The professor paced back and forth in front of the packed auditorium as she lectured, occasionally gesturing to the assembled students, including Buffy and Tara. The two friends had selected two seats next to each other, carefully choosing an area that wasn't too close to the podium but not so far to the rear that the professor's voice couldn't be plainly heard.
"Now we're all clear on the impact role models have on our youth," the instructor continued. "Whether you look up to your parents, Marilyn Von Savant or Michael Jordan, the values, actions and ideals of these individuals all contribute to the development of your own moral compass." She scanned the sea of faces, all of which immediately adopted expressions of enraptured interest.
"This is where I went wrong," whispered Buffy, mouth barely moving. "When I was a kid? Nothing but nonstop 'People's Court'."
Tara's lips twitched with amusement. "I'm sure Rusty and Doug Llewelyn were the best possible role models," she returned in a hushed tone.
The lecture continued without interruption. "But the popular misconception is that once we leave adolescence, we also leave behind our need for role models. Nothing could be further from the truth. Even as we ourselves may become role models, we still aspire and grow. We arrogantly believe our sets of values and beliefs, our sense of right and wrong, to be set in stone. Immutable." She paused in her restless stride and faced the captive gathering. "The fact is that they are constantly evolving, changing, and adapting to incorporate new exposures and experiences, and as such we strive to find new role models who embody our current interests and values. Simply put, we still have much to learn, and as such will always look for new role models to teach us ..."
The squalid little room was dark and dingy. Shadows pervaded every corner, illuminated only by a dim light courtesy of two table lamps that sported shades of some indeterminable color. An iron bedstead dominated the area, bearing only a single white sheet covering the mattress. Situated in front of the bay window, a scarred desk that had seen better days was littered with a pathetically meager stash of personal belongings and small heaps of trash, which had yet to find their way into the already overstuffed waste paper basket. Beyond the grime-streaked panes, the view was no less dismal, overlooking what was presumably Trillium's version of Skid Row. An ancient television set had been bolted onto a frame attached to the wall. Its screen was coated with a thick layer of dust and most of the tuning knobs were broken. The power cord dangled forlornly, a good six inches shy of the nearest outlet.
Crouching by the side of the bed, a young man was meticulously tattooing his left bicep. The design was abstract in nature, resembling a swirl of what might have been arcane symbols. He wore a hood fashioned from heavy black material that enveloped his face totally, save for one lone neatly-cut eyehole. Smears of blood on his naked chest mingled with trickling sweat as he concentrated on the delicate etching. The youth paused occasionally to compare the current artistry with a similar ornamentation on his shoulder, but otherwise worked with single-minded focus, oblivious to all else.
A tiny bottle had been placed on the floor nearby, the label proclaiming it be India ink. Pausing in his detailed work, the youth reached for another small phial. Given the limited light, the contents of this bottle were difficult to discern, but the clotted smears around the rim provided likely evidence of the primary ingredient. He turned to the mattress and scooped a quantity of pooled blood into the phial, gently shaking it to ensure a smooth blend of the two components within. Atop the sheet lay the body of a female. Her age was impossible to measure, so mangled were the contorted features now frozen in a death mask. Displaying no emotion, the tattooist regarded the corpse for a fleeting moment before returning to the task at hand.
"You did well."
At the sound of the voice, the tattooer glanced over his shoulder toward the shadows that were spread thick across the rear of the room. He inclined his head respectfully, acknowledging the compliment. "Master."
Stepping into the weak light, the man approached his protégé. He too was bare-chested but unlike his young charge, wore no hood. The muscled torso was a virtual tapestry of intricate patterns and shapes. No inch of skin had been spared, and the markings had become so numerous they were beginning to overlap, mutating into something entirely new and unintended. The elaborate decorations extended down his arms and below the waistband of his twill khakis.
There was a certain fascinating beauty inherent in the tattoos of this older man. He had long since transcended the simple blue-black inkings of his apprentice, utilizing gem-like dyes of emerald, sapphire and ruby to enhance the human canvas. Nonetheless, each image appeared to radiate with an underlying layer of dull red, indicating their origins could likely be traced to the same morbid and ominous source.
The Master's step was confident and self-assured as he made his way further into the room. The iron-gray hair cropped close to the scalp and the deeply ingrained creases around the eyes and mouth indicated a man in his late 50s, but the well-toned and athletic body rivaled that of a much younger individual. His appraising gaze traveled slowly from perpetrator to victim. It was the critical evaluation of a learned teacher assessing the relative merits of his would-be star pupil.
"The knife work you did near the end, on her face?" The apprentice nodded, again displaying all due reverence, as the older man's expression, formerly quite impassive, adopted the shadow of a satisfied smile. "That was inspired."
Despite the confines of the hood that masked his features, it was apparent that his protégé was thrilled with the praise. "Thank you, Dante," he murmured gratefully. "I just went with what felt right."
Dante laid a hand lightly upon the young man's shoulder. "It's a good way to go. Trust your heart. There's truth in every lie."
Tilting his head, Dante surveyed the corpse before moving to stand beside the motionless body. He absently dabbled his fingers in the crimson pool before allowing them to drift upward, brushing the woman's cheek and leaving behind a bloody trail. His hand settled upon her hair and he stroked it gently with what seemed to be affection. Presumably lost within some personal reverie, he stared into the perfect blue eyes that regarded him with indifference. Even when he finally spoke, his focus never wavered from her face.
"Still, you ended things too soon," he chastised the apprentice with a regretful sigh. "Her terror, her desperation, her pain ... That's what makes the blood potent. It has to be potent. You can't forget that."
Immediately repentant, the other man hung his head. "No, Master. I'm sorry. I got carried away."
Dante shrugged. "Well you're young yet. You still have a lot to learn." For a long moment, his attention continued to be fixed upon the woman.
Then, in a blur of motion, a slim-bladed knife appeared in his hand. Almost savagely and yet with precise control, Dante applied his skill in trade. His expression never changed as the sound of flesh being expertly sliced invaded the ears of the apprentice. The young man watched with avid interest – the master was at work. Less than a minute passed, and the knife was again stilled.
"But don't worry ..." comforted Dante as he set the newly acquired trophies to one side. He looked once more into the face of the woman and his gaze lingered awhile on the vacant sockets.
"...I have a lot to teach you."
Story by: Jet Wolf and Ultrace
Scripted by: Jet Wolf
Prosed by: Novareinna
Edited by: Jet Wolf and Novareinna
Original Airdate: Tuesday, 19 April 2005, 8pm ET
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.
The mid-morning sun was warm and bright reflecting upon the windows of Slayer Central's cafeteria. There was barely a vacant table to be found, each being occupied by Watchers and Slayers enjoying every form of lunch consumable known to humankind. Alone at a table near the entrance sat Xander. Hunched over, he was peering intently at the hand-written notes in front of him. A plate littered with breadcrumbs and smears of ketchup was next to his elbow, as was an empty soda can; the majority of the remaining surface area was covered with books. Engrossed as he was, he failed to notice the figure approaching from behind until he heard his name.
Turning, he took stock of Faith hovering near his shoulder. His appearance was even more odd than usual, given the fact that he was sporting a pair of glasses. The eye patch was still in place, however, and Faith treated him to a very strange look indeed.
"Faith," he greeted. "Hey. You're looking very sort of ..." he waved a hand vaguely in her direction, obviously digging deep for an apt description. It finally came to mind. "...blurry and indistinct today."
Faith arched an eyebrow. "S'a new look for you."
"What do you think?" preened Xander. "Am I dashing and sophisticated?"
"Mostly it makes me think you're a guy with a way too many eye problems."
"Actually, only having one eye helps here," Xander volunteered with an air of optimism. "I think it's keeping me to only half the normal-sized headache."
Removing the glasses, he scrubbed at his eye, blinking wide in an attempt to refocus. Somewhat uncertainly, Faith took the seat next to him. Xander noted the action, but didn't tell her to leave or give any indication that he was upset at her company. Instead, he appeared to be quite impassive about the whole thing.
Faith poked at the glasses laying on the table. "So I take it those aren't yours, then."
"Nate's, actually," Xander told her. "I borrowed 'em for the afternoon. I thought maybe glasses were the key to all this Watcher stuff." He quickly corrected himself. "All this boring Watcher stuff. The research, the endless meetings, the constant stream of paperwork ... but no. It's gotta be something else. Maybe it's tea."
He frowned and seemed to be seriously contemplating the possibility as Faith's uncertainty resurfaced in full force.
"I just wanted to ... you know," ventured Faith dubiously. "Say hey."
Xander nodded wisely. "Ah, talking to me now, huh?"
Faith faltered momentarily, unsure of how to answer.
"About that ..." she finally offered. "When I first got here I just, I didn't know what to say."
"Actually, you seemed pretty sure of what to say," Xander told her bluntly. "It just wasn't suitable for children of all ages."
The Slayer pushed away from the table. The chair legs grated noisily across the floor in her frustration.
"Yeah, okay," she snapped. "Never mind then."
She turned to walk away, but Xander seized her wrist. She stared as his hand for a second and then flicked her eyes toward him. Xander promptly loosened his grip, but although freedom had been regained, Faith made no further move to leave.
Xander fixed her with a steady gaze. "It's hard for all of us, Faith, not just you. What you did ... I get it. I really do. But the way it all came down, I ..."
His words trailed away as he shook his head. Crossing her arms firmly, Faith returned the gaze unflinchingly.
"Nah, don't clam up now," she challenged defiantly. "You got somethin' to say, say it."
"I'm disappointed," sighed Xander. "That's all. I'm just really disappointed."
Faith worked her jaw before nodding once. "Yeah, I guess there's a lot of that goin' around." Silently declaring the interlude at an end, she turned and headed toward the exit.
Immediately Xander gritted his teeth in frustration. "Faith!" he called, attempting to halt her departure.
She didn't even look back, simply throwing a "Not now," over her shoulder.
Xander watched her stride through the door before blowing out a heavy puff of air and slumping in his seat. He continued to berate himself in silence for a moment, then turned back to the mountain of work before him.
As she made her way down the hall, Faith's face was a study in mercurial conflicts. Struggling for composure, she reached the workout room and stopped short at the door. Inside were ten young Juniors, obviously in a holding pattern while they awaited her arrival. Some sat on the floor whispering to each other, while others engaged in mild exercise to pass the time. None had yet spotted her. Taking a deep breath, she donned her best poker face and stepped inside.
In unison, the girls turned at her entrance. Those who had been seated instantly scrambled to their feet. Virtually simultaneously, all burst into a round of hearty applause. Faith had prepared herself for just about anything – except that. Her brisk pace slowed to a crawl as her dour expression melted into one of total bewilderment.
A tall blonde stepped forward, still clapping with enormous gusto. "Good to have you back, Faith!"
Faith was utterly confused. "Good to have me back?" she echoed.
"The most awesome Slayer walking the face of the earth?" added another girl, blue eyes round as saucers and sparkling with overt admiration. "You bet!"
A third Junior, wearing sweatpants of a rather nauseating pink, nudged the girl next to her with such gusto that the nudgee nearly toppled over. "Aw, man, these classes are gonna be so cool."
A tentative Faith ventured further into the room. She was reluctant to burst any bubbles, including her own, but the truth had to be told. "Look, you guys know, right?" she questioned, challenging each eager face in turn. "About ... Judith an' me an' ..."
"About you getting even for Hazel?" Blue-Eyes supplied eagerly. "That's all anybody's been talking about all summer!"
"Hazel was one of us ..." stated yet another Junior, pushing her way to the front of the crowd.
"...and you totally gave Judith what she deserved!" confirmed the blonde who had been the first to speak.
"You're our hero, Faith!" came a cry from the back of the room.
A resounding cheer followed the passionate declaration and then the girls dissolved into a buzz of excited chatter amongst themselves. Not a one noticed the expression that invaded Faith's features. Hero worship was plainly the last thing she had expected and judging by the look in her eyes, she wasn't at all sure that she liked it.
In the private training room, Buffy and Giles were sparring. Wearing huge padded gloves, the Watcher parried Buffy's attacks. They circled each other warily, the Slayer constantly throwing punches at Giles' oversized hands. He studied each assault with a critical eye, but Buffy seemed less than intent on the exercise; she was generally just going through the motions and her mind seemed primarily focused on other matters. She swung a fist in Giles' direction. It landed solidly in the center of the big white circle displayed on the palm of his glove.
"Are you sure?" she asked with a frown.
"You're stepping too far forward," instructed Giles. Then, in answer to her question. "Yes, I'm sure."
"Sure you're sure?"
Giles sighed despairingly. "Buffy ..."
"I'm just not sure," persisted the Slayer doubtfully. "Maybe she shouldn't have a class yet. Maybe we should ... I don't know. Give her a little house somewhere with 24-hour surveillance for the next few months." Her eyes widened as a wonderful idea struck. "Oh! It's the new reality show! 'Joe Sociopath'!"
"You're leaving yourself open," was the Watcher's only response. "Keep your other arm up."
Buffy appeared to take umbrage at being ignored. "What, no thunderous applause?" she questioned peevishly. "It's a great idea. Promotional spots, guest stars ... we'd be set for life."
"Buffy, Faith is not a danger. She's been nothing but cooperative since Judith's death, and has been given medical approval to return to her duties."
"Faith's a loose cannon, Giles," she emphatically disagreed. "Four years in prison and what's the first thing she does when she gets out?"
"Saves Angel, nearly at the cost of her own life," recounted the Watcher. "Then arrives in Sunnydale to become instrumental in defeating the First Evil and saving the entire world."
This was followed by a long pause.
"Yeah," admitted Buffy grudgingly, "but after that." Her sigh revealed the fact that she knew her argument was flimsy at best. "Okay, you're right. But Judith was beaten. It was over. Faith knew that, and it didn't matter."
"If you want to understand Faith's motivations, then I suggest you speak to Faith herself," Giles suggested curtly. "Whatever problems you two may have between you are ultimately irrelevant. We need Faith's experience and expertise. It's a valuable resource, and I won't see it wasted." He frowned over the top of his gloves. "Now stop standing there gawking. If I were a demon, I'd have eviscerated you by now."
Sure enough, the Slayer's onslaught had ground to a halt. Her arms hung limply at her sides while she listened to the lecture. She shook her head to clear it before resuming the swings, albeit in a half-hearted manner.
"Giles, what's with you lately?" she probed. "Not that you're typically Mr. Warm Fuzzy," she added caustically. "But it's been a bit much, even for you. Being British only excuses you so far, you know."
"Nothing is 'with me'," Giles replied. "We simply have a great deal of work to do. It's my job to ensure that you're prepared for- for whatever you may come up against." His tone became even more somber. "You must be strong, Buffy. Not just for yourself but also for those you train. As the world's foremost Slayer, your role is vital."
"I think I heard a similar speech when I started at the Doublemeat," declared Buffy cheerfully. She dropped her voice an octave. "'As the fry cook, your role is vital.'"
The Watcher was not amused. "I'm serious."
"I know," rejoined Buffy, in no need of convincing. "Hence the levity? Giles, you could give serious lessons to the 'American Gothic' people. The reports are in, and it's been scientifically proven that smiling does not, in fact, kill you."
"Nor does sarcasm, apparently," came the clipped reply. "Don't drop your shoulder."
The Slayer huffed with exasperation. "We all need some fun, and that so definitely includes you. A night of—"
She was interrupted by a presence appearing in the doorway.
"Guys?" The faltering tone was ominous in nature. It boded nothing good.
Buffy and Giles turned to see a stricken-looking Willow.
"There's been another one."
Ensconced in the library once more, Willow tapped furiously on her keyboard. She was part of a circle that comprised Buffy, Giles, Xander, Tara, Dawn and Faith. They sat quite close together, some in chairs and others on the floor, listening carefully to every scrap of data that Willow was able to unearth.
"The information's still pretty sketchy right now, but she ..." Willow's eyes scanned the screen and she sighed regretfully, obviously deeply troubled. "Her name was Evelyn Byrd. She ... worked at the magick shop."
Spinning the laptop around, she presented the image to the gathering. The smiling face, topped by a Trillium High graduation cap, regarded them cheerily from the computer screen. It was definitely Evelyn, the clerk employed at "Witch Way".
Dawn blinked several times. "Weren't you guys just there last night?" She looked to Tara and Willow for confirmation and upon receiving it let out a soft, "Whoa."
"Seconded," added Xander. He also looked at the witches. "You might've just missed him." His voice was low and dramatic. "Maybe he was there, the whole time. Just watching you all. Waiting for his moment."
"Thanks!" exclaimed Willow, clearly anything but grateful for the observation. "I wasn't creeped out before, but hey! That did the trick!"
Tara kept silent. Deep in thought, she slowly thumbed through her notebook containing the information she had meticulously gathered regarding the previous victims. In a nearby chair, Faith balanced on two back legs while she scrutinized photographs from the former crime scenes. She frowned in her concentration.
"So what've we got?" she asked of the room in general and nobody in particular. "He's killin' someone practically every night, right?"
Willow spun the computer around to face her and nodded in agreement. "The time of death for all the victims is pretty consistent, between about 11:30pm and 2:30am."
Buffy's lips were set tight. "They're not dying fast though. Whoever's doing this takes his time."
Giles polished his glasses and held them up to the light, ostensibly checking for smears. "What time did you and Tara leave the magick shop?"
"A little bit after 7?" responded Willow, dutifully relinquishing her laptop to Tara, who was gesturing for possession.
Giles settled his glasses firmly on his nose and began to pace. "Even assuming Ms. Byrd wasn't abducted until the store closed at 8 ..."
"Five hours," delivered Buffy through gritted teeth. "He kept her alive for at least five hours."
Xander's expression became resolute and determined. "Okay, hands up, who wants to stop this guy, say, nowish?"
"Looks like he's gettin' someone new every night," Faith speculated as she shuffled the photographs like a deck of cards. "If the witches saw this girl just a little bit before she died, he's workin' fresh."
Dawn quickly checked the clock on the wall. It read 5:00pm. Her gaze then traveled the circle.
"And he probably doesnít have anybody for tonight yet. If we hurry, we can stop him before someone else gets hurt."
"Magick," announced Tara sharply.
Glancing in her direction, Willow regretfully shook her head. "We tried the detection spell, but no joy. Without something more specific to look for, we—"
Tara dismissed the statement with a wave of her hand. "No, I mean ... it's magick."
She turned the laptop toward Willow as she explained.
"The link, between the victims? I think it's magick. Evelyn is—" She winced at the need to correct herself. "Was a pretty powerful witch. She really knew her stuff. Then I remembered something I read about one of the other victims, Mrs. Coglin?"
Reaching for a stack of nearby file folders, Xander sorted through until he found the one Tara had referenced.
"She originally came from New Orleans," continued the blonde witch. "So I did a little bit of searching, and she was the head of a coven down there back in the 70s."
Willow had wasted no time in reclaiming her computer. Once again, she was typing at an astounding speed. Her eyes sparkled.
"I think you're onto something." She threw Tara a fleeting smile of admiration. "Paula Benning, she was a witch too."
Peering over the redhead's shoulder, Buffy jabbed a finger at a point on the screen. "What about Amanda Mitchell?" she questioned dubiously. "She doesn't seem too witchy."
Willow frowned in agreement. "No, but ..." The keys tapped out in a brisk rhythm. Then, having apparently found the proof she was seeking, the redhead directed Buffy's attention to the screen. "Check out her homepage. Her mother was a naiad."
"A naiad," Buffy repeated, clearly not understanding.
Tara took it upon herself to explain. "A river nymph. She may not perform spells and stuff herself, but she'd still be magickal."
Faith arched an eyebrow. "And the cops didn't pick up on all this why now?"
"Well they wouldn't really know what to look for," offered Dawn. "I mean, to them it's like magick and demons and stuff don't really exist."
"Even if someone did figure it out," stated an emphatic Xander, "they'd probably be laughed into a promising future of mall security for mentioning it."
Giles appeared more animated than he had in quite a while. "This is excellent, well done." He congratulated. "Now all we need to do is determine who is the next likely target, and be there when the killer makes his move."
"Right." Xander's tone was thoughtful as he tapped his chin. "All we need is someone female, sort of vulnerable-looking, giving off serious Magical Me vibes, and ..."
Slowly, all eyes turned toward Willow and Tara.
Willow and Tara blinked dumbly at the sudden attention for a moment, and then realization thudded home almost audibly.
Gesturing grandly, Xander presented one witch to the other. "Bait #1, meet Bait #2 ..."
In the seedy apartment where Dante's apprentice attempted to perfect his macabre artistry, the young man stood with head bowed before his master. Wearing no shirt, he now sported yet another tattoo. Similar to the designs etched into his upper arm and shoulder, this fresh creation decorated the skin of the inner elbow almost to the wrist. It was plain that, little by little, his proficiency was increasing. This new pattern was more intricate and elaborate in nature than the others. Hopefully, he regarded Dante through the singular eyehole of his mask. The words which met his ears were their own reward.
"Your progress is amazing. Just amazing." The older man seemed genuinely proud. "It seems like only yesterday I picked you, and now..."
Dante shook his head in wonder while the protégé puffed out his chest, lapping up the praise like a kitten with dish of double cream. His lone eye glittered within the black hood.
"Thank you, Dante. I want nothing more than to continue our work."
The master was well pleased. "The work is everything," he whispered reverently.
"Though the scales can never be balanced," added the apprentice with a show of wisdom.
Dante's grin was indulgent. "No. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try."
He regarded the bowed head fondly for an instant and then in a heartbeat, was all business once again. "Now get ready," he ordered briskly. "It's almost time."
The young protégé slipped his arms into the sleeves of his shirt and began to button it up. Pausing, he looked thoughtfully toward the older man.
"Master? Someday, will you teach me why we must do what we do?"
Dante tipped his head to one side, a knowing smile gracing his lips. "Does it matter?"
"That's my boy."
The tension level in the library had risen dramatically and the air was almost electrically charged. Willow and Tara dominated the focal point of the room. Both were visibly irate, neither was particularly pleased and the target of each one's wrath was the other.
"But Tara—" protested Willow.
It fell on deaf ears. "No." The blonde vigorously shook her head. "It doesnít make sense."
"It makes perfect sense!" argued the redhead. "We are perfection in sensurround! Buffy goes with you, Faith goes with me, the end!"
Curled up in a chair, Dawn squirmed uncomfortably in her seat and hugged herself for consolation.
"I hate it when they get yelly at each other," she confided to Xander sitting cross-legged in front of her. "I hate it."
Leaning back, Xander sympathized with the teenager's wretched state, but failed to share her anxiety. "Personally," he whispered, "I'm fascinated. It's like watching Colossus fight the Juggernaut." He paused before adding, "If Colossus and the Juggernaut were lesbian girlfriends."
"Will, you've got the most magick, right?" Tara reasoned.
"Right?" persisted Tara firmly.
Willow shrugged miserably. "I suppose, but—"
"So then Buffy should go with you because you're the more likely target." Tara gestured toward the dark-haired Slayer. "Faith and I will be just fine."
Willow frowned. "No, Buffy should—" Her eyes grew bright. "Oh! Okay, so if I'm more powerful, I can take better care of myself, so I don't need Buffy and she should go with you."
The redhead nodded decisively as her expression became smug and self-satisfied. Her confident gaze challenged anyone in the room – absolutely anyone – to find a flaw in her infallible reasoning.
"I do hate to interrupt this lovers' quarrel," Giles commented dryly, "but time is something of the essence."
Xander settled in more comfortably. All that was missing was a tub of popcorn. "And we move to sudden death," he commentated in anticipation.
"We can go now, I'm ready," declared Tara with finality. She looked toward the dark-haired Slayer expectantly. "Faith?"
Lips twitching with amusement, Faith got to her feet and nodded as Willow's jaw dropped.
"But ..." she stammered with something of a pout. "But my logic was best!"
"Willow ..." warned Tara.
"But—!" came the objection.
Tara narrowed her eyes, trying to salvage patience. "Willow, please."
It took a long moment, but the redhead eventually relented.
"I'm not happy," she scowled.
Tara threw her a charming smile. "I'll make it up to you later," she vowed.
"You better clear your weekend," grumbled Willow darkly. "You've got a lot of groveling ahead of you, missy."
Buffy glanced in Faith's direction. "If you have any problems with this ..."
"With being Door #2? Nah, I'm tickled." The notion was dismissed with a nonchalant wave.
Buffy sighed. "I mean—"
"I know what you mean," interrupted Faith. "I'm fine." She met Buffy's meaningful look with a level expression. Her tone became serious. "I won't let anything happen, B. I promise."
There was a moment of hesitation, but then Buffy nodded her acceptance of Faith's word.
Anxiously, Giles consulted the clock, obviously keen to get things moving. "All right, then," he announced. "Buffy and Willow, I suggest you take the north side of town; Faith and Tara, the south side."
"Cell phones on vibrate," instructed Buffy. "We don't want anybody to know we're there. Nobody call anybody unless you have to."
Now in a much better frame of mind, Dawn leapt to her feet. "So you want me with you or Faith...?"
Buffy blinked at her sister. It was almost as though she had forgotten Dawn was present. "I want you as far away from this as humanly possible," she told the teenager in no uncertain terms. "If you could be on Mars, that's where I'd want you."
Dawn was immediately disgruntled. "What?" she asked, seemingly unable to believe her ears. "No! We're not going through this again!"
"Dawn, there's nothing you can do here." Buffy's tone was adamant.
"I can watch!" protested Dawn, clenching her hands into tight fists. "I can help keep the creepazoids from Willow and Tara!"
Buffy refused to be swayed. "I said no! This is all staying hidden until somebody tries something, and when they do, I don't want you anywhere near it. I want you safe. I need you to be safe. Okay?"
Dawn's mouth worked in silent argument, but the words just wouldn't materialize and she was forced to give up the ghost when Giles took command of the situation.
"I know this comes as something of a shock, but there are lives in need of saving," the Watcher informed everyone with a long-suffering sigh. "Perhaps that could be our top priority for a few moments?"
Nevertheless, Buffy had the final say-so. "No, Dawn. Not this time."
Having spiraled into a major snit, Dawn snatched up her backpack and flounced from the room, but not before treating her sister to withering glare.
The blonde Slayer scrunched her eyes shut and rubbed her forehead. "Does it ever get easier?"
Despite his anxiety, Giles was forced to smile. "No, not really," he told her ruefully.
"Okay, enough with the chit chat," declared Xander as he bounded to his feet. "I've had my entertaining appetizer, now it's time for the main course."
He followed the four women as they made their way to the door.
"Xander ..." called Giles.
The party came to a halt and glanced back as Giles beckoned Xander to come closer.
"Go ahead," he told the others. "I'll catch up."
Nodding their agreement, the quartet took their leave as Xander moved toward Giles.
"Yeah?" queried Xander impatiently. "What's up?"
"You're not going either," Giles informed bluntly.
Xander narrowed his eye and tilted his ear toward Giles, since it was obvious he hadn't heard correctly. "Sorry, what?"
"As a Watcher, your place is here."
"No," Xander corrected, his tone that of a person speaking to someone with a mental deficiency, "as a friend my place is there."
Folding his arms in a gesture of authority, Giles stood his ground. "Iím afraid you'll find that sometimes it's impossible to be both," he explained carefully. "And in any event, this is a mission of stealth primarily and speed secondarily. I have every confidence in Buffy and Faith."
"But Watchers still do the mission thing," argued Xander.
"When they can be of service, true," admitted Giles. "But in a situation such as this, the less people present, the less likelihood of detection."
Placing both hands on Xander's shoulders, Giles steered him further into the room, although Xander dragged his heels and all but twisted out of the grip. Casting an apprehensive eye toward the exit, even though everyone was now long gone, Xander allowed Giles to push him into a chair without further incident.
"This is work for Slayers," Giles told him crisply.
Xander was not happy and his response was laced with some aggression. "Work for Watchers, that's all about sitting around and staring at the clock?"
"That part comes later," stated Giles and his tone was not unkind. "For now, I suggest we use that hellish device," he indicated Willow's laptop nestling atop a cushion, "to locate other potential targets. If we're unable to capture the killer tonight, it may be invaluable to finding where he may strike next."
"And then she's all like, 'No, go to Mars!' or something," mimicked an exceedingly aggravated Dawn into the receiver. "Can you even believe her?"
She strode down the street, mobile practically glued to her ear. Given the tone, facial expression and heavy stomping, it would have been safe to assume that she was not a happy camper.
"Believe her?" echoed Grip's voice through the cell phone, "I can't even understand her. Of course, getting it secondhand may have something to do with that."
But Dawn wasn't really listening. "Plus, hello?" she continued. "Eighteen-year old here? Am I or am I not officially an adult now?"
Grip lay across the unmade bed in his room and grinned sympathetically at Dawn's tirade. Telephone cradled in his palm, his eyes leisurely surveyed his domain: walls painted a pale robin's egg blue with a stenciled border close to the ceiling displaying flowering sprigs of forget-me-nots – a strangely feminine decoration, but doubtless the handiwork of a creative mother. Apparently, Grip had never felt much of an inclination to change the look. As might be expected, the room had a clutter benefiting any teenage boy. Clothes were strewn in random fashion on the floor, yet there was a certain air of order among the chaos. A few cans of Pringles sat on the dresser and posters had been affixed to the walls at weird angles. Bucky Lasek defied gravity as he landed on the underside of a half pipe, while Justin Gatlin raced along a diagonal track and Elvis Stojko executed a perfect quadruple toe loop.
"I think I can safely agree to your legal adult age," he told Dawn, settling his shoulders comfortably against a rumpled pillow.
"Exactly!" came the explosive reply. "So she totally shouldn't be shoving me to the sidelines like this, don't you think?"
Grip leaned back and stared upward at a promotional poster for the game "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" that was tacked up behind his bed. "You know what might help me out here?" he chuckled. "Knowing what we're actually talking about. Buffy wouldn't let you what now?"
"Go with her and Faith to—" Dawn's eyes widened as she stopped herself in the nick of time. Chewing on her bottom lip, she ransacked her mind for a suitable substitute to the truth. Something that wouldn't sound totally and utterly lame.
"To...?" prompted Grip.
Courtesy of an ostensible brain freeze, Dawn could come up with absolutely nothing. "It doesn't matter why," she retorted. "Can't I just be angry?"
"Apparently so," he replied with a laugh in his voice.
Dawn's denunciation resumed almost without pause. "Anyway, if she wants me out of the way, that's where I'll be. But we might as well have fun in the meantime. Meet me at my house in ten minutes?"
Swinging his long legs off the bed, Grip reached for the remote control and depressed the "off" button. The small television flickered for a moment before the screen went dark. "Miss the chance to be your petulant sword of teen vengeance?" he questioned rhetorically, kicking a stray PS2 game controller out of the way. "Wouldn't dream of it. I'll be there."
Dawn smiled happily into her phone. "Cool. Bring some movies, maybe we can pretend to watch them."
Grip grinned at the suggestion. "Okay, see you in a few."
Dawn hummed to herself as she flipped her phone shut. An expression of satisfaction crossed her face. The rebellion was a small one, but it was at least a start. Swinging her bag from her shoulder, she stuffed the phone into an outside pocket and then stopped short as a figure appeared in front of her on the sidewalk. Emitting a tiny yelp, she jumped backward and then sighed with relief as she recognized the individual.
"Peter! You scared me," she chastised with a frown.
"Sorry," he replied. "I guess my timing's off."
The statement seemed odd, and Dawn's frown became more furrowed, but she didn't dwell. "Yeah, okay. You heading home?"
Peter shook his head. "No. I came out to get something."
There didn't seem to much else to say and an uncomfortable silence descended.
"So yeah," Dawn finally blurted, her voice sounding loud in the quiet. "I'll see you tomorrow I guess."
Since he seemed disinclined to budge, Dawn moved to the left in an effort to walk around him, but stepping to the side, he barred her way. She shot him a look of irritation and went to the right, but once again, he blocked her path.
Dawn was fast losing patience. "Excuse me, I'd sort of like to get going now?"
Ignoring her request, Peter gazed heavenward. "Have you ever looked at the sky?"
"Sure," she told him. "I bet I'd like to look at it even more over there, so ..." She took another shot at trying to bypass him. It was no more successful than her former attempts.
"The stars," he pondered in a dreamy voice. "So beautiful. Magickal."
His eyes glinted as he looked into Dawn's face. It was an intense stare and one which sent shivers up and down her spine. By the light of a streetlamp, she noticed the bizarre tattoo running the length of his inner arm.
"What...?" she muttered, confused and increasingly unsettled.
"Magickal," he repeated softly. The gleam in his eyes turned to one of yearning. "Like you, Dawn."
Employing extreme wariness, Tara walked the darkened street. Her eyes darted from side to side at every few steps and she was obviously fighting the desire to look over her shoulder. Her stride faltered as she approached the mouth of an alleyway but steeling herself, she marched past with enforced confidence.
"You gotta relax," came a voice from behind.
Every nerve in Tara's body jarred as she visibly jumped. Spinning around, she breathed a sigh of relief to see Faith emerging from the shadows. The Slayer's expression revealed her amusement, but she made a concerted effort to be stern.
"Try an' look natural," she advised.
"This is completely natural," Tara pointed out. "For me scared out of my mind." She threw a quick glance in Faith's direction, hastening to add, "Not that I don't trust you or anything."
Faith waved a dismissive hand. "Nah, makes sense. I ain't B, so ..."
"Oh, all that stuff earlier?" clarified the blonde with a vigorous shake of her head. "That was nothing to do with you, trust me. Just that, you know how Buffy can get when she's in super protective mode? Since Willow's her best friend and all, I figured it would trigger big time. I really think Will's the likely target here, so I hoped, you know, the emotional attachment would help." She smiled reassuringly. "I'm totally okay with you."
Faith quirked an eyebrow. "I could tell, with you lookin' over your shoulder every two seconds."
"Sorry," offered Tara. "I'm sort of new to this 'bait' thing."
"Bein' less obvious would probably help."
Tara was forced to concede. "Probably. I'll get right on that."
With a nod, Faith melted back into the shadows as Tara returned to her evening promenade. She hadn't gone more than a few paces, however, when Faith suddenly reappeared, although this time, the Slayer was ahead of her. Startled, Tara jumped again.
"So you're okay with me, huh?" Faith asked.
Tara was busy trying to keep her heart from pounding out of her chest. "And this is less obvious how now?"
Faith shrugged and leaned against the wall. "Eh, I figure we already blew this block." She dug in her jacket pocket for the ever-present pack of Marlboros and waited for an answer.
Taking a final deep breath to steady her nerves, Tara responded, "Sure, I'm fine with you. I know if anything happens, you'll jump right in, fists flying or boots kicking or ..." She shook her head, the mechanics of physical combat eluding her. "Or claws slashing. Whatever it is you need to do."
Faith threw a smirk in her direction. "Claws slashing? Who am I, Freddy Kruger?"
"I just mean, I know you'll keep me safe." The blonde's tone was almost matter-of-fact as she resumed her stroll.
Faith tapped out a cigarette. "You sound pretty sure." She delved back into her pocket for a light and then fell into place next to Tara.
"Of course," came the confident reply accompanied by an arched eyebrow. "Shouldn't I be?"
"No, no, 'course you should," agreed the Slayer, easily striking her match against the brickwork without missing a step. "Guess I'm just ... surprised. Everybody else keeps lookin' at me like they're just waitin' for me to snap."
Tara hesitated momentarily before responding. "Well, uhm ... No offense?" She shot Faith a sideways peek. "But y-you sort of look like you're waiting for that too."
Faith opened her mouth to protest, but no words materialized. Instead, she took a deep drag from her cigarette and blew a stream of smoke into the night sky. "Yeah. Maybe."
"I just don't get that," Tara told her, open confusion invading her features. "Well, the self-recrimination stuff, I get that pretty well. But the other? The 'waiting for you to snap'? It doesn't make sense to me."
Permitting herself a snort, Faith mused, "Huh. An' here I thought Red liked 'em smart."
Stopping mid-stride, Tara turned to face the Slayer with a challenging expression. Surprised, Faith instinctively also ground to a halt.
"Okay then, since you have it all worked out," declared Tara, crossing her arms and tossing her hair over one shoulder. "Why should I be afraid of you?" Her head tilted to one side as she waited expectantly for a sufficient answer.
Faith's expression twisted into a sneer. "Glinda, you never met the old me."
"That's right." Tara's words were direct and forthright. "I didn't."
No further response was forthcoming. The Slayer was content to simply level a flat look at Tara and her seemingly bottomless ignorance.
"I know what you did. I mean, I heard the stories." Tara frowned in thought. "A-And I guess we did kind of meet one time, and yeah, that was ... painful." She shook off the unpleasant memory. "I didn't know you then though, so I guess that means I don't really have anything to sort of refer to, you know? All I have is what I've seen since I came back. So ... so yeah. I don't see it."
She studied Faith's face intently. "You know what I do see?"
Shifting her weight to the other foot, Faith puffed a lungful of smoke from the corner of her mouth. "What's that?" she asked, feigning exaggerated interest.
"I see a person who lost someone she loved very much," Tara replied. "When that happened, she dealt with her grief by embracing rage. Because of that, people died. I see a person still suffering for her loss, and for her actions." She gazed up at the stars with a half-smile and something of a shrug. "I've had a little experience with that sort of thing."
Faith considered Tara curiously. "You're one of the last people I thought'd agree with what I did,"
"I donít agree with it, Faith, but I don't have agree with it to understand it. I also don't have to agree with it to see that it haunts you." Tara sighed and tried to explain from another perspective. "From the way everyone talked about you ... you know, from before? You didn't really care about what you did. I mean you killed people you'd never even met and it didn't bother you. I don't think anybody can say that about you now."
Faith let her gaze drop, eventually finding the burning end of her cigarette. "So ... that means what?"
"I only know what it means to me." The blonde's voice was gentle and she greeted Faith's questioning glance with a sympathetic smile. "That I trust you to keep me safe from witch-hunting serial killers. Oh, and the fact that it's just you and me? I'm guessing everybody else does too."
Faith chewed on this food for thought but didn't say much in return. She simply rolled the burning cigarette between her thumb and forefinger.
"Ready to try the next block?" ventured Tara after a while.
Faith flicked her cigarette into the gutter and nodded.
"Lead the way."
Dawn moaned softly as she slowly began to regain consciousness. She frowned and then immediately winced as the cut on her temple began to ooze fresh blood. She tried to lift her hand to investigate, but was unable to move. Her wrists had been trussed to the posts of the bed where she had been placed. Her ankles were similarly shackled. As her mind cleared, the memories returned in a flood and her eyes snapped open. She blinked apprehensively into the face staring down at her.
Dante greeted her with a charming smile. "Hi."
Dawn didn't answer. Her head snapped from side to side, assessing her surroundings – a dimly-lit and squalid, but otherwise nondescript, little room. Desperately seeking a means of escape, she struggled against her restraints, vigorously testing their holding strength.
"That's not really going to do you any good," Dante informed her helpfully. "I know you'll try anyway – I just thought I'd mention it. Peter has an incredible knack for bondage."
His neck swiveled toward the young apprentice seated in the corner. Locked in the lotus position, Peter's eyelids flickered slightly as he meditated. Seemingly oblivious to everything but his induced trance, the boy was again bare-chested, revealing his sparse but prominent tattoos.
"He's gifted." Dante's voice brimmed over with pride as he refocused on Dawn. "And has an incredible eye. You're a perfect choice."
Dawn swallowed hard. "For what?" she asked shakily.
"Magick mostly," came the reply. "Not in a conventional sort of way, but ..." His voice grew distant and contemplative. "Still you've got it. I can practically hear it, singing in your blood. Blood. Just like hers ..."
Preoccupied within some personal reverie, Dante was momentarily lost to the world. Then, without warning, he returned sharply to the present.
"Right, so first there'll be torture," he announced, sounding like a waiter describing the house specials. "A lot of that, I'm afraid. Then he'll finally kill you – a pre-'you're welcome', by the way – and then he'll gather your blood and ..." Dante paused to indicate his own series of tattoos, "...make it part of him. It's pretty exciting actually – you're the last one before I leave Trillium. Can't stay too long in one place. You know how it is." He nodded briskly in self-affirmation.
In the darkened corner, Peter gradually emerged from his abstraction. His heavy-lidded eyes traveled first to his Master before drifting toward Dawn. Instinctively, she shrank beneath his glassy stare. Gaze never leaving her horrified face, he reached for the hood next to him and pulled it quickly over his head. Dante regarded Dawn benevolently.
Her struggles began anew as she choked down the sob bubbling in her throat. "Why?"
Dante seemed somewhat surprised at the query. "That's a pretty existential question for such a young thing. Why? Why you? Why not me?"
Peter's black mask swam into Dawn's line of vision. The lone eye peering at her twinkled with anticipatory delight.
"I don't know," Dante answered. "But you'll have a while to try and figure it out." He smiled. "Let me know if you come up with anything."
Willow had positioned herself at a small outdoors cafť. Claiming one of the tables closest to the shadows, far away from any streetlights, she sipped on a frothy mocha and kept her eyes alert. She leaned forward and glanced through the window of the tiny restaurant, but she was well beyond the attendant's line of vision.
Across the street, Buffy was stationed on a flat rooftop. Keeping low, she constantly scanned in all directions. Although tense and watchful, she didn't even jump when the phone in her pocket began to vibrate. She pulled it out and flipped it open, her focus never wavering from the area below.
"This better be important," she whispered curtly into the receiver.
But as the caller announced himself, her demeanor changed. Her muscles grew even more taut and an expression of concern crossed her face. "Grip?"
Outside the Scoobies' house. Grip paced back and forth along the pavestones leading to the front door. Every other second, he paused at the end of the walk to look hopefully up and down the street, obviously searching but without success.
"I hate to call you, Miss Summers," he said into the phone, trusting that he didn't sound too panicky, "but I'm worried about Dawn."
Buffy's eyes narrowed as she continued to focus on Willow. Nonetheless, it was now a case of shared attention. She too began to pace, to and fro behind the low parapet of the roof.
"What about Dawn?"
Grip cleared his throat. "She asked me to meet her here. At your house. She was pretty upset about something. I'm not really sure what and I guess it doesn't matter now." He ran a hand through his hair, causing it to spike even more than usual. "Anyway, she said she'd be here in about 10 minutes. That was 20 ago."
Buffy's heart beat faster. "What?"
"I dunno," sighed Grip nervously, "maybe she just stopped at the store or something, but with some crazy guy out there ..." Unwilling to even contemplate the possible conclusion of that sentence, Grip's words trailed away.
The Slayer turned sharply on her heel as realization hit home. "Magickal," she murmured. "He's looking for magickal people." Her gaze darted to Willow, who was still walking the tightrope between casual and tense.
"What?" came Grip's confused reply.
"I think I know what's going on," she told him hurriedly. "Grip, go back home."
His chin jutted with determination. "But if Dawn's in trouble—"
Buffy couldn't spare the time to argue. "No. She's fine," she assured before muttering under her breath, "Until I get my hands on her." Raising her voice again, she addressed Grip. "I just need you to go home. Right now. I'll have Dawn call you in a little bit."
Grip wasn't so sure. "If I can help—"
The Slayer's patience meter was running low. "I'll call you. But please – for now, go home."
Declining to wait for a response, she flipped shut the phone and without hesitation, leapt down from the roof. Landing solidly on both feet, she sprinted toward Willow, issuing orders as she ran.
"Will! Locator spell! Now!"
Dawn's cheeks were wet with tears. Her eyes glistened as she looked up at Peter, looming over her with a raised knife. The cuts on her shoulder and torso oozed blood, but the wounds were not fatal and the apprentice seemed to be choosing his areas of assault with great care, like a sculptor working meticulously upon a block of marble. Far from broken in spirit, Dawn attempted to reason with her aggressor.
"Peter ... Stop, please. This ... spell he has on you, you can fight it."
Peter appeared surprised at the idea. "What spell?"
Dawn bit her bottom lip and tried again. "Okay, no spell, but whatever ... whatever he's ... blackmailing you with, or—"
"Blackmail?" His voice was laced with humor and beneath the hood, an unseen smile crossed his lips. "There's nothing like that."
With casual precision, Peter wielded the knife once more. The serrated edge sliced jaggedly into the flesh, its movement slow and deliberate. A cry escaped from Dawn's throat and fresh tears prickled behind her eyelids. She watched with something akin to morbid fascination as the blade pierced the fragile skin around the inner wrist and slid effortlessly toward her elbow. The nasty cut was long but essentially superficial in nature. Like those delivered earlier, it was not life-threatening.
"It's more complex," Peter told her thoughtfully, tilting his head to one side as he admired his handiwork. He twirled the bloodied knife between his fingers. "And less," he added. His tone became amused. "Dichotomy."
Dawn gritted her teeth, rage all but surpassing the anguish. "Then why?"
Peter shrugged. "For the greater purpose, I suppose. It gives me a ... a connection. You know? You spend your life wondering what it's all about, wondering where you fit in. Dante, he had those answers. I'm part of something now. A greater calling. It's bigger than you, me, any of us."
Leaning forward, he inflicted yet another cut. Dawn did her utmost to stifle the ensuing whimper, but it would not be denied an outlet.
Kneeling by the bed, the apprentice sat back on his haunches for a moment. "I guess it's hard to see from where you're at, but this is a good thing. The work we do will live long after we're both gone." He gazed upon his weapon with much affection. "Plus, it's just fun."
Dawn struggled against her bonds. "You won't be thinking that when my sister gets here," she spat between clenched teeth. Raising up as far as she was able, she threw Peter a look of contempt. "She is so gonna kick your ass."
As if on cue, the door to the apartment burst open. Startled, Peter turned to be greeted by the heavy brass knob striking him squarely on the bridge of the nose. His neck snapped backward, the force of the blow sending him sprawling to the floor.
Swiveling her head, Dawn looked down upon him. Her expression was pained but self-satisfied. "Told you," she informed him smugly. She turned to see Buffy hurrying toward her. The Slayer's eyes betrayed her relief and underlying anxiety.
"Oh god, Dawn. Are you all right?"
She fumbled at the restraints around Dawn's left wrist. To the right, Tara worked on the knots that confined the teenager's right hand. At the foot of the bed, Willow loosened the ankle bonds.
Dawn did her best to appear nonchalant about the whole affair, but there was a catch in her voice. "Just scarred for life. I hope not literally."
Once free, however, the brave façade promptly crumbled. She threw her arms around Buffy's neck and began to sob. The Slayer gathered her sister close and stroked the matted hair.
"Shh, honey. Shhhh ..." she whispered consolingly.
In the middle of the small room, Faith hauled Peter to his feet by the armpits. He winced as she firmly trapped his throat in the crook of her elbow. Roughly ripping off the hood, she scornfully tossed it aside. The boy's eyes were beginning to blacken courtesy of the doorknob's violent attack, but the other bruises and swellings displayed on his face evidenced even more recent well-aimed injuries. Jerking his chin upward, Faith sneered with complete and unfettered disgust.
"They got a word for people like you: Sick, twisted mother fu—"
"Technically, that's several words," came the interruption from the rear.
Standing on the threshold of a tiny anteroom, Dante surveyed the scene. He seemed unconcerned at the events taking place, his demeanor calm, commanding and intrinsically dangerous. Without a word, a line of defense moved to establish a barrier between Dante and Dawn. Still firmly gripping Peter around the neck, Faith positioned herself with legs astride. She was immediately joined by Buffy, followed by Willow and then Tara. Eyes fixed on the imminent threat, they stood ready for any eventuality.
Peter clawed ineffectually at the rigid forearm constricting his windpipe. "Master ..." he gasped, "they're here for you."
Dante's brief nod indicated that he was well aware of the situation. "Yes," he sighed, "it does appear that way."
Buffy took a step closer. "Who are you?"
The inquiry went ignored.
Peter labored for breath. "The work ... the work is everything."
Dante looked to his protégé with some surprise.
"The work is everything," repeated the boy, his voice rising to a throttled screech of protest.
As the strangled words faded, Peter's eyes rolled in their sockets, the revealed whites contrasted starkly with the dark purple welts forming on his face. As his body shuddered, his head lolled sharply backward.
"Watch o—!" came Willow's warning, but it was cut short by the boy suddenly self-combusting.
With a shocked yelp of pain, Faith released her hold and shoved the flame-engulfed body away from her own. Staggering, Peter thrust both arms outward. A stream of white-hot flares erupted from each finger, creating a virtual barricade of fire between Dante and his would-be antagonists. The heat was overpowering and each woman was obliged to throw up her arms as a protective shield from the searing blaze.
Without hesitation, Dante seized the moment. He leapt through a nearby window, heedless of the splintering shards.
"Spengere!" cried Willow.
On command, the roaring inferno became compacted, its fiery tongue being snuffed out as though smothered by an unseen force. The flames quickly died, leaving in their wake only charred walls and a scorched floor – and a sizeable mound of gray ash that had once been a boy named Peter. Instantly, Faith rushed to the shattered window. She thrust her head through the jagged opening, looked left, then right and then left again. She turned back to the waiting group with narrowed eyes.
Buffy's lips grew tight. "Okay. Now I'm mad."
At Tara's insistence, Dawn continued to lie down. Though still visibly shaken, she was making a swift recovery from the ordeal. Tenderly employing a damp washcloth, the blonde witch cleaned away the dried blood, carefully checked the open wounds and comforted the teenager with soothing words. Willow had taken it upon herself to rifle through the personal belongings left atop the rickety desk when had Dante made good his escape.
Reentering the room through the now thoroughly smashed door, the two Slayers were locked in a discussion.
"...run or used magic or somethin'," Faith was commenting.
Tara glanced in their direction. "Any luck?"
"Lots. All of it bad," Buffy told her ruefully.
Faith's attention turned to Dawn and she took a step toward the bed. "How you doin', Pint Sized?"
But before the completed question had been given voice, Buffy moved in front of Faith and hurried to her sister's side. Faith slowed to a halt and pressed her lips together tightly. Her expression was not so much one of ire as bitter resignation.
"Are you okay?" Buffy inquired anxiously of Dawn before her eyes flew to Tara. "Is she okay?"
Tara nodded and allowed herself a smile at Buffy's near-panic, having now arrived in the absence of all possibility of beating up the bad guy. "She's fine. The cuts are more superficial than anything. Nothing even deep enough for stitches."
"Superficial?" squeaked an incensed Dawn.
She thrust out her arm. The lengthy jagged gash traveling from the wrist to her inner elbow was prominent, red and angry-looking against the delicate skin.
"Do you have any idea what this is going to do to me?"
"Remind you not to go outside alone when we're hunting a serial killer maybe?" chastised Tara gently.
Dawn appeared not to have heard. "Ruin me!" she declared vehemently. "I've lived through one 'Dawn cuts herself' debacle. And the kids around me are older now! That means they know more words! My life is over." She slumped dejectedly against the mattress.
"No, and you know what?" Buffy snapped. "You're lucky it's not." This time, fear and panic were washed away with her relief, and she eased seamlessly into righteous indignation. "What were you thinking? Were you thinking?"
Dawn blinked. "Well I—"
"You scared the hell out of me!" Buffy informed her sister sharply. "I told you to stay put in Slayer Central!"
"You didn't actually say that ..." Dawn protested weakly.
"Well I meant it!" came the curt response.
Leaving the Summers girls to squabble, Faith approached Willow with some caution.
"Need any help?"
Willow looked up abruptly, having been unaware that Faith was drawing near. She gazed at the Slayer for a moment, her expression revealing no sign of what she might be thinking. Then she simply nodded.
Standing next to the redhead, Faith began to sift through the scattered papers and small piles of trash that Willow had thus far unearthed. A tiny smirk crossed her face.
"What exactly am I helpin' you do?"
Willow smiled wryly. "I'm looking for ... well, anything really." She shrugged. "Something that'll maybe point us to The Tattooed Man. Tell us who he is, how we can find him, anything. So far, all I can tell is he probably likes Whoppers."
Wrinkling her nose, she held up a discarded Burger King bag between her thumb and forefinger, before tossing it to the floor with an expression of disgust. The pair continued with their task in silence for a few moments, Willow casting a nervous glance over her shoulder as Buffy's third degree of Dawn persisted.
"What have I told you about nearly getting killed??"
The redhead turned back to Faith. "You moved pretty quick on that other guy." She gestured toward the pile of ash. "I was all ready to fling some mojo, Flo Jo. But – no need!"
"Yeah, well ..." replied Faith dismissively. "Torture brings out the bad side in everyone, I guess."
"I guess," echoed Willow thoughtfully.
A hush fell as they resumed their search.
"...grounded for the next three thousand years!" Buffy announced with finality.
"Well if you would've just let me help—!" objected Dawn, her temper obviously beginning to bubble.
Tara leaned forward and laid a hand on Buffy's shoulder, assuming a neutral position somewhere between the sisters.
"Okay," she recommended, with a calm but nevertheless firm tone, "so Iím thinking we should probably get Dawn home and cleaned up right about now ..."
Buffy inhaled deeply. "Yeah. Yes. Tara, would you...?"
"Of course. " Tara began to get to her feet, however Dawn hadn't yet flipped off her attack mode.
"Because when our friends are in trouble," stated the teenager pointedly, her voice climbing a decibel or two, "we help them instead of 'staying put', and you were like fighting the Council and the government and giant freaking snakes when you were my age." She waved her hand at Buffy's outfit. "And that is totally my shirt and—"
"Dawn," came the matriarchal reprimand. Dawn's mouth snapped shut with an audible click as her eyes flashed in Tara's direction.
"Home," was the clipped instruction.
The teenager's jaw began to work again in protestation, but the unspoken dissent was promptly stifled by Tara's arched eyebrow. Jutting out her chin, Dawn's expression grew sulky, but she offered no further argument.
"Be careful," cautioned Buffy. "I figure he's gone somewhere to lie low for tonight, but ..."
Tara tucked her hand into Dawn's elbow and acknowledged the advice. "We will be."
The Slayer watched them as they moved toward the door before turning to check on the progress Faith and Willow were making.
Spinning around, Buffy looked into the face of her sister.
Dawn's smile was muted but grateful. "Thanks."
"I love you." Buffy simply replied. "Stop getting kidnapped."
The two locked eyes for a few seconds longer before Tara steered Dawn from the room while Buffy joined the others. Their heads were close together as the pair closely examined something Willow was holding.
Buffy peered over Faith's shoulder. "What've you got for me, Will?"
The redhead almost sparkled. "How about the break we were looking for?"
She held aloft the item she'd found. It was a dog-eared snapshot picturing a young woman beaming proudly for the camera. Though not beautiful in the supermodel sense of the word, she was certainly extremely attractive, blessed with the type of classic bone structure which persisted even with advancing years. In her arms, she carefully cradled a bundle swathed in a pale pink blanket. The adorable screwed-up face that peeked out from the folds seemed to be no more than a few days old.
Bright sunshine cast shadows on the ground, but a small area of the building behind the mother and infant could be seen. It was somewhat blurred, not being the focus of the photograph, but a sign just to the left of the blissfully happy woman identified it as St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa Bay.
Morning sunlight sparkled on the surface of a man-made lake. A flock of ducks, squat tails wagging back and forth, skillfully navigated the surface and then dipped glossy heads to gobble the pieces of bread that Dante tossed into the water from a nearby bench. A stiff breeze ruffled the overhead leaves as it meandered through the trees. Capturing tiny crumbs in its wake, the wind swept them along the path, where hungry sparrows eagerly pounced upon them. In the distance, a few dedicated joggers were beginning their day with a brisk trot along the nature trail, but it brought them nowhere near Dante's chosen location and otherwise, the park was peaceful – save for the occasional noisy quack of a protesting duck who had been cheated out of its breakfast.
Approaching from behind, Buffy, Faith and a company of Juniors advanced toward Dante. At Faith's signal, the young girls fanned out. They gave the man sitting on the bench a wide berth, but diligently covered all escape routes, essentially acting as a rear guard while Buffy and Faith continued forward. The movement of the Senior Slayers was somewhat casual but nonetheless cautious. Initially, Dante gave no outward indication that he was aware of their presence, but he clearly knew they were there all the same. His greeting, when finally delivered, was cordial.
Buffy's response was curt and somewhat accusatory. "Dante. Mark James Dante, in fact."
An expression of surprise mingled with amusement crossed his face.
"That's a name I haven't heard in a long time." He glanced over his shoulder and assessed the two Slayers with an appraising eye. "You're not ordinary little girls, are you?"
Faith shrugged. "Whatever 'ordinary's supposed t'mean."
Dante chuckled. "Point taken." He faced front once more and shredded another slice of bread, throwing the pieces into the water. A brace of ducks that had been hovering hopefully on the gravel path quickly turned and waddled back to the lake in hot pursuit. Buffy and Faith parted company, each circling to either side of the bench. Dante noted the subtle action with a small smile.
"How did you find me?"
Buffy thrust the photograph in front of Dante's nose. His features became darkly twisted and, for a moment, he allowed the savage and feral killer that lurked within to emerge. But it was only a fleeting glimpse of the internal monster and composure was regained almost immediately.
He reached for the snapshot. "That's mine," he told Buffy quietly, his tone flat and emotionless.
Buffy jerked it beyond his grasping fingers and shook her head. "That's evidence."
Dante refused to fight for possession. Instead, he tossed yet another handful of bread at the ducks.
"She loved ducks," he mused, as much to himself as to the Slayers. "Well, I thought she did, anyway. She couldn't actually talk yet to tell me so. But when she heard them quack and saw them waddling around she'd just smile and smile ... I'd bring her to watch them every day at the end."
Buffy's reply was not unkind and even verged on sympathy. "Yeah, we know. We contacted your mother-in-law. She told us about ... about everything. She said that after your daughter died, you practically lived in the park for a week."
Dante nodded his agreement. "The ducks were good company." A frown creased his forehead. "What's really funny is that I can't even remember her name now."
"Your daughter?" queried Faith.
Dante vigorously shook his head. "Oh no, I remember her. Abigail. It means 'a father's joy', I don't know if you knew that." His eyes traveled skyward. "I remember everything about her. The first time she smiled at me. That was just a few hours after she was born." He smiled fondly at the memory. "The way she'd ..." He paused to pantomime the action. "... she'd grab my finger in her tiny little fist. Her laugh. It was like she could turn sunlight into sound. I was there for her first breath ... and her last." He considered the statement briefly. "I always thought that was fitting."
With a shake of his head, he thrust those memories aside and waved dismissive hand. "It's the other one I can't remember."
"Your wife. Cynthia," reminded Buffy.
Her words seemed to carry little significance. "If you say so."
Dante refocused on the ducks and fell into silence. Buffy and Faith exchanged a quizzical glance and then, the blonde pushed on.
"The photograph has a date on the back. With that and the hospital, we were able to do some research," she informed him. "It took a while, but we found the records for Abigail. Birth and death."
The man on the bench remained motionless and Faith took it upon herself to further the story.
"Said she died of some sorta disorder. Her body didn't recognize her insides – her heart, lungs, stuff like that – so it turned on itself."
A heart achingly sad expression invaded Dante's face as he nodded miserably. "It took weeks. Months. Forever. It still wasn't enough time."
"About three weeks later they found Cynthia," continued Buffy. "She'd been mutilated. Ripped apart. But the police reports noted that the amount of blood at the scene wasn't consistent with her injuries. I thought at first it was maybe ... something else. But it was you, wasn't it?"
Dante nodded again. This time, the gesture was more forceful with no trace of regret.
"The doctors said it was something in our blood," he explained. "When we created Abby and our genes merged ..." He shook his head – the hows were no longer important. "She was fine at first. Strong. Then she got sick and none of the doctors could explain it. But I knew. She was a witch."
"Abigail?" asked Buffy.
"The Bitch," Dante spat, his tone harsh. "She tricked me. Tricked me into loving her. Tricked me into marrying her. And then her magick killed my little girl."
Faith was obviously puzzled. "But the doctors—"
"What do they know?" scoffed Dante, clenching his hands until the knuckles showed white. "They don't know anything."
Buffy was still trying to piece it all together. "Cynthia's blood...?"
With a smile in the blonde's direction, Dante's fingers tugged at the collar of his button-up shirt. He parted the fabric to reveal the ornate design tattooed upon his upper chest.
"I took her power," he muttered with satisfaction. "I'll take all their power."
A perplexed and increasingly irritated Faith struggled to comprehend. "That doesnít make sense," she disputed. "If it killed someone you loved, why would you even want it?"
Dante shot her a look of open derision. "She took from me, I took from her. That's just the way it is. Anybody who doesnít agree ... well, then I guess they never lost anything important, wouldn't you say?"
Eyes narrowing, Faith only frowned at the response.
"And everybody else?" charged Buffy sharply. "This isn't new – Cynthia died eleven years ago."
"So did Abby!" Dante growled viciously. "My baby ... Why should she die? Why should she die and not us?"
A look of realization flashed in Faith's expression. "You were tryin' to kill yourself." She returned his penetrating stare, nodding to herself confidently. "Your blood an' your wife's blood ... It killed your kid an' so you figured, 'Hey, if I mix 'em, it'll kill me too.' You were tryin' to die like her."
Dante considered the proposition. Then, almost reluctantly, he shrugged and vaguely waved his hand. "I don't remember," he sighed. "I suppose ..." There was a moment of hesitancy. "All I know is they all have to die. The work won't stop until then."
Shading her eyes, Buffy peered into the distance. Standing close to a small group of watchful Juniors, Willow held her cell phone to her ear. Catching Buffy's inquiring glance, the redhead gave the thumbs-up. Buffy's attention returned to Dante.
"Actually, I think it'll be stopping for the next, oh, thirty consecutive life sentences," she informed him with certainty.
"Will it now?" Dante answered with a knowing smirk.
"Cops're comin'," Faith added crisply. "An' you may not know us, but trust me – you're surrounded and ain't no way you're gettin' outta this park."
Buffy crossed her arms and stared at Dante, who remained surprisingly calm. "We've got you, eleven years of unsolved murders, an apartment full of evidence, a surviving witness in the form of my sister, and some fairly inexhaustible resources to tie it all together in a nice, neat 'throwing the book at you' bow."
Dante's mouth began to twitch. Slowly, a smile spread across his face. Then, he threw back his head and began to roar with laughter. The genuine hilarity of the sound bore no hint of insanity, no maniacal connotations. It echoed with the pure and simple merriment of one who had just heard something incredibly funny.
As the laughter died away, he wiped his eyes and grinned at Buffy, bearing his teeth. "You think that will end it? It began with me, little girls, but by no means does it end with me. Eleven years, you said? Do you know where I've been in that time? What I've seen?"
We're all looking for something to hold onto.
A man loitered on a street corner, watching a young girl not yet in her teens. Standing before the bedroom window, she wiggled her chubby fingers and then chuckled with sheer delight as two of her Barbie dolls twirled in a magical mid-air waltz.
Something we can believe in – a person, an idea ... Anything will do. Just some chance to make a difference and leave a mark on the world. So a year, ten years, a hundred years from now, somebody somewhere will remember we were ever here at all.
A loathsome grin appeared on the lips of her spectator, distorting the already bizarre tattoos that adorned his face.
A young man, in his late 20s or perhaps early 30s, was chatting intimately to an attractive woman at the bar. The intent was obvious: he was working on a likely pick-up and she was plainly interested.
That's why we even bother to socialize, isn't it? The vain hope that we'll leave an impression and finally matter. But see, here's the secret, girls: it doesn't matter who you are, it's what you do.
She leaned forward eagerly to catch his every word as her fingers lightly traced the fascinating tattoos gracing his forearm.
You as a person, you're nothing. Just a flimsy sack of meat and fluids. Who you are starts to die from the moment you live.
Yet another man, equally as decorated, stood over the sprawled corpse of a woman not long dead.
But what you do, what you can pass on to the next person, and they to the next ... it never dies.
With an approving smile, the man nodded at a younger male who crouched by the side of the lifeless figure. This youth sported a hood, black and with a single eyehole. Streaks of fresh blood glistened wetly upon his chest and hands, but he bore no tattoos – not yet.
That part of you is immortal. It can't be buried, it can't decay.
Dante continued to stare at the ducks that had now resumed their leisurely and apparently aimless journey across the placid waters of the lake. "The Bitch stole away my only girl ... but that's okay." He nodded with conviction. "Through the work, she still lives. We'll both live together. Forever."
He took the last slice of bread from the plastic wrapper and shredded it with expert fingers before tossing the crumbs into the water. Spying the unexpected extra treat, several ducks made a beeline for the fast-sinking bounty as the shrill sound of sirens permeated the air.
The vigilant Juniors began to gather nonchalantly in tiny groups, conveying the impression of curious onlookers rather than appointed guards. The substantial army of policemen waved them out of harm's way, sprinting with firearms drawn toward the man seated calmly upon the wooden bench, but he made no effort to escape or make a play for freedom. As two officers seized his upper arms, Dante's wrists were grabbed from the rear and a pair of handcuffs swiftly secured his arrest. He stared impassively at the row of gun barrels as yet another member of the constabulary began to read his Miranda rights.
Buffy and Faith watched in silence as Dante was hauled away. He glanced behind only once, but it was not upon the Slayers that his eyes lingered. His gaze was concentrated solely on the ducks and he seemed to snap a mental picture as a smile of contentment invaded his lips.
Resting upon her elbow, Faith lounged on the front steps of Slayer Central and gazed upward at the stars. A cigarette was held loosely between her fingers and she dragged the smoke deep into her lungs before exhaling with a gratified sigh. Willow emerged from the building behind and watched for a moment. The burning tip was a brightly glowing beacon in the darkness.
"Hey," the redhead called as she made her way down the stone steps.
"Hey," returned Faith, turning to look at Willow.
An awkward silence settled, during which Faith quietly smoked and Willow absently wrung her fingers.
"So it looks like we won't be seeing much of Mr. Dante any time soon," Willow stated pleasantly. "He's wanted in like twenty states, so the FBI'll have a field day. Giles made a few phone calls too; we won't be too tied up in it. All the credit's going to a promising young agent, brimming over with ambition and possessing dubious moral boundaries." She waved her hand and grinned. "The media loves that sort of thing, they'll eat it up."
"Cool," acknowledged Faith. "Wasn't lookin' forward to the next few months'a Katie Couric an' Star Jones all in my face."
There was another long pause. Neither woman seemed particularly comfortable. Again, it was Willow who shattered the uneasy hush.
"Thanks, by the way. For Tara. Playing bodyguard, I mean. Even if there wasn't much call for guarding of that particular body."
Faith shrugged. "No big."
The conversation continued to wallow in its death throes as Willow fidgeted, rocking back and forth on her heels. For her part, Faith seriously contemplated the length of ash threatening to fall from the end of her cigarette.
"Okay," Willow finally announced, taking a step back toward the building. "So, bye then."
The redhead's departure went unhampered by Faith. Willow took no more than three paces however, before she heaved a reluctant sigh that smacked of internal chastising. Firmly squaring her shoulders, she turned around.
Faith's forehead became furrowed in outright confusion as she regarded Willow with a quizzically arched eyebrow.
"How you're feeling," Willow attempted to clarify. "The being an outsider, not knowing where you stand with everybody ... I get that." She nodded to add apparently required emphasis. "I so get that."
Faith considered this for a second. "Guess you do, yeah." She exhaled sharply with something like a laugh. "Thing is, they all forgave you."
After a moment's hesitation, Willow moved to join Faith on the top step. Faith looked somewhat surprised at the gesture, but grabbed her cigarette pack to clear the space next to her and Willow claimed it. She didn't speak at first, but the silence was thoughtful this time, rather than uncomfortable.
"It took a little while," Willow confided, "but ... yeah, they did. Everything changed though. The things I did ... they're out there, you know?" She sighed a little. "Not that anyone ever talks about it, but still. They all know what I'm capable of. They saw the worst in me, and even if they don't say it or even really know it, it's still part of it. The irrefutable Me-ness of Me."
"Can't ever escape the past, huh?"
"Not without some really tricky magicks, which I don't recommend," smirked Willow.
Faith took a long pull on the Marlboro, considering the situation. "You'd think I'd know that by now." She shook her head at her own naivety. "Things you see, things you do ... None of goes away."
The Slayer shot Willow a sideways glance. "What's the point then?"
The redhead dug deep for a satisfying response. "I guess ... I guess to try and not make that all of you. You know, to leave behind something better."
Faith flicked her cigarette butt into the bushes. The glow persisted for a few moments and then abruptly expired like a blown light bulb. "That work for you?"
Willow smiled. "Sometimes. Think it'll work for you?"
In the training room, a group of ten or so Juniors waited impatiently for their instructor to put in an appearance. Among their number were a lofty blonde, a girl with incredibly blue eyes and another wearing sweatpants of a nauseating lemon yellow. As the Senior Slayer entered the area, the level of excitement heightened instantly and expressions visibly brightened with anticipation. Faith regarded every girl in turn. As she glanced in their direction, each straightened her back and stood taller.
With a clip of her chin Faith moved to the side of the room. Selecting two stout quarterstaffs, she promptly tossed one to the nearest Junior, who caught it squarely and confidently in the palm of her hand. The girl threw Faith a huge grin and assumed a guarded posture as Faith immediately launched into a series of skillful maneuvers. The Junior's eyes widened with appreciation. The Senior Slayer then encouraged her young charge to imitate the actions. The girl was mobile in less than a heartbeat, exhibiting an abundance of enthusiasm and admirable ability.
Nodding in satisfaction, Faith balanced the staff in her hands and stepped forward. The Junior was ready and the two began to spar lightly while the rest of the group looked on, watching and learning.
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