Quickly scrubbed of meaty death paste and hastily dressed, Buffy slipped into the crowd at the Bronze, hugging the wall, straining to see over the undulating crowd.

The whole see-but-not-be-seen thing worked a lot better when you weren't so freakin' short...

She recognized the song, vaguely; she'd heard it over at Giles' apartment. There had been some animated discussion between him and Oz about the entire album; like all Oz/Giles musical discussions, she'd tuned it out completely.

Not bad, though, for old Giles stuff. Kinda... hypnotic, slow, all bass-y and grind-y. Took some willpower to keep her hips still, to keep her body from winding itself into that dreamy, dirty beat.

Mean old levee taught me to weep and moan
Mean old levee taught me to weep and moan...

She saw Xander and Willow first, both sitting ramrod-straight at a small side table. Xander was glaring at his beer with the same fierce anger that Willow was attacking the ice in her drink with the pointy end of the little umbrella.

Wow. So very not with the happy.

The crowd parted for a moment, and Buffy saw why.

Tara was moving with a grace Buffy hadn't known she possessed, apparently not having any willpower problems vis-a-vis the beat; she had a gorgeous blonde by the hips, swaying in time, her eyes half-closed, in a world of her own. No wonder Willow was having a major wiggins.

Don't it make you feel bad
When you're tryin' to find your way home,
You don't know which way to go?

And Anya... Buffy bit back a little puff of laughter. Not so much with the sensual there, but Anya was clearly having a blast... a huge grin on her face as she and Clem slowly twirled each other around the dance floor.

Tara and some blonde, Anya and Clem... which left...

If he's booty-dancing with my baby sister, I'll stake him in a thousand places before I finally hit the heart.

But no, she caught a flash of peroxide, and Spike and Dawn were over at another side table, having an animated discussion about something-or-other while fiddling with paper napkins.

So maybe she'd only stake him in a hundred places before she finally hit the heart.

Well, she couldn't eavesdrop at all well over here.

"Alright, Nibblet. Once you've got it rolled up, y'start rippin' and peelin' back, like this. See? Leaves. Two or three oughta do it."

"Is that it?"

"Well, normally I burn the edges with my cigarette, but someone didn't want the lung cancer, so..." Spike handed over the paper napkin, which he'd folded into a very passable imitation of a rose. "There y'go, milady."

"And you seriously pick up women with this," Dawn laughed.

Spike shrugged, grinning his what-can-I-say-I'm-irresistable smirk.

"What else?"

Spike turned to the woman behind him. "Pardon me, love... you plannin' to eat that olive?"

"Hate 'em," the woman smiled, passing over the toothpick from her martini... disappointment clear to read on her face when Spike merely thanked her and turned back to Dawn.

"Okay, Bit," Spike said, pulling out the toothpick and balancing the olive on his hand. "Watch close."

Dawn let out a little shriek of delight as Spike smacked the olive at a perfect angle, sending the pimiento shooting out directly into his mouth.

"That was cool! Teach me?"

"Hang on a sec, Bit, I'll go cage more olives off the barkeep. Y'need another soda?"

"I'm good."

He rose, patting Dawn on the head, headed towards the bar... and Buffy slid into the seat he'd vacated.

"So. This is what happens when Tara babysits?"

The good humor melted from Dawn's face in an instant. "I'm not a baby. I don't get babysat."

"You know what I mean, Dawn."

"Am I not allowed to come to the Bronze now? Jeez, Buffy, I'm with four chaperones."

"Three of whom are demons!"

"You trust Spike to protect me and Mom from a hell god but not to protect me from a bar? And please, hello, how long have you been coming here?"

"You're only sixteen, Dawn!"

Heat flared in Dawn's eyes. "That's right. Let's see, I'm right on schedule for some hot vampire smooches and -- oh, hey, one more year until I can celebrate my birthday underneath one!"

"Dawn," Buffy growled. "Spike is not..."

Dawn arched an eyebrow. "I'm sorry -- did I specify Spike?"

Buffy blinked, her fists clenching.

Dawn made a show of turning around in her chair and ogling Spike as he chatted up the bartender. "Y'know, Buffy, that's a great idea! I mean hey, no pesky soul to lose, easy on the eyes... and I know you won't get jealous, since you hate him so much..."

Buffy felt her hand rise from the table and slammed it back down... but not before Dawn noticed.

"Huh. Looks like there is one dangerous person Spike neglected to protect me from."

"What are you -- why are you --" Buffy sputtered.

"Annoying you? Needling you?" Dawn took a sip of her Diet Coke. "This is the longest conversation we've had in weeks, Buffy. I've figured out how you tick now. Making you mad? It's the only way to keep you interested."

"That is not true!"

Dawn tipped her head to the side, regarding Buffy with a smirk so familiar that Buffy's stomach flipped.

"God, you even look like him," Buffy muttered.

"Thanks," Dawn smiled.

Buffy sighed. "How... how do you..."

"How do I what?"

"Talk to him so easily?"

Dawn shot her a weird look. "I open my mouth and make words with air. Picked up the skill a few years back, actually."

"You know what I mean! You guys just... talk, y'know?" Buffy shot a look at Spike, returning from the bar with a bowlful of olives. "I can't do that."

"Hullo, ladies," Spike said, setting the bowl on the tabletop. "Wasn't expecting to see you tonight, Slayer."

He reached behind him, dragging up a vacant chair.

"Well, I thought I'd get out for a while," Buffy smiled nervously, circling her hand in the air to indicate the music. "This is nice."

"Classic," Spike agreed, pulling the bowl towards him.

Buffy sat up a little more confidently. "I've always really liked Def Leppard."

Spike and Dawn let out simultaneous choking noises.

"What?"

"Led Zeppelin, Slayer," Spike said mournfully, shaking his head.

"Geez, Buffy." Dawn rolled her eyes on her way down to her straw.

"What? Led Zeppelin, Def Leppard... easy mistake!"

Spike looked like he was in physical pain, biting his lip.

"Oh, I can tell you want to mock me. Just go ahead and do it, Spike."

"S'alright, Slayer," Spike smiled. "Not your kind of music. Hey, maybe if we're lucky, they'll play some real hardcore punk, like Avril Lavigne."

"Oooh!" Buffy squealed... a split-second before she noticed the look on Spike's face.

"I'm gonna go talk to Will and Xander," Buffy spat, flouncing out of her seat.

"Hey, Buff," Xander hailed glumly, raising his beer. "Come to watch the amazing our exes make with the massive slutty show?"

"It's fun, fun, fun for everyone," Willow muttered, doing more ice-violence with her paper umbrella.

"You know? When that guy showed me that fake vision? I thought the ears on that illegitimate kid looked familiar." Xander glared at Clem. "Now I know where from."

"Oh, c'mon, Xander," Buffy smiled, touching his hand tentatively. "They're just dancing, they're barely touching."

"Uh-huh," Willow snapped. "Unlike Tara the grindey girl."

"I thought she was supposed to be shy?" Xander sighed, waving a hand in Tara's direction. "I mean, she was always all 'o-o-oh, I c-c-can't m-make e-eye c-c-c-contact, i-it b-b-burns m-me', and now she's making like a Snoop Dogg backup dancer?"

"Don't make fun of Tara's stutter," Willow cried. "It's not funny."

"I b-b-beg to d-differ," Xander replied. "I mean, c'mon, Will. You found the one human on the planet mousier than you. Did you do it so we wouldn't notice the big wimpy hole you left when you went all scary crack-magic, or did you think you could ease us into the dyke thing by picking the least butch female ever created?"

"Hey!"

"Xander," Buffy said hesitantly, "I don't think you..."

"Hey, I like Tara," Xander protested. "She's nice, in a very boring way. I wish you'd stayed with Oz, of course, 'cause I liked him way better... but if you had to start batting for the other team, better the dull-as-oatmeal white witch than some bellowing mulleted Gertrude Stein clone in a wife-beater and steel-toed boots, right?"

"Oh my God!" Willow gasped. "You... you... how dare you? Tara has done nothing to you, and... and where do you get off judging my relationships, anyway? What about yours? What, did Cordelia leave you so starved for rudeness you had to jump the first ex-demon that wouldn't shut up?"

"Guys!" Buffy cried. "Stop this!"

"Lay off, Buffy," Xander snapped. "You don't have any room to talk either, you necrophiliac."

"I am not a necrophiliac."

"Oh, please. You're still all swoony over Angel, even though, hello, you could so not have less in common with the guy. You were freakin' sixteen, you fell for the dark mysterious stranger thing -- get over it! The only reason you guys made it work as long as you did was because you never had to have a real relationship. He'd swoop in out of the shadows, loom, kill stuff, maybe kiss you, maybe not, depending on how loose-n-wriggly his soul was feeling that day, and swoop off. That's not a relationship. In the real world? You two wouldn't make it past the first fight over whose turn it was to do the dishes. Once life scrubbed all that dark and mysterious off? You'd find out that he's just a guy... who doesn't like any of the same stuff or people you do."

"You don't know a thing about me and Angel," Buffy hissed.

"Maybe I don't. But I know that he's gone, and you've punished every guy since for his sins."

"I... have... not."

"Oh yeah? Tell that to your helpful lapdogs, Riley and Spike. You're so determined not to get hurt by a man again, you crush their balls beneath your stylish yet affordable heel before they can get any wacky ideas, like that a couple isn't a patrol team, and you're not in charge... and toss 'em crumbs, just crumbs, just enough to keep them on the leash." Xander smiled bitterly. "I know a little bit about what's that like."

"Xander... I don't know what you think you're seeing, but..."

"Oh, I see a lot of things, Buffy. Like how you wouldn't talk to anyone but Spike after you got back, 'cause he was so crammed up your ass and starved for your affection he'd let you whine and whine and whine and whine just for the joy of watching you talk."

"Slayer?" Spike touched her shoulder gently, giving her a meaningful look when she whirled. "You ready to go take out that vamp nest I told you about earlier?"

"Vamp nest? Oh, yeah, that vamp nest! How could I have forgotten the... vamp nest? Thank you, Spike." Buffy shot a glare at Xander, then turned a syrupy smile on Spike. "I appreciate your contributions to the team comprised of equals."

"Right, Slayer. Lead the way, then."

"No, no, you lead the way."

He rolled his eyes, stalking out the door of the Bronze with Buffy trotting after. "Whatever."

"Woof, woof," Xander drawled. "See? He even obeys her when she tells him to pretend to not be obeying."

"You know? I thought nothing could make this evening worse than watching Tara get all friction-making with Slut Barbie over there," Willow snapped. "But you, you with your... mean words..."

"Will, you know I didn't mean anything by..."

"I think I'm going to go home before the crack-magic makes me get butch on you and kick you with my steel-toed boots," Willow finished primly, snatching up her purse.

"Willow!" Xander called after her. "Willow? Will?"

She didn't turn around.

Xander heaved a sigh. "What'd I say?"