Teaser

The streets of downtown Trillium were deserted and eerily silent, save for the light breeze that whipped at the debris littering the gutters of a discarded day. The moon was engaged in a game of hide-and-seek with the scuttling clouds, bathing the area below in silvery light one moment and then draping it with dense shadow the next. A foraging cat, gray against shadows, emerged into the mouth of an alley and stalked a fluttering candy wrapper for a moment before disappearing into an air duct located at the base of one of the buildings. It fled with a furtive glance behind, ears twitching at the sound of approaching footsteps.

A petite figure, chest heaving with exertion, rounded the corner. Her nervous silhouette paused for no more than a pounding heartbeat before she began to sprint along the length of the narrow back street. She peered constantly over her shoulder as she ran, feet often stumbling in their flight toward hopeful sanctuary, but the terrified glances revealed nothing of consequence. Continuing to draw deep breaths, the figure, head downturned, collided heavily with a lurking form which had suddenly materialized unnoticed. She staggered backward and almost lost her delicate balance, but the looming menace swiftly seized her upper arms and tugged her close.

Beneath the moonlight, his face revealed how much he had been enjoying the chase. Although obviously entertained by the pursuit, his gleaming fangs also indicated the overwhelming desire to draw blood. He leaned forward, savoring the moment of victory.

"You know there's no escape," he chuckled softly, brushing his hand down the girl's cheek in a grotesque pantomime of affection. "I told you that, sweetheart. You can't get away from me. Not ever."

His captive whimpered pitifully as the vampire lifted her out of the shadows and pinned her against the brick wall. An overhead streetlight bathed the girl in weak light. It was Buffy. With wide eyes, she bit her lip and then whimpered once more, virtually paralyzed with fear.

"You can run and run," he grinned, darting out his tongue, "but I. Will always. Be there. Even if you got away, I'd still be there. Haunting you. Hunting you. You'd never feel comfortable in the dark again. You'd always wonder, 'Is he out there? Can he find me?'" He paused for effect. "And you know the answer, don't you sweetheart?"

Buffy trembled, her eyes widening even further.

"Help," she choked, her voice little more than a stifled sob.

The vampire cocked his head. "What's that? What'd you say?"

"Help," she repeated with more strength, the words ringing out into the night. "Help!"

"Help, help!" the vampire yelled in his loudest voice. When there was no answer, he threw back his head and laughed heartily. "You donít have anybody, sweetheart. Your friends, your family ... Nobody's left to help you. Nobody. There's only you." He frowned as though a thought had suddenly occurred. "Oh, and me," he added with a toothy smile.

The joviality was fleeting. Baring his wickedly sharp fangs, the vampire moved deliberately toward Buffy's exposed neck. There was no mistaking his intentions and Buffy was spurred into action. Struggling violently, she managed to free her hand and slashed at the vampire's face with her nails. Growling angrily at the unexpected assault, the vampire hurled Buffy to the ground.

"You, me, and that little spark of defiance you've got left," he amended with a snarl, dabbing gingerly at his ripped cheek. "Luckily, I got the cure."

Straddling the blonde, he loomed over her and began to fumble at his belt buckle.

Buffy's eye roll was nearly audible and all trace of fear had completely vanished. "Oh my god," she sneered, her tone one of undeniable boredom.

Suddenly she was in motion and Buffy kicked straight upward. The vampire's eyes protruded just for a moment before clenching shut in agony. He doubled over with a muted but agonized groan. Swinging her other leg around, Buffy connected solidly with the vampire's jaw. His moaning abruptly cut short, the vampire crumpled to the ground, hands still cupped protectively around his earlier injury. Easily rolling to her feet, Buffy deftly spun a wooden stake that had appeared from nowhere and took a meaningful step toward the vampire.

"Ah-ah-ah!" came a warning from the shadows.

Accompanied by an irritated puff of air, Buffy whirled, eying the entrance to the alleyway with frustration. Perched atop a stack of crates, Willow sipped on a mocha and bounced her heels against the wood. Next to the redhead leaned Xander, tapping purposefully upon the crystal of his wristwatch while regarding Buffy with an unspoken accusation.

"Oh come on!" urged Buffy with something of a pout.

"You've still got ..." Xander briefly consulted his timepiece, "one minute and twenty-six seconds to go."

From the concrete, the vampire stirred slightly. "A minute ..." he muttered painfully through gritted teeth.

"And twenty-six seconds," Xander added helpfully.

Lost in utter confusion, the vampire blinked and then eyed Buffy warily as she turned to look down at him, shrugging by way of explanation. "It's my dare."

The statement did little to clarify things for the unfortunate creature.

"Which ya could've avoided if you'd just taken 'truth,'" Willow pointed out with the faintest touch of admonishment.

Buffy's attention returned to her friends. "Please, from Xander? I shudder to think." She gave a cursory shudder for emphasis.

"And you talk to procrastinate," charged Xander. "Come on." He tapped the crystal again. "One-twenty-six. The clock will not resume without you."

Exhaling with an extremely heavy and a very put-upon sigh, Buffy rolled her eyes. In a totally flat, completely unbelievable monotone she began her dispassionate soliloquy.

"Ah, help. Help me. Oh god, please. I am distressed and in grave peril. Behold the excruciating peril that is Buffy."

The vampire struggled to his feet. "Buffy?" he questioned, as though he couldn't possibly have heard the name correctly.

"Buffy," she verified. "The Vampire Slayer."

"Slayer?"

The anxious query went ignored.

Crinkling her nose, Willow shook her head. "I'm just not feeling it."

"No, I'm forced to agree," Xander concurred wholeheartedly. "It lacked depth."

"I couldn't empathize with the title character."

"It was a wooden performance."

Buffy narrowed her eyes at Xander's exceedingly bad pun.

"It lacked punch," Willow continued, seemingly content to continue the critique well beyond its amusement freshness date.

Presumably believing he had all but been forgotten, the vampire decided to take full advantage of the continuing banter to make his move. He crept up on Buffy from behind and lunged. He didn't see the back of the blonde's fist until it caught him squarely on the bridge of his nose. His eyes registered mild surprise before they became clouded once again. Then, he fell back onto the cold concrete with a dull thud. Without missing a beat, Buffy leveled a glare in the direction of Willow and Xander.

The redhead obviously approved. "Punchy," she acknowledged, sucking noisily on her straw.

Xander, on the other hand, was less appreciative. "That wasn't very helpless-like."

Buffy declined to respond. Instead, she calmly sidestepped the now recovered vampire, who was charging at her back. As he flashed past, she grabbed a fistful of shirt, executed a 180° spin and flung him headfirst into the wall. He slumped the ground with what was proving to be rather tedious regularity.

"Yeah, see," sighed an exasperated Xander, "I can't help but think you're sort of missing the point."

To his credit, the woozy vampire was struggling to his feet yet again. Grabbing his lapels, Buffy lent aid to his cause.

"I guess—" she stated, landing a well-aimed punch to the vampire's chin. His head snapped crisply to the right. "—I don't have—" she continued, hooking his jaw so his head jerked in the opposite direction. "—the right motivation!"

She paused and then hefted a fist that found its mark directly between the eyes. The vampire let out not one single solitary moan as he slammed into the brickwork for the last time. Indeed, he never even felt the stake pierce his chest.

The vampire now little more than a pile of dust, Buffy turned back to her friends, slipping the stake into her jacket. "And really, isn't that the director's fault?" she asked pointedly.

Willow stared into the depths of her mocha. "It was a dumb dare anyway," she announced, glancing sideways at Xander's accusing look. "I mean, come on. 'Pretend to be weak and helpless for the first five minutes of your next vampire encounter'?"

Hopping off the crate, the redhead joined Buffy and handed her the drink. The offer was gratefully accepted as the pair walked away arm-in-arm. Xander hastened to catch up.

"It was supposed to be funny," he insisted.

Buffy arched an eyebrow. "And was it?"

The carpenter considered his answer carefully. "I thought you screamed like a girl really well," he told her. "You know, for a ... girl. Besides, I didn't think you'd actually run into one, and then you'd be indebted to me for life by forfeiting your dare."

Frowning, Willow reached out to take back her mocha. "Okay," she remarked thoughtfully around the straw, "see I missed the part of the rules where there was indentured servitude."

"Oh, I just made it up," admitted Xander with a shrug.

Buffy nodded. "You're right though, I didn't think we'd find a vamp either. They've been sorta scarce for the past week or so, even for a town full of Slayers."

"Maybe they all got smart and decided to move somewhere without like fifty supernaturally empowered protectors of humankind?" suggested Willow with a sunny smile.

The trio chewed over the proposition before declaring, emphatically and in unison, "Nahh."

"Still plenty of demons and ucky slimy things though," Xander noted.

"Yeah," agreed Buffy. "Demons o' plenty. It's not like there's less evil, just that the evil slide rule has been nudged to the left a bit. But I digress. Okay Will, truth or dare?"

"Truth," stated an unhesitating Willow.

"Chicken," accused Xander.

"Silly dare maker-upper," she shot back.

Buffy's forehead creased with concentration. "Truth, truth ..." she murmured quietly to herself.

"Ask her about her rollicking sex life," proposed Xander with a grin.

Willow was suitably shocked. "Xander!"

"Please," Buffy scoffed with a roll of her eyes. "I have Slayer hearing. I already have way more information than I ..."

Willow's expression immediately moved up a notch on the distressed scale, and the blonde hurriedly backpedaled.

"Did I say 'way'? I meant ... gray. I have gray information. In that the information – of which there is the sparsest of sparse amounts – is very ... fuzzy. And sort of grayish." She flashed a brief but hopefully endearing smile before acknowledging defeat. "So, about that rollicking sex life?"

Her mouth opening and closing several times, Willow tried desperately to go on the offensive. "Oh yeah, well ... well what about your sex life?" she demanded, poking her mocha at Buffy and then immediately regretting the act as she lost possession. She turned to Xander and jabbed at him with her finger. "Huh? O-Or yours? There's not just me, you know!"

Xander peered over the top of Willow's head as he and Buffy exchanged a look.

"Actually, there kinda is," he replied.

"I would have to agree," affirmed Buffy. "The two of us are sitting in Spinster Alley." She frowned as she glanced at Xander. "Or I am, with the female thing and all. Is there a male word for 'spinster'?"

"I think it's 'lucky'," smirked the carpenter.

The redhead's expression fell as she regarded Buffy seriously. "But what about ... uhm ..." She waved her hand in the air as she searched for an appropriate name.

"Mark," she finally announced, at the exact same moment Xander supplied, "Dave."

"Roger," Buffy corrected them both.

"Or him," Willow amicably agreed.

The blonde shrugged. "Eh. He was okay. There just wasn't that 'something' you know? I like my guys to be ..." her voice trailed away in thought.

"Room temperature?" ventured Xander with a grin.

Buffy's eyes narrowed into a glare. "Different," she clarified. "I'm looking for that special something and Roger—"

"And Mark."

"And Dave."

"—just don't have it," finished Buffy. "That's okay though. All my big relationships have been so super intense, it's nice to just go out on a few normal dates that don't end – or begin – with violence and death."

Xander nodded. "That's a good plan. I'd use that, if I ever date ever again ever."

"You could date," Buffy told him firmly.

"I could," he readily agreed.

"You should date," continued Buffy, just as firmly.

Again, Xander expressed no denial. "I should."

"Butcha won't," came Willow's assertion.

"I will," he stated with resolve.

The trio passed by the entrance to an alleyway, like many on the downtown streets. Nobody bothered to give it a second glance. Instead they continued down the sidewalk, thoroughly engrossed in their conversation, which could be easily heard even as they walked further away.

"But first," Xander was demanding, "I want to hear all about this rollicking sex life of yours."

Willow jutted out her chin defiantly, clearly staking a claim on the high road. "My lips are sealed."

From the shadow of a building within the narrow alley, a vampire emerged. He was a hulking creature, nearly twice the size of the one Buffy had battled earlier. His physique was more toned and his countenance far more threatening. He made no attempt to stalk the trio. Indeed, he stood perfectly still and moved not a single muscle, content it seemed to simply observe their imminent departure.

"Fine, fine," the carpenter's aggrieved tone echoed. "Need I remind you of the whole slavery issue for forfeiting? Plus, you know I'll just use my next turn to dig all the juicy details outta the human Supersonic Ear."

"Hey, don't drag me into this!" Buffy protested as they continued their journey straight ahead. "A Slayer must choose her battles wisely. I wisely don't choose this one."

Still, the vampire remained unmoving, although it was rapidly becoming obvious that his rigidity was caused less by personal choice and more by fear. From behind him stepped a Japanese girl. She was young, appearing perhaps no more than 14. Fine-boned and fragile in build, she gave the impression of an exquisite china doll – something dainty that should be locked away in a museum and guarded for safekeeping. She seemed out of place in the darkened back street, her aura of delicacy strangely at odds with the stake in her hand that was partially embedded in the vampire's chest, directly over his heart.

The sharpened stake remained motionless, neither withdrawing nor moving to finish the death it had started. The girl paid the vampire no mind, focused solely in the direction Buffy, Willow and Xander had taken.

Clearly fearing for his existence, the vampire swallowed hard. His eyes darted from the stake in his chest to the person who held it there; otherwise, he didn't dare to even twitch.

"That girl," the vampire's captor finally spoke. Her words were in perfect English, but her voice was heavily laced with an oriental accent. "The blonde. She is Slayer?"

Skittish but obviously desperate to please, the vampire was quick to confirm. "Yeah. Yeah, she's a Slayer. The big one around here. There was another, but she's not around, she—"

"Those with her?" the girl interrupted.

"Her friends," he hastened to reply.

"Friends. Friends are weakness." Her words held no reproach.

The vampire shrugged as well as possible, given the circumstances. "If you say so. She seems plenty strong if you ask me." As the girl's almond-shaped eyes fell upon him, he retreated into groveling mode. "Which you didn't, so never mind."

Cocking her head to one side, she considered the vampire for a moment "For the information," the girl finally stated, "I thank you."

The vampire was immediately hopeful. "So ... I can go now?" He glanced warily at the stake and winced. "Cuz I gotta say, besides the burning agony here, I can just feel that thing about a centimeter away from ground zero and it's making me—"

"You are evil." The statement was made without malice. It was a simple undisputable fact.

The air between them grew thick as the vampire seemed to be waiting for a continuation of the accusation. But no continuation was forthcoming. The girl simply observed him, patient and examining.

"Well ... yeah," he finally admitted. "Sorta comes with the gig, you know? They drunk, I drunk, lose the soul, replace with demon ..."

"I know this."

The vampire laughed. It was an uneasy sound, brittle and far too high-pitched for one with such a burly frame. "Of course you do!" he assured. "Of course. So ... So yeah. Evil. That's me." He paused and grinned nervously. "Rrr."

She nodded, as though his words had carried with them great wisdom. "There must be balance. Evil is necessary."

The grin on the vampire's face grew broader. He shuffled his feet a little, apparently believing that freedom was within his grasp.

However, there was barely time for the smile to turn to surprise as he found himself being speedily and efficiently dusted. The girl's hand darted out as she allowed a small pile of the residual ash to sift gently into her palm. Bringing it closer, she scrutinized it with open interest.

"You are not," she finally determined.

Opening a leather pouch, worn and ancient, she carefully poured the dust inside, securing it tightly with a slender strap. Glancing up, she gazed into the distance, where Buffy, Willow and Xander were continuing their walk, now little more than vague shades in the moonlight, moving further and further away.


"Truth or Dare"
Story by: Jet Wolf and Ultrace
Scripted by: Jet Wolf
Prosed by: Novareinna and Jet Wolf
Edited by: Jet Wolf and Novareinna
Original Airdate: Tuesday, 5 April 2005, 8pm ET


Act One

In the living room of the Scoobies' house, the television, tuned to Animal Planet, played on, blissfully unaware that its avid viewers were somewhat less than attentive. To the television, at any rate. The screen could have been projecting the secret, inner thoughts of the world's most fascinating people, and Dawn and Grip still wouldn't have spared it a glance.

The young couple was snuggled cozily on the couch, their eyes only for each other. Dawn smiled, even through the soft kiss, and Grip couldn't help but echo it as his thumb stroked her cheek. They separated, just enough to open their eyes and smile wider, then like their lips had been magnetized, they were drawn together again. Dawn's hands, seemingly of their own volition, began to snake their way under the back of Grip's shirt and she grinned again – until the front door burst open and the pair jerked apart.

Recovering smoothly, Grip's demeanor betrayed no sense of impropriety, and he watched the living room entrance with a welcoming expression. By complete contrast, Dawn immediately began adjusting her shirt, smoothing back her hair, adjusting her shirt again, trying to find a less incriminating seating position, and then adjusting her shirt a final time. As her sister's voice reached her ears, she added blushing to her repertoire.

"...experience I'll never forget," Buffy was commenting as the front door closed.

Xander's agreement was absolute as he spoke over the sounds of keys jangling and removal of coats. "It's amazing how much you can learn about a person by how they sing 'Love to Love You Baby'."

"There will be payback for this," Willow promised in a deceptively calm tone, "mark my words."

Dawn had mostly managed to compose herself as the trio entered, although the toothily innocent smile she flashed lived at least two zip codes away from completely genuine.

"Buffy!" Her tone was excessively perky and somewhat skittish. "Hi! Hi guys!"

If Buffy noticed Dawn's jittery behavior, she certainly didn't remark on it. Simply reciprocating the smile, she turned and grabbed the mail from a nearby table, flipping through the envelopes before glancing briefly at the couple on the couch.

"Hey Grip," the Slayer told him with a friendly nod of acknowledgment.

"Hey Miss Summers," he replied, cordially and calmly, although the glint in his eye betrayed his amusement at Dawn's nervousness. He inclined his head toward Willow and Xander. "Hi guys."

Arching an all-knowing eyebrow, Willow looked to Xander with a smirk. His lips curled in a grin that could be best described as "wicked". Moving toward the pair, Willow threw herself down next to Dawn while Xander perched on the arm of the couch next to Grip. Dawn threw furtive glances at each of them and began wringing her hands in her lap.

"Grip was helping me with stuff," she began.

"I'll bet," agreed Xander.

Dawn hastened to clarify. "School stuff."

"Biology?" inquired Willow sweetly.

This earned the witch a wide-eyed blink from the incredulous Dawn, but Willow only returned the smile, as though it were the most natural assumption in the world to make. Buffy took up residence in Xander's chair and continued to sort through the mail.

Xander gestured toward the television. "So, what're we watching?"

"Nature show," Dawn told him quickly.

Xander nodded. "Ahh, animals. Nice topic. Very relatable, seein' as how we all are one, last I heard." He affixed the teenagers with a pointed stare. "So what's it about?"

Dawn and Grip glanced at the screen, now in the throes of a commercial. They exchanged the briefest of looks, neither having even the slightest clue.

"Sea turtles," stated Grip confidently.

"Bugs," came Dawn's response at the same time.

"Sea turtles and bugs," Grip amended without missing a beat. "It's a look at the differing ecological structures in the sea turtle and insect native habitats."

The show resumed. Featured quite prominently was a huge bear, munching lazily on a shaft of bamboo.

"And also pandas," reported Grip, his grin never faltering.

"That's a pretty complex show ya got there," remarked Willow wryly.

Grip nodded in her direction. "Well knowing is half the battle."

The corner of Xander's mouth twitched upward. "The other half is a more ... hands-on experience?"

Dawn shrank against the cushions. She seemed regretful when they didn't swallow her whole.

"This all sounds really fascinating," announced Buffy, intently scanning the contents of an open envelope, "but it's almost 1am and I believe you two must continue that uphill knowledge battle bright and early tomorrow, so ..."

Dawn's expression immediately grew sunnier, instantly latching onto a most fortuitous opportunity to exit this nightmare.

"Yes!" She confirmed exuberantly. "Yes, so ..." She hopped to her feet. "So Grip, thank you for helping me with—" Dawn turned pointedly toward Willow, "—my history."

Willow tucked her legs beneath her. "Do you think they're doomed to repeat it?" she asked Xander.

"That depends," pondered the carpenter for a second. "Do you think we're doomed to keep walkin' in on it?"

Dawn's eyes grew wide with horror. She seized Grip's arm and hauled him up from the couch. "Oh my god. Leave. Leave quickly."

Stifling a laugh, Grip took the insinuations in stride and good-naturedly allowed Dawn to propel him toward the front door. Still seated on the couch, Willow and Xander leaned forward in an effort to watch the hurried departure, courtesy of Dawn's insistent pushing.

Safe from their line of vision in the foyer, Dawn rolled her eyes. "What are they, like nine? I am so beyond sorry."

Reaching out, Grip squeezed her hand. "Nah, don't be. Tonight was good," he told her gently.

"It really was," smiled Dawn, embarrassment all but forgotten. "I wish you didn't have to go so soon though..." She shook her head in amazement. "I still can't believe we're back in school! This summer just flew by."

"It did," nodded Grip before adding, "Well except for that bit where you were away in England. That part flew less. There was, in fact, little to no flying involved. It was mostly idling on the tarmac."

"I know! It was torture!" groaned Dawn. "All that time in another country, seeing the city and the green green hills and with all the really cool accents and ... Oh no, wait, that wasn't torture that was so cool." Her enthusiasm bubbled for a moment but quickly settled. "But the missing you part, there was that."

Grip chuckled. "You know what we have to do: Next time you go for exciting overseas adventures, you'll just have to bring me along. I'll hide in your luggage."

"I don't think you'll fit," Dawn informed briskly, inspecting him from head to toe with admiring appraisal.

Grip squeezed her hand again. "We'll use a Space Bag. Haven't you seen the commercials? You can fit anything anywhere with a Space Bag."

"My own portable Grip," sighed Dawn contentedly.

Grip's eyes twinkled. "Now with extra space-saving action."

"Mmm," whispered Dawn. "And that's not all ..."

Lost in the moment, the pair leaned toward each other, goodbye smoochies seizing the top spot on their immediate agenda and causing both to forget where they were. Luckily, Buffy was quick to remind them.

"You need a ride home, Grip?"

Their forward motion screeched to a halt. Grip glanced toward the entrance to the living room while Dawn appeared to be teetering on the verge a total frustrated meltdown.

"I'm cool," he called out. "I borrowed my dad's car. Thanks though." Depositing a rather chaste peck on Dawn's cheek, he murmured, "I better go. I'll see you tomorrow."

Dawn nodded with resignation. "Okay." She opened the door and stood to one side as Grip made his exit. "Thanks again for the help on my homework!" she stated, loudly and pointedly, as he left.

She lingered on the step for a few seconds longer, watching as Grip got into the car. He waved at her through the window and she waved back. Within seconds, the engine had started and Grip was out of sight. Closing the door, Dawn sighed heavily and then steeled herself for a return to the living room.

Now seated on the couch proper, Xander was randomly punching remote control buttons, while Buffy and Willow looked on with exasperation. The carpenter's thumb continued to depress at regular intervals even though he turned to greet Dawn with a broad grin. Willow's neck also swiveled at Dawn's reemergence. She treated the teenager to a meaningful nod and a knowing smile. With a visible wince, Dawn hopefully shook her head and threw them both an imploring look before glancing in Buffy's direction. Willow complied, but with a slight huff of disappointment at being denied her fun. Much to Dawn's relief, Xander had also apparently decided not to pursue the subject.

"Tara upstairs?" asked Willow, breaking the silence.

"Uh-huh," affirmed Dawn. "She said she was going to bed a bit early. She looked really tired."

A fleeting expression of concern crossed the redhead's face, but it passed before being noticed by the others. "Bedtime for me too then," she announced, rising to her feet.

Xander followed suit. "Me three. Only not with the three," he quickly amended. "Bedding for one. Just me. Alone. O solo mio."

As "goodnights" were exchanged, Willow and Xander headed for the stairs.

"Besides, you're such a bed hog," the carpenter could be heard to complain.

Willow's eye-roll couldn't be seen, but was prevalent nonetheless. "Xander, I was four."

"And yet you still managed to shove me out. I'm willing to bet you're only stronger now, young lady ..."

Dawn turned to Buffy with a beaming smile, ostensibly rather pleased that the events of the evening had transpired without the Slayer suspecting anything.

"I'll go to bed too." She yawned. "Where – I know, I know – I should've been like an hour ago."

Buffy nodded her agreement. "Night."

She offered her cheek for Dawn's kiss and then watched the teenager make her way out of the room.

"Oh, and Dawn?"

The teenager stopped and turned back. For the first time that night, Buffy looked her sister directly in the eye.

"Next time you want to suck face with your boyfriend, you might want to close the curtains first."

Horrified, Dawn's eyes grew round as saucers as her gaze darted to the bay window behind the couch. Sure enough, the drapes were wide open, providing a free, all-expenses-paid view of whatever might be happening inside the house. Dawn swallowed and then emitted a tiny "eep."

"Okay!" she told Buffy, her voice strained and a little high-pitched. "Thanks! Night then!"

With all the flexibility of a clockwork soldier, Dawn began to make her way upstairs. The Slayer regarded the stiff retreat soberly and then, with a huge sigh, she threw her head back against the cushion and stared at the ceiling.

"This just in: raising an 18-year old, way harder than being one," she muttered. "Mom, wherever you are – I now hold this truth to be self-evident. And boy do I have a lot to apologize for."

She sighed once more and scrunched her eyes tightly shut.

"I'm not apologizing," stated Kennedy firmly, jaw set.

Faith shrugged. "Not askin' you to."

Perched like pigeons atop a low parapet on the roof of Slayer Central's European counterpart, the two sat side-by-side, staring out at the skyline. Their legs dangled precariously over the side of the tall building, but neither seemed to be plagued with vertigo and appeared perfectly at ease with their lofty location. In the distance, the sun was just beginning to rise over the British Museum and the morning traffic journeying up and down Tottenham Court Road was little more than a muted hum.

Clearly, Kennedy still felt the need to defend herself. "I wouldn't even have gone there if you hadn't dared me."

"What can I say?" Faith struck a match against the hard stone surface and brought the flame to the tip of the cigarette dangling from her lips. "We both got a weakness."

Kennedy took a sip of Coke and cast a sideways glance at Faith, who took a drag from her cigarette before popping open a can of beer.

"Actually, you know, I think you should apologize to me," Kennedy told Faith with an emphatic nod.

Faith puffed out an immaculately formed smoke ring. "How y'figure?"

"I've been playing it over in my head. The vamp was on my side."

Tipping back her head, Faith took a long pull from the beer can and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.

Kennedy continued her expectant pause. Realizing Faith wasn't going to say anything, she pushed on. "You threw her down on your side when I staked her. So the kill stealing thing is really pretty much your fault."

Faith flicked the ash from her cigarette and stared at the horizon. "Yeah, well, you can take an extra outta the next nest."

"I think this was about it for the fun ones," Kennedy replied with some regret. "The next time we go out, we'll be bringing some girls with us."

The other Slayer stiffened a little at this and the cigarette on its way to her lips hesitated for a moment. Kennedy continued to watch Faith out of the corner of her eye, but maintained her silence and gave no indication that she had noticed anything amiss.

"I've got the main group of course," she continued easily. "They need my extra special Kennedy Brand attention. Still a little too much lip in that crowd, and not of the fun servicing kind either." She frowned and took another sip of Coke, slamming her heels against the brickwork. "I didn't mean that quite like it sounded."

Faith didn't react, her gaze fixed on the pale sun, taking long pulls from her Marlboro and drawing the smoke deep into her lungs.

"I got it all figured out," Kennedy stated with confidence. "Vi's group is cool, but they could use a little shaking up. She babies them. You can show her how it's done. See, it's a learning experience for everybody. You teach them how to kick ass, they teach you ..." She thought for a moment and wrinkled her nose. "Okay, so that part's still a bit on the fuzzy side."

Still, Faith said nothing. Kennedy decided to interpret the silence as Faith's buy-in.

"Great," she confirmed. "We'll go at sunset tonight. Wood's really been getting into this whole 'administrator' thing, and thinks he's uncovered evidence of a network of vamps hiding out in the Bakerloo line. So I'll take my group into the Regent's Park tube station while you and Vi—"

Flicking the butt of her still burning cigarette into the street below – which was luckily devoid of human life so early in the morning – Faith pushed herself up from the low wall. Turning her back on Kennedy, she made her way to the door leading down into the building.

"... will walk away while I'm talking to you," Kennedy concluded with a dark frown.

Swinging her legs over the wall, Kennedy hurried after Faith's departing figure and quickly caught up, stepping in front of the other woman and effectively blocking her retreat.

She crossed her arms and regarded Faith with tightened lips. "I know you dropped out of school and all? But I thought you stayed through the lesson on 'manners'. You know, that was the part in Kindergarten between colors and the alphabet."

"Look, I ain't interested, alright?" snapped Faith. Darting swiftly to the right, she attempted to sidestep the obstacle, but Kennedy matched the motion and Faith was once again brought up short.

"So get interested," commanded Kennedy.

Faith's sneer conveyed her blatant contempt. With a snort of derision, she took another step to the side, but was no more successful second time around. She dragged her hair back from her forehead with both hands and looked at Kennedy through narrowed eyes.

"Wouldja quit that?"

"Sure," replied Kennedy with a nod. "All you have to do is agree to patrol with me and the girls tonight."

"You, I got no problem with. You an' me, we can go out. Kill some vamps, drink some beer, five by five." Faith's hands sliced the air in a cutting motion. "But that's it. You an' me. I don't want nothin' to do with the wannabes."

Arms remaining crossed, Kennedy tossed her hair over her shoulder, her eyes never leaving Faith. "You can't keep hiding from them."

"Thanks, Dr. Phil," was the sarcastic retort.

Kennedy was beginning to lose patience. "Faith, if you'd just—"

"No! Alright? Just ... no."

Roughly elbowing her way past, Faith marched purposefully toward the door. Kennedy watched her go without further protest as her arms dropped to her sides. Her eyes roamed the London skyline for a moment and then, with an exasperated sigh, she too turned and entered the building.

The bedroom was bathed in darkness, quiet and tranquil save for the measured sound of slumbering breaths. The digital clock on one of the nightstands proclaimed the time to be 3:48am. Facing the beside table, Willow lay on her side, right arm thrown over her head at an odd angle, left leg bent at the knee jutting out from under the covers. She smiled a little in her sleep and snuggled against the pillow.

Almost inaudible at first, a tiny whimper came from the figure next to her as Tara's head rolled from side to side. Her eyelids fluttered and protesting moans forced their way from the confines of her throat, gradually increasing in intensity. Her body began to twitch and her agitated fingers plucked desperately at the coverlet. The blonde mumbled as she tossed and turned.

"No ... I don't ..." She shuddered involuntarily, but the movement was not sufficiently violent to awaken her sleeping partner. She muttered again. "No ... No!"

"Acorns!" Willow suddenly exclaimed, jolted awake by the outburst. "Dancing with ..." She frowned as her brain began to rejoin the rest of her in the waking world. "... ninjas?"

Shaking her head, Willow propped herself on one elbow and glanced in Tara's direction. The blonde was staring wide-eyed at the ceiling, gulping for ragged breaths of air. Willow's brow knitted with concern as she scooted toward Tara and gently brushed damp hair away from the moist forehead. Tara continued to focus fixedly on the area above them.

Willow's tone was gentle and soothing. "Another one?"

With an imperceptible nod, Tara glanced at Willow briefly before her shaking hand fumbled toward the nearby night table for a glass of water. Quickly turning, Willow grabbed the glass from her table instead and offered it to Tara. With a smile of gratitude, Tara began to sit up as she raised the tumbler to her dry lips.

Her expression still brimming with concern and sympathy, Willow stroked Tara's shoulder as the blonde sipped eagerly at the cool liquid. Having drunk her fill, Tara gave the glass to Willow, who promptly returned it to its original location. With a sigh, Tara sank back against the crumpled pillow while Willow remained sitting up, looking down at her partner with understanding.

"Wanna talk about it?" she probed softly.

Tara said nothing for a long while and then regretfully shook her head. "Not really."

A worried frown creased Willow's brow. "They're getting worse."

"No," denied Tara. "No, it's ... it's pretty level, actually. Sort of a steady stream of fear and uncertainty. Which, you know, sounds bad, but on the plus side ..."

Her voice trailed away and Willow smirked ruefully, playing along for the moment. "The plus side?" she urged.

Tara raised her head and treated Willow to a small grin. "I don't have to worry about oversleeping?"

Willow's expression of doubt said everything and Tara was forced to relent. "Okay, no plus side," she admitted, letting her head drop with a frustrated exhale.

All amusement vanished, and Willow moved closer until she was sharing Tara's pillow. "You said it was getting better," she persisted, cradling her head in her palm and resting on one elbow.

"And it was," Tara responded with as much enthusiasm as she could muster.

Willow smiled sadly. "You've got a pretty funky definition of 'better'."

"But my tense was right."

The pair settled into an uneasy silence. Willow cleared her throat nervously. She was obviously apprehensive about what she was preparing herself to say, but the words demanded an outlet. "Maybe you should—"

Tara's interruption carried something of a warning edge. "Will ..."

"It's not normal!" Willow insisted, her worry audible. "There's— There's things. Bad things. I mean, I-I know – resurrection, soul yanked outta Heaven's Waiting Room ... Sure, that's grounds for a nightmare or two. But ... But still? You should talk to someone. An expert someone."

Tara reached out and squeezed Willow's hand. "I don't think there's really a branch of psychotherapy for this sort of thing, sweetie."

"Well no, maybe not," the redhead was forced to admit. "But the Covens! Believe me, they've got people to talk to for just about everything. I swear, my first two weeks there? I even had to see a counselor about what breakfast cereal I liked." She allowed a small smile to cross her lips at Tara's stifled chuckle. "You laugh, but I'm serious! Oh, and if you talk to that one," she advised with complete seriousness, "don't tell her you like Froot Loops – you're just askin' for trouble."

Tara's smile grew wider, but the weight of their conversation soon settled back around them.

"I did talk to them," the blonde noted. "When we were helping set things up for the Super Slayers? They didn't ... There's just not a whole lot they can do, you know? Nobody's ever really had to ... deal with this sort of thing before. I mean, there's Buffy, but ..."

"It's different."

"Yeah."

Silence reigned again, finally broken by Willow. "Yeah, but what if ..."

Her words trailed away as her eyes moved to the area above Tara's heart. The perimeter of the blonde's scar was plainly visible, peeking around the thin straps of her tank top. Willow reached out and traced the outline of the mark, regarding it with some wonder and no small degree of fear.

Tara's gaze followed the path of Willow's fingertips. "I don't think it's them," she reassured in a soft voice.

Willow swallowed hard before responding. "We don't know that. They could still be out there." With a sudden movement, she snatched her hand away. "That scary guy, with the weird eyes? We never saw him when we fought the Super Slayers, and he was pretty darned good with the whole mindmeld thing." She waggled her hand near her head for emphasis.

Tara restrained the restless fingers, entwining them in her own. "It doesn't feel like him. I think I'd know if it was."

The redhead's expression grew dark as she latched onto something new to be upset about. "I can't believe Ruth didn't tell you anything before she poofed outta here," she accused grumpily.

"She kinda did," Tara reminded.

"More cryptic blahdy blah!" scowled Willow, adopting a scratchy and ancient tone. "'When you seek the truth and you dare to find it, look inside yourself for the secret thingiemahoozit that I just now made up ooo look at me I'm so mysteeeeerious.'"

Tara smiled indulgently. "That wasn't an exact quote. Or a very good imitation."

Still, Willow would not be cajoled from her grumpy mood. "It was about as helpful," she grumbled.

"She just means that until I really want some answers, I won't find them," the blonde attempted to explain.

Willow would have none of it. "But you do and you aren't, so ... so I say we demand a refund!"

She turned to Tara, fully expecting to see complete support and emphatic agreement. Consequently, she was surprised to note that the blonde seemed even more crestfallen than before. "You do, right? Want answers."

"Yes," Tara replied confidently.

Willow was skeptical. "Yes?"

"No," stated Tara with just as much confidence.

"Best of three?"

Tara inhaled deeply. "It's complicated."

"Hey, grad student gal sittin' right here," Willow pointed out. "I'm all about the complicated."

"Maybe later?" Tara requested calmly, though her expression turned it more into a plea. "I-It's really late."

Willow was unwilling to allow the matter to drop. "Yeah, but—"

"Please?" Tara looked up at her with soft and entreating eyes.

Letting it go was clearly the absolute last thing Willow wanted to do, but she nodded just once, relenting. She allowed Tara's hand to fall onto the coverlet and returned to her side of the bed, throwing herself back against the pillow. The silent distance now between them seemed almost tangible.

"I just want to help," Willow finally murmured, her voice thick.

"I know," replied Tara, smiling into the darkness.

"It's part of my job description, you know? 'Help Tara'. They were very clear when I interviewed for this position. 'Helping Tara' is way at the top of my responsibility list. And if I don't do that, then what's it gonna get me? A big fat ol' red 'X' on my annual performance review, that's what. A red X!" She rolled her head to the side and stared meaningfully at the blonde's profile.

Tara turned and their eyes locked. "My little overachiever? Never happen. Besides." She reached across the bed, once more taking Willow's hand in her own. "You help me all the time."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

The redhead looked up at the ceiling. "Then with all that practice," she replied with quiet bitterness, "you'd think I'd be better at it by now."

Tara didn't respond. Instead, she curled up next to Willow and snuggled against the redhead's shoulder.

"Just love me," she whispered. "That'll always be enough."

Willow's lips brushed against Tara's hair as she cradled her close in the darkness.

As the door to "After Midnight" slammed open, two figures emerged from inside the bar. One had an iPod jammed against his ear and was crooning happily, if not very tunefully, to the song being played.

"All you need is love! Bah-bah-dadada," the vampire warbled.

His companion – a demon who was quite humanoid in appearance, save for the bony protrusions around his shoulder blades and the livid green skin bearing all the charm of a warthog – laughed openly at the off-key rendition. The cool of the night air did little to alleviate their drunken condition as the pair made their way along the street, staggering slightly and occasionally bumping into each other.

"All you need is love!" the vampire continued. The delivery was no less harmonious than before, but he certainly couldn't be faulted for lack of enthusiasm.

"If you like that song so much, why're you doin' that to it?" inquired the demon.

The vampire turned to face him, his expression deadly serious. "Don't mock The Beatles, man."

"Not," assured the demon. "Mockin' you."

The vampire pondered this for a moment. "Oh. S'okay then."

The two chortled uproariously at their own humor, as only the truly inebriated can. They rounded a corner and made their way to the main street. It was deserted, which was just as well since neither could manage more than a step or two without bumping into everything within a five-foot radius.

"It's good we can—" hiccoughed the demon, "—can drink. T'gether, I mean. Since I'll prob'ly be killing you tomorrow." A self-satisfied grin crossed his face.

"Pssh," the vampire merrily dismissed. "Whatever."

The demon shook his head. "Naw, fer real. Malthar—" His tone suddenly adopted a very reverent tone despite his drunkenness. "May he forever bathe in the blood of the innocent and the screams of the fallen – got hold'a this big power thingie. Big. Huge. We're all gonna rise up an' cleanse the earth." He frowned. "This Thursday, I think."

"Oh yeah?" was the witty comeback.

"Yeah!"

The vampire seemed to be stuck in a groove. "Oh yeah?"

"Yeah!"

The vampire geared himself up to continue the pointless exchange, but his mouth formed only the "Oh—" For moment, he stared curiously at the stake protruding from his chest, and then finished his sentence. "—crap!"

As the ashen remains crumbled to the ground, the iPod skidded with a clatter across the concrete.

The demon blinked and cocked his head to one side, as though trying to make sense of what had just transpired. "Dude, yer 'Pod ..." he muttered with a slur.

Before he could make any other observations, he was yanked backward into a nearby alley. Staggering, he turned to face his aggressor, a young girl with oriental features.

"Slayer!" he snarled, lips curling.

"No," the girl replied. "I do not have that honor."

Though still off-balance, the demon launched an attack. He swung at the girl without much precision, but with a great deal of gusto nonetheless. He towered above the diminutive form, but even if his brain hadn't been clouded, it soon became apparent that this would have been far from a fair fight. She evaded his lumbering efforts with grace and agility, lashing out with a few blows of her own. The counter-attack was efficient and accurate. Within seconds, the demon was on his knees, throat pinned against the wall by the girl's forearm.

"You have a master?" came the soft inquiry.

The demon didn't answer at first, defiant in his refusal. Acting swiftly, the girl produced a sharp knife that she immediately buried deep into the demon's shoulder. The thrust penetrated the muscle and its tip grated against the brickwork. He howled at the sudden pain and she jiggled the blade. It was a barely perceptible action, but sufficient to cause another anguished howl.

"There are many blades," she informed him in a voice barely above a whisper. "I do not think you would like to see them."

She twitched the knife once more. This time, the demon's cry was one of intense agony.

"You have a master?" she asked again.

The reply was interspersed with groans. "Yes! Oh god!"

The girl appeared satisfied. "This is good."

She slowly withdrew the blade and the demon's body slumped. Resting on his knees, he sucked greedily at the night air and waited for the burning in his shoulder to wane. Inspecting the crimson-coated weapon with much interest, the girl produced a small vial. Holding it aloft, she allowed several droplets to flow into the glass container. Her eyes narrowed as she watched the slow trickle of demon blood against the glass.

She paid the groveling figure at her feet little mind, save to inform him in a tone which clearly demanded compliance, "You will tell me how to find him."


Act Two

Tara drummed her fingers rhythmically on the steering wheel as she drove. Buffy was settled in comfortably at shotgun.

Xander leaned forward from the back seat. "So how's the book learnin' going, Buff?"

Glancing behind, Buffy nodded encouragingly. "Oh it's very, you know ... intimidating," she admitted, though her tone remained upbeat. "Terrifying. Failure looms."

"How many memories that stirs," commiserated a wistful Xander. "Tara?"

Tara glanced at him through the rearview mirror. "Uhm, pretty much the same. As before, I mean. Not the terror parts."

"No change at all for you, huh?" Buffy asked, readjusting the seatbelt to accommodate her slouching.

"The campus is new," admitted Tara. "A bit bigger. But that's about it. It just sorta feels like I took a break." She thought for a moment. "A really long break. With death." She shrugged and then smiled. "But hey, if I have to write an essay about my summer vacation, I bet I'll win."

Xander leaned back, stretching his arms wide. "Well I for one admire you both. Just the thought of going back to school makes my stomach start to Lambada."

"And yet, you all with the new classes and everything yourself," noted Buffy, peering at Xander from around the side of her seat.

"That's different," the carpenter dismissed airily. "I haven't entirely figured out how yet, but I'm sticking to my claim."

"I just can't believe Dawnie's starting college next year too," remarked Tara with wonder.

"Which would be a primary motivator for me going back to school," acknowledged the Slayer. "The second she completes more grades than me, she'll be completely intolerable. As opposed to the 'mostly intolerable' level at which she now comfortably rests."

Tara threw her a warm smile. "Maybe next year we can all schedule some electives and stuff together."

"And you can ask her for help on your homework!" added Xander cheerfully.

"I did mention how Dawn was going to West Point, right?" Buffy's eyes darted between her two friends. "Only allowed home on holidays? For brief, teeny visits that can be measured in hours?"

The carpenter breathed out a huge sigh. "I'm still working on keeping everybody straight. Will's a first year grad student ..."

"After graduating with top honors," Tara was quick to remind.

"Check you out," chuckled Buffy. "All glowy with girlfriend pride."

Tara's returning beam was totally unabashed.

Xander continued his efforts to keep track. "Tara's a Junior – again."

"Yeah," she agreed. "A semester's worth of incompletes'll do that do you."

"I, meanwhile," interjected Buffy, "am demoted back down to Sophomorehood, but with firm aspirations to not drop out this time."

Tara glanced at Xander again. "But so what does that make you?"

Reaching over, Buffy sharply tapped the carpenter's knee. "Yeah, what can we slap you with, Label Boy?"

"I'm thinkin' either 'Newbie' or 'Sucker'," returned Xander with a rueful grin. "But if I can get outta this without a hazing, I consider me ahead of the game."

Tara brought the car to a smooth stop outside of Slayer Central. Both she and Buffy turned to Xander as he exited the vehicle.

"Have fun," called Tara.

"Oh yeah," replied Xander, heaving a backpack onto his shoulder. "This is the most fun ever. Move over, Disneyland!"

"That's the Xander spirit!" Buffy encouraged brightly.

As Tara pulled away, Xander hesitated at the foot of the steps leading to Slayer Central, seeming to regard the building with a new light. Taking a deep breath, he strode purposefully toward the front door.

He hadn't gone far down the main hallway when he was brought up short by the calling of his name. Turning, he saw Giles hurrying toward him, the perennial clipboard tucked under one arm.

"Well howdy, stranger," he greeted the Watcher chirpily.

Giles blinked. "I'm sorry?"

"You," returned Xander, lifting his eyebrows meaningfully. "The Nowhere Man. Breakfast, this morning, you, us ..." He gestured in the air, as though the motion would somehow physically jog Giles' memory. "You were springing for overpriced, oversized muffins, I think?"

Giles frowned, his expression totally blank. Then, his eyes widened. "Yes. Yes, of course. I apologize. I was busy in meetings all morning."

"Ahh. Pesky meetings," confirmed the carpenter with a wise nod. "Funny how those seem to keep popping up these days, when you've done such a good job making sure this place can run like a well-oiled running thing."

The Watcher gave a tiny sigh, but otherwise declined to respond to the implication.

"I was hoping we could go over your encounter with the orb one more time," he told Xander, as he ran a pencil down the list on his clipboard.

Xander checked his watch. "I've got a few minutes, sure. Don't know what else I can tell you, though. Big orb, weird word, lots of breaking." He shrugged dismissively.

"Yes, it's rather the word that I'm interested in," mused Giles. "Or rather, your reaction to it. Can you think of any reason why you could read it while Hannah could not?"

"Hannah needs corrective lenses?" suggested Xander. When Giles didn't crack so much as a smile, he sighed and continued. "Honestly, that's about all I've got. It was there, plain as could be. 'The Baani'. What does it even mean, anyway?"

A deep frown creased Giles' forehead. "I've encountered the word in a wide variety of texts. It seems to have many meanings, though not all of them make sense. It's buried deep in volumes of ancient lore and—"

"Please," interrupted the carpenter hastily. "Before my teeth rot, my hair falls out, and I develop a sudden wistful love for Ed Sullivan."

Giles fixed the younger man with a narrowed gaze. "Are you sure this is the vocation for you?"

"No," Xander admitted. "But okay – point. Please continue. I'm suddenly fascinated." He leaned against the wall and allowed his backpack to slide to the floor.

A tiny smile of amusement crossed Giles face. "Xander, you are a terrible liar."

"But I love your tie," came the retort, delivered with unbridled enthusiasm.

Giles pressed on. "I believe 'the Baani' is 'the builder'."

Xander's expression grew sober as he absorbed this information. "Oh. Well maybe it's the stamp of the guy who built the thing," he ventured. "That pedestal was an impressive piece of work."

"Perhaps," Giles acknowledged slowly. "But it still doesn't explain why you could read it while Hannah could not."

Xander retrieved his backpack. "I'm stickin' with my glasses theory on that one. Anything else just gives me goosebumps."

"Indeed." Giles arched an eyebrow.

Nervously, the carpenter shifted his weight from one foot to the next. "Does it ... I mean ... Do you think that's me?"

"I'm really not certain," Giles was forced to admit.

"But you think it is."

The carpenter watched the affirming nod. Reluctant though it was, it did convey a 'yes, I think so' position.

"Well these books an' things," pressed Xander. "Where'd you see it?"

"As I mentioned, it's listed in several locations," began the Watcher carefully. "It's taken me some considerable time just to decipher this far. But the passages where it appears most frequently are- are ancient. And, I'm sorry to say, incomplete."

"But ... I mean, nothing happened," Xander insisted. "I touched it and it zapped me, but I'm fine. As far as ancient deathtraps go, this is definitely rankin' below the giant man-crushing bowling ball."

"I know," replied Giles, his frown making a return appearance. "It's most peculiar."

Xander huffed, clearly unsatisfied, but had little time to wallow in his frustration.

"Xander, there you are," announced Spencer, fast approaching down the opposite hallway. His attire, as always, consisted of a fashionably cut three-piece suit but, again as always, it seemed to sit oddly on his large frame. He turned to Giles upon reaching Xander's side.

"Good morning, sir," he greeted in his deeply soothing voice. "How wonderful it is to see you emerge from your office seclusion into this only slightly less seclusive environment."

Giles rubbed at his forehead and sighed heavily. "Good morning, Spencer."

With a bright smile, Spencer's attention returned to Xander. "Unless I'm very much mistaken, I do believe we should, at this exact moment, be studying research theories and acquainting you with new and fascinating worlds of The Neathmal Compendium, Arecba's Lexicon, the entire thirty-four volume collected works of Rashamon the Prophet ..."

"Oh no. No possibility of being mistaken there," Xander muttered. "Not even if I close my eyes and hope really, really hard."

"Xander, this was your idea." Giles' tone held a hint of chastisement. "I think you have potential, but only if you—"

"I know," interrupted Xander quickly, anxious to divert a lecture. "Focus. Apply myself. I haven't been out of school so long to forget the usual parent/teacher speech." He inhaled deeply. "I never thought I'd hear myself say this, but ..." he adopted an overt cheeriness. "Let's go learn that research!"

Spencer beamed and slapped Xander heartily on the shoulder. "Truly, your enthusiasm is infectious," he confided.

They hadn't gone but a few strides when Xander turned back to Giles.

"About that...?"

"I'll keep working on it," reassured the Watcher. "Perhaps later you can employ your new skills and assist me."

Xander executed a small skip of joy. "Wow, and extra curricular opportunities! I'm all a-flutter."

With a weary roll of the eyes, Giles tucked his clipboard back beneath his arm and walked away.

The carpenter leaned over toward Spencer, noticing the subdued smirk on the other man's face.

"And here I thought Watcher Academy was a party school. I think someone fudged on the tempting little brochures. I mean, where's the co-eds? Where's the keggers?"

Spencer brushed an imaginary speck of dust from his lapel and appeared to make a mental note.

"I'll be certain to speak to someone in admissions."

At Trillium High, the bell formally announced the end of classes for the morning. The front door opened like a floodgate, and students instantly began to swarm through. In the center of the throng was Dawn, flanked by Ginny and Jackie.

"I'm just saying," Jackie was insisting, "that we're Seniors now. That should grant us special privileges. Rewards for surviving this long."

"We get to leave school for lunch!" came Ginny's perky reply. "That's pretty cool!"

"I'm talking about with classes, Little Brain," Jackie responded briskly. "We've only been back a week, and I already have hours of homework, a quiz tomorrow, and a paper to write. Senioritis. It's a common ailment, and I'm totally suffering."

Dawn rolled her eyes. "Jackie, you've been claiming Senioritis since last year."

This seemed to only enhance Jackie's feelings that she was being treated unjustly. "See? I have an advanced case. Even more reason to not have to read three chapters of ..." She sneered contemptuously at the book she was carrying. "Uch, physics tonight."

As the trio made their way to the parking lot, Megan and Brenda joined them.

"Well just be glad you're not taking all these AP courses," sighed Dawn, indicating her armful of textbooks for emphasis. "I give my head two weeks until explosion, tops."

"Just like Scanners," prompted Ginny with a wise nod.

She visibly shrank a little beneath the four pairs of quizzical eyes but thankfully, the scrutiny didn't last long and the conversation continued without much pause.

"I think this year'll be cake. If we do it right," declared Megan.

Brenda glanced over Ginny's head at Megan. "If by 'do it right' you mean 'make Brenda do all our homework', then no cake for you."

Megan turned to her friend with wide eyes and brought her hand to her chest indignantly. "Brenda, I'm shocked. Offended, even. I'm simply thinking: study sessions for each and every homework assignment. Hosted by you," she added.

"Study sessions that wouldn't bear any resemblance whatsoever to an evening of everyone peering over Brenda's shoulder," snickered Dawn.

"Of course not," Megan dismissed with a gesture. "You'll be there too, so we have double the geeking power."

"I can bring Doritos," volunteered Ginny.

"I hate all of you," declared Brenda, but her tone was far from malicious.

Megan dug the car keys out of her pocket as they gathered around the vehicle. It was a beaten-up old jalopy. Indeed, it might have been a hand-me-down from the high school days of Megan's father, but it obviously had been and still was a cherished possession. There was plenty of room for three in the back – maybe four at a crunch, if at least one passenger were on the small side. Ginny made a move to claim the front seat until she withered at Jackie's expression and slunk toward the rear door, sidling up to Dawn and Brenda for protection. The girls continued to chat as they got into the car.

Megan slid the key into the ignition. "So, where for lunch today?"

Brenda leaned forward. "Oh, I hear there's this new salad place that opened up down by the university." She spied Megan regarding her skeptically in the rearview mirror and sighed with resignation. "Fine, McDonalds."

More than content with this decision, Megan put the car in first gear.

"Yay!" came Ginny's excited squeak. "I still have to get this week's Polly Pocket Happy Meal."

"I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that," Jackie sighed without turning around, "and instead talk about something much cooler: tonight."

Dawn stowed her books neatly under the driver's seat. "What's so cool?" she asked. "Homework, dinner, bed. Pretty much every Tuesday."

"It's cool because we'll make it so," Jackie announced. "I call Vortex Night." She graciously extended grins all around.

Ginny blinked nervously. "But what happened to homework? And that pop quiz tomorrow?"

"So we'll study there," shrugged Jackie with a wave of her hand.

"It's not really a homework sort of environment ..." pondered Brenda dubiously.

Megan flicked the left blinker and then promptly turned right, her eyes mostly riveted to Brenda in the rearview mirror. "The teeth-chattering loud music, throngs of people, near-darkness, blinding strobe lights ... What makes you say that?" She blatantly ignored the aggravated honk of a horn behind her.

"Maybe the long history of other Vortex Nights where, go fig, no homework got done," suggested Brenda, smiling apologetically through the back window at the gesturing driver.

"Besides," added Dawn, "I've got a lot to do tonight."

"Like what?" scoffed Jackie. "Homework, dinner, bed? Come on, Summers, you're 18 now. 18! Let's live a little." She turned to Dawn with a wink.

Dawn fidgeted and twisted her fingers together. "Well I would, but living a little isn't exactly on my schedule for tonight. I've got those ... classes. The special training classes and stuff?"

"I think that's wicked," enthused Megan. "Next thing you know, you'll be like ... David Carradine."

Brenda was amused. "David Carradine?"

Megan glared into the rear view mirror. "What? My dad likes the old 'Kung Fu' reruns. Look, do I make fun of your mom's obsession with 'The O.C.'?" She didn't wait for an answer. "No. Okay then."

With a smirk, Brenda averted her eyes and shook her head.

"Then that settles it," determined Jackie with finality.

Dawn laughed incredulously. "What? That didn't settle anything."

Jackie shrugged. "Okay, so I hoped in the jumble of confusing images, that detail might've slipped by you."

"You should come with us, Dawn," urged Ginny. "It's more fun when you're around."

"I really— I want to," acknowledged Dawn with some regret. "But I can't. I've got some stuff to do with Giles and it's ... I can't get out of it. It's important."

"You guys've been doing this 'important training' stuff all summer," Brenda told her with a reproving frown.

Dawn slumped her shoulders, only a hairsbreadth from pouting. "Yeah, I know."

"What are you even training for?" demanded Jackie, swiveling in her seat and locking eyes with Dawn.

"Oh just ... You know ..." Dawn glanced vaguely out of the window. "Travel."

The four friends all exchanged a collective suspicious glance, even Megan until she was prompted by Brenda to turn her attention back to the road.

"They have classes for that?" queried a disbelieving Brenda. "I figured it was pretty much standard. Get on a plane, sit in a cramped space for six hours, and there you go. Travel complete."

Dawn fidgeted in her seat. "Yeah. Yeah, this is ... sort of like that. In the 'point A' to 'point B' sense."

With a screech of rubber, Megan pulled into the McDonalds parking lot. "But what do you need—"

She was interrupted by Ginny scrambling over Dawn's lap to get out of the car. Bursting through the door, Ginny raced toward the restaurant with a gleeful cry of "Booth!"

With a heavy sigh and exasperated shake of the head, Jackie rolled her eyes. "I swear she wasn't just dropped on her head as a child, she was used as a freaking basketball."

Megan turned off the engine and stuffed the keys into her pocket. "I'd better go stop her before she drinks any of the orange-colored sugar water. One cup of that and we'll never get her to stop bouncing long enough to get back in the car."

Jogging, she followed Ginny into the restaurant as the remainder of the girls exited the vehicle. Brenda spared a brief second to smile ruefully in Dawn's direction.

"I wish you could come with us tonight."

Dawn returned the gesture.

"Yeah. Me too."

The clock outside Regent's Park tube station revealed the time to be almost midnight as a group of girls emerged and began to mill around the entrance. There was an exchange of snickers and meaningful glances, but no apparent indication as to what exactly they found so entertaining. No indication, that was, until the butt of their collective hilarity also made her way into the street.

Kennedy was not a happy woman. It was, in fact, safe to say that Kennedy had pulled out an Atlas, identified the single point on the globe farthest away from Happy, and booked a hotel room there. She was covered from head to toe at random intervals with some sort of filmy black substance that clung to her skin and her clothing.

The giggling increased at her appearance, although several of the girls nudged each other into an uneasy silence as she approached. Her expression set in a rigid mask of anger, Kennedy moved slowly, almost threateningly, before coming to a halt and glaring at the fourteen-member group.

"So." She regarded them with narrowed eyes. "That's what passes for British humor, huh?"

The girls tried to stifle their sniggering, most of them failing miserably.

Kennedy nodded her head. "Witty."

She took a step forward, focusing on one girl in particular. Taller than her accomplices and certainly carrying more height than Kennedy, the girl had all the markings of a ringleader. Though thin, there was a certain wiry strength to the girl's build. Indeed, she gave every indication that she could have put up one hell of a fight in a scrap, even before the bestowing of Slayer powers. The light from a nearby street lamp glinted on the silver rings of her two obvious piercings – one septum, one conch. Her black hair was short and spiked with orange-dyed tips. Kennedy, however, appeared less than impressed.

"I think you're in trouble," she recited, replaying the events in her head. "I run to help. I wind up having a brief but intimate encounter with a section of subway I don't think they much bother with cleaning."

There was an eruption of further snickering. The object of Kennedy's attention, however, seemed equally as unimpressed with Kennedy as Kennedy was with her. The girl's stance screamed defiance, but her eyes belied any stupidity – there was nothing there but rebellion.

Kennedy's already narrow eyes became little more than slits. "Funny, Miranda. Seriously funny. Benny Hill-funny."

Miranda glowered and her voice, when she spoke, was laced with a with a thick London accent.

"Mira," she all but snarled. "I already told you that."

In the blink of an eye, Kennedy lashed out and seized a handful of the girl's shirt. She dragged her down until they were nose-to-nose. "And I'm pretty sure I told you this isn't a game," she spat. She tossed Mira backward, causing the girl to almost lose her balance. Mira stumbled and sneered in Kennedy's direction, but Kennedy's menacing glare simply widened to encompass the whole group.

"It's not a game, children," she warned. "You go playing around down there, and next time maybe you're cleaning blood off your clothes instead of ..." Kennedy looked down at herself with scorn and wrinkled her nose. "Whatever the hell this crap is."

She stomped her way toward another girl. This one's appearance was much less counter-culture and she was a good deal more intimidated by Kennedy's close presence.

"How's that sound to you, Jordan?" challenged Kennedy with a tilt of her head. "Fun way to spend the night? Going home and washing Sara's blood off your hands?" She gestured at the girl standing next to Jordan. Both Juniors paled a little at the thought and Jordan had the decency to lower her eyes.

Kennedy moved further down the line and singled out a stocky brunette.

"Nisha, you think you'll be laughing so hard when find a little boy lying in the gutter with his throat torn out? Knowing you could've stopped it, if you'd maybe bothered to take things seriously?"

Nisha flinched as Kennedy stepped back and appraised the group as a whole, marching steadily back and forth.

"You know children," she lectured firmly, "I can't help but think it's managed to somehow escape your notice that we're vampire slayers. Not vampire pranksters. I'm not sure what you've all been doing over here for the past year? But playtime is over. Tomorrow, I'm gonna tell you a story. It's about a girl, her Watcher, and how it feels to sit by helpless while bunch of eyeless bastards rips someone you love apart right in front of you. Oh and don't worry – it comes with visual aids."

Kennedy stopped her pacing and held the gaze of each girl in turn for several seconds. "Go home and sleep on that."

All seemed suitably chagrined, save Miranda, as they began to follow orders and slink away. Watching them go, Kennedy called her back.

Miranda turned quickly, her lips curled with derision. "What's that?" she asked with a nasty gleam in her eye. "Got some more scary stories, mon Capitan? Might need my nightlight if you keep being so scaaary."

"I don't know what your problem is—" began Kennedy.

Miranda feigned shocked surprise. "Something Kennedy the Great doesn't know?"

Kennedy continued as though there had been no interruption. "—but as it turns out, I don't give a damn. You risk my life, and the lives of those girls, then you get to be officially classified in the 'not with us' category." Kennedy took another step forward, glaring up meaningfully at the other girl. "Trust me, Miranda," she advised in a voice that was low and dangerous. "You wanna be with us."

The stare-down that followed was intense and fiercely competitive, but the outcome was inevitable. With a disgusted snort, Miranda turned on her heel and trailed after her companions with an exaggerated swagger.

Barely moving a muscle, Kennedy watched the retreat. She sensed rather than observed Faith's emergence from the shadows behind her. Lighting up a cigarette, Faith noted Kennedy's tenseness begin to relax.

"I think you're turning into a chain smoker," Kennedy told her without turning around.

Faith shrugged in the darkness. "Funny how I don't care."

"I thought you didn't care about what happened tonight either?" queried Kennedy, glancing in Faith's direction.

"Yeah, well I'm a complex character." Faith casually exhaled the smoke through her nose as Kennedy approached. "That girl's got her hate on big time," she remarked, jutting her chin toward Miranda.

Kennedy looked down the street, but Miranda had already disappeared. "You picking up on that too, huh?"

"And you so sweet an' charming," Faith grinned. "You know why?"

"Wood thinks it's general authority issues," answered Kennedy. "Me, I'm going with her delusion that she can do better than me."

Faith examined the red glow at the tip of her cigarette. "Probably both. You should keep an eye on her, Sparky. Girl like that, all kinds'a trouble."

"Speaking from experience?" chuckled Kennedy.

Faith's reply was a smirk.

Kennedy sighed, looking at her filthy hands for a moment before dropping them to her sides. "So what'd you do tonight?"

Faith rocked on her heels and looked up at the stars. "Hit the parks. Saved a few homeless guys."

"Very charitable," acknowledged Kennedy.

"Yeah, that all-access pass through the Pearly Gates is as good as mine now." She produced a new cigarette and lit it from the still-glowing ember of the first before flicking it to the curb.

Kennedy studied Faith closely for a moment. The other woman was clearly uncomfortable beneath the scrutiny. "You got somethin' to say, say it," she snapped curtly.

"Are you even happy here?"

Faith peered into her pack of Marlboros. "Got a few smokes left," she confirmed. "I'm good."

"I mean here," Kennedy pressed. "In London."

Faith didn't give the question much thought. "Gotta be somewhere. Might as well be here as anywhere."

"You haven't even been home since Dawn popped us here," persisted Kennedy. "I figured you'd maybe want to go back, see Haze—"

"What I want, to tell ya the truth," interrupted Faith sharply, "is a big fat drink. Then maybe we can kill us a bit more evil before sunrise. An' what you want ..."

Her voice trailed away as, with a skeptical expression, she looked Kennedy up and down. "What you want is a shower."

Seeming to have forgotten her rather unsavory state for the moment, Kennedy looked down at herself with disgust.

"Definitely shower," insisted Faith, wrinkling her nose meaningfully.

Kennedy sighed. "If I didn't have this incredibly kick-ass reputation to live up to, I'd be whining so hard right now."

"I understand if you wish to cry out." The words were spoken with understanding but totally devoid of sympathy.

The interior of the small warehouse was dimly lit, but there was sufficient illumination to make out the unfortunate figure in the center of the room. The green-skinned demon had been bound by his wrists and was suspended from a rafter high in the ceiling. The tortured eyes revealed that all traces of his earlier inebriation had been expunged, whether by the passage of time or courtesy of more sinister means, he was assuredly in no position to reveal and it may have been doubtful that he even knew. Most certainly, the previous hours had taken a fatal toll on his physical condition.

On the dusty floor of the warehouse, the girl was cleaning the long, thin blade of a dagger, purifying the weapon in the flame of a candle. From an embroidered silk pouch, she extracted a pinch of powder, sprinkled it along the length of the blade, and then carefully placed it back into the fire. The knife began to emit a soft white glow. The demon, however, was oblivious to the anomaly. He groaned weakly and the girl looked upward in his direction.

"Your pain. I regret its necessity." Her features remained unmoved as she refocused on the dagger. "I had thought it would bring your master, but still, he does not come. He does not dare. He fears me."

She extracted the weapon from the flame and examined it, approving of its current state.

"He shows wisdom," she added thoughtfully, rising to her feet and facing the demon directly. "It will save neither of you."

Even from outside the warehouse, the demon's screams were horrific.


Act Three

The tombs shone silver under the light of the moon. Buffy walked slightly ahead of Willow and Tara. The Slayer was in patrol mode, but her attitude was somewhat casual and she fwipped her stake in the air as she strolled along. Behind her, Tara was reading aloud from the open book in her hands. According to the cover, it was entitled Sociology: Conduct and Consequences.

"'...prompts careful examination of consequences, both on an individual and societal level,'" she quoted from the text.

With a smooth movement, Willow tugged Tara to the left, removing her neatly from a path that would have lead directly to collision with a headstone. Flashing the redhead a thankful smile, Tara continued reading.

"'Every action, even the most mundane, may have far-reaching effects that only time will reveal.'"

"Oh, like, yesterday I was going to The Lion's Den for lunch," interjected Willow, anxious to provide an example, "but the grilled chicken just smelled so good at the BlueSpoon, I went there instead."

"And the great social ramification is that one more chicken's sacrifice was not in vain?" suggested Buffy dryly.

Willow grinned at the silliness that was occasionally Buffy. "No. The point is that we don't know what might've happened. I could've ... could've gotten the pizza, a-and choked to death on a pepper."

Tara smirked in amusement. "I'll have to remember to thank the next grilled chicken sandwich I see for saving your life."

Buffy glanced over her shoulder at the witches. "So everything we do could turn into a life-or-death situation?"

"It's not all quite that dramatic," responded Tara with a small frown. "But yeah. The basic idea is that anything could change everything."

"Which, okay, I kind of already knew from a big world-saving perspective," Buffy conceded. "But adding in the fear that oversleeping by five minutes might bring about the apocalypse? It's a pressure I really just did not need."

"I said you didn't have to take the class with me," Tara chided gently.

"No," agreed the Slayer, "but then I'd just have to take some other class, and the odds on finding someone in there who'll read the homework to me while I patrol for vampires is pretty slim."

Tara favored Buffy with a grin. "But it'd be fun to see those requests on the bulletin board."

"This is so exciting!" Willow suddenly exclaimed, like she simply couldn't keep her enthusiasm to herself any longer. "My best friend and my girlfriend – study buddies!" Without missing a beat, her expression became regretful. "I wish I could be there too! I should've just failed all my classes last year so you guys could catch up."

Tara arched an amused yet skeptical eyebrow, while Buffy regarded Willow as though she expected a voiceover to come on any minute and announce, "We've replaced Buffy's regular Willow with this insane imitation, let's see if she notices."

The redhead glanced between her two companions. "Okay, no I shouldn't," she admitted.

"Well the thought was nice," Tara told her sweetly.

"If highly alarming," added Buffy, blinking her eyes as she waited for reality to shift back into alignment.

It came crashing back all too soon as a sudden scream pierced the silence of the night, causing the three women to jump in surprise. Quickly zoning-in on the direction of the shrieks, Buffy wasted no time, breaking into a dead run and heading for wall that marked the boundary of the graveyard. Willow and Tara followed as fast as they could.

Sprinting through the gates of the cemetery, Buffy emerged onto the street. She halted, tensed and ready, searching the area for some sign as to the origin of the distress. She didn't have to wait long before another cry assaulted her ears. It was brief, as though abruptly stifled, but sufficient for the Slayer to determine the source. She raced toward a small warehouse just as Willow and Tara came barreling through the gate, both laboring for breath. Grabbing Willow's arm, Tara indicated Buffy's retreating figure and they hastened after her.

Bursting through the door, Buffy instantly took stock of her surroundings. Almost immediately her eyes were drawn to the figure dangling from the ceiling in the center of the room. There was little doubt that the demon was dead and from the expression on his face, his passing had been one of grateful relief. She frowned and took a step closer, peering at his exposed chest and the strange marking that had been etched into the livid green skin. It was the image of a sun being obliterated by the moon. Buffy stared at the marking for a moment, then continued to investigate the warehouse.

Panting heavily, Willow and Tara arrived at the warehouse entrance. Like Buffy, their eyes were involuntarily drawn toward the pitiful form suspended from the rafters. Tara regarded the swaying demon with sympathetic disdain. Willow simply wrinkled her nose.

"Okay, wow. I mean," stammered the redhead. "I know we've all got some demon issues, but ..."

Tara took a step nearer. "Is he...? I mean he's not still ..."

Turning, Buffy reexamined the body, closely and curiously, but clearly not pleased. "He's dead," she confirmed flatly.

Tara nodded, apparently finding comfort in the response.

"Not long though," stated Willow, peering into the gloom with sharp eyes. "Those cuts are still bleeding." Pulling back, the witch looked even paler than usual. "Buffy, who did this?"

"I don't know, but finding out just became my top priority," Buffy replied with grim determination. "Who and why."

A voice echoed from the shadows. "He is a message."

In unison, Buffy, Willow and Tara jerked their heads to the left where a girl emerged into the dim light. Her dark eyes were focused solely on Buffy. Tense and cautious the Slayer turned to face the new arrival. Willow and Tara fell in on either side of their friend, but still the girl concentrated only on Buffy.

"Can't say I think your delivery system's gonna give FedEx a run for its money," Buffy quipped, although her tone and expression remained level.

The girl stopped several feet from the trio, well beyond any sort of threatening range. Her hands were clasped demurely in front of her and she exuded no air of menace. Nevertheless, Buffy showed no indication that she would dropping her guard any time soon.

"He serves his master in death as well as life," the girl simply stated.

Buffy's mouth grew tight. "What's the message?"

The girl cocked her head, gazing momentarily at the lifeless body. Then, her eyes shifted back to Buffy. "I am coming," she announced quietly.

Buffy, Willow and Tara shared a dubious look.

"Who are you?" asked Tara, mostly masking her apprehension.

The girl declined to answer. Indeed, she gave the impression that she hadn't even heard the question.

"Oh don't go getting all secretive on us now," urged Buffy briskly. "Who are you?"

The girl bowed her head slightly, respectfully, in the Slayer's direction. "You may call me Hitanko."

"Japanese?" asked Willow.

Hitanko failed to acknowledge the redhead and Willow frowned at being so blatantly ignored.

"Well 'Hitanko'," Buffy told her firmly, "I'm not sure if you got the memo? But we don't really go for the whole 'torture' thing in my town."

"You are Slayer." The statement was short and to the point, but held something of a inquiry.

"Yeees, a Slayer," affirmed Buffy. "Not the Marquis de Sade."

"If you are Slayer," Hitanko continued, "to what concern is how the creature met its death?" She shrugged her shoulders elegantly. "It is dead."

Buffy's eyes narrowed. "The ends justify the means?"

Hitanko inclined her head graciously, indicating agreement.

"You ever notice how the only people who use that argument are the ones doing something they probably shouldn't?" Buffy mused rhetorically.

Willow, who had been studying the demon's body, fired another question. "What's that symbol?"

As before, Hitanko denied Willow's very existence, not even glancing in her direction. The redhead inhaled sharply. Coupled with the fists beginning to clench at her side, it was clear her temper had been stretched near to the breaking point.

"My friend asked you a question," prompted Buffy.

Hitanko nodded. "I am aware."

The Slayer crossed her arms. "I was okay with you being a torturer and all, but you're rude too? You're really stepping over the line now."

"I do not speak with ..." Hitanko glanced very deliberately first at Tara and then at Willow before returning her focus to Buffy, "...shimobe." A sneer crossed her lips as she all but spat the word.

The Slayer opened her mouth as though she were about to respond, but she plainly failed to understand what Hitanko had just said. So, instead of a witty retort, Buffy could do little but frown and shake her head. Arching a quizzical eyebrow, the Slayer flashed Willow a searching glance, but the redhead was equally as uninformed. Given Willow's dour expression, however, her best guess led to nothing good. Consequently, the redhead was glaring her heart out.

"'Servant'," supplied Tara.

Both Buffy and Willow looked to Tara in surprise.

"It means 'servant'," she verified before shrugging. "I took a semester of Japanese culture."

"Servant?" Willow repeated indignantly – whatever she'd come up with obviously hadn't quite reached down to that level. She turned to Hitanko furiously. "Servant? Th- That ... That's worse than sidekick!" She marched forward and, for probably the first time in her life, actually managed to loom over another individual. "I'm not sure where you got your group dynamic info from, you ..." She flailed for a moment, trying desperately to come up with an appropriately stinging insult. "...you really wrong person," she finally accused. "But I am Buffy's friend, not her ser—"

She never got to finish her tirade. Delivering a backhand with so much speed that it was merely a blur, Hitanko slapped the redhead with sufficient force to lift Willow from her feet and send her spinning into the air. She crashed into a nearby support beam and then slumped heavily to the floor, where she lay unmoving.

"Know your place," Hitanko commanded, her tone deceptively subdued.

Buffy and Tara were horrified as they voiced their shock in unison. "Willow!"

Tara quickly turned to face the aggressor. "Incastrare," she murmured.

A shimmering box-like outline materialized in the vicinity of Hitanko's presence. It would have appeared around the girl too, had she still been in that location, but she had vanished, unseen and soundless as a figment of the imagination. Immediately, Buffy assumed a defensive course of action.

"Tara, take care of Willow."

Tara needed no further urging as she rushed to Willow's side.

Buffy's eyes narrowed as she surveyed the surrounding shadows. Slowly rotating, her expression was one of intense concentration, her every sense attuned to zeroing in on her prey. Save for the soft sound of their breaths, the warehouse was deathly silent.

"Did you run?" Buffy whispered into the silence, and almost as soon as the question had been posed, a rattling from the opposite end of the warehouse reached her ears. The Slayer whirled to face that direction. "I'm guessing that would be a no."

Buffy took one step forward, followed by a second when she abruptly spun around and seized the fist that was a fraction of an inch away from impacting with the back of her head.

"You'll need better tricks than that," Buffy chided Hitanko. "I've actually seen a movie in my lifetime."

With a sudden, vicious tug, Hitanko wrenched her arm from the Slayer's grasp, and despite superhuman reflexes, Buffy was pulled off-balance. Her opponent wasted no time. Simultaneously, she stepped back and lashed out with a kick that landed squarely in Buffy's chest. The force was so great that Buffy was knocked off of her feet and into the air, her fall cushioned only by a stack of heavy boxes several feet away.

Recovering in the blink of an eye, Buffy rolled to the side, only to find Hitanko waiting. The smaller woman drove her fist downwards with blinding speed, and Buffy barely managed to avoid having her skull pulverized on the hard concrete.

However fast Buffy moved, it wasn't fast enough to completely escape injury. The punch clipped her jaw on its way to crack and fragment the hard floor. Not willing to let the opportunity to go waste, Buffy shifted to the side and swung her leg out to kick Hitanko's profile. Her leverage was insufficient to put much force behind the blow, but it was enough knock the dark-haired girl away and buy Buffy the time to get to her feet.

It was with almost deliberate slowness that Hitanko turned to regard Buffy. The girl's pallor remained, but her perfect, smooth features had become twisted and mutated into a familiar topography of horror. Her brow was pronounced and ridged, her eyes an inhuman yellow, and there was the promise of fangs lurking behind her red lips.

"Vampire," Buffy declared, the 'of course' all but spoken. "Questions, rapidly pairing off with answers."

Not bothering with the witty banter portion of the fight, Hitanko snarled and attacked, leading with an obvious strike at Buffy's temple. In a repeat of her earlier success, Buffy moved to grab vampire's hand, but it suddenly wasn't there. Hitanko instead grasped Buffy around the wrist and instantly, the blonde felt her arm being twisted in ways that human limbs weren't designed to twist. The vampire followed by thrusting her spare hand into the back of her captive's elbow. One twitch, and Buffy's arm would be completely shattered.

"To let an enemy learn your movements is teach them victory," Hitanko lectured.

"Didn't know I got a free fortune cookie with my fight," Buffy ground out between clenched teeth.

With a grunt that betrayed the effort, Buffy pulled on her trapped arm, jerking Hitanko around just enough to connect her free hand with the vampire's jaw. The action only gave Buffy enough freedom to wrench her arm away. It dangled limply at her side, and before she could check on it, Buffy was drenched in a rain of punches.

The blows came from all sides, only a fraction of them deflected by the Slayer's blocks and parries. It seemed the onslaught was endless, until Hitanko snatched Buffy's head in a vice-like grip and flung it away from her like a basketball. Buffy's skull cracked into the nearby wall, sending up a plume of plaster and dust to fall around her as the Slayer slumped to the floor.

Even as she fell, Buffy's arms were at the ready, prepared to ward off the inevitable killing strike, but as the air around her cleared, she could see the outline of the girl at the opposite side of the warehouse. With a grace that was almost surreal, Hitanko leapt atop a pile of crates, using them to reach the second story catwalk surrounding the warehouse. From there she sprung without a sound through the open window, and vanished from sight.

For a long moment Buffy simply continued to stare, but she shook it off and rolled to her feet. Testing her arm for permanent injury and wincing only slightly, she joined Tara. "How is she?" she asked anxiously.

Tara cradled Willow tenderly in her lap and carefully smoothed the bright hair away from the redhead's brow. "I-I think she's okay. Just banged up a little."

As if in response, Willow groaned and gingerly brought her hand up to her forehead. "This would be one of those consequence things we were talkin' about earlier, huh?" she muttered with a wry grimace.

Massaging the limp fingers, Tara breathed a huge sigh of relief and smiled thankfully into Willow's upturned face. "File that one away, sweetie: yell at the unknown evil person, get a nasty bump on your head."

"Where's the one that gets me chocolate and kisses?" pouted Willow.

Buffy, now all grins at Tara's doting and Willow's speedy recovery, replied, "I think this one may get you that too, but I'm all for finding a route to that goal that won't leave a bruise."

"Here here," agreed Willow in a pained tone.

Tara's attention turned to the Slayer. "She got away, huh?"

"Yeah," affirmed Buffy with frown.

"She better run," Willow declared loudly, somehow not looking quite as fierce as was intended given that she was simultaneously snuggling in Tara's lap.

With a chuckle, Buffy and Tara each seized an arm and helped Willow to her feet.

"'Servant', my ass," grumbled an indignant Willow. "I'll give her a serving of—"

The threat was cut short by the redhead's buckling legs, but Buffy and Tara had her safe. Willow winced again. "Ow," she complained mournfully, scrunching her lids tightly shut.

"How about we get you to bed," suggested Tara firmly, "then we can go commando."

Buffy's mouth twitched with undisguised amusement at the announcement and even Willow cracked open an eye. Tara was instantly flustered and a light blush crept into her cheeks.

"That's, uhm ..." she floundered miserably. "That's not exactly what I meant to say."

Buffy was immediately placating. "Of course not."

Supporting Willow between them, Buffy and Tara headed for the door.

"You're so evil," accused the redhead, whispering into Buffy's ear.

The Slayer shrugged nonchalantly. "Hey, the truth hurts."

Perched on one of the larger library tables, Xander and Willow sat next to each other, swinging their legs in time. Buffy, slumped casual-fashion in a nearby armchair, shaded her eyes from the early morning sun filtering through the window. She shifted position occasionally to avoid the bright rays but had apparently decided to suffer through the discomfort rather than move. Tara was cross-legged on the floor, keeping moderately still as Dawn braided her hair. Giles paced back and forth before the group, deep in thought.

"You're certain she was a vampire?" queried the Watcher.

Buffy seemed to give the poser much consideration before she responded. "Pointies ..." she mused, indicating her teeth. "Bumpies ..." she tapped her forehead. "9 years of vampire experience ..." she wagged a thumb in her own direction and then pondered for another second. "Yeah, I think I'm gonna have to go with my instincts on this one."

"Yes, yes, all right," soothed Giles. "For her to have been as powerful as you say, she must be very old."

Buffy stretched out her legs. "Well I want her stylist. She didn't look a day over 150, 153 at the most."

"Okay, so we've got a name and a funky symbol," stated Xander, checking his notepad for the list he'd been making. "That about it? Any distinguishing marks or scars?"

"Not yet," snorted Willow, "but just you wait for our rematch." Working herself into a snit, the redhead fidgeted angrily on the tabletop. "'Servant'," she huffed under her breath.

"Maybe we should check out this demon guy too?" offered Tara, unable to actually look anywhere but straight ahead due to Dawn's ongoing fashion experiment. "If we can find out who his 'master' is, maybe we'll find her."

"Yes, excellent suggestion," agreed Giles, motioning to Xander. The younger man licked the tip of his pencil and began to scribble a note on the paper.

Stretching out, Buffy nudged Tara's arm with her toe. "Though I feel compelled to point out how hard it is to take anything you say seriously when your hair's done up in, like, fifteen tiny braids."

Twisting her head slightly, Tara tried to find Dawn's face. "Uh-oh, Dawnie. You're ruining my credibility."

"Yeah, but'cha look cool," insisted the teenager. "And everyone knows that's what really counts. Besides," she stifled a gaping yawn, "I have to do something to stay awake at the crack of dawn." She considered her words for a moment before adding, "I hate that phrase."

Willow chuckled. "Welcome to the fast-paced and exciting world of Scoobyage."

"Although you're welcome to join me in the almost as fast, slightly less exciting world of Watcherage," Xander invited. "Really. Any of you. Please." He hopefully scanned the room for volunteers.

"Aww, poor Xander," commiserated Buffy with something falling short of complete sincerity.

"I thought you said this was what you wanted?" Willow asked. "'Direction, helping others, an excuse to finally wear tweed'." At Xander's skeptical eyebrow she shrugged. "Okay, not so much the last one."

"I do," insisted the carpenter. "I did."

Giles sighed. "Honestly Xander, I hardly think it's as bad as you're making it sound."

"It's not," came yet another protestation. "I exaggerate for the humorous opportunities therein." Xander waved his hand, searching for the words. "It's just ..."

"The pressure?" tendered Dawn.

"The stigma?" proffered Willow.

"The bureaucracy?" put forth Tara.

"The responsibility?" suggested Buffy.

"The books," pronounced Xander emphatically. "I mean, Giles, man, I think I finally figured out why you let us help you way back when. It's just so you wouldn't be alone in your misery!"

Giles settled his glasses on the bridge of his nose and sniffed with righteous indignation. "I happen to quite like the books."

"Yeah, well," muttered Xander, "you would, you're all stuffy and British."

Crisply folding his arms, the Watcher adopted a lofty air. "Ahh yes, I keep forgetting how strange things are for you colonists here in the New World."

Xander took a deep breath. "But I digress. I wanna do this."

"Then let's make with the doing," encouraged Buffy with a firm nod.

The carpenter thumped his knee with an energetic fist. "I can do this."

"Damn straight!" Willow told him, thumping his other knee.

Tara was also in agreement. "We're with you, Xander."

"Only not literally," Dawn hastened to amend, "since I have school."

"And we—" Willow gestured between herself and Tara. "—have to study with Giles."

Buffy turned to Giles, her tone now serious. "I want to go back out there, hit the streets. See if I can dig up any more information."

The Watcher was in accord. "Yes, good idea." He peered at her over the top of his glasses. "Don't hesitate to bring any of the other Slayers if—"

"If I need them, I will," agreed Buffy. "I'd rather try myself first, though. Less noticeable that way."

At Giles' confirming nod, Buffy got to her feet and headed for the door. The Watcher's attention turned to Willow and Tara. Arching his eyebrows, he waited expectantly. Ruffling Xander's hair, Willow hopped down from the table and reached out to help Tara up. The blonde treated Xander to a charming goodbye smile as she and Willow left the room. Dawn grabbed her book bag and followed with a parting wave.

"I'll leave this to you, then," Giles informed Xander, already turning toward the exit. "Feel free to call in any of the other Watchers for assistance," he added cheerfully, "although I'd recommend trying to get as far as you can on your own first. For practice, you know."

"Right!" Xander readily agreed, his smile just a shade too bright as he sat among the piles of books. "Sure thing. No problem."

Giles stopped several paces from the door and turned back to the younger man, considering him for a brief moment. "You're doing very well, Xander," he finally stated, the corners of his mouth tugging upwards. "I'm proud of you."

A warm, grateful smile spread across Xander's face, even as a thought seemed to occur to Giles and the Watcher's own mood faded into something much more sober. Xander didn't appear to notice, however, and as Giles quickly left, he directed his focus to the bright yellow legal pad in his lap.

"If this were high school," he muttered, "I'd be so cutting class right now ..."

With a heavy sigh of resignation, he grabbed the first book from a tall stack next to him. Shaking out his shoulders, he cracked it open and began to read.

Dawn stood in the doorway of the Sanctum, watching as Willow and Tara prepared the room.

"Still no go, huh?" asked the redhead with sympathy.

"Zippo. It's really cool that I got to miss a night of fun with my friends for nothing, though." The sarcasm was palpable.

"Not for nothing," insisted Tara kindly but firmly. "You obviously still have some Key powers left."

"Not now," grumbled the teenager. "I mean, we don't know that. I haven't gotten anything for months now. Not a flicker. I'm just ... It's like there's nothing."

Glancing over her shoulder at the disgruntled girl, Willow smiled encouragingly. "On the bright side, no headaches, either."

"Maybe not because of the powers," scoffed Dawn, "but trust me – there's still plenty of headaches, and most of them named 'Buffy'."

Willow frowned as she lined up a row of glass bottles according to height. "I thought she was doing better?"

"Well compared to when she found out, sure," admitted Dawn with a shrug that indicated the amount of better was far below her personal requirements. "But then nothing can top a week of Buffy expecting Glory or another hellgod to walk through the door every second."

"She was pretty stressed," Tara agreed, watching as Willow changed her mind and began sorting the bottles again, this time according to color.

Dawn looked at the blonde with complete disbelief. "Stressed? Tara, she nearly decapitated Giles with a butter knife when he didn't knock first."

"And here we were wonderin' why he keeps putting off Scooby Movie Night," Willow mused aloud. "I thought it was Xander's non-stop Angelina Jolie marathons."

"Xander's?" Dawn frowned in confusion at the back of Willow's head and crossed her arms. "I thought you were the one who kept telling him to rent Tomb Raider over and over again so you—"

Spinning on her heel, Willow widened her eyes in Dawn's direction. Tara's eyebrows rocketed almost to the hairline as she flashed the redhead a 'You're so almost in trouble, missy' look.

"I mean, you keep telling him not to rent it," Dawn hurriedly corrected. "You know, because ... because it's frivolous eye candy and our brains rot more and more each time we see it. I-In fact, I feel mine rotting right now, just by thinking about it." She laughed weakly and gestured to her brain as though it might leak out of her ears any second now.

With a sheepish look, Willow sidled up to Tara, whose expression hadn't shifted even a millimeter. The redhead kissed Tara on the cheek, then pulled back with a wide, if somewhat nervous grin.

"Heh!" she blustered, "You know Xander!"

"Yeah, I do," Tara replied, fighting to maintain her stern glare. "I'm pretty sure I know his best friend, too."

A half-grin stole over Tara's features as Willow turned away, shooting Dawn an accusatory glare. Suitably abashed, the teenager offered a tentative smile of apology.

Seemingly satisfied with the display of penance, Tara returned to the topic at hand. "Mr. Giles doesn't have any theories?"

Gently moving Dawn aside, the Watcher entered the Sanctum. He set his clipboard down on a small table by the door and adjusted his glasses.

"I believe there may, in fact, be a mind-control spell of sorts," he began with authority, "cast and maintained by certain television network producers, that compels viewers of these so-called 'reality shows' into repeated, almost incomprehensibly obsessive viewings."

He seemed unphased by the trio of blank stares.

"Not the theory you were looking for," he acknowledged. "Perhaps there's something more specific you had in mind?"

"We're talking about Dawn's Keyness," Willow filled in. She surveyed the arrangement of bottles – now sorted first by color and then by height – with some satisfaction and turned toward the others.

"And the lack thereof," griped the teenager.

"Ah. Yes. I suspect that Dawn has simply worn herself out."

The answer only seemed to add further puzzlement. "I know I'm a little tired, but ..."

"No, no, I mean your powers," clarified Giles. "Both instances of your powers as the Key manifesting themselves were ... well, extraordinary. Unlocking all the dimensional barriers back in Sunnydale, and- and then creating a stable portal across the ocean, large enough to facilitate the passage of almost a hundred individuals." He shrugged, the end result clearly making every sense in Giles' book. "It's no wonder your powers lie dormant once more."

"But I didn't know how I did either of those things," protested Dawn. "They just ... happened."

"All the more reason it's vital we continue with our meetings," the Watcher informed her. "Your power, when it returns, has incredible potential. And could also pose great dangers, without focus and control."

Willow's brow furrowed. "Which sort of ..." She tilted her head and regarded Giles questioningly. "You know, I've been meaning to ask – we're not gonna face an apocalypse every time Dawnie gets a paper cut, are we?"

Obviously, this was something that hadn't occurred to Dawn before now. Her eyes widened with apprehension and she quickly looked to Giles.

The Watcher treated Dawn to a reassuring smile. "I'd be very surprised. The ritual Glory performed required ... Well, the same things most rituals require. Very specific conditions needed to be met ... time, place, that sort of thing. I wouldn't be concerned."

"That's a relief," puffed Tara.

"Yeah," Willow nodded. "I was suddenly picturing Dawn as the girl in the plastic bubble." From the tiny smirk invading the redhead's lips, it was apparent that the image carried with it some element of amusement.

Dawn appeared to be tuning in to a similar mental projection. She frowned, obviously finding the visual nowhere near as comical. Tossing her head, she reached for her bookbag.

"School. Me. Going there," she announced. "Away from trauma."

She turned to leave, but then looked back to Giles thoughtfully.

"If I get powers again ... I'll be able to just, like, teleport to school, right?" she asked hopefully.

Giles immediately frowned at the suggestion. "The risk of behind discovered would be far too great to actually do so, but ... yes, in essence."

"Yes!" exclaimed Dawn, making a fist and driving her elbow downward. "I'll only have to get up, like ten minutes before class! Come on, powers!"

Her eyes glinted as she made her way along the hallway, cries of "goodbye" and "have a nice day" echoing in her wake.

"Zap!" she commanded, her voice drifting into the Sanctum. Then, "Open sesame!," followed by "Meka leka hi meka hiney ho!" There was a long pause. The final, plaintive "Aw, c'mon!" was only barely audible as Giles closed the door and turned to the two witches.

"Shall we begin?"

Willow and Tara assumed positions on the floor across from each other. Retrieving a chair, the Watcher settled comfortably nearby.

"What are we trying today, Mr. Giles?" inquired Tara.

"Yeah, you should pretty much be done with us by now," Willow stated. "I've been feeling like a lab rat all summer."

"There's still much we don't know about the magickal connection between the pair of you," Giles told them gently. "I thought this morning you two could simply attempt to synchronize your powers, and we'll take it from there."

Willow grinned at Tara. "I think we got off easy today."

Joining hands, the two witches closed their eyes.

"I'm okay with that," Tara declared. "I have that math in a few hours? The one that makes my brain hurt."

"Just say no to brain pain," instructed Willow firmly. "Want me to help you with your homework tonight?"

A golden shimmer began to form around their bodies.

Tara smiled, even though Willow couldn't see it. "What's the point of a genius girlfriend if you can't use her now and then?"

The glow shifted in color, moving from a bright gold to a silvery white to a pearlized gray and then back again. It was a subtle transformation, almost imperceptible.

"I have so many responses just itchin' to come out," replied the redhead with a tiny smirk, giving Tara's fingers a squeeze, "but there's this whole big thing with Giles being in the room."

"A detail that I am eternally grateful you recall," sighed a thankful Giles.

Even though they weren't looking at each other, Willow and Tara grinned in unison before falling into a tranquil silence. When Giles broke the hush, his tone was sedate and his voice muted.

"What do you feel?"

"Power," responded Tara.

"Calm," added Willow.

"Open yourselves to it and each other," the Watcher urged. He waited for a moment. The golden glow continued to shimmer. "Willow?"

"I can feel the magicks," she told him. "All of them. It's still scary ... but not so loud. Like they're calling me on a cell phone with a bad connection."

"Tara?"

The blonde's voice was soft. "There's so much power. I can touch it. Add to it. But it's not mine."

"What about pain?" asked Giles. "Any discomfort?"

"No," came Willow's reply.

A small frown crossed Tara's forehead. "But it's different."

"From before," confirmed Willow.

Giles leaned forward with interest. "From before...?"

"Before I died," clarified Tara.

This didn't seem to surprise the Watcher. "Oh. Well, yes, that's only to be expected. You yourself are different. You both are."

A serene smile invaded Willow's lips. "But it still feels good."

Tara nodded. "Good and right,"

Slowly, both witches opened their eyes, although it was with heavy lids; some part of them lingering within their connection.

Willow gave a contented sigh. "What can we say? It's all how it should be. Right baby?"

There was the briefest moment of hesitation before Tara emphatically declared, "Right. Like ... peanut butter and chocolate."

"Or Tim Burton and Johnny Depp," affirmed Willow.

"Or my continuing sense of detachment and any conversation you lot hold," contributed Giles.

"I-I don't think that one works quite so well," Tara pointed out with a conciliatory smile.

Willow was in total agreement. "Yeah, do-over for Giles. How about ..."

"Rum and Coke," ordered the triple-eyed demon, slapping down a grubby dog-eared bill.

Behind the counter of "After Midnight", a many-armed barkeep swept up the payment with one hand while another fixed the drink. His third and fourth hands polished shot glasses and a fifth wiped a wet rag over the counter. The sixth, having nothing better to do, was jammed into his pocket. He was obviously a talented, multi-tasking creature, and that fact entirely failed to impress his customer. With a sneer of disdain, Mr. Rum and Coke took the drink and then made his way to a small table in the corner.

"Terry ..."

The bartender started at the sound of his name and the merry whistle on his lips slowly died. He turned toward the muscled and tattooed figure behind him, who stood there shaking his huge bald pate disapprovingly. The man to whom the voice belonged was big, tough and gave the impression that he was not to be trifled with, despite the somewhat wry smirk he was displaying. Terry smiled nervously, his six hands twisting themselves together in a jittery dance. Terry was clearly of the simple monster variety – not too bright, but basically a good sort who was only too aware that he rested solidly on a bottom rung of the demon pecking order.

"Yeah?" he queried respectfully. "Yeah, Sam?"

"I saw that," Sam told him, crossing his arms across his broad chest and staring down at the bartender admonishingly.

"Saw what?" countered Terry. "I didn't do nothing."

Sam rolled his eyes. "The extra rum. C'mon, don't insult me."

"He's my friend, Sam." The declaration was made as though this statement would be more than sufficient defense in any court of law.

"Your friend?" Sam repeated skeptically, glancing at the triple-eyed demon who had his nose buried in a magazine that, judging from the cover, did not have humans as its target audience. "Isn't he the one you caught sleeping with your wife last week?"

Terry shook his head. "No, this was the one I caught last month."

"Ah, yeah," nodded Sam knowingly.

"But he didn't kill me after I sorta insulted his heritage," offered the barkeep brightly.

Sam's eyes found their way to the ceiling again. "What a pal," he stated in a flat tone.

Terry was encouraged. "A-And he said he'd keep not doin' that, if I hooked him up."

"Terry?"

"Yeah, Sam?" He regarded the beefy hand laid heavily upon his shoulder with some trepidation.

"Stop hooking him up with my profits."

The bartender bobbed his head in joyous agreement and breathed a sigh of relief as the grip on his flesh lessened.

"Now," added Sam, "how about you start restocking. I'll watch the counter."

Terry was nothing if not compliant. "Okay, Sam."

The whistle returning to his lips, Terry disappeared into the back. Sam was just starting to return the glasses to their racks when the front door opened and Buffy entered the bar. A bright shard of sunlight followed in her wake, illuminating the dusky interior. "After Midnight" was mostly empty – a handful of demons apart from Mr. Rum and Coke, and a rather unsavory bevy of humans. All the patrons watched the Slayer as she crossed the room. Judging from their collective expressions, most were well aware of her identity and swiftly made their escape into the rear where, presumably, there was an exit from the premises.

There were a few remaining customers, apparently ignorant of the fact they were in the presence of a Slayer. Plainly appreciative of Buffy's appearance, one of them began to leer, openly and rather suggestively. Without looking in his direction, she opened her jacket and flashed the stake tucked neatly into her belt. The demon's eyes narrowed and he checked her out again, warily this time. As recognition dawned, he beat a hasty retreat, closely followed by his scrambling buddies. The sole inhabitants of the room were now Buffy and Sam. The latter sighed heavily.

"Hey Terry, take a break, huh?" he called over his shoulder.

"Okay, Sam," came the cheery reply.

"Make it about ten minutes," Sam added, looking pointedly at Buffy. "This won't take any longer than that."

Buffy approached the counter, but continued to maintain her silence. Sam sighed once more.

"Come on Princess," he urged. "This is a modern bar, not a saloon in the old west. Let's cut the dramatics. What do you want?"

"And it's so good to see you again, too," rejoined the Slayer.

"Right, my heart's all fluttery," Sam said without humor. "Both of 'em."

Buffy tilted her head. "This is a new look for you. Sort of part biker, part convict, part suspiciously muscled and probably overcompensating."

With another sigh that spoke volumes, Sam promptly morphed, transforming from a six-foot plus bald hulk to an exotic example of the female species. Her skin was flawless and the luxurious hair fell in a tumble of tousled curls. She tapped her purple-painted fingernails impatiently on the bar.

"The daylight boys respond better to someone who looks more virile than they do," Sam informed Buffy matter-of-factly. "Probably makes 'em feel less like a loser for hanging out here before noon. Good for business, though." She eyed Buffy with disdain. "Well, when a Slayer doesn't show up and drive away said business. So I repeat: What do you want?"

"Information."

Sam quirked a critical eyebrow. "Don't wear those pants with those boots," she purred. "Thanks for dropping by."

"I said information not advice," snapped Buffy. "And my pants happen to match perfectly, thank you."

"As long as you think so, that's all that matters." Sam couldn't possibly have infused the placation with any less sincerity.

Buffy's eyes narrowed, but she wisely let the fashion critique drop. "I'm here about a demon." Sam's cupid-bow mouth opened to respond, but Buffy swiftly headed the approaching sarcasm at the pass. "A specific demon. I found him a couple blocks from here in an abandoned warehouse. Dead."

Sam tutted with disapproval. "Maybe you should teach your Barbie Death Patrol to clean up after themselves."

"This wasn't a Slayer," the blonde refuted with a shake of her head. "This demon ... He was tortured to death. It was ... I think it was going on for hours. Maybe even days."

The weight of Buffy's words hung in the air, and Sam was uncharacteristically silenced for a brief moment.

"I don't know who would've done that," she finally responded soberly. "I mean, we get some sickos come through here, but anyone who'd torture their own kind isn't really gonna be asked to join in a game of pool with the gang, you know? Probably not the social type."

"I know who did it too," Buffy continued. "A vampire. Little, Japanese. She said her name was 'Hitanko'."

A flash of realization appeared in Sam's eyes, and Buffy all but pounced. "You know her."

"I know of her," Sam corrected. "New player in town. She's—"

Sam's voice cut off as she suddenly snapped her mouth shut. An immaculately plucked eyebrow crept upwards as she surveyed the Slayer, but still she said nothing further.

Buffy's eyes widened expectantly, if impatiently. "I promise, I can keep up with the snail's pace exposition here," she assured. "She's...?"

A nonchalant toss of Sam's head sent her hair tumbling back over one shoulder "What's in it for me?"

Buffy stared for a moment. "What?"

"I mean, why should I help you?" Sam gestured toward the length and breadth of the deserted bar. "You've already scared away my morning business. I might as well close up for the day, go home and see if I can catch the end of 'The View'."

Slipping easily into intimidation mode, Buffy leaned over the counter toward Sam. "Look, I'm not in the mood for games. I didn't sleep too well last night, and you wanna know why?"

"Not really, no," muttered the demon.

"Because," Buffy continued as though she'd had nothing but complete encouraging agreement, "I spent half of it with nightmares about what I saw yesterday. So I didn't get my customary two, maybe three hours of beauty sleep as a result, and that—" The Slayer slammed her fist down on the bar, causing glasses to rattle and an alarmed Sam to jump. "—makes me pretty grouchy and short tempered. So unless you want to see up close and personal why it's a good idea to let me get some sleep? I suggest you start talking."

Sam seemed to feel threatened for a moment – seriously threatened – but it was a fleeting anxiety.

"You're not gonna hurt me," she stated with confidence.

"What?" Buffy immediately straightened, her expression indignant. "Yes I am!"

Sam shook her head and then smoothed the hair back into place. "No you're not. I'm harmless and you know it. You're having nightmares about tortured demons, Princess, you're not gonna just kill me."

Glowering, Buffy crossed her arms and stared. Hard. "Maybe you're confusing Slaying – which, by the way, is what I do – and torture."

"Nah, I got it," dismissed Sam. "And I got you. I'm harmless and you know it. Here, I'll prove it. Slay me."

"What?" repeated Buffy, no less incredulous.

Sam sashayed out from behind the bar. She executed a perfect three-point turn and then stood before Buffy with her arms spread wide. "Come on," she coaxed. "Slay."

"It's not a parlor trick!" Buffy protested, clearly not appreciating the implication.

"Spare me the semantics," Sam told her with an exasperated eye-roll. "Now come on."

Thoroughly indignant, Buffy's tone became entirely petulant. "What if I just don't want to?" Her chin jutted out defiantly. "Maybe I don't feel like it, did you ever think of that?"

"Didn't think so." Sam returned to her place behind the counter with a smug and self-satisfied expression. Smiling sweetly at Buffy, she continued. "Which brings us back to: What's in it for me? And don't start with the civic duty stuff next. I'm a demon. Soulless creature of the night, etc. etc. I prefer something a little more material."

The Slayer slumped onto one of the bar stools. "You're starting to remind me of someone I used to know."

Sam checked her wrist, despite the absence of any timepiece. "Clock's ticking, Princess."

"A fruit basket," Buffy blurted out.

Sam appeared taken aback at the suggestion. "Say wha huh?"

"A fruit basket," reiterated the Slayer. "All fruity and delicious. Bright red apples, succulent pears. Oh, and I think nectarines are in season." She grinned and nodded enticingly. "Mmm. Yum."

Sam frowned and wrinkled her button nose. "I was really thinking something a little more monetary."

"Yeah, I know you were," smirked Buffy. Using the foot rail for extra height, she projected her torso over the counter. Surprised by the sudden movement, Sam found herself pinned against a stack of beer crates and totally out of personal space.

The Slayer's words were spoken with deadly calm. "But I've seriously had enough of this. And while I won't kill you for being harmless? I just might for being irritating and wastingmytime. So maybe you wanna rethink the offer on the table."

Sliding back onto the stool, Buffy waited expectantly.

Sam swallowed hard once or twice before responding. Although badly shaken, she managed to maintain her composure rather well, given the circumstances.

"Fruit basket," she said brightly, reconsidering the proposition. "Sounds great. Throw in a peach and I'm all yours."

"Deal," agreed the Slayer conservatively. "Now what do you know?" She paused for a second. "The truth," she cautioned.

"You already got the vampire part," Sam began, leaning one hand on the edge of the counter and placing the other on her hip. "What you might not know though, is she's on a serious recruiting drive. We're talking like something out of Bush Jr's deepest fantasies. She put out the word to the vamps in town – join or dust. And she's serious too."

Buffy processed the information. "What does she need all the vampires for?"

"It's pretty obvious, isn't it, Princess? She's building an army."


Act Four

For the second time that day, Giles presided over a meeting in the library. The Scoobies were again gathered, save Dawn who was still in school. Buffy held the center of attention, all eyes fixed on her.

"An army?" the Watcher was asking dubiously.

Buffy nodded emphatically. "That's what Sam said."

Xander puffed heavily and threw his leg over the arm of the chair. "Can I just point out that I'm getting really sick of super-strong armies?"

Giles remained unconvinced. "Can we trust her?"

"Pretty sure so," confirmed Buffy. "By the way, do we have a credit line at the Farmer's Market?" She waved a dismissive hand at the Watcher's inquiring glance. "Never mind. Yes. I think this information is the real deal."

Willow sat cross-legged on the floor at Tara's feet. "It's sort of a shame that this Hitanko person's all evil and stuff, because if you look at it strictly from a numbers standpoint? She's a regular Eliot Ness." She frowned and then added, "Of evil."

"That's why there's been less vamps and stuff around town," Tara concluded. "She's recruiting them all."

"And killing the ones don't enlist," agreed Xander. "Persuasive and efficient."

"Sam overheard a couple vampires talking a few nights ago," Buffy informed the assembly. "Apparently our little friend has been sweeping through Trillium, rounding up the stray vamps and taking out any demon groups with even a whiff of power, whether they're actual threats or not."

Tara leaned forward. "But why?" she asked curiously. "Why go to all the trouble?"

"Removing the competition?" suggested Giles, beginning to pace. "Perhaps her goal is to take over the town."

Willow rested her head against Tara's knees. "But'cha know, if she wanted a place of her very own, why pick the one spot in the country with the highest Slayer per capita?"

"Good questions," mused the carpenter, swinging his leg back and forth, "which you'd think might've been answered with several hours of the most boring thing I've ever done."

"You couldn't find her," Buffy interpreted.

"Oh, I found her, but you wouldn't believe how many old Watcher's diaries I had to read through." Xander's gaze transferred to Giles. "You've seriously gotta think about teaching creative writing or something. Cuz this stuff? Not soon to be a major motion picture."

Giles bristled at the criticism. "The Watcher's diaries are- are important historical documentation, not the latest novel by Tom Clancy," he clipped.

"Which is a pity, cuz I think a few guns and submarines might've really spiced things up from the 'suicidally dull' to the 'I would rather be having a root canal'."

Recognizing that the looming battle might extend long into the night, Buffy prodded the important parts along. "What did you find, Xander?"

With a minimum expenditure of movement, the carpenter retrieved his notebook from a nearby table. "She's only really mentioned once, and the translations are pretty rough." He flipped over a couple of pages. "She was a vampire, no big surprise there. Based in the Osaka region in Japan. She turned up one night all vamped, the then-Slayer did her Slay thing, the end."

Tara's brows knitted. "Well except for the part where she's, you know ... not Slayed."

"There's that," admitted Xander.

Giles' pacing slowed to a stop. "If she were, in fact, not destroyed ..." He paused and then turned to the carpenter. "Xander, what was the date on those diaries?"

Xander hastily scanned his scrawl. "Uhhh ... 1600s."

"A 400-year old vampire," mused the Watcher.

Buffy exhaled slowly. "Well that explains the part where I didn't just kick her ass."

"Quite extraordinary," Giles continued to ruminate. "A vampire that old should have at least one volume devoted solely to her." He looked sharply to Xander once again. "But you said there was no more information?"

"Nope," verified the carpenter, flipping the overhanging pages back to the front of the legal pad. "Just that brief mention. Seems she was a one-hit wonder."

"They didn't know," murmured a thoughtful Tara. "The Watchers. They thought she was dusted, right?" She glanced at Xander for affirmation, which was duly given. "So nobody was looking for her. All she had to do after that was just ... be sneaky. Not cause a lot of trouble, and nobody would even know."

Giles thrust his hands deep into his pockets and began pacing the floor yet again. "Not quite in keeping with the traditional vampire mentality, but ... yes, that's possible. But then why resurface now?"

"She's— The Tri-Mouth," Willow suddenly blurted. "She's here because of the Tri-Mouth. I-It's gotta be. I mean, why else come here? Why come now?"

The Watcher's eyes glittered behind his glasses. "The convergence ... Of course. She must plan to- to ... open it, o-or harness the energies."

Buffy looked at Giles suspiciously. "Okay, I already don't like the sound of this. What would that do? The opening or the harnessing?"

"Well ... I don't know," hesitated the Watcher, fishing for a handkerchief. "There's never been anything quite like the phenomenon here. When we closed the Hellmouth in Sunnydale, the mystical energy – rather than dissipate – simply ... relocated. Became infused with other potent Hellmouths." He vigorously polished his glasses. "How or why those powers are now channeling here in Trillium ... I haven't a clue. To the best of my knowledge, nobody's ever permanently sealed a Hellmouth before."

Pumping his fists ecstatically, Xander exclaimed, "Gosh, it's fun to be pioneers!"

"Whatever it is she's gonna do," said Willow with grim confidence, "I'm bettin' it's not for the benefit of us."

Buffy was in complete agreement. "No, good call."

Tara's gaze encompassed the group. "So we find her and stop her."

"Don't suppose Sam the Helpful had an address?" asked Xander, quirking an eyebrow.

"Not so much," acknowledged Buffy grudgingly. "She said that they mentioned a meeting place somewhere off Highway 15, by Jefferson, but that was it."

"Strange place for vampires to hang out," Willow frowned. "It's all woodsy up there. Pretty sunlight-rich."

Xander was inclined to agree. "Yeah, it's mostly just for the tourist types. Lots of trees, some deer. I think the only other thing even close by is the ..."

His words trailed away as awareness slowly invaded the room.

Giles completed the thought, sounding vaguely stricken. "The hotel."

The Slayer's expression was equally concerned. "The nice, isolated, 10-room bed and breakfast hotel."

"The hopefully abandoned for the fall hotel?" ventured Willow.

Buffy frowned darkly. "I'm not taking any chances."

"Quite," the Watcher quickly concurred. "Take the girls currently here. We can pull some out of school if you think you'll need them?"

"Not just yet," replied Buffy, shaking her head and gesturing to the windows situated around the room. "It's daylight, so I'm thinking we'll have the advantage." She swiftly surveyed the gathering. "You guys ready?"

Xander was immediately stirred from his lethargy. "No more reading? I am so ready."

Using Tara's knees for leverage, Willow hauled herself upright. Tara stretched out her legs then joined the others. "We're good to go too," she announced with a confirming nod from Willow.

The group headed for the door. All that is, but Giles. Instead, he told them, "Good luck. Check back in as soon as you can."

As one, they hesitated and then turned to look at him. With folded arms, he leaned against one of the tables.

"You're not coming?" asked a puzzled Willow.

The Watcher regarded Buffy soberly. "Do you think you need me?"

The Slayer opened her mouth as if to speak, but said nothing. Her forehead creased and she tried again. "Well ... I mean we always need you," she maintained.

"But for this venture. Specifically," persisted Giles.

Three pairs of eyes, plus one, exchanged a doubtful look.

"No, I ... I suppose not," Buffy responded with confusion.

Giles flashed a brief smile of reassurance. "Then I have some work here that I could be doing in the meanwhile."

Buffy frowned again. "Okay ..."

The Watcher turned his back and began to sort through the papers which littered the table. "Good," he reiterated. "Remember, contact me as soon as you can."

The Scoobies lingered for a moment, then on some unspoken agreement, all filed out of the library.

As soon as they had left, the Watcher tossed his glasses onto the table and pinched the bridge of his nose. Then, with a small sigh, he made his way to where Xander had left the notepad. Picking it up, he began to read.

At the sound of a loud bang, Faith instantly awoke. Sitting up in bed, dagger already clutched in her fist, she looked around wildly for a second before recognizing the intruder. At another resounding bang – the noise of a dresser drawer being slammed shut – Faith rolled her eyes and deposited the weapon on a small nightstand next to the bed. Grabbing a pack of Marlboros, she lit up and propped her pillow against the wall. The flickering cigarette illuminated the purple bruises on her face and a rather nasty split lip, but Faith seemed unaware of her injuries as she leaned back and watched the would-be burglar with some curiosity.

"Hell're you doin'?"

The answer was the sharp closing of a third drawer as Kennedy methodically dumped Faith's belongings into an open suitcase on the floor at her feet.

"Packing," Kennedy replied without further elaboration.

Faith arched an eyebrow. "You goin' somewhere? With my stuff?"

"Not quite," refuted Kennedy. "Your stuff's going somewhere, but you're going with it."

"That right?" queried an amused Faith, carelessly flicking ash onto the carpet.

"Yup."

Kicking the case along in front of her, Kennedy moved to a small closet. Tugging shirts and jeans free from their wire hangers, she tossed the items over her shoulder where they landed, with remarkable accuracy, into the open bag.

With an air of nonchalance, Faith puffed out a long stream of smoke. "An' I'm goin' where again?"

"Trillium."

At the single word, some of Faith's cockiness slipped away. "Excuse me?"

"You're going back to Trillium, Faith," Kennedy informed matter-of-factly. "I've already talked to Giles. The plane will be fueled up and ready for you tomorrow morning."

Faith angrily stuffed her cigarette into a nearby beer can. "Screw that!"

Pausing momentarily in her packing activities, Kennedy turned to face the woman glaring at her from the bed.

"I did some thinking last night. You remember last night, right?" She ignored Faith's frown. "No actually, come to think of it, you probably don't, seeing as how you were drunk off your ass. Which means you probably also don't remember getting that." She jabbed an aggravated finger at Faith's split lip.

Faith peered down at herself. "Getting what?"

Kennedy rolled her eyes. "Exactly." She returned to the task at hand, hurling more articles of clothing into the suitcase.

Faith sneered in the direction of Kennedy's back and then winced at the stab of pain. She gingerly probed the outside of her mouth with a delicate tongue. For her part, Kennedy continued to lecture.

"I'm pretty familiar with it though, what with the hauling you out from under the pile of guys you picked a fight with. Again."

Nodding, Faith reached for another cigarette. "Ah, yeah, okay. Comin' back to me now."

"I'd hope so," grumbled Kennedy, "seeing as how that exact scenario describes a good third of the time you've been here."

"Consider me intervened," Faith soothed sarcastically, settling her shoulders more comfortably against the pillow.

Kennedy sighed heavily. Never having been much inclined to beat around the bush, she came directly to the point.

"You're drinking too much, you're smoking too much, and you're fighting too much."

"And you're talkin' too much."

The barb was ignored as Kennedy pressed onward. "I thought ... I dunno, I thought maybe being here would be good for you. Let you settle in, away from everything. That maybe after a little while, you'd deal with Hazel and Judith–"

Faith's eyes narrowed. "Judith's 'dealt with', alright? She's dead. Don't get much more 'dealt with'."

Kennedy's mouth grew tight as she spun around. "And what about you? Huh? I may not win the Miss Empathy crown, but you think I can't see what you're doing? A semi-retarded box turtle could pick up on all this self-destructive crap." Her expression softened just a little. "Now maybe you don't care and maybe you think I shouldn't, but ... I do."

Faith said nothing, her only response being an undisguised snort and the averting of her astounded gaze.

Kennedy threw up her hands. "You won't let me help you. Fine. Then we're gonna give someone else a try." She continued to relieve the closet of its contents.

"Who's that?" queried Faith scornfully. "Buffy and Pals? You know, maybe you didn't catch this, but there's this little thing called 'history'. And let's just say that when it comes to me and dead people, we've got it. I already know how that story ends."

The wire hangers rattled furiously. "Yeah, so? That was then."

"You don't get it," gritted Faith.

"No, I get it just fine," countered Kennedy briskly. "You killed Judith. So what? She was a rabid dog that deserved to be put down. You think they won't see that?"

Speaking slowly, as though she were conversing with a naive simpleton, Faith replied. "No, you know, I really don't think they will."

Kennedy fought valiantly to keep a rein on her fast-ebbing temper. "Then I think you're in for a surprise. People change, Faith. None of you are the same people you were ...what? Five, six years ago?"

Faith shook her head. "Some things don't change."

"I guess we're gonna test that theory."

Using her foot to shove the suitcase along the carpet, Kennedy moved to the bedside table and, dropping to her knees, reached for the handle of the top drawer.

Faith's eyes became little more than infuriated slits. "And wouldja stop going through my stuff already?"

Ignoring the command, Kennedy tugged open the drawer. Faith's hand snaked toward Kennedy's wrist.

"I said stop!"

But it was too late. The collection of articles stowed in the drawer was plainly visible. Kennedy blinked at the first item in view and turned slowly to Faith. Unable to meet the other Slayer's eyes, Faith glanced at the door. Carefully, Kennedy removed the framed photograph of Hazel and Faith taken in happier times and regarded the captured expressions – Hazel beaming and Faith rather self-conscious. She moved sympathetically toward Faith, but Faith would have none of it.

"Faith, it's okay," assured Kennedy. "Hazel was a great kid. I know you still miss her, I do too."

Faith stared at the ceiling, the forgotten cigarette almost burning her fingers. "Oh, and that makes everything better."

Snatching away the smoldering butt, an infuriated Kennedy waved the picture frame in Faith's direction. "See, this is what I'm talking about. You're not dealing." She nodded with determination, as though Faith's reaction only confirmed everything she had already been thinking. "You definitely need to go back."

Faith threw off the coverlet. "Okay, you know what?" She swung her legs over the side of the bed and was on her feet in an instant, glaring down at Kennedy "I think I'm a big girl and can decide for myself where I need to go."

Kennedy was unfazed. As though Faith hadn't even spoken, she tucked the photograph between a stack of tee shirts in the suitcase and continued to clear out the end table. She threw Faith a keen sideways glance.

"That's certainly your opinion. But you're going anyway, even if I have to knock you out and throw you on the plane myself."

Apparently, this was precisely the brand of violent threat Faith had been waiting to hear. Standing straight, she loomed over Kennedy and adopted an aggressive posture. Her hands clenched as an open smile of derision played about her lips.

"You think you can take me?"

The corners of Kennedy's mouth turned upward with amusement as she regarded Faith, now towering at her shoulder. "No, I know I could take you."

With a meaningful tilt of her head, Kennedy focused once more on the suitcase, attempting to cram every inch of space so it would close. Faith was far from pleased at being dismissed so offhandedly.

"Come on then, Sparky," she urged, bouncing lightly on her toes. "You're so big and butch, let's see whatcha got."

Kennedy refused to rise to the bait. "I'm not fighting you, Faith."

"You just need the right motivation."

The words had barely been spoken before Faith lashed out with a kick designed to catch Kennedy squarely in the ribs. But Kennedy was prepared. She twisted to one side, easily avoiding the attack. Faith recovered quickly, raising her fists and taking a step backward in readiness.

"Oh please." Kennedy's eye-roll was blatant and exaggerated.

Faith launched another kick, this one aimed at Kennedy's head. It was no more successful than its predecessor.

Looking up, Kennedy puffed out an exasperated sigh. "I have way too much respect for both of us to do this. I'm won't fight you, Faith. But you are going back, one way or another."

"Screw that," scowled Faith. "And you know what? Screw you too. You want me gone, I'm gone, but I'll be damned if I'll go back there. Don't even know why I stuck around here."

She reached down for her suitcase, but was diverted by Kennedy seizing her wrist.

"Because you need someone," Kennedy told her quietly. "You could've left any time, we both know it. Just run off, and nobody would ever know where you went. You want someone to help you, Faith, whether you'll admit it or not."

There was a moment of silence and then, Kennedy released Faith's wrist. Faith made no further move to claim her belongings, nor did she make any attempt to leave.

Kennedy got to her feet and faced the other woman. "I want someone to help you too." Her tone was sincere. "So if you won't do it for you, then do it for me. And if not me, then Hazel. There's no way she'd want you to be like this. Don't you owe it to her to try?"

Again Faith's eyes dropped and she began to fidget uncomfortably. Kennedy couldn't help but allow herself a small smile.

"And if that's not enough ..." she added defiantly, "then do it because I dare you to."

For a long moment, Faith didn't move a muscle. Eventually, a tiny, challenging grin cracked her face.

Crouching in the cover of dense and snarled undergrowth, Buffy, Xander, Willow and Tara took stock of a large stone-and-wood building no more than fifty yards in front of them. Even limned in bright sunlight, it exuded something of a sinister air, bearing no resemblance to what should have been pleasurable, albeit temporary, accommodation for holidaymakers in search of fun and a little relaxation.

The rear guard consisted of approximately fifteen to twenty Juniors, all of whom were armed to the teeth with swords, crossbows, axes and almost every other type of weapon available in Slayer Central's extensive armory. In addition to her personal crossbow, Buffy's katana was sheathed at her side. The quartet spearheading the attack conversed back and forth, working out their options.

"It's quiet," commented Willow, raising her head a tad.

"If anyone follows up with the obvious, I'll poke them with my sword," announced Xander, jabbing fiercely at a nearby bush to emphasize his point.

Willow sighed. "I'm just— You think they're in there?"

"Guys...?" interrupted Tara.

Every gaze followed Tara's pointing finger, which led to the flagpole situated in the open courtyard of the hotel. A new flag fluttered in the light breeze. No longer did it bear a welcoming image of comfort. Instead, it displayed a symbol reminiscent of a moon blotting out the sun – the same symbol that had been carved into the flesh of the tortured demon. Other examples of the insignia also littered the exterior; banners draped from windows and daimyo flags flanked the entrance. The hotel had been branded. This was now Hitanko's territory.

"They're in there," Buffy stated confidently.

She turned to the Juniors, who were instantly alert to her words.

"Okay, here's what we're gonna do. Will hacked into the hotel's booking system before we left – as of this morning there were seven families in there; about 22 people, plus any staff. Getting to them and getting them out is your top priority. We have no idea how many vampires are in there, but be ready for a fight."

The Juniors looked at one another with skepticism.

"You can't seriously think anybody in there's still alive," scoffed Melanie, rolling her eyes.

"What I seriously think," Buffy retorted, crossing her arms and leveling a glare at the younger woman, "is that we're going to assume they are and do everything we can to save them."

It wasn't much of a contest. Melanie almost immediately backed down, although Buffy continued her reproachful stare for a moment longer, just to make her point perfectly clear. When satisfied, she glanced over her shoulder. "Xander?"

With a hard swallow, Xander nodded as much to himself as to Buffy, but the fleeting second of nervousness vanished as he stepped forward with authority.

"We'll split into three groups," he crisply informed the Juniors. "Katie, Xue, Brig ..."

Satisfied, Buffy smiled at his tone of self-assurance before breaking away and approaching Willow and Tara. With eyes closed, the two witches had joined hands.

"Anything?" asked the Slayer expectantly.

Locked within their concerted efforts, neither woman spoke for a moment but then, their fingers disentangled and both looked to Buffy.

"No magick traps, which is yay," reported Willow, yet her brow was furrowed. "I-I can't tell if there's anybody still–"

"They're alive," interrupted Tara.

Willow's frown deepened as she turned to Tara with a look of surprise. A thousand questions appeared in the redhead's expression, but she gave none of them voice.

"Some of them, anyway," Tara was continuing, not having noticed Willow's reaction. "I can't pinpoint where exactly, but ... They're scared."

Buffy's chin jutted with determination. "Let's see what we can do about that."

She glanced over her shoulder at Xander, who confirmed the readiness of his troops with a staunch nod.

"Group one, you're with Xander," she directed.

The carpenter immediately headed for the rear of the hotel with a third of the Juniors in tow. "We'll look for a back door."

Buffy purposefully loaded her crossbow and smiled. "I prefer the direct approach."

Stealthily, Buffy made her way forward, the rest of the small army following. Not uttering a word, the group moved in silence and reached the front of the hotel without incident. Hefting her crossbow, Buffy signaled at two of the Juniors, each similarly armed. The pair ran swiftly to the entrance – one taking up position to the left and the other to the right. They held their crossbows pointed upward and at the ready, bearing more than a passing resemblance to police officers.

Dropping to one knee, Buffy took careful aim and nodded once to the girl on her right. Seizing the handle, the girl twisted the knob and then pushed open the door. Between the three of them, they had all sides covered. Which was just as well since two vampires were standing guard in the darkened foyer, though both were taken completely by surprise at the intrusion. They reacted speedily – but not speedily enough. Before either could do much more than snarl, they crumbled into twin piles of neat dust. As Buffy and one of the Juniors were reloading, a third vampire emerged from behind the front desk. The girl who had yet to fire let loose with her bolt but missed the target and the vampire made a mad dash for the stairs.

"Will!" urged Buffy, her crossbow not yet ready.

"Slayers!" the scurrying vampire hollered frantically. "We're und–"

His warning fizzled as he became engulfed in flames, igniting so quickly that he didn't have time to even voice a terminal scream.

Willow's face broke into a broad beam of delight. "Hey, how is a vampire like a Quiznos sub?" she queried chirpily.

A few of the Juniors snickered, but a glare from Buffy swiftly brought them back in line. She moved cautiously further into the lobby, the younger Slayers fanning out behind her.

Lingering on the doorstep, Willow pouted a little. "I never have any fun."

With a consoling pat on the redhead's shoulder, Tara entered the foyer. Willow sighed in resignation and followed. The sounds of vampires disintegrating could be heard coming from all directions. The Juniors who had been dispatched to check out adjoining rooms swiftly returned to the main group.

"Clear," announced one, twirling her stake with expert precision .

Another emerged, brushing dust from her shirt. "I got two. Clear now."

Buffy nodded her acknowledgment before asking, "Tara, can you feel where the people are?"

Tara closed her eyes, forehead furrowing with concentration.

"I think ..." she began hesitantly. "I think they're below? In a cellar or something maybe?"

Buffy's gaze swept the hotel lobby. "There's probably a basement level. We'll head that way. Will, you and your team ..."

"Upstairs," confirmed the redhead. "Got it."

Six of the Juniors immediately made their way to the foot of the wide staircase, where whiffs of smoke continued to drift upward from the smoldering vampiric ashes. As Willow began to follow, Tara seized her hand, causing the redhead to stop.

"Be safe," Tara told her firmly.

With a smile of reassurance, Willow squeezed Tara's hand and then headed after the Juniors who were already on their way up the stairs.

Buffy, Tara and the remaining girls entered the adjoining room where two vampires had been staked only minutes before. They met with no further interference and Buffy wasted little time in assessing her surroundings. She gestured at a heavy wooden door to the left and quickly made her way there. Pressing her ear against the jamb, she listened intently but could hear nothing. Crossbow at the ready, she turned the handle, but there was no threat lurking on the other side. She flashed Tara an inquiring glance and the witch nodded, indicating that she had sensed the presence of humans in that direction.

The hallway into which the rescue party moved was cramped and stifling, forcing the team to travel in single file. The lighting was poor, causing many of the Juniors to peer nervously into the gloom. Leading the way, Buffy checked behind each and every door that lined the narrow corridor. Some revealed themselves to be small pantries, while others were merely storage cupboards for cooking utensils or gardening tools. None proved to be the makeshift holding area they were seeking. However, at the end of the hallway stood another door – by all appearances, seeming to be more sturdy than those that had gone before. Buffy approached with extreme caution.

Twisting the knob as silently as possible, Buffy was taken off guard by the vampire who was there to greet her. He was already nearly on top of her, and the close quarters provided little fighting room. Acting on instinct, Buffy physically thrust her crossbow forward and buried it into the vampire's chest, where it failed to puncture the heart. He treated her to a contemptuous sneer, but the smug expression was fleeting at best and was soon transformed into a look of shock when Buffy pulled the trigger at point-blank range. He continued to appear stupefied even as he turned to dust.

Not wasting any time, Buffy rushed down the steps of the cellar, the sounds of whimpering and subdued pleas easily reaching her ears. She came to a halt halfway down, extending her arms and effectively stemming the tide of those who followed. Huddled in the corner was a group of terrified individuals, perhaps twelve in total. Surrounded by a party of threatening vampires, the miserable captives clung desperately to each other and regarded Buffy with petrified eyes. The Slayer swiftly took note of the circumstances. Her team was outnumbered, but not overwhelmingly so.

"They're here!" she called, vaulting the banister to land squarely in the center of the basement area.

With sufficient room now to make their descent, the Juniors poured down the stairs. Those with crossbows held their fire for fear of hitting the innocent, who were clearly panicked and in a state of shock. As the Slayers engaged the vampires, Tara hurried toward the cowering prisoners.

She swept a howling toddler into the crook of her elbow and helped the more timorous to their feet. "Come on! This way!" she coaxed urgently, ushering them toward the stairs. She thrust the squirming child into another captive's arms as a woman scurried past.

Just as the last of the hostages was on his way to safety, Tara found herself being seized from behind and tossed in the air like a rag doll. The attacking vampire caught her about the waist as she fell, pulling her close with a triumphant snarl.

"Didn't your daddy ever tell you it's not polite to touch someone's stuff without asking?" he leered. Tara visibly flinched at his acrid breath.

Whipping out his free hand, the vampire grabbed her around the throat and dangled her aloft. Unable to break the suffocating hold, Tara's feet kicked ineffectually in mid-air, while she scrabbled desperately at the constrictive fingers. Gasping for oxygen, she tried to call out for help, but could make no sound.

"I think someone needs to teach you a hard lesson, little girl," growled the vampire, shaking her violently for good measure.

Upon hearing those words, Tara's eyes grew wide with terror. Her body became rigid, seemingly paralyzed with fright. The vampire chuckled as he tightened his grip. Tara was dangerously near to losing consciousness when she was abruptly released. Collapsing upon the ground, she stared up at her assailant, who was blinking in confusion at the business end of a stake that had punched its way through his chest.

"School's out, teach," Xander told him cheerfully.

Tara shielded her head with one hand as the dust swirled and spiraled. Her body trembled as she coughed harshly and massaged her raw throat. She dragged at the air with quivering, hard-fought breaths.

Concerned, Xander knelt down beside her. "Hey. Hey, Tara, you okay?" He placed a comforting hand on her shuddering shoulder.

For several heartbeats, she failed to respond, simply staring fixedly at where the vampire had been standing. A worried Xander maintained his silence, stroking her back and staring into her face with concern until she finally blinked and met his gaze. The quick flash of her smile was grateful but embarrassed, and she ducked her head before taking a deep breath. A moment later, Tara looked to Xander again, notably avoiding any glance at the pile of dust on the floor just a foot away.

"I'm okay," she replied. "Thanks for the save."

"It's what all the dashing young knights of the realm are doin'," he dismissed with a relieved grin.

Hauling himself to his feet, the carpenter offered a hand to Tara, which she thankfully accepted. With the arrival of Xander's entourage, the few remaining vampires were swiftly dispatched and Buffy hurried toward them.

"You guys alright?" she asked with a frown.

Xander pooh-poohed the idea of anything being otherwise. "No problem. I can think at least a few families who'll probably give some serious thought to Disneyland next year, though."

Satisfied that no one was hurt, Buffy hurried back up the stairs with the others in tow, following in the wake of the terrified hostages. Returning to the hotel proper, they quickly made their way into the lobby where the rescuees had gathered. Most appeared to be incredibly agitated, despite the Juniors' best efforts to calm them down.

"You don't understand!" protested a balding, overweight man, struggling valiantly, if in vain, to push past a small brunette Slayer. "She's still here!"

A wild-eyed and disheveled woman clutched Melanie's wrist in a vice-like grip. "Please, my little boy. You have to help him!" At a loss for words, Melanie could only pat the claw digging into her flesh while simultaneously trying to exercise enough force to pry it loose without causing serious harm.

"What's going on?" Buffy demanded as she approached.

One of the Juniors hastened to explain. "They said people are still here. Wives, husbands, children ..."

"They were split up," Xander realized, gripping his axe tighter. "The vamps kept the families apart."

Buffy nodded her agreement. "What better way to keep each group under control?" She raised her eyes to Xander. "Hey, did you see Hitanko? Short, black hair, kinda irritatingly strong?"

Xander thought for a moment. "Nope," he told her. "Plenty of vamps, but just your average, garden variety."

Tara surveyed the area, her forehead beginning to furrow. "Where's Willow?"

Willow gritted her teeth and executed one awkward sword stroke after another, spitting words out with each swing. "Why! Did I pick! Upstairs!"

Stuck in something of a crunch, the redhead's forces were outnumbered and surrounded on every side by vampires. To make matters worse, most of their efforts were focused on protecting a dozen or so captives who, much like those imprisoned in the basement, were terrified to the point of immobility. The battlefield appeared to be a large study, lined wall to wall with books, and while Willow and her troupe were holding their ground, they truly couldn't make any headway.

Lynn grimaced as she narrowly missed getting snatched by a particularly grotesque, but apparently incredibly limber, specimen of the vampiric variety. "What happened to toasty?" she yelled over her shoulder.

"With all this flammable stuff around?" responded a breathless and grim Willow. "Not a good idea unless you're made of asbestos!" Then, her expression brightened considerably at the sound of clamoring from the hallway.

"Will?" came Buffy's most welcome inquiry.

"In here!" replied the redhead. "What took you so dang long?"

Outside in the hall, the Scoobies and a hefty company of Juniors were battling their way toward the entrance to the study. It was obviously only a matter of time before they gained the upper hand but for the moment, things were a little on the chaotic side within the cramped area. Buffy deftly swung her katana and decapitated a lunging vampire. She hesitated for a moment and then instinctively gazed along the corridor. At the far end, well removed from the violence, stood Hitanko.

Despite the spear balanced in her hand, the girl made no move to engage herself in the fight. Locking eyes with Buffy, she inclined her head in respectful greeting before slowly moving away to the side and disappearing down a hallway. Buffy quickly checked the conflict arena and, realizing that their victory would be inevitable, pushed through the crowd to follow Hitanko.

Rounding the corner, she found herself at the bottom of yet another staircase that led to a higher level. Taking the steps two at a time, she emerged into a renovated attic. The area was huge and open, seemingly having been converted into a studio apartment. There was an easel and artist materials in the far corner. Plants lined the baseboard of one wall, while an ornately carved four-poster bed dominated another. An antique dresser stood to the left along with other assorted decorations, but they were sparse in nature and the overall effect was one of almost limitless space.

Buffy blinked at the bright sunlight invading the room. It streamed through the overhead skylight and numerous windows, affording a spectacular view of the surrounding woodlands. There were no curtains to filter the penetrating rays but even so, there were places aplenty for lurking shadows. In the center of this panorama, Hitanko waited with tranquil patience.

She smiled enigmatically at Buffy's cautious approach and bowed her head slightly. Both kept a firm grip on their weapons.

"Your presence honors me," Hitanko welcomed. "Your death shall honor us both."

"Yeah," Buffy said with a shrug, sounding almost bored. "Sorry to spoil that, but I got plans tonight that – huh, funny – don't involve me dying."

Finding no use for bravado, Hitanko declined to verbally respond. Instead, she merely tilted her head in acceptance. Still though, the gesture conveyed a condescending 'Whatever you say' attitude, which Buffy found supremely annoying.

The Slayer assumed a deceptively casual pose. "But before me and my friends go help those poor people find the number for a good therapist, why don't you tell me what you were doing with them?"

"The humans were to be a fine banquet," responded Hitanko calmly. "It has been disrupted." She dismissed the inconvenience with an elegant wave of her hand. "We will find more. There are always more."

"And the Tri-Mouth?" pressed Buffy. "What about that?"

Hitanko seemed puzzled. "I do not know of a ... Tri-Mouth." She had trouble pronouncing the word and it sounded odd as it slipped awkwardly from her tongue.

"The convergence thingie," clarified Buffy, growing fractious. "The mystical triangle here in Trillium."

A light dawned in Hitanko's almond-shaped eyes. "Ah. It is potency. It is strength." She cocked her head and frowned at Buffy. "You do not feel it?" Allowing her eyes to close, the vampire seemed to drink the sensations. "It sings in my blood. If my heart were to beat, it would surely keep time."

"Very power ballad," Buffy replied, entirely unimpressed. "But what were you planning to do with it?"

Hitanko regarded Buffy with a great deal of curiosity.

"You are strange, Slayer," she mused thoughtfully. "You care for your quarry. You permit yourself attachments, heedless of the weakness they bring you." The ghost of a smirk formed on her lips. "And I think you talk too much."

Buffy didn't seem to take it personally. "I get that a lot," she confided.

Hitanko allowed her gaze to drift toward the katana in the Slayer's hands. "It is fitting."

Then she attacked.

Hitanko took a single step toward Buffy, thrusting her spear at the Slayer. At least six-foot long, the weapon gave Hitanko considerable reach, but Buffy was able to easily parry the attack with her sword. Instantly Buffy lunged, taking advantage of the opening, but Hitanko was already in motion. She calmly took a step back, well beyond the sword's extension, and swept her spear in a lethal arc. Buffy ducked, only barely able to avoid decapitation, although several strands of hair were not so lucky.

Although Buffy's katana was the faster weapon, Hitanko twirled her spear with no more effort than she might a pen. The Slayer grit her teeth in frustration when attempt after attempt failed to gain her the advantage. The battle had degenerated into thrusts, parries and ripostes, with neither combatant significantly improving their situation. However, Buffy was slowly being forced backward, losing ground to Hitanko's whirring spear and unerring skill with the weapon.

With less than fifteen feet remaining before she found herself pinned against the wall, Buffy switched from defense to offense. The speedy transition seemed almost desperate, but the aggression behind the sudden onslaught of counterattacks proved effective – at least for a moment. Hitanko quickly regained her momentum and immediately capitalized on the Slayer's reckless defenses. Her blade effortlessly sliced through clothing and flesh, leaving Buffy with a torn shirtsleeve and neat but bloody gash on her left arm.

Then came the opening Buffy needed – anticipating an easily avoided slash, she directed her weapon at the vampire's head. Hitanko was already recovering and brought her spear around to deflect the blow, but by the time she realized Buffy's true goal, it was far too late. Adjusting her aim at the last moment, Buffy's blade sliced through the spear's wooden shaft, cleaving the weapon in two. With a clatter, the head of the spear fell to the floor between vampire and Slayer. For a moment, both could only stare at it, transfixed.

"Well, then," Buffy declared, clearly approving of the tide the battle had taken. "About that—"

There was no warning. The wooden remainder of the spear clutched in Hitanko's hand was already in motion. The vampire first struck Buffy in the back of her hand, loosening the tight grip on the katana enough for a follow-up strike to knock the weapon from the Slayer's hand. The sword went spinning across the floor, well out of reach. Unwilling to be the only one unarmed, Buffy's hand snatched out and grabbed the remainder of the spear. The vampire's grip was unbreakable however, and the two were now grappling for control of the weapon.

"No way," Buffy grunted as she tried to wrench the staff free. "You may be hot stuff with the whole Kabuki thing, but I'm the champ at 'Mercy'."

"Slayer should know nothing of mercy," was Hitanko's response, the ruggedness of her speech proving a revealing sign to her own strain.

With no progress being made in a battle of brute strength, Buffy dug in her feet and, instead of continuing to pull, she shoved forward. The sudden change in force came as a complete surprise to the vampire, and the midpoint of the staff connected directly with her ridged forehead. Two loud cracks resounded in the loft – one from the impact and the other from the snapping of wood as the shaft broke into two halves.

It was an unexpected result, and Buffy wasn't prepared for it. Her hold on the staff was lost, and Hitanko wasted no time. The two wooden implements whistled as they cut the air, the vampire whirling and swinging them like a pair of lethal batons. Able to attack nearly twice as fast, she rained down blow after punishing blow on the Slayer.

Finding herself once more losing ground, Buffy circled around, trying to find some reprieve. But Hitanko was everywhere, remorselessly driving the Slayer back. Then Hitanko spied the katana nearby, glinting in a beam of sunlight. Realizing that Buffy had been guiding her to this spot, Hitanko's lips pulled back in a snarl and she swung both shafts at Buffy's head. Had the blows connected Buffy's skull would have been shattered, but she was prepared. Dodging out of range of the weapons, Buffy allowed her momentum to throw her into a tight roll. She bounced out of it a few feet away, momentarily safe in a halo of sunlight and once again armed. She lunged decisively, aiming to strike at the vampire's head, but the wooden clubs were there first – each locked on one side of the blade, bracing it in a strong, if tenuous grip.

Both of Buffy's fists were clasped around the hilt of her weapon, seeking some way to free it, but she found Hitanko's hold impossibly strong and immobile – still, the vampire required both hands to be in use, and Buffy had no such limitations. Freeing one, the Slayer drove the heel of her hand into her opponent's jaw, pulled back, and repeated the blow. Instinct took over and Hitanko's grip slipped. Buffy didn't hesitate; she plunged the katana into the vampire's heart.

Amidst a low cry borne of equal parts surprise and pain, one piece of the now-broken staff fell from Hitanko's numb fingers as she was forced against the nearby wall. Buffy followed each step of the way, sword point first, until the tip of the blade exited the vampire's back and scraped against brick.

Her hand trembling only slightly, Hitanko raised the remaining fragment of her staff and swung it toward Buffy's sword arm. But the Slayer easily caught the weapon, twisted it free and flung it to the far side of the room.

Her vampire visage retracted, and from appearances Hitanko was no more than a frail, young girl. It was the look in her eyes that betrayed that illusion. Hatred burned as she glared at Buffy. Unflinching, impassive, Buffy met her gaze steadily.

"You know this will not kill me," Hitanko spat. It was a challenge.

"No, it won't," agreed Buffy. "Bet it hurts, though."

With no warning, Buffy twisted her sword savagely and yanked it free, forcing a cry from Hitanko as she nearly doubled over in pain. In one smooth motion, the Slayer spun around, the blade extended. Her aim was true, and like slicing through butter, she decapitated the vampire.

Hitanko's eyes continued to bore into Buffy, even as her head crumbled to dust, her body quickly following. The vampire's remains settled on the wooden floor as Buffy watched, moving to a nearby window to draw warmth from the sunlight that bathed and welcomed her.

"Truth or dare?" asked Buffy, unwrapping a Dubble Bubble gum ball and popping it into her mouth.

"Truth," replied Xander with conviction.

The trio were strolling down the deserted street, caught somewhere between nightly patrol and simply hanging out – though the assorted in-hand beverages tended more toward the latter.

"Uhmm ..." pondered the Slayer, chewing contentedly as she gazed up at the night sky. "Okay, what was the scariest moment of your entire life?"

Willow jumped in quickly before Xander even had a chance to respond. "I'm gonna guess and say it has something to with Uncle Rory and some bizarre manner of stuffed beast."

"True Tales of Terror and Taxidermy?" suggested Buffy.

Xander's feet ground to a halt. "Girls, please," he scoffed. "After all the stuff we've faced? I have seen the worst this world has to offer, and more than my fair share of badness from other dimensions. I've had the gateway – the very mouth of hell open beneath me, just waiting to dine on a succulent meal of oh so tasty Xander flesh." He continued his casual stride. "My Uncle Rory doing 'Who's on First' with a stuffed Persian is nothing compared to that."

"Even though he was in his underwear?" Willow inquired dubiously.

"I'm not saying he doesn't rank," admitted the carpenter. "I'm just sayin' – not the scariest."

Buffy imploded her pink bubble with a loud pop. "So what moment rockets to number one?"

Xander gave the question due consideration. "Probably those tense few moments when I thought I'd actually failed Algebra and I'd have to retake it in summer school. Summer school." He shuddered violently. "Those two words have no business being linked in our vocabulary. It's just unnatural."

Willow meditated for a moment. "Didn't you get a D?"

"D minus," corrected Xander with some pride. "And I earned every point. Now your turn – truth or dare?"

Willow sucked noisily on her straw. "We have so got to get a new game," she mumbled and then took note of the anticipatory stares being pointedly directed her way from Xander and Buffy. "Okay, okay," she caved. "Sheesh. Truth."

Xander openly leered. "What's the naughtiest thing you've ever done?"

Willow treated him to a flat look. "Ya might wanna put some restrictions on that one, since I sorta reset the bar on naughty not too long ago."

"Point taken," he readily agreed. "Okay, the naughtiest thing before your 18th birthday."

"Before my 18th birthday, hmmm ..." mused Willow, burrowing into the depths of her memory bank. Her eyes grew wide. "Oh! Yeah, okay. So- So it was early junior year. You guys were all really busy doing something or another and I was feelin' pretty lonely an' I didn't want to just sit at home and mope and stuff. So I went to the Bronze and I told them that it was my birthday even though it wasn't, and they gave me a free muffin."

There was a long pause.

"That was your naughtiest pre-18 event?" queried Xander doubtfully.

"Free muffin?" accused Buffy in an injured tone.

Xander shook his head. "You're an animal, Will."

"I didn't know the Bronze gave out free muffins," pouted Buffy. "Why didn't anyone ever tell me about the muffins? Maybe I wanted a free birthday muffin."

Xander patted her hand comfortingly. "Buff, you're lucky you didn't get a free birthday decapitation, let's not push our luck."

"If it helps, it wasn't very good," added Willow with a distasteful grimace. "It was sorta stale, a-and I think it had weird fuzz on the top." She probed the recollection. "Though maybe those were poppyseeds? It was really dark." The redhead dismissed the mystery as now unsolvable.

Buffy continued to pout all the same.

Reaching around the Slayer to poke Willow's arm, Xander attempted to move things along. "You're up," he told her.

"Right." She turned to Buffy with the inevitable question. "Truth or dare?"

Buffy didn't hesitate for so much as a nanosecond. "Dare," she announced immediately.

The only answer was a collective audible groan.

"What?" demanded Buffy peevishly. Her nose wrinkled as the sweetness of her gum began to seriously deteriorate, and she spat it into a nearby trashcan with perfect aim.

"You always pick dare," Willow complained.

"I sort of have that prerogative," the blonde informed them. "It's not 'Truth or Truth'. 'Dare' is a valid option here."

"Yeah, I know, but—"

"But it's startin' to get repetitive," Xander interrupted with exasperation. "Plus, I mean, Slayer powers. It's an immediate unfair advantage."

"You guys are my best friends," protested Buffy. "You already know everything about me."

"Humor us," urged the carpenter.

Buffy's reply teetered on the delicate precipice between brusque and whiny. "Oh fine. Truth."

"Yay!" exclaimed Willow, unable to completely suppress a hop of joy. As they came to a halt on the street, a hushed silence fell over the group. Willow's entire being funneled without reservation into mining this rare moment of 'Truth or Dare' gold for every precious nugget.

After a long moment – during which Buffy squirmed uncomfortably – Willow spoke. "Alright, who was—" She broke off abruptly as a brand new question occurred to her. "No. Off the top of your head, what's the first happy moment you can think of. Just off the top of your head."

Buffy's brow furrowed in deep thought. "Happy moment ..." she repeated in consideration.

She glanced to her right, where Xander was waiting expectantly. Looking to her left, she noted an equally attentive Willow. With a broad smile, she extended her arms, throwing one around Xander's neck and the other around Willow's shoulders.

"Nice night, yummy beverage, best friends," she declared. "This doesn't suck."

Willow and Xander beamed in return as the three best friends resumed their walk down the street.

Xander's voice floated upward on the brisk breeze. "The best you could think up was 'doesn't suck'?"

"Well maybe next time you guys'll won't push for truth."

"And miss out on the warm fuzzies?" Willow asked in completely disbelief. "We wouldn't dare."


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