Lorne managed not to roll his eyes. "Well, I'll just sleep so much easier now." He sighed, seeing his impending shower recede ever further into the future. "I've been tossing and turning forever, wondering exactly where..."
Both Wes and Angel glared at him. Two for the price of one, he thought. They were following a trail of frogs to find some PMS demon, when they had a whole city full in LA. Why did it have to be just the one demon? The two of them together were obviously having difficulties, and he quite frankly thought they were asking for more by insisting on specific demons. Hell, they'd managed to find him, hadn't they? Why couldn't they just call it a day already? "So what's the allure of this joint?"
"Ah... Books. Games. A mall with lots of geek-type stores." Wes said, making a tight turn around a batch of frogs that had wandered into the road in front of the Radio Shack. Safely past them, he stopped, put on the four-way flashers, and jumped out. While Angel stared and Lorne gaped, he stepped out into the lights of the high beams and shooed the frogs to safety. Somewhat abashed, but refusing to be defensive, he slid back into the seat, gunned the engine, and pulled into the parking lot to look for a spot. Lorne pitied the hapless 9-11 operator fielding the phone banks just about then. "Uh, yes, sir, but what sort of dumbass was it that rescued all the frogs? A wussy dumbass? I'm sorry, sir, but could you give a description? Did you get a description on the frogs?"
"So." He said crisply. "Why did we volunteer to help?"
"Well." Wesley said. "We've already found you, and I've never met a vengeance demon, so I thought it would be educational..."
"Yes, Lorne, everything is not about entertainment, I'll have you know."
"I'd like to reiterate my question about puberty, there, bucko. "
"You want education? Hah!" Lorne said as they pulled up in front of the store. He looked out of the window suspiciously. Lots of empty spaces, and in the prized first row nearest the stores, too. Then he heard a 'ribbit.' Down on the sidewalk, a tiny green frog looked up at him, and cheeped again. "Damn." It was sort of cute, now that he thought about it. He glanced around warily, in case somebody could see him looking at the lonely little creature.
Wes got out of the car and looked around slowly, automatically weaving through the frogs at his ankles. "Lots of spaces." He walked out a bit and peered out into the lot. "Lots of rubber, too."
Lorne froze at that statement. "Huh?"
"Yeah," Angel said. "Somebody decided to leave really fast."
He and Wes exchanged glances. "Several somebodies." With that, they headed decisively toward the mall entrance, every bit the Action Heroes, but they only got about four steps before they had to modify their Masters of the Universe strut into a Afraid of Squishiness mince. Lorne composed himself, glancing longingly at the cute little frog on the sidewalk.
Well, Wes needs a girlfriend. He thought. I need a pet.
"Hah!" Buffy said triumphantly. "Willow said the biggest geek hangout is the B&N at that nasty new strip mall. Take a left up here."
Spike smiled to himself as he wheeled the car around. "So..the losers in town hang out at a law firm or something?"
"Barnes and Noble." Buffy corrected. "Lots of well, geeky, stuff."
"Which, of course, you wouldn't know anything about."
"Oh, of course."
She gave him a sideways glance. "Okay, spit it out."
"Never been a geek yourself, then, is what you're saying?"
"Nope." Buffy shook her head with the confidence of the fashionable and the I-Just-Told-The–Ex-Off. Nothing could destroy her mood.
"It's just that..."
"Spit it out."
Good thing she doesn't have super vamp vision, he thought. She sees this look on my face, it's all over. During the summer that would not end, Dawn had developed a terrible urge to go over memories she didn't, technically, have. Therefore, Spike had been treated to the pigtail phase, the big hair phase, and the scary Stepford Junior High experiment. At the time, of course, it had been awful, seeing a Buffy he'd never known, but now, of course, listening to her blithely deny the existence of Pippi Longstocking hair, it was all he could do not to burst out laughing.
"Nothing, love, nothing."
The something was a purloined photo of Buffy, grinning in a wide, carefree way that he'd seldom seen her do since. She had her hair done up in braids, boasted huge braces on what seemed to be thousands of teeth, and looked so utterly adorable he'd had to ration glances at the photo. This was the Buffy he'd never known, and during all that long summer, he'd dreamed that that Buffy was alive, somewhere, blissfully unaware of vampires and demons and evil. For some reason, it had been perversely comforting, as if he had been preserving something for her that had been utterly impossible.
Now, of course, although he was still fond of the picture, it served almost as a talisman. This Buffy would have a chance at that sort of life, now. This Buffy was his Buffy, and she was alive and well. Of course, she also had a secret past composed of Dorothy Hamill obsessions and Ice Capades fixations but that was no longer a matter of nostalgia, but of carefully-plotted blackmail.
"Oh, sure." She stared out the window, replaying the conversation with Angel in her head. How come I spend so much of my time telling people to stop doing stuff for my own damned good? Whenever they said they were thinking about you, that was a sign that they weren't. She snapped back to reality guiltily. "What?"
"Geeks aren't so bad." He said firmly.
"Because you used to be one."
"That I did, pet."
"How bad could you have been?"
He snorted at her, pulling out the lapel of his coat and displaying it to her. "Look at this. This is a bloody one eighty away from where I was."
She was silent for a moment, the immortal sign of Incoming Question of Death. "And Cecily?"
"You know how geeks are, right, pet?" To his surprise, he could actually hear the bitterness in his own voice. "Always want the one thing they can't have."
"What was she like?" Buffy asked, then hesitated. For his part, he was somewhat surprised to find her at his shoulder, not because of the closeness, but because of the speed with which she'd moved. And then it occurred to him what a luxury it was not to be surprised at the way her chin fit on his shoulder, or even at the fact it was there at all.
"I know what it can be like," she continued cautiously. "And you said you were awfully geeky. And... Cecily wasn't."
"One day, I'll get drunk enough to dig out the pictures." Spike said dryly. He drove on silently, no sound but the breeze through the windows, and the creak of leather as Buffy nudged closer.
"Aren't there always?"
"I wouldn't know." Buffy said archly.
"Wouldn't you then?"
She looked at him for a moment, mystified, then scowled. "Don't look at me, Mr. Buffybot. That was you."
"Right, then, Miss-I've-No-Idea-Where-That-Lighter's-Gone-To."
"Accident. Plus I was pissed off at you."
"Was that what that was?" He tipped a glance in her direction he knew he couldn't get away with in stronger light. He looked at her and saw her the first night, or the second, or the third...
She stared at him in the dark, then slapped him lightly in a very girly way. "That was different."
"Oh, yeah? Why then?"
"Well, you may be the Big Bad in a lot of ways..."
"...Really? Do tell...."
"But when it comes to breaking the news in front of my friends, you are kind of ... impaired. Come stomping into the house in broad daylight, all... 'I've lost my lighter.' Slow."
"I thought...." Spike leaned closer to her ear, never taking his eyes off the road. "Funny, I thought you liked that."
She smiled off into the distance, then found her inner Buffy. "So what about Cecily?"
"What about her?"
"Well.... What was she like?"
"Actually, she's more tolerable as a demon." He said thoughtfully. "Couldn't bloody understand her as a human at all. I thought she was mysterious. Maybe it was constipation."
"That's awfully mean."
"Is it mean to be accurate?"
"Depends. So how come you loved her?"
"Because I was a twit?" Spike shrugged. "What did I know about women? Me mum, and the others..."
"The others?" Buffy perked right up.
"Me.... my sisters, my brother." Spike added slowly. "Much older than me, you know. All married and gone by the time I was your age."
"How old were you?"
Spike actually glanced at her as if he could find this piece of information on her face, honestly bewildered. How long had it been since he'd pulled out these memories? Not since Dru, easily. Only since Buffy had he tried to find his memories of his humanity. "In my twenties. Much younger at that age than somebody today would be. Odd it was. We died so much younger, then, but we were so much younger too. No," he corrected himself. "Not younger. Innocent." He savored the word on his tongue as if it were some exotic flavor he was trying to place. "God, I was so innocent. Worse than Dawn."
"Did you steal stuff, too?" Buffy couldn't help herself, and Spike gave her one of those laughs that the Scooby Gang never heard. "I mean..."
Spike waved her off, amused. "Just wait, pet, just wait. I won't tell Dawn you said that."
"Oh, I don't know yet." He said airily. "I'll think of something."
"So... You. Portrait of the Vampire as a Young Geek. How bad was it?"
"Awful." Spike sighed in earnest, not exactly wanting to tear open this particular wound at this particular time. "Just didn't feel like a man, amongst that lot. And Cecily... I thought she was mysterious, I really did. Thought she saw something in me I could barely see myself. That's what I really wanted, you know? Wanted people to see what I wanted to be, not what I was. Nobody did."
"And you thought Cecily did?"
"What about me?"
Spike hesitated, all the sounds around him fading into a silent roar. "What about you?"
She dropped her eyes then, picking at non-existent lint on his shirt. "I do, you know."
"Yes." She raised her eyes, looking up at him gravely. "Know what else?"
"That was our turn back there."
"Well, that was a bust," Xander sighed.
Anya tossed a Cheez Doodle in her mouth and chomped. "Except for the part where you ran in there and shouted, "Where are the frogs? Get out while you still can! I enjoyed that."
Xander climbed into the car with the weariness of a much older man. "I didn't think it was funny."
"Oh, but, it was! Especially when the man in the strange uniform pointed that thing at—"
"It was a tricorder."
"Yes, a tricorder. It was very funny. "Anya sighed happily. "Hallie's always been so good at things like this."
"'Things like this?'" Xander said. He turned the ignition and tossed his hard hat in the back seat, checking the review mirror for amphibians. "What do you mean, 'Things like this?'"
"Well, this." Anya said. "Obviously, she's mad, but she's not doing actual harm or anything. It's temporary."
"How come you're so sure about that?"
"Like I said, it's temporary. I mean, remember what I told you about us vengeance demons not being allowed to use our powers for ourselves? Even if she's found a way around it, it's got to be some jerry-rigged thing that will fall apart as soon as she stopped being pissed."
"How can you be so sure?"
"Well, there's only one way otherwise," Anya said thoughtfully. "And that would never happen."
"What's that way?"
"Well, D'Hoffryn could grant one of us a wish, but he'd never do that."
"What makes you say that?" Xander stopped at the light, and looked around. Almost no traffic -- in their direction. Coming from the new strip mall, however, traffic was heavy.
"Oh, I know he never would." Anya said again. " I mean, I asked him for it once and he refused me, and I was always his favorite. For a thousand years, too. He always liked me best."
"This is like that dream where I'm at the club, and I'm in my underwear." Lorne said queasily. He tiptoed over to a pillar and leaned against it, mopping his brow with a hankie, while Angel and Wes rolled their eyes. "Except worse."
"How could that be worse?" Angel demanded.
"Underoos?" Lorne specified, and the vampire winced.
"How could this be worse?" Angel nodded at all the frogs, who seemed to recognize helpful-minded humans in some scary movie of the week kind of way and were hopping single-mindedly en masse in their direction. It was startling, to say the least.
"They're frogs." Lorne whispered. "At least temporarily, they are. They're kind of helpless. I know the feeling."
Wes shook his foot gently to dislodge and frog climbing on it, and shot a glance at Lorne. "It's okay, Lorne, they'll be okay soon."
"Yeah, but I've met the babe who did this to them. I'm not sure."
They tiptoed forward, and Lorne shook his head at the image they must present to both prospective opponents and clients. While Angel and himself certainly looked ominous, the effect was somewhat spoiled by the fact that he hadn't showered in a day, and felt bad about it, aned Angel actually looked quite dead. Wes, well, Wes was a great guy with the books and the language and the research, but he just didn't strike terror in the heart of anyone... who actually had a heart. Maybe it's the glasses, Lorne thought. Maybe it's time for a makeover. Then he glanced down again. Maybe we just fix all the frogs so we can stop tippytoing through them like Tiny Tim and his ukulele.
They got closer and closer to the big store at the heart of the stripmall, and it became apparent that Wes had been right; occasionally, people ran past, but mostly they were wending their way through frogs, with the occasional snake for good measure. Wes wondered privately at those. Was that some feature of the spell? Or was it some feature of the victim? Visions of research danced through his head, and he mentally made a list of his references, stopping only when Lorne saw his eyes glaze over with book-lust, and poked him sharply. "Knock it off," he hissed.
"You knock it off," Lorne said. "We need you here in reality, not La La land."
"I'm here, I'm ready, I'm -- "
They had reached the entrance to the huge store, and from within came a huge roll of smoke that boomed out over them and made all three duck. "...ready." Wes said faintly.
They slipped inside, past New Releases, past Staff Recommendations, (Wesley snorting at a copy of something that offended him) past Travel, past Foreign Language, where he lingered at the dictionaries for just a moment, till Lorne grabbed his collar and yanked. They reached Literature and Fiction, just around the corner from Games and Media, and all three cowered behind Poetry for a moment, while frogs hopped past briskly.
"Well, that's all of them here,"came a female voice.
"Yes, I guess so. How disappointing." There was a pause. "Still don't remember precisely what they looked like?"
"Just... geeks." The female voice said again, sounding regretful. "They're all the same."
"Well, then, we're done here."
"Oh, bugger," Wes breathed feverishly. He took a deep breath, visibly puffed himself up, and stepped out from his hiding space. Both Lorne and Angel cringed tighter against the books.
"Oh, look," Hallie said. "Another one." She looked significantly at the demon next to her, and D'Hoffryn sighed and started to search the pockets in his robe.
"I thought you were done." He complained. "I put it away."
"I just like to be thorough." Hallie explained.
"I completely understand." Wes said politely.
"Oh, you're English? Where from?"
"A long time ago." Hallie said coquettishly. She reached up and patted a stray hair into place.
"Certainly not that long ago." Wes blurted out. D'Hoffryn snorted at this and glanced up skeptically as he turned a pocket or two inside out. Balls of lint drifted to the floor.
Hallie shook her head at D'Hoffryn and realized it was her turn. "I really should have known, just by the manners alone, that you weren't from here. Americans are so rude."
"Almost as bad as the Irish." Wes agreed. "So, would it be rude of me to enquire as to..?"
"Oh, this?" Hallie's little hand wave, no less flirtatious than her earlier hair primping, encompassed an eerily deserted store and a sea of frogs. "Well, I'd like you to know I was extremely provoked."
"Really? Sometimes, it can be helpful to discuss it."
"Oh, well, what's the harm?" Hallie glanced at D'Hoffyn again. He was patting himself distractedly, looking for pockets he'd forgotten about. "I was kidnapped."
"Really?" Wes was genuinely startled. Granted, she was in human face now, but he couldn't imagine..."That's awful." He stepped forward, so as to be able to lower his voice. "Were you hurt?"
"Not physically." Hallie sighed, packing a lot of just-because-I'm-a-demon-did-I-manage-to-get-away into those five syllables. "But it was terrible."
"And because of the shock, you can't identify them."
"And who'd listen to a demon?" Hallie added. "Nobody believes us. You know what I heard someone say?"
"What was that?"
"Demons ask for it." She shook her head mournfully. "It's just terrible." Next to her, D'Hoffryn jerked suddenly, and yanked a slender dowel of wood out of his pocket. Wes' mouth dropped open.
"A... wand? You're using a wand?"
D'Hoffryn shrugged, refusing to be embarrassed. "I like the way it looks. I've read all the Harry Potter books. I always wanted to be a wizard. Oh, well." He looked at Hallie. "This one, too?"
"Sorry." Hallie said. "But I can't make exceptions."
"Well..." Wes hesitated.
"It's just that... do I really look like a geek?"
Hallie looked him up and down. "Well, not as much as the others, but, you know, it just wouldn't be fair. You know how it is."
"Certainly. It's just that, well, really, shouldn't you..?"
"What? Shouldn't I what?"
"Well, I'm not denying I might have once been a geek, but shouldn't you be more scientific? Perhaps develop a questionnaire?"
Hallie looked startled. "You know, that's an awfully good idea. Now why didn't I think of that?"
"Shock, probably." Wes said quietly. "I understand. I've been abducted myself."
"Really? How bad was it?"
"I was tortured." Wes aid truthfully.
"Oh, dear. Hm." Hallie turned thoughtfully away and contemplated the shelves of books next to her. "So a questionnaire? I like that idea." She took a deep breath. "What was the significance of the Federal Fair Credit Act?"
"I beg your pardon?" Wes gulped.
"The Federal Fair Credit Act. What, for example, was its significance for women?"
"I'm sorry, I'm a bit..."
Hallie sighed regretfully, and Wes stepped forward, holding up both palms placatingly. "No, I just wanted..."
"Sorry, I have to be fair." Hallie stepped aside, and D'Hoffryn raised the wand.
"No, I just wanted to ask one question!" Wes blurted out.
"And that would be?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Which one?" Wes whispered. "The British or the American?"
Continued in Chapter 39