back, with a thoughtful look on his face. "Do you think it would make a difference if I tried it again in a few days?"

"You mean, after you've regressed some more?" Dawn shook her head. "You're as regressed as they get." She took a slurp of her own slushee, and wished again that she'd gotten the grape. And it wasn't like she could guilt Giles out of his grape slushee, even without Buffy nearby to scold her for it.

"What is that supposed to mean?" Giles demanded. His lips were purple.

"I think your sense of adventure is more experienced than a regular four-year-old's. Nothing short of a real horsie ride will make you think you're riding a horsie."

"You do know you needn't use the word 'horsie', Dawn."

Dawn giggled. She knew she shouldn't, but his lisp was adorable. "You want a Dawnie ride?"

"Ex-CUSE me?" Giles' eyes got bigger than the dogs' in that fairy tale Buffy had read to them last night, about the ones with eyes as big as saucers. Dawn had to giggle again.

"On my shoulders, silly. God, you're a worse pervert than Xander and Spike!"

"I am not. And I wasn't thinking anything... perverted. I was just wondering where you wanted me to shove the quarter," Giles said, straightfaced. Dawn stuck her tongue out at him.

"Who's shoving what where?" Buffy asked, coming up behind them with her arms full of shopping bags.

Giles didn't answer her when Dawn pointed the finger of guilt at him. He was too busy jumping up and down. "Oh! Can we go over there?"

"Where?" Dawn looked. All she saw were a bunch of tables, all scattered around a section of the parking lot.

"A book sale?" Buffy said. "Giles, you're four; you're supposed to be having fun."

Giles gave her a stern look. "I like books. A book sale is fun."

"Are you sure you wouldn't rather go to the Lions Club carnival?" Buffy asked.

"No. I'm likely to get grabbed, or something. Here there is plenty of space for you to keep an eye out for any suspicious-looking people."

"The only thing suspicious-looking is a four-year-old boy who wants to look at books," Buffy countered. But she was letting Giles drag her towards the book sale. Dawn followed, wondering if they could go to the carnival next, anyhow. Surely a Slayer could prevent one small child-like-person from coming to any harm?

"Ow!"

She looked over, and saw Giles sprawled on the asphalt -- after having tripped over a curb. Buffy was on it, though. She grabbed Giles up and was looking at his hands and knees, checking for massive bleeding, apparently, given the look on her face. "Giles, are you okay?"

The first thing Dawn noticed was that those kid-eyes looked twice their actual size when filled with tears, which weren't quite spilling over. "I think I broke my... patella," he said slowly. Looking up at Buffy to see if she believed him. It was all Dawn could do not to applaud. Even though it was mean to take advantage of somebody who hadn't studied in her anatomy classes because she was busy saving the world. Or that was the excuse Buffy usually gave for most missed classes.

"Really?" Buffy asked. "Left or right?" She carefully tickled his knees, and Giles giggled in spite of himself. Dawn revised her estimate of her sister's intelligence upwards -- which was unusual. Maybe she was coming down with something? She didn't feel sick.

"Well, perhaps it's not broken. Just bruised. It might be difficult to walk on."

Dawn rolled her eyes. "I offered you a ride, you know."

"As I recall, I didn't refuse. I merely got distracted." Giles' hand went towards his nose, as if trying to adjust glasses which weren't there. Dawn just held out her hands, and Giles jumped up and took them. She pulled him up, then around onto her back. After a moment to get settled, she gave her sister a smile. "So... book sale, or do we sneak off to the carnival?"

"Book sale," Giles said sternly.

"I think if his patella really is broken, we should take him home. Put an ice pack on him and leave him on the couch all day." Buffy sounded serious. It was only because Buffy had used this same tone on her more than once, that Dawn knew she was kidding.

"It's not that broken. I want to look at the books." Giles didn't seem to believe her, either.

"I don't know..." Buffy began.

"Dawn, I'll give you ten dollars if you head over towards the book sale."

"Deal!" Dawn walked away from Buffy, towards the books.

Buffy followed, casting stern glances at Dawn. "You know you shouldn't let him bribe you."

Dawn blinked at her sister. "Why not? He does it all the time when he's old."

"I'm not old!" Giles said loudly into Dawn's ear.

"Say it, don't spray it, Giles," Dawn replied calmly, wiping her ear off. "You were born before the Super Nintendo was invented, therefore, you're old. It's okay. Buffy's old, too."

Giles seemed to consider this for a minte, as he leaned down and pointed at a book he wanted. When Dawn handed it to him, he studied it for a minute, then said, "I don't bribe you all the time."

Dawn kept her mouth shut, though she rolled her eyes. Sure he didn't. Which was why her savings account was twice as large as it should have been based on the pitiful allowance Buffy gave her. He'd never said anything like 'Dawn, if you pretend you never saw that, I'll give you ten dollars and drive you to the mall...'

Then she realized Buffy was still watching the two of them, with narrowed eyes. Too late, Dawn tried an innocent smile. Buffy folded her arms in front of her, and said, "You are buying his books. All the books he wants."

Dawn gaped at her, then quickly took the book Giles was holding, and checked the tag. Only fifty cents. She gave it back and shrugged. "Fine." The way Buffy smiled, though, made Dawn suddenly doubt she'd get off as scot-free as she hoped.

She knew she wouldn't, when, half an hour later, Giles was telling Buffy to go fetch a basket, or something, and stop complaining. "You've the strength of a Slayer, one would think you could hold a small stack of books easily enough."

"Small! Giles, I didn't read this many books in my entire four years in high school."

Dawn could just imagine the look Giles gave Buffy -- she couldn't see it because he was still clinging to her back, and demanding that she pick that book up, or that one, or what about that one over there? She'd realized he was going to spend her entire ten dollar bribe on fifty cent books. Which, if he hadn't grabbed two she wanted to borrow, she'd have started complaining about.

She did almost cheer when he announced that he'd seen everything he wanted to see, and they could pay for the books now. Because by that time, they were heading into the red zone, meaning she was spending her own money on it. Giles waved one hand in front of her face, in Buffy's direction. "I want to hold them."

"You'll just drop 'em on my head," Dawn told him. Then it occurred to her that such might have been his intention in the first place, and she pinched his leg, lightly. "Brat."

"Buffy! Dawn's being mean to me," Giles called.

Buffy turned around, the stack of books in her hand. Dawn rolled her eyes. Buffy looked uncertainly at Giles, and Dawn groaned. He was doing the pout. He had to be. Little middle-aged brat. "Dawn, are you being mean to Giles?"

"Yes, Buffy. I live to torment your Watcher. I have nothing better to do in my life than make Giles cry." She was being sarcastic, of course. Tormenting Giles was a hobby, not a career.

"She pinched me. Hard," Giles put in.

Now Buffy was staring at her again, in that 'watch me be a Mom' way she'd adopted. Still not anywhere good at it as their real mom had been, but Dawn had to give her credit for trying. Of course, if Buffy really wanted someone to do the Mom stare at her, she should ask Spike. Not that Dawn was planning on telling her that, of course.

"Dawn, you shouldn't be mean to Giles."

"What? You mean you believe him? I didn't do anything!" She considered dropping Giles, but if she did he'd probably really break a patella -- or his head. "Buffy, if you say 'because he's littler than you' I'm going to tell everyone about that package you got in the mail from Frederick's of Hollywood."

Buffy's eyes went wide.

"Frederick's of Hollywood?" Giles was asking.

"You're too young to know," Dawn told him.

"How dare--" Buffy hissed. "I did not--! It wasn't for me!" she finally managed.

Dawn blinked. "Who are they for, then? Have you got a girlfriend, now, too? Or a boyfriend with tastes I really don't wanna know about?"

"I am not telling you anything. You are going to pay for these books and we are leaving."

Dawn just watched her for a moment, then nodded. "Yup. Classic mom-maneuver. Skip logic, and go directly for the 'because I said so' orders." She waited until Buffy looked like she'd worked up a delicious, crunchy retort, then added, "Of course, Mom didn't use that move to distract anybody from asking why she was shopping at Frederick's of Hollywood."

Buffy looked positively evil when she grinned and replied, "Actually..."

Dawn stared at her, wide-eyed. "Really?"

"I was looking through her purse for a breath-mint, and found a receipt. She about turned purple."

"Damn! And I missed it? Where was I?" Dawn asked. Then she looked down. "Oh. Stupid question."

"You were at Monica's," Buffy said, with a shrug. "It was the day you two gave her poodle a home perm."

Dawn blinked at her. Then she said slowly, "Sometimes I wonder about the people who came up with my backstory."

"Actually, you had a fairly typical childhood," Giles put in. "If you ignore all the times you encountered demons, vampires, werewolves, and fairies."

"Fairies? I don't remember fairies -- that would have been neat!"

"He means Xander and Spike," Buffy told her.

"Oh." Dawn pouted.

Then she pouted more when Buffy set Giles' stack of books next to the cash register and said to the woman, "She's paying."

"I can't reach my purse," Dawn said, holding onto Giles' legs.

"I can get down," Giles offered.

"You'll fall again," Dawn told him, not letting go.

In a dry voice, Giles said, "I think I can manage to stand still while you purchase my books, and not injure myself."

"I don't have any money," she tried again. "You haven't given me my bribe, yet."

"What about the one I gave you this morning? You haven't spent that all, have you?"

And now Buffy was looking at her like she'd done something evil, again. "What?" Dawn demanded.

"What did he bribe you to do?"

Dawn grinned. "You'll find out. When you least expect it."

It involved Buffy's underwear drawer and putting a big ol' cheesy picture of Spike and Xander grinning into the camera, with Buffy's room as a backdrop, in it. Under her set of days-of-the-week undies. It didn't really matter that Spike and Xander hadn't put it there, and would get in trouble for nothing. Heck, that was kind of the point. Dawn had to hand it to Giles -- his brilliance could be astounding.

Buffy glared at her, and held out her hand. "Money. Now."

Reluctantly, Dawn reached into her purse-- then grinned. "Um... I really don't have it. I left my wallet in the car."

"Fine. You can pay for supper." Buffy pulled her own billfold out, and paid the cashier.

"But we're going to Chuck-E-Cheese's for supper," Dawn protested. "We're meeting the rest of the gang and having pizza and playing video games for hours... I don't have that much in my bank account, much less my wallet!"

Buffy gave her half a smile. "Relax. You only have to pay for me, Giles, and yourself. And if you watch us play Pac-Man, you'll save money, right?" Dawn tried the little-sister pout, again. It still wasn't working. Maybe she was getting too old... Buffy was cheerfully accepting a bag of books from the cashier, then gave them a bright smile. "Now, who wants Dawn to buy us ice cream, to spoil our dinners with?"

"We just had slushees!" Dawn felt herself blanch. "Did I just say that?"

"I want pistachio," Giles said, leaning sideways and reaching for the bag of books. Buffy held it out of his reach. "And I want my book on the solar system."

Buffy rolled her eyes, but that didn't stop her from digging through the bag and pulling out the book Giles wanted. "I don't know why you want it now," she complained. "You'll just get carsick if you try to read while we're moving."

"I'm not going to read," Giles announced with much dignity. Dawn noticed that he didn't try to deny that he'd get carsick. Which was a wise move, since they'd already seen the results of him trying to focus on a Latin manuscript while the Range Rover jumped and bounced down the road. It hadn't been pretty.

"Then why do you want the book?" Buffy asked, as she opened the door and Dawn let him down into the back seat.

"I want to start putting the stickers in place," he answered, jutting out his chin. Buffy shot Dawn a grin, and handed Giles the book.

"Are you sure we should be going to Chuck-E-Cheese tonight?" Dawn tried as she slid into the driver's seat. "I mean, taking everybody out in public, someplace crowded like that... and we still don't know any more about that freak who tried to snatch Willow and Tara."

"I know -- but we can't lock everyone in the basement for the rest of the month." Buffy glanced at Giles, as though thinking they might try. "I'm pretty sure I can keep an eye on Giles at a pizza place well enough, and I challenge anyone to get past Spike and Xander, to get at Willow and Tara again."

Dawn giggled as she checked the rear view mirror. "They're such dads."

Buffy laughed with her. "Did they tell you that the papers Angel sent to Spike, that prove he's William Harris, also had adoption papers for Willow Harris, and a birth certificate for Tara Harris?"

"Tell me? I thought Spike was going to burst something, the way he was strutting around. Oh! We should buy them Father's Day cards." Dawn laughed again. "I feel sorry for their kids, if they ever have real ones. Any daughter they raise will be spoiled rotten, but never get to go out on a date."

"Please, stop," came a pitiful voice from the backseat. Dawn stopped the vehicle, and they both turned around.

"You weren't reading? Giles, are you sick again?"

They saw Giles sitting there, belted in with a child's adapter-seatbelt, holding his planets-and-moons sticker book in front of him. "No. But the thought of Xander and Anya having children..."

"Think of it this way -- Angel will be a grandpa!"

"Technically, I think he'll be a great-grandpa," Buffy corrected her.

Dawn pulled the car back onto the road, and waited until Giles was fully immersed in his book again, before adding, "Of course, you'd be a grandpa, too."

Giles spluttered. "What? I would not. How do you figure that?"

"Well, you think of all of us like your kids, right? So our kids would be your grandkids."

Giles looked at her in the rear-view mirror. Or rather, she looked at him, and he made a face. "I do not think of Anya and Xander as my children. Well, possibly Anya. Xander was left on my doorstep by trolls."

"Uh-huh. And what about Spike?' Buffy asked, getting in on the action.

"Spike is old enough to be my great grandfather," Giles argued.

"Only chronologically."

"The fact remains, I make no claims on Spike as being any sort of relation of mine. Except possibly an alley cat one's neighbors have fed and one cannot be rid of."

"Which explains why you bought that behind-the-scenes tell-all Passions book for him last Christmas?" Buffy asked.

"It was the cheapest thing I could think of," Giles retorted.

"Cheap would have been buying him cigarettes," Dawn pointed out. "Or a book of matches."

"Except that Anya doesn't let him smoke in the apartment, so he's barely going through a pack a week, now." There was silence from the backseat, then Giles said, "Or so I gather."

"Uh-huh." Buffy gave Dawn a wink. "You've never once called their place to see if Spike made it home before sunrise okay?"

"I never! I was only doing it because Anya was busy and couldn't get to the phone."

Dawn had to clamp her jaw down on her giggles -- she couldn't drive and laugh hysterically at the same time. She knew, she'd tried. Never with Buffy in the car, of course, because she wanted to maintain her driving privileges. And Xander was sworn to secrecy...

When Buffy just kept smirking at him, Giles asked, "Are you certain it's a good idea to go out to Chuck-E-Cheese's?"

"Ah, the classic Watcher-technique," Dawn observed. "Distract them by asking if something mildly potentially dangerous is really a good idea."

"Plus there's the 'repeat a question someone else asked and hope everyone's forgotten about it by now' gambit," Buffy added. "Actually, Giles was never into asking whether it was really a good idea. That might have actually worked. He was more like 'Buffy, I absolutely forbid you to do this.' Which as we know is like a red flag for Slayers."

Giles looked up, an evil expression on his face. "Buffy, I absolutely forbid you to shut up about any of you ever having children, and what relationship I might be to them if you did."

Buffy opened her mouth, then closed it again. Dawn smirked. Buffy pouted-- and Dawn was quickly thankful that Buffy wasn't still four. "I want ice cream," Buffy said, in a voice as high and childish as Giles'. It was all Dawn could do not to run off the road.

~~~~~

"I don't think it'll work," Tara told her girlfriend, with a shake of her head.

"Oh, it will too! Come on, Tara."

"Yes, it's really an excellent plan," Giles put in. The three of them were sitting together at one end of the table, eating pizza and breadsticks and drinking enough soda to float the Enterprise. Either version.

"But if we try to walk off without at least two adults with us..." She glanced over at the adults at the table, who were also eating pizza and breadsticks and drinking enough soda --and that only between Spike, Xander, and Dawn -- to float two battleships. Any time any one of them had tried to move from the table, one to three adults had jumped up and grabbed the four-year-old's hand and said 'where are we going?'

At first it had been fun, when Spike grabbed Willow's hand and she said 'bathroom', then when Giles did the same thing to Buffy. But the older... taller set had caught on, so now the kids were trying to come up with something new.

"It isn't like we're trying to give them the slip," Willow explained. "I don't wanna get grabbed by some stranger, and I don't wanna get lectured again by Spike for getting out of eyesight for all of two seconds."

"So why don't we just ask them?" Tara asked.

"Because they're too bloody big to get into the maze," Giles explained.

"Are you sure?" She eyed the colorful tubes, then looked back down the table at the adult adults. Then she looked at Giles, and saw the twinkle in his eye. He did want to give them the slip. She gave him a look -- the same look that he usually gave her and Willow when they were trying some new spell, as a matter of fact.

He didn't bother trying to look innocent at her, just rolled his eyes. "All right. Look, no adult can get into those tubes, so we'll be perfectly safe from harm. I don't want to be snatched any more than you do-- I just want a bit of breathing space -- and breathing in the men's room is not at the top of my to-do list."

Tara thought for a millisecond, then nodded. "Okay! Let's do it!" They counted to three under their breaths, then Tara ever so accidentally knocked her soda over onto the table-- and started wailing.

None of the adults at neighboring tables even looked up -- this was Chuck-E-Cheese, after all -- but Xander and Spike came to her rescue in an instant -- which gave Willow and Giles the chance to slip off to the tubes while everyone fussed over Tara. Then, when they were all looking around and going 'Where's Willow? Where's Giles?' Tara used her secret super Pepsi-power (five caffeinated sodas in two hours) to zoom over to the tubes herself.

Spike almost managed to grab her, but she zipped past him, trailing cola-particles in her wake, and giggling. She slipped inside the entrance to the tube-maze, losing her shoes in the process somewhat near the sign that said "take off your shoes here", and began scrambling upwards to where Willow and Giles were.

At least, where they'd been a moment ago. She stopped at a junction where she'd seen them, and looked around. A bunch of kids she didn't know were headed up one way, and a little girl who looked lost, was sitting down along the other tube. Tara hurried over to the unoccupied tube and slid down, squealing as she went. As she hit the bottom, and exited the tube maze briefly, she peeked out -- and saw Xander standing just beyond the maze, watching her. She stuck her tongue out and hurried back up before he could catch her.

She caught sight of Giles, and scurried after him, managing to grab his ankle before he climbed up another tube. He glanced down. "Oh! Good lord, I thought you were Dawn."

"Dawn? She can't get in here... can she?" Tara looked around. Nothing but under-seven as far as she could see.

"I'm not sure. But she was waiting for us when we tried to give you the slip -- er, I lost Willow, ducking back in here."

Tara squeaked. "They got Willow? Oh no!" She had to go rescue her poor girlfriend. Tara began to shuffle back down the tube, but Giles grabbed her wrist.

"No, Willow got into the other tube. I think she's up there, over our heads."

Tara looked up through the big clear bubble at the top junction of their tube, to see, sure enough, Willow looking down at her through the bubble in the bottom of the overpassing tube. Grinning, sticking out her tongue, and waggling her fingers in her ears. Which was universal sign language for "Nyah-nyah, nyah nyah, can't get me!" Tara pursed her lips, narrowed her eyes, and scrambled up the tube, climbing right over Giles.

"Ooh-- you just wait! I'm gonna get you, Willow Rosenbooger!" She could hear Willow giggling somewhere above her as she climbed.

"Hey! Wait up!" Giles called, behind her. She didn't, of course, but if he helped her catch Willow, all the better. They chased her through three tubes, somehow never managing to get into the same tube at the same time. At one point Tara and Giles climbed out into a crow's nest, and looked around. On the ground level, looking up at them, were Anya and Spike. "You know, I don't think we quite gave them the slip," Giles observed.

"Well, they still can't get at us. We can play in here as long as we like."

"Until we get kicked out when the restaurant closes."

"Which isn't until ten p.m.! Come on, there she is!" Tara leapt for another tube, and slid halfway down -- and landed on Willow's head. "Haha! Gotcha!" Then Tara said, "Ow!" as Giles landed on both their heads. "Watch it!" She thumped him on the arm.

Then she found all three of them sliding the rest of the way down the tube. They landed in a heap at the bottom of four tubes. They all leapt up, as one, stuck their tongues out... and hurried off in different directions.

This time, when Tara looked out a bubble window, she saw Buffy standing with her arms crossed, grinning, directly below her. Buffy waved, and Tara made the universal sign-language gesture. When Buffy made as if to dive for the opening of a nearby tube, Tara laughed hysterically, then squirmed away. Just in case Buffy had long arms.

She over-squirmed, though, and found herself once more sliding down a tube, to land against Willow. Who was pushed into Giles. Who popped out onto the floor. The two girls just stayed there laughing, braced too far up the tube for an adult to reach, while Giles scrambled for another entrance, running as fast as his little legs would carry him, Xander hot on his tail.

"Hey, quit pushing me!" Willow said suddenly.

"I'm not!"

"Yes you are. I'm slipping-- I'm gonna fall out. Stop it!"

"Oh, you are not. Baby!"

Willow looked up and stuck her tongue out, waggling it. "Bottle blonde!"

"Not now, I'm not. Neurotic homework highlighter!"

Wilow crossed her eyes, obviously concentrating hard. "Goyim!"

Tara stared at her. "I'm a what?" She leaned her head past Willow and called out "Xander! Willow called me a mean name!"

"It's not a mean name-- it just means you're not Jewish," Willow said.

"Well, duh!" Tara thought for a second, then pouted. "I don't know any special words for 'not ex-Southern-Baptist' "

"Gooberface!"

"That works."

"You know, if you two can't play nice--" They both 'eeped' and jumped away from Xander, who was crouching at the mouth of the tube... and was only inches away from them. Tara shoved Willow ahead of her, trying to get them out of reach before he could grab them. She thought she heard him laughing, but didn't stop to find out.

They ran around the tube maze, dodging strange kids, adults they knew all too well, and, at various points, each other. Finally Tara landed at the bottom of a tube beside Willow and Giles, who were sitting down and breathing hard.

"You two aren't wimping out, are you?"

"I'm considering the necessity of ingesting more pizza, before racing around for another hour," Giles replied.

"Yeah. And I'm thirsty," Willow added.

Tara peered through the blue plastic of the tube's walls. "If you go out there, you're gonna get grabbed."

"What?" Willow and Giles sat up, alarmed.

"Buffy, Dawn, Anya, Spike, and Xander -- they're all standing there. Watching us." She pointed.

Giles peered over his shoulder, and made a face. "Everywhere we turn, one or more of them is right there. Watching."

"Mad because watching's your job?" Willow asked.

"No, merely annoyed because we did this in order to get out from under their overly-protective gazes."

"It's kinda nice, though," Tara pointed out, even though she felt more like racing through the tubes, some more, than sitting here and talking. When Willow and Giles looked at her with expressions of disbelief, she said, "Well, in case something did happen. They'll be right there."

"Like if someone grabbed us," Willow said, nodding. Then her eyes lit up. "Or if someone stuck her head out of the tube and said she was thirsty?"

Tara looked at her skeptically. "Um, if you wanna try it..."

Willow grinned. "Nope, I was thinking maybe you would!" Tara felt herself being grabbed by both Willow and Giles, and being pushed so that her head stuck out the bottom of the tube.

"Help!" she shouted between giggles. Then thought better of it, since she didn't want to be rescued and dragged out. "Um... Willow wants Pop! Lots of pop! I do, too!" Her message delivered, Giles and Willow yanked her back up to safety, and Tara whapped Willow on the head, lightly. "Geek!"

Giles pouted. "You didn't ask for my pizza."

They all watched the opening of the tube, and eventually, Xander's head poked its way inside. "You want soda, you have to come out. No food or drink in the play area."

"Boo!" they yelled. It echoed in the tube, and Xander put his hands over his ears.

Tara giggled, and couldn't seem to stop. Xander looked at her for a minute. "Right, and only diet soda for Tara."

That stopped the giggles. She couldn't believe he would be so mean! "Willow, Xander's saying I'm a fat little kid!"

"No, sweetie, he's saying you've had more than enough sugar for one night."

"You should know," Giles put in. "You fed her three of your regular colas, after Xander tried buying her only diet ones, before."

"I did not!" Willow protested.

"Willow?" came a foreboding, very authoritarian voice. They all looked at Xander, then Tara and Willow looked at Giles.

"When did you teach him to sound like that?"

"What? ME? I never did anything of the sort. He got it from... from Spike, I imagine. Er, actually, I don't want to imagine..." He sighed. "Too late. I've imagined it. Someone shoot me, please?"

"We have a fresh pizza, at the table," Xander said. "And breadsticks."

Tara watched as Giles actually moved an inch towards the mouth of the tube. She grabbed his arm. "Don't go!"

"But they have more food," he said, not even looking back at her. He moved another inch, and she let go.

"Fine. Go, see if we care. Willow and I will play without you." But Willow was inching towards the exit, as well. "Willow!"

"I'm thirsty," she whined.

"I can't believe you'd leave me," Tara sniffed. "After I've given you the best... um... four years of my life! Over Root Beer!"

Willow looked at her, then said softly, "The best four years?"

"Well, duh!"

"Cool!" Willow said, then slid out of the tube, running for the table.

Tara looked after her in dismay, then shrugged. Fine. She could still have fun by herself. She took off for the farther reaches of tubeville, clambering in and out of the Amazon Jungle, playing Tara, Queen of the Ape People. She even noticed that if she used the little anti-static spell she and Willow put on the dryer in the apartment building when they were doing laundry, it made the slidey tubes really slippery.

Of course, every time she did that, it made her kinda tired for a second or two, but she wasn't worried-- she had plenty of energy to spare. Finally she made it up to the highest point, and sat down for a rest. Just a little one, where she could watch everybody down below, and make faces at them through the bubble. A little while later-- she wasn't sure how much later, because she'd closed her eyes, just for a second, she heard voices in the tube.

"Hey, watch where you're going, lummox!"

"You're the one who stopped, Spike. What's the matter-- afraid of heights?"

"No-- but you pinched my arse!"

"Er, and this is bad why?"

"Because we're in a kiddie tube, and you nearly made me slip. I'd have landed on your face," Spike explained. Tara looked around, confused. Why could she hear Spike and Xander so clearly, from here?

"Yeah, butt-first."

Tara crawled to the edge of the bubble, and looked down the tube. Right there, less than four feet away, was Spike. "How'd you get in here?" she asked. Wasn't he supposed to be too big?

Spike turned around, and smiled at her. "Awake, then, are you? Come on." He held out one hand. She crawled towards him to take it, and shook her head.

"You can't get in here. It's for kids-only. You're too big."

Spike just grinned in that way that made her want to cuddle him. Or be cuddled, which when she was awake and adult, was the sort of thought that was worrisome. Right now, she slid down into his arms.

"You got her?" Xander asked.

"Yeah. Back up, now -- hey! No pinching!"

Suddenly Tara was sliding in Spike's arms, all the way down the tube. She, Spike, and Xander, landed in a heap on the rubber playmat at the bottom, Spike's arms still wrapped around her. "You pinched, didn'cha!" she asked Xander, who was grinning unashamedly at Spike. One arm unwrapped from around her shoulder to whap Xander on the head. Xander whapped him back.

"You know, if you two can't play nice..." came Anya's voice from the table.

"Yes?" they both chorused.

"You won't get to play naughty when we get home!"

The whapping stopped instantly. Spike stood up and carried Tara over to the table, Xander following. "Anybody want this, or you think I should keep her?" Spike asked the group, holding Tara out over the table like she was a pizza that somebody forgot to pick up.

"Is that the prize that came with all the skeeball tickets?" Buffy asked.

"Yeah. They were all out of stuffed monkeys, so I got the little girl. 500 tickets this thing was!" Tara laughed, and poked him in the ribs. Spike frowned at her and added, "I think I got ripped off."

"We can hang her in the living room, with Mr. Fluffy and Frankenporker." Xander was putting slices of pizza on plates, and passing them out to Spike, Tara, and Giles, before keeping one for himself. Tara grinned, then looked really, really hungry at him. He passed her his plate, and reached for another.

"Sneaky," Spike whispered in her ear.

She looked over. "Can I have something to drink?"

At least three people said "No soda!"


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