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"Who Died and Made You the Iron Chef?"

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Steeling himself for the wave of emotions he knew he would feel the moment he passed over the threshold, Spike unlocked the kitchen door of the Summers's home. He hadn't been wrong. No sooner did he step foot across the no longer existing barrier than a barrage of memories swept over him. The counter where he'd sat while Joyce babbled on about Greek amphorae and the kitchen table where they'd had cocoa after Drusilla had left him had been painful reminders of loss to him even before Buffy's death, but now the whole house seemed to echo with the silence of the Slayer's absence. Everywhere he looked he had some memory of her. Each square inch of the house was still full of the faint traces of her scent.

Shaking himself, he set about what he had come here to do: keep his promise. The Little Bit would be returning home tomorrow from her two week stay with her deadbeat father, who, he was happy to say, had at least had the consideration to legally place her in Giles's custody rather than some state run foster home. He wanted to be sure everything was set for her homecoming.

He first examined the front door. It was still firmly locked, so no break-ins had occurred. Check. The mail, which had been collected by the next-door neighbor, was now lying on the entryway table, waiting for him to deliver it to the hacker. Check. The house was clean, the linens fresh, and the windows washed, courtesy of Anya, who seemed to deal with grief best by keeping busy. Check. Well, that was everything. He was just about to leave when a sudden thought occurred to him.

On a hunch, he opened the refrigerator.

"I may not remember much about human food, but I'm pretty sure that milk isn't supposed to be a solid," he said in disgust as he regarded the contents.

There was something green on the topmost shelf. At first he thought it was a head of lettuce but was startled to realize it was, in fact, the remains of a roast. Opening the various drawers, he found several objects that looked like they belonged in the engravings in the Watcher's books on demonology, but absolutely nothing that appeared edible. With a grunt, he opened a garbage bag he found under the sink and slopped the entire contents of the fridge into it, then stared into the white, empty appliance.

"Nothing for it," he muttered. He turned around and walked out the door, locking it behind him.

About fifteen minutes later, his Desoto could be seen screeching into a parking spot not too far from the front door of the local supermarket. With a look of extreme uncomfortableness, he got out of the car and made his way into a building that he never thought he'd be caught dead in. He half-grinned at his own little pun.

Fifteen minutes was the total amount of time he intended to spend inside the store, picking up only the essentials: a little fresh fruit, a couple vegetables, bread, milk and maybe something that would make a decent dinner. Nice, normal, frill-free, healthy stuff. Then, he'd jump back in his car and no one would ever know about his little foray into the suburban Mecca. Yes, even at 127 years old, he was indeed that naive.

His first challenge was getting a shopping cart. Pulling on the blue plastic handle of the first one in the line-up, he attempted to dislodge it from the sixty others piled up behind it. It didn't even budge. Kicking, swearing, thumping, and punching all did absolutely no good. Winded, he stood back and surveyed the row of silvery contraptions.

At that moment a little old lady shuffled in front of him, removed the cart he had been sweating over without mussing a single blue hair, and scuttled off into the market. He stared at her in disbelief, then let out an atrocious yell and slugged the pile of carts. As though deciding that he'd suffered enough, one cart spontaneously disengaged itself from the others. With a smirk of manly satisfaction, he grabbed the handle and made his way through the main doors, purposely ignoring the one wheel that had decided beyond any shadow of a doubt that it wanted to go the other way.

Immediately his eyes were assaulted by the glare of the florescent lights while his ears were tortured by the sound of Paul Simon's "Cecelia" being played on a tuba over the intercom system. The place was enormous. For a full ten seconds, he stood stock still in shock as he tried to comprehend the abundancy of aisles, the dozens of displays, and the conundrum of counters scattered around the room that appeared to be the size of New Jersey.

"Get a grip, mate," he told himself. "It's only produce. Not like it's going to attack you."

He half wished that a giant carrot demon would suddenly start to wreak havoc on the population of Sunnydale just so he'd have a real excuse not to pick up groceries. With a sigh, he decided to start with the first row and work his way to the other end of the market. If he lived that long.

The first section had a huge sign that proclaimed it sold fresh fruits and vegetables. This, he thought, definitely fell under the category of healthy. Joyce would approve of Dawn eating her veggies. How hard could it possibly be?

He spent over half an hour at the apple display alone.

Rome. Granny Smith. Fuji. Golden Delicious. Gala. Macintosh. When he'd been a human, there had been two types of apples: red and green. That was it. Now the little signs in front of each bin told him some were meant for pies, some for salads, and some, oddly enough, only said "eating."

"Well, what the bloody hell else are you going to do with an apple? Try to split an atom with it?" he complained aloud. The other shoppers had already decided to give the intimidating vampire a wide berth, so no one overheard him.

He decided on getting Granny Smiths and Macintoshes, but then spent the better part of ten minutes trying to find ones that had no bruises, discolorations, or breaks in the skin. At long last, he placed the two plastic bags that had taken him forever to figure out how to open into his cart with extraordinary caution so none of the fruit bruised. Shaking his head, he turned to the next display: citrus fruit.

"Naval oranges. Mandarins. Persimmons. Tangerines. Clementines. Nectarines. Tangelos? What kind of a bloody name is that?"

There had to be at least thirty varieties, not one of which had ever passed his lips since they had been a luxury item in the nineteenth century. He resigned himself to playing another round of "find the least fouled up fruit."

After wrapping up several lovely specimens of oranges and grapefruits, as well as one pineapple (which had succeeded in scratching up his palms nicely), he moved on to the vegetables. The first thing he saw was...

"Potatoes." His eyes increased to fifty times their normal size at the shear number of varieties. Adding insult to injury, the potatoes stared back at him with all of their many eyes.

"White. Idaho. Red. Oregon Gold. Irish. Sweet. Yams. New. As opposed to what, old potatoes?"

Swaying back and forth slightly in the air conditioning breeze, he decided he needed help. But who the heck would he know who would be able to tell him about potatoes? The Scoobies were all otherwise occupied for the evening. A thought occurred to him, and it was a mark of just how desperate he was that he only balked at calling him for a moment. Whipping out his cell, he dialed the number quickly before he could change his mind.

"Angel Investigations."

"Put Peaches on the line," he said gruffly, making a mental note that he should probably also pick up a few peaches while he was at it.

"Spike? What's up?" Angel's careful voice said over the static on the line.

"What kind of potatoes should I get for Dawn?"

There was no mistaking the guffaw of laughter on the other end of the line.

"Why are you asking me?" he finally managed to spit out.

"Because you're Irish and all they eat is potatoes, so I figured you'd know, and if you don't stop snickering I'll find a way to use your pancreas as a soccer ball!"

"Spike, I haven't eaten a potato in over two hundred years. How should I know?"

"Right, uh, well," he started dejectedly.

"Oh, okay. If you're looking for a baked potato, get Idaho. Choose ones without any sprouts coming out of the eyes and with as few bruises as possible." In truth, nary a Friday night had passed since he'd been turned that he didn't find himself craving potato farls and bannocks. However, he wasn't about to openly admit his penchant for what Spike always termed sissy food.

"Is it okay if they're kind of dirty?" he said as he examined one of the tubers with a look of high suspicion.

"All potatoes are dirty. They grow underground," the older vampire explained as though talking to a two year old.

"Idaho. Got it." The line abruptly went dead as Spike shoved four or five Idaho potatoes into a bag and moved on to the next display.

Over three hours later, the vampire was pushing a cart that contained almost painfully selected produce into the bread aisle.

"Now this I remember," he thought with something akin to glee. "How hard can buying a loaf be?"

Then he saw the dozens of kinds.

"White. Wheat. Italian. Sourdough. Rye. Pumpernickel. Marble. Poppy seed. Challah. Russian black. Cinnamon Raisin." He repeated the names like a mantra, his voice reaching a high pitch that said he was a mere moment away from snapping. Then his eyes lit up with malice. "Potato Bread! They're ruddy well following me!"

That settled it. Somehow, all of this was Angel's fault.

At long last he settled on organically grown whole wheat, fairly certain it was healthy but also equally sure it would taste like cardboard. After plopping the cellophane bag in the cart, he bolted out of the aisle.

With an extremely bad case of jangling nerves, he pushed the cart towards a picture of a cow hanging on the far back wall. For an instant, he dared to hope that this time he would simply be able to pick a bottle off the shelf and move on. But then...

"Skim. Two percent. Five percent. Vitamin A and D fortified. Chocolate. Butter. Half and half. Strawberry. Oh, for crying out loud, the Communists were right! There is too much sodding variety in the American marketplace!"

He finally concluded that, although the skim was probably the healthiest, the fact that it resembled water was probably not a good indication of taste. He lugged a gallon of two percent into the cart, then noted that the expiration date was yesterday. With a feral growl, he flung open the refrigerator door and dug to the back of the cooler, oddly feeling as though he were disemboweling the dairy section and liking it tremendously, re-emerging with milk due ten days from now. He gave the painted cow a cocky grin and kicked the door firmly shut.

One last stop to make and he could vamoose. Approaching the butcher's counter, he gazed at the different cuts of...

"Beef. Chicken. Pork. Veal. Venison. Turkey. Fish. Dang it, they're staring at me again!"

He was getting extremely hungry. Trying to restrain himself, he began to run down a mental list of all the nutritional benefits of each item.

"Beef's got cholesterol. Pork too. Veal is made of baby cows and venison is Bambi-meat; Dawn wouldn't like that. That turkey's as big as she is. Chicken. Gotta be chicken."

He rang the little bell on the counter, gave the butcher his order, and received a whole chicken. After the man left, Spike quietly edged his way behind the counter and proceeded to completely drain five pot roasts. It had been a very rough night indeed. Feeling slightly better, he proceeded to the cash registers.

The "fifteen items or fewer" lane was definitely out. He resigned himself to waiting in line behind six other late-night shoppers. The line inched forward at a speed that made a glacier look like a turbo jet. He found himself contemplating buying gum for no other reason than the fact he'd been staring at the same package for twenty minutes and was beginning to feel somehow emotionally attached to it. At long last, he was able to start loading everything on to the conveyor belt, practically giddy over the idea that an end was in sight. No sooner did the person directly in front of him hand over her cash than the cashier started to put up a "this register closed" sign.

"What do you think you're doing?" the vampire asked the pimply teenager.

"It's time for my break."

That did it. Suddenly in full game face, Spike grabbed the kid by the front of his cheap polyester smock and growled.

"NOT UNTIL YOU RING ME UP!" he insisted none-too-politely. For once, his chip seemed to think he'd put up with enough and didn't so much as give him a pinch for the many, highly violent thoughts that were running through his head.

It was the fastest bill the checkout boy had ever rung up. After forking over more money than he had thought humanly possible for the food, he sighed with relief that, at long last, he didn't have to make any more decisions.

"Um, do you want paper or plastic?" the bag boy asked timidly.

The vampire fixed his once-more golden gaze on him and said, with extreme strain, "Just. Pack. The. Bloody. Groceries."

Only a few minutes later, the Big Bad was tearing down the road in his beloved Desoto, punk blaring from his radio at ear-shattering volume and the air conditioning turned up to near polar proportions to prevent the milk from turning. It had taken him over five hours, but he had finally succeeded in his quest. He hoped.

The back door of the Summers's home swung open shortly thereafter, revealing what appeared to be a walking pile of brown paper bags balanced atop a pair of black jeans. The vampire set his burden down on the counter top and returned to his car, coming back fully laden again. And again. And once again. He stared in disbelief at the twenty bags on the kitchen island. What had happened to "fruit, vegetables, bread, and milk"?

He shoved the milk and the chicken in the vacant refrigerator first, fearing they would spoil if left out too long. The fruit and vegetables followed them, except for the potatoes, which he crammed into a bin nearby that had been thoughtfully labeled. The bread was stuffed into the breadbox, and the rest of the odds and ends he'd picked up were stowed away in their respective places. As a final touch, he put a tin of cocoa powder and a bag of mini-marshmallows in the cabinet near the sink.

With a last look around, Spike crumpled the bags (which happily relieved a lot of his pent up tension), grabbed the mail off the entryway table to drop off at Willow's, and was just about to leave when he had an idea. Picking up the pen and paper that were next to the phone, he scrawled a quick note and stuffed it into the fridge. The vampire then left with the approach of false dawn, barely making it back to his crypt before the sun was up.

About six hours later, the Summers's front door was opened by a very somber little group. Giles, Tara, Willow, and Dawn entered the house quietly, each one feeling the pain of loss sharply once again at its silence.

"We're really glad to have you home again, Dawn," Willow said with a half-hearted smile. "We missed you a lot."

"Yes. Yes, indeed we did," Giles agreed in a far-away voice.

"So, um, w-would you like to put your suitcase up-up stairs or in the laundry room?" asked Tara, her old stutter returning with the uncomfortable situation.

"Laundry's probably better," came the teenager's lackluster reply.

"How was your trip?" Giles asked in an attempt to make the situation a little less depressing.

"Fine. Unless you count the fact that Dad was away on business for ten of the fourteen days I was there. I spent a lot of time stuck in his apartment."

"Oh. Well, what about the other four?" Giles asked, trying to hide his ill-concealed anger.

"One day he picked me up at the airport, one day he dropped me off, and the other two his secretary was around most of the time. I think we had dinner together once." There was an obvious note of pain in her voice.

Giles was very glad the girl was looking at the floor since his face was probably a perfect illustration of murderous intent. Willow found herself trying to remember the words of a spell that would give the girl's father a particularly nasty rash. Meanwhile Tara, sweet little Tara, actually growled faintly. It was this surprising noise that broke the unpleasant moment as everyone looked up in surprise and Tara grinned apologetically.

"Speaking of growling, are you hungry, Dawny?" Willow asked, glad of the change in topic.

"A little." Actually, a lot, she thought. She hadn't eaten since the previous night.

"We could go out and grab something to eat, if you want," said Willow, fearfully pulling open the door of the fridge, terrified of what she was going to find. "I doubt there's anything still edible in here." Her green eyes widened to three times their normal size as she took in the contents. "Or, on the other hand, you could get something from the Farmer's Market that seems to have set up shop in your kitchen."

"Huh?"

The others all peered inside the opened refrigerator at the almost ridiculous amount of food.

"Who on earth...?" Giles began.

"Whoever it was, they seem to think you have an army stopping by for lunch," Tara said as she gawked at the contents.

Dawn's eyes suddenly spotted a small scrap of paper lying atop a bag of peaches. Unfolding it, she actually smiled at the words.

"Nibbles for the Nibblet."