Teaser

The walls of the corridor were damp with lingering moisture. Dark green moss had buried itself deep within the crevices of the gray stone and the draught that penetrated the tiny fissures of the ancient brickwork served only to enhance the musty odor of centuries. Gossamer webs, long deserted by their arachnid creators, drifted lazily back and forth from the domed ceiling. The apparently deserted castle exuded an air of danger and death, but also promised wealth and fame to any who might be blessed with the courage to conquer its foreboding presence.

From an archway shrouded in shadows, a female figure emerged, tall and thin. Every executed movement was a lesson in agility and grace. Her woolen cloak swept the grime-encrusted flagstones and the soft soles of her well worn, brown leather boots made no sound as she carefully navigated the narrow passage. Beneath the hood, her eyes were alert and searching. She carried no torch, the weak sun filtering through the arrow slits set high in the wall providing sufficient light for her to determine whether any traps lay in her path. Her step was cautious but confident, her ears and senses finely-tuned in preparation for the unexpected. Arriving at a heavy oak door, the figure checked the hall once more for possible peril. She nodded sharply to herself, assured that none threatened, and knelt to examine the ornate handle.

As she cocked her head from side to side, assessing the durability of the lock from every angle, the cowl slipped from her hair and her features could be seen plainly in the sunlight. The stealthy figure was Dawn. Eyes narrowing with concentration, she reached into the belt around her waist and retrieved a slender pick. Employing expert and exact precision, she inserted the hook into the keyhole. Nibbling at her bottom lip, she gently jiggled the instrument until she heard a muted click. Her head promptly swiveled toward the direction from which she had recently come and, with a grin of smug excitement, gave the thumbs-up signal.

Almost immediately, another female figure issued from the gloom. Decked in armor, this petite new arrival exhibited nowhere near the elegant gait of her partner as she clanged and clanked her way along the corridor – try as she might, there was no avoiding the strident clash of metal against stone. Her gleaming gold breastplate bore the image of a bleeding heart and she hefted a gigantic sword that, despite the fact it was at least a foot taller than herself, was wielded with astonishing ease. She paused upon entering a shaft of light and gazed upward for a moment. The pale rays glistened upon the blonde hair and illuminated her face, revealing the golden paladin to be Buffy.

"Good job, Sunrise," she told her kneeling companion in a hushed voice.

The lockpicker beamed and puffed out her chest. "Just like stealing candy from a grandma. Anyway, we'll wanna be careful going through there." She inclined her chin toward the door. "It's thick, but I'm pretty sure I heard something."

Instantaneously, the paladin's posture became that of a hunting dog on point. Her nose twitched as she sniffed at the air.

"Evil?" she inquired, barely able to contain the bubbling excitement.

Apparently, Sunrise wasn't precisely sure. "Well I don't—"

The blonde's assurance was delivered in a definite and much louder tone, the element of surprise being cast aside in the face of her mounting enthusiasm. "I'm certain it's evil!" She hoisted the sword into the air. "And where there is evil, so must there be Bufficus Pureblade!"

Sunrise scrabbled to her feet and laid a calming hand on the paladin's arm. Her expression betrayed anxiety. "Sure, but—"

Bufficus refused to be restrained, fervor rapidly becoming the better part of valor. "Minions of darkness, beware!" She all but shouted. "Fear the wrath of Bufficus Pureblade! With my trusty sword (which is also called Pureblade) I will strike you down in a great spurting gush of blood and ichor! I will grind your bones to make my bread! Your evil is clear and evident, and in desperate need of smiting! I will—"

A glowing necklace suddenly materialized around the throat of Bufficus, effectively cutting short her tirade. The mouth continued to move, even though no words spewed forth. Nonetheless, this had little effect on Bufficus, who continued the righteous denunciation, ostensibly unaware that her vocal chords were no longer in working order.

Over the shoulder of the still gesticulating but now struck dumb Bufficus, Sunrise noted the approach of two more female figures. Both wore long and flowing robes with fluted sleeves – the apparel of mages. The blonde was garbed in white, her expression so serene that she almost appeared to be under the influence of narcotics. She gave the illusion of floating as she glided forward, exuding a certain radiance of softness and tranquility. She favored no form of adornment, although from certain angles, a shimmering nimbus did seem to encircle her head. By contrast, the redhead wore ruby satin and was virtually crackling with underlying energy. As she moved, jagged shards of black lightning sparked from the toes of her tapping shoes and from the tips of her painted nails. Similar flashes simmered within her eyes. Unlike her companion, this female had chosen to bedeck herself with every manner of jewelry. Rings set with dazzling stones embellished her fingers, and beaded strands in every imaginable color were suspended around her neck. However, the most prominent decoration was a magnificent talisman. Cast in silver, it was the fruit of the Winesap, with a single bite missing. A lone leaf formed the loop through which the slender chain passed, and the amulet twinkled with incandescent power.

Sunrise quirked a knowing eyebrow as she addressed the redhead. "Your handiwork, Willowbane?"

Willowbane blew on her fingertips and then flexed them. "Just a little silence spell. It'll wear off in three hours or so."

Marching back and forth in front of the door, Bufficus continued her diatribe while waving the sword menacingly.

Willowbane smirked. "You like?"

"I donít hate," confessed Sunrise. "You sure it's a good idea though?"

Willowbane wrinkled her nose. "It can't be a worse idea than her running around, all but screaming to every blood-sucking fiend in this place, 'Hey, here we are! Come kill us now, please!' Besides," she paused and turned to look at her companion, "The White Lady and I were ... discussing spells."

The White Lady smiled. It was an all-knowing curve of the lips – one that hinted at much but revealed very little. "It's a delicate process," she admitted quietly.

Sunrise snorted. "I bet."

The exchange was interrupted by Bufficus. Finally realizing that her voice had been stilled and harboring a strong suspicion as to the likely origin of such demise, she stomped her way toward the trio of conversationalists. Although unable to speak, her ability to glare had not been impaired and she now called upon her glowering repertoire with an abundance of gusto.

Willowbane smiled with superior amusement at Bufficus' gestures of disgust. Accepting the inevitable – and being unable to vocalize her disapproval – Bufficus jerked her head toward the door.

The White Lady's brow furrowed as she took a step forward. "There's evil afoot," she whispered.

Bufficus looked first at Sunrise and then to Willowbane. Her expression screamed, "See?? See??" Rolling her eyes, Willowbane moved to stand alongside The White Lady.

"What'cha got, baby?"

"Lots of undead. That's good," was The White Lady's response. She concentrated deeply for a moment. "There are living creatures in there too though. Trolls, maybe?" She turned to Bufficus and smiled brightly. "They should bleed profusely."

Bufficus was very pleased.

At the entrance to the door, the mage duo began to prepare themselves. Bufficus hovered at their shoulders, openly champing at the bit to participate in a little action. Having completed her assigned task, Sunrise melted into the shadows, leaving behind no trace of her existence.

The second a confirming nod came from The White Lady, Willowbane seized the handle and threw open the door. The trio was greeted by a huge open chamber, which in its heyday had most probably been utilized as either a throne room or reception hall. As The White Lady had indicated, the area was teeming with undead – zombies, skeletons and wights. Drool dribbled from every ravenous mouth as the legion began to storm the entrance. Instantly, Willowbane's left hand joined with The White Lady's right and each threw their other arm in a wide circle. The arc they mystically fashioned erupted in a shower of holy fire – flames sheathed in the most immaculate white light. The licking tongues consumed the first few rows of monsters, which fell like stacked dominoes. However the achievement was only a drop in the bucket.

The magickal pair was forced to separate as Bufficus charged into the room, Pureheart at the ready. Mouth distended in a savage if soundless battle cry, and heedless of damage to life or limb, the golden paladin threw herself into the fray, hacking like a lunatic. At one side of the enormous chamber, The White Lady began to cast divine spells, attempting to turn the undead, while on the opposite side, Willowbane wielded the elements against her foes. From the gloom, Sunrise silently reemerged, hurling her wickedly sharp throwing daggers into the flesh-and-blood monsters with deadly accuracy.

As proficient and well-skilled in their abilities as the heroes might be, there were simply far too many opponents for victory to be assured. Wave after wave of the abominable army pressed their advantage and it soon became apparent that the end was nigh for the intrepid band of adventurers, until ...

"Stop right there, you no-good naughty things!" came the command.

It was an order that brooked no defiance. As a moth to a flame, every eye turned to the imposing figure dominating the doorway. Every exquisitely toned muscle – and there were many of them on view – rippled with barely contained power. A pair of leather straps criss-crossed his well-defined pectorals, bare, bronzed and oiled to perfection. Buttery smooth leather jerkins, so tight they left little to the imagination, clung to his rock-hard thighs and followed the curve of his calves before snaking into a pair of highly-polished boots. His hair was long and faultlessly styled a la Fabio, except that it was ebony and shone like the plumage of a raven. The eye patch he sported lent an aura of mystery to his ruggedly handsome features. Holding court from the threshold, he struck a pose that was both heroic and intimidating. The longsword he gripped in both hands was raised high above his head, pointing heavenward – a glorious extension of his masculine prowess. He flashed a smile around the room, his teeth almost glinting with a starburst of shine.

With eyes that blatantly revealed her adoration, Sunrise regarded the figure in the doorway. She paid no mind to the creature that had her in an arm lock and who, were he not frozen into immobility by the same majestic entity, would have likely wrenched the shoulder from its socket by now.

"Alexander!" she sighed, eyelids fluttering as though she might swoon at any second.

Willowbane and The White Lady were similarly smitten, despite the horrific deaths that loomed courtesy of two more equally transfixed monsters.

"Alexander!" they breathed with one voice.

In the center of the chamber, three monstrosities were holding Bufficus captive – two gripped an arm each, while the third had her throat firmly within his grasp. A fourth had taken possession of her sword and stood poised, ready to run her through. Still, as she gazed upon Alexander, her expression was one of total and utter devotion. Her lips moved to form his name, although no sound accompanied the action.

Toward the back of the room, a small collection of trolls clustered and started to discuss the arrival amongst themselves.

"It is Alexander the Great!" announced the first with great deference.

"I am simultaneously filled with mind-numbing terror and a desire to rename my firstborn after this magnificent presence," admitted another.

"I know of no way to address my newly awakened yet psychologically disturbing feelings of love and sexual attraction, save violence," added a third.

"Attack!" someone bellowed.

On cue, each and every monster in attendance, including those who were mere seconds from wreaking horrendous vengeance upon their hostages, swarmed on Alexander. He laughed a heady laugh—

"Ha ha ha!"

—and prepared himself to take on all comers. The women huddled together like a pack of enamored teenagers watching the star quarterback doing what he does best. Battle sounds reverberated around the room, accompanied by much manly grunting. Had it been possible for the eyes of the female quartet to transform into pulsating hearts, they would surely have done so.

"Wow," breathed a dreamy Sunrise.

The White Lady echoed the implied sentiment. "I'm not a fan of swords," she admitted, "but when I see Alexander?" She clasped her hands and sighed. "He makes me rethink my choice of weapons."

Willowbane was equally passionate in her approval. "It's so not the surprise that I spent my formative adolescent years pining for this fortress of studlitude."

Bufficus then offered up her praises for Alexander the Great. She continued for quite some time and was rather enthusiastic about the whole affair, judging from her expression and gestures. None of her companions turned to look at her and she was still struck mute, so it was something of a soundless tribute, but that didn't stop Bufficus from completing her testimonial. When the pronouncement was at an end, the other three nodded their head in absolute agreement.

"You can say that again," muttered Sunrise, no less dreamy than before.

As a unified look of excitement crossed the four faces, they began to applaud wildly.

Posturing in the doorway, a triumphant Alexander stood atop a pile of corpses. There was not so much as a solitary scratch marring his perfectly toned and tanned body.

"Nobody touches my girls," he declared in epic fashion.

"Wait wait wait!" came the jarring instruction.

Blinking, Xander shook his head and pushed up the sleeves of his scruffy checkered shirt. He ran his fingers through his hair, causing it to become even more unkempt, and looked across the table at Andrew, who was partially obscured by a Dungeon Master screen. Andrew's expression was one of reproach.

"Uh-uh, no way, Conan," he informed with a frown. "First of all you rolled an eight which, coupled with your longsword +1, means you only barely grazed one member of my Legion of Doom. On the other hand, they—"

There was a pause as Andrew's face disappeared behind the screen. It was followed by the rattle of rolling dice and then another pause as Andrew quickly checked his notes. Another roll of the dice clattered across the table. Checking his sheet one more time, Andrew peered over the top of the screen.

"—slaughtered you," informed the Dungeon Master with some satisfaction.

Irritation creased Xander's forehead. Pointedly, he checked the sheet at his elbow. "Well then The White Lady casts 'Raise' and—"

Immediately, Andrew's dice spilled across the tabletop.

"She's dead too," he announced.

Xander tapped an annoyed finger at yet another character sheet and in response, Andrew rolled again.

"Dead, dead and dead."

Supremely aggravated, Xander leaned his chair backward.

"Two-person D&D sucks."

"I know," commiserated Andrew, "but I couldn't get anybody else to play. Which I thought was kind of weird, because this very thing is the bread and butter for the Slayer of Vampyres ..." He shrugged off his disappointment. "Maybe when you do it all day, it loses something." He pondered the predicament, obviously trying to think up some new distraction. "Wanna play Yu-Gi-Oh?"

Xander threw his hands behind his head. "Less than I want a drill in my skull," he sighed. "What I want is—"

"Xander!"

The delicate balancing process was very nearly ruined at Giles' angry interruption, but Xander quickly recovered and righted the chair. "...not likely to be this," he finished with a wince.

Turning, he smiled sheepishly at Giles standing in the doorway to the recreation room. The Watcher appeared to be anything but pleased.

"My office. Now," he snapped. Without waiting for a response, Giles promptly spun on his heel and was soon gone from sight.

Xander exhaled with a heavy and long-suffering breath. "I love my job," he muttered before nodding to Andrew. "Thanks for the game."

Reluctantly, Xander pushed away from the table. Tossing the pencil onto the surface, he got to his feet. With a lazy roll, the pencil traversed the scattered pages, finally settling atop a character sheet reading, "Alexander the Great – Fighter."


"Persona"
Story by: Jet Wolf and Ultrace
Scripted by: Jet Wolf
Prose by: Novareinna and Jet Wolf
Edited by: Jet Wolf and Novareinna
Original Airdate: Tuesday, 17 May 2005, 8pm ET


Act One

The kitchen of the Scoobies' house was a hubbub of activity with everyone getting ready for the upcoming day. Willow was perched on a stool at the center island, nose glued to her laptop. The early morning sunlight glinted copper on her bright hair. Leaning against the counter, Buffy watched Tara preparing toast, butter knife poised at the ready.

"My classes today are over at 11:30, so I can—" Tara's words were interrupted by a wide yawn and she blinked wearily before continuing, "—can have the car back by noon."

"That works," Buffy told her amicably. "I'm in no rush." She frowned as she looked at Tara. "You maybe wanna think about taking a nap when you get home? You look ragged."

Tara waved the knife dismissively. "I'm fine."

"Sure, if getting about four hours of sleep a night is 'fine'," grumbled Willow, not looking up from the monitor.

Tara threw the redhead a sharp glance, but focused intently upon the data in front of her, Willow failed to notice. Nonetheless, her expression was one of general crankiness.

Buffy's attentive gaze flicked between the witches, finally settling on Tara with a another frown. "What's going on?"

Tara made a valiant effort to be casual. "Nothing. Really. Just, you know." She gave a tiny sigh. "Sleeping's not as easy as it used to be."

"Nightmares?" asked the Slayer gently.

"Sometimes," Tara confirmed with a nod.

"Two or three sometimes a night," Willow felt it her duty to point out.

Yet another glance was thrown Willow's way; this time, Tara's eyes delivered an 'I wish you wouldn't' message. Again the redhead failed to appreciate the plea as she continued to concentrate on her laptop, the furrows in her forehead significantly deeper.

Buffy moved closer to Tara. "Slayer-style nightmares?" she queried uneasily. "Because – trust me on this – those are not to be ignored. Not even if they're about you, a guy named Leonard and a plate of sliced carambola." Tara arched a quizzical eyebrow while Willow dragged her attention away from the screen to toss Buffy a fleeting yet questioning blink. "Don't ask," Buffy advised.

"I won't," Tara promised. "And they're not."

Spreading two slices of toast liberally with butter, Tara carried the plate to Willow, squeezing the redhead gently on the shoulder. It was an imploring touch, a clear request for Willow not to be angry and the response was instantaneous. Looking up, Willow took Tara's hand and, with a tiny sigh, kissed the fingertips.

"It's really worrying me," she confessed.

"I know," acknowledged Tara with a small smile.

The pair's comforting encounter was broken as Tara returned to the counter. Buffy sidled toward her covertly, as though she were about to impart some momentous secret.

"Is it about coming back?" she whispered conspiratorially. When Tara didn't immediately answer, Buffy pressed on. "Only too able to relate here. I had nightmares for months." She paused for a moment before adding, "I still do, sometimes."

Catching the hushed statement, Willow pressed her eyelids together tightly.

"You know what helps, though?" added the Slayer more cheerfully. "Talking about it. And if you need to ..."

The smile that invaded Tara's lips was sincere and she threw Buffy a look of genuine gratitude. "Thank you," she told her softly.

Buffy's reaffirming nod was accompanied by a reciprocating smile of sympathy. They regarded each other in companionable silence for a second and then Dawn bounced into the kitchen, her arrival shattering the serene moment.

"I thought I got it!" she complained ruefully.

"'Got it'?" asked Buffy.

"Did you want it?" queried Tara.

Willow glanced up from her laptop. "Is it catching?"

Dawn chose to ignore them all.

"There I am, doing the exercises Giles assigned," she stated with a wave of her hand, "and then suddenly I notice – my notebook's gone!"

Reaching the cupboard, she yanked open the door and retrieved a box of Pop Tarts, promptly relieving it of one pouch. She impaled the packaging with her teeth and started to tug.

"So I'm first thinking, 'Whoo-hoo! Key Powers!', right?" she mumbled, chewing savagely on the stubborn wrapper. "Like I've sent my notebook hurtling into some parallel universe where bugs rule the earth or something."

"Planet of the Aphids," snickered Willow.

Triumphantly, Dawn extracted one of the elusive Pop Tarts and then treated the occupants of the kitchen to a scathing all-encompassing stare. "Oh, but no. I just threw my sweater on top of it."

She sighed heavily. It was the brand of long-suffering sigh that only disgruntled teenagers have the ability to achieve with any degree of success. Turning, she made her way to the refrigerator. As she passed, Buffy deftly removed the Pop Tart from between her fingers and without missing a beat, Tara equally as deftly replaced it with a piece of wholesome, lightly-buttered toast. Dawn sighed once more.

"And now, breakfast sucks." She gave the offending slice a withering glance, but took a bite anyway and then went fishing in the fridge.

A happy jangle emitted from Willow's computer, and the redhead peered at the screen. "Oh, hey! Mail time!" she pronounced with a huge smile. "News from our friends to the east."

"The entire nation of China?" asked Buffy, sipping at her orange juice.

"Kennedy, silly," retorted Willow, rolling her eyes.

Buffy shrugged. "That was my second guess."

Dawn's head appeared over the top of the refrigerator door. "Tell her I said 'Hi'."

"She already says 'Hi' back," was Willow's swift response.

Dawn nodded with satisfaction. "Efficiency. Cool." She slammed the fridge shut upon hearing a honk from outside. "That's Megan," she told the room, hoisting her backpack onto her shoulder. "Catch you guys later."

Mingled choruses of 'bye' and 'have a good day' followed her departure.

Tara joined Willow at the island. "How's she doing? Any better with her Slayers?"

Frowning, the redhead scanned.

"Not so much," she stated doubtfully before moving into direct quotation mode: "'You'd think after a few months, they'd buckle down to actually learn something. Instead, it's always the same thing: they challenge me in some way they probably think is really creative and endearing, I smash it to hell and make them do laps. I mean, what the fu—'" Employing great presence of mind, Willow hastily and efficiently censored the message, "'—frill? We dance the dance, I keep thinking maybe that's it, but then a week later or whatever, we do it all over again.'"

Buffy sank her teeth into Dawn's pilfered Pop Tart. "Kennedy's Slayers questioning her authority." She chewed with contentment. "Hmm. I'm just going to bask in the karma for a moment, donít mind me."

Lost in something akin to rapture, the Slayer did indeed seem to be basking. Willow lobbed a balled-up napkin in her direction and then resumed reading.

"'It's really getting tedious. So tonight (and I can't believe I'm saying this) we're all going to karaoke.'"

As soon as the words were spoken, Willow's lips twitched with amusement while Buffy actually let loose with a roar of hearty laughter, only narrowly avoiding choking on Pop Tart crumbs.

Tara was also highly entertained at the prospect. "I wonder if she'll video tape it for us if we ask real nice," she pondered with a wicked smirk.

Willow went back to relaying Kennedy's missive, voice laced with barely controlled hilarity. "'I swear to god, if you're laughing Rosenberg, there will be payback.'" Struggling to maintain composure, a wide-eyed Willow regarded Buffy and Tara. "Witness! No laughter!" she warned them.

Unfettered by any such promise, Buffy continued to whoop it up.

Willow shook her head. "'I know it sounds pretty crazy, but I figured that always being on the job with the girls is part of what made Buffy suck so bad.'" The statement was delivered before the redhead was fully aware of what she had just said. She glanced apprehensively at Buffy, who continued to revel in jovial delight.

"Hahah—" Then, the implication finally hit. Buffy's mouth grew prim as she narrowed her gaze toward Willow. "What?"

An expression of worry crossed the redhead's face. "Paraphrasing now," she muttered as she skimmed the screen. "Uhm, that's about everything. Oh—" She glanced at Tara. "She says to tell your lazy ass to reply to her e-mail." With a grin, Willow leaned forward in her seat to address said 'lazy ass'. "Reply to Kennedy's e-mail!" she instructed firmly.

With a laugh, Tara picked up her empty coffee mug and moved to the sink.

"I did not 'suck'," declared Buffy, glowering darkly.

It seemed that Willow was far from convinced.

"Back then? You kinda—" she began and then visibly crumbled beneath Buffy's piercing challenge. She hastened to change course, "—were under a whole lot of stress, so- so those situations should be considered atypical, and not at all the norm." She smiled brightly.

With a toss of her head, Buffy emitted a growling, "Hrmph," as Tara appeared behind Willow's shoulder. With a smirk, Tara leaned forward to whisper in the redhead's ear.

"Be nice."

"Given everything that happened that year," Willow whispered back. "I am Niceness deified."

Buffy's dour expression returned in triplicate. "You know I can hear every word."

Willow made every effort to be charming. "I love you."

"Bite me," came the reply, but it was spoken good-naturedly.

As Willow favored Buffy with a little eyebrow waggle, Tara checked the time.

"I've gotta get to class," she informed hurriedly before frowning. "Where's Xander? I thought he wanted a ride to Slayer Central."

Buffy and Willow scoured the room, as though Xander might suddenly materialize from some mysteriously hidden nook or cranny.

"That's pretty weird," mused Willow. "He's pretty much conditioned to awaken with the smell of breakfast."

A crease appeared on Buffy's forehead. "I actually haven't seen him all morning."

Tara was equally puzzled. "I wonder where he is?"

Sprawled across one of the tables in the library, Xander appeared be in a state of unconsciousness. His flattened cheek rested against what was likely an irreplaceable tome and from the corner of his slack mouth, there trickled a steady drooling stream that was soaking into the doubtless ancient text. A pen and yellow legal pad were at his elbow, but obviously they had not been put to good use for quite some time.

Regarding him from the doorway, Willow and Buffy shared a meaningful look before entering the room. Upon reaching the slumbering Xander, who snored softly, they glanced at each other again.

"Guess that answers that question," stated Willow firmly.

"Personally, I'm stunned," admitted Buffy. "I thought he was allergic to this sort of thing?" She gestured vaguely in the direction of the apparent research.

Willow shrugged. "Maybe he's on the patch."

Curiously, they bent forward to peer into Xander's face. He seemed well and truly out for the count, but his contorted position appeared far from comfortable. Buffy winced with sympathy.

"I've had my neck like that for a few hours of unconsciousness," she told Willow in a sorrowful whisper. "Upon waking, there will be pain."

Willow nodded mournfully. "I guess we'd better save him from himself."

Reaching out, she began to gently shake his elbow.

"Xander ..." Her tone was hushed and soothing. "Time to wake up ..."

Her gentle words had no effect and he twitched not a single muscle.

Willow frowned and raised her voice a tad, trying to cajole him back to the land of the living. "It's Saturday morning and you're missing cartoons ..."

Xander's eye finally cracked open, although the rest of his limp body moved not a fraction and his damp cheek remained splayed on the open volume serving as a makeshift pillow. He blinked at the two faces in front of him.

"Angels of mercy?" he ventured hopefully.

"You're drooling," Buffy told him matter-of-factly.

Xander heaved a confirming sigh of resignation. "Angels of Sarcasm then."

Grimacing, he raised his head and began to stretch.

"That really wasn't sarcasm," Willow promptly informed.

"No," admitted Xander, shaking out a leaden hand, "but it sounded better than 'Angels of Obvious-Stating'."

He rolled his neck. It popped audibly, several times.

Xander grimaced again. "That neither felt nor sounded good."

Crossing her arms, Buffy tilted her head to one side. "Y'know, I hear they have these newfangled things called 'beds' now. They come with 'pillows', and when you sleep on them, they tend to not hurt so much."

Willow grinned widely and jabbed a finger. "That was sarcasm."

"Seriously, why the locale change?" asked Buffy. "Are you worrying about the long-term effects of living with so many women again? Because we had Willow go through all that research, and she didn't find—"

Xander pooh-poohed the very idea. "Nothing so self-involved. Giles is punishing me."

Willow's expression became mildly admonishing. "Xander, he's trying to teach you all you need to know to be a Watcher, he's not punishing you."

"No, really, he's punishing me," replied Xander in complete seriousness. "'This is your punishment,' he said, before shoving me in here with a list of topics, 30,000 books, and my regrets."

A frown crossed Buffy's face. "What do you regret?"

"Right now," sighed Xander ruefully, "mostly that I walked away from a promising future at Hot Dog on a Stick."

"Degrading hats hold no future," Buffy advised sagely.

Standing on tiptoe, Willow peered over Xander's shoulder to inspect the sheaves of notes that littered the surface of the table.

"So what's he got you on?" she asked with much curiosity as her eyes scanned the scrawl. "'The Baani, the Trimarga, the Sangerand' ..." She threw him a questioning glance.

Xander exhaled heavily. "The whatchamacallit, the thingtoozler and the bibbity-bobbity-boo. Progress go slow." He ran his fingers dejectedly through tousled hair.

"Nothing, huh?" queried Buffy.

"Nothing really new," the carpenter was forced to admit. "There are a bunch of words like this though, they keep coming up together." He prodded at the legal pad with aggravation. "These are just the only ones we've figured out so far."

Willow inched closer to the table. "That's so weird, when you think this 'Baani' might have something to do with you."

"'Baani the Builder'," pondered Xander with something akin to confusion. He shook his head. "I just can't stop thinking it sounds like a kid's show about an ethnic construction worker."

Willow grinned and retrieved a handful of papers, waving them aloft with much enthusiasm. "What about the other two, what'cha got on them?"

Xander relieved her of the notes and began to sift through. "Uhh, one is maybe something to do with blood. The other ..." He looked at both women with a blank expression and shrugged. "Yoga?"

"Maybe it's an instruction manual, for building a bloodier yoga," offered Buffy with a grin.

"You are affrighting," responded Xander, tossing the papers back onto the table.

Apparently Willow felt that further clarification on an earlier point was in order. "Okay, so back up to the bit where Giles said you're being punished. Punished for what? Did you call it 'soccer' again?"

A wide-eyed Buffy turned to the redhead. "Ooo, he hates that." Willow's agreeing expression showed she knew only too well.

"Nothing so overtly sinister," corrected Xander, rolling a blood-shot eye. "It was about my report last night. You know how I had a group of girls out?" Buffy promptly acknowledged his words with a brisk nod. "We were checkin' on some intel we got from a couple local demons. No problem, but on the way back we run into a party pack of vamps."

Xander yawned before continuing. "They looked kinda weird, all uniformed up – you know how it's never a good idea when the bad guys get organized enough to coordinate their killerwear. Everything's going okay at first, but then one of the Slayers gets in a bit of trouble. Not liking the three-on-one odds, I jumped in to help her out."

He flopped gratefully into a nearby armchair and stretched out his legs. Throwing back his head, he stared at the ceiling, his tale apparently concluded. Buffy and Willow gazed at each other in amazement, neither having garnered any more insight than before the question had been posed.

Willow moved closer. "And you were punished why now?"

Xander's neck snapped in her direction. "Exactly what I asked! Boy was that a mistake. Giles starts on this huge big rant about how, as a Watcher, my job is to record, not do. 'By engaging your opponent, Xander, you cannot properly observe them. They may have provided some vital insight as to their nature and purpose.'" Xander raked his hair once more. "So I point out their purpose seemed pretty clear, what with the growling and the attacking and the killing. Looks like Logic ran away with Humor though, so next thing I know I'm pullin' an all-nighter in the most unappealing way known to god or man."

Frowning, Buffy joined Willow. "You know, I've been getting my fair share of Grumpy Giles lately too. I'm not sure what his deal is, but I am sure I don't like it." The Slayer jutted her chin defiantly.

"Yeah," agreed Willow with a pout. "I mean, the crusty outer layer you sort of get used to after like nine years, but I miss my real fruit filling."

Buffy arched an eyebrow. "I'm going so many places with that, and I'm a fan of none of them."

Xander leapt to his feet, ostensibly injected with a fresh supply of energy. "Bottom line, he must be stopped." He glanced at the worktable and surveyed all the research yet to be completed. His expression grew melancholy and his shoulders slumped. He looked to Buffy and Willow pleadingly.

"Soon, would be good," he entreated wistfully.

Seated at a small table in front of the classroom, a teacher wearing an expression of undisguised boredom wearily tapped a pencil upon the scarred surface. Behind him, a blackboard proclaimed the room to be the "Study Hall," followed by the message: "Take your assigned seat." Chalked next to the command was the notice: "This week: Mr. Anderson." Mr. Anderson's demeanor gave every indication that he considered this designation to be more of a punishment than anything else. His shoulders were slumped and he surveyed the students before him with a melancholy eye.

Among the gathering were Dawn, Brenda, Ginny and Grip. Dawn and Brenda sat next to each other, with Ginny a couple of seats to the left of Dawn, but one row behind. Grip was several rows in front of the girls, but not quite under the immediate gaze of the dour-faced Mr. Anderson. Every pupil had open books atop their desks but very few were focused upon the text, including Dawn and Brenda. Instead, the pair had a notebook positioned between them. The displayed page was littered with two very distinct and untidy scrawls, the words hurriedly written.

Hidden well out of view of administrative eyes, Brenda was looking quizzically at a piece of cardboard that lay in her lap. About the size of a sheet of looseleaf paper, it sported a large heart fashioned somewhat crudely from tape. No ordinary tape, however, this was the thick and extremely rough-textured variety. Colored yellow with black stripes, it bore a striking resemblance to a caution sign. Still, Brenda couldn't help but be impressed. Within the heart was a collage of pictures, cleverly arranged so that something different and novel seemed to leap out with each and every new inspection. Brenda shook her head in awe and handed the masterpiece back to Dawn, who accepted it with a smitten smile. From behind, Ginny tried desperately to attract Dawn's attention in her anxiety to also get a look at the creation. Her actions were subdued but nonetheless frantic in their execution. Unfortunately for Ginny, her frenzied efforts went unnoticed.

Grabbing a pen, Brenda wrote on the page: "It's cute, but...what is it?"

"I'm actually not sure," came Dawn's scribbled response.

Brenda smirked. "Nice," she noted beneath Dawn's reply.

Rising halfway out of her seat, Ginny leaned across the desk, and flopped her hand up and down in a frantic attempt to draw Dawn's focus. Again, her plea fell on stony ground, but this time Mr. Anderson caught her in mid-wave. Sensing that she had been espied, Ginny immediately froze, trapped in an embarrassing scrabble. She threw the teacher a faltering smile of apology and quickly jerked back into her chair, where she promptly shrank down, expression and posture screaming her guilt.

"I mean I know what it is," Dawn was swiftly writing, "but I haven't figured out all the stuff yet. He called it 'So Far'."

Brenda's features instantly melted into what might best be described as "soppy." The sentiment was immediately mirrored by a dreamy-eyed Dawn.

Brenda grabbed her pen. "AWWWWWW." She underlined the announcement heavily, three times, almost ripping a hole the paper.

Dawn understood totally. "I know!!!" Her fingers traced outline of the heart, nestling securely in the safety of her lap.

Having now filled up all available space on the page, Brenda put down her pen to flip the notebook to a pristine sheet. In doing so, she knocked the writing implement off the desk, where it rolled smoothly beneath Dawn's chair. Ducking down, Dawn reached to retrieve it at the exact moment a wadded-up ball of paper sailed over her head. Had she been sitting upright, its trajectory would have been halted, but alas, the sphere o' doom continued on a hapless course. Missing its intended victim, it found a target squarely in the middle of the beefy neck of a very muscular and very cranky jock.

He was less than amused at the unexpected violation upon his person and swiveled in his chair to track down the foolhardy assailant. With beady eyes narrowed, he spotted Ginny, hand clasped to her mouth in horror and cheeks visibly burning with remorse. She buckled miserably beneath the accusing gaze and hurriedly focused her attention on the open book in front of her. Hastily raising the text, she sought sanctuary behind its pages and hoped fervently that it would hide her guilt-stricken face.

With a smile of thanks, Brenda accepted the rescued pen offered by Dawn and wasted no time in christening the blank sheet of paper.

"Grip's so sweet," she wrote. "You're lucky." She rested an elbow on the desk and cupped her chin. "I can't even get Austin Edwards to look at me."

Dawn twisted the notebook toward her. "You should ask him out! We're modern women in the modern world." She pushed it under Brenda's nose and waited for a response. None was forthcoming. Brenda simply glanced at the words and then stared into space, wide-eyed and slowly shaking her head. The movement was virtually indiscernible, as though she had become immobilized in a private reverie.

Dragging the notebook in front of her again, Dawn added, "Or not. Okay, next plan: we make you over. New hair, new clothes, new makeup, new look! We'll bring out your inner supermodel."

The message spurred Brenda back into mobility. "Maybe," she scribbled. "Even if it works though, then the only reason he's noticing me is because I'm a J-Lo clone. I want him to like me for me, you know?"

Dawn considered this and then nodded, forced to agree that Brenda had a point.

Behind her, Ginny slid down in her seat and stretched out her legs beneath the desk, trying her utmost to reach Dawn's chair. Her obvious intent was to nudge the back legs and finally get Dawn's attention. Given the distance and Ginny's relative lack of height, however, the attempt was destined to be an exercise in futility. Nonetheless, Ginny was nothing if not determined and the effort was a valiant one.

"Which brings us back to lucky you," Brenda was now writing. "Grip saw the whole real Dawn Summers package and liked it. You don't have to be something you're not for him." She treated Dawn to a wistful smile.

Dawn glanced toward the front of the room and stared fondly at Grip's blue hair. He seemed to instinctively detect the gaze and peered over his shoulder. Seeing Dawn looking at him, he threw her an endearing grin. She returned the grin as he surreptitiously waggled a roll of yellow tape decorated with black stripes in her direction. He then resumed his studying before either of them could get into trouble.

At Brenda's insistent tapping on the notebook with her pen, Dawn refocused on the page. Brenda had left another note. It read: "See??"

Thoughtfully, Dawn nodded in accord, but the action was reserved. Her eyes clouded as they traveled yet again toward Grip and she chewed the top of her pen, leaving teethmarks in the plastic. Her expression was pensive, but before her friend could question Dawn's look, the silence was broken by a loud crash.

Every head in the room abruptly whipped around to the source of the disturbance. Ginny's book lay face down on the floor while Ginny herself had slid completely out of her chair, landing about three-quarters of the way under her desk. Mr. Anderson leaned to one side in order to avail himself of a clear view, but he had many years under his belt as a member of the teaching profession and was thus relatively unflappable in any given situation. Consequently, he simply regarded her impassively.

"Is there a problem with your seat, Ms. Jacobs?" he inquired politely, although there was no mistaking the underlying sarcasm.

Mortified and glowing beet-red with humiliation, Ginny scrambled to climb back into her upturned chair. In her flustered state, she banged her head on the underside of the desk. Wincing with pain, she attempted to retrieve the book, but it slipped twice from her trembling fingers before she was able to successfully return it to its rightful place. "No sir, Mr. Anderson," she managed to squeak while fumbling to set her seat on four legs once more "Sorry, Mr. Anderson. Sorry. Sorry."

Ginny's haunted gaze darted around the room before she buried her nose within the confines of the volume, obviously wishing she could be sucked into its depths and conveniently disappear. To everyone's merriment, the textbook was upside down and several snickers broke out before being stifled. But Ginny didn't seem to notice, lost as she was in her misery.

Dawn and Brenda exchanged a look of amusement, rolling their eyes at their spastic friend and wryly shaking their heads.

The moonlight cast dark shadows upon the deserted area, otherwise illuminated only by the occasional streetlamp. It was eerily silent, save for the muted whistle of an evening breeze snaking between the buildings. The brisk tap of approaching footsteps shattered the silence.

From around a corner, Xander emerged. His stride, long and speedy, was that of a man in a hurry.

"Chrissie! C'mon!" he whispered over his shoulder and then visibly jumped as she was suddenly there beside him, materializing unnoticed from the gloom. She effortlessly kept fell in time with his step.

"I thought I heard something," she explained in defense of her absence.

"Yeah, well, it's night," acknowledged Xander curtly. "Somethings like to make noise at night, it's part of their charm."

Chrissie scowled for a second and glanced up at Xander's tight-set expression. He was obviously in a fine mood, but she decided to let it drop, not wishing to antagonize him further. Luckily, she was blessed with the short-term memory inherent in dogs and young people. Consequently, she was soon chatting amicably once again.

"D'you think we'll be late?"

"Yes." Xander's response came so swiftly that he virtually answered the question before it was fully out of her mouth. "Which will earn me yet another Stern Talking To – just what I needed." The frown he was sporting deepened considerably.

"It's not your fault!" protested Chrissie supportively. "You were all tired and stuff."

Xander smiled wryly. "Ahh, Chrissie," he sighed. "Dear, sweet, naÔve Chrissie. Commanders don't sleep; we gave that up in exchange for knowing everything."

The girl's tone betrayed her amusement. "You guys know everything?"

"It's a well-kept secret," confided Xander. "It's what lets us be all pompous and condescending. Now come on, double time – there's other Slayers to meet and evil I have to order you to kill."

Pausing just long enough to deliver a snappy salute, which Xander blatantly chose to ignore, Chrissie easily jogged ahead of him. Picking up the pace, Xander followed in her wake.

"Of course I meant 'double Xander time'," he muttered irritably, "not 'double The Flash time' ..."

Swallowed within the darkness, Xander was unaware that he had left someone behind him –someone who had been tracking his path closely with a keen sense of urgency. The figure loitered beneath a streetlamp, wickedly pointed eyeteeth gleaming like polished ivory by the light of the full moon. The eyes shone with eager anticipation.

Swathed in a subdued black uniform, the watching vampire grinned with satisfaction before activating a communication device fastened to his lapel. His message was transmitted in a hushed and furtive manner, although the underlying excitement could plainly be discerned.

"We've got him."


Act Two

The sun shone bright and brilliant upon the campus of Trillium University, although Buffy had managed to find herself a shady spot beneath one of the elms. Sitting at a wooden table close to the corner of a building, she had an open book in front of her and a highlighter poised between her fingers. Her forehead crinkled as she read, occasionally marking a passage of text, but more often just quietly sighing. Apparently, schoolwork presented something of a challenge to the Slayer; nevertheless, the jut of her chin displayed the determination to conquer. She glanced up at the sound of a familiar laugh to see Willow approaching in the company of a shorthaired brunette wearing gold-rimmed glasses. The pair chatted animatedly as they strolled along the path and snatches of their conversation drifted in Buffy's direction.

"Could you even imagine? It's just too disturbing."

Willow nodded emphatically. "It'd be just this never-ending parade of Spaghetti-Os and cigars."

"The real kind and Freudian versions," came the swift response.

The two women laughed again at the shared joke which, given her expression of confusion, seemed to have sailed completely over the top of Buffy's head.

Willow waved as they came closer. "Hey, Buff. You remember Jessica, right?"

Buffy smiled at the brunette amicably. "Sure thing. Jessica: She Who Knows Things I Can't Even Pronounce."

Jessica shuffled her feet in embarrassment, but Willow hastened to put her at ease.

"Oh, don't worry," the redhead assured with a friendly nudge of the elbow. "Buffy can't pronounce lots of words."

Buffy and Jessica frowned as they considered Willow's statement.

"I think she just managed to insult both of us, " sniffed Buffy indignantly.

Jessica crossed her arms. "You got that too, huh?"

"Hey, look!" rejoined a nervous Willow, gesturing vaguely into the distance. "Something distracting!"

Buffy declined the bait and arched an eyebrow. "So how are things at the Brain Drain?"

"I told you to stop calling it that," Willow told her with an admonishing finger.

"And I patently ignored you," replied Buffy, arching the other eyebrow.

Willow fixed Buffy with a narrowed gaze. "It's a research group, not a- a mind-sucking monster."

Buffy simply stared innocently. It was a look that posed the question, "Your point?" With a roll of her eyes, Willow ostensibly allowed the matter to drop.

"Great," she enthused. "Better than great."

"Really great?" asked Buffy dubiously.

"Double plus unbad great," guaranteed Willow. "I'm so glad Jessica suggested me to Professor Kane. You wouldn't believe how much I'm learning!" She treated Jessica to a sunny smile, which was promptly reciprocated.

"No, probably not," agreed Buffy.

"It was really just logical," interjected Jessica. "Willow's the smartest person I know." Now it was Willow's turn to be embarrassed and a flush invaded her cheeks. It didn't go unnoticed by Jessica. "You are!" she insisted before turning back to Buffy. "It'd just be so wrong if she wasn't working with us."

The redhead continued to wallow for a moment in self-consciousness, but then her eyes flickered toward her wristwatch and a tiny frown appeared. She scrutinized the immediate area, obviously in search of something, and the furrows deepened as she failed to find it. Buffy and Jessica continued to exchange chit-chat.

"So what are you guys doing this week?" asked the Slayer.

Jessica's laugh twinkled with amusement. "Same thing as last week, and the week before that, and the week before that ... Professor Kane's superstring theories and studies on dimensional folds are—"

"Shoestrings?" Buffy wondered aloud.

"...are probably not what you really want to talk about, huh?" returned Jessica with a knowing grin.

"Oh, no, I'm interested," Buffy countered before adding, "Politely."

Jessica's grin grew broader, obviously far from offended by the honest admission. "Hint taken," she confirmed.

"Hey, where's Tara?" queried Willow, glancing again at her watch.

"She had to go to the library," replied Buffy. "She said she'd try to meet us before her next class, though."

Willow's expression betrayed her disappointment. "Oh."

"Speaking of which, I'd better go," said Jessica, tossing a smile in the dejected redhead's direction. "I'll see you tomorrow, Willow? We can maybe grab coffee or something?"

Willow brightened immediately. "Sounds like a plan."

Jessica nodded happily and, settling her booksack more comfortably on her shoulder, made good her departure. Willow's smile remained plastered and she treated Jessica to a cheerful wave as the other woman walked away. But the moment Jessica was out of sight, her mouth took a downward spiral to a visible pout and she slumped into the seat across from Buffy.

The Slayer resumed reading, twirling the highlighter between her fingers. The silence was oppressive until Buffy finally addressed Willow, although her eyes remained fixed on the text in front of her.

"You stick that lip out any more, you'll trip on it."

Willow's only response was to slouch even further into the chair. Deliberately, Buffy capped the highlighter, tucked it into the book and then closed the cover. Raising her eyes and resting her elbows on the table, she gave Willow her undivided attention.

"Okay, spill time," she ordered firmly.

Willow heaved a heavy sigh. "She's avoiding me."

"She just said you'd meet for coffee tomorrow," Buffy countered with a hopeful smile. When Willow's pout betrayed not even a hint of appreciation for the attempted levity, Buffy tried again. "I think Tara's just avoiding getting an 'F' on her first paper."

"Oh no," Willow shook her head sorrowfully. "She's avoiding me."

"I detect certainty."

Only partially focused on the conversation, Willow threw up her hands despairingly. "And why, you may ask?"

"I was getting there," Buffy agreed.

"Because she doesn't wanna talk about stuff, that's why!"

"Stuff like...?" prompted the Slayer.

"Like ... stuff!" declared Willow ambiguously.

Buffy nodded wisely. "Ah, sure. Of course."

Willow merely resumed full force sulking.

"Seriously, Will, what's going on?" asked Buffy. "Nightmares, avoidance, grumpy friends ... These are not a few of my favorite things."

With a huge sigh, Willow straightened in her chair. The pout had vanished, to be replaced by an expression of intense concern.

"I don't know," she began, "that's part of the problem. It's like there's ..." Willow leaned toward Buffy, obviously worried. "Sometimes I feel like I don't know Tara any more," she confided sadly.

Buffy blinked. "What do you mean? Like in a, 'My girlfriend's been switched for an evil doppelganger' way?"

Willow dismissed the notion with a shake of her head. "No, no bad twin. Just that ... The way we were, the way we used to be? Sometimes it was like we were the same person. I-I don't know if it was the magick, or just us, but it was like no matter what, I knew what Tara was thinking or feeling." Her distant gaze was pensive. "And sometimes it's still like that, but other times ..."

Buffy peered into Willow's wistful face. "You can't figure her out?"

"No." Willow's voice was quiet and regretful.

Buffy pressed on. "Like there's something going on in her head, but you can't tell what?"

"Uh-huh."

Still, Buffy persisted. "And it's so close, that if you could get just that little flash of insight, you'd know everything that was wrong, and how to make it all better."

"Yes!" Willow's tone was hopeful. Her earnest glance bore into Buffy's eyes for the solution. "Exactly like that!"

Buffy nodded sagely but ruefully. She reached out and placed a comforting hand over Willow's restless fingers. The redhead's expression remained laced with anxiety, but there was now an underlying modicum of expectancy, waiting for Buffy to impart the wisdom so urgently needed.

"Welcome to the wide, wonderful world of dateage, Will," Buffy told her with a tiny smile.

Willow's fingers jerked free of Buffy's grasp. "What? But I— No, I had dateage!" she vehemently defended. "Real dateage, with actual dates! A-And with Tara it wasn't like this! I mean okay, it was a little bit when I was all dark magick mama," she conceded, "but that doesnít count! I just ... I just ..." Her desperation was tangible.

Buffy stared at Willow knowingly. "You want things with Tara to be the way they were."

"Yes!"

Almost as soon as the confession was made, Willow slumped in her seat. She hung her head, unable to meet Buffy's penetrating gaze, and looked ashamed of herself for the outburst.

She laughed humorlessly. "Not too selfish, huh?"

Buffy's smirk wasn't without sympathy. "Little bit," she agreed. "I mean, it's understandable – what you and Tara had comes along once in a lifetime, but—"

Willow sighed miserably. "I hate the 'but's."

"But," Buffy persevered, "she's not the same Tara anymore. And you're not the same Willow. The things you've both been through ... heck, what we've all been through. No way you escape all that without scars."

"No, I know," Willow reluctantly admitted. "You're right." Her chin slouched almost to her chest.

There was a brief pause, and then Buffy nudged Willow's hand to get her attention. Her smile was one of melancholy as she spoke. "Doesn't help, huh?"

"It does sometimes!" Willow replied, obviously trying to be upbeat about the situation. "Just ... not right now, so much." With an anguished breath, the redhead's cheery attempt fizzled like a pinpricked balloon. "I just want my Tara back." She swallowed the lump in her throat. "I want us together, and to get the happy ending we were always supposed to have."

Hovering around the corner of the building, unseen by the pair at the table, Tara listened, silent and unmoving.

"Why does that have to be so hard?"

At Willow's plaintive request, Tara clutched her books tightly to her chest and closed her eyes. Leaning her head against the wall, she let out a long sigh.

The house was grand in style, mirroring the magnificent architecture of its structural neighbors that had been built along Trillium's most high-class neighborhood. Behind the many tall-framed, lace-bordered windows, the town's elite ostensibly lived their sumptuous lives and existed within a cocoon of luxury and upper crust exclusivity. The vacant residence had been on the market for a while, few of the local inhabitants possessing the finances to purchase such a lavish home, but the realtor's sign on the immaculate front lawn had finally been pasted with a "SOLD!" sticker and within the house itself, there was much preparation.

In the foyer, a dozen or so figures were busying themselves in something of an ordered rush to ensure that everything was flawless. Each wore a subdued black uniform, giving the impression of a troop of worker ants readying the quarters for their queen. Emerging through the door leading to an adjoining room, the vampire who had been watching Xander strode purposefully through the ranks. His face no longer revealed his demon form, yet he maintained a sense of power about him as he cast a critical eye on the proceedings. Although the drapes had been drawn, weak sunlight filtered through the velvet and projected a pale nimbus around his flaxen hair.

"You!" he barked to an individual sweeping the floor. The vampiric flunky immediately curtailed his enthusiastic swings and straightened to attention. "Go check on the food, make sure it's still fresh." His voice dropped an octave as he surveyed the entrance hall. "Everything must be perfect," he muttered to himself.

"Sir!" came the instantaneous compliance and with a sharp inclination of the chin, the nervous lackey hastened to obey the command.

"And no sampling," came the warning.

The vampire quickly turned. "No Marcus, sir!" He bowed low before hurrying away, broom trailing behind him.

Resuming his detailed inspection of the premises, Marcus paused at a small table and frowned. Miniscule dust motes nestled within the grain. With a sneer of disgust, he raised a hand and snapped his fingers. In less than a second, the transgression was being swiftly corrected and the vague scent of lemons invaded the air. Marcus sniffed appreciatively for a moment and then continued his deliberate examination.

He moved toward a paneled wall directly across from the main door. The area was dominated by a large painting. Fashioned from sakura, the frame itself was a thing of beauty, its moldings embellished with delicate goldleaf. The canvas it surrounded was no less enchanting and Marcus considered the images gravely. The inspired brush strokes of the artist had managed to skillfully convey an atmosphere of supreme tranquility. Tree branches, sprinkled liberally with pink cherry blossoms, indicated that it was springtime. A tiny stone bridge spanned a trickling brook and a square gazebo of bamboo stood near its banks. Two small girls wearing white dresses could be seen to the side of the painting. Holding hands, the pair sat upon a carpet of lush green grass, their heads close together as though they were in the midst of sharing some intimate childhood secret. Beneath the trees, a young deer grazed upon tender shoots, unheeding and unafraid of the girls, while a tiger watched the little ones from between dense bulrushes.

Marcus studied the painting with a narrowed gaze. Reaching up, he shifted the frame slightly to the left and then stepped away. Presumably not entirely content with the angle, he moved it a little toward the right again and looked at it for a long moment, head tilting first to one side and then the other. His forehead creased with dissatisfaction as he chewed absently on his thumbnail. Uncertainly, he slid the picture back toward the left. Then, with a disgruntled grimace, stretched out his fingers once more to reposition. But fortune had apparently determined there would be no further time for fine tuning. Marcus twisted abruptly toward the front door at the sound of the handle being turned. The painting was immediately forgotten.

Upon the threshold stood a form completely backlit by the bright sunrays. Without hesitation, everyone present, including Marcus, bowed deeply to the new arrival, eyes cast reverently downward. Swathed in a richly-red hooded cloak of heavy damask silk, the features of this individual were impossible to discern, but there was no doubting the strength and power that radiated from the diminutive form. The fine gold braid which trimmed the edges and hem of the outer garment bespoke of authority, as did the symbol emblazoned upon the wide collar of the cape: a sun being eclipsed by a moon.

Moving with grace and dignity, the figure glided smoothly into the foyer. Maintaining his worshipful stance, but taking great care to avoid the shafts of direct light, a vampire scuttled forward to close the door. Small hands clad in gloves of scarlet Moroccan leather emerged from the folds of the cloak to push back the hood as a penetrating gaze swiftly absorbed the surroundings.

She was young and delicate in stature, appearing perhaps to be in her mid-teens, but with a strength that seemed to defy her age. The almond-shaped eyes, ancient in their knowledge and wisdom, missed not even the most minute of details and signaled the ability to remain unwaveringly fixated upon one single point. Her features were refined, and above all, familiar - Hitanko.

Removing her gloves, she dangled them to one side, expecting and receiving immediate attention. An auburn-haired vampire, still bent uncomfortably at the waist, hastily barreled her way through the competition, skittering forward to accept the proffered items. She cradled them carefully in her palms as though they were treasured artifacts and snarled under her breath at those who cast envious eyes upon her prize.

Without a word of appreciation to the fawning female, the girl focused upon Marcus. An expression of something akin to fondness crossed her face, but it was a fleeting show of mild affection.

"Marcus," she acknowledged.

He looked up briefly and then bowed even more humbly than before.

"Lady."

The girl appraised her surroundings once again and nodded approvingly. "You have done well." The statement was rendered with the slight hint of an accent, but nonetheless fluid in its delivery. "We should attract little attention here."

Marcus' thankfulness was apparent as his bow intensified. "Thank you, Lady," he murmured with some pride. "I ensured that all proper channels were followed. There should be no suspicions."

The girl nodded again. "And the other matter?"

"Personally attended," he promptly guaranteed, lifting his eyes just a shade to glance hopefully in her direction. He was not disappointed with the reaction. Her expression became pleased – at least to the extent that she exhibited pleasure. Again, it was a momentary display, but the infinitesimal morsel visibly boosted Marcus' confidence.

"I have arranged a demonstration for you this evening," he informed her with all due respect.

"Excellent," she replied before adding as an afterthought, "Thank you, Marcus."

Marcus dropped his eyes and bowed again as she swept past him, drawn to the picture hanging on the wall. Her gaze became distant as she allowed herself to become lost within the depths of the painted images.

"Soon there will be rest," she vowed, her glittering dark eyes riveted upon the little girls, heads so close in an intimate exchange. Her voice lowered to a whispering promise. "Soon."

There was barely an inch of vacant floor space to be found in the main training room at Slayer Central. Beneath the bright fluorescent lights, groups of Juniors were working out, mostly in pairs, some sparring with each other while others offered words of encouragement to their partners who had chosen to perfect their skills on the wide variety of exercise equipment. Beyond the tall windows, a heavily clouded evening sky hid the face of the moon and it was in front of one of these windows that Xander was diligently training Chrissie. In theory, anyway.

Wielding two swords, one in each fist, it was uncertain whether Xander had yet mastered the art of skillfully managing even one such weapon. Nonetheless, he was swinging the blades with an abundance of enthusiasm and threatening promise equal to that found in any Hollywood blockbuster. The pair circled each other cautiously. Chrissie's expression was a mixture of amusement at Xander's antics and serious concern that he might lop off his own arm – possibly both.

"So get ready," he warned. "I'm comin' atcha. Aaaaany second now. No holds barred." He punctuated his warning with a flamboyant twirling of swords.

"Okay, okay," acknowledged Chrissie, holding up her hands and wincing, "just ... just stop doing that. Okay?"

"Ah-ha!" Xander openly gloated. "Fearing my Spinning Death Steel, are you little Slayer?"

Chrissie nodded soberly, eyes riveted on the thrashing weapons. "Uh-huh."

"As well you should!" he announced with supreme confidence. "My swordplay is legend and my play swords are Nerf! Within seconds, you could well be reduced to little more than bite-sized, super-powered chunks!"

Chrissie frowned, although her fixed gaze never wavered. "I don't understand you again, Mr. Xander."

Xander's reply was dismissive. "No matter! Prepare yourself!"

As the adversaries still slowly circled each other, Xander continued to whirl his dual weapons of destruction and then, a deep crease of worry appeared on his forehead.

"You sure you're ready?" he asked dubiously. "These are really sharp."

"I'm ready," Chrissie assured.

"Then prepare yourself!" Xander cried, speaking over the top of her.

"What, 'ready' don't mean prepared where you come from, Harris?" queried a voice from behind.

Xander turned sharply on his heel, arms flailing like a maniacal windmill. He visibly flinched as an out-of-control blade almost pruned the tip of his nose. Gradually slowing the revolutions to a more manageable level, his narrowed eye focused upon Faith. Reclining atop a high stack of exercise mats, legs stretched comfortably in front of her, the Slayer leaned casually against the wall. Given her relaxed air, it seemed likely that Faith had held this observation post for some time. She puffed nonchalantly upon a lit cigarette, occasionally flicking the ash to the floor.

"Think they got Slayers not even born yet who're ready by now," she informed Xander through a cloud of smoke.

"Faith!" he greeted, ignoring the tufts of hair being shaved progressively closer to his scalp with each pass of the blades. "How good of you to stop by and bring some of that classic Faith-Brand support!"

The Slayer was much more interested in the spectacle before her, eyes following the swords with cool appraisal. "You know if you ever actually fought like that, you'd be taken down in three seconds tops, right?"

"My Spinning Death Steel?" Xander clarified as steel-spun death ever closer.

A raised eyebrow was the immediate response. "That what you call it?" Faith questioned, tilting her head to one side. "Make that two seconds," she amended.

If a hand were free, Xander surely would have brushed the insinuation aside. "Surely you jest. I saw this in an Indiana Jones movie, and unless you've got a gun—"

Xander quickly turned to Chrissie. "You don't have a gun, do you?"

"I have a water pistol!" Chrissie enthusiastically replied, only too happy to help.

"—then I'm thinkin' me and Spinning Death Steel can completely kick your fedora-wearing ass," continued Xander, favoring Faith with a satisfied smile.

For a long moment, Faith indulged in a critical once-over. "Chrissie?" she finally prompted.

Xander frowned. "Huh...?"

Questioningly, he began to turn toward his charge, only to find his field of vision suddenly filled with a bright blue sneaker. Xander only barely had time to utter a strangled cry of surprise before he found himself flat on the mats, his swords no longer quite so spinny. His face blank, he appeared content to simply stare at the ceiling, his gaze not even flicking to Chrissie as she tentatively leaned into sight.

Chrissie's expression was more curious than concerned. "Faith? I think I broke Mr. Xander."

"Don't worry," Faith assured, not at all worried. "My mom always used to say this sorta thing builds character. She never said what kinda character," pondered Faith aloud as she blew a stream of smoke from the corner of her mouth, "but gotta be better'n nothin', right?"

With a groan, Xander began to get to his feet, shooting Chrissie a thin glare as she moved to help him. The Junior immediately adopted an aura of complete innocence, as though she never considered ceasing her examination of the nearby walls to lend assistance.

Swords now thoroughly, thankfully, discarded, Xander brushed off the back of his pants. "Me an' Faith are gonna have a little chat," he told the girl. "Why don't you ... practice that thing you did. That was cool," he complimented with a grin.

The grin he received in response was three-times wider and Chrissie nodded her compliance.

Xander moved to the tower of mats, leaning his elbow comfortably near Faith's feet, even as he swatted the air in an attempt to find a spot that was less polluted. "You do know that smoking's not allowed inside, right?"

"Yeah, I heard that," Faith acknowledged, taking another puff.

"Giles'll have a fit if he sees you," cautioned Xander, glancing over his shoulder as though he expected to see the disapproving glare of Giles appear simply by thinking about it. "And trust me when I say he's in a fitting mood of late."

If the words were supposed to instill genuine concern, they failed miserably. Seeing no evidence that Faith was planning on changing her current disregard for the policy, Xander gave up.

Unnoticed over his shoulder, Chrissie propelled one of the swords airborne with the toe of her sneaker, caught the handgrip squarely in her palm as it made its descent, and then began to swing the weapon like a pro.

"So look at you." Xander gestured at Faith, indeed inviting her to look at herself. "All out and about and engaging in public humiliation of me. You must be feeling better."

Faith shrugged and flicked ash into the corner. "Doin' okay."

"Okay can work," Xander said supportively. "Nine out of ten doctors recommend 'okay' over 'fear and loathing for the whole world'."

"I can do that too," she hastened to point out. "I got layers."

"And should I ever suggest otherwise, I have every confidence that I'll be introduced to the less pleasant ones."

Faith neither confirmed nor denied. Instead, she jutted out her chin to indicate the activity surrounding them. "Looks like you're doin' good here," she complimented.

Taking the cue, Xander also regarded the Junior Slayers, unable to help but take note of Chrissie in particular. Having upgraded herself to two swords, the young girl displayed an expertise far beyond that possessed by the Would-Be-Watcher, despite her size and age. Xander didn't seem to mind.

"I try," he acknowledged, directing his attention back to Faith. "How 'bout you, though? You're pretty much the talk of this place." Xander lightly punched the side of Faith's heavy boot and grinned. "It won't be too long before you're challenging my position as Most Popular Guy in the Whole Building."

"Everythin' I ever wanted," she deadpanned.

Xander nodded as though Faith had voiced her complete agreement on every word. "Money for nothin' and the chicks for free," he sighed wistfully. "You doin' okay, though?"

"I guess," Faith replied noncommittally. "Better'n doing nothing."

As though it contained the secrets of the universe, Faith studied the glowing end of her cigarette, then shook her head. "It's weird, though."

That appeared to be all she had to say on the subject.

Xander waited for several moments, ducking his head and raising his eyebrows, like his expectant body language could physically drag the follow-up from Faith. When that failed, he settled on a verbal cue.

"Weird?"

"Just ..." The words seemed lodged somewhere between Faith's brain and her mouth, and she quickly gave up on trying to coax them into the open. "Nah. I'm ramblin'," she dismissed. "Sayin' nothin'."

"Sounded suspiciously like something to these trained ears," pressed Xander.

"S'not important."

"Well it is to me."

Perhaps it was the tone in Xander's voice, or the earnest expression on his face, but Faith seemed to allow something inside to cave. Just a little. She took her time, however, leisurely finishing her cigarette. When it had all but burned away, she produced another and lit it from the embers of the first before grinding it out and allowing the butt to drop to the floor. If she was waiting for Xander to rescind his words, she was destined to be disappointed.

Faith sighed, the sound more frustrated than anything. "Something about it all don't feel right. I mean it's cool the wannabes got themselves some big damn hero, but I'm thinkin' maybe it shouldn't'a been the relapsed murderer." She forcibly jabbed a finger at herself, in case her meaning was at all cloudy.

"You don't think you deserve a little hero worship?" questioned Xander, his tone indicating that he wasn't entirely certain he agreed with that stance.

"You tell me," Faith shot back.

Taking everything into consideration left no easy answers, and Xander breathed a relenting sigh. "Okay, maybe it'd be a bit more politically correct if you'd, say, cured cancer or found some way to deactivate cell phones in movie theaters," he admitted, "but Hazel—"

"Anyway," Faith immediately interrupted, drowning out Xander's words, "it's only a matter'a time before the shine fades. It always does."

Xander took a deep breath, at least mildly put out at being unable to finish his sentence. Before he could attempt to repeat himself however, he heard someone call his name.

At the sound of the voice, Faith stiffened and began to search for a place to hide her cigarette.

Giles soon spotted Xander and swiftly approached. Without any suitable possibilities, Faith settled for hiding her hands behind her back and did her best to not look guilty. It was a skill that seemed to be lacking from Xander's repertoire at the moment as well.

"Whatever it is, I didn't do it," Xander quickly defended.

Giles appeared puzzled. "What?"

"Nothing then." Xander's smile was wide. "Continue."

"Indeed," responded Giles, keen to move onto more important matters. "I've just received reports of a group of demons attacking a small diner off of Rivergate."

Faith nodded. "Been there. Good pie."

"I doubt very much they're interested solely in a slice of peach cobbler," he told her dryly before continuing. "At least three have been spotted, but there could be more. I want you to lead a group of Slayers." His tone became firm, brooking no argument. "They will fight – you will observe."

Xander looked for a moment like he might begin the argument anew, but instead attempted to get down to business. "Right," he agreed in his most professional voice. "So, uhm, what kind of unpleasant nastiness is on the menu for tonight?"

"I'm not certain," Giles admitted, clearly not happy with his own lack of concrete information. "The species described didn't seem familiar. This may very well be a new sort of threat, completely unknown to us."

"But they like pie," offered Faith, "so there's that."

"Which makes it all the more vital that you return with as much information as possible," Giles instructed Xander. "Their appearance, their abilities, their goals – everything and anything could be important, and we must know it."

Swallowing hard, Xander stole a nervous look at the unaware Slayers, but nodded resolutely.

Faith swung her legs over the stack of exercise mats and made ready to hit the floor. "I'll come with," she announced.

"No."

Faith hesitated and stared at Giles with a questioning frown.

"I want you to remain here," he informed her before turning back to Xander. His tone was soft, but intensely serious. "You will be wholly responsible for this mission. Are you prepared?"

Xander took a deep breath. "Guess we'll find out."

Giles moved to stand directly in front of the younger man and favored him with a small smile. "You're a Watcher, Xander. Remember what that means."

Clapping his hands together, Xander gave them a brisk rub before stepping forward to address the room. As his voice echoed off the walls, the Slayers began to gather around him.

Faith landed next to Giles with a thud. "Way to be motivational."

Giles' eyes remained fixed on Xander. "Yes, well, I try." He settled his glasses firmly on his nose. "Now if you would, please take your smoking habit outside?"

Now with nothing left to hide, Faith allowed her face to split into a grin as she backed toward the door. "Since you asked so nice."

"You really shouldn't smoke, you know," Giles replied without turning around. "It's bad for you."

"What isn't?"

Spinning on her heel, Faith exited the room, leaving a trail of smoke in her wake. Giles didn't notice, however, choosing instead to watch as Xander continued to prepare the young girls for battle.


Act Three

In Giles' office, he and Hannah were pouring over research materials and the handwritten notes that littered the Watcher's desk. Intently engrossed on the work before them, neither noticed the door opening or realized they were no longer alone. Both were visibly startled when a hurled pad came skidding across the surface, scattering papers to the wind. Looking up with surprise, they saw Xander standing before them – face heavily streaked with grime and sweat. There was blood on his shirt and anger in his eye.

Hannah drew a sharp breath at the sight. "Oh my god ..."

But Xander focused only on Giles. "I got your report," he relayed crisply. "It's all right there, in black and white and red all over."

Giles straightened. "Xander, what—"

Hannah hurried to Xander's side. "We need to get you to a doctor."

"Don't worry, it's not mine," Xander told her quietly, but his tone upon addressing Giles was much more harsh. "It's a bold new fashion statement. Think it'll catch on?"

A fleeting expression of relief crossed Giles face, unable to totally disguise his concern. "You're uninjured?"

Xander nodded stiffly. "Lucky me. Not so much for Denise. I guess the gods of fortune were too busy sitting on their asses and watching."

Hannah exhaled a deep sigh at the news and looked to Giles, who sank into a chair with shoulders slumped.

"Oh, she's not dead," Xander assured with enforced cheerfulness. " Not yet, anyway. And hey, maybe they can even save her arm."

Giles absorbed the statement for a moment and then slipped effortlessly into businesslike mode. He reclined in the seat and steepled his fingers. "What happened?"

"There were five of them when we got there," began Xander, waving off Hannah as she tried to usher him into an armchair. "We had them outnumbered two to one, but they were big. Strong. Fugly, too. I sent Denise and Xue to guard the back entrance when they got ambushed." He pressed his lips together tightly before continuing. "Hand picked them," he muttered with self-recrimination.

Xander shook his head from side to side, as though he were trying to clear his mind. Both Hannah and Giles allowed him a moment for composure, then Giles broke the hush.

"And what were you able to learn about the demons?"

Expression disbelieving at the callous inquiry, Hannah shot a sharp glance at Giles, which he ignored. As for Xander, his jaw became set and the words that left his mouth were delivered with caustic sarcasm and no little fury. He gestured toward the notepad.

"It's there. Sorry I didnít have time to type it." He gaze narrowed to a thin glare. "I was a little busy trying to staunch some bleeding."

Giles nodded. "I see." There was another pause while he presumably mulled over the situation. His face, however, betrayed nothing.

"You did well, Xander," he finally acknowledged, tapping the pad with a pencil. "This information may help us save lives."

Xander let out a mirthless chuckle. "I'm sure that'll make Denise feel better when she's learning to tie her shoes with one hand."

Giles refused to rise to the bait. "You should go get cleaned up," he advised.

"That's it, huh?" Xander accused, tossing his hands out to the side. "A girl gets her arm practically ripped off because I told her to stand somewhere, and your advice is to take my evening toilette?" His fingers curled into white-knuckled fists.

"What happened is ... is terrible," Giles granted with soft sincerity. "We'll do absolutely everything we can for Denise, of course. However until I've read your report, I can't give you a more personal critique—"

"Critique?" Xander repeated incredulously. "I'm not asking you to look over my book report, Giles!"

"Xander ..." Hannah murmured, doing her best to soothe the young man, though her efforts were fruitless.

Lurching forward, Xander thumped violently on the desktop. "Whatever happens to Denise is a direct result of my decisions!"

Giles considered the wrathful gaze and fought to maintain inner calm. "I know," he admitted.

This apparent lack of reaction served only to heighten Xander's incensed mood. He angrily swept a stack of papers to the floor. "God, is there anything left in you?" he challenged. "A girl almost died tonight!"

Giles sprang to his feet, hurling the chair backward as he rose. He slammed his palms upon the desk, eyes glittering like flint behind the lenses of his glasses. "And how many were saved?" he shouted in return. Seizing the notepad, he threw in Xander's direction, where it was caught on instinct.

"Tell me!" insisted an unwavering Giles. "How many innocent lives did your decisions save tonight?"

Xander had no need to check his scribblings for verification. His response was more subdued. "Eight."

Giles took a deep breath and began to steady himself, although his every muscle remained tense. Deeply concerned, Hannah went to her ex-husband's side, but made no move to either say or do anything. Instead, she continued to observe the unfolding state of affairs, her watchful eyes missing nothing.

"Eight lives for a possible one," recounted Giles wearily. "That ... That's a good day, Xander."

"A good day," came the sneering reply. "Denise nearly bleeds to death right in front of me, and that's a good day."

Giles exhaled again, displaying his frustration. "That isn't what I meant." He ran a hand through his hair and took another stab at explanation. "I empathize with what you must be feeling. But as a Watcher, you must learn to look at the larger picture."

He treated Xander to a grave and serious stare, trying to communicate the importance of what he was about to say and the necessity for the younger man to understand.

"This is not the hardest decision you will ever make," Giles informed him with some regret, "nor is it the highest price you will be asked to pay. The job that we do requires a certain ..."

"Ruthless detachment?" interjected Xander helpfully.

It was impossible to fully disguise the wince, but Giles pushed onward without reprimand. "Efficiency," he corrected gently. "We exist to protect the world, and the Slayers are the tools by which we do that."

Xander snorted. "Nice philosophy you've got there, Mr. Travers."

Giles massaged his forehead, fingers digging into the flesh. "Xander—"

But Xander had ostensibly heard enough. "No, you know what? I've got someone else's blood to wash off of me."

He returned the notepad to the desk with a toss of contempt and spun sharply on his heel. Giles watched as he yanked the door almost from its hinges and marched from the room.

Upon Xander's departure, Giles sank heavily into his chair. "That went well."

Hannah crouched at his side. "He's just angry and frustrated," she comforted, her hand resting on his wrist.

With a near imperceptible shuffle, Giles shifted from Hannah's light grip. "Two emotions I'm rather acquainted with myself at the moment," he muttered, closing his eyes and sinking back into his seat.

With a frown, Hannah scrutinized the haggard expression and slouching shoulders. "Rupert ... about what you said ..."

Arching an eyebrow, Giles regarded her from beneath lowered lids and waited for completion of the question. As Hannah continued her detailed study, however, realization began to dawn. "You meant every word, didn't you?" she asked with the vaguest taint of disgust.

Her only answer was a deliberate clenching of the eyes. "Perhaps we can continue our work tomorrow," he murmured.

Hannah was unwilling to let the matter drop. "Ziggy, it's—"

"Tomorrow, Miss Sinclair," he insisted with cold finality.

Hannah recoiled as though she had just been smacked in the face, but her astounded expression was quickly replaced by one of outrage. Pushing herself up, she strode smartly toward the open door, pulling it closed behind her with a force that rattled the wall.

Giles remained still for a long moment. Then, his eyes cracked open and he tugged at a nearby drawer, groping blindly until he found what he was seeking. Retrieving a shot glass and half-full bottle of whiskey, he removed the cap and poured liberally. He considered the rich amber liquid for some time, swirling the glass, before raising it to his lips and draining the contents in one grateful swallow.

The morning sun was insipid, promising little in the way of warmth for the upcoming hours. Across a drab sky, even drabber clouds scuttled, carrying their threat of possible rain. In the private training room at Slayer Central, a pair of headphones jammed firmly over her ears, Buffy pounded a punching bag and engaged in a recital.

"Proteins," she echoed dutifully. "Proteins are amino acid chains. They're formed by amino acids and peptide bonds." A frown creased her forehead. "Now what the hell's a peptide bond?"

She listened carefully to the silence for a moment, fists never ceasing in their relentless hammering.

"Any day now," she urged.

Apparently, there was more silence.

"If you don't tell me," she briskly informed, "I'm just going to guess. Trust me, neither of us wants this."

Still there was no joy.

Tilting her head to one side, Buffy pondered the unanswered query as though it were one of great philosophical importance. "Isn't a peptide that stuff you take for heartburn?" The revelation was short-lived. "No, wait, that's Pepcid."

Mournfully, Buffy groaned and ripped off the headphones, taking out her frustration on the hapless punching bag, "I'm never going to pass this thing! Not without ..."

Suddenly her expression brightened considerably. Clearing her throat, she moved into practice mode. "Hey, Will!" Buffy smiled charmingly at the spot where Willow might possibly be in the near future. "You know how you said you'd help me however you could during Buffy's College Adventures: The Sequel? So I was thinking, if you knew some way to sort of Sabrina yourself into my head from about two to three on Friday, I could—"

The rehearsal was abruptly interrupted by Faith's entrance, and Buffy's mouth immediately clamped shut. Faith's outfit indicated that she too had plans to utilize the workout room, but from her expression she'd been lost in thought and was just as surprised to see Buffy. The pair spotted each other at almost the same instant and both visibly stiffened beneath the atmosphere of tension that erupted between them.

Buffy gave a brisk clip of her chin. "Faith."

Faith's response was equally as curt. "B."

For a while, neither woman broke the ensuing and uneasy hush. When they did speak, it was in unison and the declaration of one canceled out the declaration of the other.

"I was just going—" Buffy announced.

"I don't have to—" began Faith.

The threads of conversation were abruptly cut, leaving nothing but thick silence until Buffy tried again.

"You stay. Me go."

Faith shook her head. "Nah, it's cool. You're already in the middle'a somethin'. I'll come back later."

"I'm done," Buffy insisted. "I have a class to get to, and anyway, I'm sure you have lots of skills to hone: punching, kicking, neck-snapping."

As soon as the words had rolled deftly from her tongue, Buffy bit her lip and cast her eyes to the floor. If the barb had physical form, she would have snatched it back, but it was already too late.

"Forget it, " Faith responded with a thinly-disguised sneer. "Between you, me an' your superiority, it's gettin' kinda crowded."

Turning, Faith made her way toward the exit, but her departure was quickly halted by Buffy.

"Faith, wait! I'm ... sorry. I'm sorry, okay? I didn't mean—" She faltered a little at the disparaging look Faith tossed over her shoulder. "Okay, I meant it," she admitted. "Just ... not the part where I said it out loud."

"Straight from the heart, B," encouraged Faith. "Glad we're bestest buds again."

Buffy sighed, unsure of where to step next in the minefield of conversation. "What do you want from me, Faith?"

"I dunno, what do you want from me?" retorted Faith with a questioning tilt of her head. She leaned casually against the doorjamb and crossed her arms.

"Well unless you've got your very own Marty McFly to go back in time ..."

Faith smirked. "Sorry, fresh out."

"Then I guess that's that."

"Guess so."

A decidedly uncomfortable quietude settled.

"This was fun," Faith finally decided. "Sorta like gettin' stabbed in the ear with an ice pick. We'll have to do it again real soon."

"It's not exactly a skip through the park for me either, you know." The edge in Buffy's voice was making an undeniable comeback.

"Right," conceded Faith, pushing away from the door and moving further into the room. "I can see how tired you must get, peerin' down on all the rest of us from that high horse of yours."

Instinctively, Buffy adopted a guarded stance. Her reply was no less defensive. "Do you think I like feeling this way about you again? You were supposed to be different now, Faith. Better!"

"Just like you?" Faith's tone was heavily laced with sarcasm.

"No, just like you," retorted Buffy, "only without the bonus psycho features!"

"I know what I did was wrong ..." Faith responded hesitantly.

"Well great!" enthused Buffy. "Good first step!"

The narrowing of Faith's eyes indicated she was on a short rope. "Sorry B," she apologized, not sounding especially sorry at that moment. "I keep forgetting how perfect you are. You'd never understand, right? That need to give as good as you got. Make someone pay for what they did to you or someone you care about."

Buffy pursed her mouth. "Feeling like that and acting on it aren't even in the same zip code. We are Slayers, Faith. We're supposed to be the good guys."

"And sometimes to be the good guys, we have to kill the bad guys," reminded Faith, as though she were talking to a small child.

"Not like that!" came the sharp accusation. "Judith was helpless."

"And what would'a happened when she wasn't, huh? You really think she'd be sittin' in prison right now?" Faith's lips curled contemptuously. "Cuz take it from me, they don't give you a whole lotta incentive in there to stick around if you don't gotta."

It was a valid point, and one Buffy couldn't entirely muster the defense to refute. "I don't know," she confessed. "I don't have all the answers. But I can't ... What am I supposed to do?" Her gaze penetrated Faith. "Forgive and forget that you killed someone in cold blood?"

"Just like Willow?"

Buffy's momentum ground to a screeching halt.

Faith smiled, though it contained no true merriment. "Guess she don't count. Angel and Spike neither, huh?"

With an arched eyebrow, Faith waited for an answer. Buffy had none.

"Guess I'm not the only one with issues," summarized Faith. "But then, I'm a 'good guy with psycho features'." She stared Buffy in the eye. "What's your excuse, B?"

She didn't wait for a response. Faith simply strode out of the room, leaving Buffy alone with her unanswered questions.

"And then, fwhoom!" Dawn threw her hands open theatrically. "She just walks out, leaving behind much drama. It was very cool." She nodded with satisfaction.

Tara smiled indulgently. "I bet."

Seated in an ice cream shop on the Penn State campus, Dawn was making short shrift of a huge banana split. Tara's small dish of French vanilla spiked with butterscotch sprinkles seemed almost dwarf-like in comparison.

"Thank god for TiVo, that's all I can say," sighed Dawn gratefully, holding aloft a gigantic spoonful before shoveling it into her mouth. "They should just reschedule school around my TV."

"Uh-huh," agreed an absent-minded Tara.

Picking up on the definite "I'm not really listening" vibe, Dawn frowned and began to make a detailed study of Tara's expression. Focused primarily upon the bowl in front of her, Tara wasn't so much consuming the ice cream as she was playing with it – alternately sculpting the melting confection into abstract peaks and then smooshing it around again.

"I guess that's what college is for though, right?" suggested Dawn.

"Absolutely."

"Well that, and Roman-style orgies where you work your way through as many frat boys as possible in one night." Dawn regarded Tara expectantly.

She was treated to a fleeting smile. "Sounds fun."

Deriving no small amount of personal satisfaction from the agreement, Dawn grinned wickedly.

"If you're willing to, you know, exchange a lifetime of freedom for an evening of debauchery," added Tara, her tone appearing to be as unheeding as before.

A look of surprise invaded Dawn's features as Tara glanced up from her bowl and smirked. "I was listening."

"Well it was an easy mistake," returned Dawn defensively, "given your attention to the Vanilla de Milo there." She gestured at the deformed lump of ice cream nestling in Tara's dish.

Paused in mid-sculpt, Tara's eyes traveled to the misshapen creation. She grinned somewhat self-consciously before scooping the "head" from her masterpiece and quickly swallowing it.

"Yummy," she murmured as she licked the back of the spoon.

"Avoidy," gainsaid Dawn, viciously stabbing her banana. "So what's up with you?"

"Up?" asked Tara innocently. "I'd say I'm up to level 53."

Dawn's brow furrowed. "Level fif..." She shot a suspicious look Tara's way. "What's level 53?"

Tara smiled. "Whatever you want it to be."

"That's cheating," Dawn felt strongly driven to point out. "No cheating comments that make no sense." She popped an overly large wedge of fruit into her mouth and talked around the obstacle with amazing clarity. "Seriously, are you okay? You keep getting that glassy-eyed, 'my brain is on world tour' stare."

Tara shrugged. "I just have a lot of stuff going on, that's all. Mostly school stuff, you know how it is. Still getting into the swing."

"Makes sense. You don't wanna swing when you should've swung," nodded Dawn with confidence, despite – or perhaps because of – the seeming randomness.

"That just leads to disaster and heartache," Tara continued smoothly.

"And really," Dawn agreed with a touch of bitterness, reaching across her own plentiful dessert to snag a healthy helping of Tara's ice cream, "don't we get enough of that without help?"

Wasting no time in returning the favor, Tara promptly launched her own invasion upon Dawn's banana split. The blonde waved her spoon and grinned in triumph, but then frowned as she noted that Dawn's good mood had slipped.

"So," Tara ventured, keeping her tone light as though she'd noticed nothing, "how is the most incredible boy to ever have a Y-chromosome?"

Dawn blinked for a moment before responding enthusiastically, "He's good!"

Tara waited for the customary expansion that usually accompanied one of Dawn's favorite topics, but none was forthcoming and Dawn was oddly silent once more.

"He's good, but...?" prompted Tara, enjoying the pilfered strawberry/banana combination.

Dawn shrugged. "Nothing really. But I've been ... thinking a lot."

Biding her time, Tara nodded sagely. "Thinking is good." She waited contentedly and patiently for Dawn to elaborate. The teenager did not disappoint, eventually turning to Tara with questioning eyes.

"Do you ever wonder why?" Dawn shook her head, obviously dissatisfied with that opening line, and gave it another try. "Not why. If?" She wrinkled her nose. "No, how?"

Though more than willing to be sympathetic to the query, Tara couldn't help but smile at its convoluted delivery. "I need a few more words in that one, sweetie."

Dawn visibly struggled. "Grip is ... He's really great, you know?"

"So I've heard," Tara gently teased. "At length."

"Okay, so I'm Broken Record Girl," Dawn admitted. "But he is, you know? Smart and sweet and funny and ... and I guess I'm just thinking, why me?"

She ardently searched Tara's face for a plausible explanation and found total understanding. "You're wondering how you got so lucky," Tara clarified.

Dawn nodded enthusiastically, relieved that someone was able to comprehend her predicament. "Right!"

"I suppose the fact that you're every bit as smart and sweet and funny never crossed your mind."

It took a bit of effort, but Tara was able to hold back a chuckle at Dawn's answering expression.

"Tara, c'mon." The flat, leveled look made it clear Dawn wouldn't pay even ten cents for that line. "You're family. You have to say that."

"I'm pretty sure I didn't sign on for gratuitous ego-fluffing," Tara countered, but a toss of shiny brown hair declared the argument at an end.

"Anyway," Dawn persisted, "Brenda said something the other day that got me thinking about how, like ... Grip doesn't know me. Not really."

This time, Tara openly smiled. "Well your relationship is still pretty ... you know. New. It takes a while to really get to know each other and—"

"No," Dawn interrupted. "I don't mean 'know' like him knowing I sometimes start singing the 'Gummi Bears' theme song for no good reason. I mean know know. Stuff. Important stuff."

Tara considered this declaration carefully before offering a reply. "Like Slaying stuff?"

Slowly, Dawn shook her head. "Like Key stuff."

The two stared at each other for a moment.

"That's important stuff," Tara noted solemnly.

"It totally is," admitted a rueful Dawn. "I mean, what am I supposed to say? 'Hey Grip, I'd love to go the movies with you. Don't worry about the age rating, I'm actually old enough to have met the protoplasm you evolved from'."

Tara nearly choked on the ice cream she'd just swallowed. "I-I probably wouldn't recommend that phrasing."

"I know he likes me," continued Dawn without pause, "but ... but is it me me, or does he just see the me he wants me to be?" She fell silent, replaying the question in her head. "I don't know if that made sense."

The bulk of her attention focused inward, Dawn neglected to notice the wistful look that settled on Tara's face. "It did," the blonde confirmed, her tone indicating an especially strong dose of empathy.

"And it's like, so do I tell him?" Dawn chased her maraschino cherry around the bottom of her bowl. "Tell him that practically everything he knew about me was wrapped up in this huge lie? And once I did, would he want to know who I really am underneath all that? And if he didn't ... could I take it?"

Presumably, Dawn expected no verification or otherwise. Lost in thought, she continued to poke mournfully at her dessert, unaware that her expression and Tara's could have been mirror images. Tara gave no voice to Dawn's questions – though it seemed she wished that she could.

Beneath the pallid light of a crescent moon, two figures walked purposefully but unhurriedly. The girl's cloak shimmered darkly scarlet, her bearing stately and regal as she covered the ground with a long stride. The one who accompanied her was barely discernible from the encroaching shadows, except for his shock of flaxen hair.

"I remain unconvinced, Marcus," she stated, eyes firmly fixed ahead.

"I am aware, Lady," her companion readily admitted.

"This is unacceptable." Her tone was dangerously calm. "I refuse to waste my time on one who has not earned it."

"Yes, Lady," Marcus agreed.

Coming to an abrupt halt, she turned to face him. "You will explain to me again."

With downcast eyes, Marcus bowed his head.

"Lady. I watched the enemy as you commanded. Nightly, soldiers are dispatched to patrol this region. Often they move in pairs or small groups of three or four, but there is one group that is consistently larger." Employing caution, he dared to glance in her direction. "Under the direct command of their general, they slaughter their opponents with efficiency and without remorse. All kills come at his order, Lady." He lowered his gaze once more. "I personally heard him confirm this."

The girl regarded him thoughtfully. "You do not blame the hammer for the actions of the hand."

Marcus apparently had nothing of intelligence to add and wisely held his tongue while the girl continued to dwell on the proposition. Waiting in respectful silence, he started slightly as the small transmitter attached to his lapel crackled into life.

"They're here, sir," came the hushed message. "The demons have engaged."

Marcus' eyes glowed with anticipation. "Excellent," he whispered, bringing the device close to his mouth. "We'll be along shortly." He bowed to the girl once more, seemingly reluctant to intrude upon her reverie. "Lady ..."

"Take me," she instructed with a curt nod.

Marcus acknowledged the order by extending his arm. Her gloved fingers curled lightly around his elbow as he proudly escorted her toward their destination – a densely forested hillside, which afforded perfect cover while still providing an excellent vantage point. The slope overlooked a large park, strikingly scenic in appearance. To the right of a grassy common, the surface of a man-made lake sparkled with lunar reflections. Rustic benches were dotted randomly yet invitingly around its perimeter. Tall trees, strategically placed to enhance the exterior decor, rustled their leaves in the cool of an evening breeze. To the left, there was a well-equipped playground which, given the late hour was, not surprisingly, devoid of children. Judging by the number of stationary vehicles, this was one of Trillium's prime make-out spots.

But not on this night.

The entire area was swarming with demons – big, strong and, undeniably ugly. The screams of increasing terror that floated upward held little fascination for the cloaked figure who watched the carnage from her lofty position high above. She seemed immune to the butchery taking place below, except for a mild display of detached interest when her gaze rested fleetingly upon one of the Junior Slayers, each girl doing her utmost to protect the innocents and efficiently dispose of the demon adversary. Still, she was essentially impassive until her eyes spied a form standing some distance apart from the conflict.

Brandishing a stout broadsword, Xander's grip alternately tightened and slackened around the hilt of his weapon. Obviously far from delighted with the relative safety of his alienated location, a reluctant and restless Xander was blatantly eager to utilize his sword for more than just defense if push came to shove. Cupping his free hand to his mouth, he shouted an order to a smattering of Juniors within earshot and they reacted immediately, rushing to the defense of a horror-struck youth who was mere moments away from being eviscerated.

From the hillside, the girl watched with rapt attention, her focus wandering from Xander only to assess the import of his commands upon the battlefield. She reached out toward him, seeming to nestle him with the palm of her glove. She tilted her head speculatively then, lightning fast, clenched her fingers into a fist, utterly obliterating Xander from sight.


Act Four

The battle continued to rage fast and furious, with no indication that it would end any time soon. Indeed, it appeared to be only now hitting its stride and Xander's small troop was not faring well. Although he tried valiantly to keep his eye on everything at once, Xander's girls were rapidly losing momentum. The demons were large, nasty and on a definitive winning streak. Even worse, their numbers never seemed to decrease.

Although the Juniors fought like tigers, for every monster that fell, it seemed that another materialized in its stead. Scanning the area, Xander soon discovered the reason why. Close to the slide in the nearby playground was an opening in the earth. For every demon slain, a replacement clambered out of the pit. Xander stiffened. There was no way his army could claim victory under such circumstances.

Without further hesitation, he dug deep into his pocket for the cell phone he was carrying. Quickly punching the appropriate number on speed dial, Xander waited impatiently, unwavering gaze fixed upon his fast-fading Juniors.

"C'mon, c'mon, c'mon ..." he urged into the mouthpiece, visibly brightening when the insistent ring tone was finally answered.

Xander wasted no time. "We need backup, and lots of it." He paused only momentarily to listen to the question. "Hutchinson Park," he responded without missing a beat. "Those demon things from—" He lowered the phone and swiftly attracted the attention of one his girls, barking out an urgent order. "Lynn! Help Melanie!"

With a nod of acknowledgment, Lynn rushed toward the struggling Slayer.

Xander returned the phone to his ear. "—from yesterday. They had so much fun, they brought friends." The ensuing pause was just long enough to convey the urgency of the situation. "I don't wanna rush you? But hurry."

Sharply flipping the phone closed, he stuffed it back into his pocket and refocused fully on the now desperate scramble for supremacy. Although plainly worried about his battle-weary Juniors, Xander's fearful expression also displayed a modicum of pride at their courageous efforts. These were girls who refused to go down without a damn good fight.

Breaking concentration only to steal the occasional glance over his shoulder in search of the much-needed backup that had yet to put in an appearance, Xander began to pace anxiously to and fro. The Junior Slayers maintained a tenuous hold but were flagging badly and becoming overwhelmed by the sheer number of continuous assailants. Hovering on the brink, Xander peered into the darkness for the expected cavalry to arrive.

From the slopes of the hill, the girl watched. Eyes sparkling with anticipation, she leaned forward expectantly. "The moment approaches," she whispered into the night.

Faltering, Xander took a step toward the battle arena and then hesitated. Despairingly, he looked into the distance for any sign of approaching support. There was none. He ran tense fingers through his hair, lone eye snapping from the vacant darkness behind him to the heroic scenario being played out to its inevitable conclusion in front of him.

"Screw it," he muttered darkly and with sword held aloft, charged into the fray.

Keenly, the girl observed his attack. Her sharp ears caught the faint clash of metal on demon, but as she watched her expression began to change. The eagerness gradually melted until it had evaporated entirely, leaving only the same inscrutable countenance she seemed to habitually exhibit.

"He is not the one."

Surprised and shocked to his very core, Marcus physically started.

"Lady?"

"He is not the one," she repeated serenely, waving a dismissive hand toward the scenario taking place below. "See how he fights?"

Marcus blinked and followed the direction of her pointing finger. It was obvious that Xander possessed no particularly notable combat skills. He was not as efficient or capable as the Juniors around him, but it wasn't for lack of trying. In addition, he exuded an air of muddled confusion in his attempts to see everything at once, be everywhere at once and lend aid to as many girls as was humanly possible without neglecting one who might possibly be in more serious trouble.

The girl on the slope shrugged. "He fights because he must. He fights to protect. He has no special abilities." She tilted her head appraisingly. "He is not especially proficient."

For a long while, she simply studied Xander. "His motives are pure," she concluded with absolute conviction. "He is not the one."

Totally taken aback, Marcus' response was sadly lacking in aforethought. "You must be mistaken."

He withered visibly beneath the abrupt look of derision tossed his way and shrank from the expression of unbridled astonishment at such foolhardy audacity. Immediately, he bowed his head.

"My apologies, Lady," he offered sincerely. "I mean no disrespect. But I have studied our enemies extensively and—"

Extending a delicate finger, the girl stayed any further excuses. "And yet still, you are incorrect." She seemed to puzzle momentarily over such an implication. "What does that say for your best efforts, I'm forced to wonder?"

Marcus was given no opportunity to react, either positively or otherwise. In a blur of celerity, the girl reached out, one hand digging into his skull. With no more effort or strain than a human would devote to turning a doorknob, she twisted, reliving the body of its head. It crumbled to dust within her grasp, closely followed by the collapsing torso. Brushing stubborn particles from her fine leather glove, the girl surveyed the pathetic heap of gray ash with an arched eyebrow but it failed to hold her interest.

"Nothing worth contemplating, it seems."

She refocused on the battlefield just as Buffy and Faith entered the arena, a company of fresh Juniors in tow. Curiosity peaked once again as the girl took stock of the new arrivals. She watched intently as Buffy immediately honed in on Xander, who was only a heartbeat away from being cleaved in two. Without hesitation, the blonde hurled a hand axe with fatal accuracy. Blade buried to the hilt in his throat, the demon dropped like a stone and Buffy allowed herself a small smile of gratification. The girl nodded appreciatively and then turned her attention to Faith.

Like a supremely well-oiled machine, the dark-haired Slayer operated flawlessly and smoothly. Apparently born and bred for the killing field, she was well nigh unstoppable. Little, if anything, appeared to phase her. She displayed no fear and actually seemed to draw power and strength from the threat of imminent danger.

With the added support of energized Juniors, the horde of demons soon found themselves on the losing end. Buffy and Faith alone were largely responsible for the speedy depletion of numbers and even the increased productivity of the pit failed to turn the tide. Ostensibly, victory was now a foregone conclusion.

Eyes narrowed, the spectator on the hill continued to evaluate the relative merits of the two Senior Slayers. Then apparently content with her observations, she nodded with satisfaction before being absorbed into the night.

"Gitchi Gitchi, ya ya dada."

Sharing a single microphone, the female quartet on the pocket-sized stage poured heart and soul into their performance. The heart had a strong beat but unfortunately, the soul sadly lacked rhythm. Nonetheless, if enthusiasm were the yardstick for talent, then this would have been a stellar act.

At a small table in the middle of the darkened and smoke-filled karaoke bar, Kennedy slouched in her chair. With crossed arms, she glowered directly ahead, as though she were trying to channel its not inconsiderable power. Above her head, a miniature disco ball revolved slowly, reflecting tiny images of the sullen Slayer from every angle.

"Gitchi Gitchi, ya ya here."

Breaking away from the group, microphone in hand, one of the young singers launched into the next verse. A somewhat stiltedly flowing rap, it served to undeniably identify the song in question as the remake version.

Kennedy's expression remained the same except that now her left eyelid began to twitch involuntarily.

A Junior at the next table leaned over to Kennedy and nudged her elbow. Unwittingly, the girl had become a prime target for Kennedy's sour mood, but she seemed oblivious to the challenging glare. Glass held unsteadily in one hand, the Junior treated Kennedy to a huge grin. Her eyes were glassy and when she spoke, her words were slurred.

"Sho thish thing you're doing," she confided with a bold wink. "Wicked."

Kennedy pursed her lips. "That's one adjective."

The girl dragged her chair closer and Kennedy's frown deepened. "F'real," gushed the unwelcome intruder. "I think it's ... it's ..."

She struggled for a suitable synonym.

"Wicked?" supplied Kennedy.

"Exactly!" The Junior toasted the brilliant observation by raising her glass. The contents sloshed dangerously close to the rim. Planting a solid foot on one of the legs, Kennedy firmly pushed the girl's chair from her immediate vicinity, but it only served to delay the inevitable. The girl scooted back almost immediately.

"Hangin' with the rest of us, showin' you don't always gotta be boss." The Junior nodded approvingly. "Keep it up, an' you'll be like ush any day now."

Kennedy rolled her eyes. "Oh, to dream."

The blatant sarcasm was a lost cause. The girl's grin became even broader as she turned to the company of Juniors sitting at her former table. She jerked her head in Kennedy's direction. The implication was clear – she and Kennedy had just bonded. With a heavy sigh, Kennedy stared at her boots, obviously hating every second.

"'It took a bit longer than it probably should have, but it eventually hit me: what the hell am I doing here?'"

Sitting at the desk with her laptop open, Willow read from the screen. She smirked and looked over to Tara. The blonde lay on her stomach across the bed, taking notes from a thick textbook. Both were in their comfy sleepytime clothes: boxers and tank top for Tara, a pair of PJs for Willow.

The redhead turned back to the monitor and continued. "'The Twinkie had a point, it was like I was trying so hard to be one of them. But hey, newsflash! I'm not here to buddy around and make friends – I'm here to whip their asses into shape.'"

Tara tapped her teeth with the cap of her pen. "I still say she needs a friend, though."

"Oh totally," nodded Willow in agreement. "But I'm not telling her that. You can. She doesn't know your tickle spots." She favored Tara with an eyebrow quirk.

"No, true," replied the blonde with an impish smile. "That's sort of a, uhm ... a restricted trade secret."

Willow's response was a sly grin. "Membership has its privileges." The couple took a moment to exchange a heated look, then Willow cleared her throat and refocused on her monitor. "'It was a momentary bout of crazy,'" she continued reading. "'I don't know how to get through to these girls, but the way to not do it is to be something fake. I'm sitting there, pretending (at least marginally) that we're all just hanging out – like tomorrow I'm not gonna be on each and every one of them twice as hard because we had a night off.'"

A crease appeared on the redhead's forehead. "Maybe she missed the point of doing this."

Tara wasn't so sure. "Actually ... I think she got it just right."

"'I don't know who they want me to be, and honestly, I don't care. I'm Kennedy. And I'll be damned if I'll start worrying about what that means to anybody else now.'"

The e-mail completed, a hush fell. Both witches seemed to be seriously pondering Kennedy's statement. It was Willow who broke the silence.

"Now there's a woman with ... no identity issues whatsoever." She stared at the screen.

"Must be nice," admitted Tara to herself. She glanced at Willow. "Did she say any anything else?"

Willow shook her head. "Not really. Except: 'P.S.: Don't ever karaoke "Defamation Innuendo". It doesnít go over as well as you'd think.'"

Willow turned to Tara questioningly but received only a shrug, neither of them able to fully appreciate the revelation. Willow decided to let it go. She closed the programs and then lowered the cover of her laptop with a click.

Getting to her feet, she yawned and stretched luxuriously. "It's getting late. Beddiebye?"

"Mm," Tara responded noncommittally.

That was good enough for Willow however, and she climbed into bed, switching off the lamp on her side. Closing her eyes, she snuggled into the downy comforter with a smile on her lips, one arm thrown invitingly across Tara's pillow.

The blonde made no move to accept the open gesture. She continued to lay on her stomach, facing the foot of the bed. Willow waited for the arrival of the expected warm body. When it failed to materialize, her smile faded to a frown. Cracking open one eye, she peered curiously at Tara.

"That 'mm' didn't mean what I thought it meant, did it?"

"Am I keeping you up?" asked Tara anxiously. "I can go downstairs."

Willow shook her head. "No, no, that's not the ..." She glanced at the clock, its digital numbers glowing with a soft blue. "It's gone midnight, and you've got class early tomorrow."

"I know," sighed Tara. "I just ... I don't feel like going to bed right now."

Willow's tiny furrow immediately deepened to a full-blown ditch. She raised up on one elbow.

"Because of the nightmares."

It wasn't a question, it was a declaration and Tara was in no mood to debate the issue. Swinging her legs off the bed, she began to gather her books together.

"Just go to sleep, Will," she urged. "I'll be there soon."

"No." The refusal was deliberate in its delivery. "No, I think sleep is a place I don't really want to go at this particular moment. Oh! I've got a better idea, though: let's try You Talk To Me Land!"

With a sharp intake of breath, Tara replaced the cap of her pen with a purposeful snap, obviously struggling to quell the mounting irritation. Composure in check, she addressed Willow in a level tone.

"Fine," she admitted quietly. "Yes, it's the nightmares. I was hoping maybe if I could read enough of this stuff," she glanced pointedly at the books cradled in her arm, "it'd just send me off. That's it."

Willow's eyes narrowed and the timbre of her voice lacked Tara's equanimity. "That's not it. Tara, this has been going on long enough." Purposefully, Willow grabbed her pillow and shoved it behind her back, sitting up in a position that would not welcome sleep any time soon; she was settling in for the long haul. "You don't want to talk to someone else, fine. I think you should, but I won't push it right now. But this is me. And ..." Her expression began to wilt. "A-And I don't understand why you won't talk to me."

"It's not you," Tara immediately replied. She gazed at Willow's expectant expression, but despite the redhead's obvious desire for some sort of explanation, none was forthcoming. Tara's eyes dropped to the floor. "I don't want to think about it," was the best she could manage.

Confronted with Tara's obvious distress, the remnants of Willow's anger seemed to evaporate, but she was no less determined to press for an answer. "Yeah, well, no offense?" she began gently, hoping a touch of levity would improve the situation. "The enforced silence bit doesn't really seem to be doin' you much good."

A ghost of a smile tugged at the corner of Tara's mouth. "No," she admitted, "probably not." Yet she offered nothing further.

Deciding to take her own advice, Willow continued in her quest for answers. "Is it ... Does it have anything to do with what Amy said?" Tara looked up at that, but Willow's mouth had seized control and wasn't in the mood to hit the brakes. "Because, I mean, she's crazy, you know that. Too much black magick, too many little gnawy wood blocks. Her wheel thingie's still spinning, but there's nobody's running, you know?" She illustrated the point by rotating her forefinger rapidly next to her ear.

That earned Willow a smile, but it was fleeting. "Amy didn't start this," Tara responded.

"That doesn't mean she helped."

Once again, Tara fell silent. Her reluctance to resume the topic was almost tangible.

Willow tugged at the coverlet, pleating the fabric with restless fingers. "Tara, please. I want you to talk to me. I need you to talk to me," she underlined. "I need to help you. We used to be able to tell each other anything ... remember?"

She looked at Tara wistfully but the blonde's expression remained sorrowful and even a little regretful.

"That was a long time ago."

While undeniably the truth, particularly from Willow's perspective, the redhead still appeared for a moment as though she didn't understand. Then as the meaning began to sink in, so did the pain it brought. But overlying all of that, completely dwarfing it, was Willow's desperate need to help. And the frustration that she couldn't.

Tara watched it all, and for a moment seemed furious with herself.

"Tara...?" Willow prompted.

"There's so much I don't know anymore," Tara tried to explain. "I used to think I had all the answers, but I think ..." Her eyes searched Willow's face with something akin to loving wonder. "I think you gave them to me."

Willow couldn't help but smile. However, now she'd found her voice, Tara seemed unable to stop until she'd said as much as possible.

"Why I'm here," she continued, "who I am. I've been hiding from it because I don't know if I'm going to like the answers." Tara paused, her tone uncompromising. "But I have to find them, Will. I need to know Ö I need to know who I am now."

"You're the woman I love," Willow answered, her voice threatening to crack. "Isn't that enough?"

The pair shared a wordless exchange for a moment. Then Tara set her books on the dresser and approached the bed. She pulled back the covers and began to climb in, which was all the prompting Willow needed. Happily throwing her pillow back into place, Willow scooted down into her original position as Tara switched off the light. But before Willow could complete settle into place, Tara was there.

Willow's eyes widened in surprise as Tara's mouth claimed her own, communicating in action more than she could with words. All shock melted in the rush of other emotions, and Willow began to return to the kiss in kind. Before things could escalate, however, Tara pulled away. She reached out and caressed the redhead's cheek, and Willow leaned into it instinctively with a happy smile.

It was a smile Tara didn't completely echo, and she stared down at Willow with eyes that were sad and so very tired. "Not anymore."

Willow said nothing. She simply wrapped her arms around Tara and held her close.

The windows of the bed and breakfast off Highway 15 gazed toward the distant horizon like vacant eye sockets from a naked skull. No lights twinkled invitingly from within this once popular tourist hideaway and the panes of glass were illuminated solely by the pale shafts of a sickle moon. Abandoned to the elements, the building stood cold, gray and desolate against a backdrop of skittering clouds in a starless sky. Even the bold flag still suspended from a pole in the open courtyard fluttered forlornly in the stiff breeze – a bleak testament to the promise of unfulfilled glory. Throughout the interior of the hotel, mounds of ashen dust lay undisturbed in the otherwise barren hallways.

High beneath the eaves, a red-cloaked figure stood still and silent in the center of a spacious attic. With an inscrutable expression, she carefully took stock of the fixtures and sparse furnishings: a four-poster bed; an antique dresser; an easel and artist materials seemingly forgotten in a far corner; wilting plants with yellowed leaves lining the baseboard of one wall. Pallid rays, gaining entrance courtesy of the numerous windows, patterned a silver parquet across the floor.

Her eyes narrowed with concentration, but otherwise she remained immobile - a life-size oriental statue, regal and stately in bearing. As her lids descended, obliterating the loft from her vision, she keenly probed the shadows as the muted clamor of phantom fighting reached her ears. Like the marble Galatea suddenly given life, she glided effortlessly across the floor, eyes moving rapidly beneath their hooded folds, head jerking from side-to-side as she followed in the steps of combat past.

As she moved, her arms raised as though clutching a weapon and she shifted her weight and balance to parry blow after blow, despite being under no assault. She was grace and form in motion, never missing a step, never failing to press an advantage that availed itself in the dance of her mind.

Until inevitably she faltered, and the sounds of a fateful cry echoed in her ears. She winced as though she herself had been pierced.

"You know this will not kill me."

"Bet it hurts, though."

As the last vestiges of every vampire's final death cry faded into the shadows, tiny fists became rigid. An expression of profound sorrow injected its unspeakable grief upon the normally reserved features. The display of emotion vanished as soon as it had appeared, leaving the question of whether it had ever been present at all. Slowly opening her eyes, she looked down upon the small pile of ashes nestling at her feet. Captured in a lunar ray, it sparkled with an inner radiance and she bowed her head reverently in honor of the beloved remains.

Removing her gloves, she knelt down and gently scooped a small amount of the treasured residue into her palm. Heedful not to spill one single molecule, she painstakingly deposited her prize into a leather pouch, worn and ancient, produced from the lining of her cloak.

"My sister," she whispered, eyes lowered as a token of her esteem. "Their suffering will be without end."

Securing the purse by its slender strap, she kissed the soft leather and raised her face to the moon. Bony protrusions marred the smooth flesh of the forehead and the contorted lips were pulled back to reveal wickedly-pointed cuspids, starkly white and perfectly formed. She held the pouch tightly in her hand.

"I will see to it."

Behind his desk, pen poised, Giles worked diligently on the spreadsheets that covered every square inch of the surface. Frowning in intense concentration, he didn't hear the door open and failed to notice the presence of Xander until the younger man spoke.

"Rough day at the office?"

Looking up, Giles' was plainly startled by the spectacle standing before him. Xander was indeed something of a mess: blackened eye, bruised cheek, busted lip, torn shirt.

"Know the feeling," Xander confided with a wry smile.

Pushing back his chair, Giles leapt to his feet. "Good lord. Are you all right?"

Xander dismissed the concern with a casual wave. "Yeah. It's mostly surfacey flesh wound stuff. Little iodine, a band-aid or two, good as new." He peered at the scattered papers. "So what'cha workin' on?"

Still distracted by Xander's appearance, Giles answered on automatic pilot. "A schedule. We have new Slayers arriving from the Covens, and— Are you quite sure you're all right?"

"Yup," assured Xander with an emphatic nod. "Buffy and Faith did the hero thing, arriving just in the nick of time. The girls did great, nobody got too badly hurt, and I didn't have to worry about reattaching limbs. All that adds up to a good night in my book." He chewed on the admission for a moment. "It's funny how my qualifications for that seem to change every other week."

Tossing down his pen, Giles rested his hands on the desk. "Were you attacked?"

"Nope," denied Xander and then bobbed his head. "Well, yes. But not until I jumped in, sword a'swingin'."

Giles' expression was instantly disapproving. "Xander ..." he began in a strongly admonishing tone.

"Don't engage the enemy, I know," Xander parroted, ticking the point off on his finger. "Stay back and observe, command from a distance." Proudly, Xander displayed all three fingers before dropping his hand. "I listen."

Frustration crept into Giles' face. "And yet, you ignore my instruction."

"Well only because it sucks," Xander quickly returned with a shrug. "Oh, but? Turns out I can multi-task with the best of 'em. while I was struggling for my life, I managed to pick up a few things. Like say the fact that they were brought in specifically to fight us?" He favored Giles with a sunny grin.

Giles carefully processed this crucial scrap of information. "To fight us?" he echoed.

Xander nodded. "It's what one demon said to the other demon. Not the most creative of punchlines, but hey."

"This was planned," mused Giles, eyes glittering with realization behind his glasses. "We're being ... tested? Studied?"

"The whys are still a bit fuzzy. They went back to the hole they crawled out of – all clichés aside – and the sucker sealed right up." The report was given with a odd note of cheer, but Giles was far too occupied on the substance to pay much mind to the delivery.

"Still, this tells us we're facing more than a random attack," Giles concluded aloud, exhibiting more animation than he had in some time. "This could be vital." He favored Xander with a small but genuine smile of approval. "Well done."

Rocking on the balls of his feet, Xander accepted the praise amicably. "Thanks," he replied. "I quit."

As is the nature of a nonsequitur, Giles had not been anticipating that response, and he blinked in confusion. "What?"

"I quit," came the reply, delivered in the same bright tone. "The Watcher thing. I'm done."

For a moment Giles could only stare. He removed his glasses and placed them gently atop a planning chart, but his eyes never left Xander. "I know I've- I've been hard on you, Xander, but I only do it to ensure that you're fully prepared for the work we must do."

"Though not me so much," came the pleasant rebuttal, "since I just quit and all."

"You've been under a- a great deal of stress lately," continued Giles, as though Xander hadn't just further hammered his point. "Take a few days, to- to think things through."

But Xander harbored not the slightest desire to reconsider his position. "I have, believe me." The announcement carried an air of finality. "It seems like all I've been doing is thinking lately. Came to a few conclusions, too, which was sort of neat." He returned Giles' probing gaze. "Why do you think I asked to become a Watcher?"

Giles seemed uncertain of how to answer. "Well, I ... I assumed because you wanted to help."

"Good answer!" congratulated Xander. "The bonus round: why now?"

Giles opened his mouth to supply a response, but nothing sprang immediately to mind.

"Don't feel bad," commiserated Xander, generously letting Giles off the hook. "I didn't really know either. But after the fight with the Super Slayers, I just kept thinking about everything, and ... I dunno." He clapped his hands together then spread them wide. "It seemed like what I should do next. That, you know, maybe with a title I'd get to stay in the thick of things, instead of being shoved to the side like a comfy chair you want to keep around, but hide in the corner when company comes over."

"We never—" Giles tried to defend, but it had little effect on Xander's momentum.

"So hey, here I am as Watcher Guy, right?" he briskly continued. "Got the field time, got the inside track, should be a breeze. I figure, 'I can be Giles to someone's Buffy'. But then I get in here, and it's like, what does being Giles even mean anymore?" Cocking his head to one side, Xander studied the older man intently. "Do you know? Cuz I sure as hell have no clue."

Almost reflexively, Giles fell back, giving up ground to remain in familiar territory. "As Watchers, it is our responsibility to keep the world safe," he replied by way of explanation.

"Even if it damns us in the process?"

Stubbornly, Giles stuck to his guns. "We must sometimes make the choices that others cannot. We are fighting a war, every single night, and it is a war that we can never truly win." He absent-mindedly shuffled a stack of papers. "Yet still, we fight, and yes – sometimes we die. Every war will have casualties, and it is ... insanity to think otherwise. You must learn this, Xander, or one day the weight of the decisions you make will destroy you."

Xander nodded, absorbing the words and the sentiment behind them. "This is all for my benefit. You're trying to help."

"Yes. Yes, absolutely." Giles allowed himself a sigh of relief. "I do know you, Xander, better than you think. Your heart is perhaps your greatest asset, but it is also your greatest weakness."

"That makes sense," conceded Xander. "It's twisted, Bizarro-sense, but it's sense. If I went out there, right now, and had to order a hundred Slayers into a fight to save the world and we lost fifty ... twenty ... Hell, even just one. I'd be ..." He shook his head. "Even if we saved the world. And god, if it was Buffy, or Will ... I don't know if I could handle that."

Giles looked as though a great weight has been lifted from his shoulders.

"I need to be stronger," Xander decided. "Tougher. More detached."

His lone eye affixed Giles with a penetrating stare.

"Just like you."

The shot was well aimed and undoubtedly struck the heart of its target, but there was little outward reaction. For an instant Giles seemed to deflate, but as he reached for his glasses and began to polish them, he betrayed nothing.

"And that," concluded Xander, "is the best reason I've heard yet for getting out."

Giles remained silent, choosing instead to settle his glasses in place.

"I know about death and sacrifice, Giles. I learned that the hard way at sixteen. But I learned something else, too, and it's that if people do die? I won't find out about it from my comfy office, waiting for a report. I'll know, because I'll be there doing every last thing I can to stop it."

Xander paused and seemed to be waiting for something that never materialized. Giles accepted the tirade without comment or interruption, and Xander took it upon himself to conclude the now one-sided conversation.

"I may not know who I do want to be, but I sure know who I don't. So in case you didn't entirely catch that? I quit."

Having seemingly said his piece, Xander made to leave, stopping only when he heard Giles' voice.

"I ask you to reconsider." The calm request was formal, perhaps even overly polite. However, the words that followed were nothing but sincere. "You have the potential to be an exceptional Watcher."

Turning back, Xander studied the older man. Giles waited patiently for a response, but took no further action to encourage one way or the other.

"Maybe," Xander acknowledged. "But I'd rather be a good man."

As Xander opened the door and closed it behind him, Giles sank heavily into his chair. The involuntary smile that crept over his lips was undeniably sad, but also betrayed an immense affection.

"You already are."

With a rueful sigh, he readjusted his glasses and retrieved his pen. Smoothing out the schedule he'd been working on, he drew a thick black line through "Xander Harris – Watcher".


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