The soldier stared at the map of the North America, his finger lingering over the creature's destination. They'd had their best people on it, triangulating the demon's path, so he knew there was no mistake, yet a part of his brain refused the truth of it.
"I'm sorry, Ri," said Sam softly, wrapping her arms around his waist and giving him a squeeze. He kept his eyes on the map. She gave him another squeeze, and he turned around in her arms. His eyes were sorrowful, but clear.
"It's okay, babe, I can handle it."
"Are you sure you want to go on this one? I can handle this one. Maybe call Elizondo, he's been itching to get back in the field—"
Riley shook his head. "I'm the lead on this. I'll deal."
"Okay, if you're sure."
"I am," he said, his voice gaining strength.
"I'm just not sure how Buffy will react."
"Strawberry or piña colada?"
"None for me," replied Willow vaguely.
"Not for you, for Randy," chided Joan. "They don't have 'hot wing' or 'blood' flavor, so which do you think he'd like?"
Willow put back the silk lingerie she'd been looking at. It was pretty and soft, like Tara, but it didn't seem right. She glanced at the package in Joan's hand and giggled. "Edible panties?"
"Do you think Randy will like them?"
"You're going to be wearing them, right? Then he'll like them."
"Seriously? Not a problem. You could get one that tastes like Pepto Bismol and he'd love it as long as he got to be the one to ea—uh, enjoy the edibility factor."
Piña colada, Joan decided. And maybe strawberry and bubblegum too. "I wonder what Randy's getting me," she wondered dreamily. "I hope he doesn't forget."
"After you've casually mentioned Valentine's Day about a million times since Wednesday? I'm pretty sure he hasn't forgotten. I'm pretty sure nobody within hearing distance has forgotten."
"Good. Because what's not to love about Valentine's Day?"
"Valentine's Day is ridiculous. A holiday for chumps. A day mass-marketed by greeting card companies and florists to squeeze money out of whipped boyfriends everywhere, with no purpose except making everyone who isn't in a relationship feel like a great big zero who couldn't find someone to save their soul."
"You forgot the rest," mused Randy, perusing the immense rack of sugary sweet cards swearing undying love.
"What?" asked Alex blankly. It wasn't like he hadn't thought all that stuff enough to have it all memorized."
"The part about dying alone in a ditch. Usually you—hmm, this one's nice," he mused, drawing out a large white card with a drawing of violets. Beat those cliched roses all to hell.
"Yeah, thanks for reminding me about that part. Because you know what? I'd rather die alone than be with some free-will sucking bimbo who—"
"Oy, I think the bird down the aisle is giving you the eye."
"Where?" Alex demanded, straightening and puffing out his chest.
"Over there. Going to talk to her?"
Alex wilted a bit. "What for? Remember that girl who bought me nachos at the Bronze? Vampire. And that redhead at the video store? Snake lady. And the one at the Espresso Pump?"
"What was she again?"
"I don't remember. Something gooey."
"Right, you're got a plan to be alone for the rest of forever. Wouldn't want to mess with that."
Alex chewed his lip. "Okay. Just this once! But if I get eaten or pulled apart or disemboweled, it's your fault."
"Fine," muttered Randy, not really paying attention. Alex did tend to ramble, and none of his demon girlfriends had succeeded in killing him. Seemed like the odds were in his favor, really. Although it was just common sense that they stay in a public place at all times, in case she decided to eat his liver or something.
But that wasn't likely to happen, and Randy was planning something more pleasant for Valentine's Day.
Riley peered through the window of the Magic Box. Nothing had changed. Neatly displayed items, freshly cleaned aisles, books at the back of the shop. And there was Giles, tweedy as ever, walking across the floor. It reassured Riley that some things never changed.
Giles noticed him in the window. It was very nearly closing time, but if the young man was interested, he could hold the shop open just a bit. It always paid to go the extra mile with service, he'd found. So instead of locking the door and putting out the "closed" sign, he opened the door and raised an eyebrow inquiringly. "May I help you?"
Riley shifted uncomfortably, wishing like hell he could come up with something to say that didn't sound stupid or self-important. He'd hoped that things would be easier, but apparently the Scoobies were holding a grudge for what he'd done to Buffy. He couldn't blame them, but it still hurt. Once, he'd thought of them as friends.
Giles waited another moment, but the tall man in the black turtleneck didn't speak. After a moment he heard the tap of high heels behind him and Anya, his lovely fiancee, put her arms around him, nuzzling his neck.
He looked toward the man, a trifle embarrassed by Anya's display of affection, and saw the man was now making odd expressions, and gesturing. "Dear lord," he said in distaste, closing the door in the man's face and flipping over the "closed" sign.
"What is it?" Anya asked, frowning up at Giles. "Did you just frighten away a customer? I thought you said that was my department."
"It's safe to say it wasn't a customer," Giles said. "It was—"
"Was he thinking I'm some floozy gold digger? Because I'm not, and I'm sick of people acting like—"
From the back of the shop Willow called out, "I'm gonna add up the day's receipts—"
"No!" shrieked Anya, "I handle the money! What are you trying to do, drive us into insolvency?"
"He didn't think you were a floozy, he couldn't talk," corrected Dawn, who'd known what the man was as soon as she'd seen him. "Black turtleneck, blank face? It was a mime."
Giles nodded in affirmation.
"Ahhh!" said Anya. "A Valentine's mime making his rounds. I understand. Local customs must be observed, after all. But not enjoyed, since it is a mime."
"I like mimes," Tara offered.
The others stared at her for a long moment. "The traditional Valentine's Day joke. Very effective," Anya said finally.
Tara opened her mouth to correct Anya, but Dawn shook her head. Tara took the hint and kept quiet.
"Let's lock up," said Giles, rubbing Anya's back soothingly. She never did like to close the store early, and had been planning on keeping the shop open late for emergency gift purchases.
Anya looked like she wanted to argue, but decided against it. "You know, you're probably, Rupert," she agreed, squeezing his arm. "If we don't leave soon, he'll return with the rest of his band of mimes. And what kind of Valentine's Day would that be?"
Joan and Randy were staying in. The others all had plans, and for what felt like the first time in forever, they were alone in the house. They might not have seemed like the most exciting plans to the others, but to Randy, it sounded heavenly.
The rest of the gang was wonderful, but they were always around. And after Christmas … well, after being surprised by the whole lot of them with no clothes on, in the middle of their first time—it made a bloke skittish. Especially if his ladylove's kid sister blushed and rushed out of the room, giggling, every time he'd entered it for an entire damn month. But now, thank god, they had an entire evening, and they were going to make the most of it.
He scattered rose petals on the floor in front of the fireplace. He'd always wanted to see Joan by firelight. God knew when they'd have the chance again; maybe they should take pictures.
Eh, he couldn't really see Joan going for that. Never hurt to ask, though.
He had earrings he thought she'd like, wrapped in pretty paper with a bow, but his real surprise was that he'd studied how to give a massage. He'd rented a video on it, read a couple of books, and got some oil that smelled like lavendar. Sometimes she got aches from fighting demons, and this was something he could do for her all year that would make her feel better.
If they ended up naked, it was just a fringe benefit.
A sound caught his attention, and he turned to see Joan standing at the entrance to the living room, wearing a criminally short robe she never would have worn with the others around. "Well, you look beautiful," he said softly, walking over to her.
She smiled, eating up the sexy way he stalked over to her. They were alone, really and truly alone. She'd thought it might be impossible, like there was a curse on the house. People were there all the time. Tonight was the first night they'd been alone in what seemed like forever.
But it wasn't going to be their last.
But Spike was taking his time walking over to her, and she was a very impatient girl.
"Catch," she cried, suddenly launching herself into his arms. He caught her with a surprised gasp. "Happy Val—"
The strident buzz of the doorbell cut off Joan's words, and Randy swore under his breath. She groaned and unwrapped her legs from around his waist, and he took the hint and released her.
Neither of them would have ever guessed who was at the door.
The wrinkled demon peered at Joan and Randy a little shyly. He'd introduced himself a few weeks before as a poker buddy of Randy's, although he called him Spike—probably because of his hair, although it wasn't very spiky any longer. "I was kind of wondering if you could help me with something?"
"On Valentine's Day? You've got to be kidding," said Randy in disbelief. "No way, we're got plans."
"But my eggs are wiggling!"
Joan stared at him. "Your … eggs."
"They're not supposed to wiggle!"
"So … wiggling's strange, but you having eggs is normal?"
"Well yeah, they're—oh! I mean, they're not my eggs—I'm just taking care of them. A Dnarvus demon promised me a whole litter of kittens if I could keep them safe until his feast day. The eggs are supposed to be infertile, like chicken eggs from the store, but they've been shaking and spewing this green slime and stuff, and I can't find the Dnarvus demon, and the eggs are just down there … wiggling. It's kind of creeping me out."
"So what do you want us to do?"
Clem shrugged helplessly, his wrinkles jiggling. It was really hard to say no to the guy, Joan thought. And she was a superhuman protector of mankind. It was her responsibility to make the world a safer place, for humans and wrinkly demons alike.
Even on Valentine's Day.
"I can't believe you used to live here," remarked Joan, taking in Clem's shabby crypt, scattered with wrappers from snack cakes and greasy fried foods.
"I bet I kept it a damn sight nicer than this," said Randy defensively. Clem had had a time convincing Randy he'd lived there once; he must have had a hell of a row with his father before moving into that pit. Probably over that overbleached bint Anya, he imagined. Her very presence was an insult to his mother's beloved memory. Presumably.
By the time they'd met Clem, Randy had moved into the basement at Joan's, and he certainly had no intention of reclaiming his former home. His new one might be crowded, but it suited him just fine, thank you.
"I'll go down first, then you hand me the axes," instructed Joan, climbing down the ladder to reach the crypt's lower section.
"Yeah, fine. I still don't get why we didn't bring a crossbow," argued Randy, passing the weapons down to her.
"What good would a crossbow be against eggs?"
"Why would an axe be better? I mean if you're going to be particular about it, why don't we just fight them with a frying pan?"
Joan rolled her eyes as he clambered down after her. Sometimes he could be so dense. "Well, Randy, an axe—"
"Oh, shit," Randy said softly, pointing behind her.
Joan turned to see ominous pods that didn't look very egglike, and weren't wiggling at all. But Randy seemed to take them very seriously.
"Joan? Hand me an axe."
They almost made it out of the crypt. Almost.
It was strange, but killing baddies always got their motors revving.
It was funny; they were so careful about being alone in their own house, but once they were outside of it, anything went. And they knew Clem wasn't going to be back until they'd reassured him that they'd taken care of his egg problem, so they didn't have to worry about him, and he didn't seem like the type to have many visitors.
So they were quite surprised when they looked up to see a man standing in the doorway.
"Excuse me!" barked Randy aggresively, moving in front of Joan as she dragged a random item of clothing in front of her.
The man studied them, but didn't move closer. "I didn't mean to interrupt," he said impassively. "But there's a situation. We've tracked some demon eggs to—"
"Here. Specifically, the basement of here," Joan supplied helpfully. "Yeah. We got it."
"They need to be destroyed—"
The man shifted from foot to foot, looking intensely uncomfortable. "I guess you don't need my help," he said finally.
"No," agreed Joan easily. "You can go back to wheverever you live and get on with whatever you do. We've got this place covered."
"You better believe we do," Randy added, the corner of his mouth curving lasciviously. "And you're interrupting our Valentine's celebration."
Joan blushed all the way down to her toes."Shh!"
"I'm sorry," the man said hollowly.
Joan waited for the man to leave, but he just kept standing there. Finally she couldn't take it any more. "It's Valentine's Day. Shouldn't you be somewhere else?"
The man gave her a regretful look, shook his head, and left.
Joan felt a distinct stab of relief when the man had gone. "You think we should apologize for being rude?"
"Rude? Piker stood there and watched while we were snogging. I think it was damned decent of us not to call the police. Not to mention this," said Randy, hefting a massive weapon from the wall it had been leaning against. "This wasn't there when we came in."
"Think it was that guy's?"
"Must have been."
She wasn't impressed. "Guns? Not much of a demon fighter, if you ask me. If you need more than an axe to kill them you're not so hot."
"What is it with you and axes?"
"I just like 'em," she said blithely, pulling him down for a kiss and rubbing against him a little to remind him where they'd left off.
"Baby, the mood's gone. Let's head home, and see what's under the mistletoe."
"There's no mistletoe at Valentine's Day."
"It's a figure of speech. It means, Let'stake advantage of everybody being elsewhere by having sex in many locations in the house."
That was a plan Joan could get behind.
"The targets have been eradicated?" Sam asked again. Not because she didn't trust him—she trusted him more than anything on this planet—but because she liked being thorough. Especially about creatures that could level entire cities.
"They're history," Riley repeated.
"Then it's Buffy," Sam said softly. Riley didn't answer. "Things went badly?" she prodded.
He nodded. "About as badly as they could go."
"She got mad at you."
"No … just the opposite. She acted completely indifferent, like she didn't even care. Hell, maybe she doesn't. Maybe now I'm just some guy she used to date. Now she's with someone she used to hate, and she looked at me like I was a stranger."
"Babe … you have to let it go. You moved on. She has, too. That's what adults do."
"I guess." He didn't look soothed.
"Riley … do you regret what happened?"
"No. No, Sam, not at all," he told her honestly. He shook his head in disappointment.
"I'm just sorry Buffy's still angry."
"Your gun!" Joan shouted, starting towards the helicopter. "You forgot your—"
The rest of her words were lost as the copter rose. The black-clad man and the others inside never noticed her. Of course, she'd been a little surprised to see him get into a helicopter, but she'd seen way stranger things in the last few months.
She looked at Randy and shrugged. "I gave it a try."
"He might still be able to hear us," suggested Randy dubiously.
"Are you kidding? I'm not running after that guy like someone from loser central! I don't trust him, anyway. Something about his eyes. Like he's the kind of guy who acts all goody-goody, then runs around when your back's turned and gives you something you need penicillin for. If the gun meant so much to him he shouldn't have left it."
"Can't disagree with you there," Randy agree warmly, nudging his hand into hers. The helicopter, already fading into the night sky, was forgotten. "I can hardly stand to let things I'm fond of out of my sight."
"Hey, who'd you call a thing?"
"Sorry, baby, I've been bad. Maybe you should spank me."
"Maybe I should," Joan said seductively, then reconsidered. "Actually, Anya told me that she heard spanking is traditional on Valentine's Day and she planned to surprise your father with it."
They contemplated the thought for a moment, then shuddered.
"Yes, well … let's not think of that any more, shall we?"
"Definitely," agreed Joan, wrapping her arms around Randy's and snuggling close. "Besides, we've got things to do. When we get home, I want you to pack your bags."
Randy froze. "What?"
"You heard me. Pack 'em."
"And take them upstairs and put them in my room. I cleaned out some drawers for you."
His jaw dropped, and she smiled mischievously, walking past him.
Before she'd taken two steps he wrapped his arms around her, nuzzing her throat as he matched her strides. "Going out on a limb here, but I'm pretty sure that's the best present I've ever gotten."
She smile radiantly, the big, happy smile he loved so. "Happy Valentine's Day, Randy."
"Happy Valentine's Day, Joan."