With some apprehension, the intrepid quartet entered the lobby of the convention center. People were milling about, some in small groups and others in larger gatherings. A few wandered aimlessly, obviously uncertain whether to join the chaos or simply bide their time. There was a buzz of nervous excitement in the air, along with the undecipherable hum of chatter and raised voices. Music could be heard above the general cacophony – the strident beat of drums and the rhythm of heavy guitars. Buffy, Willow and Xander continued to drag their heels. By now, they had upgraded from second doubts to the eighth or ninth level.
Unable to completely admit defeat, Buffy was still doing her best to reason with their captor, even as they came to a halt in the lobby. "Tara please, you donít understand."
"I understand," replied Tara empathically. "High school was bad."
Scoffing openly at the inadequate description, Xander retorted, "High school was hell, and I mean that in the literal sense."
"I get that," Tara acknowledged. "But that was then. The stuff that happened in high school ... it doesn't matter any more." She considered that statement for moment. "I-I mean some the stuff you guys did in high school still matters since the world didn't end ... but the other stuff? The cliques and the teasing and the whatever else? Nobody cares any more."
"Oh sure, easy for you to say," Xander grumbled. "You didn't go to your reunion."
Tara was forced to agree. "Well, no. I was kinda dead."
"But- But I would've gone. I wish that I could." Tara encompassed the group in a knowing look. "If you guys don't do this, you'll regret it."
Willow's eyes widened with a flash of inspiration. "Hey, here's a thought! Let's all go home right now, a-and if we do regret it later, you get free 'I told you so' rights!" She smiled brightly and waited for the inevitable agreement to her brilliant idea.
"There's still time," Buffy added hopefully. "Nobody's spotted us—"
"—yet," she winced.
"And Willow and Xander! Oh my god!"
The named parties glanced in the direction of the voice and only barely stifled a groan. At Tara's urging they began to shuffle forward, their feet dragging along the ground as though gravity had suddenly increased tenfold. But their progress could not be denied, and they inevitably reached the reception area.
A cheap long table had been covered with a tablecloth in a vain attempt at class – an attempt that was mostly ruined by the abundance of maroon-and-yellow. A yearbook, slightly charred, rested open on the surface, its embarrassment spread wide and open for all to see. Tara's eyes lit up as she realized the bounty before her and reached out to browse. In a smooth motion, Willow slid the yearbook just out of reach, passing it to Xander who in turn surreptitiously nudged the book Buffy's way. Without missing a beat, the Slayer came through, moving the book safely away from inquiring minds and leaving Tara with only a frown.
Next to the yearbook's new resting place was a brightly colored cardboard stand-up, inviting everyone to "Sign in here!", with a helpful arrow pointing toward the registry book already covered with scrawls. A maroon mug with the letters "SHS" in bold yellow font sat nearby, filled to the brim with pens.
Seated behind the table, a delighted smile plastered all over her face, was Harmony.
It was clear the vampire was fully in her "meet and greet" persona. Every ounce of her not inconsiderable enthusiasm – quite possibly genuine but certainly not infectious – was focused on the Scoobies, like a villainous death ray of pure annoyance. Stuck to her shirt was that most obnoxious of stickers: "HELLO, MY NAME IS" it began, and underneath in loopy cursive was written "Harmony Kendall". She had taken the time to draw smiley faces in the 'a's and 'o'.
"You guys!" she bubbled, her hands clasping together under her chin. "Look at you guys! I haven't seen you since—"
"Kidnapping our friends?" finished Xander.
"Trying to kill us?" Willow offered.
"Something about walking away," Buffy stated, her eyebrows knitting together in confusion. "I'm not sure I understood it then, either."
Harmony nodded her head and looked wistful. "Good times!" she agreed.
A little too rapidly to completely disguise what must have been her desire to make someone else suffer as she was suffering, Buffy slipped into Threatening Slayer mode. "Harmony, if you're here to—"
"Volunteer! I'm a volunteer," Harmony was quick to assure. She picked up the nearby black Sharpie and began to diligently write as she addressed Buffy and her friends. "I'm not here for, you know. Dinner." She frowned as she continued to work. "Unless they have some of those little crab puffs, I'm not sure. I wasn't on the refreshment committee."
There were a few pieces in place, but the overall puzzle picture remained unclear for Xander. "And you're volunteering why again?"
Glancing up, Harmony appeared as close to disgruntled as she was likely to ever get. "Someone had to! The class officers – the president, treasurer and stuff? All dead. Dealing with this whole reunion mess was supposed to be their thing, but I guess we see now just how important their campaign promises were, don't we?" She huffed in disgust and refocused on whatever she was scribbling with the marker, muttering, "I should've been class secretary, that's all I'm saying."
Willow raised a dubious eyebrow at Harmony. "So ... you organized this whole thing?"
The immediate answer was a sharp, scoffing exhale. "No-o. I was in charge of the reception area. Decorations and stuff?" Glancing up once more, Harmony looked thoroughly pleased with herself. "Such as ..."
Very Vanna-like, the vampire gestured upward. The Scoobies craned their necks, and soon spied the large banner hanging on the wall over Harmony's head. In thick maroon letters it greeted, "Welcome Razorbacks!" On one end of the banner, Harmony had drawn a fierce little maroon razorback. At least, it could be assumed to be a razorback. It looked more like someone sneezed on a Koosh ball. With horns. For a moment, the gang could only stare, then as one they returned their gaze to Harmony. There were no words.
Harmony didn't seem to notice, however. She capped the marker with a satisfied click and then slapped down three labels, one for Buffy, Willow and Xander. Each had been gifted with a "HELLO MY NAME IS" sticker – but these were no mere generic stickers.
Buffy gingerly claimed hers, as though it might bite her at the slightest provocation. It read "Buffy Summers", but the bottom of the 'f's had been fashioned into tiny stakes. Blood dripped from the endsf in a cheerful, friendly manner.
Willow's sticker, appropriately enough, said "Willow Rosenberg". A big smiley face dotted the 'i' and beamed from each 'o'. Additionally, little sparkles were drawn all around her name. Her expression caught in a confused almost-sneer, Willow's questioning eyes flicked to Harmony.
The vampire was delighted with herself. "See? It's magic."
Willow's only response was a weak smile.
Xander meanwhile was peering over Willow's shoulder at her nametag. He frowned darkly, looked at Buffy's sticker, and then concluded by glaring at his own. "Hey!" he exclaimed irritably. "Where's my thing? My special little thing?"
Holding aloft his nametag for all to see, he jabbed an accusing finger at the words written there. It said simply "Xander Harris". There was no extra adornments, no little touches – not even a smiley face for the 'i'.
Harmony simply rolled her eyes. "What am I supposed to do, draw you as a big wussy man? For your information," she pointed out in a self-important tone, "I don't even know how I'd do that. Or I would have."
"I have stuff!" Xander vehemently disputed. "Other stuff that in no way involves being a wussy!"
"Yeah! Like ..."
A long silence filled the space between words. The captivated crowd waited for the announced specialness, but were doomed to bitter disappointment.
His mouth now pursed into a thin line, Xander was forced to fall back on tradition. "Shut up, Harmony!"
Satisfied she had won that round at least, Harmony seemed content to look smug for a good few minutes, but then she squinted and studied Xander a little more closely. "Though there is something different about you ..."
Thinking hard, Harmony stared at Xander's face. Xander stared back. His lone eye blinked.
"Did you let your hair grow out?" the vampire finally asked. Xander rolled that lone eye, but Harmony had already moved on as her gaze settled on Tara. "I don't remember you."
Not taking offense, Tara simply smiled. "Oh, I didn't go to Sunnydale High."
"She's with us. Me. Tara's my girlfriend," explained Willow.
For a moment, Harmony stared blankly, then a higher brain function kicked in. "Oh that's right!" she exclaimed cheerfully. "I forgot you were this huge lesbian now."
Willow's eyes widened at the blunt outburst, but Harmony didn't notice. She uncapped her pen once more and grabbed a new blank nametag. As she wrote, she spoke aloud. "'Willow's lesbian girlfriend—'"
"Just 'Tara''s fine," the blonde witch suggested.
"'—Tara'," Harmony completed. She offered the sticker to its new owner. "Here you go!"
Smoothly, Tara took the nametag and smiled her thanks. Just as smoothly, she shoved it into her pocket, never to see the light of day again.
"Thanks for starting the evening at such a low point, Harmony," congratulated Buffy, sarcasm dripping from every word and leaving a sticky puddle on the floor. "It's good to not set our expectations too high right at the beginning."
"You're welcome!" Harmony replied with complete sincerity. "I'll see you guys inside!"
Only too anxious to move to a new form of pain and torment, the Scoobies quickly made their way toward one of the sets of double doors leading into the main convention room.
Xander shook his head regretfully. "It makes me sad, you know? To think of all that immortality going to waste."
He tugged on one of the doors and held it open for the girls. They were immediately beset by music and conversation, and although it seemed the two noises were battling for ultimate supremacy, the Scoobies bravely pushed onward and allowed the door to close behind them.
The committee in charge of decorations had spared no moderate expense to set the tone. A mountain of balloons, some maroon and some yellow, had been suspended from the ceiling within a huge net, while twisted streamers in the same colors had been strung from corner to corner. On a small stage, a hired disc jockey, dressed in a garish sequined jacket, gyrated before an impressive sound system and grinned happily as he sorted through stacks of CDs. Along one wall, a long refreshment table had been set up. Punch bowls had been placed at regular intervals and there were platters loaded with appetizers – small sausages on sticks, assorted unidentifiable but brightly colored things on crackers, various deserts, bowls of potato chips and more. The variety was almost endless.
The room was littered with round tables, each with available seating for up to seven. The front-center of the area had been reserved exclusively for dancing. A few couples bopped self-consciously on the dance floor, but most had gravitated toward the small tables, sipping drinks and munching on hors d'oeuvres, while conversing amiably and yelling out greetings to former acquaintances who happened to be within earshot. Above the stage, a huge banner announced its welcoming message to the "Sunnydale High Class of '99".
Nearly no inch of available wall space had escaped adornment. Collages of snapshots had been created and there were several posters reminiscent of days gone by, including promotional materials advertising The Bronze and several of its more popular acts such as Dingoes Ate My Baby. Items indicative of the Sunnydale High school spirit were prominent – sports pennants and ribbons, flags and assorted insignia – obviously articles that had been cherished by at least some members of the Senior Class.
One section of wall near the doors however was reserved as a somber counterpart to the enthusiastic memories. Here rested two groupings of photographs. The montage on the right consisted of two rows of photographs. The top line displayed the captured faces of four students which, given their slightly grainy appearance, had been blown-up from the yearbook. A sign pronounced these individuals to be "Class Officers". Designated beneath each was the name, elected position – President, Vice-President, Secretary and Treasurer respectively – and the ominous proclamation, "DECEASED." The bottom row was labeled as "Class Favorites", and as with the Officers, was made up of a photograph, title and name. Unlike the Officers, however, the Favorites contained least a few survivors.
The grouping of photographs on the left was by far the larger and dominated nearly the entire wall. Row after row of framed yearbook photographs stared out over the reunion celebration. Lording above them all was the glowering visage of Principal Snyder, situated in the exact center of a banner reading "Wall of Remembrance".
Moving slowly, assaulted by sounds and images on all sides, the Scoobies took a moment to absorb everything.
Stepping forward tentatively, Willow's eyes never remained still for more than a second. "I don't remember high school being quite so ..."
"Lively?" suggested Xander, unable to draw his gaze away from the terrifying sight of grown men and women trying to do the Macarena.
Willow shook her head. "I was gonna say balloony." She pointed to the ocean of maroon and yellow balloons covering every square inch of ceiling. The overall effect was astoundingly tacky, but still the redhead seemed to find it impressive. "I bet if you sucked down all of those puppies, you'd talk with a squeaky funny voice for at least a week."
Silent through it all, Buffy stood with her arms crossed, surveying the crowd. Tara came to stand at her shoulder, doing her best to follow the Slayer's line of sight. "See anyone you recognize?" she inquired.
"I think I probably beat up or intimidated at least half of this room."
"Well that was a long time ago," Tara responded optimistically. "I'm sure nobody rememb—"
Before the words could leave Tara's mouth, it became obvious that the groups closest to the entrance had taken note of the latest arrivals. Eyes began to widen in realization, and the drone of gossip anew filled the air. People began to break away from their current social circle to fall further back into the room, anxious to carry the news to absolutely anyone and everyone. Gaze after gaze turned their way, most not even bothering to try and disguise their blatant stares.
Buffy sighed heavily. "They remember."
"Memory's a funny thing really, isn't it?"
Giles sat behind his desk, deeply engrossed in the papers before him. It took a moment before he realized anyone had spoken, and it was with some reluctance that he tore his attentions away from the words to look into Hannah's expectant blue eyes.
"Hmm?" he replied intelligently.
His ex-wife tossed herself into one of the expensive leather chairs on the opposite side of his desk and rested her feet on the other, heedless of the Watcher's reproachful expression. "The things we remember, she explained. "Take for example, I can perfectly remember what you were wearing when we visited Mezquita in Cordoba back in '74. That tatty Che Guevara tee shirt of yours, even though it was black and the day was absolutely sweltering."
Smiling, Hannah closed her eyes and tipped her head back, inhaling deeply. "I even remember you smelled this odd combination of Eau Sauvage and cigarettes." It was with some reluctance that Hannah pulled herself away from the memories. "It's as though some things become captured. A tiny moment, frozen forever. No matter how many years pass or how far removed from that moment we become, when we think back, we live it again. How we thought, how we felt, how we acted. Like no time has passed at all."
Despite giving Hannah his undivided attention, Giles clearly wasn't following along well.
"Yet other things," continued the blonde as she attempted to make her point clear, "equally important – perhaps even more so – continue to slip away. Did I remember to turn off the gas? What was my mother's favorite color? When was my lunch date with Hannah?"
The penny dropped. "Oh! Lunch!" Giles had the good grace to look apologetic. "Oh Hannah, I'm sorry. The days all tend to meld into one. It completely slipped my mind."
Hannah continued to stare at him with a flat expression.
"I've had a lot of things on my mind." Giles sniffed defensively. "The Council, and- and the situation with Robespierre's Slayers—"
"Which I've actually been in England addressing for the past month," she pointedly reminded.
Inclining his head, Giles acknowledged the statement. He steepled his fingers, much more comfortable addressing business. "And what is your report?"
"That was the question you were supposed to ask me over a nice bottle of Chateau Latour."
"You can have some tea."
As Giles rose from his seat to make her a cup, Hannah gave a resigned sigh – it was the best she was going to get, but she resolved to persevere and began her report.
"Lavena, of the Wiltshire Coven?" She waited for Giles' confirming nod before continuing. "She's been placed in charge of overseeing the girls' rehabilitation. For the most part, things are progressing quite smoothly. In fact, she wants to release the first of the Slayers some time within the next couple of weeks."
She accepted the offered tea – three sugars, no milk – and blew on at it as Giles reclaimed his seat. "And your opinion?" he inquired.
Hannah took a sip before responding. "According to Lavena, there's no evidence of outside influence. No magickal control. Perhaps more importantly, after these past few months of assistance, she feels they're ready. There's little more the witches can do for them."
"And your opinion?" Giles pressed.
Lapsing into thought, Hannah absently stirred the teaspoon around the ceramic cup and the quiet chinks filling the silence. "I think it's a risk," she finally replied. "But realistically speaking, what are our other options? Lock them away forever? Kill them? The more ... difficult ones perhaps, but ..."
The uncompleted sentence hung in the air as Giles and Hannah shared a look that was largely unreadable. Then Hannah inhaled deeply and continued. "'The girls weren't under any direct mind control or the like, Robespierre simply manipulated them. However distasteful, they believed they were doing what was best, to protect the ones they loved." Her eyes settled heavily on Giles once more. "I don't think they can be faulted for that."
Hannah sipped her tea as Giles set about polishing his glasses. "I spoke to the candidates for release personally," reported the blonde. "I believe that they want a chance to make amends."
"Then I think we owe it to them to see they get that chance," Giles responded with a nod of his head. "I'll call Robin tomorrow. One-third to he and Kennedy, and the remainder to arrive here?" Receiving Hannah's approval, he seemed to consider the matter settled. "Excellent, then."
Giles bent down to resume working on the materials before him. Hannah didn't budge. She seemed content for the moment to simply sip her tea and stare. After several seconds of this had passed, Giles's eyes darted up. Seeing no evidence that Hannah would be moving any time soon, his head followed. "Did you need something else?"
"Yes." Hannah's tongue darted out to catch the remaining drops of tea lingering on the side of her cup before setting it on the desktop.
Lifting his eyebrows, Giles waited for the inevitable follow-up.
Hannah didn't disappoint. "I believe there's still the matter of me being less one free meal? I'm willing to be upgraded to dinner," she informed him graciously.
A furrow appeared on the Watcher's forehead. "I thought we covered everything."
A witty retort was poised on Hannah's lips. But then she seemed to really see the man in front of her, and her playful expression slowly dissolved. There was no trace of amusement, no teasing glint in his eyes; Giles was being completely serious, not coy. "We did," she began uncertainly, "but—"
"Then the purpose of us going to dinner would be...?"
"Oh I don't know." Her dismissive tone was only too clearly exaggerated. "Perhaps to observe humans in these bizarre 'social' rituals that they seem to enjoy performing?"
"Very droll. But I really have far too much work to do."
Ignoring the note of finality, Hannah pressed onward. Her feet now flat on the floor, she leaned forward and peered at Giles with concern. "Rupert, all youíve been doing for months now is working. I can understand at first, and then I just thought you sounded odd due to the distance, but ..."
Giles sighed. "It's very important that I do this, Hannah."
The blonde's mouth opened in protest.
The earnest expression he wore seemed to do the trick, and Hannah backed down. With a heavy exhale, she leaned back and stared at him with a mixture of frustration and affection. "We're not through with this," she promised.
Giles only nodded and turned back to his papers.
Inside the convention hall, Buffy, Willow and Xander had splintered apart – either forcibly or by choice was unclear – and were each involved in their own personal conversations. As individuals continued to drift past, mingling the night away, each of the Scoobies received more than their fair share of attention. None received more than Buffy, however.
Not that the Slayer had the opportunity to notice. She was currently being verbally pinned to the spot by a young couple. The male was mostly silent, alternately gazing at the woman next to him with sympathetic support and glaring at Buffy as though his very thoughts could wipe out every trace that she had ever existed, 1984-style.
The woman's attentions were not so split. She had quite contentedly settled on raving at Buffy. Her dark hair was frizzy, although whether the look was natural rather than brought about by an overabundance of insanity, it was hard to tell. What was less difficult to discern was Buffy's extreme discomfort with her role in the conversation.
"And- And- And the swim team?" the woman was questioning, taking another step forward into Buffy's already thoroughly violated personal space. "Remember the swim team? Do you?"
Buffy attempted a weak smile. "Only every time I go to a seafood restaurant."
The answering laugh was shrill and high-pitched. "Exactly! That's what I— Only, only my therapist, she says that it's a, uh—" The laugh made a repeat performance, much to Buffy's dismay. "—a delusion! Not real. None of it real. They're manifestations of, of, of my uh ..."
"Paranoia," the man prompted gently, laying a comforting hand on the woman's shoulder.
"Paranoia!" she cried. Buffy involuntarily flinched at the explosive outburst. The woman's hands began to spasm, her fingers jerkily twisting over each other like piranha lost in the throes of a feeding frenzy. "Repressed transference or- or something, I dunno. Which just, why would we repress?" One of her hands broke free, only to be thrust into the forest of the woman's disheveled hair and roughly pushed through its lengths. "High school was the best time of our lives, right?"
Giving the statement due consideration, Buffy was forced to grudgingly agree. "Actually, compared to some stuff that comes down later..."
Apparently the question was rhetorical and the woman continued as though Buffy hadn't spoken. "That's why I'm here! Why my- my therapist, she says I have to, have to confront the ghosts of my past. Ghosts ..." Her voice drifted away and with wide, glassy eyes the woman leaned toward Buffy. Buffy was unable to keep herself from simultaneously leaning away. In a loud stage whisper, the woman asked, "Were there ghosts too?"
The man reached out and placed one arm protectively around the woman's shoulders, his free hand resting against her arm as he pulled her upright. He tugged her close, although his glowering eyes never left Buffy.
"Shirley's therapist said that there's one thing that keeps running through the delusions," he explained, hostility only too audible. "A constant anchor of reality. A girl. A blonde girl who ..." Looking Buffy over from head to toe with open disdain, it was only with some effort that the man kept his lip from curling into a sneer. "...fought the 'monsters'."
This seemed to be all the explanation Shirley's husband felt Buffy was due, and he contented himself with trying to make her combust with only the power of his animosity.
Buffy laughed nervously. "Shirley!" she exclaimed with forced joviality. "You ... kook you."
It seemed Shirley hadn't bothered to keep track of their conversation. "No," she stated firmly with a shake of her frizzy head. "No. Not ghosts. Monkeys. Flying demon monkeys."
In the blink of an eye, Shirley broke free of her husband's grip and wrapped her fist around Buffy's arm. The woman was stronger than she looked, and she yanked Buffy close to impart her words of grave, serious wisdom.
"I haven't been on stage since," she confessed in a low voice meant only for the Slayer. "I can't even look at a pair of pantaloons without breaking into a cold sweat."
Buffy's grin was forced and far, far too large. She tried to casually yank her arm away. She failed.
Xander had been trapped by three hulking specimens of humanity, all shoulders and biceps with nary a neck between them. As if their shear bulk wasn't enough to make Xander stand out, the differences in their clothing made sure nobody missed the obvious. Whereas the jocks were clad in generic button-up shirts and slacks that should probably have been tailor-made to accommodate their unique proportions, Xander had chosen a single-breasted, burgundy jacket of gabardine. Cut on the bias, it enhanced the broadness of his shoulders and endowed him with an air of suavity. His black twill pants, complete with knife-edge crease, matched his fine linen shirt, left open at the collar. His conversational companions weren't impressed.
"242nd Airborne, Flyin' Eagles!" one was cheering, face flushed red with his enthusiasm. "Woo!"
With a mighty tug, his shirtsleeve was wrenched back to expose a flexing upper arm, emblazoned with the tattoo of what was presumably a flyin' eagle. His buddies roared their approval and thumped him on the back while Xander cast a furtive glance around for an escape route that never materialized.
"What about you, Harris?" demanded the second, jutting a goatee-tufted chin at Xander.
The third crossed his arms across a barrel chest and peered down critically. "Yeah, we ain't heard from you yet," he agreed in a voice that was surprisingly high-pitched. "What've you been up to?"
"Oh, you know." Xander spread his hands and nodded from one to the other. "Some of this. Some of that. Did construction for a while, that was good." He thrust his hands back into the depths of his jacket and rocked forward on the balls of his feet. "Good and manly."
"In the trenches, huh?" The Alto was approving. "I been there. Can't really see you out there throwin' 'round sheet rock with the boys, though."
Xander shrugged. "Well I got to be supervisor pretty quick, but—"
It was as though Xander could actually see the brief moment of respect being flushed down the toilet of life – these guys were clearly not the class of individual that held management in high regard.
"Until you decided to play pirate?" guessed the Flyin' Eagle.
With a hearty snort of amusement, Goatee added, "You gonna get a wooden leg next?"
The three bullies chortled merrily, quite taken with their witty repartee.
"I'm glad to see you boys have been working on that extremely original comedy routine of yours," Xander noted. The bottomless depths of his insincerity were quite well disguised. "I'm sure it'll be sweeping the nation any day now."
Sighing contentedly, like the mocking laughter had sated him on some primal level, Goatee regarded Xander critically. "For real Harris ..." He gestured to the eye patch. "This is lame. Did you really think you'd fool anybody with this?"
"Oh, if only I were that insecure. The patch is real, fellas. As real as what's not underneath it."
The pause created by Xander's words sinking in was filled with exchanged looks, including confusion and disbelief.
"No way," Alto finally concluded. His defiance carried all the conviction of an eight year old denying the existence of Santa Claus while being secretly terrified he'd never receive another present for the rest of his life.
It being Xander's missing eye and all, he was much more assured. "At the risk of severely dating myself: way."
Flyin' Eagle wasn't buying it. He audibly scoffed and reached for the eye patch, only to have his hand smacked to the side.
"Not only is that rude," Xander firmly stated, jabbing an indignant finger, "I'm frankly petrified to think where that particular appendage of yours has been. But since you asked so nicely ..."
Xander straightened the lapels of his jacket and took a deep breath before raising a hand to his left eye. He hesitated only for a moment – quite possibly to enhanced the dramatic tension for his captive audience – and then quickly lifted the patch.
The result was instantaneous, and the three mountains of manflesh recoiled with a collective "Giyah!" of shock. But that quickly faded, leaving behind only tentative respect and even the faintest touch of awe.
"Dude," Alto was finally able to get out in a hushed tone. "That sucks."
Rolling his only remaining eye, Xander readjusted the patch comfortably. "Yes, thank you, Aaron. I've been searching the past year or so for just the right way to sum it up. I should've come to you first."
Flyin' Eagle was swallowing hard – apparently the 242nd Airborne would not be winning any awards for grace under pressure. "How'd it happen?" he squeaked in his manliest voice.
"Well there was this prea—"
The words were clamped off and Xander regarded the men before him. They were hanging on his every syllable, completely fixated on the story to come. Xander took all this in – the attention, the esteem ... It was clear that this was a situation that must, absolutely, be played in just the right way to garner Xander as much fame and adoration as possible.
"...this serial killer," he completed, earning him a chorus of suitable 'we're impressed' noises. "He was on a mad spree of murder and terror across the country. Mean son of a bitch. Had a real thing against women."
The bullies intimidated lesser beings from their nearby chairs and sat attentively in front of Xander, thoroughly engrossed.
"Everywhere he went, he'd kill. Sometimes one person, sometimes a dozen. Then he'd just slip away again. Nobody could catch him, the police were completely baffled." Again Xander paused for a dramatic moment. "Until me and ... my team stepped in."
"You gotta team?" Goatee asked wonderingly.
Xander stole a quick glance at Buffy on his left. The Slayer was shaking her head in denial of what appeared to be a crazy woman's hand impression of a giant snake. "Well I don't like to brag," he replied, turning back to his audience. "We all work together. It's a group effort."
The statement was obviously born of modesty, and the jocks found a way to be even more impressed.
"But you caught him," prompted Flyin' Eagle, anxious to hear the story in its entirety, "and he...?" The bully gestured vaguely at his eye and Xander nodded.
"It was a fight. Huge. We tracked him to in this vineyard, and tried to take him down. He was holed up with some friends and the fight was just crazy. He cornered me and then just ..." Xander jabbed at the empty socket with his thumb and made a loud popping sound.
The audience winced, right on cue.
"Dude," Goatee murmured, completely awed.
Xander puffed his chest out proudly and smiled a smug little smile. "We got him in the end though."
"Right on!" proclaimed Flyin' Eagle, exchanging a high five with Goatee as though either of them had personally led to the defeat of this diabolical fiend.
"That rocks, Harris, that totally rocks," enthused Alto.
Standing tall, Xander lapped up the praise, clearly approving of the turn the conversation had taken.
Goatee leaned forward eagerly, his huge forearms resting on enormous thighs. "So yer head of like this ... special FBI killer unit?"
"Uh, well not, not exa—"
"Naw man," interrupted Flyin' Eagle, "I bet it's military. You wouldn't believe the stuff they teach us in the 242nd—"
But stories about the military, so very cool mere minutes before, were now completely passé. "Shut the hell up man," Alto commanded. "I wanna hear more about Xander huntin' down some sick-ass baby killers an' stuff."
On this, all the bullies were agreed, and they settled in comfortably, avid eyes glued to Xander.
Xander looked from face to face and his pride ebbed away. "I'm so glad we're friends now," he lied.
Meanwhile, Willow's chatting partner turned out to be a slightly older but no more intelligent-seeming Percy West. Percy looked much as he had in high school – his brown hair was cut in a similar style, he was dressed well but with emphasis on the casual, and his expression remained that of an individual for whom thinking was not the natural way of things.
"Been pretty smooth," he was telling Willow with a shrug of largely apathetic shoulders. "Coach rides me some, but I got a 34.7 MPG last season, so."
For a moment, Willow could only look completely blank. "That's ... that's good!" she enthusiastically supported before frowning uncertainly. "Is it good?"
"Well yay for you! So UCLA, huh?" The redhead's eyes shone, anxious to hear every detail. "What's your major, what are your classes?"
It was an understandably challenging question. "Dunno," Percy shrugged again. "Whatever they tell me to take."
Oddly enough, Willow didn't appear to have an immediate response prepared for that answer, but Percy was already casting his gaze around the room, searching for something. "I don't see Oz," he stated. "You two still together?"
"Oh, no." Willow shook her head, the question taking her aback. "No, we— That was a long time ago."
He didn't seem to be too broken up by this bit of old news. "Got a new guy?"
As though she'd been waiting for just that lead-in, Tara approached. She handed Willow a cup of punch and slipped her arm around the redhead's waist, smiling a greeting at Percy.
"Not so much," replied Willow, taking a sip.
Percy looked somewhat surprised. Which was to say that he was probably quite surprised, but even his facial expressions were lazy, so any effect was muted. "Oh," he simply said. "Okay."
Willow set about making introductions. "Percy, this is Tara." She turned to Tara and explained, "Percy was one of my tutees."
"Well he's gotta learn from the best, right?" Tara responded proudly.
Percy looked from Willow to Tara, then Tara to Willow, frowning in concentration. "You're a ..."
Had Percy been in a cartoon, a light bulb would have appeared above his head. It would only have been about a 2-watter, but it would have glowed its little heart out. "You know," he began slowly, "suddenly leather-you is makin' a whole lot more sense."
Some time later, Willow, Buffy and Tara had laid claim to one of the large round tables. The former two in particular seemed physically drained, and were slumped in their seats like discarded toys. Moving with supreme effort, Xander dragged himself to the table and collapsed in the vacant seat across from the girls.
"I think I liked it better when they were beating me up and taking my lunch money," Xander groaned.
Buffy was unsympathetic. "Well at least you're not somehow personally responsible for a woman's shattered mental health."
"At least nobody here, anyway," he replied.
Tara considered her friends and shook her head, not entirely comprehending their demeanor. "I dunno. I guess I've got that whole outsider's perspective thing going? But I think it's cool. Seeing all these people who knew you guys before I did."
Bonelessly, Willow's head rolled onto her shoulder and she regarded her girlfriend from beneath heavy-lidded eyes. "Tara, baby?"
"Stop being so darned positive."
"You're absolutely right," Tara immediately agreed. "All of this, with the balloons and the festive and the memory lane ... It's awful, and you have every right to wallow in its awfulness." She punctuated her declaration with a firm nod.
This was an idea the redhead could get behind. "Willow Wallower. Check. I can do that." To demonstrate, Willow allowed her head to flop over the back of her chair. Her eyes closed, doing their best to blot out the reunion going on around them.
"I'm pretty sure that's not ergonomic."
Willow's eyes snapped open at the sound of the voice. There, standing only a few feet away, was a face familiar even when upside down.
Oz tilted his head to one side, viewing Willow from a slightly different angle. "Though I guess it could be Swedish."
There would be no further theorizing, as a very huggy Willow suddenly surrounded Oz on all sides. He didn't seem to mind however, and a tiny smile curved his lips as he returned the embrace. "I should go away more often," he concluded.
"Doesn't this just bring back memories?"
Oz and Willow separated and everyone turned toward the new arrival. With an imperiously arched eyebrow, there stood Cordelia.
"Over there is where all the important, lively people gather." She motioned toward the swarming throng of people, and then returned to surveying the Scoobies with vague disdain. "Meanwhile you all sit in your dejected, freaky loser isolationist misery."
"We weren't just sitting," defended Willow in a huffy voice.
Xander was quick to agree. "Yeah. Willow was wallowing, too."
"Well lucky for you, I've brought me, and I'm here to share with the poor and downtrodden." Cordelia grinned benevolently and awaited the outpouring of gratitude.
Buffy's gratitude wasn't so much outpouring as evaporating. "We don't wanna be greedy," she responded cheerfully. "Feel free to share you with others. Far, far away from here."
"If you're not happy to see us ..." Angel began, emerging from the shadows as he was so often wont to do.
For a moment, Buffy could only stare in surprise. "Angel ..."
Angel's lips twitched upward. "Hey."
Cordelia approvingly surveyed the assembled group and flashed a dazzling smile. "The gang's all here."