Lunch had been awesome . . . and moresome, they hadn't left the bedroom until two hours later and only then because Faith's back finally began protesting the numerous positions she'd insisted on contorting in. Buffy had run her a warm bath and left her soaking in the bubbly water with the promise that there would be a snack waiting for her by the time she was out.
She sent a simple text to Willow while she fetched a big bag of small, crunchy pretzels and the blackcurrant jelly Faith liked to dip them in and by the time she entered Giles' office, everyone was assembled.
"You can't go alone," he said at once.
She shushed him, making sure the door clicked shut before turning to face them.
"It's madness!" Willow was the next to jump in.
"Buff, think about it," said Xander, "Think about what day it is."
"It's my birthday," she said calmly.
"Yeah, but that doesn't mean . . ." Kennedy, the least experienced, began.
Buffy overrode her, "Kennedy, you don't get it. It's my birthday, bad things happen."
"Then why are you pandering to Faith's decision?" Giles asked.
"I'm not pandering, I'm just being respectful," she said, with a cunning smirk, which abruptly switched off as she got down to business. "I want two teams outside. I want them surrounding the restaurant."
"But we don't know what restaurant you're going to," Dawn pointed out.
"I'm pretty sure it's the one we went to on Valentine's Day. We can find the address online."
"Isn't that where you met Toni?" Willow asked. "Would Faith really take you back there?"
That was a good point, and she didn't know.
"Okay, I want a car following us and another car on standby. Kennedy, you'll be in the lead car and you'll call in our location as soon as we're seated. I want Jennifer in charge of the second car she's good with directions and maps and stuff. If the worst does come to the worst, she'll be useful in tracking Troy down."
Kennedy, as awkward as she could be, was convinced by Buffy's no nonsense approach and grabbed a pad from Giles' desk to jot down the details.
"Willow, cloaking spells, misdirection spells, a force field around the restaurant would be awesome and could you give us both a glamour?"
"Cloaking I can do. Misdirection definitely. I can't do force fields, I'm not Superman, Buffy . . ."
"You did one that time in Sunnydale, to keep the Ubervamp out," she said petulantly.
Willow nodded and then shook her head, "But that was just around the house, and it was designed to keep everyone out. A public place is completely different and don't forget . . ."
Buffy knew that, but right now she didn't care. "So it'll be a little trickier but you did it once, you can do it again, right?"
Willow sighed at being largely ignored. "Cast another force-field that's designed to fail? Oh yeah, I'm pretty sure I can do that as many times as you want!"
Buffy detected sarcasm but she didn't care for that either. What was the point of having the most powerful witch on the planet as your best friend if you couldn't request a few little favors on your birthday?
"Good. Thank you. And the glamours?"
"I can't do anything to Faith's appearance without her knowing the first time she looks in a reflective surface and I can't do anything to yours without Faith knowing as soon as she, well, looks at you."
"Fine, no glamours." Buffy stepped to Giles' desk and tapped her fingers on the top, deep in thought.
"Look, it's not fair for you to put so much pressure on Willow like this!" Kennedy snapped.
Buffy ignored her and it was Xander who said, "She's not, Ken. We're just trying to cover every angle."
"Oh yeah, and what angle will you be covering?"
"He'll be driving the second car," Buffy said, fingers still tapping. "Giles will be here, acting as co-ordinator. Dawn and Andrew will be here too, researching any new developments and co-co-ordinating their butts off to feed us slayers every bit of information we need." She spun to face Kennedy. "Any other questions?"
Kennedy tried to stare her down, "I just want to be prepared."
Buffy stared back harder, and won. "And if I didn't want you to be prepared too, do you think you'd be at this meeting?"
Buffy didn't feel bad about going behind Faith's back and arranging security for the evening.
She understood Faith's feelings on the subject. The constant surveillance was driving her nuts; made her feel like she was back in prison under guard twenty-four hours a day. But she'd been good about it so far, barely even complaining when it had been agreed by the majority that they should move back to the main house in Wendigo Hollow for the final weeks leading up to the baby's birth. It was natural that Faith would want some freedom for the special night she had planned for them. Natural but idiotic. So the little guilt she felt about betraying her wishes was easily over-ridden by common sense.
What Buffy did feel bad about was her birthday being just a week before the baby's due date. It wasn't like the timing was her fault, but Faith should be resting, not gallivanting around town. Twice in the past two weeks Faith had experienced something called Braxton Hicks, false labor. Buffy had panicked like a crazy person the first time (and the second if she was honest) because they weren't ready and because it looked like it really freaking hurt and because . . . shit, she was about to have a baby! Faith had known what it was even though Buffy was the one who'd read all the books and had barely batted an eyelash.
"When my water breaks, that'll be when I'll freak my shit out," she'd said while calmly cleaning an ancient Nordic War Axe. "Besides," she added, giving the weapon an experimental swing and admiring the way the overhead light glinted off of the polished flint, "not due 'til the twenty-fifth and the boy knows I don't like surprises."
She said things like that occasionally, little excerpts of inside knowledge, like she had some psychic connection with her baby that went beyond what most mothers could hope for. Buffy had asked her about it one afternoon, after all it didn't seem that far-fetched when dealing with a miracle baby and actually sounded pretty cool . . . and had totally embarrassed herself. Faith hadn't stopped laughing at her for a full day, neither did anyone else after they'd heard.
It felt mean to be dragging her out on a cold, frosty night just because it was her birthday. Even more so when she couldn't shake the nagging feeling that tonight was the night Troy would pounce. Faith was so convinced with her own theories of Troy's intentions that she was blinded to the threat of Buffy's birthday jinx.
In fact she was so convinced, sometimes Buffy couldn't help thinking there was more to it like every time she thought about it. Why was she so determined to think the best of him? Not that the best was good, but the idea that Troy would be civil enough to go through legal channels baffled her.
But then she had never thought she loved him. It wasn't like Faith to be so civil either.
Did she still love him?
Was there a part of Faith that wished things had turned out differently? That her wedding had gone ahead as planned and this child was being born into a happy marriage? That Troy would be the one holding her hand as she endured hours of labor?
"Buffy? You okay?"
In the middle of peeling potatoes for everyone else's dinner, she nearly sliced her finger off when Dawn spoke right behind her. "Yeah, why?"
"You didn't hear the phone. It's for you, by the way." She lowered her voice even though she had the mouthpiece covered. "Someone from Italy!"
"Ow!" Bright red blood dripped onto the pile of creamy potato skins.
They'd had no contact since the night Toni had walked out into the snow. Buffy took the phone gingerly and held it to her ear, cut finger already forgotten. "Hello?"
"Ahh, Buffy, my precious one, come stai? You are well, si?" Nonni's familiar voice relaxed her, but only marginally.
"I'm fine, thank you. How are you, uh, come stai?"
"Si, si, molto bene, I call with good news," Oh really? This was interesting. "Bernadetta has finished the shawl. She did no think she finish it in time, but she did. Good news, si?"
Huh? "Sorry, Nonni, but what shawl?"
"For the bambino, of course! It is customary for the grandmother to knit a shawl for the new born in your culture, si? but, ahh," she sighed despondently. "My knitting is not like my cooking so Bernadetta do it for me. It is beautiful, as is all of her work as you know. I am so happy it is finished on time. Not long now, huh? Are you excited for the birth?"
What she was, was confused. How was Nonni the grandmother? Why did she care if Buffy was excited? And more importantly, could they trust anything coming from that side of the world? She'd have been suspicious even without Bernadetta's name being mentioned, with it she was already leaning towards run like hell!
But Nonni had never been anything but nice to her. "Um, that's very kind of you but . . ."
But what? Maybe Nonni was one of the grandmothers. Even with all of the time she'd spent in their company last year she didn't have the first clue how the God system over there really worked. It was all too intertwined and complicated. She'd always had Nonni pegged as a sweet, human, old lady, but maybe that was really naοve. After all, she was the grandmother to a demi-goddess two thousand years old!
She shook her head and focused on a more immediate consideration. ". . . but, and I don't mean to be rude, but I'm not sure if it's a good idea to send something Bernadetta has made."
Buffy expected to have to explain herself, she didn't.
"It is perfectly safe! I already tell Antonella about how beautiful it will be and she get upset and make perfectly clear I am to do nothing that upsets you and Faith. So I told Bernadetta no funny business, si?"
That surprised her, a lot. Down to the complete lack of contact between them she'd assumed Toni had forgotten about her. Or worse, hated her for subliminally choosing Faith.
"And you trust her? Bernadetta?" she checked.
"Shame on you, precious Buffy! This my oldest friend we speak of. Si, she may pledge allegiance to The Immortal, but she would not let religious differences come before our friendship."
She might have been naive about some things, but she didn't trust that at all! Still, she did trust Nonni, whether it was sensible to or not.
"Okay, mi scuso, I'm sure the shawl is beautiful. We'll send you a photo of the baby in it."
"Grazi, Buffy! Although soon I hope I shall see for myself. The bambino is very special to us all. He is very lucky to have such a big, happy, loving famiglia, si?"
Buffy's eyebrows rose slowly and she almost laughed. Maybe she wasn't the only naive one in this phone call.
After they had exchanged pleasant goodbyes and the call was over, Buffy went back to peeling potatoes.
"Well?" Dawn was still hovering in the kitchen. "Is everything okay? What did she want? Are we on a code-red? Should I assemble the gang? Buffy, talk to me!"
Chuckling, Buffy half turned from the sink to smile at her sister. "It was about knitwear. Dawn, your enthusiasm is awesome, but calm down, okay? Toni's Granny's best friend has made some little booties or something for Faith's baby. And I think she might be planning on coming over for a visit. It's nothing to worry about. It's definitely not a code-red. Tonight might not even be a code-red."
"Then why has everyone got their mission-head on? Why all the secret rendez-vous-oos for prep?"
"Because tonight might not be, but I don't wanna risk missing one seemingly unimportant little detail because we're too focused on the big stuff, you know?"
They were leaving in five minutes, Faith had already shouted goodbye to the house in general and was outside warming up the car. Seeing as she couldn't fit behind a steering wheel anymore and Buffy would be driving, she'd probably really gotten a head start because it would take her five minutes to cram into the passenger seat.
Buffy was just pleased it gave her a short time to finalize things. "So are we good to go?"
Xander took charge with that military air he sometimes pulled out of the hat a throwback to their junior year at Sunnydale High. God, how long ago had that been? She hadn't even met Faith then.
"Kennedy's in a van ready to go on the main road, waiting on the East lane in case Faith has a romantic meal planned in Wendigo Hollow's one and only village pub . . ."
"It's her girlfriend's birthday," a slayer Laila sounded aghast. "She wouldn't dare."
"It's as likely as anything," Buffy said, and it wouldn't be so bad. She wouldn't have to drive so far and Faith would be more comfortable if they were somewhere informal.
"Anyway, she's close enough to see your tail lights if you head west instead, like we expect, and she'll turn around. Speedy manoeuvres in the dark not really being my thing anymore . . ." He held his hands up, "With the driving, in the cars, is obviously what I meant. Rest assured, ladies, I'm still pretty speedy in the dark in all over areas," he promised, with a 'you won't be disappointed' nod.
Buffy shook her head at him. "Who exactly is your target audience here, Xan? Your closest friends or the sixteen year old girls?"
"Well, I . . ."
"I thought it was a very suave save," Willow indulged her best friend. "And I'm sure if Melissa was here she would be . . . weak at the knees."
"Or not, if you are really as speedy as you promise to be," Buffy smirked.
"Anyway," Xander rushed to get back on topic. "There's another team out in the other van, hiding in the garage. Chock full of slayers. I'll be heading out there as soon as we're done in here. We won't be doing the tailing. Kennedy can handle that. We'll just hang back and wait for the call with your co-ordinates and then we'll swoop in, or around at least. Watching for suspicious characters and the like. Two of them are already all glammed up, so they can head inside without worrying about Faith recognizing them. They'll get a table near you for up-close surveillance; like a human cctv camera."
"What if it's somewhere really expensive?" she asked, thinking of the restaurant they'd gone to on Valentine's Day last year. A starter alone would have emptied the bank of her waitress salary.
"They have a Council credit card," Giles said. "And instructions to order the cheapest thing on the menu."
Grinning, she looked to Willow next, "Everything you asked for, done. Now go and have your birthday meal. Faith's put a lot of work into it, the least you can do is enjoy it. If Troy strikes . . . he's going to hurt that gorgeous nose of his on the impenetrable wall of awesome magick and slayer muscle we'll have around you."
"Thanks, guys. You have no idea how much I appreciate all of the hard work you've been putting in the last few weeks . . ."
Dawn fake-coughed "Few months!" terribly into her hand and then looked sheepish when she drew everyone's unimpressed or sympathetic reactions. "Most of you didn't have to suffer through Rome with the two of them," she defended herself.
She and Andrew solemnly high-fived.
Like they'd had it so bad! Other than the night Andrew had been kidnapped, they'd both had a ball.
"Anyway, I know we have another full week to go and I'm grateful for you all staying with me through this. I promise, once the baby is born we'll be able to relax a little. In fact, we'll call in a second team of slayers and all of you can have a week of R and R in the Bahamas, how's that sound?"
There were cheers but through the noise of seven or eight slayers all whooping at once she heard Willow say, "Premature?" and Giles said, "Extremely costly, Buffy!"
Xander chimed in with, "Can I get in on that?"
A car horn honked loudly outside, giving Buffy a good excuse to ignore all of them. "I have to go; Faith needs to eat every twenty minutes or she turns to dust. Really crabby dust!"
"Here here," Andrew agreed.
Outside it was as cold and frosty as she'd feared, but the sky was clear and filled with a thousand glittering, ice-white stars. All in all, it could have been worse. It actually made the night really romantic, she thought as she half-ran, half-skated across the drive, hopping into the drivers' seat of the running car just as Faith honked the horn again.
Finger wiggling in her ear to relieve her momentary deafness, she slammed the door closed and luxuriated in the heat already rolling from the open air vents.
"Took your time. Thought you were ready to go? What were you doing in there?"
"Just giving another pep-talk," she said honestly as she brushed melting ice from her stylish-but-impractically-heeled boots and pulled her woolly hat off of her loose, wavy curls. The car was already warm enough to not really need it and, besides, she didn't want hat-hair all night. "So where are we going?"
"Nice try, B. Just start driving and I'll give you directions. And hurry up, if I don't eat soon this baby is gonna climb right out of me and head to the nearest burger joint on his own."
With an amused, exasperated sigh, Buffy remembered where the lights were on the third go and pressed on the gas a little too hard. The car lurched the first ten feet down the lane.
"Or maybe he's gonna climb out 'cause he knows it'd be safer to walk!" Faith laughed.
"Shut up, I'm a good driver!" Buffy insisted through clenched teeth and a fixed, scary grin as she tried again.
"Sorry," Faith apologized easily. "But just try and get us there in one piece 'cause I plan to make this a birthday you'll never forget."
One way or another, Buffy really believed that would be true.
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