Son of Small Fry

chapter nine

"Not yet."

Gunn looked down at him with that same concerned expression he'd been wearing for the last few days. That 'how long is it going to take him to regress, so I can get him to do embarrassing things on film' expression. Of course, the 'not yet' wasn't directly in response to that expression, but to 'Do you wanna go out and hit the playground, today?' Still, it was the same answer, to essentially the same question, voiced or unvoiced.

"Ya know, you don't actually have to be regressed, to hang out on the swingset or the jungle gym. The others had fun doing it, even when they were still grown-up in the head. Got pics, and everything."

"Spike and Xander--"

"Yeah, yeah, act like kids all the time. But Buffy and Giles don't, and they got into it."

"I am neither Buffy, nor Rupert. I--" He stopped himself from saying that he didn't *want* to do this. Because, true as it might be, he really wasn't *entirely* true. He'd have been happy to avoid the experience all-together. But there had been a few nice things.

Being held, for one. Suddenly being able to demand and receive as much physical affection as he'd always been taught was improper and unnecessary for boys. For men, for Englishmen who were meant to grow up to be Watchers. Now, just because he was small, he only had to raise one hand and someone -- well, Cordelia or Gunn -- was hugging him. It made him nervous; but it felt nice.

"I simply don't wish to make a fool of myself," he finally said.

"Man, ain't no one gonna know you're a old guy in a four-year-old body."

Wesley snapped his mouth shut, and glared as hard as he could. "I am not old."

"You're *way* old," Gunn replied. "You're like, over *thirty*."

Wesley had to resist the urge to respond in any number of ways which would only prove Gunn's belief that he ought to be acting like a four-year old. He didn't find it any easier than he did every other time Gunn started calling him his 'old man'. Normally he proved his youth by proving his...vitality. That wasn't going to work, this time.

"That's not old," he finally responded. "That's mature. The magical point beyond which it's no longer necessary to drink milk from the carton and put it back in the refrigerator, in order to prove one's manhood."

"Hey, I don't do that to prove my manhood-- I've got other ways of doing that. I do it 'cause it beats washing another glass."

"How exactly does this not prove my point?"

"That you're not too old to go to the park and sit in the sun and play on the swings?"

Wesley frowned at him. "That was *not* my point." Although he was having difficulty remembering what his point *had* been. Other than the simple 'No, don't wanna,' which he suspected wouldn't do much for his argument that he was still an adult, thank you. "I simply..." he paused, trying to come up with a reasonable answer. "...don't feel ready to do that. And don't really feel like arguing about it."

Gunn opened his mouth, then closed it. He walked over to the window in the suite that Angel had prepared for them, and looked out, silently. Finally he said, "Okay. Not gonna push the kid-stuff. But can't we go out *somewhere* together? You're gonna make me think you don't wanna be seen with me."

Wesley looked up at him. "But I don't," he said as guilelessly as he could. Then he had to leap backwards to avoid being grabbed, and, no doubt, tickled mercilessly.

Gunn advanced on him, though, and he yelped. Much to his chagrin it sounded like a high-pitched squeal, and it stopped him from running away, as he'd intended. He stood firm, trying not to appear as embarrassed as he felt -- and Gunn reached for him. Wrapped an arm around him, and just squeezed him for a second.

"So where *do* you wanna go? Please don't say the art museum."

"Actually, I was going to say the library, but the art museum *is* a good idea." Gunn whimpered, and let his forehead fall onto Wesley's shoulder. When Gunn couldn't see him, Wesley grinned.

"I can see you grinning." Gunn didn't raise his head.

"You can not."

"I know you're grinning."

"That is not the same thing. Look, do you really want to...go somewhere?" He'd much rather stay at the hotel. But staying at the hotel meant making Gunn remain cooped up, as well, since he hadn't been able to convince the man to leave his *side* in five days.

Gunn glanced up, and gave him a pleading expression. "Please? Please can we go -- someplace at least halfway cool, sorta fun, which doesn't involve me saying 'huh?' all day and doesn't involve you getting pictures taken of you?"

Wesley blinked. "No pictures? Are you sure you won't go into withdrawal?"

"I'll make up for it later, trust me."

"No doubt." He couldn't quite give the words that guilt-inducing twist that they'd had a few days ago; Wesley wondered if he was losing that ability, as he moved towards the regression that he both dreaded and looked forward to, or whether the fun had simply gone out of it. Surely not?

He pursed his lips as he tried to come up with an appropriate place. Somewhere that he and Gunn could go, that they would both enjoy, yet would welcome children. Or apparent children, and their apparent parents.

"There's the Hawley Science Museum," he offered. Before Gunn could groan at the word 'museum,' he added, "It's really a sort of interactive thing. Sound experiments, walk around inside the giant human body, remote controlled dinosaur skeletons."

"You mean one of those places you go and play with the exhibits, and learn stuff?"

Wesley smiled, and nodded. "I wouldn't use the word 'play'--"

"Yeah, that's the problem. Yeah, sure, sounds good," Gunn said quickly. "Do we need to steal Angel's wallet before we go?"

Wesley pretended to think about it for a moment. "Well, admission isn't expensive, as such...."


"But the food is, and if we go into the science store...."

"You know you can't buy that chemistry set you've been after, looking like a four year old."

"How did-- what chemistry set?"

But Gunn was standing up, and holding out his hand. "Come on, we better get going. If I stay in this hotel one more hour, I'm gonna start...brooding."

Wesley laughed, and had to clamp his jaw shut again. It sounded *wrong*. He did, however, take Gunn's hand, and tried not to worry about the quick look his lover gave him. If he did, they'd get into a long discussion about things he didn't want to think about, and it would simply delay their leaving.


chapter ten

As it was, it took them half an hour, what with Gunn's disappearance into a back room to 'discuss' something with Angel-- presumably the 'give us popcorn money, Dad' conversation, and Cordelia's fussing over both of them.

"Do you have enough money? Do you know not to let go of Gunn's hand in the museum, because somebody could come along and snatch you, I'm not kidding, it's happened, and I don't care if you're actually thirty-two years old, there's not a damn thing you could do about it, are you listening to me, Wesley Wyndham Pryce?" Et cetera.

And another half an hour in the truck, on the way to the museum. With the expected 'you wanna stop at Mickey D's?' and the obvious 'I'll eat that slop when I'm dead and in hell, not before.' Which was actually a bit more comforting than Cordelia's well-meaning big city horror stories, since he and Gunn had the fast food conversation almost every day, as normal adults. 'Normal' being a relative term, of course.

Finally, though, they pulled into the parking garage. Wesley tried to remember how long ago he'd last been here -- the first time had been after he'd lived here almost a year, and had finally got actual, disposable income. He'd managed a visit once or twice that year, then only once the year after. Recently he'd spent most of his free time with Gunn...and he hadn't ever thought to invite him here.

He was, however, mortified to discover he was bouncing ever-so-slightly in his seat as Gunn found a parking spot. He held himself still, until the engine was off. Then he undid his seatbelt and climbed out with as much decorum as he could muster. He was looking about for the stairs, when Gunn came around the truck and held out his hand again. "I don't actually--"

"How many drivers in this garage are gonna see you to not drive over you?" Gunn demanded.

Wesley blinked. He heard the reply in his head, felt it worm its way into his mouth.... To hell with it. "Then perhaps I shouldn't be walking, at all." He raised his hands, ready to stammer an explanation that he'd only been kidding. Gunn grinned, and scooped him up. "Remember where we're parked," Wesley said, craning his neck to see any signs nearby.

"Yes, dad," Gunn replied.

They made it through the admission counter without anyone staring at them, which made Wesley breathe a sigh of relief as they walked into the main lobby. Then he had to pause, and wonder why he'd been expecting that.

It wasn't as if he and Gunn didn't draw the odd look, every now and then, when they walked into a restaurant on the wrong side of some invisible line, and one of them was obviously out of place. Or in one of those neutral sorts of places, like the shopping mall, or the grocery store, when they did something that broadcast 'yes, we're together' without saying it aloud. All of which was fine. They were past worrying about that sort of thing, as far as he knew.

He realized as they walked --or rather, Gunn walked, for Wesley was still being carried-- towards the dinosaur exhibit, that he was expecting people to be staring at *him*. Expecting them to *know*, as Gunn had teased him earlier, that Wesley wasn't what he appeared to be. He also realized that by trying to watch for anyone staring at them, he was giving the impression of a young child on his first visit, who wanted to see *everything*. Now.

He pointed towards the mathematics hall. "There's an exhibit there that talks about the history of math, and how different cultures arrived at the same conclusions about the nature of numbers independently of each other."

"Oo, that sounds like *fun*," Gunn replied. "You sure I can't just put bamboo under my fingernails?"

Wesley thumped him on the head. "You do know you can put me down now," he said, as they drew nearer the Stegosaurus. There was only one child at the controls, which meant he could take a turn, sooner than later.

"Nuh-uh," was the unexpected response. "If I put you down, you'll get to the controls ahead of me."

Wesley gaped at him, despite the fact that Gunn was staring ahead, at the dinosaur. They'd reached the control panel, and Gunn was standing behind the seven year old boy who was making the Stegosaurus try to eat its own foot.

"You must be joking," Wesley finally said.

Gunn glanced at him. "I ain't joking. You've been here before, I haven't. It's only polite to let me go first."

"Yes, but..." Wesley could see where this was going-- he could get to go first, without any arguing, if he said the five magic words: 'But I'm smaller than you.' Or possibly 'younger.' Which would win him the battle, but lose the war. If indeed it was a war. There had to be another alternative... He frowned at Gunn. "Yes, but I have to show you how to do it. Otherwise you might end something."

Gunn grinned and raised an eyebrow. "I think I got the hang of it. Jonny Quest here seems to know what *he's* doing." He nodded his head at the boy in front of them, who was now trying to make the Stegosaurus re-enact Riverdance, it appeared.

"He's probably been here before, too," Wesley said, unruffled. "He's got that jaded look in his eye."

"Don't *make* me tickle you to get the first turn at this thing. 'Cause you *know* I will..."

"You wouldn't."

"Just because we're someplace public? Oh, believe me, I will. I might not get to when you're taller'n me, but now, nobody will even look twice."

"I'll--" Well, 'I'll scream' wouldn't be an effective threat. "How do you propose to operate the controls with only one hand, if you don't set me down?" He saw the reply on Gunn's face, and felt himself go bright red. "You shouldn't think such things around children," he chastised, quietly.

"Me? I didn't think a word. You're the one with the evil mind." Gunn leaned down to the control panel, and grabbed one joystick. Wesley sighed. He wasn't going to demand a turn -- it wasn't as if Gunn weren't perfectly justified. He *had* been here before, and Gunn hadn't -- and he *wasn't* really four years old and unable to share. And he wasn't remotely pouting, or thinking that it wasn't fair, and he should get to go first because he was the one who'd enjoy it more. Because, why would he? They were both grown men. In spirit, anyway.

Wesley was making that extra effort to suck in his bottom lip, and try to look interested-but-not-jealous, when Gunn tapped him on the arm. "Hey, you want this, or what?"

He blinked, to see a joystick in front of his face. Gunn had knelt down, and placed Wesley on his knee, while Wesley was contemplating not pouting. He blinked again at the control, then shook his head. "No, of course not. I wasn't trying to get my own way, you know."

Gunn snorted. "Of course not." His mock-English accent hadn't improved with age. "Like I'd let you. There's *two* controls, or didn't you notice? We can make him bop himself in the head."

"What fun. And after that, we can stop at Toys R' Us and pick up a pair of Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots."

"See, I knew you'd get into the swing of things." Gunn twitched his control, and the Stegosaurus skeleton attempted to flip Wesley the bird. It failed badly, since it didn't have any fingers, but Wesley got the message.

He narrowed his eyes at Gunn, and reached out to grasp the other control -- which was a bit further away than it usually was when he was six feet tall. "Er, could you..."

Gunn leaned closer to the counter, and Wesley grabbed the joystick. Executing a move he'd once practiced for half an hour, since the museum had been closing and most of the children were gone, he twirled the control-stick around so that the skeleton whapped itself in the head with its own tail.

There was a pause. Then, "You did that on accident."

"I most certainly did not!" Wesley straightened up, feeling righteously indignant, and tried to spin around to glare at Gunn -- and nearly toppled himself off Gunn's leg. He was saved from falling by Gunn's quick grab of Wesley's shirt.

"You break something and Cordelia won't let me take you anywhere, ever again," Gunn warned him.

"What if I break *your* arm?" Wesley asked, torn between sounding perfectly innocent and grumbling about the injustice of the world in general, and snarky lovers in specific.

"Then she *really* won't let me take you anywhere -- because *your* pansy ass will be grounded for a month."

Once again settled on Gunn's knee -- though not because he hadn't *tried* to climb down, and been held captive -- Wesley glanced over his shoulder. "Why exactly would that be a bad thing?"

There was another pause, before Gunn said, "Because then I'd have to pout at you." Then he did so.

Wesley was about to tease him, when he caught a woman watching them, with a huge 'aren't they adorable' smile on her face.

Which they were, of course, but why did it take him being the size of a pre-schooler to elicit looks like that? They never got 'aren't they adorable' when they teased each other like this in public as adults. At best they had been politely ignored. At worst-- well, things could have been worse. They'd never been threatened. They had been the target of a few not-so-veiled insults, which *they* had chosen to politely ignore. The most common reaction was a curious stare in their direction before civility reared its helpful head and the gawker turned away. Which Wesley really was past caring about. Mostly.

But the smiling woman, who apparently wasn't bound by the same sort of politeness conventions as prevailed with adults, was still staring at them. At him. What was it about being three and a half feet tall that made it polite for people to gawp at you? He was frowning at her, which a real four-year-old probably wouldn't do. Would one? He wouldn't have dared, when he was four, of course. Then again, when he was four, he'd have been in England, and she wouldn't have stared.

He felt Gunn nudge him, and he turned halfway towards him, not quite letting his eyes leave the woman... Which meant, he realized, that he was gawking back at her, which was equally as rude. He sighed inwardly, and turned his attention fully to Gunn.

"You gonna play or you gonna worry about women thinking we're cute?" Gunn asked in a low voice.

"How long has she been standing there?" Wesley reached for the joystick again, and half-heartedly raised the Stegosaurus' tail and waggled it.

"Dunno. Come on, Wes, don't worry about her. Worry about the fact that the T-Rex is about to chomp us."

Wesley immediately looked over towards the Tyrannosaurus Rex robot, where another child was trying his best to reach their Stegosaurus...and chomp it. He'd seen kids doing this to each other, of course, but they'd never bothered *him* when he was playing. When he'd been an adult.

He tried to wallop the T-Rex in the face with the Stego's tail. It wouldn't quite reach high enough, so he changed his strategy, and went for the back legs. Didn't quite knock the thing over, but the King of the Carnivores wobbled quite a bit. The other boy grinned, and made his T-Rex roar. Or at least open its jaws as if it were roaring, and scrabble its little front arm/legs. Then the toothy skull dove for the Stego again.

"Get him, Wes. You can't let him eat us. Strike a blow for vegetarians everywhere," Gunn encouraged him.

"We're not vegetarians," Wesley said as he manipulated his control so the the Stegosaurus ducked its head to avoid the T-Rex, then readied another tail-assault.

"No, but the Stegosaurus is. Says so right here." Gunn pointed to the legend on the console.

"I'm glad one of us is having a learning experience," Wesley replied, landing a solid whap to the Tyrannosaurus' skull as it tried to chomp them again. The T-Rex wobbled, but didn't quite fall. It rallied, and headed for his tail...his Stegosaurus' tail, once more. Wesley gave it another hard wallop before it could draw too near.

"Excuse me," said a polite voice behind and above them. Wesley glanced up, and as he saw the bright yellow shirt of a docent, he heard a crash. He turned back in time to see his dinosaur lying on its side and a triumphant Tyrannosaurus stalking away.

"You made us lose!" he snapped, before realizing what he was saying.

"Is there a problem?" Gunn asked.

"We prefer you treat the exhibits with more care," she replied, pointing to a sign that said "Please Keep Robot Dinosaurs In Their Own Play Area." It meant, as Wesley well knew, 'Don't play fight with the robots.'

"Sorry, ma'am," Gunn was saying, standing up and picking Wesley up with him. Wesley frowned -- was he *ever* going to let him go? It wasn't like he was going to run off and get *lost*. "Didn't see the sign."

Well, that was half true. *Wesley* had seen the sign. On more than one occasion. He just hadn't felt the need to point it out to Gunn, on this *particular* occasion. As the docent raised an eyebrow at Gunn, Wesley replaced his petulant frown at having lost, with a wide-eyed, innocent, I'm-too-young-to-read-so-it-can't-possibly-be-my-fault expression.

She looked down at him, and smiled back. Right, so perhaps there was *something* to the whole cuteness-factor. Wesley wasn't above using whatever weapons he had in his arsenal, so he widened his eyes a bit, and said, "You're not mad at us, are you? We won't do it again." He could feel Gunn trying to hold back a chuckle. He didn't even have to be *looking*, to know it was happening.

The young woman shook her head, and said, "No, honey. I'm not mad. These guys are made tough, just in case they decide to get rowdy, you know. We just don't want them getting too excited before feeding time."

He looked back at the robots, wondering if four year olds were supposed to think robots ate real food. Before he could decide to say something, Gunn was telling her, "We'll be sure to read the signs from now on, thanks. It's my first time here," he added, as if *his* being cute was going to affect the docent in any way.

Wesley decided to assist him. "I've been here *seven* times, so I'm showing him around."

"Have you, now? My, I bet you know everything there is to know about the place." The docent was looking from him, to Gunn, and back. "You're going to show your...." Here she faltered, clearly at a loss to guess why they were here, together.

"He's my boyfriend," Wesley said, with a straight-face. Gunn burst out laughing.

The docent gave Wesley another 'isn't he cute' smile, though she was now getting ready to walk away. "I hope you enjoy the rest of your visit. Just be nice to the dinosaurs -- they were here first."

"What are *you* laughing at?" he asked Gunn, as the woman walked over to talk to the T-Rex operator, who, as a ten-or-so-year-old, had definitely seen and read the signs.

"I think I'm too young for you," Gunn replied through his chuckles. "Man, that was masterful."

Wesley lifted his chin. "I have no idea what you're talking about," he replied.

"You sure you don't wanna go back to the admission desk and see if you can cute 'em into giving us our entry fee back?"

"I'm sure they see plenty of children who are as cute or cuter than me. At least... six or seven, per year. I doubt I'd have any luck." Gunn laughed, and started carrying him away from the exhibit. "Where exactly are we going?" Wesley asked, having given up on ever being put down.

"Feeding time, didn't you hear the nice lady?"

Wesley rolled his eyes. "Yes, but I don't expect they're actually taking the fiberglass dinosaur skeletons round the back to feed them their daily meal of attic insulation."

"Not for them-- for us. Cafeteria's this way."

"It's barely ten thirty," Wesley pointed out.

"So? You turning down junk food?"

Wesley narrowed his eyes. "Of course I'm turning down junk food." Not that he was, precisely. It was just....

Gunn stopped walking, and craned his head around to look where Wesley had been glancing. "What's over there?"

"Nothing, really." He kept himself from looking over, again. Which was pointless, because Gunn started walking that direction, reading signs out loud.

"Electronics, lights...sound? There something in the sound exhibit you wanna see?"

"If you're hungry...." Wesley began. The sound wing was rather packed -- then he saw that the keyboard was *free* and he wriggled, urgently. "Let me down!"

Gunn did, though Wesley suspected it was from surprise, more than anything else. Wesley ran as fast as he dared, ducking around adults and other kids who obviously didn't know an excellent exhibit when they saw one. He leapt, and landed on the 'C' square. The speakers overhead sounded a loud, organ's tone. Wesley grinned, and jumped to the 'E'.

Gunn caught up with him in a moment, looking a little worried. "Hey, Wes, don't do that, okay? Not in a big crowd like this."

"You're as bad as Cordelia," Wesley replied, stepping over to the E-flat, then jumping to the 'C' again. "I'm perfectly all right."

Gunn frowned for a moment. "I just don't wanna lose you, okay?"

Wesley landed on two notes right next to each other, and covered his ears at the cacophonous sound. Then he turned to Gunn, who began to repeat himself. "I heard you," Wesley said quietly. "I'm not about to disappear, you know. Just because I can run faster than you..."

"You slip through crowds easier than me. You ain't faster."

"Am, too," Wesley replied, jumping over to hit a third, and not quite making it. "When I say 'now', would you step on those two keys?" He pointed them out, to Gunn. Gunn gave him a frown, which meant the lecture wasn't over, but he moved into position. Wesley bent his legs to jump, and said "Now!" A perfect chord. He grinned. Then he turned to Gunn to reiterate that he *wasn't* going to get snatched, and faltered. Stared, instead, at the look on Gunn's face. "What?" he demanded, after a moment.

In a quiet voice, Gunn said only, "Love you."

Eventually, Wesley was able to look back up at him, and faked a pout. "You don't play fair."

"Nope. Gotta use every advantage I have, in the Man's world," Gunn said, straightfaced. Wesley snorted.

"You do realize, don't you, that *I'm* 'The Man' ?"

Gunn was laughing at him again, damn it. "Uh, that's right, Wes. You da man."

"Not what I meant." Wesley shifted from one foot to the other, which happened to recreate the theme from 'Jaws' rather nicely.

"Yeah, so. You're The Squirt, then."

"You're asking for it."

"I am, huh? And you're gonna give it to me?"

"If I must." Wesley pushed his sleeves up, getting ready. He moved his feet into a fighting stance, which Gunn recognized. A confused look appeared on his face.

"What are you gonna do, kick me in the shins?"

Wesley shook his head, and stage-whispered, "I'm going to scream for my mother."

Gunn blinked. "Nah, you wouldn't."

"Try me."

"Thought you didn't want to be embarrassed?" he asked, but he didn't sound *completely convinced.

"Face embarrassment, rather than let you get one up one me?"

"Good point. How about I buy us ice cream sandwiches, and you pay -- because you're da Man?"

"How about you jump on the 'D' and the 'G' so I can play another chord?" Gunn rolled his eyes, but complied. The man had good timing, Wesley had to admit. The sound rang out nicely.

Gunn looked at him. "If you're thinking we're gonna do the Pachelbel Canon, I'm telling you right now, forget it."

"Are you saying you can't dance?"

"No, I'm saying I can't play the piano. If I try to break it down on this thing, they'll kick us out of here for disturbing the peace."

Wesley pictured it, and couldn't help giggling. "Then why don't you just step down two notes, and play harmony for me? The 'A' and the 'C'. Back and forth."

"You're a weird little kid, you know that, right?" Gunn said as Wesley began hop-playing the melody line. Gunn burst out laughing when he finally figured out what the song was. "I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind of Thing?" he chortled.

"Better than 'How Much Is That Doggie In The Window," Wesley replied, sticking out his tongue. "And when exactly did *you* listen to the Pet Shop Boys?"

Gunn never stopped shifting from one foot to the other, playing his limited harmony line. "Yesterday afternoon, while you were watching tv with Cordy. Looked 'em up on the net. Downloaded some mp3's."

"You're a strange, large man, you know that, right?"

"Thought you liked 'em large and strange."

Wesley faltered on the next note, and took the moment as a time-out to glare at Gunn. Again. With its usual lack of success.

"What?" Gunn looked at him, surprised.

Before Wesley could respond with a musical raspberry, two girls jumped onto the keyboard. They obviously had no musical talent, but Wesley surrendered the board, regardless. He was about to head for the listening tubes, when he found himself being lifted into the air. "Charles, *really*. This is getting quite absurd."

"What? Since when don't you like being taller than most of the crowd?"

"Since most of the crowd is under the age of twelve. I *can* walk, you know." He tried wriggling out of Gunn's grasp, again, but Gunn was holding him firmly.

"So can I. I can walk and carry you at the same time." He proceeded to prove it, by walking towards the microphone exhibit -- thereby proving he had no clue what passed for a cool exhibit.

"You *could* simply hold my hand, as I walked along beside you," he pointed out.

"Yeah, but then you wouldn't see anything."

Yes, and people wouldn't see *him*, which was the point of the exercise. Or at least, people wouldn't see him being hoisted above his boyfriend's head like a sack of potatoes. "I would so. I'd have a lovely view of... knees. Lots of knees."

"'Cause God knows, you need to do some more research on kneecaps, otherwise you might accidentally kick somebody where it *didn't* hurt," Gunn said, shifting him slightly, so that he could, in fact, see the exhibits better than before.

"That's right. I need to practice my aim," Wesley agreed. Gunn carried him toward the microphone exhibit, and Wesley tugged on his ear.

"What're you doing?" Gunn laughed.

"Steering. I've never driven one of these contraptions before, so it may take me a moment to get used to it." Wes tugged on Gunn's other ear.

"That's not tr---" Gunn started, then stopped. "Um, not gonna finish that thought."

"Charles! What did I tell you about thinking such things around children?" He sounded shocked -- and perhaps a bit too loud. He received a very peculiar look from a man who didn't appear to think that all was right with his world. Or Wesley's, or Gunn's, or something. But that was all right, Wesley was used to *those* sorts of disapproving looks. He grinned -- then stuck his tongue out at the man, who blinked then hurried away.

"Where are we going?" Gunn asked, trying to head in whatever direction Wesley was steering.

"Over there." He pointed, then thumped Gunn on the head. From up here he *could* see quite well, and he could see something he'd forgotten about. "No! There, this way!" He tugged on Gunn's ear, again.

"You know, you could use that fancy vocabulary of yours to *tell* me where to go." There was a pause. "Forget I said that, OK?"

"You *could* use those hands of yours to put me *down* and I could *show* you where I want to go," Wesley reminded him. There was silence for a moment. "Er, Charles?"

"Thinking not-around-kids thoughts again. Uh, this way?" He walked in the right direction, but Wesley pulled on his ear again. Just for the hell of it. "Wrong way?"


"Mean Little Kid."

Finally they reached the shadow box display, which Gunn was examining curiously. "You *have* to put me down, for this to be any fun," Wesley informed him. Gunn did so, after a dubious look, and Wesley pulled him into the box, which was actually the size of a rather small room. Several other people, adults and children, were standing about waiting. Gunn raised an eyebrow. Then the flash of light went off.

"Uh, so the point of this exhibit is to blind people?" Gunn asked, blinking. Wesley pointed at the wall, where there was a perfect shadow of a tall man, holding the hand of a small boy. "Dam-- uh, man, that's cool!"

Wesley laughed, and tugged on Gunn's hand. "When you hear the beeping, get ready."

"Ready for what?" Gunn was still watching the walls, which were adorned with shadows from all the occupants.

"For the light to flash! Honestly, Gunn, pay attention."

Gunn tore his gaze away from the wall, and began to give him one of the 'don't dis me, man, I know where you're ticklish' looks. Then the alarm sounded, and Wesley jumped into the air. Right before Gunn caught him, the light flashed. Wesley spun around to look at the shadow before the white light had even completely faded. There was a small shadow-him, in mid-air.

They managed to kill an hour, playing in the shadow box. Then Wesley dragged Gunn - by the ear - to the sound tubes, then the earth science wing, then the mathematics wing where Wesley demonstrated that it was much more fun than bamboo under the fingernails. Gunn agreed, especially when he happily sat for a half hour staring at the Marble Race, trying to predict which pathways the marbles would take as they tripped the various traps, switch-tracks, and gizmos.


chapter eleven

Then they finally made it to the snack area, and spent much of Angel's money on junk food. They walked around outside, looking at the agriculture displays and gardens, and Wesley amused himself by whispering to Gunn about historical, magical, significance of some of the plants they saw. Afterwards they debated the engineering wing versus the science store, and finally the science store won out.

"Hey, check this out," Gunn said, dragging him over to one of the logic-toy displays. Gunn had *finally* put him down, when his shoulder had obviously started to get tired, but he was still holding Wesley fast by the hand. "They got little mini-marble races."

"Yes, they've been around for years-- it's actually the large ones that are the novelty," Wesley explained.

Gunn was busy studying the back of one of the packages, a contemplative look on his face. Wesley spotted a robotic construction set, basically a miniature version of the dinosaur skeletons, across the aisle. He reached for it, but couldn't quite make it without getting Gunn to let go of him. "Charles?"

"Hmm?" Gunn was still rolling the marble around the box.

He strained against his lover's hand, but couldn't get free. "Charles, let me go."

"Why? Hey, you know you can buy a bunch of these sets, and hook 'em together! We could make a huge track, in the middle of the hotel lobby."

"I don't *care*; I want to look at the robotic models." He tugged again.

"Where are they?" Gunn set the marble race track down, and took a step towards the models.

Wesley sighed. "You *do* know you can let me go. I'm going two feet away -- surely even you can keep an eye on me."

Gunn looked down at him, raising an eyebrow, but only said, "You wanna get one of them? Stegosaurus?"

"I don't wish to buy it, I simply want to see how they're constructed." They were near enough to the models, now, that he could reach forward and grab a box. Only he didn't quite get his hand on it, and the front three boxes fell onto the floor. He sighed, and crouched down to pick them up.

Gunn bent down to help, and said, "You know we can get one. Two, maybe, so we can have fights without docents scolding us."

"I don't want one," he repeated, patiently. "I only wanted to know how they were made. I know, now, after having read the box, so now I would like to go look at the bookracks."

Gunn shook his head, slowly. "Not unless they're picture books. You're not supposed to be able to read. Come here and help me pick out some marble sets."

Wesley didn't *want* to look at marble sets. Wesley had seen the marble sets at least seven check times already, and they remained marble sets, no matter how many times one stared at them. The bookracks, on the other hand, were periodically changed in order to reflect new exhibits and current events in science. He shook his head.

"No, I want to go look at the new books. I'll just be a minute." He darted over to the bookshelves, and began eyeing the new large-format coffee-table book on the differences and similarities between dinosaurs and fantasy-art dragons.

It was one shelf above his head, so he could read the cover well enough, but couldn't reach it to pull it down and open it. He stepped forward onto the bottom shelf, resting his foot on it just enough so he could raise himself up an inch or two, and reach for the book. And found his hand being grabbed by Gunn's. He twisted around, glaring at him. "What?" he snapped.

"You *know* you aren't supposed to be climbing on the bookshelves. This ain't the Magic Box."

It was on the tip of Wesley's tongue to respond that he *knew* what he was doing, and didn't weigh enough to bring the shelves down. He could tell by the set of Gunn's expression that it wouldn't faze the other man, so instead he simply said, "Fine. Hand me that one."

Which, for some reason, despite being what Gunn wanted -- that he not fetch the book, himself -- didn't work. "Let's go grab some marble sets. You can look at the books when you're old enough to read."

As if it *mattered* that suddenly he was supposed to act like the child he appeared? Wesley didn't understand, and didn't *care*. "No, I want to look at that book."

It was, as a matter of fact, a picture book, in its own way, and not one that a four-year-old would be completely out of place in looking at. He frowned up at Gunn. Who frowned back at him for a moment, then threw up his hands. "Fine. You wanna look at the books, look at the books. Let 'em think you're some kinda kid genius. *I'll" be over looking at the marbles, with the rest of the four year olds." He walked back over to the toys, though Wesley could see that Gunn was still keeping one eye on him.

Wesley rolled his own eyes, and stepped back up to grab the book. He got a good grip on the spine, and was lifting it over the lip of the shelf, when his smaller-than-usual fingers slipped on the slick jacket. He caught the paper covering, but the book itself slid straight through the unfastened jacket, and landed smack on Wesley's head, with what sounded like a rather loud bonk, to his biased ears. To add insult to injury, the paper cover ripped along the spine, as the book slid out.

Wesley rubbed his forehead, and blinked back tears that were *completely* justified by the smarting pain in his head, but might be misinterpreted by outside observers as childish pique. He carefully placed the book back in its jacket, examined the tear for a moment, then, with a sigh, carried it over to Gunn.

"If you say a *word*," he began. Gunn simply held out his hand for the book, putting down the marble set he'd been holding. Wesley frowned at the marble set. "Surely you have enough to get both?"

"Be a squeeze to get all of it. I didn't steal Angel's credit card, just his cash."

"Oh." Wesley looked at the book, which he didn't have any choice about buying now, then at the marble sets that had so captured Gunn's interest. Then he blinked at the dinosaur robots -- which Gunn had apparently gotten off the shelf *again*. He pointed at them. "Put those back, then, and get your marble sets."

"It's okay, Wes. We can come back, right? I'll get the marble tracks then." Gunn sounded like he really didn't care. Which, of course, made Wesley feel worse, because he knew better -- and while the robots were interesting, Wesley really *didn't* care about buying them. He'd *told* Gunn that, but Gunn had chosen to believe -- what, that Wesley was covering up his desire to play, so he wouldn't have to admit to being childish? Did everything have to revolve around that? Couldn't *something* just be about him having a preference, like wanting a book instead of a toy?

Even if he didn't necessarily want *this* book. Wesley sighed, not wanting to get into it. "No, we don't need to get the robots. You said you wanted to set the marble races up in the lobby." He took the dinosaurs, intending to carry them back to the display and set them back up. One slipped out of his arms, and he bit off a word not even thirty-two-year-olds were supposed to know.

He bent to pick it up, and the first box slid out of his arms. In a fit of pique, he kicked the box. Then he *did* mutter a word he shouldn't have known, but at least it wasn't in English. He crouched down, picked up one box, and carried it carefully over to the display. When he came back for the next one, Gunn was holding it. "How about we get two of the marble sets and one dino? And the book."

"And you'll put what in the fuel tank of the truck on the way back? Water? Come on, just give me the model. We can get *it* later, if you insist."

Gunn shook his head. "Don't worry about it, Wes. I've got enough." Which meant he was going to dig into his *own* pocket for it, instead of using the 'let's amuse ourselves with mini-Wesley' fund. Wes narrowed his eyes and reached for the dinosaur box. Gunn held it out of his reach.

"Charles, stop it."

"Look, it isn't like they're gonna sell out of these things by the weekend."

Wesley put his hands on his hips. "Which means we can very well get the robots later, and get the sets which you want, now. I don't *care* about the stupid robots and I'm sorry I ripped the fucking book and will you *please* just get the--"

He cut off, as Gunn was kneeling down in front of him, looking worried. "Wes? Come on, let's put them both back and buy the book and go home."

Fighting back the urge to tell Gunn to get the marble sets anyway, Wesley nodded. He reached for the dinosaur robot Gunn was holding, but Gunn placed it on the shelf, himself, then wrapped an arm around Wesley, and hugged him. Wesley felt himself sniffle, and whispered, "I'm sorry."

"Missed his nap, huh?" a woman's voice said.

Wesley frowned. He was saved from answering by Gunn standing up and facing the woman -- thereby facing Wesley *away* from her, as he was resting against Gunn's shoulder. "Um, yeah. We've had kind of a busy day, today," Gunn was saying, a little awkwardly.

"I don't need a nap," Wesley said quietly. Only to Gunn, since it wasn't any of *her* business.

"That's what they all say, kiddo," she said, not unkindly. Wesley stuck his tongue out at her anyway, though of course she couldn't see it. All he ended up doing was getting a tongueful of fuzz from Gunn's sweatshirt. He wiped it off quickly with his hand, making a face.

Gunn nodded, and carried Wesley up to the counter, where he let Wesley down for a moment, while he paid for the book. Wesley looked back at the woman, who was pushing her own child, a two or three year old, in a stroller. She waved at him, and he resisted the urge to stick his tongue out at her again. He did *not* need a nap. Even if, right now, the pillow that the little girl was leaning her head against looked awfully comfortable.

Instead he wrapped his arm around Gunn's leg, and leaned his head against *that*. Not exactly restful, but he wasn't tired. Just...well, he wouldn't say 'no' to them leaving, and maybe finding a quiet spot to sit for awhile. Maybe they could look at the book he'd forced them to buy.

Then Gunn was picking him up again. "I can walk," he reiterated, not sure it would do any good. Not sure he liked the fact that he sounded as if he were whining.

"I know." Gunn settled Wesley on his hip, and wrapped the handles of the bag around his other wrist. "Let's go home," he said again, and this time Wesley just nodded. He let his head fall onto Gunn's shoulder, again, not caring that the woman was still staring at him. He closed his eyes so he wouldn't have to see it.

And opened them, an entire nap later, to find himself being carried into the hotel lobby.

Cordelia was giving him a look he'd come to know all too well in the last few days. He scowled at her.

"Don't scowl, you'll ruin the shot," she told him.

"You're taking photographs *again*?" he snapped, suddenly feeling extremely irritated. He pushed against Gunn's chest, so he could be let down and be able to go over and... Well, he'd promised to stop kicking people, but he was about to make an exception. He'd start with a video-camera-wielding vampire who healed fast.

Except he wasn't being let down. He squirmed a bit, to no avail. Cordelia gave Gunn a quizzical look, which Wesley caught, thank you very much. He hadn't suddenly become blind, as well as short. Although he *was* still blinking at her, trying to make things come into focus. He felt rather as if he'd been woken up at three thirty in the morning, and he was still stumbling around the flat trying to find his socks.

Whatever expression Gunn sent her in return which Wesley couldn't see, it got the aww-isn't-he-cute look off Cordelia's face, and made Angel put down the camera. "So, did you guys have fun?" Cordelia asked. Which was a perfectly reasonable question, so Wesley bit off the reply he was about to snap at her, and blinked some more, allowing Gunn to answer.

"Oh yeah-- that place is a blast. They have this water clock in the lobby, that goes through all these different tubes and scale things, so you can see just when it's gonna hit the hour and go off. And the robot dinos are awesome."

"Which got us yelled at," Wesley added, still feeling as if he'd rather be still asleep. Except he wasn't tired, hadn't been tired, so how had he slept the entire drive home?

"Yelled at?" Angel asked.

"We got eaten by a Tyrannosaurus Rex," Wesley explained, knowing full well it wasn't an explanation. But it was better than yelling at them to leave him alone. He looked back over at Gunn.

"You wanna go upstairs and read?" Gunn held up the bag, but made his question sound like they'd actually chosen to buy it, rather than otherwise. Wesley nodded. Gunn said to the others, "Don't hold dinner for us -- we're gonna order pizza later."

"We are?" Wesley was feeling a bit more awake, now. As well as hungry.

"Maybe more 'sooner' than later," Gunn amended. "Didn't you say something about anchovies and green peppers?"

Wesley blinked. "I said they were the two most disgusting pizza toppings on the planet."

"Oh, and here I thought you liked 'em." Gunn was heading for the stairs, still carrying Wesley - but he no longer minded so much. He did glance back over Gunn's shoulder at Angel and Cordelia, and saw that the camera was still safely aimed at the floor. He stuck his tongue out at Angel, quickly.

The moment they got in the door to their room, Gunn reached for the telephone. "You can put me down, you know," Wesley informed him.

"Well, yeah, I could, but why start now?" Gunn proceeded to order pizza, while still holding Wesley, who simply rolled his eyes, and corrected him loudly when he tried to order one with extra green peppers and anchovies. "You sure?" Gunn asked, with a patently false expression of confusion on his face. Wesley pinched his ear as he confirmed that yes, he was bloody well sure. "Okay, I guess he's sure." Wesley was close enough to the phone that he could hear the cashier's laughter.

Gunn was grinning, by the time they'd hung up, and Wesley looked sternly at him. "You know you probably confused the hell out of that poor woman," he said as Gunn carried him over to the chair. "We're likely to get three small pepper and anchovy pizzas with an order of calimari on the side."

"I don't think Pizza Hut has... what was that?"

"Deep fried squid. I was trying to think of something more disgusting than anchovies."

Gunn made a face. "Congratulations. You did." He settled Wesley on his lap, and slid the book out of the museum store bag. "Dinosaurs and Dragons, huh? You *sure* this book isn't too advanced for your reading group level?"

With an absolutely straight face, Wesley replied, "Hooked on Phonics worked for me. Would you care to open it?"

"Just a second. I'm looking at the cover."

Wesley was trying to *avoid* looking at the cover, and the large rip down the spine, but he sighed, and waited, while Gunn studied the colorful painting of a Pterodactyl swooping down on a large and anatomically incorrect Wyvvern. Finally, Wesley reached out a finger, and traced the rough edges of the tear.

"Didn't you want the book anyway?" Gunn asked quietly, still staring at the drawings.

"I didn't have a chance to find out." Wesley knew what Gunn was after - it was a book, how could he be too upset about owning it? Unless it was utter trash, but DK didn't tend to publish trash.

"It's just a rip in the dust cover, Wes. You woulda bought it if you'd been yourself, six feet tall and too big for his britches, and tore the cover."

Wesley shook his head, though not because Gunn was wrong.

"You wouldn't have left it on the shelf," Gunn began, with a hint of Cordelia-esque scolding in his voice.

"No, it isn't that. I just...don't like being reminded what a clumsy child I was. Am."

Gunn squeezed his shoulders for a second, then said, "You are *not* clumsy. Any more than any four-year-old kid is. You ever *looked* at a four year old?"

Wesley shrugged. "In passing. And the others, of course. Rupert didn't seem to have any trouble operating *his* body."

"In the what, two hours you actually spent with him? Mostly with him sittin' on your lap? Wes, kids fall and they pull things down on top of them, and they get bumped on the head, and it happens every day. Their heads are too big for their bodies, they all think they're taller than they really are, and they got more energy than something your size can hold. My sister..." His voice got quiet for a moment, then he gave a soft laugh, and continued in a normal tone. "She used to be climbing on things all the time, when she was little. No matter how often me or somebody else yelled at her to get down 'cause she'd fall on her head, you'd turn around and two minutes later there she was, halfway up a fence, or a fire escape. And sure enough, she fell, most of the time. On her butt, more than her head, lucky for her. And us."

In this case, Wesley wasn't about to make his habitual protest about him not being whichever child or adult-child he'd just been compared to, so he sat silently for a second or two. "I seemed to be breaking things all the time," he finally said. "Oh, not myself. But things. Expensive things. It wasn't as if I *meant* to be clumsy. Just the opposite; I remember trying to walk as slowly and carefully as I could. But I still broke things." He looked at the book cover again, and frowned.

Gunn closed the book and set it down on his lap, and reached forward to take Wesley's chin. After a token protest, Wesley let him turn his head so he was looking up at his lover. Gunn's expression was sad, and determined, and he said, "Wes, I don't care what you break 'cause I don't own nothing that's worth too much. Talk to Angel before you try breakin' the chandelier."

Wesley blinked. Stared at Gunn for a moment, waiting for him to smile or laugh or say 'gotcha!'. He didn't.

What he did do, after another moment passed, was say, "Breaking things is what kids *do*. It ain't your fault they didn't understand that."

"But I tried not to," he repeated, not sure Gunn understood what he was saying.

But perhaps he did. Gunn pulled him close, and held him, and said, "But you couldn't help it -- like you couldn't help being small, or couldn't help using five syllable words when you were eight, and like you can't help it now that you whistle in the mornings after you've been fucked through the mattress the night before."

Another blink. Then, "What did I tell you about saying such things in front of a four year old?"

"You said 'better jerk off in the shower, because I ain't growing up for another three weeks."

Wesley shook his head. "I don't think I said that. It wouldn't be proper." At Gunn's raised eyebrow, Wesley twitched his lip. "What with the 'ain't' and all." He ignored the chuckling, and snuggled in a bit closer. Then he looked again at the book cover. It really was an interesting subject, and yes, he probably would have bought it on his own, but... "I *am* sorry. That I was such a...a prick, earlier."

Gunn laughed. "Now who's with the inappropriate vocab, huh?" He opened the book again, and turned the pages, stopping on a picture of a Stegosaurus. "You gonna freak out if I say I think it wasn't you?"

Wesley peered up at him. "As in, you think I'm the victim of a routine possession, demonic subclass 17A, stroke 12, paragraph 32?"

"You made that up-- it sounds too much like something outta the Real Ghostbusters. No, I think it wasn't you, as in, it *was* you, but not your fault. Just you bein' worn out. Because your body's four, and you'd been out all day, which you hadn't yet before, and maybe..."

"You think I'm starting to regress."

Gunn turned a page, and nodded. "Could be. The timing's about right, ain't it?"

"I--" Wesley frowned. Wasn't this what he'd wanted? To reach the point where he wouldn't mind looking silly, or being small, or... all those things he still seemed to be worried about, today. But now he wondered. To be under the control of his body, his hormones and enzymes all telling him to run about and do things he normally wouldn't think of doing-- wasn't it a sort of possession?

When he was truly emotionally regressed, the way he had seen Rupert, Buffy, Xander, and Spike acting, he obviously wouldn't *care* about that. It was just this transition period that was...uncomfortable. He was starting to act like a child despite his best intentions, but was able to notice it. Worry about it.

"Hey-- maybe you are possessed. By Angel. Were you gonna quit brooding and read to me anytime soon?" Gunn asked.

Wesley jerked his head up, then found a smile, somewhere. "I thought you were going to read to *me*?" he protested. "This is above my reading group level, remember?"

"Uh-huh." Gunn gave him a look, then just pulled the book towards them again, and opened it. Wesley halted him long enough to get comfortable, wriggling a bit and trying to get his elbows in just the right place -- so he could let Gunn know if he were reading too fast. Or too slowly. "You do remember I know where you're ticklish, right?" Gunn asked.

"You do remember I can tell Cordelia you've been mean to me," he responded.

"Like she would *blame* me?" But Gunn flipped past the title page, and began reading aloud.

It was nice, Wesley reflected, as he laid his head back and listened to Gunn reading. The sound of his lover's voice stumbling over the Latin names of dinosaurs, the anticipation of greasy, hot pizza, and the not-completely-recovered feeling of tiredness since he'd woken from his nap, after a long, full day of nothing but fun. It had been a very long time since he'd felt this good.

It would have been nice, as well, if they'd been rocking. He'd fall asleep within minutes, however, so perhaps it would be best if he didn't ask. As he watched Gunn turn another page, his four-year-old head resting against Gunn's chest, he decided it was just as well they weren't. But it'd have been nice. "Eustreptospondylus," he corrected, absently. Gunn repeated the word, and continued reading.


chapter twelve

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Oh, yeah."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Of running shoes?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spike laughed. "Who said I loved you?"

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

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

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

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

"Fat chance," Spike mouthed at her.

"I want Batman shoes," Xander added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You should try them on," Tara said.

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

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

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

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

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

"You think the ice cream was too much?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"What the *bloody* hell is going on, here?" she heard a familiarly accented voice barking.

Willow was grabbed suddenly, and she found Xander behind her, on his knees with his arms wrapped around her. Spike had done the same with Tara, only he'd been able to get her out of the woman's grip.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The statue?" he whispered back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It didn't look as though they were going to learn anything more from her, and the longer they stayed the more chance there was of the police arriving in time to make things harder. Willow wriggled her fingers and chanted a spell, and the woman, store manager, security guard and clerk, all froze. After a moment's concentration and a muttered acknowledgement of the fact that yes, she owed a minor goddess of theft a major favor, a security camera tape appeared in her hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Xander glared at Spike. "Pixie dust."

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

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

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

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

"In the back seat?"

"With a blanket over your head."

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


chapter thirteen

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

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

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

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

"What did you say?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"You did so!" Xander began.

"Children! Please!"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Biker Mice," Tara said.

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

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

"What's she saying?" Xander asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Like who?"

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

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

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

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

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

"That could take days!" Cordelia protested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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