Son of Small Fry

chapter nineteen

Lorn was grinning at Wesley in a way that made Gunn uncertain if he should rescue his lover, or leave him to the consequences of his actions. As long as it didn't cross the 'details' boundary, he was tempted to leave him where he was.

"Wes?" Angel called over, and his tone of voice told them the jokes were over.


"Do you want to talk to your mother?"

Wesley didn't reply, immediately. Then he shook his head. "Best tell her I'm out. I don't--"

But Angel interrupted with, "She knows."

Wesley stared at him for a moment, dumbfounded. Then he grinned. "Good one, Angel. I didn't think you'd be able to really pull a joke off -- now we need a train, and jail, and rain -- was there something else in that verse?" He asked Lorn, only semi-seriously.

"Wes," Angel said again, holding the phone with one hand over the mouthpiece quite firmly. "It really is."

Wesley went back and forth between a worried frown and a strange little smile, before he finally nodded, and held out his hand for the phone. Lorn shot Gunn a look-- which told Gunn all he ever needed to know about how close they'd been. Close enough for the look to *almost* match the one on Gunn's face.

Then he let Wesley down. Gunn was expecting him to do what he usually did when he had to speak with one of his parents-- head for Angel's office and shut the door. Instead, he stood there uncertainly in the lobby for another few moments, before finally lifting the phone to his mouth.

"Hello, mother." A pause, then a nod -- the same kind of nod he'd given Spike over the phone earlier today. This time he caught himself nodding, though, and shook his head, frowning. "Yes, it's me." Then the frown deepened. "No, I-- No, nothing's wrong. It, well, it was intended. Part of a spell to--" He nodded again, then glared at no one in particular, in a way that let Gunn know it was *himself* Wes was angry with. "Yes. No, I'm sorry, you and Father were never supposed to be bothered with this..."

Gunn was walking over to him, now. He didn't want to interrupt -- but he didn't like the look on Wesley's face. The anger that shouldn't be there, and then, as Wesley said, "Of course, yes, I understand" there was no emotion on his face at all. Wiped clean.

Gunn was to him and picking him up, before he could decide it was a good idea. Angel picked up the receiver as Wesley dropped it; Gunn saw him bring the receiver to his ear, listen for a moment, then his face clouded over and he hung up without saying a word.

"Wes? Man, what--" Gunn broke off his question. He could see Wesley's eyes -- wide, staring at nothing, and his face so tightly controlled Gunn knew it was taking all of Wes' will to hold it steady.

"Come on," Angel said quietly, and Gunn looked over to see him leading Lorn out of the room, towards the dining room. Gunn took Wesley over towards the stairs, intending to get him up to the privacy of their room.

"She said they received a phone call from a man saying I'd been turned into a child. That they needed to come fetch me and take care of me...." His voice was inflectionless. Gunn brushed his finger across Wesley's cheek, wondering what she'd *said* to do this to him. "She was rather upset at the suggestion. She explained she and father were entirely too busy to drop everything and come to California to rescue me."

"You don't need rescuing," Gunn said, feeling totally bewildered. His mother had said all that? Besides who had called her -- what sort of mother reacted that way to hearing that her son was in trouble?


Gunn held Wesley close, hugging him tightly. "She what?" He could feel Wesley's hands clinging to his shirt, feel the tension in his entire body. But he didn't answer. "Wes?"

There was a small intake of breath, and a tiny shudder, then Wes said very carefully, "She said it was an upperclass Englishman. That at first she'd thought it was Rupert Giles, because the accent was so similar, but the voice was different, and Rupert would never participate in such a stupid, childish prank. That no real Watcher would spend his time playing infants' games, actually, is what she said."

"Funny, 'cause I seem to remember him being pretty short, the last time I saw him. And just about to stick a flag on a Lego castle."

Wesley didn't respond to Gunn's comment. He was disappearing somewhere, behind his eyes, and Gunn didn't know how to reach in and pull him out -- his big, manipulative eyes were flat and expressionless now. Very, very quietly, Wesley spoke. "She said... she said... that she hoped I'd someone here to deal with whatever mess I'd gotten myself into, because they certainly weren't about to take care of a child at their age." His voice dropped. "Because once was enough."

Then Gunn was hugging him too hard for Wesley to have said more, if he'd been going to. Wrapping his arms tighter around Wesley's back, hand pressed against the back of his head -- as if he could push hard enough to force him inside Gunn's body where he could feel what Gunn couldn't bring into words: I love you, love you so much you don't *need* them.

Of course that wasn't true. It didn't matter what Gunn felt -- it didn't change the look in Wesley's eyes when he explained that his parents didn't want him. He felt a shudder pass through Wesley's body, heard a gasp of air that preceded a sob -- which didn't come. Instead Wesley buried his face harder against Gunn's chest.

Gunn went faster up the stairs, towards their room. Towards their room and the chair where he could sit and hold and rock and tell Wesley that when it stopped hurting enough to look around again, someone would be there, loving him. He heard Wesley gasp, again, and choke back a cry. "Wes, don't -- just cry all you want, baby. Ain't nobody here to hear you but me."

"No... doesn't.. doesn't matter. Stupid. Don't need them to take care of me. Don't...want" So why was Wes having to take a deep breath before each word? Why was he shuddering in Gunn's arms as the door shut behind them?

Gunn carried him over to the rocking chair and sat down. Shook his head, and wondered which of them was gonna break down first. Seriously giving odds that it wouldn't be Wes. "Yeah, you do. It's okay. It matters. It matters, and it's wrong, and... damn. "

Gunn put his head down against the top of Wesley's skull, lips pressed to soft tousled hair, because he couldn't let Wes turn his face up and look at him or he might do what Wesley wouldn't do. So he rocked them both, slowly at first, then as his anger and hurt demanded he do something, he found himself pushing against the floor harder. Told himself not to tip them over, but he couldn't sit here and be gentle about it.

Not until he heard the first escaping cry - then all his emotions rushed out of him and left only the need to be tender and solicitous, and cradle Wesley as tenderly as he could. Hold him close as his small body began shaking, like the first tremors of an approaching earthquake. He kissed Wesley's head again, pressed his lips against every part of Wesley's head and face and shoulder that he could reach, while Wesley finally let go of what Gunn knew was a lifetime of held-in pain.

They sat there for what felt like an hour, or more. It was, at times, loud and wailing, other times stifled and shuddered, but Wesley didn't stop crying in Gunn's arms until he was gasping for air and too exhausted to keep his tight grip on his lover. Gunn continued rocking, continued stroking Wesley's back and wiping tears from his face, and continued leaning down and pressing his lips to Wesley's forehead and telling him to let it all out, let it go, I'm here and I've got you.

Wesley finally looked up at him, with eyes so red Gunn knew they had to be hurting as much as anything else. He traced his fingers along Wesley's cheek, down across his chin, up again to trace the line of his eyebrows. He wasn't entirely sure why he was doing it. He just felt a need to touch everything he could, as if reminding himself that Wesley was in there, somewhere.

"I..." Wesley's voice sounded like he had laryngitis, or had been walking out in the desert for a few hundred years. Gunn looked at him, waiting. "Could I have a drink of water?"

"Yeah." He started to get up; realized he was still rocking, and had to put out a foot to stop himself, he'd become so used to the motion. When he stood up, it was like the room was still moving, and he was half afraid he would drop Wes. Gunn's legs ached, too, whether from rocking for so long, or sitting in the same position, he didn't know. When he'd poured Wesley a cup of water from the bottle on the bureau, he sat down on the bed, Wesley still in his arms, and stretched out his legs.

Wes drank as if he'd cried out every drop of water in his little body, and maybe he had. When the cup was finally empty, he set it down on the bedspread next to them, but didn't say anything for a moment. Then he lay his head back against Gunn's chest, and whispered, "Thank you."

"Love you," Gunn replied.

There was a light squeeze, and Wesley said, "I know. I...appreciate it. Especially now. I love you, too," he ended in a softer tone. They sat there quietly, for a bit, and Gunn thought he might be willing to lean back and curl up with Wesley and sleep the rest of the day away. Angel-baiting aside, it hadn't been all that restful of a day.

Wesley was toying with one of the buttons on his shirt, and when Gunn looked down, he could see the worried expression that generally preceded a complex conversation that involved things one normally never discussed. He just waited, holding Wesley and making sure he didn't say out loud any of the uncharitable things he was thinking about Mr. and Mrs. Wyndham-Pryce.

"Is...this is going to sound dreadfully childish, but...could I please have Rupert?"

It took Gunn a moment to realize Wesley meant his bear, and not his fellow-four-year-old countryman. "Of course," he said calmly, and tried to remember where they'd left him. He finally saw the bear up by the headboard of the bed, and leaned sideways towards it. He grabbed Rupert by a foot and pulled him over, handing him to Wes.

Wesley immediately held the bear in his arms, resting his chin on top of its head. "It's nice, being bear-sized again," Wesley whispered.

Gunn settled his arms around Wesley, and actually felt a small chuckle escape his lips. "Yeah. You make a good bear." He rested his chin on top of Wesley's head. After a moment, Wes let out something that might have been a very tired attempt at a laugh. Or just a yawn.

"No one did this with me, when I was little. The first time, that is," he said, snuggling back against Gunn. "Well, no, my Aunt Sarah used to, sometimes, when she came over. But Father didn't really approve."

"He was stupid. All kids need to be bear-hugged. It's in the Parent Handbook."

"I don't think they got their copy. Or perhaps they didn't think it was appropriate reading material, if it wasn't written in Latin." Wesley was playing grown-up again, but it seemed to be a pretty big effort for him, and finally, he sighed. "Why don't they want me?"

"Because they aren't parents," Gunn replied. "Not everyone is. Makes you think there ought to be an application process, before you can conceive a kid." Another hug, another kiss to the head. "Not everyone knows how to be a parent. Not everyone wants to. Doesn't stop the bodies from making more."

There was a pause, then in a tone once more too-adult, Wesley said, "I think that's the most understandable explanation I've heard."

"Yeah. I thought that one up for Alonna when mom decided she couldn't handle us anymore." He shook his head -- Wesley knew all his stuff, already. How it had been the drink and the drugs she couldn't handle, or the wild-ass boyfriends who spent more time driving and hanging, than noticing that their woman had a couple of babies, already.

Wesley's voice was softer, when he said, "I like it. It makes it sound as though it were their fault." As if it had never occurred to him that it might have been. Gunn squeezed his eyes closed.

"Wes, babe, you... man, you know you *were* brought to me by an angel. You are the handsomest man I have ever known. You are the smartest and funniest and best person I know, the cleverest and the most *perfect* damn man I have ever had the honour to fall in love with."

He heard Wesley sniffling, and reached over for another tissue. After Wesley had wiped his face and blown his nose, he said, "And you'll buy me a new bike, I presume?"

"Maybe just the sidecar for your old one. And you find a place to store the horses, and I'll get you as many as you want." Wes shook his head slightly, and Gunn assured him. "No, really. Might take a paycheck or thirty, but hell, it's worth it. Plus I think Angel's just about to cave."

Wesley gave a small laughed. "No, it's just I don't really want a pony-- I can't ride."

"You gotta be kiddin' me. I thought all proper little English boys got taught that at their proper little all-boys prep schools."

"Didn't say I don't know *how* to. Just can't. I must have tumbled off every horse in the stable before they finally despaired of me and sent me to go write a paper on equine anatomy during equestrian studies period." Gunn was silent, picturing Wesley sitting alone in the library, watching the other kids outside through the window... After a moment, Wesley nudged him. "You can laugh, you know."

"Why would I wanna laugh?"

"Because it's funny. There I was, being sent in disgrace away from something I couldn't stand, to be punished by having to do something I loved..."

This time Gunn did chuckle. Then before he could stop his mouth from opening, he was saying, "But you ride really well." His mind screamed 'Four-year-old! Bad mouth!' at him, and he groaned inwardly. "Uh, the bike, I mean." Among other things.

"Well, of course -- a motorbike doesn't know when you're afraid of it." Wesley paused for a moment, then added, "Nor does it decide to defecate on your foot when you're braiding its tail." Gunn mostly stifled his snicker. But Wesley just smiled up at him. "As for other riding, it helps when your mount is as distracted as you are."

Gunn sputtered for a moment, before snapping, "Don't be *saying* shit like that when you're four! What am I supposed to do, go make a pass at Angel? Uh -- I didn't just say that, did I?"

Wesley blinked, looking innocent enough that Gunn knew he ought to set Wesley down...and run. "I can pretend to be Angel, again, if you like. Role-playing--"

"Please, please, can we have the conversation when you're bigger? Older? Can we not have this conversation at all, I mean?"

"Do you really think Angel would let me get a horse?" Wesley asked, throwing Gunn completely off-track as his expression changed from amused and lecherous -- which just looked wrong -- to thoughtful.

"Wes, right now, you could get Angel to do *anything*." Among other people. God help him if Wes made the logical leap away from the pony he didn't really want, and started asking Gunn to buy him a Harley. Again. "Um, if you hadn't set him up on a date with the Host. Maybe you should hide for a while."

"Yes, I could stay in here for a day or two. You could bring me breakfast in bed and I could pretend I'm all worn out and want to hide under the covers and not see anybody but you."

The tone of his voice was asking something more, and Gunn answered, pulling his arms closer around Wesley's body. "Yeah, we can pretend that."

Wes rested his head against Gunn's arm, then went on. "And you can wait on me hand and foot. And bring me lime jelly because my throat hurts, and bring the tv in here and let me watch cartoons all day."

"I thought that stuff was trash?"

"No, *Thundercats* are trash. I'm talking about the Tex Avery Hour. And I want tea with peppermint. And lots of sugar."

Gunn just hugged him again, and closed his eyes. He had Wesley entirely wrapped up in his arms, pressed against his chest, legs dangling over the side of his lap. Almost completely encased within the borders of Gunn's body. "Yeah, we can do that. But lime jelly? Wes, man, that stuff is so *gross*."

"Won't matter," Wesley said, in a tone that said he was winding down, would be asleep soon if they both stopping talking. "Since you won't be kissing me...not with tongue, at any rate."

Gunn smiled. "Good point. You can eat all the lime jelly and raspberry flavoured junk you like." Wesley shifted, a bit, on Gunn's lap. He felt Wes yawn, again. "How 'bout we crawl into bed?" he asked, trying not to startle Wesley in case he was already dozing.

Wes responded by burying his face against Gunn's chest, and reaching up with one arm, to grab onto Gunn like he was doing to the bear, with the other. Gunn sighed, weighing the benefits of actually getting ready for bed and sleeping perfectly comfortably, against hearing Wes make those little sleepy noises of protest that always sounded to Gunn like he was being viciously abused by a tall, rude man with absolutely no care for his comfort or well-being.

In the end, he kicked off his own shoes, then carefully slipped Wesley's off, resisting the urge to tickle the small feet as he did so. Mostly resisting. After the first accusatory squeak from Wes had him promising to buy a new sidecar, *and* wear the pink helmet for a week, he resisted harder.

Then he leaned sideways, resting his head on the pillows as best he could, and drew the blankets over them, wrapping them up like a Wes-and-Gunn taco. Minus the spice. Then he was on his back again, with Wes curled up against his chest, eyes closed, smiling slightly, as Wes slipped his thumb into his mouth.

Gunn gave Wes, then Rupert, one last head rub, then he lay back, one arm under his head and the other wrapped tight around Wesley so that no one and nothing could get to him.


chapter twenty


Wesley looked up from his book and shot Gunn a small glare. When that produced no effect, he poked his head out of the small cave he'd made of the bedclothes and looked around, so he could give his lover a *proper* glare for disturbing him. "What?" he asked perfectly clearly despite the presence of his thumb in his mouth.

"They're doing the Wolf and Red episodes next. You know, those Droopy ones, where..."

Wesley glanced up at the television that Gunn had dutifully carted up the stairs and installed in their room. "I know that."

"Oh. You just looked kinda into your book, and you said you like Red Hot Riding Hood, so I didn't want you to miss 'em."

"I like when the wolf's eyes pop out of his head. I've seen you do that. Complete with the whistles and the steam coming out the ears. But I'm perfectly aware of what's happening on the television, thank you. They just finished off the Pioneer Droopy cartoon, and the bullfighting one before that."

Gunn was sitting alone in the rocking chair, devoting his full attention to the TV, which still made Wesley's mind boggle. Especially when Gunn shook his head and said, "I still don't see how you can read and watch TV at the same time. Freaks me out."

"Obviously, you read during the adverts and the boring parts."

"Yeah, but how do you know the boring parts are over?"

Wesley rolled his eyes. "You just *do*. Because it stops being boring, of course."

Gunn just gave him one of those 'I know you're not speaking English, because I don't understand a word' looks that he used so often. Wesley just returned his attention to the TV, in time to see a few moments of non-boring cartoon, then burrowed back into the blankets to read.

He felt the bed dip as Gunn sat down behind him. A few seconds later, Wesley said, "Do it and I'll tell Cordelia you want her to make us lunch."

"How the hell can you tell I was gonna do anything?" Gunn sounded aggrieved.

Wesley had to stick his head out of the cave of blankets, again, and looked back at him. "Charles -- if *you* were wrapped in blankets, reading and watching TV, and I had sat down behind you--"

"Yeah, yeah, all right. Caught." Gunn leaned on his elbow, and laced his fingers together as if to show that he *wasn't* going to do anything. Wesley knew he was, but he also knew he didn't mind. He simply couldn't let Gunn get away with not being as clever as possible.

He went back to his book, once more, and began reading about centuries old techniques for ridding villages of ghosts, and how those techniques could not be used on towns with populations greater than ten thousand. It was fascinating socio-economic-paranormal theory, really. "Eep!" He squealed, dropping his thumb and jumping into the air.

Someone had put a cold teaspoon of lime jelly against the back of his neck. Someone who must now die, especially since it had *almost* landed on Wesley's book. Wes opened his mouth to protest, loudly, and Gunn inserted the spoonful of gelatin. It also had whipped cream on it. It was hard to scowl with whipped cream in one's mouth.

Rather difficult to plan the murder of one's smirking lover, as well. Wes licked his lips. *Then* scowled. "You're not going to let me concentrate, are you?"

"On which -- Droopy, or the book?"

"Both. Either."

"Just didn't want you to get bored."

"Ah. I appreciate that." He turned back to his book -- and closed it, and leapt out of the tangle of bedclothes onto Gunn. The cartoon was going to be in boring parts for several minutes, anyhow.

They wrestled on the bed, tickling each other -- for which Gunn most unfairly used his superior size and strength to hold Wesley out of reach -- until Wesley was shrieking so loudly and laughing that he was afraid he'd pass out from lack of oxygen. They only stopped when someone knocked on the door; Gunn sat up, letting Wesley go free, and Wesley crawled up onto Gunn's lap, again, so he'd be within range should Gunn need tickling some more.

"Yeah?" Gunn called out. The door opened, and Cordelia poked her head in.

"Are you two killing each other?"

"Um...shall I plead the fifth?" Wesley asked, looking up at his boyfriend.

"You can't, you're not a U.S. citizen."

"Ah." Wesley nodded, and leant back against Gunn. He was still breathing hard, and he felt better than he had, all morning.

Despite that, as Cordelia asked what their plans for lunch were and Gunn tried to tell her 'tacos' without letting her think he was agreeing that she should *make* lunch, he let his thumb slip back into his mouth. He knew Gunn wouldn't say anything, and he also knew Cordelia had caught him at it twice, this morning, already. No one had said a word, to tease him or chastise him, or even ask him about it. Most importantly, it kept him from crying, so he did it. He felt Gunn's hand on his head, and looked around to see if he could spot Rupert. The bear had lost the tickle war, some minutes previously.

"So, I can make tacos," Cordelia was saying in a false-bright tone of voice.

"No, make Angel go buy some," Wesley spoke up. "He'll buy too many, and we can eat them all afternoon."

Cordelia's smile got a little more genuine, as she considered his suggestion. "Hmm. Less work, more food, *and* I get to make Angel get out of the hotel and stop looking all smug and mysterious about how his date with Lorn went... I don't see a downside here."

Wesley looked at her. "He did go, then?"

"I made him. You didn't want him hanging around here brooding all night, did you?"

Wesley shook his head. "No. I just think maybe I should stay in here for a few more days, then."

She grinned for a second, then frowned. "He's not mad at you, Wes. You know that, right? Nobody's mad at you."

"Well, I did rather ruin dinner."

"Pfft. They went out to get something before the show, and I got to pig out on all the Kung Pao chicken I wanted, with nobody stealing my eggrolls for a change. Now... I can't say Angel's not planning *revenge* -- he did mention something about owing you one. Or eight."

"Eight?! He can't possibly owe me *eight*. I barely did six things which he... er, four that he knows about and two of which I won't claim credit for and can I go back to hiding under the blanket, now?" He asked that last of Gunn, trying not to consciously look too pitiful.

"It won't help. Vampires can detect humans even through cotton."

Wesley looked over at the doorway, where Angel was now standing behind Cordelia. He hoped, for a moment, that Cordelia would bar his way long enough for him to get someplace safe -- behind Gunn, for example. But she simply stepped to one side.

Wesley summoned up his best cute look, but Angel held up one hand. "I actually just came up here, I wanted to find out what...." He sighed, and looked apologetic. "Buffy called, and I was telling her about the phone call last night. She wants to know about the man who called your mother -- they think it might be related to the woman who tried to grab Willow and Tara."

"Someone tried to grab Willow and Tara?" Wesley asked. Cordelia gave Angel a sharp look.

Angel looked sorry, but firm. "We had to tell him sometime. Yeah, there was a weird...incident, I guess you could call it. A woman tried to take the two of them in a department store, and claimed they were her kids. Not just a random crazy -- she had papers, and she knew their names. She caused quite a bit of trouble with the management, before Willow finally got desperate and threw a whammy on everybody so Spike and Xander and the kids could sneak off."

Wesley blinked, not sure what to say. "So that's why you were contacting Bertie Rodgers about papers for Spike. I *thought* it was a weird time to worry about it-- now, after he's grown up again. I just figured you'd suddenly started feeling fatherly."

Angel looked uncomfortable. Actually, everyone looked uncomfortable -- but Angel's at least had an edge of humour to it, as he tried to decide whether he wanted to deny that was part of his motivation, or not. "Yeah, we got papers for all of the kids -- you and Giles too, though only Buffy knew about the ones for Giles. Just in case. But Spike has really needed some decent ID for a long time, and Xander asked, so..."

Wesley waved the rambling explanation away. "Why didn't you tell me?"

Angel didn't reply right away. Cordelia finally sighed and said, "We didn't want you worrying. You're a kid! Or mostly. You're supposed to be enjoying yourself, not worrying about kidnappings."

Wesley frowned.

"If we'd needed you to help us figure out what was going on, we'd have told you," Gunn said. "Like now," he added, sounding proud as he realized they had, in fact, told Wesley because they needed his help. As if Gunn had been in on the decision.

It was difficult to be too upset with them, because Wesley understood why they'd done it. It still rankled, and -- "That's why all three of you have been staying with me, at all times, isn't it? Why we haven't left the hotel unless all three of you are there to chaperone."

This time Cordelia looked sheepish, too. "It wasn't so bad, though, was it?"

No, in fact it had not been. It had been nice, being watched over -- and spoilt -- by his friends. Instead of admitting it, however, he said, "She said it was a man with an upperclass London accent. He knew me, knew them...she thought at first it was Rupert, but she knew he wouldn't-- er, have called." He frowned, though, as he realized, "It might have been Spike. Playing a joke."

Angel's expression turned dark. "He wouldn't have any problem doing the accent -- that's for sure. If it was him, trust me, I'll start feeling a lot more parental. In that 'I get to kick your ass because you're my kid and I can't believe you'd act that way' kind of way. If he really *did* do it." He shook his head. "What am I saying -- he's evil -- of course he'd act that way."

Wesley felt the need to stick up for his partner in Angel-tormenting. "He isn't, really. I mean, not on any kind of global scale, not anymore. He wouldn't have done something like that if he'd known about-- if he'd known what my family are like. If anything, it would've been him saying 'Wesley, have you called your mum lately?' So he could watch me hem and haw about not being a mother's boy."

"You're not a momma's boy," Gunn told him.

"Thank you."

"You're *my* boy."

Wesley was hoping Cordelia couldn't see his ears turn red from where she was standing, though he knew bloody well that Angel could tell without even looking. "Thank you again. Remind me to bite you later."

"You bite him now," Cordelia pointed out. "Why let the fact that we're watching, stop you?"

If she couldn't have seen his ears turn red, she surely couldn't miss the way his face, neck, and possibly entire body blushed. He tried glowering at her, and she smiled like he'd done something adorable. Bloody hell. He would be glad to be grown, again. Mostly.

"We'd better call Deadboy, Junior, and see what's up," Gunn said blithely, as though Wesley weren't eyeing his hand, for biting. If Cordelia wanted to watch, he could accommodate her.

"I'll call," Angel told him. "I want to talk to Spike."

"Perhaps someone *else* should ask if he rang my parents?" Wesley wasn't all that fond of Spike, and normally wouldn't mind seeing him get in trouble with Angel. But he felt somehow responsible, for this.

"Why don't I call?" Cordelia offered, giving Angel a slightly worried look. Angelus he might sound, but surely the chance to righteously thump Spike didn't make him *that* happy.

"I told Buffy I'd call her back," Angel objected. "She's expecting--"

"She's expecting someone to talk to her, not to yell for Spike to get his dead ass on the phone so you can scold him."

Angel -- dear lord, was that a pout? Wesley blinked. Angel backed off, and let Cordelia use the pizza-ordering-device (as Wesley had dubbed it when Gunn pointed out that such was all they ever used it for) to ring the Magic Box.

She waited for a moment, then said calmly, "Hey, Buffy. Tell Spike to get his dead ass on the phone, NOW." After a pause during which Cordelia wrinkled her nose and said "Ewww! -- no, not literally, and thank you for *that* image," she launched into a tirade that made Wesley feel quite justified in having called, having his imaginary father have called her, a razor-tongued harpy. He was just glad she was *his* harpy. If Spike got a word in edgewise, Wesley would have been flabbergasted, because Cordelia didn't even stop to breathe.

"And how could you *do* that to a little kid -- I mean, there's evil, and there's evil!" she finished off. She finally did stop, but only, Wesley suspected, because Spike was yelling at her. He could hear it from where he was sitting.

She looked confused, then asked, "What do you mean, you didn't call anyone's parents?" Wesley was surprised -- he hadn't realized she'd managed to get the details out of Spike's offense, during her rant. Rather, he wasn't surprised she had -- but was surprised Spike had been able to decipher it. "Well, if you didn't, who did?"

But Angel took the phone from her, before she could get an answer. "Spike, did you call Wesley's parents and tell him about the Urdeku?" Another pause, and Angel's thunderous expression grew into a more familiar slightly confused one. But he still sounded angry when he said, "Spike, if you're lying...."

Wesley could picture Spike rolling his eyes, and saying 'yeah, yeah, if I'm lying you'll thump me. Shaking in my boots.'

"Um, no, she was a man with a London accent. We one else but you and Giles could have...well, no, we didn't think he had." There was a pause. "Because he would have sounded like a four year old, Spike." Another pause. "Yes, all right, because it's the kind of thing you'd do, dammit." Then Angel looked slightly more confused. "You're welcome."

Wes almost giggled, in spite of the seriousness of the subject. Only Spike would be worried about whether his father-figure still thought of him as evil enough to torment a small child for the sheer joy of it -- even if he *wasn't* that evil anymore.

Angel listened for a moment longer, interjecting a 'but' or a 'look, I'm *sorry*' every so often, then held the phone away from his face and turned back to look at the rest of the people in the room. "Spike is insane. He's complimented by the fact that I suspected him of doing this, then he tears my scalp off for thinking he'd let anything happen to one of the kids, without somebody's innards steaming on the floor in front of him first. I paraphrase."

Wesley didn't want to know what Angel *hadn't* said, if that was the paraphrase. Cordelia, however, was laughing. "Oh, god! Spike really *has* turned into a dad!" She collapsed against the doorframe, laughing.

"Oh, and you're any better?" Gunn demanded.

"Me? What did *I* do?"

"'Don't let go of Gunn's hand while we cross the street, Wes,'" Gunn said. "Don't talk to any strangers, Wes. Don't--"

"Look! That was just so he wouldn't get kidnapped!"

"That was the first *day* he was a four year old." Wesley watched the two, like a tennis match, and wondered if he ought be offended. Angel was watching, as well, looking like he wanted to be amused but was afraid Spike would misinterpret his amusement and start harangueing him all over again.

Wesley leant back against Gunn, stuck his thumb back in his mouth, and wondered if they'd be done and clear out before the Powerpuff Girls came on.


chapter twenty one

Spike was still protesting that of *course* he hadn't called Wesley's parents. The only trouble was, no one was listening to him except Rupert, and *he* was about to bitch-slap Spike if he didn't shut up. Because they all *knew* he hadn't, that in fact he'd been sitting on the couch with Willow, a grape lollipop on his lap and a giant bowl of popcorn in his mouth -- or so he'd sworn on the third repetition of his story -- when the call had happened.

So he was just blathering on about it to get attention, which was utterly unfair, because it was *Rupert's* turn to get attention. At least everyone was ignoring Spike and looking at *him*, which was good. It was just that the distracting whining Spike-noise in his ear was making it hard for Rupert to concentrate on what he'd been trying to say.

"Spike! Shut up! Now!" he ordered. Spike looked up in surprise, then grinned.

"Right away, Little Master Ripper, sir."

Rupert said something quite nasty in Fyarl.

"Watch it!" Spike snapped back. "Or somebody will get his mouth washed out with soap!"

"Can we please get on with this?" Rupert said in an aggrieved tone -- which, he was sorry to see, actually worked. Sorry, because it meant he'd never be able to do it again once he changed back. "Now, this could be quite serious. Whoever is doing this knows a great deal about us."

"Giles is right," Buffy said. Rupert wished he'd had a tape recorder. "We have to find out who's doing this. So they haven't done any permanent harm--"

"Except for getting my ears chewed off," Spike groused.

Rupert sent him a nasty look. "Like that's new."

"But I didn't do it, this time! That hurts my feelings." Spike gave them all a pout. Only Xander and Anya seemed to notice, though. Unfortunately that meant they had to see both Anya and Xander giving Spike a kiss.

Luckily, Rupert was feeling young enough to not mind saying, loudly, "Eeeeeeeew!" He was joined by Tara, who wrinkled her nose.

"Heh. You won't mind so much when you're older," Xander teased her.

She looked straight at him and shook her head. "Nope. Parents aren't supposed to kiss. It's gross."

Xander nodded. "Well, yeah, it was when *my* -- Oh, ewww. Thank you for that image. Hey, waitaminute! What parents?"

She walked over, held out her arms, and Xander automatically picked her up and put her on his knee, still waiting for an answer. She just looked at him, grinning. "Hi, Papa."

"I say again, eeeeew!" Rupert commented. "If we could get back to the topic at hand? To whit, who's trying to mess about with us? As Buffy said, no major damage has occurred -- but it *could* have. All sorts of havoc could have happened just from us being turned into children the first time, when we didn't know what was going on. Spike could have been arrested, at the mall -- not that *that's* a rare situation, but still. And now this call to Wesley's parents. Who are the *only* set of parents among our group who are still around, and would be likely to believe a stranger who said their child had been turned into a ... child. Whoever is behind this knows too much."

"Do you think they meant for Willow and Tara to get taken? I mean, were they trying to get Spike arrested, or trying to get ahold of Willow and Tara?" Buffy asked. "And maybe they were trying to kidnap Wesley, too?"

"But then they would have simply impersonated his parents, or something. We don't know," Rupert sighed.

"If they wanted to kidnap Willow and Tara, they would have just grabbed them. Most children who disappear are simply taken off the street, enticed with promises of sweets or a ride home, and they climb into the car on their own. If they aren't taken by their own relatives, in which case--" Anya stopped, and looked at the group, who were all staring at her. "What? I saw a documentary on the Lifetime channel. It was very informative."

Rupert saw Xander and Spike both turn a little paler.

"She does have a point, though. I don't think the woman was *trying* to actually get Willow and Tara. All they would have done was get them put into foster care while the cops tried to sort everything out." Buffy looked at Willow and Tara, a worried expression on her face.

"Do you think whoever it was, knew how Wesley's parents would react?" Xander asked. "It must have been pretty bad -- Cordelia was pretty upset. If she'd been here, Spike would be wearing a new look - dust to dust."

"Edgar Wyndham-Pryce is an arsehole," Rupert said succinctly. "I don't know his wife very well, but if she's anything like him at all, I imagine it's *them* whom Cordelia really wants to stake."

This time there were no comments about mouth-washing-out from Spike. Just a glance at Xander, then a nod back in Rupert's direction. "Guess I won't eat her this time, then."

"Errrgh!" Dawn said, slamming a book shut. "This is *useless*. Worse than Calculus."

Rupert looked at the volume. "The Kelin Grimoire? I should say so; it was written by a group of students in the nineteen thirties, as a practical joke. I keep it around as a curiosity piece."

"No," she said, the frustration evident in her voice, as it was in everyone else's. "This whole meeting conversation brainstorming thing. We're just going in circles. It's like whoever this is just wants to cause as much trouble as possible in our lives."

"Yeah, but it's not all bad. Most of it's kinda fun. Except for the kidnapping part. That was scary," Willow said, shuddering.

No one responded at first. Then Buffy said, "So -- we're looking for a guy who knows us, speaks in an English accent, and just likes causing trouble."

"Oh, bloody hell." Rupert rubbed his eyes. The group was staring at him when he looked up, and he made a face. "Ethan."

"But how would he...." Willow began. "Oh, no, that part would be easy. But then how would-- no, he could do that, too. And he knows most of us. He probably knows *about* all of us, considering how much time he's spent sneaking around Sunnydale."

"Why, though? Why send us a statue that turns us into kids? And why didn't he do anything the first time around?" Buffy didn't sound fully convinced.

But Rupert, who knew Ethan better than any of them, had a sinking feeling in his stomach that had nothing to do with a lunch of potato chips and ice cream. "Perhaps because he was hoping the effects of the Urdeku would cause sufficient havoc on their own."

"And when it didn't...he decided to take a more active part in the chaos-having?" Buffy nodded. "Yup, that sounds like him. So -- I guess we start looking for Ethan, then."

"What do we do with him, once we've found him?" Tara asked. Then she giggled. "Make him stand in the corner!"

Willow joined in the giggling. "Nope. The Initiative tried putting him in time-out. He just went *poof* and disappeared. He doesn't play fair. I think we should spank him."

Rupert glared at his friends. "I have *no* idea why you're all looking at me." He sniffed. "I'm not big enough, anyway."

"*I* am," Buffy said grimly. "Not that I'm *that* to him. Exactly. So, aside from going out on the front steps and yelling 'Hey Rayne, we're onto you, come out with your hands up,' any suggestions for finding him? I don't suppose we'd be lucky enough for him to have checked into a hotel under his own name."

"We could do a locating spell," Tara suggested. "Those are simple enough...oh, but I guess we'd need something he owns." She frowned. "I suppose that wouldn't work, then."

Rupert thought very hard about keeping his mouth shut. But if they didn't find Ethan, chances were the next thing he tried would be dangerous -- intentionally so or not. "How long ago must he have owned it?"

Well, he certainly had everyone's attention now. Tara glanced at Willow, who said, "I long as it was his -- and not something that, you know, he sold or something, it should work. Well enough to narrow down the search, anyway."

"Um, Giles? Why?" Buffy looked like she didn't really want to know.

"Because I have something that belonged to Ethan." Rupert stopped there. Then sighed, because they were all still looking at him. He *ought* to just tough it out...except Willow was looking at him. Wasn't that look not supposed to work on other four-year-olds? "I have a pair of his pants. They have sentimental value, and it's not what you're thinking."

Some of them looked confused -- but Spike laughed. "You've a pair of his unmentionables? What'd you do, steal 'em and run 'em up a flagpole?"

"Unmentionables?" Xander asked. Then he looked at Rupert, eyes wide. "You have a pair of his *underwear*?"

"If someone will take me home, I can get them and we can get on with the locating spell."

"You have a pair of his *underwear*?" Buffy asked.

Rupert sighed. "Look, it's important we find--"

"You have a pair of Ethan's underwear?" Willow asked, scrunching up her nose like she was imagining that he hadn't washed them, either.

Rupert looked around at the rest of the group, daring them to comment. He glanced up at Dawn, who looked utterly innocent. "Who, me? Why would I care that you have a pair of your alleged worst-and-most-annoying enemy's underwear, which you keep for sentimental reasons?"

"Xander used to be my enemy, back when I was a vengeance demon and Cordelia was my client, and I keep all *his* underwear for sentimental reasons," Anya offered helpfully.

"Thank you, Anya," Xander said, without even a trace of sarcasm. "Except you don't -- you threw away my He-Man Underoos."

"They were twenty years old, Xander. They had moth holes in them!"

Rupert had never in his life thought he would ever be grateful for a conversation about Xander's delicate-washing items in his presence. Too bad it couldn't have lasted longer. Xander shook his head, apparently aware that he couldn't win an argument with Anya, and turned back to look at Rupert. "You've been holding out on us, Mister."

Rupert blinked, astonished. "You don't...actually think I... I was forced to borrow them when he turned me into a Fyarl demon. Once I turned back, it was wear his clothes or go about naked." He glared, daring them to suggest he have done so.

"And you kept them for sentimental reasons?" Buffy asked.

"It's a very fond memory -- watching the Initiative manhandle him into the car, taking him away...." Rupert smiled, remembering. That part had made it all worth-while.

"Yeah, but -- you were still wearing pants. Trousers. And pants. I thought you just borrowed a shirt?" Buffy asked.

Rupert fumbled with the book he was holding, and muttered, "My own were quite stretched out of shape."

"Oh, yes," Anya said brightly. Rupert considered hiding under the table. "Fyarl genitalia are quite large and impressive." She looked at Xander and Spike. "Not *more* impressive than human or vampire sized ones."

"Not threatened," Xander assured her.

"Yeah," Spike agreed, but looked over at Rupert with a devious expression. Rupert considered spelling a hole in the ground, to disappear into. "But only when aroused, dear Rupert. Otherwise they're quite tiny."

Rupert didn't reply. He was trying to remember a suitable spell to inflict on Spike. Or a teleportation spell, to send himself someplace else. Like Essex.

"Spike? How do you know what they look like?" Xander was asking.

"Well, they're textbook demons, aren't they. Don't tend to walk about in trousers like some of your more anthropomorphic types."

"Yeah, but how did you know the bit about impressive versus tiny?"

"Hey, not my fault if everyone who sees me wants to shag me. That doesn't mean they *did* shag me, mind. I've got some standards. Never boff anything with an IQ under 60. Which means you just made the cut, monkey-boy." Spike grinned and thumped Xander on the head.

"No foreplay! No foreplay!" The cry came from Willow and Tara, and was swiftly echoed by Buffy and Rupert. Dawn was suspiciously silent, and Anya was grinning happily.

"That was *not* foreplay," Xander complained. "He *insulted* me and I'm not speaking to him for the rest of the night."

"Are, too," Spike cajoled.

Rupert looked for something to throw. Light enough he could pick it up, and heavy enough it would hurt Spike. He couldn't find anything suitable.

"There are *children* present," Willow snapped.

"Look, Red, just because *you're* going a month without, doesn't mean the rest of us should suffer," Spike told her.

Rupert nearly opened his mouth to say 'Can we please get back to finding Ethan' -- then realized they were no longer talking about his underwear, and kept quiet.

"But aren't they used to it? I mean, don't lesbians stop having sex after the first year or so?"

Everyone stared, or gaped, at Anya. Willow stomped her foot. "That is not true! Lesbian bed-death is a myth! We have sex all the time...just not when we're four!"

While it was *nice* they weren't talking about Ethan's underwear, Rupert wasn't sure he preferred the current topic any more. He wondered if he shouldn't just call a taxi to take him home to fetch the garment, and leave everyone else here.

"Oh. See, Xander? You were wrong-- they still have sex. So when they grow up, we can invite them to--" Anya's words were cut off by a large hand over her mouth.

"You actually believed that?" Willow looked up at him.

"No, I just wanted *Anya* to," Xander whined. "Did you *really* want her inviting you over for swing night?"

Rupert did *not* want to hear the answer to that. Desperately. "Stop! Dawn, take me home so I can pick up Ethan's...things, and while we're gone, the rest of you can talk about whatever you like. Preferably the introduction of saltpetre as a regular part of your balanced breakfasts."

"Oh, that's *definitely* a myth," Anya started in. "I don't see why anyone ever even bothered trying it, when it's so much easier to cause a man to lose interest in sex by making his parts fall off."

"Wonderful. Fine. Feel free to discuss it in detail, while we're gone." Rupert climbed down off his chair, and walked over to Dawn. "Once we leave the shop, may we drive very slowly?"

Dawn smiled. "What if we just stop for ice cream on the way?"


"Rupert! Naughty boy," Spike chided.

"Er? What?" Willow and Tara were giggling, and Spike and Xander were grinning like they were up to something. "Never mind, I don't want to know. Come on, Dawn."

"Hang on -- Buffy, can I have some money?"

"Why don't you just get some from Giles?"

"Because he already bribed me once, today. It's your turn."

"Then why don't you use your bribe money to pay for it?" Buffy asked her.

"D'uh! Because I already spent it."

Buffy frowned. "What am I supposed to be bribing you for?"

Dawn rolled her eyes. "So I don't tell them what you told me about how much you saw when Ethan turned Giles back into a human, and those pajama pants fell off..."

"That's not bribery, that's blackmail." Nonetheless, Buffy dug into her purse, while Rupert covered his ears and considered whether or not to throw a tantrum.

"Maybe we should invite *Buffy* to swing night," Anya suggested. "Since Giles won't accept my offer. Then she can tell us stories, and -- "

Willow was glaring up at Xander. "I don't see you objecting to *that* invitation."

"Well, no. I'm always up for stories about Giles and his underwear."

"That's not what I --"

He'd had quite enough of this. Rupert swung his head around to look at the adults in the room, narrowed his eyes, and began the mental preparations necessary to cast the ancient Lithonian spell of silence on them. Then he thought of a better idea-- and pouted.

Everyone just looked at him, momentarily speechless. Then Spike began applauding. "Oh, very nice. Love it--" Rupert looked directly at Spike, who stopped clapping. Then he stopped smiling. Then he fidgeted in his chair. Finally he said, "Oh, what do you want, already?"

Rupert held out his hand. Spike reached into Xander's pocket for his wallet before Rupert could even say, "So we can stop for french fries."

"Wimp," Xander taunted Spike.

"S'your money, isn't it?"

"Yeah, Xander. Why aren't you yelling at him for stealing your wallet?" Willow asked, as Spike brought Rupert a couple of five dollar bills.

"Oh, right," Xander said. "Spike, don't ever grope me in front of my friends. Bad Spike."

Rupert narrowed his eyes. "Just for that, I'm not bringing you any fries." Then he turned and walked out of the shop.


chapter twenty two

"Ahhh...ahhh...choo!" Tara just managed to grab the kleenex that Willow was holding out, in time.

Xander looked up from the TV and blinked at her. "That's the third time she's sneezed in the last half hour," he said to Spike.

"Yeah, I know. I know." Spike was staring at her like he thought she might suddenly dissolve into a big pile of sneeze-goo. Honestly!

"You think we should take her to the hospital?"

Willow looked around at them while Tara wiped her nose between giggles. "Are you guys nuts? She just has a cold."

"Yeah, but... um..." Xander didn't look very well himself, Tara decided. He looked all hyper and freaked-- especially when she sneezed again. "See! There she goes again. What if it's something worse than a cold?"

Tara rolled her eys, then decided that she may as well make the best of what was apparently going to be a hysterical set of pseudo-parents. "I'm sure if I had some tea, I'd feel much better," she said, looking cute and just a tiny bit pathetic.

"Tea? OK, I can make tea. It's just boiling water, right?" Xander jumped up and was heading for the kitchen.

Spike, however, was looking at her with some alarm. "You, er, don't feel well? How sick do you feel? Bugger, I can't -- Red, put your hand on her forehead, tell me if she's got a fever."

Tara tried very hard not to giggle, as Willow did as requested. She pressed her forearm against Tara's head, then kissed her forehead. Then shook her head. "Nope. Fever free."

Spike was giving Willow a decidedly skeptical look. "Thought you were supposed to use your hand?"

"It's more fun my way," Willow replied.

"Hmm." Tara couldn't tell whether he was storing the information for future use, or deciding if he believed Willow. "We got a thermometer around here? Just in case?"

Xander put his own hand on Tara's forehead. "She doesn't feel warm to me. Well, warmer than you, duh. Um... I think there's a thermometer in the medicine chest..."

"Aren't you supposed to be making tea?" Willow asked.

"Please-- Yank-boy couldn't make a decent cup of tea to save his life. Boiling water..." Spike snorted, and headed for the kitchen, still casting worried looks in Tara's direction.

"Great-- by the time he's done, we'll be hip-deep in crumpets," Xander said, glancing after him. Then he looked back at Tara. "Are you sure you don't have any achey joints? It could be the 'flu."

"Xander, I'm sure. I've had colds before -- and influenza. I know the difference."

He didn't look convinced, but Tara figured it would just take her speedy recovery to convince them she wasn't seriously ill. At least Willow wasn't freaking out -- she was sitting beside Tara, looking supportive and smiling, and ready to steal the blanket the moment Tara let her attention stray. Just like always.

"Um, Okay, so -- do you need anything? Besides tea, I think we have cough syrup and aspirin and -- or are you not supposed to give aspirin to kids with colds? Or is it fevers?" Xander jumped up and headed towards the kitchen. "Spike! Hell, why am I asking you?" He began pacing towards the phone. "Maybe I should call...umm... Buffy might know. She never gets sick. Dawn? Would Dawn know? Or--"

"Xander!" Willow threw a pillow, which bounced off Xander's head. "You could ask me. I've had colds before, you know. Or - here's an idea. You could ask Tara. She's had colds before, too."

Tara gave Willow a grin. Xander just looked marginally less freaked. When Tara sneezed again, Xander jumped for the box, but Willow was already holding another tissue out.

"I knew we shouldn't have let them help," Xander was saying. "When it started raining, we should have brought them straight home."

"Don't be silly -- you needed us to make the spell work right."

"Since the spell didn't *work*, I don't think Anya's gonna buy that, somehow."

Willow frowned at Xander, then stuck her tongue out at him. "Dorkhead. It's not our fault he wasn't *here*. It only works if the person's within a mile radius. He could've gone out of town to see a movie,"

"Gone to Wal-Mart to buy some new underwear," Tara giggled. "That's more than a mile away."

"Anyway, why are you worried about Anya?" Willow asked.

"Because it's another thing we managed to fu-- screw up, on our own. She's gonna think we can't take care of you two." He actually looked like he believed what he was saying. Tara glanced at Willow, and they shared a private giggle. "What?" Xander asked, putting his hands on his hips.

"First of ahh ahh achoo!" Tara took the kleenex that Willow had at the ready. "First of all, it's not your fault it rained. Anya's not gonna be mad at you for me catching some germs, either. And second of all..." She looked at Willow, and giggled again.


But they were both giggling too hard to answer Xander's now-whiny question. Oh yeah, Anya was *all* about thinking Spike and Xander couldn't raise kids! Even *Giles* had caught those looks she'd been giving them when their backs were turned, and he'd made barfing noises about it to Willow and Tara. Loud, realistic-sounding barfing noises.

Willow reached over and patted Xander's hand. "Why don't you go see if Spike needs help with the tea?"

"Spike's threatened to make me sleep in the utility room downstairs if I ever 'help' with the tea, again," Xander muttered, but he walked over to the kitchen, regardless.

As soon as he was out of earshot, Tara and Willow began laughing, harder. "He doesn't have a clue!" Willow whispered.

Tara shook her head. "I think Anya's gonna spring it on him." The thought just occurred, and she sat up suddenly. "Oh, you don't think she', do it without warning him, first?"

Willow stopped laughing, and frowned. "I don't think so. It's kinda a big thing to spring on a guy, that you're making him a dad."

"And Anya is all tact and good-planning," Tara said sarcastically.

"Oh. Hmm, good point. Well, we *could* warn him," Willow began. Then they grinned.

"Nah!" they said in unison.

Tara was just getting out of the early-sneezing phase of her cold -- which never lasted more than a couple of hours, and she'd been sniffling since they got home -- when Spike emerged from the kitchen, carrying a tray of tea things. And yes, when Spike made tea, Spike *made tea*. He was worse than Giles, which Tara had never thought possible.

"I really think it's 'starve a cold and feed a fever, Spike," Xander was saying. But that was probably only because he wanted all the cream horns for himself. Tara smiled happily as Willow snatched two and handed one to her.

"That's about temperature, moron. Not food. You starve a cold by taking away the cold air, and feed a fever by giving it warmth." Spike handed Tara a cup of hot tea, with lemon and sugar -- no cream. Just the way she liked it. She smiled at him, then dipped the end of her cream horn into it, which got her a look almost as pained as some she'd seen Giles give Anya. Tara stuck out her tongue at Spike and munched happily on her dripping pastry.

Xander snatched one of the cream horns for himself, then frowned. "But that means..."

"Means you do the same thing, yeah."

"How'd you know that?"

Spike rolled his eyes. "I *did* have a mum once, you know."

Xander shrugged. "Mine wouldn't have known that." Then he looked at Tara. "Hey, doesn't that mean she should have some blankets on her?"

Spike blinked, then nodded, looking distracted. "Yeah, s'pose so. I'll get some."

"I already have one blanket," Tara pointed out.

"Not for long. Willow's already got half of it," Xander pointed to the innocent looking girlfriend snuggled under the blanket beside Tara.

Tara looked sharply at her. "Stop that, I'm sick!"

Willow rolled her eyes. "Yeah, you're dying, I can tell. Move over, I wanna be coddled, too."

"You don't get coddled, you aren't sick."

"I can be! I bet if I kiss you, I'll catch your cold." She moved forward, and Tara saw Xander leap forward and put his hand over Willow's face.

"You're not getting sick, too. And you're not kissing in front of me when you're too young to look anything but adorable. Um, I mean...hell. Spike! Get out here with those blankets!"

"Keep your bloody shirt on!" Spike yelled back. Tara thought he sounded a bit cranky -- could vampires get colds? When Willow got sick, she got cranky, which was a good reason *not* to try to give Willow her cold.

Even with Spike, Xander, and Anya around to take care of them, they'd put them in bed together and Tara would have to listen to her. She loved Willow, with all her heart and soul, but if she prefered being far away when Willow had a cold. She realized Xander probably knew how Willow got when she was sick -- which explained his quick reflexes.

"Here's the blankets," Spike said, coming back into the living room. Tara stared in disbelief -- it looked like he'd grabbed every blanket in the apartment.

"Spike, I'll suffocate!" she protested. He rolled his eyes, and tossed a fluffy blue blanket on top of her. Willow immediately started tryng to steal it. This time Tara let her, though -- because Spike was already shaking out a quilted comforter and spreading it over her. "That's enough-- really!"

He frowned. "You sure you don't need another?"

Xander studied her, then took the rest of the blankets from Spike and piled them on a chair. "Let's give her the benefit of the doubt. After all, Anya won't be too thrilled if we end up smothering her, either."

"Sure, all you warm-blooded types just stick together," Spike said grumpily. When Tara stuck her tongue out at him, though, he smiled, and handed her another cream horn. Xander suddenly grinned, and grabbed Spike, pulling him close. Trying to, anyway, but Spike brushed him off and gave him a dirty look. "What are you doing?"

"I was trying to stick to you," Xander replied, with a hint of a pout.

Tara ate another bite of her cream horn, and watched, avidly. Willow was right -- this was better than watching soaps.

"I'm not doing anything of the sort, not in front of the kids." Spike glared at Xander, and Xander responded by pouting even more.

"We can go in the other room," he suggested.

"And leave Tara out here all unsupervised, while she's sick?" Spike demanded.

"Hey!" Willow put her hands on her hips and jutted out her lower lip. It would have been more effective, Tara thought, if she hadn't stayed lounging on the couch under two stolen blankets. "I can supervise her just fine!"

"See, Willow can--" Xander frowned. "What am I saying. This is the person who tried to reenact _The Cat In the Hat_ when she was six. And she's only four, now. You're right, Spike."

Spike raised an eyebrow. "Anybody get that on tape?"

"Hey, buddy," Willow protested. "Just who was the one who dared me to do it, huh? Whose summer reading list was that book on? Not mine-- I was reading _Huckleberry Finn_."

"Yeah, well... Do you do everything I say you should do? If I told you to jump off a -- " Xander stopped, and smacked himself in the forehead. "Help me-- I have become Willow's mother."

Tara looked him over. "Um, no. She has bigger boobs than you."

"Thank you. Much appreciated." Xander looked down at his t-shirted chest and flexed uncertainly.

"Tara, have you been looking at my mother's boobs?"

Tara's jaw dropped, and she tried to think of what she was supposed to say. No? Yes, but not that way? Yes, and I can see where you get yours? Then she sneezed, and Spike was holding her nearly-dropped mug of tea, and she didn't have to say anything.

"Maybe we should call the doctor. Just in case," Xander said.

"Boys!" Willow sighed. "Why doesn't one of you go down to the store and get some echinacea?"

"Echiwhaticha?" Xander asked.

"It'll make her get better, faster, without making her all dopey like regular cold medicine will."

"But I don't like the way it tastes," Tara said hesitantly. She'd been hoping four-year-old Willow wouldn't have remembered the homeopathic cold remedies.

Willow looked sternly at her. "It will make you better."

"Right, then, I'll go to the store," Spike offered. "Er, which one will have it?"

"Yeah, because it has to be one he's allowed to go into," Xander said with an evil smile.

Spike sneered at him, then reached for his jacket. "I'm sure I can manage to act like a grown-up for an hour, without your unsavoury influence. Willow?"

"Just about anywhere with a pharmacy should have it on their over-the-counter shelves. Walgreens, K-Mart, Wal-Mart..."

"Got it." Spike was straightening his collar and heading out the door, while Xander was still blinking at the quickness of his departure.

"You sure you're okay to drive in the rain?" he called out.

"Walking. Not like *I'm* gonna catch cold." Then Spike was out and the door was shutting behind him. Xander stared at the front door for a few seconds longer. Then Tara sneezed again, and was once more confronted with too much comfort and care.

She wasn't sure how she survived it until the front door opened, again. She'd managed to distract Xander a little by telling him what she really needed was the TV on, so she could relax and not do anything. Robot Wars kept them all amused for nearly an hour, then the door opened and Xander leapt up.

"Anya! You're home."

"Yes, I'm home. You sound disappointed."

"No! I thought you were Spike. He went to get echi..something I can't pronounce. For Tara -- she's sick!"


Tara looked over the back of the couch, waved, then sneezed again. "I have a cold," she explained.

Anya walked over, and looked down at her and Willow. "Is Willow sick, too?"

"Nope! Just stealing blankets," Willow answered proudly. "And I'm the official tissue hander-overer." She handed a tissue over, as she spoke.

Anya surveyed the scene -- Tara could see her take in the number of blankets, the tray of tea, and the glasses of orange juice Xander had brought out once the tea was drunk. "You did a very good job, Xander. I'm impressed with your parental instincts -- apparently the Harris genes haven't completely obliterated them."

Tara saw Willow wince, but Xander just smiled, like after all this time with Anya, he was able to listen to what she meant, instead of what she said. "Thank you, Mrs. Harris. I'll be sure to call my grandma and tell her."

"Isn't she dead?"

"Good point. I'll call collect."

Anya smiled, and Tara was surprised. She hadn't really noticed, before now, how readily Anya got Xander's jokes, nowadays. Perhaps Anya was just indulging Xander, smiling when she knew he'd *made* a joke, even though she didn't get it. Tara looked over at Willow. It wasn't totally unheard of thing to do.

"Here, got your echinacea," Spike was saying, handing her a paper bag. Startled, Tara took it, and pulled out a box of echinacea tea, a bottle of alcohol-free essence of echinacea, and a jar of echinacea tablets.

"Um, thanks," she managed, wondering if Spike expected her to take *all* of this in the next two days. She hadn't even seen him come in, though it wasn't too difficult to gather from the grin he gave her that he was used to sneaking up on people in that annoying, stealthy vampire way. And that he enjoyed it.

"Take the liquid," Willow was saying in her imperious mommy-tone, which had lost must of its commanding air when she'd become four. Tara stuck her tongue out, and took the bottle of tablets.

"I'm taking one of these."

"But the liquid is absorbed much faster, Tara, and you'll feel better sooner."

"Except for when I'm gagging on the taste. I'm taking these."

"Tara," Willow began.

"Willow, let her be," Xander said. "She'll get well soon enough. For now, why don't we give you some more juice to wash that down with." Willow stuck her tongue out at Xander. "Your face will freeze that way," he warned her. He was grinning, though, so Tara didn't think they were about to be subjected to another round of "Help, I'm a grown-up."

"Oh, is that what happened to you?" Willow asked, snuggling into her corner of the couch. Xander stuck his own tongue out at her, then disappeared into the kitchen.

Anya turned to Spike, who'd been standing there, his hands still in his duster pockets. "Aren't you going to take your coat off?" she asked, as she pulled her own off and hung it up next to the door.

Spike glanced at the girls for a moment, then fished around in his pocket. "Oh --here, forgot this." He handed Tara a small package.

"Echinacea chewing gum?" She blinked. "Um. Thanks."

"Spike?" Anya was reaching out for his coat, but he shook his head.

"I'm gonna head back out and help the Slayer look for Rayne, some more. Rupes didn't want her to go alone, but if I don't go she'll end up towing Dawn and the mini-Rupert, around." He headed for the front door, with the air of someone who was just stepping out for a pack of cigarettes and a game of pool.

"Here. Drink all of this." Xander was holding out another tall glass of juice. Tara couldn't tell for sure, but she thought he was a little subdued by Spike's leaving. He wasn't saying anything, though, so Tara decided to worry about more immediate problems.

"I can't drink all of that."

"Excuse me?" Xander blinked at her, and was no doubt thinking about the five sodas she had downed in one sitting.

"I'll have to pee all night, if I drink all that, now."

"You'll be up all night, anyway, coughing," Willow pointed out. Tara stuck her tongue out at Willow.

Then she heard, faintly, "Er, yeah. So I'm off. Be back later." She looked over and saw Spike, just now walking out the door. She hadn't realized he'd still been standing there, and guessed, from Anya and Xander's confused expressions, that they hadn't, either.

"Spike seems a little distracted. Do you think Tara being sick made him uncomfortable? It used to make *me* feel weird, being around sick humans." Anya asked. "Not counting you, of course." She smiled brightly at Xander. "You're sick all the time, so I got used to it."

"Hey, I catch things easily. And *so* not my fault I got syphillis, I'll remind you."

"I meant in the head." She frowned. "Did I say it wrong? You always laugh when Spike makes jokes like that." Then Anya paused. "Of course, the syphillis could have made you sick in the head. In fact, you could still be suffering from lingering complications. That might explain your bizarre shopping patterns..."

"And that, Ladies and Germs--" Xander stared sternly at Tara, as if the germs in question were hiding under the blanket with her, instead of invading her nose and throat -- "was my wife attempting to be humorous."

"No, it wasn't. Well, only the first part." But Anya was still smiling, looking at Xander expectantly.

"You weren't trying to be humourous?" Xander asked, and Tara giggled, muffling it behind her hand in case she wasn't supposed to be laughing at them.

"I wasn't *trying*," Anya replied. "It was successfully funny. See? They're laughing." She pointed to Willow and Tara.

"Yes, they are," Xander agreed. He leaned in and gave Anya the kiss she was so obviously waiting for, her reward for making a joke. Even if it wasn't funny. Tara laughed, again, and sneezed once, then coughed. "If he wasn't uncomfortable being around a sick kid, what do you think it was?" Xander glanced at Tara, then Willow. "Did he say anything weird? I mean, for Spike?"

Willow shook her head, a thoughtful expression on her face. It made her look adorable, Tara thought. She watched Willow for a moment, then blinked when someone waved a hand in front of her face.

"Earth to can stare at your girlfriend on your own time. Did Spike say anything odd to you?"

"No. Not odd for Spike," Tara admitted. As long as she had known the vampire, she couldn't read him well enough to guess why he'd left. She wasn't worried, though, because Xander and Anya hadn't gone chasing after him.

"He'll tell us when he gets back. Even if we have to have sex with him for seven hours before he tells us." It was freaky, Tara thought, how Anya could make that sound like it was just another household chore. Like stripping wallpaper....

"Um...Anya..." Xander was jerking his head in Willow and Tara's direction, in that universal 'not in front of the children' gesture. Tara recognized it not only from her own childhood, but from the number of times she'd made it herself in the last month.

"Oh. Right. Somebody needs to be able to get up and check on Tara every so often. Plus you have to work tomorrow. So we need something that takes less than seven hours. Hmm." Anya looked thoughtful. "We could spank him. That would take less than seven hours."

Willow sat up straight and made a face like she'd just tasted some of those echinacea drops. "Hello! Children present! Lesbian children present! Don't want to hear about naked male vampires being spanked..."

"I didn't say anything about nakedness," Anya told her.

"Oh. Well. Good."

"I mean, he'd *be* naked, but I didn't *say* that. I figured it was understood."

"Anya!" The chorus came from both Willow and Xander. Tara was too busy trying to laugh and cough at the same time.

"What?" she asked, sounding as innocent and confused as she always did. Tara was beginning to suspect it was at least partly put-on.

"Maybe we should just *talk* to him," Xander suggested, with another significant glance towards the children.

Anya pouted. "Very well. It doesn't seem like as much fun. We're going to have to think of something else, though, when we have kids of our own. I'm not going eighteen or more years without talking about having sex with you and Spike."

Tara tried very, very hard not to cough or sneeze -- drinking in the sight of Xander, eyes as wide as they had been as a magically-turned four-year-old, and mouth gaping like he'd been hypnotized into thinking he was a frog and had to catch flies. He was apparently trying to say something, because she could see his throat working, and his jaw moved, slightly, every so often. Tara glanced over and caught Willow winking at her, then they both went back to watching Xander have a heart-attack.

"You..buhwah..yubuh," Xander finally said.

"Yes?" Anya asked. Again sounding so innocent and guileless that Tara had to wonder if she had *ever* been truly clueless.

"Please tell me you are speaking hypothetically," Xander managed.

Anya favoured him a small smile. "If you're asking if I'm pregnant, the answer is 'no'. I thought about becoming pregnant without informing you, but I have decided, from watching you and Spike behave as parents, that you will be fine making the decision beforehand. You two will make excellent fathers. I chose well."

Xander was gaping, again, only this time he was starting to grin. Also starting to look at Anya like someone was going to have to remind him there were children present.

"I get to be godmother," Willow declared. "And you have to name it after me." Without removing his gaze from Anya, Xander picked up a pillow and smacked Willow dead-center in the face with it.

"You can't be godmother," Tara said. Willow watched, frowning, while she blew her nose, then said, "I get to be godmother. I'm the one who blew up Spike's crypt so he had to move in with Xander and Anya in the first place."

"Like you did that on *purpose*, Ms. 'I don't need a measuring spoon, I know just how much henbane to add, poof poof oops' ?"

"The ways of a witch are mysterious and...ah... ah... choo! Not to be questioned by mere ...ah choo! " Tara peeped up at Willow, who was trying to look stern, and *still* looked adorable. "Um... I think maybe I should take the liquid echinacea after ah... ahh..." She caught that last one, and watched the adorable look change to one she recognized all too well -- nyah nyah told you so...

"See what you get for questioning the ways of a witch?" Willow asked. Tara narrowed her eyes, remembering a certain sneezing-powder-in-a-spell rhyme Willow had sworn would be sooo much fun at parties and Scooby meetings...

"I'll tell you what you get," Xander interrupted. "An early bedtime."

"What?!?" they both protested, in identical tones.

Xander nodded at Tara. "You're sick, you need plenty of rest."

"And what about me?" Willow demanded.

"You?" Xander grinned evilly. "You're four. You go to bed at seven."

Tara glanced at the clock, and tried to laugh. She coughed, instead. Maybe going to sleep *would* be nice, she thought. Wrapped up as she was, she was warm enough and comfortable enough...for the sleep.

Willow was pouting, though. "I'm not tired. I don't wanna go to bed."

"Then you can lie next to Tara, and be ready to get her anything she needs." Tara gave Willow a pitiful look, and Willow sighed. The mommy expression didn't quite look the same on a four-year-old face, but Tara was happy to see it. She snuggled in her blankets, then reached out one hand towards Willow.

Willow took it, crawling over with her two stolen blankets, and snuggled beside her. "Do you need anything?" she asked.

Tara shook her head. "I'm fine, for now."

"I can get you more juice," Willow offered.

"No, I'm fine."



"Another blanket?" Though even Willow looked doubtful, when she asked, that Tara could possibly need more.

"Xander and Anya are sneaking into the bedroom," Tara told her.

"I'm shocked and dismayed," Willow said. "Just think of the children..."

They both giggled, though Tara was getting a little groggy, and the giggling was half slap-happiness on her part. She blinked at Willow and yawned. "Huunnnnh... you *really* didn't want to hear about naked-spanked-Spike?"

Willow pursed her lips. "Well... not when I'm not old enough to appreciate the image."

"But..." ...yawn... "You can always store it up for later."

Willow opened her mouth-- then closed it, and pouted. "I didn't think of that. Damn."

"Don't talk like that in front of me. I'm a sick child." Tara smiled sleepily as Willow rolled her eyes and tugged Tara's topmost blanket closer to Tara's chin.

"Yup. Very sick."

"I'm going to sleep, now," she said, closing her eyes. She didn't have to wriggle much to get comfy, and she smiled when she felt Willow snuggling under the blankets with her. She didn't hear Willow say goodnight, but was pretty sure she did.


chapter twenty three

The room was dark, and Willow was sound asleep the next time Tara opened her eyes. She felt sick, her head hurt and she could feel her sinuses clogging and aching. She reached out from under the blankets for more echinacea, and the movement woke the rest of her body up. Specifically, her two glasses of juice and one mug of tea filled bladder awoke.

She carefully crawled out from under the blankets and off the couch, trying not to wake Willow. It was dark in the apartment, but there was a light on in the bathroom, its door shut enough that only a crack of light spread across the hallway floor. She made her way to the bathroom, squinting against the light when she opened the door, and wished she weren't sick. She felt decidedly icky.

When she'd finished in the bathroom, she didn't feel like going back to sleep -- not certain she could fall asleep again, right away, anyhow. More tea, maybe, if she could make it without disturbing anyone. She thought about how high the stovetop was. Maybe she'd get another glass of juice. If she put the echinacea drops in her juice, she wouldn't be able to taste them quite as much. And if she did it while Willow was asleep, she wouldn't have to hear 'I told you so' again. At least until next time.

Thus decided, she padded across to the kitchen in her stocking feet -- extremely thankful that she wasn't wearing the footy pajamas, given the many disasters possible when you combine too much juice and a smaller-than usual bladder with one-piece zippered-up nightwear -- and reached for the lightswitch. Stood on tiptoe to reach for the lightswitch, to be accurate. She just managed to flick it with her fingertips, and the florescent light sputtered and popped on.


At least she managed to eep quietly, Tara thought as she stared at Spike, who was sitting slouched in one of the chairs next to the little 2-person-3-if-you-squeeze breakfast-table. He blinked at her, looking not so much startled as distracted.

She stared at him as his pupils contracted to pinpoints., and his eyes were all blue iris, for a second. He blinked again. Then his distracted look was replaced with one of concern. "Hey, witchling. Something wrong? You feel sicker? I can make you some tea if you like, or... emergency room's open 24 hours. God knows I've got *that* place memorized by now -- could drive there with my eyes closed."

Tara continued to stare at him, then grinned slightly. "No thanks. Especially not the eyes-closed part."

"Tea, then?" he asked, already standing up and heading for the tea kettle. She was tempted to say yes, then thought about what 'making tea' meant for Spike. She didn't think he ought to go to that much trouble...but then, she didn't want more juice. She wanted hot tea.

"Thanks," she said, trying to sound as grateful as she felt. It was tricky, when her head was so stuffed up. She couldn't tell if she really sounded grateful, or just tired.

She climbed into the kitchen chair beside the one Spike had been sitting in, and watched as he began to put together the tea making paraphenalia. Tara tried to figure it all out -- again -- but had to admit, secretly, that she agreed with Xander. Boiling water and adding a little bag was easier. She sat there, watching Spike work silently, until she realized he wasn't going to say anything at all. Maybe that was how tea was supposed to be made -- maybe he'd picked up tea ceremony habits or something. But she had a feeling it was just whatever he'd been thinking about, here in the dark.

"Spike? What's wrong?" she finally asked.

"What makes you think something's wrong?" he asked as he measured leaves into a cup. He was paying very close attention to them -- possibly afraid they would suddenly turn into a Lipton's teabag if he took his eyes off them for one second?

Tara rolled her own eyes, not that he was going to catch the visual if he never looked at her. "Xander and Anya are in bed. And you're not. You were sitting in here in the dark, staring at the floor. Which -- unless you were having sex telepathically, in which case please tell me now, and I'll leave and pretend to forget I ever woke up-- seems kinda wrongish to me. Given that you're widely known to be willing to pass up a blood-soaked riot to be in bed with Xander and/or Anya."

"You don't *sound* very regressed," he pointed out, deftly avoiding the question. So he thought.

"I'm sick and I'm tired and I want my tea and I'm gonna whine at you until you tell me what's wrong and you better not be mean to me or I'll make my girlfriend turn your weewee into a doorknob," she said evenly. "There-- is that better?"

He turned around from his preparations and stared at her for a second, then chuckled. He sounded tired, too. "I remember when you were the shy one."

"I *am* the shy one. If I were Willow, I'd have used the medical Latin for weewee."

The teapot chose that moment to make its presence known -- by spouting steam, since he'd thankfully taken the whistle out. Spike poured water into two cups, and added the right fixings, then carried them over to the table and sat down, falling back into that same not-quite-relaxed slouch in which she'd found him.

After he'd taken a sip of his own tea, he glanced at her quickly, then looked back down at his cup. "Anya wants to have a baby."

"I know. She told Xander, today." Tara giggled. "You should have seen his face!"

Spike blinked at her. "She told Xander?"

She nodded. Spike didn't say anything. He stared at his tea until Tara began to wonder if she'd ruined her chance to get *anything* out of him, at all. Was that what was bothering him, then? That he'd missed seeing Xander's reaction? That seemed like a rather trivial thing to be upset about, though. She didn't put it past Spike to *be* upset about it, but not so badly that he'd stay out of bed. He'd be more likely to be in bed, demanding they make it up to him.

"Spike?" She leaned forward and touched his hand, almost startling his attention back to her, from whatever dark place it had been. "Don't you want to have a baby?"

He snorted. "Not like I can, is it?"

"I don't mean...." Trailing off, Tara began to understand. "Is that it? Because you can't father any of the babies?"

He shrugged, then half-nodded. "Won't be their Dad, will I. I'll be 'Uncle Spike' -- the guy who lives with Mum and Dad and doesn't have a room of his own. Assuming they even want me about anymore."

Tara frowned. "Assuming -- so you haven't even talked to them about it." His refusal -- again -- to look at her pretty much answered that question. "You're just jumping to conclusions. Why wouldn't they want you around?"

"The guy who lives with Mum and Dad and doesn't age? The guy who lives with Mum and Dad and can't go out in the sunlight? Hell, the *guy* who lives with Mum and Dad -- that's enough, right there. It's one thing now, when they can tell anybody who asks to sod off, we're young, we can do what we want. But bring kids into it... " He shook his head. "Be easier for them if I wasn't here, that's all." Then he looked at Tara, who was shaking her own head, but he wasn't paying attention to that. "They're married. We don't say it much, but they're married. You might remember -- little ceremony in the park, after sunset, lot of horny types on the bride's side of the pews? If I wasn't here, they'd probably have a couple of sprogs already."

Tara frowned. "But...they talked like they want you here. Like you're gonna be the father, too." She did remember the ceremony -- it had been really nice, but she'd wondered ever since why they hadn't ever married Spike, too. They hadn't been a threesome at the time of Xander and Anya's wedding, but since then....

"Talked about me, eh?" Spike was saying, sounding very much like he didn't believe her.

"Anya was talking about how she wasn't going to spend eighteen years not spanking you, just because there were kids in the house."

Whatever Spike's poor me response had been going to be, it apparently got derailed. He gaped at her, mouth open and eyes wide. After a moment he shook his head. "Sorry, you said 'spanking'. Er, what?"

"Anya and Xander were concerned about how to talk about, and, do things, with kids in the house. They mentioned you by name."

Spike still looked a bit dazed -- or possibly turned on, in which case Tara wanted to end the conversation as quickly as possible. Then his face changed, a bit, and looked a bit like he had when he'd been four. "They really still want me around after they have kids?"

Tara got down from the chair, walked around and took Spike by the hand. She tugged, and he stood up, then let her lead him towards the bedroom. When he got to the door, he stood there for a moment, and she gave a deep, long-suffering sigh. "What? It's your bedroom, you know. No monsters in there."

"You haven't seen Anya at three in the morning with her hair in curlers."

"Yes, I have. She had this bizarre idea that we all had to have a sleepover party, a couple of years ago. Spike, for god's sake, go in there and talk to them."

Just for a second, Tara thought it would actually work. He'd push the door open and go in and she could go back to her tea and then crawl onto the couch and cuddle with Willow and all would be right with the world and there'd be no more offers of trips to the emergency room, at least until the morning. But then Spike put his hand down, and leaned against the wall, and shook his head again.

"They're just... feeling guilty. They're too *nice* to tell me to just bugger off. And they'll miss the sex."

Tara stared at him, open-mouthed, then wished she was tall enough to whap him on the head. After a second's thought, she let a levitated throw-pillow do the job for her. "*Anya's* too *nice* to tell you how she really feels?"

Spike almost looked like he might smile, for a second. "Believe it or not, she *does* know how to keep her mouth shut, when she wants to."

"And you think they're too nice to tell you to go, but they're sleazy enough to keep you around here just so they can have their own personal undead cabana boy?" Tara asked. "God -- Willow's right -- boys *do* go to Jupiter to get more stupider."

"I'm not--!" Spike retorted, then stopped -- presumably to lower his voice. Or because he realized Tara was right. Then he just shook his head, and Tara could see by the way his face fell, that he'd decided not to believe her.

She suddenly remembered that Spike had a history of being left behind by those he loved. Maybe Xander and Anya needed the whapping, for letting Spike get this insecure. She opened her mouth to tell him something really wise and convincing, not sure what that was but confident it would come out of her mouth readily enough, when the bedroom door opened. Xander stood there, looking mostly asleep and -- Tara eeped and looked away.

She peeked, though, intending to not look at Xander's naked bits, when neither Spike nor Xander said anything. She saw Xander pulling Spike to him by one arm, then kissing him. She peeked with both eyes when they kept kissing. She could tell that it wasn't a 'we keep you for sex' kiss. Wasn't even really a 'distract him with sex' embrace. This was the sort of kiss that made her need a bowl of chocolate ice cream and her blankets, so she could snuggle up and go 'awwww' to herself. Or to Willow, which would distract her with her own source of love-you-to-the-bottom-of-my-soul.

Spike stared down at the floor, though, when Xander finally released him. "How could you ever think we don't love you?" Xander asked him.

Spike was getting really good at that looking-at-the-floor thing, Tara noted. "I... Didn't think that," he said with sudden breeziness. "Everybody loves me, after all. I'm William the Bloody, America's Sweetheart."

Xander shook his head. "No, you're not."

"Yes, thank you. I was being sarcastic. It's where you say something that's exactly the opposite of what you mean, in a snotty tone, in order to make a point?"

"Really? Thank you for clarifying that. I'd been wondering," Xander said in a snotty tone. He put his hand on Spike's arm again. "That wasn't what I meant."

"He meant you're not William the Bloody," Anya said from behind him. Tara looked up, and thankfully didn't have to eep again, since Anya'd had the decency -- or the foresight -- to put on a robe before coming to the bedroom door.

Spike looked up at her too, a hurt expression on his face. "Well, thank you for pointing *that* out, Mrs. Harris, but I'm well aware I've become William the Domesticated."

Anya rolled her eyes. "Stop being a moron. Well, *try* to stop being a moron. I wasn't insulting your vamphood." She pushed past Xander and Spike, and walked to the desk that stood against the wall opposite the TV. Willow stirred slightly as she passed, and Anya bent down to tuck the covers back up under her chin, before returning with a handful of papers. "Do you know what these are?" She held them out to Spike.

He nodded, looking perplexed. "Sure. My fake immigration papers. Red and this one's," he pointed to Tara, "fake birth certificates and adoption stuff."

Anya nodded. "And what do they say your name is?"

Spike rolled his eyes. "William Harris. So? They're fake, they don't mean anything."

"They'll stand up in any court of law," Xander reminded him.

"Fine, so I can pretend I belong here, can I?" Spike said, bitterly. Tara could see the ghost of a movement of his hand -- reaching for the cigarette he didn't have, never smoked in the apartment anymore. She wondered suddenly how much he missed it.

Anya just shook her head, and handed over the last paper she'd been holding. Spike took it, read it, then frowned in confusion.

The confusion turned into annoyed anger. "Very funny. Why'd he send this?"

"Because we asked him to," Xander replied evenly. Tara couldn't see what the paper was.

Spike looked at it again, then up at Xander. "Why'd you think I'd need a marriage certificate? *It* wouldn't stand up in any court of law -- s'fake, says we're all three married. That ain't legal, pet."

Marriage certificate? Tara reached out for the paper in Spike's hands, and began reading. Tired and achy and sick as she was, she still felt like cheering. Just not loudly, so her head wouldn't ring. Xander and Anya were smiling at Spike.

"It isn't fake, Spike. Well, technically you didn't sign it. It *is* your signature, though," Xander told him. "It's real and it's valid and it means the only way you're getting out of here is by divorcing us. We'd, um, planned on telling you about it after we got Willow and Tara back into their own place. Had dinner planned. Sorry." He shrugged.

Tara glanced up to find Spike looking totally dumbstruck. She showed him the marriage certificate, again. "Look, Spike, who signed it as the officiator."

Spike looked. Looked again. "Angel?"

"Yup. Your Sire married you to us. We own you, now." Anya smiled, and her tone was light, as if she was teasing him.

"It took an extra day or so for him to get the right form," Xander added. "So this thing only showed up this morning."

"You think the bureaucracy's bad on Earth, just try ordering something from the Tribunal of Demonic Affairs on short notice," Anya said. "You don't know *how* many favors I had to call in."

Spike blinked, and scanned the paper again, studying the letterhead as if it were the first time he'd looked at it. Tara squinted up at it, and realized that the seal was *not* that of the State of California. Not unless the bear had grown three extra eyes and a set of tentacles.

"But this is... this is real!" he said, looking up at Anya and Xander incredulously.

"Duh, that's what we said," Xander answered.

"No, but-- this thing's legal in at least 13 dimensions. You two get that? You understand you just married yourself off to a demon in the eyes of everybody but the United States of I-Can't-See-You-And-I'm-Pretending-You're-Not-There ?"

Anya put her hands on her hips, and tapped her foot, not speaking. Just looking at him. Finally she rolled her eyes, and said, "Excuse me, Junior. Who was a demon the longest, in this room?"

Spike's mouth shut with a silent snap. He looked down at the paper again. "Oh. Er. Right."

No one spoke for a minute. Tara was wishing her cold would vanish, so she could do more than hold back a yawn. And what did you get Spike, Xander, and Anya as a wedding present?

Spike just kept looking at the marriage certificate, and shifting from one foot to the other. Xander waited, leaning against the doorway -- still naked. Tara wondered if he even realized it.

"It's notarized," Spike said, rather numbly. As if that made even more of a difference between fake and real.

"Yes, I believe Angel's new boyfriend witnessed it," Anya said. "He's from another dimension, but he's really quite nice."

"Boyfriend?" Spike stared at her. Then he read the certificate. "Krevlornswath of the Deathwok Clan? Who the bloody hell is Krevlornswath? How long have they been seeing each other? Why the hell didn't anyone mention this before?"

"Relax, blondie," Xander interrupted his rant. "They've been dating for almost two days. Cordelia says he's really sweet -- um, Lorn, that is. She thinks Angel's sweet, too, but she never actually says that out loud."

"Cos we'd gang up and have 'er committed," Spike replied distractedly. Tara wondered if he had an automatic Angel-insulting response system built into his chip, so he didn't even have to think about it anymore. Spike looked down at the paper again. "And... excuse me, *Wesley* signed as my other Sire? Since when does *he* own me?"

Anya smiled, then yanked Spike close to her by his collar. "He doesn't own you. I do. They needed another signature, and Drusilla didn't answer at her last-known number, so Wesley volunteered. I think the red crayon adds a festive touch."


"Do you have any other complaints, before you get kissed?"

Spike blinked, and Tara yawned, and so she missed anything Spike might have said during the two seconds before Anya was kissing Spike in that same chocolate-ice-cream-so-glad-I'm-not-a-single-person-having-to-watch-this way. Tara tore her eyes away from it for a second, to glance at Xander's reaction, and managed to hold back another eep.

Note to self, she thought -- when staring at a naked man watching his wife kiss his legal-in-at-least-13-dimensions husband, keep your eyes above neck-level. Well, it wasn't *her* fault she was only three and a half feet tall!

She diverted her gaze back to Spike and Anya -- and decided maybe she should sneak off and dive under the blankets. Maybe snuggle Willow and think about things they could do a couple weeks from now. Maybe wake Willow up so they could both surreptitiously watch...if they were gonna stay in the doorway -- "ACHOO!"

She grinned, and found Spike, Anya, and Xander looking down at her. Xander made an 'eep' sound and covered himself with his hands. Tara looked at him as if she had no idea what those things were for. It occurred to her that, for the next several years, she was going to get to say "I've seen you naked." How much ice cream would that get her?


Never mind the ice cream. How soon could she get back under the blankets with some juice and echinacea inside her, so she could sleep through having a cold? She found out -- not long at all, when a vampire scoops you up and carries you to the couch, and an ex-demoness fetches the juice, and a naked man scurries into his room to get a robe.

She tugged on Spike's shirt as he put her down and pulled one of a million blankets up to her chin. "Hey -- when you and Xander and Anya have kids..."

He blinked at her, and his eyes went away somewhere again, but this time it appeared to be a *good* place. "Oh. Yeah. Er." He smiled the most dopey smile she'd ever seen on a vampire, including the ones that Angel had given Spike and Xander when they were four-year-olds. "Yeah. Kids. Er-- when we have kids, what?"

Tara yawned again, and didn't even have to bother trying to look innocent. She was too tired, and it seemed like a perfectly logical question to her, anyway. "You'll still be my daddy, right?"

Spike looked for a second, between her increasingly-more-frequent blinks, as if he wasn't sure whether she was joking or not. Whether he should be frightened, now, or wait until morning. Finally he leaned over and kissed her forehead. "Got the papers to prove it, don't I?"

"Good. 'Cause I want a pony," she said, as she drifted off to sleep.

She had a dream about vampire ponies which defended her against school teachers. The weird part, was, Willow kept offering her a popsicle.



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