"You're *sure* you didn't wanna go in Gwen's limo?" Willow asked, putting the car into park in front of the bakery where, yes, the cake lived. "'Cause those seats were awful lounge-y. And her with the sexy pouting..."
"Yes. I absolutely wanna spend time with my best friend who I haven't seen in forever, and missed like crazy." Buffy told her, doubtlessly, before almost looking offended. "Is that all you think we do together? Have sex?" The witch innocently grinned. "Well you're wrong." She insisted. "And does 'jetlag' mean nothing to you? Gwen would've dropped her bags off at her suite--"
"By her super king-size bed? Does it have real fluffy pillows?" Willow teased with her interjection.
"*Then*, her driver would've taken me home while she crashed. Alone." Buffy finished, trying to muster a sense of anger, but not quite getting there. "Zero naughtiness." Oh, she had to wipe that disbelieving smirk away. "Hey...why the hell were you checking out my girlfriend's pout, huh? Fess."
Ha. Got her. Willow couldn't fumble her way out of this. After several seconds of shell shock, and Buffy's "ahem," "Wow, you know, they-they could close any...now. They could. Maybe possibly *right* now. So I better go, I mean, don't you think? Me too." Smile. "And you oughta, um, stay. Yeah. Definitely stay. It's bad to see the cake candle-less." She unbuckled, opened the door and ran, yelling back, "Very bad!"
Well, what do you know? She *did* fumble her way out. Chuckling, Buffy reclined her seat back and just closed her eyes underneath her sunglasses. She wasn't kidding about being jetlagged. She tried to rest on the plane, but she just wasn't the type that could, no matter how many countries she'd flown to. A quick closing of the eyes sounded--
"Spice Up Your Life" rang throughout the car.
--too much like her cell phone.
Groaning, she grabbed her purse, fished for the stupid thing, and answered it. "Hello?"
"Happy birthday, sis." Dawn greeted her on the other end. "You get in okay?"
"Yeah, I'm with Willow. We're castle-bound. And thanks." Buffy said, smiling upon hearing her sister's voice. "How were classes?"
"Still more fun than fighting for my life against zombie, priest guys." The eighteen-year-old joked, but not really. "But d'you think that dancing demon got hitched yet? Because that *would* be more fun." She sighed. "Except for Latin, all day I'm like, 'Please let me morph into a green, energy blob and get the frick out of here.'" Her tone lightened again. "So, the usual."
"*Except* for Latin?" The slayer incredulously parroted back. "There's no way you were made from me. It's impossible." She shook her head. "Majoring in foreign language with a minor in 'Demonology.' God, you're Giles--if he was a girl. And American." It was so sad. "Yep. Definite mix-up."
She could practically see Dawn's horrified expression. "Quiet! Geez!" The girl urgently whispered. "I'm considered semi-cool here!"
By here, she meant UC Berkley. Where she was a freshman.
"You're a geek. Cope." Buffy smirked and jibed, "How's Kenneth?"
"It's *Kenny*," Dawn corrected yet again, "and...we've kinda been, trying a thing where we're kinda...'loose.'" She tried to brush the question aside. "How's Gwen? As if I hafta ask."
"Still a thief." 'An amazingly gorgeous thief who's still dating me,'
Buffy said in her mind, grinning then pursing her lips. "What does 'loose' mean? Did he do something? I can call--"
"Buffy! No!" Her sister dissuaded loudly. There was silence for a moment or two while she got over the public embarrassment. "He doesn't need to be slayed, I swear. It isn't like that. I'll explain sometime not now."
"Fine." The blonde begrudgingly said. "Just a reminder, though? Anything that does need slaying, call them. No 'hero' stuff. It's overrated."
"I know, I know."
"I mean it, Dawn." She let the weight of that hang there, and then switched topics. "When's your--?"
She didn't need slayer senses to tell her that that was the noise of a vehicle stopping suddenly. But slayer senses were telling her something else wasn't right. Sliding her sunglasses on top of her head, her gaze went to the rearview mirror. She gasped at what she saw inside.
"Dawn, I gotta go. Call me later." Then she clicked off the phone, and muttered to herself, "This didn't take long."
She left the car's confines. In the street, traffic had come to an abrupt halt, both vehicular and pedestrian, because of an open manhole, and the vampire that had emerged from. Ignoring the yells and the screams of the onlookers putting distance between themselves and him, he headed for her even as the sun set him ablaze.
His arm, littered with flame, rose to point at her. "It is returning! Already their power grows stronger than before! They will spill your army’s bl--!"
The fanatical ranting was cut off by a slight case of crumbling to dust. Buffy somewhat shakily quipped, "Next time? Economize the word choice."
About a second later, Willow came running out as fast as she went in, this time holding a string-tied box. "Buffy, what happened?"
The blonde looked at the box and sighed. "I hate my birthday."
It was a few minutes past seven that night, when Buffy, Willow, and Xander were in Buffy’s new bedroom, somewhere within the awe-inspiring castle. They’d gotten lost a few times. Anyway, she had a fireplace. That was currently burning actual logs. Would've been a hypnotic sight if not for Xander toasting marshmallows inside it. But it was just great to be around friends again.
Unfortunately, Giles wasn’t among them. He was in Baghdad, desperately trying to get a young slayer the hell out of there. She got a call two days ago while still in Mexico, though at his end, he was speaking by radio. He was waiting on approval and documentation before he could even take her into Kuwait, where they'd fly from. Then there was the matter of getting her to the Western World.
The girl's father had died in a car bomb explosion, a day after Giles had met with him, and her mother had died giving birth. Not only was it tragic, it made things substantially more difficult. He was supposed to give her an update as soon as he could. For the first time in her life, she prayed he kept himself safe. But it'd be fine.
When he wished her an early "happy birthday," he specifically told her not to worry, and to enjoy herself.
"I've already said, but it bares repeating--we’ve gotta make this more homey." Buffy declared. It was spacious and had a great, tactical location, but it was kind of cold. "Like, with drapes. And pots that have plants in them. Or possibly fish."
“Just keep swimming, just keep swimming...” Willow giggled. She liked those Dory fish.
Xander and Buffy smirked at her, and then three mugs filled with hot chocolate were sipped. They were necessary in places where winter was actually winter. "I figured we'd DIY the joint later. Or, DIO." He held up the stick with the flaming ‘mallow. “Who’s the first vic...guh, lucky lady?”
“She is.” The ladies echoed, pointing at one another.
“Hmph. Fine, you wanna miss out...” He scowled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. He blew out the flame, and brought it to his tongue much too soon. “Hatchi machi!” The stick fell to the stone floor, and all was lost.
“Why in my bedroom?” Buffy wondered, eyes drawn to the lost, gooey snack food.
No one answered.
"Hey! We get to have weekend projects!" The witch piped up enthusiastically, just realizing. "And look at color swatches!"
"Yeah, it'll be nice. Re-bonding over manual labor and army training." Buffy agreed with a firm nod. "I just hope we get it in before the latest apocalypse." Her friends' mouths dropped open, and they glared reproachfully.
"Have we learned nothing from my youthful, jinxing days, where foot was constantly in mouth?" Xander berated, as if to a small child. "That's just asking for this place to be fireballed to the ground; and the insurance doesn't cover raptures."
"One's apparently been started, so really, what more damage could I do?" The slayer shrugged it off, feeling more than somewhat moped. "There was an earthquake today. Plural.”
"In *California*. That’s new since never. And c’mon, *'quake'* is kinda skewing toward the melodramatic, Buf." He tried to argue.
"Wrongly skewing." Willow supported, glad to have something to grasp onto.
"They were more like--"
"Shakes. Earth*shakes*. Tiny. Like milkshakes, only, not." At all, but whatever.
"What she said." Xander continued, taking the ball and running with it. "Richter scale? Hardly twitched. Might've been a little shimmy in there too, but it didn't even rate."
"Okay, what about the Inhuman Torch at the bakery?" Buffy threw at them, to see what they'd say.
Dismissive flick of the hand. "Crazy as a loony toon. Bet he was a mental patient before getting bit." The redhead posited, hopefully and optimistically. "'Cause going out in the day and poofing yourself? That's..." She pointed at her head and moved her finger in a circular motion. "...y'know?"
"Unless he was a fanatic. With a boss." The blonde countered darkly. "Remember the last time a vampire went all cindery for my benefit?"
"Yeah, Angelus sent..." Xander trailed off at the high school memory. "Man, you don't think...?"
Nobody had heard anything about Angel since getting word that he was taking Wolfram and Hart on. Nobody had heard anything out of Los Angeles, period. No news, no Hollywood buzz...it should’ve been weird, but it wasn’t. The world didn’t seem to care about what might be going on there. What happened, what was happening, they didn’t know. And they were oddly okay with that.
"No, I don't." She assured him, steering him away from that line of thought. "But the point is, he was her boss, and he got her to cook herself for a reason. Which was getting me off my game, so I couldn’t stop...what?"
"An apocalypse." Willow mumbled, starting to feel depressed.
"Bingo." Buffy noticed Xander's expression take a downturn as well. "Hey, I don't like thinking this either, guys, but it's a logical conclusion we hafta be prepared for."
"No-good logic." Xander groused.
There was about ten seconds of wallowing, when knock sounded on the wooden door. Much relief was felt by all due to the interruption, Buffy in particular, who smiled widely. The trio got up, Xander rubbing his hands together in an anticipating manner.
"Cake time! Finally!" He exclaimed happily. "Gotta admit--I was beginning to think this 'guest' we've been waitin' on was a ruse. Meant to cruelly withhold a much craved rush of sugar. The rare kind provided by frosting and frosting alone...but no more." He told Buffy knowingly. He figured it was a boyfriend they hadn't told him about, and...he was close. "In the wise words of Homer J. Simpson, 'Woo' and 'Hoo.'"
"I'll go get the balloons." Willow said. She'd been hiding them down the basement.
It was a birthday for crying out loud.
"Balloons? No. No balloons. We talked about this." The slayer spoke hurriedly, fearfully.
"It's like you said, Buffy," The witch countered with a smile, "if something's already started, what more damage?"
Buffy should've expected that to come back to haunt her. "That's taken *completely* out of context." But Willow was gone out the door, but not before saying a quick “hi” to Gwen who was on the other side.
"I'll ready the cake for the fire-blowing-out." Her other friend disappeared the same way, heading for the kitchen.
Leaving her to welcome Gwen inside. Tonight's snowflakes still remained in the brunette’s hair. "You're late." The slayer told her, figuring one of other girls must’ve taken her coat.
"Overslept." Gwen said apologetically and sheepishly. "Then there was the helicopter." She grinned when Buffy was in front of her again. "So are you gonna warm me up or what?"
And thus, the making out began. Even though Buffy felt like she needed to stand on an apple box to reach Gwen's lips, somehow they made it work, wrapping around each other like it was indeed for warmth. At some point, Xander and Willow reentered the scene, but stood back as silent voyeurs, one with multi-colored balloons, one with cake.
While she watched longingly, he watched for another reason. When his brain came back, he whispered to her, "The Force is strong with you, Will. Here I was kidding about the 'Playground. But mine eye has seen the truth...I'm now onto you."
"I didn't--" She started to deny, but he wasn't going to hear it. "Faith set them up. I was only 'idea girl.'"
He studied her face a moment, looking for any twinge of falseness, but came away satisfied. "The eye accepts this."
She smacked his shoulder, just as Buffy cleared her throat at their peeping tomfoolery.
Buffy and Gwen were sitting at a table in the back corner of the club now, having made small talk for the last fifteen minutes or so. Awkward small talk. The slayer didn't know what the thief expected from this, and the thief, having found out that the slayer had been unaware she was walking into a date, assumed she was staying out of a presumed obligation to Faith. This wasn't a recipe for success.
"Wisconsin?" Buffy was doing her best to make a go of it, when Gwen told her where she was from originally. "Does that mean you're obsessed with cheese? Because I *like* cheese, don't get me wrong, but there is a limit on how far I'll take that like. Not that you have a beyond the norm fetish or anything..."
Gwen chuckled. The girl was a bit of a dork. "It’s 'status quo' all the way. I’m learning how to be flexible, though. In other areas."
The blonde was embarrassed, but smiled nonetheless. "Good to know."
Was that a flirt returned? "Question?" The brunette wondered, hesitantly. "Why you humoring me?"
"Is that what you think I'm doing?"
"Little bit. Yeah." Gwen twirled the straw in her drink.
"Wouldn't be here if I didn't wanna be." Buffy assured, and then took a deep breath. "I've had some pretty less-than-conventional relationships," To put it mildly, "and being with a girl hasn't ever been, you know, a bad thought, just a rare. Guys are what I'm used to; there's a comfort zone. Even when there isn’t." She gestured between the two of them. "This? Has no zone. It's new, it's scary, I don't know the rules...but I'm trying, because, why not? You seem nice, and, plenty attractive how we females, um, traditionally are. What's it gonna hurt to see if this leads anywhere?" Pause for a drink. "I'm surprised you haven't bolted. Why put up with a curious, straight girl who doesn't have a clue?"
"Hey, we're on the same ride." The thief exhaled a shaky breath.
"We are?" The slayer was stumped. "But I thought..." Gwen shook her head. "Oh. Huh. Kinda takes the pressure off." They felt the air practically relax around them, as the awkward phase of their date died. "So are you burnt out on guys, too? Is that why you asked Faith if--?"
"My story gets complicated." Gwen offered vaguely, before deciding on the spot to walk out onto the limb, rip the Band-Aid off, and any other cliché that worked. It had to be said. "I'm...sort of a freak."
"Really? What kind?" Buffy queried lightheartedly. "Me? I'm the 'vampire-slaying' variety. We hang out in graveyards and hafta smell like it, so Goth-stereotyped, wear alotta slime that’s nothing like Nickelodeon says...and sometimes we volunteer to walk into Hell, even when we know we're gonna die." She started that smiling, but her face had darkened by the end. "I understand 'complicated.'"
Right then was the first time Gwen had a similar, yet more personalized thought to what all the people who eventually fell in love with Buffy Summers had upon meeting her: 'I know that look. Eyes are hiding a lot of pain. I think I hate that it's there.' Thought passed quick, however, as she was more concentrated on showing the vampire slayer precisely what she'd meant. Emboldened, her gloves came off, and she tapped a button on the "watch."
Placing both elbows on the table, and holding her forearms parallel to one another, she allowed blue streaks of electricity to pass between her palms. They reflected in Buffy's hazel eyes, as she sat mesmerized. "I'm my very own variety."
"Wait. After a whole life of absolutely no to people-touching, you stole LISA, had your first time, but then didn't...?" Buffy said after recapping Gwen's origin story, floored by what she'd heard.
"'Quiver and pop.'" Gwen filled in helpfully, rather shy about it. "Faith."
The blonde nodded. "Definitely Faith." Beat. "Wow. I mean, can see why you'd wanna...explore." She spoke the next bit into her beer. "Do you think it was you, or...?"
"Kinda why I’m here. Still, he went home proud."
It was a shame, too. She had counted on that stereotype ringing true.
"I thought so." The thief then went on. "Truth? Angel’s the only guy who ever got me close to feeling anything like...” What was she doing? Dumbass. “Once. But it was just, uh, a thing." She'd made his heart beat and all.
Buffy’s smile was somewhat sad, but it let Gwen off the hook. Enough talk of partners past. "So, speaking of stealing--"
"Thieving.” Gwen corrected with a smile. “John Q. and the wife aren’t my target demo. I work higher bracket. Corporate suits, private collectors, Uncle Sam...but he hates when I brag about that.” She then asked in earnest, “Gonna be an issue?”
“Why d’you do it?”
“You were lightning in a bottle, what would you do?” The question was thrown back to the blonde.
“Compete with the power company? Buy an electric car ‘cause of how cheap? Make people really static-y?” Buffy smiled sheepishly. Gwen just pulled her straw out of the glass and sucked on the bottom end. “Seriously, why?”
“It’s fun...can’t beat the rush. I might like sticking it to the ‘normies’...” Gwen bit down on the straw, shrugging. “I dunno. Told Gunn it makes me feel a part of something.”
“I would’ve guessed ‘apart from.”
“Said that too.” Gwen eyes turned downward self-consciously, toward her drink. “So...gonna be an issue? I heard your hat’s pretty white.”
“As long as ‘pretty’ was a word.”
It surprised both of them when Buffy’s hand touched her arm. L.I.S.A was back on, but Gwen’s skin held a small, residual charge. Buffy felt it pass through her, her eyes widened a bit and her hand wanted to jerk away, but she didn’t move it.
“I just try to be me...don’t look the best hatted. But I’ll let you know. It’s not even past tonight yet.” The slayer eyed the thief’s drink. “Can I taste?”
It was around two in the morning when Xander unexpectedly rallied sleepy troops into Command Central--the area that would be his domain. Slayers were already on shift watching monitors, keeping a vigilant, satellite-assisted eye on the castle grounds. But over by the main bay, Xander stood on a dais, his monitors tuned to a news station.
“Nice hardware.” Gwen commented, looking around while keeping herself wrapped in her favorite kimono. “Know well-spent money when I see it.”
“I’ve said ‘thank you’ enough, right?” Buffy wondered, wearing a thrown-on tank top and drawstring pants.
Her thief’s smile was both sexy and sincere. “Lost count of the ways, babe.”
The slayer reluctantly turned her attention to Xander. “Okay, how-how come we need to be here?”
“Yep. Bed would be good now.” Willow coughed, trying to hide her red face.
It was times like this she missed her girlfriend.
“Uh...TV.” Xander pointed, doing his best impression of a zombie.
There was a reporter talking.
“For safety reasons we’re not being allowed past these police barriers, but after what’s seemed like months, there’s finally worthwhile news coming out of Los Angeles. Unfortunately, that news is today’s earthquake. But from what we’re being told, other than some minor structural damage and a so far unknown number of injuries, California residents with homes and businesses inside the city limits were rather lucky.
“And for those who weren’t, this reporter has learned that the law firm, Wolfram and Hart, whose Los Angeles branch was apparently one of the buildings hardest hit, has pledged to pay for any and all necessary repairs, once the damage has been fully assessed.”
“’It is returning,’” Buffy breathed out quietly. That’s what the vampire had ranted.
Everybody slowly came to the same realization.
But Xander voiced it. “We were mojo’d. Whammied. Copperfielded.” And now it was wearing off.
“Not just us,” Willow added, angry that she didn’t see through it, “probably everyone else, too. To think L.A. was--”
“No, to not think about it.” Buffy corrected. “Until Wolfram and Hart was ready for it to be back from...wherever.”
“Where’s wherever?” Gwen asked, rhetorically.
“Guess we’re finding out.” The blonde thought back to that vampire again, unable to help feeling like Wolfram and Hart was trying to get her attention. Could Angel and his people still be alive in there? “Wanna take another non-vacation with me?”
Damn it, she was just getting settled here. Stupid birthdays.