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Happy Returns

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No one had ever thrown a party for Tara before.

Not that she didn’t appreciate it. But it was so loud, and there were so many people. She took one on one time with as many of her friends as she could, but when they all crowded close around her, laughing and shouting, she felt claustrophobic, trapped.

Finally it became too much for her and she slipped off to one of the Bronze’s conversation nooks for a quiet moment.

She turned to drop onto the couch when she saw the figure hidden in the corner. Sprawled out in one of the chairs back in the shadows, a beer in one hand, Spike watched her with an amused smirk. “Sneakin’ away from the ball, princess?”

“I . . .I’m sorry, I did . . . didn’t mean to intrude. I’ll just . . .” She moved to leave.

“Have a seat, if you don’t mind the company.”

“I don’t mind.” She settled herself down onto the sofa, uncertain of where to put her eyes.

He seemed to pick up on her discomfort and sat himself up a little straighter, fiddling with the bottle in his hand. “Um. You need a drink?” He started to get up.

“No, please!” She stopped him with a gesture. “I’m fine. I just need a bbbreak. Please, don’t get up.”

“Crowds not your thing, huh?” He leaned back again in the chair, and she relaxed as well, shaking her head.

“Yeah, me neither. I just came for the free food.”

“Do you eat?”

“If it’s spicy enough. And the cake. Love sweets.”

“Did you get a piece? Because I could . . .”

“Don’t bother yourself, pet. Plenty of time for me to nick a piece later.”

“Oh.” She looked at him quizzically. “They didn’t invite you?”

He laughed. “Oh, pet! They wouldn’t invite me to my own staking!”

“I’m sorry. I’m sure they don’t mean anything by it.”

He just raised an eyebrow at her.

“I’m glad you’re here, anyway. I didn’t get a chance to thank you. For what you did for me today.”

He chuffed and waved her off. “It wasn’t anything.”

“You hurt yourself to help me! That’s something to me. Thank you.”

He ducked his head, and she could have sworn he was embarrassed. “My pleasure.”

She shifted in her seat. “I should probably get back. Willow wanted to open presents.”

“Oh, right.” He patted his pockets, looking for something. “Brought you something.” He pulled out a brown leather pouch and handed it to her.

“You got me a present?”

He shrugged. “May be a gate crasher, but I respect the traditions, if they’re good ones. Open it.”

She untied the knots and loosened the drawstring to reveal white silk wrapped around something vaguely box shaped. Unfolding the silk uncovered a stack of cards, old and well used and reeking of dark energy. Not black magic, but years of use in the service of death. She spread them out, looking at the antique faces in awe. “These are beautiful. And strong.”

“Belonged to my ex. Got left here last time we were in town. Thought they could use a new mistress.”

“I couldn’t . . .”

“Take ‘em, girl,” he growled. “That part of my unlife is over. Got no use for ‘em, but they’re too good for the trash. You’d be doin’ me a favor.”

“Well, if you’re sure . . .”

“Many happy returns, Glinda.”

She rose to go back to the party, but stopped beside him, bending down to brush her lips lightly across his. “Thank you, Spike.” He had nice lips for a man.

“You’re welcome, Tara. Happy birthday.”