Curses, Foiled Again

The warm spring night was quiet as Xander let himself in through the Summers' front door with his borrowed key. "Hey, Dawnie," he called. "Ready for our poker date? I brought popc -- Oh." He paused, surprised. "Hi, Tara. I didn't realize you would be here. I'm," he lowered his voice conspiratorially. "Babysitting Dawn. Or, you know, corrupting her. Depends how you call it."

Tara looked nervous. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to intrude, but -- I was visiting Buffy with Willow, and she got called away to help Mr. Giles with some magical emergency, and she asked me to wait here for her. She didn't know how long she would be. I can go." She looked determined. "I'll go, I don't want to interfere with your cards, just tell Willow where I went."

"No!" called Dawn and she ran down the stairs. "Stay, Tara. Play poker with us! That is," she looked sideways at Xander. "If it's okay with you, Xander."

Personally, Xander was relieved to have a buffer between himself and Dawn's fading crush, and Tara was friendly enough. "As long as you enjoy poker, you're totally welcome."

Tara smiled, and Xander thought she seemed much nicer when she was happy. Sometimes he didn't get Willow's new friend, but she could be awfully sweet. "What are we playing for?" she asked, still smiling endearingly. "Because I don't want to take all your money." Okay, maybe more sharklike than sweet.

The poker game was going swimmingly, although the pile of M&Ms in front of Tara was unfairly huge, and not just because Xander kept eating from his stash between handfuls of microwave popcorn. They'd started with Five Card Draw, which Xander had taught Dawn just a few weeks ago at another babysitting (er, card playing) session. But as the sugar level in their bloodstreams rose from root beer and illicit M&Ms, the poker games they played got sillier and sillier. Xander reduced Dawn to uncontrollable giggles when he taught her the rules to Indian Poker ("You put a card on your head? Xander, who came up with this game?"). When Xander suddenly looked nervous and said "I meant Native American Poker! No disrespect to any angry Chumash who might be listening, or anything. Absolutely not intended. Because poker is a man's game, yes it is, and because I really would like to go six months without another magical STD, thank you very much," Dawn nearly hyperventilated from laughter. Then they had to explain the joke to poor, bewildered, damn-it-she-had-no-right-to-be-giggling Tara, and that set Dawn off once more. Really Xander should have been far more embarrassed and annoyed that he was, but he liked amusing Dawn, who was adorable when she was gasping from laughter and saying, "Stop it! Stop it! My stomach hurts, stop making me laugh!" And Tara really was fun to be around when she was cracking jokes and tickling Dawn.

Tara tried to teach them the rules to her favorite silly game, but Xander and Dawn both vetoed Night Baseball of the Living Dead. "We're still a little nervous about zombies," Dawn explained.

"There was this thing. At a party we had for Buffy last year, there was this thing," Xander said. "Zombies, zombie cats, destruction and violence. No baseball, though."

"They wrecked the house, and mom was furious for days," Dawn continued. "Actually, one of the things they smashed was my T-ball trophy from when I was eight, which is kind of ironic, when you think about it." Ironic was Dawn's favorite word this week. Xander wasn't sure, but he suspected she was reading the dictionary for big words. He was pleased she'd settled on a word he knew this time; last month it had been "callipygian" for a week and it was always embarrassing when baby Dawn used words he didn't understand.

"Why was it ironic, honey?" Tara asked.

"You know, Night Baseball of the Living Dead," Dawn said. "And it was a T-ball trophy, so practically baseball, and zombies. At night, come to think of it. Huh."

So they didn't end up learning Night Baseball of the Living Dead, but they did play Dropout, and Big Dumb Five, and Follow the Queen. And they also played normal poker, like Seven Card Stud with nothing wild. Whatever they played, Tara always seems to end up with the biggest pile of M&Ms, until finally Dawn and Xander were both entirely cleaned out. Of course, Dawn had contributed to Xander's poverty by stealing candy from his stash whenever he wasn't looking.

"Hey!" he protested, as she stole half his remaining M&Ms. "They shoot horse thieves and people who cheat at cards, you know."

"What?" she asked, around a mouthful of chocolate. "I'm innocent."

"I didn't see anything," Tara said, angelically. But she divided her pile of M&Ms into three little mounds, and pushed one over to Dawn and want to Xander. "These are for eating; I think I'm done playing."

"You won't see me arguing with people giving me chocolate," Xander said, with his mouth full.

"Can I have your green ones?" Dawn asked.

Tara put her hands protectively around her little pile of M&Ms. "No! I won these M&Ms fair and square, including the green ones. Besides, you're too young to want green M&Ms." Dawn looked confused, but happily pushed a pile of light and dark brown M&Ms over to Xander in return for the green ones he'd been picking out since before she even asked. Tara smiled at them, and Xander winked at her.

"Crud!" Xander jumped at Dawn's exclamation. "I got chocolate on my blouse. And popcorn grease. This is a new shirt, too." She looked miserably at her top.

"It's a really pretty top," Tara said, consolingly. "And I'm sure we can get the chocolate off. Let's go upstairs. I'll soak that for you."

Dawn looked up at Tara, happy again. "Oh, would you? That would be great! And I can show you all my new clothes. Mom made Buffy take me at shopping last week, and I got this skirt, and this sweater. I can try them on, if you'd like?" She looked so hopeful that it was hard for Xander not to laugh, and he suspected that Tara was feeling the same way. Adolescent mood swings were cute when they weren't yours.

"We'd love to see your new clothes, Dawnster," he said, and watched as Dawn bolted from her seat and ran up the stairs, causing only to say, "Tara, come on!" Ah, the energy of the young.

Xander waited in the hallway with the remnants of the popcorn, bemused, while Dawn's blouse soaked in the bathroom sink and the girls did girly things in the bedroom. He heard giggling, and muttering, and then the door swung open and Dawn was standing in the doorway wearing a green sweater which he vaguely supposed he had never seen before. "What do you think?" she asked.

"I like it," he replied. "It's very, um, green. And, and sweater-y."

She stuck out her tongue at him and returned to the room, shutting the door in his face. Soon she was back, posing wearing a series of outfits Xander honestly couldn't distinguish from one another, except in that vague box in his head labeled girls' clothes, while Tara stood behind her in the bedroom and smiled indulgently. He nodded and grinned and said what he hoped were the right things. Sometimes what he said made Dawn looked delighted, and sometimes disgruntled, so he figured he was batting about .500.

Finally he heard a scuffle in the room, and Tara -- sounding shy and nervous for the first time since made the done playing poker -- saying "I don't think you should show that one to Xander, Dawnie."

"No, I love this one," he heard Dawn say. "Buffy wanted to browse alone in the Limited so she handed me some cash and sent me to Old Navy, but I ditched and went to Hot Topic. You like?"

"Dawn, um." Then there was a muddle of sounds behind the door -- Xander was becoming more and more curious about what Dawn was wearing -- until Tara's voice finally rose above Dawn's squeak. She didn't sound nervous anymore, she sounded firm and motherly. "Dawn, you look like a tramp."

There was an outraged squeal from the bedroom, but Dawn must have known she was pushing it, because after a minute Xander heard, only slightly sulkily, "Well, how about this one, then? I bought it for the junior high dance."

When Dawn stood in the door, wearing a long black dress and looking at him coyly, Xander swallowed uncomfortably. He knew that Dawn's crush on him was nowhere near as strong as a had been when she was ten, but he was having disturbing flashbacks to last year's Homecoming.

Thank goodness for Tara. She couldn't have known what was wrong, but she must have been able to tell that something was. She popped a sombrero (why on earth did Dawn have a sombrero?) on Dawn's head and crowed, "There. That finishes off the outfit." Immediately Dawn stopped trying to flirt, and thank goodness, because that was just wrong on so many levels. She laughed, and squeezed past Tara to her closet, where she pulled out a Dodgers cap and a cowboy hat.

"Here," she said, patting the cap onto Tara's head and the cowboy hat on Xander's. "Now we're all dressed up fancy."

"Bang bang, you varmint," said Xander. Tara clutched her chest and died messily and with much groaning on Dawn's bed.

"Ooh, aah, ooohhh," she moaned.

Dawn plucked off the baseball cap. "You're not a baseball fan, you're a dastardly villain. You need a twirly moustache."

Tara held a finger over her top lip and waggled it. "You must pay the rent," she said, grimacing like an evil landlord.

"I can't pay the rent!" Xander's falsetto made both girls laugh.

"Xander should have a hair bow and a frilly dress," Tara said.

Dawn suddenly looked embarassed. "Promise you won't tell Buffy?" Tara and Xander, bewildered, nodded. Dawn looked around furtively -- did she think Buffy was hiding behind the dresser? -- shut the door, and hauled a suitcase out from under the bed. "My dress-up clothes," she explained, opening the suitcase and pulling out something red and feathery. "I know I'm too old for dress-up, but I didn't want to get rid of them." She looked up, earnest. "Don't tell Buffy. You promised!"

"It's never too old for dressing up, Dawn," said Tara, and she knelt down and started going through the clothes.

"And the time Willow made me go to the Rennaisance Faire will never be mentioned again, as I will deny to my last breath that I wore knee breeches. How come Willow got to wear a bodice that made her all --" Xander made a gesture. "And I got the girly shirt and short pants?"

Tara ducked her head and blushed, for some reason, and said. "Um. Here, Xander, try this girly shirt." She tossed a blouse with weird patterns on the front at him.

"Ooh, that was my Mom's smock back in the old days," cooed Dawn. "Here, let me." Xander found himself tackled and swathed in Joyce's seventies clothes. Soon there were clothes flying everywhere as the three tried on clothes.

"Here, try this."

"Oh my God, Dawn, whose was this?"

"You look like a punk rocker!"

"Hey, give me that. You're not pretty enough to pull that off, unlike me."

"Xander! That's not nice."

When the dust cleared, Tara was wearing the cowboy hat, a quilted sleeveless ski jacket, and holding a pair of pop guns. Xander was still wearing Joyce's smock, but was decorated with beads and feather boa, and covered with a green apron that said "Kiss me, I'm Irish." Dawn was wearing a football helmet and a pair of yellow overalls sized for a very large adult man, or possibly a small ogre.

Of course this was when the demons broke into the house.

Beating off the demons was actually the easy part. Dawn, holding of the legs of her overalls so she wouldn't trip, head butted one of them right in the 'nads (or at least wear Xander assumed the 'nads were on the demon), and he went down, howling in agony. Xander yelled "Faith and Begorrah!" and threw the popcorn bowl at a demon, then strangled it with the boa. And Tara pointed the pop guns and shouted "Bang! Bang!" The remaining two demons called to each other "It's the sheriff! Run!" and fled the house.

"And stay gone!" Xander called after them. "Or 'tis a taste of my shillelagh you'll be getting." He paused, and looked behind him, where Tara was smirking over the two felled demons and Dawn -- thank God was clearly oblivious. "I so didn't mean that the way it came out." He looked at the girls, dressed in Dawn's dress-up clothes, and the demons tied up with feather boas and some old leg warmers from the suitcase. Red feathers were flying around the room, and one of the dead demons was wearing a sombrero.

Of course this was when Buffy came home.