Assorted textbooks and other reference materials littered the tables of Slayer Central's library. Newspapers were scattered everywhere, some current and some several days or even up to a week old. Each screamed its horrific headlines detailing the mutilated bodies of murdered women that were appearing with disturbing regularity in various locations of Trillium.
Sitting cross-legged in a comfortable chair, a frowning Willow balanced her laptop on her knees and tapped the keyboard at a furious rate. The remaining Scoobies however were forced to conduct their investigations by way of the printed page. Seated on the floor, Buffy worked her way through the newspapers while Giles and Tara scanned the demon chronicles in search of a likely culprit. Xander too had his nose buried in a huge volume but had also stacked a pile of relevant files nearby. It was to one of these folders that he now turned. Labeled "Second Body, Amanda Mitchell," its contents consisted of crime scene photographs and reports that were obviously official in nature. He almost winced at the subject matter and began to riffle through the pictures with open disgust.
"Can I just say, 'Eeaigghzzah'?"
Willow's eyes remained glued to her monitor. "You have. At least 27 times since we started."
"Though they do range in tone and delivery," Buffy acknowledged, wiping her ink-stained fingertips on the hardwood floor.
"But the sentiment's pretty consistent," noted Tara. She sighed and flipped the pages of her book back to the index.
"Given the strength of my convictions," persisted Xander, "it bears repeating: Eeaigghzzah."
Giles peered across the table at the photographs. "They are indeed quite ... distasteful."
Xander was appalled. "'Distasteful'?" he echoed with disbelief. "Thatís what you say when someone mixes peanut butter with tomato soup, or polka dots and stripes. This?" He waved the folder for emphasis. "This is ... yucky."
"Yes," agreed the Watcher wryly. "Thank you for strengthening my descriptive vocabulary."
With a dejected exhale of breath, Buffy tossed the pages in her hand on top of the nearest stack. "You're not wrong, neither of you. I've seen some pretty graphic stuff in my time – which wouldn't typically be something I'm all excited about – but these murders ... There's something seriously nasty at work here."
"Five bodies, all women," mused Tara, referencing the notes she'd made. "Ranging in age from 19 to 54. Some were brunettes, some were blondes, and one even had pink and green streaks. Different eye colors, different backgrounds ..." Her tone became exasperated. "I keep pouring over all this stuff, and apart from their gender I can't pick up any pattern."
"Maybe there isn't one?" offered Xander. "I mean I know this isn't a happy prospect, but maybe all these murders are unrelated?"
Buffy's lips set in a thin line as she shook her head. "No." She fanned a set of photograph printouts, regarding them with a critical if disdainful eye. "These were all done by the same ... same whatever. Demon, girl, guy ... Whoever he/she/it is, they're behind all of these." Looking up, she surveyed the group with a narrowed gaze. "One of the lesser Slayer gifts – you really get to know someone by how they kill."
Giles was in accord with this theory. "The police reports seem to agree." He paused at the dubious look Xander shot his way. "The authorities may not always be the most reliable sources of information," he admitted, "but credit where it's due: they are remarkably adept at miring themselves in the details."
"You'd think that maybe by now they'd have ... I don't know." Tara closed her book with an abrupt snap. "Something."
"Something besides the most disturbing slideshow ever," shuddered Xander.
"That's where we come in," stated Buffy with certainty. "Maybe whoever or whatever is behind this is just outside their world. It's been a few weeks, and if they can't find something—"
"They found something," Willow interrupted.
The group regarded her expectantly. The redhead continued to rapidly tap keys, her expression bright with anticipation but then, her face fell.
"Another dead body something," she told them dismally. "It's really—" She visibly recoiled. "O-Oh. Okay, that's gross."
Deflated, everyone's gaze returned to the materials in front of them. A frustrated Buffy vigorously rubbed her forehead. "This thing's really starting to piss me off."
Shaking off the heebie-jeebies, Willow resumed reading. "They're not reporting this one to the press yet. It's pretty much the same as the others though ... another woman, 33 years old. She was a teacher at Sherwood Middle."
Tara quickly added this information to her previous notes and then reviewed the data once more. Ruefully, she shook her head, still unable to discern any type of connection.
"She was ... it's pretty graphic." Willow's relayed, almost reluctant to retrieve more information. "Whole parts of her are ... are almost unrecognizable."
"Where was the body found?" asked Buffy.
Willow scanned the screen. "In a dumpster behind Argonaut, the Greek restaurant on 8th Street?"
Pulling a map toward her, Tara grabbed a highlighter. Her finger tracked the appropriate area of town and she branded it firmly with a bright pink dot. Smoothing out the creases, she carefully took stock of five other similarly colored points on the grid. She shook her head again. There was no apparent pattern. Indeed, all that jumped out at her was complete randomness. She tossed the highlighter aside with irritation.
"Nothing," she puffed. "If we don't stop this, there are just going to be more and more deaths ..."
"Lots of bodies and death, huh?" came a sardonic query from the Library entrance.
Each head swiveled to see Faith leaning against the doorjamb. With an air of nonchalant bravado, she had donned her "nothing gets to me" costume, but it was painfully clear that she was obliged to exert every ounce of self control to stifle the fidgeting that would reveal her true nervousness. "Some things never change," she remarked.
Buffy's eyes were hard and cold. "No, they really don't."
"Hey ..." chastened Xander, his frown directed at the blonde Slayer.
The words had already been spoken however, and Faith only too clearly understood their full meaning. For a fraction of a second her bravado wavered, but in the blink of an eye it was back, and at full force.
"Guess we'd know better'n anyone, huh B?" she asked with an arched eyebrow.
The tension within the room had skyrocketed. Nobody appeared to feel very comfortable, with the possible exception of Giles who treated Buffy to a disapproving glare – even if she was too busy glaring herself to notice. With a welcoming smile, he moved toward the figure still lounging at the entrance.
"Faith. We haven't seen much of you lately."
"Yeah, well, gettin' settled in an' stuff." She shifted her weight to the other foot and shrugged. "Not much up for socializing."
"Quite understandable," agreed the Watcher amiably. "Still, perhaps now would be a good time for us to touch base again."
Standing before Faith, he removed his glasses. The expression on his face was one of sympathy and Faith allowed herself a tiny nod of gratitude. He stretched out his arm to escort her from the room, but before exiting turned back to the others.
"We'll continue researching," he stated briskly. "There must be a link between these victims, or some sort of evidence that perhaps the police have overlooked."
Willow drummed her fingers on her laptop's touchpad. "We should go to the crime scenes. Poke around and stuff. Maybe we can spot some traces of demony badness."
Giles' approval was instantaneous. "Excellent suggestion. Whatever we can determine. These crimes must be stopped."
At Trillium High, a resounding bell signaled the end of the period and students began to pour from the classrooms in droves.
"These crimes must be stopped," stated Jackie firmly as she made her way through the door, followed by Dawn and Megan. The trio navigated the hallway and then merged deftly into the swarm of moving bodies.
"It was a pop quiz, Jackie," Dawn remarked, trying to balance the textbooks crammed into the crook of her elbow. "Not really arrest-worthy."
"Well it would be if I ruled the world," came the indignant reply.
Megan rolled her eyes. "If you ruled the world, life as we know it would spiral into a fiery chaos."
"Yeah," agreed Jackie with a happy grin, "but there'd be no more pop quizzes."
"It wasn't that bad," insisted Dawn. "Just kind of—"
Her voiced trailed away at the sound of her name being called, not once but twice.
Skillfully sidestepping the flow of traffic, the girls came to a stop and turned around. Sprinting along the corridor, not entirely successful in managing to avoid bumping those in his path, came a figure in an obvious hurry. He was vaguely cute in the awkward kind of way that most teenage boys seem to exhibit before they've entirely grown into themselves. He skidded to a halt in front of Dawn and panted a little to regain his breath.
"I'm glad I caught you," he puffed, looking up into her face, which he was obliged to do being a good three inches shorter than she was. Any further explanation fizzled. Dawn and her friends exchanged slightly quizzical looks.
"Peter," she began questioningly. "I'm ... glad you caught me too?"
In unobtrusive fashion, Jackie and Megan sidled away from Dawn, moving to circle around behind Peter. He didn't notice. His eyes were for Dawn and Dawn alone.
"I wanted to talk to you," Peter told her with an emphatic nod. "About the history presentation." His feet shuffled nervously. "I was thinking if you, you know, if you maybe ..."
Dawn continued to wait with moderate patience for Peter to get to the point. While doing so, she caught sight of Megan and Jackie over the boy's shoulder. With wholehearted gusto and relishing every minute, the pair was making faces – not at the unsuspecting Peter, but at the now-mortified Dawn. Theatrically, Jackie pressed one hand to her chest, the other thrown out in a grand, Shakespearean soliloquy fashion. Her features contorted with overwrought melodramatic romance. Megan's face also displayed overdone exaggeration. Her lips were puckered to form kiss-kiss motions and her eyebrows waggled wildly, presumably meant to emulate a seductive, "come hither" invitation. Dawn's own eyes were round as saucers, although the rest of her seemed to have become frozen. Her gaze implored the unspoken request of "oh my god, stop that before he sees you and we all implode". However, Peter remained blissfully ignorant of the performances taking place behind him.
"We have to pick partners," he informed Dawn blithely, "and I was thinking we could ... Because you ..."
Peter's faltering tongue tripped over the words and Dawn let out a small sigh. Obviously, this might take a while.
The duo of aspiring thespians rapidly began to lose interest. Dawn tossed them a desperate "don't leave me!" look, but it fell on stony ground. Having grown bored with the charade, Megan and Jackie each delivered a farewell wave and made good their departure. Exhibiting all the traits of a deer trapped in the headlights, Dawn made every effort to be patient and polite, but she was swiftly running short on both. Still, Peter had no clue.
"There's this thing, you know," he stammered manfully, "where you have this sort of ..." He gulped and gave it another shot. "You have history, and I have history and with both of our histories we could ..."
Finally on something of a roll, he failed to notice Grip's approach. The taller teenager came up from behind and regarded the stuttering Peter with some amusement and no little curiosity for a moment. Then, he skirted the bumbling obstacle and stood next to Dawn. With a warm smile of greeting, she allowed Grip to relieve her of the books clutched tightly in her elbow.
"I was looking for you," he announced. "There's this new thing going around: guys who don't carry their girl's books are immediately branded uncool."
Dawn's smile broadened. "I don't really think that's a problem for you."
Grip shrugged. "Well why tempt fate?" He gave Peter an amicable nod. "Hey."
Peter blinked as awareness started to penetrate his consciousness. "Oh. You and ... Oh."
Dawn nudged Grip with her shoulder. "Peter was just asking me something, though I'm ... not really sure what." She decided to voice an educated guess. "About partnering up for the history project?"
Peter's head bobbed up and down repeatedly. "It was ... Yeah."
"Grip and I already sort of ..." she told Peter kindly, rather reluctant to break the bad news.
"We can ask about adding a third person though," offered Grip.
With a lingering look of regret, Peter slowly stepped backward. He shook his head. "No, that's okay. Thanks though."
With downcast eyes, he shambled on his lonely way, soon to be swallowed by the milling crowd.
"Aw," pouted Dawn. "Now I feel bad."
Grip did his best to console her. "Well if it helps, I don't think he was really all that interested in history."
Turning, the couple headed in the opposite direction.
"Not you too," huffed Dawn.
Grip chuckled. "What can I say? I can spot a crush at 50 yards. I'm a professional, though – don't try this at home."
"You're a goof."
"A professional goof," he corrected.
Dawn glanced behind, although Peter was long out of sight. "You think so?"
"Yup," affirmed Grip with certainty. "He was much more interested in getting you alone than reading up on the Phoenicians, trust me."
"And is that why you wanted us to be partners?" teased Dawn.
"Oh no, of course not," he was quick to deny. "Ancient civilizations are way more exciting than spending all night with the most beautiful girl in school. I mean they invented glass. That's just cool."
As they reached the door of Dawn's next class, she shook an amused head and turned to take her books, but he refused to relinquish them.
"Actually, I was thinking maybe we could get together tonight? For the Phoenicians, of course," he added with a grin.
Dawn's expression grew bright. "Sure, that'd be—" Then, she seemed to remember something. "Crap! I can't."
Grip raised an eyebrow. "Well they also invented money, so I'm not beyond a bit of in-theme bribery ..."
Her tone was truly regretful. "I'm sorry. I'd love to, but I have to help Buffy with some research stuff tonight."
Grip deposited the books into her outstretched arms. "Helping your sister with her homework?"
She nodded ruefully. "Something like that."
Grip was nothing if not gracious and he hid his disappointment well. "I can accept that. I'll just tell everyone I'm dating a college girl."
Dawn returned his smile, although she was less adept at masking her feelings on the missed opportunity. Settling his backpack more comfortably on his shoulder, Grip squeezed her hand and then made his way to class.
"I wonder if the Phoenicians also invented male peer ego boost?" he pondered as he walked away.
With a grin, Dawn shook her head once more and entered the classroom.
With arms folded across his chest, Giles leaned against the edge of his office desk. Before him, Faith slouched in a chair, legs outstretched in front of her.
"I've been concerned about you," the Watcher told her, a frown creasing his forehead.
Staring at her boots, Faith shrugged indifferently. "No need. I'm five by five."
"Perhaps," admitted Giles reluctantly, "but that's been difficult to see, with you only emerging from your room for a few minutes a day."
The Slayer dug her heels deeper into the carpet. "I been out more. Just don't feel much like being seen."
"Or perhaps you don't want to see anybody?" suggested Giles.
Faith shrugged again. "Whatever."
Giles pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. "Faith, it's important that you- you reforge the bonds you had with those around you before the ... the ..."
Faith raised her eyes and looked at him. The hostility was blatant. "Murder?"
Giles expression grew harsh as he returned the accusation. "Yes, actually," he told her brusquely. "By the strictest definition of the word, that's precisely what you did. You murdered Judith." He paused and tilted his head to one side. "Do you feel better for hearing me say it?"
At the challenge, Faith seemed to wilt. She sank further into her chair. "I don't know."
"I understand," assured Giles, his tone more gentle. "However Dr. Lombardi was quite clear that a latticework of interpersonal connections would be vital to your recovery."
An expression of concern crossed Faith's face. "I thought Shrink Lady gave me the green light? No Psycho II, you know?" The aggression mounted once more. "She said that. She said it. I mean I'm not— Crap, am I just gonna—?"
Leaning forward, Giles calmly cut through Faith's mounting anxiety. "Your grief recovery," he clarified. "What you did to Judith ... well that will be an act you can resolve only with yourself. You've done everything I've asked: regular visits with a counselor, psychological evaluations ... I'm not going to punish you, Faith, and I'm not going to lock you away. You do far more good out here then you ever would behind bars." Rising to his feet, Giles retrieved a book from his desktop and moved to return it to its proper location in the ornate bookcases.
"Good for what, exactly?" Faith questioned sardonically. "Poster child for what not to do?"
Slowly, the Watcher turned to face her. "Quite the opposite, actually. Starting today, I'm reassigning you a contingent of Junior Slayers. A small group, no more than ten." He returned to his desk and began to shuffle through a stack of papers.
For a moment, Faith was completely taken aback and at a loss for words. She regarded him with an expression of almost offended disbelief. Catching the look out of the corner of his eye, Giles hastened to explain.
"Just for now," he assured her, "to ease you back into it. Once you begin to feel comfortable again, we'll gradually increase the number until—"
But the Watcher had misinterpreted Faith's reaction.
"Increase?" she repeated, regarding Giles as though he were nothing less than completely insane. "You nuts? I don't want more girls. I don't want any of 'em."
Giles frowned. "It may not be what you want, Faith, but it is what you need."
"It's what you need, Faith," Giles firmly reiterated. "And what they need also. You may not realize it, but you have a lot to give to these Slayers."
Faith peered at Giles grimly. "I were you, I'd be more worried 'bout what I'll take from 'em."
In the heart of Trillium's warehouse district, a cordon of bright yellow tape encircled an apparent crime scene. A pair of what appeared to be plain-clothes detectives poked around within the roped-off area while a uniformed officer, wearing an expression of increasing boredom, stood guard at the perimeter.
Across the street, approximately 25 yards away, Xander lounged inconspicuously against the wall. Next to him was a stack of large shipping crates, and atop these was Chrissie. Despite her time as a Slayer, the girl still maintained her aura of innocent youth – with a couple of pigtails and a Disney Princess shirt, she could've easily passed for ten, regardless of her actual age.
The illusion was aided in no small part by Chrissie's actions. With arms outstretched like a tightrope walker, she navigated her way along the wooden boxes with an expression of rapt concentration, as though her singular attention were focused on maintaining her balance. Back and forth she walked, nimbly making her way to one corner, her tongue protruding slightly from between her lips. Upon reaching it, she pivoted sharply and repeated the action.
Neither she nor Xander seemed especially out of the ordinary, and they attracted no undue attention.
Xander's gaze narrowed as the detectives ducked beneath the yellow tape and headed toward their vehicles parked at the curb. At the sound of slamming doors and revving engines, the uniform sighed heavily, shuffled his feet and stared at the sky. Quite obviously, he would not be relieved of his tedious assignment any time soon.
As Chrissie returned from her final trip along the crates, Xander pushed himself away from the wall and motioned for Chrissie to follow. Effortlessly, she leapt down from the eight-foot height and joined him, hop scotching her way along the flagstones.
"And what did we take from this?" asked Xander, sounding like a member of the teaching profession.
Chrissie responded without missing a beat. "A valuable life lesson that will help me learn and grow, sir."
Xander nodded his approval. "That's my Slayer." Then, he turned and looked down at the girl with a frown. "But Chrissie, we've been over this – no 'sir' stuff. It makes me feel funny, and not in a good Mr. Bubble way."
Chrissie giggled at the rebuke, clearly finding Xander thoroughly amusing.
"So what'd you pick up, Bat Ears? Anything demony?"
The young Slayer vigorously shook her head. "No, sir." She grimaced at Xander's glare of mild reproach and swiftly corrected herself. "Xander. They sounded kinda angry, but not confused. I don't think they found anything that weird."
"Hmm, so probably human then," Xander mused, thrusting his hands deep into his pockets. "That's a whole different shade of nasty."
"Mr. Xander?" queried Chrissie, her brow furrowed in puzzlement. "If it is a person?" She scrutinized his lone eye with concern. "What do we do? I mean, we donít slay people, right?"
"No, that we do not do," Xander agreed emphatically. "So knowing it's probably a person ..." He came to a stop and turned to face his charge. "What do you think we should do?"
Chrissie's shoulders slumped as her nose wrinkled with disgust. "Awww, not another pop quiz!" she groaned.
"Don't mind me," a cheerful Xander informed. "I'm simply reveling in the heady rush of giving instead of receiving." Still, he regarded her with all seriousness. It was plain she was supposed to furnish a feasible answer.
The girl gave the problem due consideration. "Well if we can't slay them ..." she murmured, thinking out loud. "I guess we'd have just have to catch them? Aaaand ... tell the police?" She looked at Xander hopefully.
"Pretty much sums it up," Xander confirmed with a nod, and the pair resumed their journey.
"I heard the two detectives talking," Chrissie reported as they walked, easily keeping up with Xander's long stride, "and I think the police are already doing everything they can, but it's not really enough, is it? So ... keeping everybody safe is really down to us, huh?" She waited for a reply.
Xander shrugged. "Just your typical day."
"But if the police can't do anything and this is their job and everything ..." the girl doggedly persisted.
Xander grinned confidently. "With a Legion of Super Runts like you on the job, not to mention a couple of uber-witches and one battle-hardened Watcher Wannabe like myself, I'd say it's evil that need fear, not the other way around."
"Well that's my search over," filtered a voice from behind. "I've now found the strangest sentence in the English language."
Coming to an abrupt halt, Xander and Chrissie turned to find Serafina on their heels. Her expression was a curious blend of amusement coupled with confusion. For his part, Xander appeared to be mere seconds away from bolting the scene in a blind panic.
The woman smiled at his air of overwhelming anxiety. "Hey Xander."
"Serafina! It's great to see you!" exclaimed Xander with enthusiasm. "Less great with the eavesdropping!"
The brunette took no offense. "Sorry," she tendered wryly. "Next time I'll make sure to deafen myself before walking outside the door, where I might accidentally overhear things spoken in a normal voice on a public street." She arched an ironic eyebrow.
"Well see that you do," Xander chastised.
"But that's for next time." She regarded Xander with unbridled curiosity. "So you're a what wannabe, exactly?"
The aura of panic surfaced once more. "Uh ... uhh ... watcher. As in, he who watches." Xander desperately hunted through his vocabulary database for the perfect descriptive word. He finally came up with: "Stuff."
"In ... battle?" wondered a befuddled Serafina.
Xander was forced to agree. "Battle, yes. Battle ... as in to wage war. And that is what I watch. War movies. Take for instance your Platoon, or your Gallipoli, or your Jingle All the Way."
Momentarily entranced by the almost nonsensical babbling, Serafina shook herself free from the clutches of the rambling. Instead she focused on Chrissie, who was observing the exchange with avid interest.
She smiled cordially at the young girl. "Hey. I'm Sera."
The returning smile was no less friendly. "I'm Chrissie."
"Nice to meet you, Chrissie." Serafina extended a hand, which Chrissie pumped enthusiastically. "Are you Xander's little sister?"
"No ma'am," came the quick reply. "I'm his Slay—"
Effectively cut short by Xander's hand being clapped across her mouth, Chrissie's eyes widened with astonishment at the sudden stifle. Equally surprised, Serafina turned to Xander. His smile was broad and large and altogether far too cheery.
"Slave!" croaked Xander hastily. "Chrissie's my slave."
He visibly winced, well aware that was most probably not the best cover he could have chosen. Despite being physically repressed, Chrissie shot Xander a sideways look of skepticism. Serafina simply cocked a disbelieving eyebrow.
"So you're into carpentry and the slave trade?" she questioned.
"And watching war movies," reminded Xander weakly. "I'm very complex."
Serafina nodded agreeably. "You know what you need? A movie that embodies all three elements."
Xander jumped on the proposition. "Something about the early A.D. era perhaps. That was pretty much just war, slaves and carpentry, right?" He waved his free hand dismissively. "And some little religious thing."
Serafina's lips twitched upward, but it was clear she'd given up on getting a straight answer. She inclined a farewell in Chrissie's direction and began to cross the street, continuing on her way.
"Good luck with that," she called over her shoulder.
"I'll keep you posted on my findings," he replied with a parting wave.
Xander watched her round the corner, his head unconsciously tilting to one side as he admired the scenery. But his reverie was interrupted by the muffled protestations of his restless captive, who was now losing patience. With a start, he removed his hand from Chrissie's mouth. She worked her facial muscles, trying to alleviate the kinks. Xander observed her exaggerated motions for a moment and then rolled his eye.
"Oh you heal fast," he scoffed as he resumed walking. "Don't be a baby."
Chrissie jogged to catch up, openly smirking as she looked up at Xander with a mischievous expression. "Bet you wish your ego could heal as fast, huh?" She frowned before huffing, "'Slave'."
Xander's eye narrowed indignantly. "Why you little—!"
But anticipating the penalty for her barb, Chrissie had already taken off at a run. She squealed with delight as Xander's feet pounded the pavement in pursuit.
Many of the stores were preparing for evening business, flipping on welcoming neon signs and offering bright havens from the descending dusk. "Witch Way" had no such garishly expensive displays, yet still it was a welcoming location to those with more specialized needs than could be provide by the local Rite-Aid. The carved wooden sign, painted with colorful potion bottles and an arc of shimmering silver stars, swung freely in the breeze. The bow-fronted facade was decorated with large crystal containers. Some displayed a variety of dried amphibian carcasses, while others sparkled with unidentified powders in every hue of the rainbow. A mummified hand crawled across the white satin that lined the bottom of the window. It trailed yellowing bandages and occasionally tapped at the glass with a gnarled finger.
Inside the shop, an ebony-haired, dark-eyed employee leaned across the counter deeply engrossed in lively conversation with Tara. Heads together, they appeared to be discussing the relative merits of pulverized herbs that had been packaged in small gold foil boxes, prominently stacked next to a sign which read "Fresh Supplies Finally Available." The girl, probably no more than 18 years of age, was obviously delighted with the new merchandise. She held out each little box toward Tara as she launched into a lively discussion, with Tara either agreeing or refuting where appropriate. However, the calling of her name interrupted the blonde's attention.
"Tara, baby, check this out!"
Tara tossed a wry "what can you do?" smile in the girl's direction. "Thanks, Evelyn," she told her with a nod.
"No prob," returned Evelyn, reciprocating the smile. "I'll be back here if you need anything. Rescue me from my addiction to 'American Idol', please."
As Evelyn disappeared through a beaded curtain, Tara sought out Willow at the far end of the store. The redhead was rifling through a wide assortment of tapestries, which would have served nicely as either wall hangings or blankets, depending upon the buyer's preference. Apparently, Willow had already picked the one she considered the best of the bunch. Fashioned from a weave of deep violet, she had draped it over one arm but now held it aloft for Tara's approval. She shook the tapestry and smiled brightly, expression indicating her appreciation of the soft material.
"I found the perfect one," she beamed. "It's sort of like someone made Purplesaurus Rex in hangable form."
Reaching out, Tara fingered the fabric. "It might be nice to drape over the top of the dresser," she pondered thoughtfully.
"Or drapable form, that works too," agreed Willow amicably.
Peering over the redhead's shoulder, Tara eyed the rest of the available inventory and spotted a hanging that appealed even more. "I sort of like the burnt umber," she suggested, lifting it from the rack. "I think it maybe goes better with the comforter?"
"Oh." Willow frowned, a look of surprised disappointment crossing her features. "I was sure you'd ..." Almost physically jostling herself back into good spirits, Willow seemed to perk up again immediately. "Umber is good then," she nodded.
Although being swift in passing, Tara had picked up Willow's mood dip. "But purple is good too," she added with a small smile. "Purple is eggplants and sea urchins and flying people eaters."
Willow shook her head and returned the violet tapestry to its former home. "No, no, you like umber. Umber is all ... umbery."
Tara frowned. "But if you—"
Presumably, the case was closed. Even as Tara was speaking, Willow had plucked the umber hanging from the blonde's hands, folded it neatly and placed it in the wire basket.
"Did you get all the stuff?" the redhead asked sunnily.
There was a moment of hesitation before Tara allowed the matter to drop. "Yup," she replied. "They have a special on powdered mandrake, so I got an extra packet."
"Everybody loves a sale," returned Willow with a smirk. "How about the stuff for the detection spell?"
"I got that too," Tara told her as they made their way toward the cash register. "They didn't have any foxglove oil, but Evelyn suggested using ground muscaria instead."
"Worth a try," mused the redhead. "We're getting pretty low on alternative measures here."
Chatting quietly, the pair browsed through a miscellany of appealing wares as they moved slowly toward the front of the store.
"Do you think we'll be able to find the killer?" asked Tara softly.
Willow's answer came with some reluctance. "Honestly? No idea. We might get lucky, but since we don't really know what we're looking for, we have to cast a huge net." She sighed ruefully.
"And that net could catch anything," Tara continued, echoing Willow's fears.
"Being the Tri-Mouth, it probably will," the redhead confirmed. "By the time we sort the baddie we're lookin' for out of the normal, every day plethora of 'em ..."
"...it may be too late," finished the blonde.
It was clear neither was pleased with the absence of something more definite to rely on, but lacking any better plans at the moment, they were resigned. Willow placed the basket on the counter next to the items Tara had already set aside for purchase, deliberately allowing the handles to clatter noisily. Through the beaded curtain they could see the flickering screen of the television, and Evelyn looked up at the noise. She tore herself away from the aspiring star who was blissfully warbling his heart out, oblivious to Simon's disdainful expression.
"Pretty, " she remarked, carefully refolding the umber tapestry and placing it in a plastic bag. "Nice choice."
Tara glanced toward Willow at the comment, but there was no visible reaction. In lazy fashion, the redhead was simply spinning a gyroscope, causing it to hover several inches above the surface of the counter.
Checking price tags, Evelyn continued to ring up the couple's purchases. "You guys be careful going home, okay?" she cautioned. "With that nutcase out there, it's even less safe than usual around here."
"Don't worry," Tara assured her. "We'll stick close together."
Willow allowed the gyroscope to drift gently downward until it came to rest once more on its stand. "Besides," she added with a grin, "you don't grow up in Sunnydale without learning how to sprint like a gold medallist."
Evelyn chuckled as she scanned the final items. "I remember when this used to be a pretty sleepy little down. Couple years later and suddenly everything goes to hell." The machine spat out its tally and she reported, "That's $48.71."
Tara handed over her credit card as Willow laughed at Evelyn's observation. But the sound grew hollow as the mirth trailed away. "That's ... yeah. Sort of literal, actually." A frown crept across Willow's forehead at the genuine lack of inherent humor.
Wonderingly, Evelyn shook her head. "It's a mad, mad, mad, mad world."
She returned the charge card and heaved the loaded bag onto the counter as Tara signed the receipt.
"Well hopefully the police will catch whoever it is soon," Tara comforted with a tiny smile of reassurance. Willow nodded at the optimism and grabbed the bag handles while Tara returned her credit card to its appropriate spot.
"Or someone else will do it for them," replied Evelyn with a purposeful wink. She treated the pair to a 'thanks for calling' smile and they exited the store, leaving her to the dubious televisual entertainment.
It was much darker now than it had been when they entered "Witch Way" and Tara looked around nervously. "Let's get home quick," she shivered. "There's a bad feeling in the air."
Hoisting the bag over one shoulder, Willow entwined Tara's fingers within her own. "Don't worry. You and me, together?" She exhaled scornfully. "Someone'd have to be crazy to take us on."
"You mean crazy like cutting women's eyes out crazy?"
They exchanged an uneasy look.
"Quick, then," agreed Willow with a brisk nod.
The couple hustled down the street at the fastest pace possible that could still be classified as 'walking'. Neither noticed two figures lurking in the shadows directly across the street from the magick shop. The iron-gray hair of the taller shone like dull pewter in the moonlight. The shorter sported a hood of heavy black, and it was this smaller individual who took a step forward. However, a heavy hand upon his shoulder curbed the eagerness. He turned to look at his restrainer and was greeted by a deliberate shake of the head.
"Soon," whispered Dante.