"I don't think I'm ready for this," Willow announced, a note of barely repressed panic making itself heard.
Buffy's expression brooked no argument. "You have to be," she insisted. "You can't back out on me now Will, I'm counting on you."
"But Buffy, it's—"
"I know," the Slayer interrupted sharply, not wanting to hear Willow's fears given voice. She took a deep breath, calming herself. "I know."
The smile Xander flashed to the two women was shaky and possessed nowhere near the confidence he was trying too valiantly to exude. "We just have to be strong. And stick together." His nod indicated complete agreement with himself. "Sticking with strong togetherness."
"A-And we can do that," agreed Willow wholeheartedly. "The sticking thing. Just ... somewhere else."
Buffy's hand slicing through the air did its best to physically block anybody from running. "No. We've come this far. We can't turn back now."
"We defeated it once. Only barely, but ..." Xander swallowed his fear and tried again. "It can't be that bad. I'm sure it can't be that bad."
"Then why am I suddenly remembering a hundred ways to prove you wrong?" challenged Willow. "Oh no, wait – two hundred."
Folding her arms over her chest, the Slayer would have none of it. "Retreat is not an option."
"Two hundred and fifty ..." Willow continued to mentally tabulate.
"This is like a ... a test."
Xander peered at Buffy incredulously. "A test. Can I just point out what a horrible analogy that is right now?"
She ignored him. "If we can make it through this, then we prove it doesn't have any power over us any more."
"Three hundred and seventeen ..."
"Right." Xander bobbed his head emphatically. "No more power over us." His resolve faltered and he looked to have inherited Willow's earlier panic. "But what if it does?"
"Guys, guys," Buffy tried to reason. "This isn't helping."
"It's helping me," countered Willow. "Helping me remember what a horrible idea this was! Why are we doing this to ourselves?"
Xander's tone was matter-of-fact. "Because we're masochists. Just three, sick little people, hell bent on making their lives as painful and torturous as possible. Who needs bad guys any more? Stand aside, villains of the world!" he declared in a loud voice to the night sky. "The Scoobies are here to show you how it's really done!"
The constant stream of doubt was doing an effective job of wearing away the Slayer's thin veneer of assurance. "Maybe you guys are right. Discretion is the better part of valor, right? I- I don't really know what that means, but I'm pretty sure it involves us not being here and thus has my vote."
"Mine too," Willow rapidly agreed.
Only too willing to complete the trifecta, Xander enthusiastically concurred, "Same here."
"Great, it's unanimous, let's—"
The trio spun on their heels, flight clearly the only sane option. And they might have made it – had Tara not been blocking the way. The blonde witch was clearly dressed for an evening comprised mostly of best impressions. Her high-necked silk blouse of subtle periwinkle brought out the color of her eyes and matched well with her long navy skirt. She had drawn her hair back into a chic French twist and the twinkling of the tiny sapphire studs in her ears seemed only to echo her personal amusement.
The Scoobies didn't run Tara over. But it looked like a dicey possibility for a second.
Tara's half-grin spoke volumes to the depths of their silliness. "Guys, itís not that bad."
"Not that bad?" Willow echoed in disbelief. "Tara, trust me on this – it's exactly that bad."
"You were the one who wanted to come here," Tara pointed out.
Willow fidgeted uncomfortably as her fingers plucked at the sleeve of her olive green blouse. It was only a shade more muted than the matching skirt, and the hue lent a coppery sheen to her hair. A small rose quartz dolphin was suspended from a slim gold chain around her neck and reflected the heightened color in her cheeks. She looked nice, and it didn't seem she could possibly care less about that fact; defending her position on the fleeing issue was by far the most important detail at present.
"Well yeah, but ... but that was four days and three time zones ago when it was all like, 'Oh, this'll be fun!' and very little serious mental investment was made. This is a mistake." Willow was conclusive on this immutable fact. "A big, hairy mistake, a-and now I've had time to rationally think it over in these extremely crucial ninety seconds, it becomes crystal clear. Running is our only option. Or, if pressed, possibly suicide."
Tara could only shake her head and smile. Spreading her arms wide she began to step forward, herding the reluctant Scoobies before her. They complied – but not gracefully.
"C'mon Tara, don't make us!" pleaded Xander as he dragged his feet, heedless of the scuffmarks he was inflicting on his new black leather shoes.
There was no mercy in Tara's heart. "It's for your own good," she replied in a tone loathed by children everywhere.
"I'm the Slayer!" Buffy protested, sounding decidedly unSlayery. She was the very image of style in vogue – a blush-pink blouse was worn underneath a two-piece ivory jacquard, the jacket cropped to the waist. She pouted as she stomped along, and the overall impression was of a five-year old in trouble for dressing up in mommy's clothes. "I save the world! I shouldn't have to do stuff I don't wanna!"
"You'll thank me for this later," replied Tara, calm but unyielding. "Besides ..."
The witch and her flock passed beneath a large lighted sign, proclaiming the looming building before them to be the "Addison Convention Center, Los Angeles". It bore its message with pride: "Welcome Sunnydale High Class of '99".
"Reliving your old high school days?" Tara continued brightly. "That can only be fun, right?"
The whiny moans she received in response did not entirely convey a sense of impending fun.
"Class of '99"
Story by: Jet Wolf and Ultrace
Written by: Jet Wolf
Edited by: Novareinna
Original Airdate: Friday, 29 April 2005, 1.30am ET
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."
The slightly expanded and now reunited Scooby gang had laid full claim to their chosen table, and were gathered around, chatting animatedly as they caught up with each other.
"You look good!" Willow complimented Cordelia with a gesture. "We came to visit you after Sunnydale, and it was all hospitals and beepy monitors."
Cordy nodded sympathetically. "Fluorescent lights with my complexion? I can only imagine the nightmares."
"But now here you are! Talking, and upwardly mobile!" the redhead enthused with a grin.
Buffy glanced to Angel, her expression slightly guarded. "Big drama, huh? We only sort of got the phoned in, Cliffs Notes version."
"It wasn't that big," he dismissed with a shrug.
His attempted downplay fumbled at the 15-yard line when it ran full-force into the unfettered exuberance that was Cordelia. "Not that big! You have no flair for the dramatic."
Xander seemed amused. "Which is sorta ironic, all things considered."
Taking a moment to spare Angel a thoroughly disenchanted eye roll, Cordelia leaned toward her attentive audience. "So there I am, all comatose and everything? Angel's got Wolfram & Hart looking for something they can do to snap me out of it. Anything: demon blood, tribal ritual, crazy magic-flinging witches— No offense," she added to Willow and Tara before quickly moving on, "—but nothing! Which, you know, sort of weird, right? I mean here we've got a company that can almost literally move heaven and earth to get you whatever you want, but they can't fix one silly little coma?" Her incredulity was palpable.
Oz's focus shifted to Angel, his brow furrowed in thought. "Anything you want?"
"Within reason," the vampire clarified, sounding fairly nonchalant, "but ... yeah. Pretty much."
There was a brief moment of deep thought. "Otis Redding's guitar?"
"We'll talk later," Angel replied with a smirk.
Still thoroughly enamored with the sound of her own voice, Cordelia's tale continued to unfold. "So with the legal pool a complete bust, the guys decide to take it directly to the Powers, since you know how pretty much everything is all their fault? Fred and Wes manage to get everyone backstage passes and it turns out—"
The sharp sound of Angel clearing his throat cut through the discourse, and Cordelia's focus shifted. Angel said nothing, but there was an almost imperceptible shake of his head. Immediately catching on, she turned back to the others and clapped her hands together with a toothy smile.
"Long story short: huge battle, a negotiation or two, and here I am!" She spread her hands wide, presenting her undeniable hereness to all.
Buffy seemed less than fully satisfied with the recitation. "And that was the non-Cliff's Notes version?"
Leaning back in her chair, Cordelia crossed her legs and waved in Buffy's direction. "Well there's this teensy little non-disclosure agreement, so ... that's probably the best you'll get for the next couple hundred years."
"It's worse than the wait for Episode Three," noted Xander before regarding the individual seated across from him. "How about you, Oz Man? Heading up any new evil corporations lately?"
"Thought about it," Oz confessed, "but I couldn't handle the hours." He shrugged. "We're good. The pack's up in Oregon right now. Jemma's got family there."
Unnoticed, Willow had been observing Tara from the corner of her eye for some time. While the blonde was listening intently to the conversation, she hadn't uttered a single word. She sat hunched in her seat, shoulders tucked close and hands folded in her lap. Willow's 'unhappy girlfriend' alarms were screeching their warnings. It was time for decisive action.
"Y'know what's called for?" she suddenly announced, commanding full attention. "Much liquid refreshment!" Peering at the long table in the near distance, Willow reported, "Looks like they've got punch and ..." Bobbing and weaving from side to side, she did her best to see around the people milling nearby and get a clear view of the entire table. "... more punch. They probably donít blood or anything, sorry Angel."
"That's okay," Angel replied with a smile. "Punch is fine."
"Cool then!" Willow hopped to her feet and glanced to Tara. "Wanna come give me a hand?"
"Oh, sure," Tara agreed, sliding her chair back and joining Willow on their quest to the refreshment table.
"How you doing?" Willow asked as they slowly made their way through the crowds.
"Me? I'm fine. Just, you know ... hanging out."
Willow looked at Tara with some concern. "You're feeling okay then?"
Tara nodded reassuringly. "Just fine."
"And everything's peachy?"
"Cuz I'm entirely not believing you."
The couple had arrived at the refreshment table and took their place in line. With an affectionate chuckle, Tara turned to Willow and smiled. "Sweetie, I promise, I'm fine. I'm not exactly a social butterfly, you know that."
"Well sure," agreed Willow, the still-screaming alarms compelling her to press onward, "but you're not usually all cocoony either."
"I'm just watching you guys," Tara attempted to explain. "Seeing you with Oz and Cordelia and Mr. Angel ... It's nice."
Willow narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "It's nice, but...?"
"But there's no but," laughed Tara. "It makes me happy that you had all these great friends in high school, that's all."
Casting a glance over her shoulder, Willow considered their table – sparsely inhabited and all but shunned. "'All these friends'?" she repeated doubtfully. "Not exactly the quantifier I'd pick."
Tara shared the image, but not the uncertainty. "It's relative, trust me."
Focusing on the blonde once more, Willow's expression became tinged with sadness. "It wasn't really that bad for you, was it?"
"Yeah," Tara replied honestly. "But- But what I told Xander is true, right? Stuff from that long ago ... None of it matters any more."
The redhead's mercurial features shifted again, finally settling on annoyance. "Still, when I think about what it must've been like for you back then," she grumbled darkly, "I just get so ... so ... Rrr!"
"Then see?" grinned Tara. "It was all worth it for Rrr-face."
Finally it was their turn at the punch bowl. A bespectacled blonde girl stood behind the bowl, manning her appointed station with great seriousness. She was rather plain, almost mousy, and every fiber of her being screamed, "I Was a Teenage Science Nerd". She watched Willow and Tara expectantly, the ladle in her hands poised at the ready.
"Seven, please," Willow requested.
The girl didn't move, however. Her eyes remained locked fast to Willow, and after a moment the redhead began to squirm self-consciously.
"Not for me!" she quickly added. "Well one is, but I'm not that thirsty. I mean, I'm sure it's really nummy and all, but I have friends too who are wanting, although Iím guessing one's just being polite since it's a little less plasma-y than his—"
Thankfully for everyone, the woman interrupted the babble before it could build up any real momentum. "Willow! Willow Rosenberg, it is you!"
Willow used the enthusiasm to slingshot herself from the gravitational pull of her own spiraling thoughts. "Yeah! It is! And you! You're ..." She clearly had no idea. "You!"
"Remember?" the woman zealously burbled. "We were lab buddies!"
She would've had better luck asking if Willow remembered what Adam and Eve had snacked on after the apple was all gone.
"Oh sure!" Willow convincingly lied. "In biology!"
With an expression of near-panic, Willow turned her wide eyes to Tara. Very covertly, Tara motioned to her chest where, if she were wearing one, the "HELLO MY NAME IS" sticker would be. Immediately Willow caught the tip, relieved to find a way out of her predicament without total embarrassment meltdown. She whipped her head back to the woman where, sure enough, she was proudly announcing to the world that her name was Jane Ryan.
"Jane!" Willow greeted.
Jane beamed ecstatically, thrilled to have been remembered. She began to pour out the drinks as she chatted happily. "It's so great to see you! I was hoping you'd come," she confessed as she set another cup of punch before the redhead. "I've thought about contacting you since Sunnydale went ... you know. Just to see if you were okay and stuff. But I didn't know where you'd gone!"
Willow's mouth opened then closed and she shared a confused glance with Tara at Jane's apparent interest. "Oh, well ... How thoughtful of you."
"I just thought it was such a shame that we lost touch," Jane continued, still pouring carefully. "We had so much fun back then, you know?"
"...totally. Wow. The fun was just ... really, really fun ..."
Setting another cup of punch in front of Willow, Jane seemed to notice Tara for the first time. "Hi!"
"Hi," returned Tara with a smile.
Still no closer to knowing whom the other blonde may be, Jane turned to Willow questioningly.
"Oh, sorry," Willow quickly apologized. She took Tara's hand and tugged her closer. "This is Tara, my girlfriend."
Shock registered on every one of Jane's features. The woman seemed frozen, unable to do more than gape at the two of them. The now-empty ladle dangled from her paralyzed hand.
Willow and Tara shared an amused "here we go again" look. "We're getting a lot of that tonight," Willow commiserated. In a monotone that suggested these were not the first time the words had been uttered in the past hour, she clearly stated, "Yes, I really said 'girlfriend'. Yes, I'm gay."
As though physically jerking herself out of her stunned stupor, Jane dragged her eyes away from her astounded appraisal of Tara. "Gay!' she echoed in a voice that was rather uncomfortably loud. "Oh, sure, just ... sort of a surprise!"
But the blonde woman seemed convinced to not let the unexpected affect her for long. Nodding to herself, she handed first one cup of punch to Willow and another to Tara. "Well I think that's just great," she said supportively. "You and ... Tara, was it?"
Tara's nod confirmed it, and she and Willow each took a sip of punch. Willow in particular looked cool as a proverbial cucumber. She wasn't fazed by any of this, no siree.
"And I really shouldn't be surprised," Jane continued, "what with all those rumors about you and Buffy Summers ..."
Willow's punch went everywhere.
Hannah was walking through Slayer Central, minding her own business when she nearly collided with a large stack of books, which had apparently sprouted legs and was walking straight toward her.
"Whoa, watch out," she cautioned lightly, thrusting her arms out to cushion any possible impact.
The feet came to a full stop. "Sorry! Sorry!" Dawn apologized profusely, her voice drifted up from behind the tower of volumes.
Lifting away half of the stack, Hannah unearthed Dawn and received a look of gratitude in return. "Whew! Thanks. I hate multiple trips.'
"Lazy like me, huh?" smirked the blonde, jostling her new armfuls into a comfortable position.
Dawn did her best to appear regal. "I prefer 'efficient'."
"Now you mention it, I do too." Hannah inclined her head down the hallway. "Are we library-bound?"
"Library-bound we are."
The two set off together, moving slowly but surely. Hannah's eyes drifted to the topmost book in her pile. A worn and ancient volume, it bore no title. But if it had, a good candidate would have been The Most Boring Book in the Whole Wide World, Volume 23.
Hannah's eyebrow twitched skeptically. "Doing some light reading?"
"These things? Please," scoffed Dawn. "I'd rather actually read my English lit homework." Indicating the books in her arms, she informed, "They're so boring, even the old Watcher's Council locked them away."
An honest answer, but one that hadn't made things any clearer for Hannah. "Then we are...?" she prompted.
"Bringing in the old new inventory. Stuff that's been sitting around for like ever."
The library doors were thankfully already open, and the duo easily made their way toward the nearest table to deposit their mutual burdens. Hannah rested her elbow on the nearest stack and turned to the teenager. "I must admit Dawn, I'm surprised. I would've thought you'd rather spend your evenings doing ..." Glancing around, Hannah tried to think of an appropriately more entertaining task. "Well, anything else, honestly."
"Buffy and the others are out of town for the weekend," replied Dawn, beginning to organize the large pile into smaller ones. "Sunnydale High reunion, it's this whole big thing. I didn't feel much like sitting at home alone, so I came here."
Hannah's eyes flicked from Dawn to the books and then back again, clearly feeling that a crucial detail remained elusive. "To ... sort books. Alone."
The teenager rolled her eyes, having perfected this expression of disgruntlement. "Yeah well, that wasn't actually supposed to happen." She slapped the book in her hand on the nearest pile a little more forcibly than was likely intended and grabbed for the next. "I thought, you know, Giles and I could hang or something. He could take me to the movies and then I'd listen to him complain about whatever we saw over ice cream afterwards. But he's busy, so ..."
Dawn shrugged like it wasn't anything important, but her wounded expression peeked through anyway, just for a moment.
"So I was already here," she continued, reaching for the topmost book in Hannah's leaning post and forcing the older woman to stand straight again, "and I figured I'd be useful! Maybe, you know ..." Dawn glanced to Hannah briefly, then focused on the text in her hands. She suddenly looked embarrassed and ten years younger. "If I did some of the stuff he says he has to do, it'd all be done faster and then he'd be around more."
Hannah's expression melted, but with a toss of her hair, Dawn suddenly aged to 18 again. "Besides, I like to catalog his books and stuff in this really bizarre way that he can't understand, and it's fun to see him try."
Indeed, Dawn's book sorting seemed to be dictated more by color than by content, and she returned to the task with renewed vigor.
"Well," announced Hannah after a moment of watching Dawn randomize the piles she'd already organized, "it just so happens that my plans for today didn't turn out quite like I expected either. Seems a shame – two fetching young women such as ourselves consigned to associate only with these musty things." Dawn's cataloging screeched to a halt and she looked to the smirking blonde. "So what do you say? Movies on me?"
"Really?" asked Dawn hopefully.
"I'll even promise to complain bitterly about the film after."
Dawn all but hopped in place. "Can we see the new Resident Evil?"
"Certainly," Hannah easily agreed. "It's guaranteed to bring about the maximum level of quality complaining."
The Wall of Remembrance was a rare spot in the convention hall that provided at least the illusion of quiet. Those who walked past held their tongues, as though speaking were somehow an affront; there was nothing so important to say that it could not have waited until they had cleared the unofficial "silent zone". Those visiting the wall either did so in small groups whispering in hushed tones, or they visited alone.
Like Xander Harris.
Xander's eye roamed the faces staring back at him. The smiling, happy faces of those who would never smile again. Many were unfamiliar, either never having been known to him or simply lost somewhere in the depths of memory. But as he skimmed, making sure to dwell at least a moment on every portrait, there would be the occasional one where his gaze would linger. Morgan Shay. Jack O'Toole. Theresa Klusmeyer. Jonathan Levinson. Jenny Calendar. Jesse McNally. Anya Jenkins.
It was to this last picture that Xander would always return. He might perhaps stray five to the left and three down, and then like a rubber band stretched to its limit, his eye would snap back to Anya.
It wasn't a flattering picture, though not that any of them could be described that way. It bore the same fuzziness that afflicted all the portraits, having been blown up to five or six times its actual size. And as for Anya herself, she seemed to have taken a personal dislike toward the camera or the cameraman. Quite possibly both. Her eyebrows were knitted together in an accusatory glare, and Anya looked tremendously insulted at being forced to partake in this bizarre photographic ritual. That probably wasn't far from the truth. But no matter how angry picture-Anya looked, Xander's lips still lifted in a smile whenever his gaze would find her again.
"It's not a very good picture."
Xander turned to see Cordelia standing at his shoulder, regarding Anya's image critically.
"Not that I really remember what she looks like," Cordy continued. "Mostly it's just a fuzzy outline with really good shoes. But this just seems sort of ... I don't know. Lifeless?"
"Cordelia Chase, Queen of Irony," Xander announced.
She ignored the sarcasm. "I'm just saying, it's a shame that this is the picture everyone will remember. Just a generic and not particularly flattering 8x10 on a wall of sad anonymity."
"Thanks for the pep talk!" exclaimed Xander with exaggerated cheer. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "I'm just gonna go slit my wrists in the corner now."
Cordelia rolled her eyes at the melodrama, but her tone was gentle. "I just mean ... I'm sorry she died." There was nothing caustic in her words, and she looked at Xander sincerely. "I know you and I never had a nice long conversation after I left Sunnydale, or even exchanged 'Hello's ... but Willow kept me up to date with stuff. She said you two seemed happy."
The rubber band tugged, and Xander found himself once more looking at Anya's fierce glare. "We were. For a while ... we were."
"Of course she also said she thought you'd been hit on the head too many times and it was screwing with your judgment ..."
"Can we back up to the part where you were doing a passable impression of a compassionate human being?"
The unofficial Wall of Remembrance silence reasserted itself for a long moment.
"Are you seeing anyone?" Cordelia finally asked without preamble.
Entirely disbelieving, Xander raised his eyebrows. "Are you offering?"
"So I'll take that as a 'no' then?"
A brusque exhale was the immediate answer to that question. "Maybe you're affected by the ripe stench of nostalgia in the air, but me?" The convention hall was treated to a once-over of pure, undistilled Cordelia Grade disdain. "I'm mostly just reminded that leaving Sunnydale was the best thing I ever did."
"So you're just, what?" Xander snapped, beginning to lose his temper despite himself. "Passingly curious? Maybe looking to add to your repertoire of quick yet lethal jabs at my life?"
"No, you big dork, I'm worried about you!"
The blurted confession took Xander by surprise, becoming one of the few moments in his life where he was rendered completely speechless.
"I mean ... look at you!" she continued, waving her hand to vaguely encompass the totality that was Xander. "With the lonely and the no eye and the being a Watcher? What's that about?"
"Well Watcher-in-Training ..." he corrected meekly.
Cordelia continued as though he hadn't spoken. "You're a good man, Xander Harris, and you were a good boyfriend." Pausing to frown, she crossed her arms and added, "Up until the point where you cheated on me and I got punctured by rebar, anyway."
Xander squirmed at the memory, but Cordy wasn't stopping for his discomfort.
"You were sweet and funny and totally couldn't dress yourself – which I see is a habit you have yet to break—"
Xander looked ready to defend his suavity, if he could only get a word in.
"—but it was cute in a train wreck disaster sort of way. It's just ... you have a lot to offer someone and it's a crime against nature to let that all go to waste." Aggression ebbing away, Cordelia tilted her head to the side, her dark eyes boring into Xander. "I want you to be happy."
She turned to the framed photo of Anya.
"And so would she."
Touched by the sentiment, if not necessarily the delivery, Xander allowed himself a tiny smile, then also looked at Anya.
"You're right," he agreed. "It is a terrible picture."
Neither Xander nor Cordelia realized they were being watched.
Xander reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet as Cordelia stepped closer. Their heads stayed close together for a moment, both intently focused on something. Huddled as they were, it was impossible to see what. As the voyeur drew near, the grinning pair stepped away from the Wall of Remembrance, ready now to rejoin the reunion.
Something had changed on the Wall. Amidst the expanse of blurred and washed-out photos, a well-worn yet still vibrant snapshot now stood out – a spark of life among the dead. Mostly covering the image of Anya Jenkins, the snapshot depicted a slightly older blonde Anya looking thoroughly delighted as she sat on a couch, surrounded by birthday presents. The joy that shone in her eyes was second only to the love radiating from the dark-haired young man sitting next to her.
However the voyeur didn't spare the photograph even a glance. Instead, every ounce of focus was directed to the line of portraits nearby; the portraits labeled "Class Favorites". Fixated, the voyeur approached, lingering for a long moment on the row of smiling faces. Then with a flash of rage, a hand lashed out and tore the "Class Favorites" banner from the wall. Fingers working furiously to rip the banner to shreds, baleful eyes never wavered from the row of titles and names – including "Most Intelligent" Willow Rosenberg and "Class Protector" Buffy Summers.
Dawn seemed in good spirits as she all but skipped down the corridors of Slayer Central. She was attempting to shove a mostly empty box of theater-sized Jujubes into her jacket with limited success when she rounded a corner and came to a screeching halt.
The halls were completely empty, with most of the Junior Slayers either in bed or on patrol. But there was one lone figure standing in the near distance.
Faith seemed nearly motionless, doing nothing but standing a foot or two away from a nondescript door that was just one of several identical doors in the hallway. She simply stood before the door. Staring at it. There was no motion to either enter the room or turn away.
It was with some confusion that Dawn watched Faith, until realization struck and her eyes grew wide. For a moment, Dawn's face fell, brimming over with empathy, but the sadness was rapidly replaced with anger and she stomped toward the Slayer.
"Someone else lives there now," Dawn announced in tone that was hostile and vaguely superior.
Startled, Faith's head whirled around to Dawn. It was difficult to tell if she was more surprised by the youngest Summers' presence, or the fact that she'd been so deep in thought she was able to be surprised at all.
With a toss of her hair, Dawn rolled her eyes at the door – or rather, the inhabitant within. "This new girl. Her name's Mary Elizabeth. She's okay. A little annoying and has this obsession with Billy Boyd and Dom Monaghan that's frankly terrifying ... but she's okay."
Faith appeared to be at a loss for words. "Oh. Well ... good for her."
"We cleared out the room about a week or so after we got back." The pause was weighty and deliberate. "Just before the funeral."
It seemed as though Faith winced a little at that, but she declined to reply. Instead, she took several steps away from the door. "Thanks for the info," she muttered, heading down the hall and away from Dawn.
"You should've been there."
Faith stopped, but didn't turn around.
Dawn shifted her weight to her other foot, still busy glaring accusatorily at the back of Faith's head. "I mean, you cared about her, right? God knows she cared about you." Receiving no immediate response, she repeated, "You should've gone to her funeral."
"Yeah." Faith's head and shoulders dropped a little, and she glanced vaguely in Dawn's direction. "Yeah, maybe."
Flinging her hand to the side, the teenager shook her head violently. "No 'maybe'! You were like her idol, Faith! She gave up everything for you – she died for you." Dawn's disgust was palpable. "And you can't be bothered to make it here to say goodbye?"
This time, Faith did turn around. "I said my goodbye,' she replied in a low, even voice.
"Sure," scoffed Dawn in that special tone she saved for adults she found particularly irritating, "and that's why you're standing here in the hall staring at her door."
"Well what was I supposed to say, huh?" the Slayer demanded. "'Thanks for getting yourself sucked into an evil bitch for me, oh but don't worry – I snapped her neck, so it's all good'."
"I don't know! I don't ..." Pulling her mental reins taut, Dawn fought to bring the rapidly escalating conversation back to a civilized level. "I just know she would've wanted you there. And if you cared so much, you would've been."
Faith tossed out her hand and let it slap on her thigh. "Yeah, well I wasn't. Pretty much says it all then, huh? So let's hear about it – same old Faith. That's what you're thinkin', right?" Faith took one deliberate step toward Dawn, and then another. "Says what she wants, does what she wants, kills who she wants." A dangerous smile slowly crossed the Slayer's face and she spread her arms wide. "And does it with a song."
The backward retreat was already in progress before Dawn realized what she was doing and put a stop to it. Even as she held her ground however, her discomfort was evident.
"What, scared'a little ol' me?" Faith continued to grin as she came to a halt only a few feet away.
Dawn lifted her chin defiantly. "N-No."
"Stutter really sells that, too."
"No," she repeated, much stronger this time. "Yes ... I don't know! Okay? You ..."
Faith waited for a second, but no conclusion to the sentence appeared to be forthcoming. "I what?" she prompted, her expression betraying nothing but amusement for the entire conversation.
"You killed Judith and- and ..." The force behind Dawn's accusation died away, leaving confusion in its wake. "And I don't know how to feel about that."
Upon hearing the confession, some of the cockiness ebbed out of Faith. She sought refuge in the pack of Marlboros she dug from her jacket. "Yeah, well ... join the club. Membership's free."
Dawn seemed hypnotized by the flame of the lighter as Faith lit up. "You can't smoke in here," she stated absently.
Twin streams of smoke propelled from Faith's nostrils as she snorted a laugh. "Seems pretty easy to me."
It wasn't a battle worth fighting, Dawn wisely let it drop for more important matters. "I thought when you got back you'd be all ... I dunno. 'Yay me' or something. All strutting and happy cuz you got your vengeance on."
"Me too," agreed Faith, blowing a plume of smoke high into the air. "Life's just one big surprise after another."
It was a puzzle that was plaguing Dawn as she struggled to figure things out. "But it's like ... I'm glad you stopped Judith, and I'm glad she paid for killing Hazel and Kelly and everybody else. She needed to pay." On this point, Dawn didn't seem to question.
Taking a long drag, Faith watched Dawn curiously, uncertain of where the girl was going with this line of thought.
"But the way it happened ..." Dawn shook her head, eyebrows closely knit together. "I dunno. It feels wrong."
An expectant silence ballooned between them, but it was one Faith didn't bother trying to fill.
When it seemed Dawn couldn't take it any more, she demanded, "Aren't you going to say something?"
"Like what?" Faith rejoined. "If you're wantin' some big breakdown, you're SOL, Sunshine. I did it. It's done. The end. I can't go back and not do it."
"But would you?"
Faith shrugged nonchalantly and dropped her cigarette to the floor. "The past is what it is." She ground out the embers under her boot heel, turned and strode down the hallway.
"Yeah, but if you could," Dawn called out to the Slayer's retreating back, "would you?"
Faith declined to answer as she walked away.
Buffy stood out like a well-dressed thumb, seated alone as she was amidst the throngs of Sunnydale High graduates. She didn't appear particularly upset by the isolation, but still she looked grateful as Angel placed a cup of punch on the table before her. The vampire's own smile was slightly nervous and uncomfortable as he slid into the adjacent chair. He had his own drink in-hand, but as he traced his finger around the rim, it seemed less for refreshment purposes and more for distraction.
"It's like old times, huh?" he asked. At Buffy's questioning look, Angel indicated the dance floor. "Willow and Oz ..."
Indeed, Willow and Oz were there, dancing to an upbeat song. Although they weren't so much dancing as in the vicinity of people whom were dancing. Dancing by proximity. The two redheads chatted as they didn't dance.
"...Xander and Cordy..."
Not too far away, Xander and Cordelia were actual-dancing to the music. It was a three-way however, with Tara making up the final third. Xander was clearly having a blast with one beautiful woman in each hand. He twisted them out, pulled them back, twirled them around, and seemed on top of the world.
Buffy watched the trio and grinned. "Though I think Xander's accompanying stud reputation is new."
As those words left Buffy's mouth, a group of guys walked past the dancers, including Mr. Flyin' Eagle. The man openly eyed Tara and Cordelia, then favored Xander with a very knowing, very approving look.
"...and then there's us," Angel concluded.
Angel nodded, indicating their surroundings. "Here, on the sidelines. Brooding."
"I don't brood. You brood. I pout." She considered Angel for a moment. "And you pout also."
"I don't pout," an indignant and defensive Angel shot back.
The Slayer heartily disagreed. "You totally pout."
The accusation wasn't being taken well. "I'm 250-years old, I—"
"—have had plenty of time to perfect your pout," Buffy interrupted. She surveyed Angel's expression approvingly. "It's very good. Almost rivaling mine. I'd say if they had a King and Queen of Pout, we would be they."
Although still scowling, Angel let it drop. "And anyway, Iím not pouting."
"Me neither. I'm ... reflecting."
On this, vampire and Slayer seemed to reach an agreement. "Yeah. There's something about coming back to all this. The people, the memories." Angel's eyes drifted to the ceiling. "The really tacky colors."
Buffy absorbed the atmosphere of the room with some amazement. "It just all feels like a lifetime ago ... I guess for me that's literally the case." Shaking her head free of those thoughts, Buffy continued. "We've been saying all night how we were different people then, how the things we saw and did just don't matter any more."
Glancing over, Buffy found Angel's intense eyes boring into her. "Do you think that's true? That none of it matters?" There was an odd tone to his voice that was difficult to describe.
"No," she replied. "I don't. I really don't."
"We're working through different sites, looking at new distribution," Oz was explaining to a thoroughly engrossed Willow. "iTunes, Garage Band, mp3.com. It's sort of like being a real band, only without the fame or money or recording contract. It's this whole big thing."
Willow grinned and took on a lofty tone. "Well personally I can't wait to be watching the Grammys one day at a swanky bar, sipping my fruit-ladden alcoholic beverage, and when you win I can say, 'I know him!' and immediately become the most important person in the whole place."
"Swanky?" questioned Oz doubtfully. "I'm thinking dapper."
"So long as it involves Important Me, I'm in."
"We can but hope."
Inhaling deeply, Willow lifted upon her tiptoes and took everything in – the people, the decorations, the excited chatter. "So, all this, huh? It's just ... wow."
Oz nodded his agreement. "There is a certain wowness."
"It's just so weird." With a wondering shake of her head, Willow allowed herself a brief moment of reverie, then she leaned toward Oz conspiratorially. "You know, I used to imagine our high school reunion. While still in high school, which was probably jumping the gun a little bit, but."
He didn't say anything, but there was no doubting that Willow had Oz's full attention.
"We'd be married for one, maybe two years," she narrated, "since we'd both be responsible adults and wait until near the end of college."
"Was the wedding nice?"
An enthusiastic nod said it all. "The wedding was the best. All our friends were there, and my parents had finally gotten over the fact that their little girl wasn't marrying a nice Jewish boy. There were hugs and presents, and bubbles instead of rice because I read somewhere that rice hurts birds. Though I think that's an urban legend." She shrugged. "But why take chances?"
"Exactly," concurred Oz, expression completely serious. "We might incur the wrath of a thousand angry sparrows."
"And who needs that on their wedding day?" Willow responded with an exasperated roll of her eyes. The detour was brief however, and she quickly got back on track. "As cool as the fifth reunion is, though? The tenth absolutely kicks it butt."
Holding aloft an indescribable appetizer, Oz asked, "Better catering?"
"We bring the kids."
Oz didn't even try to repress his smile.
"Our oldest son—"
The seriousness of Willow's story was utterly shattered as she began to laugh. Her nose wrinkled like she'd just tasted something well past its expiration date. "Filmore?" she repeated incredulously, to which Oz only nodded with a small grin. Shaking her head in disbelief, Willow continued. "Okay, our oldest son Fillmore – who will entirely hate us when he grows up – is four. Our little girl—"
"Madeline," he immediately named.
This choice seemed to sit better. "—is two. And they are beautiful and charming and we spend a delightful evening of showing them off and making everyone so jealous." Willow lifted her chin with pride, her vision complete.
"I like it," Oz noted approvingly. "Two thumbs up."
Willow beamed and swung her shoulders back and forth in delight. "Funny isn't it?" she mused aloud. "The twists and turns. You can be so sure where your life will take you – more sure of it than anything else in your whole life. So you go along, skipping down the road, la la la. Then suddenly you're there and it's like, 'Hey, hold on just a darned minute! This isn't where the map said I'd end up!'"
Oz gave the matter due consideration. "But it's right," he decided.
"But it's completely right," she agreed.
Another subdued smile crossed the werewolf's features. "I know just what you mean."
Willow echoed it. "I know you do."
"And just think of all the pain and trauma we're saving poor Fillmore," Oz added, eliciting more laugher from Willow.
Angel drummed his thumbs together in a rhythm that in no way resembled that of the music being played. "Despite everything, huh?"
"Wouldn't change any of it," Buffy resolutely confirmed. "Well, except maybe getting dumped in a sewer. Although on reflection, I guess it was pretty appropriate."
"I think about it sometimes," Angel reflected. At Buffy's look, he hastened to amend, "Not just the sewer thing – all of it. You live as long as I have, and the years just sorta start blending. But my time in Sunnydale ... It's like I remember nothing and everything."
Buffy seemed content to remain philosophical about it. Stretching her arms over her head, she leaned back in her chair. "I guess that's high school for you. One big blobby mess where you remember every excruciating detail. I'm glad we have reunions to remind us that we can't ever escape."
The corner of Angel's mouth twitched upward in amusement. "That's probably not exactly the point."
"No, I mean that's a good thing," she clarified. "All the stuff that happens in the past, the good and the bad ... it makes you who you are. Shapes you. Without it, we're just existing from one moment to the next." Leaning forward again, Buffy rested her elbows on the table and began to swirl her punch in the plastic cup. "Without a past, I guess there can't be a future either. There's just the now. And I dunno, I guess I like being able to put it all in perspective."
Angel nodded appreciatively "Nicely put."
"And sort of meanderingly put."
"Well I'm older now," the Slayer dismissed. "I know more words. It seems a shame not to use them."
To this, Buffy lifted her cup in toast.
"To old times," she declared.
Raising his drink also, Angel added, "To new times."
The plastic tapping together didn't carry quite the same ring as fine crystal, but the effect was much the same, and they both seemed satisfied with the sentiment as they drained their punch. Then Angel slid a napkin toward Buffy; she looked down to see an Oreo resting on the paper.
"Cookie?" he offered innocently.
Buffy grinned widely, but didn't get the chance to respond as the song came to an end and the crowd began to applaud. Harmony stepped onto the stage, and another of the organizers wheeled a slide projector into position. He set to work, making sure the projector was pointed at a nearby patch of blank wall, while Harmony reached for the microphone and switched it on. The chatter in the room wound down to a low, anticipatory buzz.
"Hi everyone!" Harmony greeted with much gusto. "Welcome back, Class of '99!"
On cue, the first slide was projected onto the wall, showing a picture of the original Sunnydale High with "Class of '99" over the hallowed halls. The room erupted into cheers, and the crowds began to disperse to the surrounding tables. The Scoobies did the same, making their way to Buffy and Angel and claiming the remaining seats.
Cordelia slid next to Angel, opening glaring a the blonde on stage. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't I make it crystal clear that if she set foot in LA again, I'd stake the heck outta her?"
"You did," Angel acknowledged. "But she's actually been back for a little while now. Applied for a job at Wolfram & Hart and everything."
"She did what?"
"I didn't hire her, though," he assured. "There was some sort of trouble with her references. I think she ate them."
Oblivious, Harmony's presentation continued. "...reunite them here, on-stage. Well, not the president and stuff since they're all dead—" The projector clicked to a slide of the four officers, all with big red 'X's over their faces. "—but some of the Favorites are still alive, and yay for them!"
It was an odd speech, so when Harmony clapped, it was with some confused reluctance that anybody joined in. Their weak participation was more than sufficient for Harmony however, and she nodded to Projector Guy. The next slide that appeared announced "Class Clown", and came complete with a little clip art clown that was laughing uproariously.
"First up, our Class Clown ..." The slide clicked to the next, and now underneath the "Class Clown" title was a smiling, cheeky face. "Jack Mayhew!" cried Harmony. "Where are you, Jack?"
This was something the crowd could get behind, and they applauded wildly. Heads swiveled in all directions, searching for the individual in question. After a moment a figure stood up, and the cheering increased. Very sluggishly, the figure dragged himself toward the stage, where Harmony stood leading the applause. It was all very game show.
"This is such a farce," Xander spat venomously. "Class Favorites. Please. He's not my favorite. I didn't vote for him."
Willow turned to Xander with a knowing smile. "Still bitter, huh?"
"Just a tad."
The man of the moment finally reached the top step and Harmony was the first to greet him. "Welcome back, Jack!"
Harmony thrust the microphone at Jack, and the audience quieted. Jack stared at the microphone, blinking slowly, and then leaned far too close toward it.
That was all he had to say.
The wide grin plastered on Harmony's face never wavered. "So Jack," she began, wanting to move things along smoothly, "it's been five years – what's the big new news with you? Still cracking everybody up, I bet!"
Again the microphone was shoved toward Jack, and much like the first time, it was followed by a blank pause. Jack blinked, then repeated his earlier action of leaning too close. His voice was loud and slightly muffled as the speakers echoed his words of wisdom.
"I take Zoloft now."
Nobody said anything, and they weren't particularly comfortable about it. For the first time, a crack appeared in Harmony's faÁade, but she quickly epoxy'd over it. Tugging the microphone back to home, the vampire seemed determined to remain positive. "That's ... That's grea—"
With a sudden burst of speed onlookers would've sworn he couldn't possibly possess, Jack leaned into the microphone again before it could entirely depart. "And Paxil. And maybe Effexor starting next month." He blinked slow eyes at the crowd. "They have to wait for my blood work to come back."
Speech having apparently draining him, the subdued man had nothing further to contribute.
"Good for you!" Harmony enthused. With a flourish of her hands, she presented him to the room. "Our Class Clown – Jack Mayhew!"
The audience applauded weakly as Harmony motioned Jack to stand behind her, which he did with an apathetic shuffle. The blonde nodded to Projector Guy, and the slide clicked over to the words "Class Flirt".
"Next ..." she continued.
Xander shook his head ruefully. "The pressure of a title is simply too much for lesser Clowns to bear. Shame."
"...died at graduation," Harmony concluded. The next slide clicked into place, displaying a new title and a new face. "Larry Blaisdale," she announced passionately, "voted 'Most Athletic' by you, the Class of '99!"
The crowd applauded. There was a click as the next slide dropped into place. A big red 'X' appeared over Larry's face.
"He died at graduation too."
The applause joined him with a quick but painful death.
Harmony didn't seem to notice, completely on a roll and unwilling to stop for anything. "'Most Popular' ... Michelle Blake!"
There was a briefest of communal hesitations, but when a figure leapt out of her seat and began to run toward the stage, the crowd eagerly celebrated the reminder that some of them managed to make it out of high school alive.
Cordelia wasn't quite so supportive. "You bought those votes, and you know it!" she all but yelled. More subdued, but just as angry, she grumbled, "That title should've been mine."
"Popularity," Oz sympathized. "Rough gig."
"You have no idea the work involved," Cordy agreed, tossing her hair over one shoulder imperiously.
Turning away from the animated bubbling of the woman on-stage, Tara looked to Cordelia with a puzzled frown. "She actually paid people to vote for her?"
The brunette scoffed, dismissing Michelle Blake and all she stood for. "Oh totally – with one currency or another. Those who can't," Cordelia philosophized pragmatically, "buy from those who can."
Grinning widely, Willow seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the presentation, despite the constant thread of morbidity. "You know, this is—" She stopped short, her expression morphing as bone-chilling horror slowly dawned. "Oh god, I'm not gonna have to go up there, am I?"
"...Willow Rosenberg!" Harmony called out, right on cue.
Xander considered his best friend with disappointment. "And you just now figured that out? You failed in your duties as 'Most Intelligent', Will. We're gonna have to crown your runner up."
But Willow had far greater concerns on her mind, and seemed mere moments from bolting from the room like a frightened bunny. Having received no word that Willow Rosenberg was another mark in the 'dead' column, the crowd was being optimistic and scanning for her.
Harmony too was on the lookout. "Willow? I know you're here ..."
If Willow had claws, they would've sunk deep into the table. As it was, they simply curled impotently on the surface. "No! I-I can't! Going in front of ..."
She looked to Xander for assistance. The casual way his chin rested on his fist didnít seem particularly helpful.
"With the ..."
Willow anxiously spun to Buffy. The Slayer was clearly amused by watching the redhead fall apart before her very eyes, and seemed disinclined to offer aid.
Finally, Willow faced her infallible salvation, certain that not only would she find protection, but a legion of angry troops ready to do battle and reclaim her very nearly besmirched humility. But her infallible salvation wasn't paying attention.
The totality of Tara's focus was riveted to the wall where, far larger than life, the projected image of a young Willow stared back worriedly. "That is simply ... adorable," murmured Tara, unable to look away.
"Oh just go," Cordelia ordered the redhead with a wave of her hand. "Enjoy your ten seconds of renewed fame."
Oz lifted his eyebrows toward the stage. "Besides, Harmony's spotted you. I think you're about to be forcibly relocated."
"You know the faster you go up there ..." Buffy advised.
Willow clenched her eyes tight. "I hate reunions."
With a deep, steeling breath, Willow got to her feet amidst now thunderous applause. She all but ran toward the stage in a desperate bid to escape the attention.
"Willow!" enthused Harmony. "So what have you—"
"Hi. Nothing. Bye."
She didn't wait for any more questions. Willow immediately took her place at the end of the line behind Harmony, content to stare at her shoes and try with all of her might to stop her face from burning. As Harmony continued to chatter away to the rest of the gathering, Willow became aware of someone staring at her. She glanced to her left and beheld the familiar face of Nancy Doyle.
"Hey," came the curt greeting.
Willow shuffled uncomfortably, still feeling the aftereffects of her rush on stage. "Hey."
"So here we are," Nancy commenced, her eyes never leaving the redhead. "You, 'Most Intelligent'. Me, 'Most Likely to Succeed'."
Cautiously, Willow nodded just the once. "Looks that way."
"I was up for 'Most Intelligent' too, you know."
"Oh." Willow seemed unsure of what else she was supposed to say to that. "No. I don't really remember."
"I was," assured Nancy. "I lost though. I mean obviously, since here you are."
Perhaps an apology was in order. "Uhm, sorry? But I mean, who really cares, right? About a stupid vote from five years ago ..." Willow's voice trailed off as she noted Nancy's completely unchanged, deadly serious expression. "...except you clearly do. Of course."
"It was close, though," Nancy insisted, quick and defensive.
The two lapsed into a brief but awkward silence, filled with the background noise of Harmony's endless prattle.
When she couldn't take it any more, Nancy informed Willow, "I just got a promotion. Vice-chairperson for our division. The youngest in the company's history."
Willow tried to be supportive while simultaneously being unable to hide the fact that she would rather be soaking in a vat of boiling liquid cheese than having this conversation. "Well ... good. Good for you."
"What about you? What's the biggest thing you've done these past few years?"
"Oh, uh, not too much. Just, you know ..." She shrugged. "School. Some stuff with my friends."
A satisfied smirk spread across Nancy's features and she nodded her head. "I figured as much," she sighed contentedly.
Willow narrowed her eyes. "Of course there was that bit where I nearly destroyed the whole world, I guess that was on the big side."
Nancy's head whipped around to regard the witch in disbelief. She peered at Willow, thinking maybe she must have misunderstood. She hadn't. What's more, taking in the redhead's unwavering stare, Nancy believed her.
Incensed at being trumped, Nancy turned away with a huff. "I could've done that," she growled to herself.
Meanwhile, Harmony continued the presentation. "Our 'Class Protector', Buffy Summers!"
The by-now familiar click of the projector heralded the appearance of the next slide. Contrary to expectations, there was no smiling photograph of Buffy, but rather a nondescript shadowy head-and-shoulders emblazoned with the words "Photo Not Available". Buffy leveled a killing glare at Cordelia.
Cordy rolled her eyes. "It was years ago, get over it."
Allowing her glare to linger a moment longer for good measure, Buffy made her way up on stage. Now all smiles, she waved to the applauding crowd. "Hi guys."
Harmony was still locked in game show mode. "I'd ask you what you've been doing," she explained brightly, "but it's probably really gross, and nobody wants to hear about it!"
Buffy's mouth had been poised and ready to deliver what was undoubtedly a warm and witty, yet concise and poignant recount of the past five years in Buffyland. Denied that opportunity, she could only stand and watch, jaw slack, as Harmony completely ignored Buffy's presence and addressed her captive audience.
"And now, the guy in charge of this reunion, the man responsible for bringing us all here tonight and making this the best Sunnydale High Class of '99 five-year reunion ever – except he had nothing to do with the banners in the lobby, those were mine ..." A furrow appeared on Harmony's features, and her energetic introduction began to fade weakly. "Uhm, the guy in charge ..." It was no good, the name simply wouldn't come to her.
She peered down at Projector Guy, questioning him to fill in the blank, but he could only shake his head and shrug in response. Harmony cast her eyes to the ceiling, as though the balloons suspended there might helpfully align themselves and reveal the name. "Ohh, what is it?" she wondered aloud. "It's on the tip of my tongue ..."
Off to the side, near the currently abandoned DJ equipment, came a prompting hiss.
Harmony didn't get it. "What?" The hissing repeated itself, sounding more annoyed this time. "Look, you need to stop mumbling," the vampire instructed. "Cuz I have really good hearing, and I don't—"
Unable to suffer the indignity a moment longer, a man burst onto the stage and all but ripped the microphone away from Harmony. If ever there was a specimen of humankind that could be labeled as "average", it was this man. Average height, average build, with unremarkably short and averagely brown hair. Even his clothing was average, being drab and entirely forgettable.
"Slone!" he spat, thoroughly aggravated. "Richard Slontowski."
Harmony nodded, her million-dollar smile making a repeat performance. "Oh right, right! Him!" She turned to the crowd. "Everyone give it up for ..." The name was gone again. "...him!"
Under Harmony's prompting, the gathering applauded politely. Slone visibly puffed under the attention, soaking it up eagerly and discarding his anger. As Harmony slipped back to join the row of favorites, Slone claimed center stage.
"Thanks. Thank you, Harmony. Well!" It was clear that Slone wasn't a particularly engaging public speaker, and although he currently held the crowd's attention, it seemed tenuous at best. "So ... So here we are. All of us, together again. I've been ..." He shook his head in wonder. "It's been a long time. A really long time. I've thought about this night, over and over. Just waiting for the chance to come back and see you all again."
Slone had begun pacing back and forth on stage, doing a reasonable impression of a motivational speaker, only without the motivational part. "I waited and waited, and when 2004 came and went without news of the reunion, I knew it wouldn't happen. Not without one of us stepping up to the plate."
Coming to a halt, he faced his old classmates. "And it's what we needed, you know? What we deserved. A chance to revisit those glory days. To look around and take stock of our lives, five years later. Someone had to do it, and so that's what I did. For you, for me. For us."
The delivery may have left something to be desired, but the audience was able to find something worthwhile in the message. They began to applaud once more, but their approval was brought to an abrupt end by the deafening sound of all the doors in the convention room slamming shut.
Confusion was the first order of business, as heads began to turn toward the two sets of fire exit doors on either side of the stage, and the two sets that led toward the lobby. Nervous murmuring filled the air, soon punctuated by screams as the audience caught their first glimpse of the new arrivals.
Before each of the four doors now towered a demon – huge, hulking masses of rough stone granite. Their faces were frozen in terrifying snarls of rage and hatred. It was as though someone had animated the gargoyles that sat perched on the gates of Hell and injected them with a few liters of steroids. Panic began to rise in the crowds as they scanned in vain for any sort of escape route and found none. Still the gargoyles didn't move, content for the moment to simply guard.
On stage, Slone smiled.
"But mostly for me."
A few more gargoyle demons had joined their brethren, and there were now six of the towering monsters, all moving slowly to herd the Sunnydale High graduates toward the front of the stage. The room reeked of fear and was in utter chaos with horror, panic and anger bubbling together. Occasionally rising above it all was the bitter complaining of someone waxing at length about their utter loathing for California.
The Scoobies hadn't yet fled their table, and were quite calm, comparatively speaking.
Oz raised a dubious eyebrow at the stony monsters. "I'm pretty sure these guys weren't in our class."
"We have to do something!" Cordelia insisted as the crowds were shoved closer and closer together.
Tara regarded the close-knit throngs with concern. "Someone could get hurt, all these people ..."
"There's gonna be considerably less people if we donít do somethin'," Xander hurriedly noted. "These guys look big and hungry, and I doubt the Vienna sausages are gonna cut it."
Angel said nothing. He turned to the stage and almost instantly caught Buffy's eye. They nodded to one another – no words exchanged, but a message being communicated nevertheless.
"Tara, you're a witch right?" confirmed the vampire, warily keeping watch on the approaching demons. "Can you cast some sort of protection spell over these people?"
"Yes," she replied without hesitation, "but I'll need them to stay together. I can't cover them all if they're spread out like this."
It was all Angel needed to know. "Cordelia, you help Tara. The rest of us—"
"Full frontal assault on Hulky the Rock Creature?" guessed Xander. "Sounds fun."
"Consider it a critique on neo-gothic architecture," Oz suggested.
"Actually, I was gonna consider it me running into the side of a mountain with my head."
Oz shrugged. "Whatever works."
A plan in place, Angel glanced to Buffy again. They both tensed, preparing. Then Buffy nodded and Angel gave the command.
The Scoobies exploded into action. In one smooth motion, Xander was out of his seat and had scooped up the vacant folding chair next to him. He spun around like a discus thrower in the Olympics and let the metal projectile fly toward the head of one of the demons. His aim was true and it should have connected solidly, but the monster moved far faster than anything with that bulk had a right to move. Its gigantic stony fist shot up and snatched the chair easily, then crushed it between both palms like a soda can.
Xander blinked, impressed despite himself. "Suddenly, I'm thinking of a hundred uses for one of these things." He only barely had time to dive out of the way as the now crumpled chair was returned to him at Major League Pitcher speed. "Okay, a hundred and one," he amended as he scrambled back to his feet.
Close by, Oz was the picture of concentration, despite the frenzy of activity around him. He simply stood, brow furrowed, and when nothing seemed to be happening his usually stoic features were awash with surprise.
He looked almost as surprised as Tara. She had moved further into the room, toward the nearest huddled mass of people, and her arms were extended before her in a casting position.
Cordelia stood at Tara's shoulder, urging the frightened crowds together, despite seeing no results from the witchcraft. "Protective and invisible," she said to Tara. "I'm impressed."
Tara could only frown, her arms still raised. "Don't be. I'm not doing anything."
"I'm not casting. I can't." She turned worried eyes to Cordelia. "My powers are gone."
Angel had taken the direct route, choosing to engage in hand-to-hand with the rock demons. "I'm sure there's a pun in here somewhere," he quipped, cocking his am back and clenching his fist, "but mostly I'm just thinking—"
He let loose with the punch, putting behind it every ounce of his massive vampire strength. It landed in the direct center of the gargoyle's chest, resulting in a satisfying crunch. From Angel's hand.
"Ow!" he exclaimed, then paused, forgetting his pain momentarily. "Ow?" he repeated, as though the sound couldn't possibly have come from him.
He looked up, just in time to see a rocky fist hurtling straight toward him.
Meanwhile, on the stage, Buffy stalked toward Slone. Contrary to what would ordinarily be the norm, he didn't look at all intimidated. The cocky smirk he wore, in fact, quite seemed to deny the possibility of becoming intimidated any time soon. Buffy didn't let it throw her off her game, however.
"The monsters were a nice touch," she complimented, edging forward. "Gives it that extra oomph of Sunnydale realism."
Slone seemed genuinely pleased by her positive critique. "Thanks. I try."
"I think you forgot one thing, though," pointed out the Slayer, coming to a halt just a foot away.
In a blur of speed, Buffy had grabbed two fistfuls of Slone's shirt.
"I don't much like monsters."
With that, Buffy shifted her center of gravity, making as though to throw Slone to the ground. He wasn't a particularly large man, but regardless, he hardly moved. Puzzled, Buffy tried again with similar results.
Slone was terribly amused. "I know one thing I didn't forget ..." he began, then brought his knee up hard into Buffy's stomach, doubling her over. Taking full advantage of her prone position, he backhanded her, sending Buffy sprawling to the stage floor. "That you're the Slayer," he finished with a sneer.
"Okay, that's it, buddy!"
Willow had seen more than enough. She leapt out of the line, standing between Slone and her friend, her palm thrust toward her opponent. "Now you're gonna—"
Nothing happened. Willow frowned and pulled her hand back to regard it quizzically. She shook her wrist, as though something might've gotten loose and then tried again. Still nothing.
"Oh." She blinked. "That's new."
On the floor, Buffy groaned and began to try to get to her feet. Willow rushed to help, reaching down and supporting the Slayer's elbow.
"What's going on?" she whispered to Buffy. "Magick go poof, a-and not in a good magickal poofy way."
"No powers for you either, huh?" Buffy got to her feet with a disgruntled sigh. "Man, I really hate it when this happens."
There was a loud crash as Angel landed in a crumpled heap not far from the stage.
"Me too," he moaned.
Watching as Angel slowly hauled himself upright, Slone let out a hearty laugh of complete enjoyment. "This is going to be fantastic. Finally, after all this time, I'm going to—"
He whirled around to see Buffy getting ready to attack again and waggled his finger at her admonishingly. "Ah-ah, Miss Summers," he chastised. "I wouldn't do that. Not unless you want my boys here to rip apart each and every person in this room. I really don't want to do that, but if you force me ..."
It was with reluctance, but Buffy backed down and scanned the crowd. The people had been corralled in front of the stage – not packed like sardines, but forced into quarters that were likely closer than they would really have preferred with individuals they hadn't seen in five years. The gargoyle monsters had retreated again, content for the moment to simply stand nearby and ensure nobody even thought about trying to move. The Scoobies had all worked their way to the front of the stage, as close as they could get to Buffy, Willow, and Slone.
"Okay," the Slayer began curiously, "so you donít want us dead, what do you want?"
"I'm so glad you asked. But before we get to the exposition, back in line." Willow and Buffy began to move away when Slone instructed, "And not together. Miss Rosenberg, over here." He directed her to the end of the line closest to him, ignoring Willow's furious little glare. He pointed to the opposite end, farthest away. "Miss Summers, over there."
When both women had returned to their appointed places, Slone clapped his hands together and rubbed them briskly as he turned to the crowd. "First, a poll. A quick show of hands – who here remembers me?" He smiled at the assemblage. "Be honest now. Richard Slontowski."
He waited a moment. People looked to their neighbors with blank expressions, but met only shrugs or shaking heads.
"Anybody?" he asked, but still nobody responded. "Let's see, I had Parkinson for homeroom Senior year? Was in the Math club? Played French horn in the band?"
It didnít help. Nobody seemed to be able to place him.
Slone's face began to flush, and he stomped across the stage. "Four years. Four years I was with you people." He glared at the crowd contemptuously. "Eight hours a day, five days a week. Day after day, year after year ..." His rant was beginning to gain serious momentum, as was his pacing. "And not one of you remembers me? No one ever remembers me!"
"Hey," an uncertain voice called out, "were you, like, on the yearbook staff or something? Cuz I think I remember you on the yearbook—"
"I wasn't on yearbook!" he raged. The brave audience member tried to make himself look very, very small. Slone took a deep breath, held it for a moment and then let it out slowly. When he spoke again, he was much calmer. "I remember most of you, though. Especially you." Slowly, he turned toward the line of people behind him, a chilling smile on his lips. "The 'Class Favorites'. The best of the school, weren't you? Everyone knowing you, everyone voting for you ... You'll never be forgotten, none of you. Your name lives forever."
Xander was beginning to catch on. "So this is some crazy 'you ignored me thing'?" he guessed in a hushed tone to the other Scoobies. "He couldn't have just turned invisible like normal people?"
"Something tells me this guy's pretty much never been classified as 'normal people'," Oz responded skeptically.
"You all take it for granted," Slone continued, pacing slowly before the Favorites and glaring at them each in turn. "I can see it. The popularity, the fame ..."
"Fame?" Willow couldn't help but question. "We had fame?"
Since brute forced was out for the moment, Buffy seemed prepared to try reason. "Richa—"
"Slone!" he shouted, but quickly regained control of himself. "It's a nickname. I thought it up myself. It's cooler, don't you think? More memorable?" He seemed to genuinely want her opinion.
"Sure, whatever. Look, the class favorites thing? Okay, so you didn't win. I'm sorry." Buffy spread out her arm to encompass the entire room. "We're all sorry we never got to know you. But it was five years ago! Nobody. Cares. I mean, how petty do you have to be to still be hung up on a dumb contest?"
Unnoticed, Xander and Cordelia huffed.
"There's plenty of stuff just waiting to suck around the corner," Buffy encouraged, "so why waste time with ancient history? Now just call off the walking gravel piles, and let's get back to the lameness that is this reunion."
A smile began to spread across Slone's face. "No. No, I don't think so. I think we're going to have another election."
Buffy couldn't help it, her eyes rolled of their own volition. "Oh for— Look, if you want to be Class Protector, fine! You're Class Protector."
On the dance floor, Tara's gaze swept across the gargoyle monsters that surrounded them, ready to rend anyone and everyone limb from bloody limb at the slightest command. "'Class Protector'?" she repeated dubiously.
"Maybe we can make up a new category for him," Oz theorized. "I'm thinking 'Most Ironic'."
Slone shook his head earnestly. "Oh no. You can't just give it to me," he replied in complete seriousness. "It wouldn't be real that way."
"Definitely 'Most Ironic'," agreed Xander with a firm nod.
"Or 'Most in Need of a Tiny Room with No Windows'," Cordelia hissed to the others. "Is he serious?"
Angel's expression was grim. "Deadly."
"It has to be a vote," Slone decided, and raised his voice so that everybody could hear. "The class is all going to vote. For whoever you want, of course – me, or the old winner. No pressure," he assured. "I want it to be honest."
Buffy narrowed her eyes and glared at the back of Slone's head. "Why do I not believe you?" she muttered to herself.
"And after the new elections, we can just get back to having fun! Well, except the old favorites, of course," he added as an afterthought. "We can't have two running around after I win, can we?"
Reaching into his jacket pocket, Slone pulled out a gun to a smattering of screams from the crowd. With an ominous click, he pulled back the hammer and pointed the gun at the temple of the Favorite closest to him – Willow.
"Oh that's right," Buffy growled, still talking to herself. "Because you're freaking insane."
Some time later, Slone had moved to the front of the stage, his arm wrapped tightly around Willow's waist, pinning her closer. The gun barrel rested against the side of her head, and she didnít look particularly happy about it. Person after person would, as Slone glared at them, call out "Richard Slontowski". Slone had started from the back and worked his way forward, and he was almost out of voters.
Still in her place at the far end of the line, Buffy was a bundle of anxious, pissed-off energy. She looked around, trying to find something – anything – to help, when she spied Harmony standing off to the side, watching the events unfold with interest.
"Harmony!" Buffy hissed, attracting the vampire's attention.
Afraid she'd miss some critical moment, Harmony refused to take her eyes from Slone, but she joined Buffy in the line. "Wow, it looks like Willow's gonna lose by a landslide," she observed. "Do you think he'll really shoot her?"
"I really think I don't want to find out," Buffy countered. "Your vamp powers, do you still have them?"
Harmony huffed mightily. "No, and it's extremely annoying. I mean look at this place – all that yummy fear?" Her aggravation was so great, she actually glanced away from the action, just to fully convey it. "Do you have any idea how much better blood tastes when there's really good fear in it?"
"First – no. Second – you're disgusting. Third – how did he do all this?"
"I think he called around and found a convention hall that was cheap," Harmony replied, happy to share information, "and then he just had to get the old class records for names and—"
The Slayer's fairly limited patience had completely evaporated under the strain of the evening. "Taking away our powers!" she clarified through gritted teeth. The pull to carry out her sacred duty on the nearest available vampire was strong, and would likely have been fulfilled within seconds if moving wouldn't have come with the added bonus gift of getting Willow's head blown off.
"Oh!" Harmony clearly had no idea how close she was to becoming just another bit of after-party detritus. "I don't know. If he had a big plan, he didn't tell me about it. Which is sort of insulting, you know? I mean, I'm evil – he's evil. Like I wouldn't have helped or something?"
On the dance floor, the Scoobies had put their heads together – metaphorically – and were speaking in intense but hushed voices.
"We have to do something!" Tara urged.
Oz nodded his wholehearted support to Tara. "I emphatically agree."
"I know," acknowledged Angel. "We just have to find a way to get up on stage without anybody getting shot."
Peering over her shoulder at the gargoyles, Cordelia added, "Or ripped into tiny pieces by Stonehenge."
Xander spared a moment to glare balefully at the stage, where Slone and his hostage were clearly visible. "You know, I wish I did remember this guy, just so I could savor any memories that might've involved him, me, and a well-placed dodgeball."
"Joke later!" snapped Tara, the gravity of the situation having completely drained her usual forbearance. "Right now we have to help—"
The Sunnydale High graduate next to Tara chose that moment to nudge her rather roughly. Surprised, Tara's head jerked up, but her mouth hadn't yet received the "shut up" command, thus she was still talking.
As soon as the name was spoken, an almost preternatural silence enveloped the room. On stage, Slone looked genuinely shocked. Tara seemed a little shocked herself at everyone's reaction, and she glanced around, baffled.
Slone couldn't believe it. "You voted for Willow Rosenberg?" he asked, completely incredulous.
"What?" asked Tara. Then, like being smashed in the forehead with a brick, understanding struck and her eyes widened. "Oh! Oh, well ... Just ... Willow's such a Big Brain and everything. I-I'm sure you're super smart too," she added hastily, not wanting to offend the crazy man with the sidearm, "but she's my girl, and—" Tara sighed, giving up. "You know? I never even went to Sunnydale High. So- So maybe my vote just shouldn't count?"
The suggestion seemed quite reasonable to Tara, and she smiled her most charming smile. Or what was supposed to be her most charming smile – the effect was somewhat muted and weak. She glanced around, only to see that everyone who wasn't a Scooby had given her a wide berth, creating a vacuum that was currently being filled by the new stream of nervous chatter from the onlookers.
Visibly drooping, Slone regarded Tara with a wounded expression. "No, no. That's okay. I did say you could vote for whoever you want."
Anxious murmuring became surprised, and the crowd nodded to one another with approval.
"Of course, I was lying."
Faster than anyone could have expected, the arm Slone had wrapped around Willow's waist instead lashed around her neck and jerked her to the side; she was still trapped, but not obstructing his line of sight. With murderous intent, Slone leveled the gun at Tara.
"NO!" Willow screamed, her hands scrabbling ineffectually at the arm around her throat.
Slone ignored the bloody gashes Willow was ripping into his arm. His aim was steady and there was no hesitation.
He pulled the trigger.
The firing of the gun was deafening, drowning out the sounds of the crowd's terror. Willow's struggles intensified, verging on blind desperation. Buffy was already in motion, running at Slone, prepared to do whatever it took to stop him, although she knew she was already far too late.
And Tara, after a tense moment, tentatively opened one of her eyes to see the bullet hovering in midair, just a fraction of an inch from her chest.
Lacking an expected corpse, the Sunnydale High graduates quickly transitioned from fear to bewilderment. It was the dominating emotion in the room – even Willow stopped just short of gnawing off Slone's arm as, from the shadows, emerged Jane the punch bowl girl.
"Hey," Jane greeted everyone casually.
She waved her hand nonchalantly, and the frozen bullet dropped to the floor with a metallic tink. It was easily audible, given that even breathing had become an activity requiring an intense mental focus that nobody seemed to possess at the moment.
Slone in particular was having difficulty in making sense of these new developments. "Jane?" he asked, dumbfounded. "But ... Why? I thought you ..."
"Bent on revenge, teamed up with you, gonna get 'em all, I know." She stepped past the Scoobies without a glance, coming to a halt before the confused man and staring up at him. "But see, here's the thing, Rich ..."
"Slone," he corrected automatically, if absently.
She didn't bother to acknowledge her error. "You're a loser. I like winners. And since I'll be lifting that dampening spell oh right about now—"
Jane snapped her fingers, and a flash of light enveloped the room.
"—I think it's pretty clear who the winners are gonna be."
Immediately, an unseen force propelled Slone backward as the sounds of Scoobies Versus The Gargoyles: Round Two filled the convention hall. Slone managed to stay on his feet, although just barely, and his gaze locked onto Willow.
The redhead's face was contorted in a vicious snarl of hatred, and her eyes were deep, soulless black. Energy crackled visibly all around, dancing on her skin like it was alive. Slone took another stumbling step away, then seemed to remember his weapon. He brought the gun around, holding it before him in a trembling grip. Before he could even think to use it however, Willow glared at the sidearm. It began to melt, turning into a sort of mercurial liquid in his hand and splattered to the stage floor, useless. Slone peered at his now-empty hand in shock, and before he had time to blink, Willow was there.
The witch seemed to tower over him despite being almost a foot shorter, and Slone nearly fainted in terror. Willow's voice seemed to echo unnaturally, her words being pulled from the very depths of the earth.
"I. Don't. Like. Guns."
Slone barely had time to process what Willow said before her fist lashed out and connected squarely with his jaw. He spun around a full 180 degrees and fell heavily to the floor, unconscious.
Willow continued to glare at the prone body, the darkness in her eyes giving way to their usual green, although her abhorrence for Slone never lessened. She wallowed in the satisfaction of knocking him out for a good long moment before looking at her fist.
"Ahhh-hh-hh..." she winced painfully, shaking her hand in the air.
Nearby, the decapitated head of a rock demon landed on the stage and promptly fell through the wooden platform. Eyebrows raised, Willow turned to the dance floor. "Need help?"
Evidence of a brief but furious battle was littered across the reception hall. Angel threw a final punch, jarring a few pebbles loose as the last gargoyle creature teetered and crashed in a heap of rubble. The reunion-goers had all gathered like sheep against the farthest wall – they weren't having a particularly good day. A gray, hairy creature took a parting snap at the ankle of a felled gargoyle before transforming back into a now quite naked Oz. Luckily Xander was approaching with a tablecloth, so Oz's modesty didn't have long to suffer.
At the center of it all, standing atop a mountain of cleaved gargoyle-parts, was Buffy. She looked vindicated as she smiled at Willow. "Nah, we're good," she assured, then began to mutter to herself. "Try to take away my title, you big jerk ... " Louder, she called out, "Hey Will, wanna kick him for me?" The muffled sound of a foot connecting with cheap polyester came from the direction of the stage. "Thanks!"
The Scoobies gathered together in a relatively clear patch of floor, taking in the disheveled state of the room.
"Do you think there's a clean-up committee?" Xander wondered aloud as he nudged a rocky forearm with his toe and watched it roll across the ground.
"You want to sign up?" asked Cordelia.
Xander shook his head. "Mostly I want to laugh and point."
Surprisingly at ease in his tablecloth toga, Oz glanced around at the carnage. "Did I miss any vital exposition while I was out?"
"We haven't gotten that far yet," Buffy replied, and she marched purposefully to Jane, who had been standing safely to one side and watching with amusement. The Slayer crossed her arms and favored Jane with her best no-nonsense stare. "Okay, what's the deal?"
"Weren't you listening to him?" Jane indicated the still blissfully unconscious Slone with something resembling contempt. "Really, do we have to go through all this again?"
Angel turned on the full power of his impressive scowl. "How about the abridged alternate version with you as the lead? Emphasis on 'abridged'."
Jane sighed deeply before answering, sounding put out by all the incessant questions. "Rich and I started talking. I agreed to help. I enchanted the punch, you drank it, no powers, the end."
Standing guard over the prone body of Slone, Tara had joined Willow on stage. The redhead was still giving her a thorough surface scan for any injury, heedless of Tara's assurances that she was fine.
"But why?" Tara questioned Jane, having kept a careful ear on the proceedings.
Willow stepped in front of Tara, keeping the blonde's hand clenched tightly in her own. Her eyebrows were furrowed together in deep thought. "Yeah, you didn't seem to care about the ..." Her voice trailed off as realization set in, and eyes began to widen.
"No," Jane agreed, "my interests are a little more ... specific."
"Amy." The single name was stated flatly, but managed to convey the depth of Willow's ire all the same.
"Finally," huffed 'Jane'.
Cordelia peered at the unassuming blonde girl. "Amy? Rat Girl Amy?"
Magicks began to swirl around 'Jane', and in a shower of bright sparkles, Amy appeared in her place. She stepped toward the stage, a confident smirk etched onto her features.
"I think we can safely drop the 'rat' motif," observed Oz dryly.
"Oh no, it still applies, trust me," Xander growled. If looks could kill, Amy would have been little more than a twitching corpse.
The animosity didn't seem to bother her. "I was beginning to agree with Rich on the whole 'Most Intelligent' thing," she told Willow. Her head cocked to one side, amused. "For someone so smart, you can be really dumb, you know that?"
Willow's eyes never left Amy; she barely took the fraction of a second necessary to blink. "What do you want?" she asked dangerously.
"Oh, nothing now. I already got it," Amy dismissed airily, then her tone dropped into a warning. "Don't try it, heroes." Behind the witch, Buffy and Angel froze in their slow approach. "Not unless you want encore for the rock concert. And I promise they'll be a little harder this time around. No pun intended."
"Got it?" repeated Willow, confused. "Got what?"
"Your debt to me, of course." Amy's smile was smug and infuriating. "I was thinking at first I'd just save you. Well, actually," she amended, "at first I thought I'd let him kill you, but lucky for all of us, I got a better idea." Her eyes flicked to Tara, who was doing her best to step around the overprotective Willow with only limited success. Head tilting to the side, Amy considered Tara with interest. "I was surprised to see you again, with the walking and talking and not being dead."
"Yeah, I get that a lot," Tara admitted.
"Cute. But you know it's not natural, right?" It was clear that Amy already knew the answer, and the question was completely rhetorical as far as she was concerned. "I mean, you shouldn't be here. Pretty much an affront to nature, you know that."
Tara looked as though she might say something to refute the charge, but she only frowned.
"Correct me if I'm wrong," Angel mused, "but didn't I say 'abridged' version?"
Amy didn't bother to turn to the vampire, content to simply wave off his pointed comment. "So there I am, watching the show when Rich gets the itch and pulls the trigger." She looked to Tara again, her expression conveying her humor. "I actually find the thought of you getting resurrected just to be shot all over again to be really pretty funny on a cosmic joke scale, but I'm thinking not everyone would agree."
A quick glance to Willow, face red and twisted with anger, confirmed Amy's suspicions and she smiled knowingly. "In that moment – the one where you knew it was too late and you couldn't do anything but watch her die all over again – you begged, didn't you? In your heart, you begged for someone to do something to stop it."
Amy paused, and any playfulness evaporated. Her eyes locked onto Willow, gravely serious. "You prayed ... and I answered. Before Lilith, I have fulfilled my task and done that which was supplicated. Until such time as the scales between us can again achieve balance, Willow Rosenberg, you are in my debt."
For several heartbeats, nobody said anything.
"So this was just a big set up to get a favor out of Willow?" Cordelia summed up in utter disbelief. "God, obsess much?"
Amy brushed the implication aside. "It used to be cheese. Now it's her. Well," she corrected, "power and her ..." Her amusement had returned full force, and she grinned at Willow. "But they're almost synonyms, aren't they?"
Willow could only shake her head, unsure of what to say. "Amy ..."
"In my debt, Will," she promised. To the rest of the room, Amy invited, "Enjoy the reunion! You probably shouldn't have any more punch, though."
Then there was a swirling rush of magicks around Amy, starting at her feet and quickly enveloping her. When they dissipated seconds later, Amy had vanished without a trace.
For a long while, it seemed nobody dared to speak. Until Harmony's voice piped through the speaker system.
"Anybody got a broom?"
At first glance, the casual onlooker might never notice that the in-progress reunion had, just a short while before, been overrun by bullets and giant stone monsters. Having grown up in Sunnydale, the attendees each possessed, for the most part, an uncanny ability to roll with the punches and ignore the more unpleasant and unexplained bumps in the road of life. Most had reclaimed possession of the now-clean dance floor, and were thoroughly enjoying the return of the DJ and his music.
Shirley and her husband sat off to the side of the room. He wasn't looking particularly well, having paled to the color of a bleached bed sheet and doing little but staring straight ahead. Next to him, Shirley patting his hand understandingly.
The rocky remains of the creatures had been shoved against a wall and arranged to be part of the dťcor, rather than simply consigning them to piles of unsightly rubble. Little crypts and tombstones completed the faux graveyard setting, and someone had even gone so far as to tack a banner on the wall nearby reading, "Sunnydale Cemetery #183 – it's just like home!" Tara and Oz were admiring the diorama.
"Artsy," Oz remarked.
Tara ran her hand appreciatively over one of the markers. "It's impressive what you can do with a bunch of smashed gargoyles."
"I always throw mine out."
The two of them lapsed into a silence that wasn't entirely comfortable. Oz seemed content to stare at the frozen features of a disembodied head perched atop a tomb-facsimile, while Tara's eyes refused to remain still and she looked absolutely everywhere but at the man next to her.
"I wanted to apologize," he finally stated. "For trying to eat you that time."
"Oh. Th-That's okay." Tara shifted her weight from one foot to the other and shook her head. "I didn't take it personally."
The corner of Oz's mouth twitched upward. "It sorta was."
"I know," Tara replied. "I was just being polite."
"Manners are good. Seriously though, I'm glad I didn't. For more than the obvious cannibal repercussions."
"I'm pretty glad you didn't too," she deadpanned.
Seeming buoyed by their conversation thus far, Oz continued. "It was a long time ago. I just wanted you to know, I don't feel like that anymore. And I was sort of hoping we were, you know ... cool. The eating thing aside," he acknowledged.
Tara's smile was genuine. "We're totally cool."
It was just the answer Oz was hoping for, and he looked as pleased as his naturally stoic demeanor would allow. "Cool."
The hush that now settled between them was far more relaxed.
"Though," Tara broached with a tiny bit of reluctance, "when you were, you know ... changed a little bit ago? All that snarling at me and stuff...?"
"Well the wolf still has his issues," Oz explained. "He's wacky like that."
"Those ... wacky wolves!" she laughed nervously. To herself she muttered, "I'm never getting a dog."
Buffy and Willow were dancing together nearby, enjoying the music as best friends so often tended to do. The bad guy had been defeated, nobody had died, and they were happy to let all the stresses of the evening be washed away by an energetic beat. So it was with some surprise that Willow happened to catch the eye of a man and a woman sharing the dance floor. The couple was staring openly at her and Buffy. They spoke no words, but their expression seemed to say everything.
Curiously, Willow's gaze swept across the room, only to land on a man watching them from one of the many tables. He too said nothing, apparently content to leer quietly.
Willow's curiosity was slowly losing ground to the encroaching forces of suspicion as she caught sight of another guy watching her and Buffy intently. He looked as though he were Fox Mulder and had just received incontrovertible proof that, yes, the truth is in fact out there, and he was watching it dance before him to Third Eye Blind. Feeling paranoia creep up her spine and build a summer home there, Willow leaned over so she could be properly heard.
Totally into the music, Buffy's hair was whipping back and forth wildly and it seemed as though her every fiber was attuned to dancing. Still, she was the Slayer, so multitasking was a talent she'd learned to cultivate. "Yeah?"
There was no easy way to put the question into words. "Have you ever...? I mean, you know, way back when, did you maybe hear...?"
Buffy cracked open an eye and grinned affectionately at Willow's false starts. "Completing a sentence would help me out so much right now," she teased.
Willow took a deep breath. "I think there may have been this- this teensy little rumor sort of all over the entire school ..."
Well out of earshot of Willow's nervous babble were Angel and Xander. They two men stood side-by-side, leaning against the wall and facing the makeshift graveyard. As they spoke to one another their eyes remained straight ahead, neither favoring the other with so much as a glance.
"So. Head of EvilCo, huh?"
"It's not really evil," Angel defended automatically. Then with a resigned sigh he corrected, "Okay, it is really evil. But we do a lot of good. Through the evil."
Xander didn't even try to repress his snort. "Can I just say, so not surprised?"
"I knew you'd judge," responded Angel defensively.
"Who's judging?" Xander asked with pseudo-innocence.
"WHAT?!?" Buffy bellowed, half a room away.
Both men completely ignored her.
Turning to address Xander directly, Angel insisted, "You are. You're standing there saying, 'Angel's bad'."
"I'm also saying 'Angel's a big sissy whiner'," Xander shot back. "That's not judging, that's concluding."
"Well I'm concluding that you're judgmental," the vampire huffed, facing straight ahead once more. "And directionless, and annoying."
"That's fair," shrugged Xander after a moment.
They both stewed petulantly.
"You've got cars, though?" Xander suddenly inquired with no trace of peevishness.
Despite not breathing, Angel puffed up with pride. "Whole garage full of them. Lot of classics in there. I actually have Elvis' pink Cadillac. The real thing," he assured, "not a replica like at Graceland."
"It's evil though," Xander stated definitively.
"Well the car's okay," noted Angel. "The garage – that's pretty evil, yeah."
That seemed to be the end of the conversation. Until Xander could resist no longer.
"Can I come see it?"
"Around noon tomorrow work for you?"
An exasperated Cordelia joined the two men. "I found Harmony. She said she's heading to New York. She enjoyed doing this so much, she wants to open a nightclub or something."
Narrowing his eye, Xander wondered, "And we never stake her why now?"
"I don't know," answered Cordelia, as though she'd never given the query much thought until now. "She just ... It's weird. It's like, she's my friend – although I never actually liked her all that much – and when I see her, that's what I remember. The friend part, not the not liking part," she clarified.
"What're we talking about?" Oz questioned, as he and Tara joined the trio.
"Not staking vampires when we probably really should," explained Xander.
Angel frowned. "Don't look at me when you say that."
"Harmony, specifically," Cordy elaborated.
Tara chewed her lip in thought. "If you're worried about her, maybe we can do the ensouling spell?"
"Honestly?" Cordelia shook her head dubiously. "I doubt we'd notice a difference."
Forming a complete set of present Scoobies, Willow and Buffy joined the gathering.
"Iím sure it wasn't—" the former was trying unsuccessfully to soothe.
"Did anybody see Scott Hope here?" demanded Buffy, her face like very scary thunder. "Because I suddenly have this burning desire to reunion his nose with my fist."
Willow clapped her hands together and looked at her friends anxiously. "Okay! Thinking we should leave now!"
"You guys about done here then?" Tara asked the others.
Buffy's gaze swept the room, taking in everything – the decorations, the old classmates, the ancient memories. "Yeah," she replied confidently. "Yeah, I really think we are."
In unspoken agreement, the group turned away from the remnants of the reunion and made their way toward the exit.
"We could get dinner," suggested Angel. "I know this little Italian place not far from here. Good food, good blood."
"All the endorsement any restaurant should need," Xander added.
"I'm in," Cordelia hastily agreed. "Maroon and yellow are colors that should be kept apart by necessity, and that includes on my food."
Willow looked to both her right and left, making sure to include everyone. "But we had fun, right? I mean, apart from the awkward conversations, the public humiliation and the near-death hijinks."
"Just like high school!" pumped Xander with amplified enthusiasm.
Typically, Oz had the perfect words to sum up the evening. "It was definitely an experience."
"It really was," Buffy concurred wholeheartedly. "And at the end of it all, you know what I learned?"
The Scoobies waited expectantly while Buffy looked to each of them in turn.
"High school blows."
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