"Dawn?" Willow asked tentatively.
"Janice is still in the bathroom?" Dawn plotted strategy. Damn. Be careful what you wish for, indeed. How long had she wished for this?
"Oh, it's just funny, you know, pulling one over on Buffy, but it looks like she got the better thing."
Dawn flopped down on the couch. "I just can't win. I get to have Janice over, but there's demons and stuff."
"Maybe they're...." Tara thought frantically for a moment. "Maybe they're gooey demons. With mucus. No fun at all."
"Maybe." Dawn said softly. Willow flopped down on the couch next to her.
"Gooey demons are not fun, Dawn." She said seriously. "Not even dry-cleaning helps. But, you know, maybe we could sort of study up on demons."
Tara eyed her over Dawn's bowed head, not quite sure what she was up to.
"Why? What's the point?"
"Well, Buffy, uh, had to read about lots of demons and stuff so she could, ah.... fight them. So maybe if you read a lot, not only can you avoid the messy ones, you could, ah..." She tiptoed to the border of the cliff of Not-My-Business, and peered over its edge. "And, ah..." Tara shook her head frantically at her over Dawn's head. "You can't do anything unless you know what you're dealing with. Like magic!" She said suddenly, as a thought struck her. "See, I had to study years before I could do magic. So, if you start now..."
"But you can't do magic now." Dawn pointed out.
"Yes, but that's because I didn't study enough." Willow countered. "I rushed into a ...lot of stuff.... that I shouldn't have. See? I just didn't study enough."
"Yeah, really?" Tara asked skeptically.
Willow glanced from one to the other, all dewy innocence. "Of course. There's just nothing you can't fix by studying."
"Oh, look, parking spot."
"Yeah, an asphalt oasis in a sea of frogs." Spike said dryly, but he pulled into one right in the front row. Even after a hundred-odd years as a vampire, several wars, all the continents, getting a front-row parking spot still counted up there as a major victory.
Buffy was mildly startled to find him abruptly at her door, opening it for her with don't-you-dare-say-anything-bravado. Vampire speed, with that added Spike touch. Every now and then he did that, reminding her that he was still a vampire. She cocked her head at him as she climbed out. The sidewalk was full of frogs, but the parking lot wasn't, which made her wonder uncomfortably how much of their personalities they still had. "Look." She pointed out. "They're avoiding the parking lot."
Spike squinted. "Well, most of them are. Don't suppose that -- " he gestured at a spot that Buffy, thankfully, couldn't see. "Don't suppose that could be Warren, could it?"
Buffy sighed wistfully. "I don't think we're that lucky."
Spike shrugged. "Survival of the fittest, then."
They maneuvered their way into the mall, sidling past frogs that blocked their way in huge groups. Buffy wondered how many former classmates were among them, and she almost took off her shoes for a minute, so she wouldn't hurt any of them. They seemed to be avoiding the parking lot, which meant that they must understand the concept of frogs + cars = inadvertently amusing obituary. "How much do you think they understand?"
"Smart enough to stay away from cars." Spike considered. "Smarter than Angel with a hangover, I'd guess."
"I'm not doing anything at all." He glanced at her sideways. "So?"
"So? What do you think, so? Why did he come here? I don't even know."
Men! Buffy thought. Always jealous.
Women! Spike thought. Millions of women out there who'll jabber on till you want to stuff a sock in their yap, but no, I've got to fall in love with a Slayer, no less, who had problems with...
Buffy really tried to be angry, something that would have been easier several days ago, but she was mentally shaking her head at Spike instead. It was far more entertaining. He was jealous of Angel? She stopped, looking down at her sandals, and the frogs who hopped closer, as if hoping to attract her attention. It was oddly... touching. She was certain there was still some capacity for reasoning there somewhere, otherwise, why would they be avoiding the cars, and crowding around her?
"Yeah?" His voice was rather muffled, as he made quite a show of turning his back on her to nudge frogs aside with his boot.
"Angel and I talked. He thinks it's a bad idea, you and me."
You and me, Spike thought. You and me in the same sentence with an and.
"And I told him that it was none of his business anymore."
He blinked at her. "Just like that?"
"Well, there was more, too." She glanced down, at the frogs now gathering around her feet. "But we can talk about it later. You know, in detail."
"Yeah, you know, old boyfriend gossip. Always fun."
Spike just stared at her, mouth open, till Buffy finally reached out, grabbed both lapels, and jerked him toward her. Miraculously, the frogs hopped frantically away just in time to avoid being squashed, and when she kissed him, it was in a frog-free zone. "Just cope, okay? Would you relax?"
He shook his head at her, some of his old swagger returning, and managed a smirk. "Not around you, luv. Never around you."
"Well, up until the passage of that particular bill, an Englishman could legally marry a woman, strip her of all her property, sell it -- and her -- and then leave her with nothing. Her relatives could write wills, but women who were alone were essentially helpless, because what was to prevent unscrupulous people from..."
D'Hoffryn, sitting in one of the easy chairs with his face propped up on one hand, sighed loudly, and Hallie glared at him. "Yes?"
"Uh." He straightened up in his chair. "It was ah, the radishes, for lunch." He beckoned, almost regally, at Wesley. "Go right ahead." Hallie turned eagerly back to the conversation.
"And the American?"
"Well, did you know, that up until the Seventies here in the States, it was very similar? I admit, I'm not as up to date on the American situation as I am on the British..."
"Oh, of course." Hallie murmured.
A snort came from somewhere in the region of the Harry Potter section, where D'Hoffryn had stealthily migrated was now pretending to be bored. Hands clasped behind his back, he blinked as both Hallie and Wesley eyed him impatiently. He patted his chest. "Radishes. Terrible thing, middle age."
"You're only three thousand and seventy two."
"Yes, but I have a far more active life style than my father did, and now I have arthritis."
"Well, then sit down." Hallie said. D'Hoffyn slumped back into a chair with a sigh.
"Well..." Wesley said, having lost his chain of thought. "Where was I?"
"Americans." Hallie said helpfully.
"Oh, yes...." He cleared his throat. "Would you mind if I got something to drink?"
"Oh, of course." Hallie smiled at him. "I wouldn't mind something to drink myself."
"They've a café here." Wes said thoughtfully.
"Oh, a cup of tea would be lovely."
Wes hesitated, then offered her his arm, which she took. Neither one paid any attention to D'Hoffryn, who was once again propping up his face with his palm, or to Angel, who was hiding behind one of the bookshelves, and who started quite violently when they passed by him, chatting amiably so amiably that he barely registered. They stopped talking for a moment while Angel collect himself, then detoured around him as the deserted café appeared at the end of the bookshelves. "You know, I haven't had a good cup of tea in ages," Wes said.
"Americans don't really appreciate good tea." Hallie dropped her eyes, then looked up at him. "You have to realize, it's unusual to find a man with your interests?"
"My...? Oh." Of course it is, Wes thought. She's too tactful to blurt it out. "Ah. Yes. My mother."
"Was your father...?"
Once again, he felt a curious stab of curiosity at her tact, so at odds with what he knew of her. He decided on something daring. "You, ah, aren't going to call me a mama's boy, or something similar, are you?" It was risky because it might very well backfire.
"Why would I do that? I don't think there's anything wrong with that."
"Well, not if it's my..."Ah. He reminded himself. Primary motive here was to rescue all these poor frogs, not swap secrets with the demon responsible for their being frogs. "Ah, look, I wonder if they have tea."
Hallie eyed him curiously, noting the abrupt shift. "It's the frogs, isn't it?"
"I.beg your pardon?"
"The frogs, right?"
"Oh, that." Christ, Wes thought. Now she gets to be blunt. "Ah, well..."
"Well, you know, they abducted me."
"All of them?" He asked weakly.
"Well, no." She dropped her eyes. "That was D'Hoffryn."
"Who did abduct you? Do you know?"
"I don't like your tone." Hallie said tightly.
"You almost turned me into a frog!" Wes exclaimed. "I think my tone's understandable." They glared at each other, and it was Hallie who looked away.
"They tied me up." She said quietly, studying her shoes.
"Are you?" She asked skeptically. "I mean, really?" She smiled at him wryly. "Don't think I don't know what you're doing, by the way. I just wanted to believe it for a while."
Hallie gave him a look that was almost kind. "You don't want to be a frog. Does anyone? But, still, it was sort of charming..." Wes gave an enormous twitch that, had he been able to see it, would have reminded him exactly of Spike's earlier in the kitchen. "Oh, relax." Hallie clucked at him.
Wes found himself flushing with embarrassment. Of course, he actually had been a little proud of himself for fooling her, and now oddly enough, he was ashamed of himself. Made him no better than the rest, really. Made him no better than all the guys he didn't want to be like, and actually, made him worse, because he knew what it felt like to be on the receiving end. "You're, you're, um, right, actually."
"But not about all of it. You tell me then, you've much more experience than I do, what does a man do? My father..." He swallowed. "If I don't want to be like him, other men call me a-- a-- and then -- and women say, 'how sweet.' So, seriously, would you mind explaining how I do this? Because quite frankly, I'm out of patience with the whole thing."
"Well, it seems I'm perilously poised between being a geek and being a brute, and I'd really like to know what you want."
"If you knew, would you care?"
"Of course I would!"
"You're just saying that because I'm a demon."
"Partly." Wes swallowed, then steeled himself. "But you're not a demon right now, are you?"
Hallie cocked her head at him, startled. "I think I'm both."
Wes snorted, almost exactly as D'Hoffryn had. "Sometimes, I have to think, what woman isn't?"
Spike stopped, and held up his hand. "What's that?"
"The sound of you whispering?" Buffy whispered back, which got her a raised eyebrow and a disgusted look.
They both, stopped, and listened. Laughter. A woman's laughter. The frogs around their feet actually seemed to cower. Buffy glanced wistfully at Spike, thinking, My line of work, where the sound of a woman laughing doesn't mean amusement, it means impending amphibious disaster.
They tiptoed forward cautiously, Spike reaching back and grabbing her hand. He stopped, suddenly, stiffening and straightening, and drew himself up to his full height. Then he pounced around the corner of the bookshelf. "Well!"
Angel leaned against the bookshelf and examined his fingernails. Slowly, deliberately, he looked up, steadily regarding Spike for one long moment, then Buffy. His eyes dropped to where they held hands, and Buffy deliberately tightened hers. Angel sighed. "I wish there was a way I could make you listen to me."
"Well, sign the adoption papers, because you're starting to sound more and more like my dad. At least when he was around." Buffy snapped. "But you already act like him, because you're the one always taking off. Do we have to do this all over again?"
"It's got to be settled, Buffy, because you're making a big mistake."
"No, you made a mistake." Buffy had to drop Spike's hand to plant her hands on her hips, but Spike didn't mind, because then he could flop into one of the armchairs and watch an impossible fantasy come to life in front of him: Buffy arguing with Angel. About him... Better than Man U, he thought happily, and wished for a beer. "You left me. I really liked the card, by the way."
Angel shook his head, puzzled. "What card? I called you, I came to see you."
"The card that said, "Gee, happy you're back from the dead. How are you doing? Oh, that's right. You never sent one. Why did you bother coming, Angel? I mean, that meeting...." She looked away. "You want to know why I'm so pissed off? No, you don't, you just don't want me to be pissed off any longer. You don't care what's going on with me, it's just when I do something you don't like that you get interested."
"Angel, you have your life, I have mine. You can't come in here and tell me what to do when you haven't exactly been keeping up to date on what I've been doing this whole time. And it's not like you call me up to chat."
Connor, Angel thought uneasily. But that's different. She wouldn't understand.
"Look, Buffy..." He glanced at Spike. "Could we not do this here?"
"In front of Spike? You were the one who came up here and wanted to lecture me about my life. The life that you don't have any interest in at any other time, by the way. I had to find out about Cordelia's baby when it's, like, months old!"
She was paying attention, Spike thought, and sighed happily. Then froze in horror because Angel glared at him and Buffy gave him a look he simply couldn't define.
"Oh." Angel muttered, glancing at the floor. Cordelia's baby, he thought. "Well..." Christ, now what? He tried to imagine telling her the truth, and the mental image this produced was so horrifying that he had to look away from her.
"The only way it would be okay for you to do this would be if we were chatting on the phone all the time. Like adults." Buffy said uncomfortably. "You know, grown ups. And...talking about stuff that's going on, so it's not such a shock. You can't come charging up here and..."She crossed her arms, and looked up suddenly, startled. D'Hoffryn had ambled over, and was now glancing expectantly from one to the other.
"So, do any of you want revenge, or are you just going to keep going over it over and over again?"
"We're done." Buffy said quietly.
"Buffy..." Angel said, half in warning, and half pleading.
"All right, Angel." Buffy said. "I'm done. I've done all the changing I'm going to do. It's your turn now. When you want to actually talk to me, you know, back and forth, then we'll talk." All that was missing, Spike thought, was Buffy dusting off her hands with a great flourish of finality. He almost felt sorry for Angel, but the self-preservation in his character made him profoundly relieved it wasn't him on the receiving end of Buffy's wrath.
"Hallie!" D'Hoffryn shouted. "Where are you?"
"Oh, hell. He's so impatient." Hallie said irritably. " You know why he's so mad? He just refuses to learn how to set the VCR, and then he gets cranky when it's time for one of his shows."
"Do I want to ask?" Wes asked.
"No." Hallie whispered. "I don't want to know, but I have to. He has this awful fascination for this show ...." She shook her head at The Show That Dare Not Speak Its Name, and Wes let it go. They both got up from the table, and Wes picked up his teacup and put it near the cash register, using it to anchor the money for the tea. Hallie glanced at him rather sharply, then at the money, then at the way he put her teacup next to his.
"You know, I have to ask..."
"About?" She prodded hopefully.
"The frog thing."
"They can't be allowed to do that to a woman. If Anyanka were still a demon, she could have handled it, but really...."
"But these aren't the frogs who...the men who actually did this to you."
"I can't find the ones who did it, though."
Wes thought about it, sighing as he went over the options in his head. He computed expenses, gas, mileage, and came up with a plan. "If I help you find them, will you release these?"
"You'll do that?"
"Yes." That didn't sound firm enough, perhaps because of the monumental ambivalence he was feeling, so he tried it again. "Yes, I will."
"That's very sweet." She said, and Wes winced.
"Could you pick another word? My y chromosome just shudders when someone uses that word."
"All right, then." Hallie said. "Very nice."
They stopped at the bottom of the steps to the café, and looked around for a clue as to where they'd been. Wes listened for voices, and grabbed Hallie's hand and pulled her in that direction. Hallie looked down at her hand, and then gave him another one of those curious glances, trying to reconcile his appearance with his actions. He hadn't shaved in a while, and he was wearing old jeans, but he had the sort of manners that came from kindness, and it just didn't seem to fit together. But his hand felt very nice.
Wes stopped, and looked around, glancing up over the tops of the bookshelves, and checking for any sign of what was going on. He noticed Hallie's look and explained. "Oh, smoke, you know, that sort of thing."
But without smoke signals, they were forced to follow the voices, which sounded like they were bickering. Finally they rounded a corner and found themselves confronted with the sight of one elderly vengeance demon, slumped in a chair with his face in his hands, staring at the floor, Spike flipping through a volume of Byron's poetry, and Angel leaning against a bookshelf while Buffy pawed through a book furiously on the other side of the area.
"Well." Wes said loudly. "Here we are."
"So, to frog or not to frog?" D'Hoffryn asked eagerly, sitting up straight and shooting a glance at his watch.
"We've reached a compromise." Hallie explained. "I get my vengeance, and anybody who didn't kidnap me gets de-frogified."
Everyone exchanged glances.
"Huh?" Buffy said. "How are you going to do that?"
"It's going to be, ah, um..." Hallie searched for a word. "Well, seeing as how I'm a justice demon, you know..." She glanced around modestly, as if expecting a response. "I should be more... just. So I'm going to concentrate on the actual guilty parties."
Great. D'Hoffryn thought. This is a volume business, and I have an IRA to think of.
"You're going to find the trio?" Buffy asked.
"I promised to help." Wes added modestly.
"Wow." Buffy said. "Freebie."
"I beg your pardon?" Wes asked.
"You have to find the trio. I've been looking for them. Does this mean I get a day off?"
"Well, you drove me up here." Angel said. "I guess I'll have to..."
"Take a train." Buffy interjected.
"You said I can't tell you what to do, but?"
"Give it a rest." Buffy said quietly. "You promise, Hallie?"
"Then I say, we party."
Continued in Chapter 40