Overhead, the stars glittered needle-sharp as a hooded figure trampled through the brush of a densely wooded area. Like a gray shade, she hurriedly covered the ground, almost indiscernible from the shadows cast by the tall trees. Nonetheless, she clearly felt vulnerable and at risk, constantly glancing over her shoulder. Her breath came in labored gasps as brittle twigs snapped beneath her sneakers, shattering the otherwise tranquil atmosphere. Crickets chirped a harsh warning at the unexpected intrusion, and in the distance, an owl hooted mournfully.
Tripping over a gnarled root, the girl tumbled to the forest floor. She lay still for a second, bringing trembling fingers to the nasty gash on her cheek caused by a trailing branch. Probably no more than 16 years of age, her face was pale beneath the moonlight. Scrambling to her feet, she continued her desperate journey, only to stumble again and find herself lurching headlong into a small ravine. Stifling a cry of pain, she gritted her teeth and pressed onward. Panting heavily, she murmured the same phrase over and over as she ran.
"Help me. Help me."
The words were whispered like a mantra and apparently lacking conscious thought. Yet they appeared to fuel her momentum and she repeated them without pause as her feet pounded the overgrown path.
Careful to avoid any further obstacles to her flight, the girl's pace quickened. She no longer glanced behind for fear it would slow her down. Focused solely ahead, she failed to notice the sign, barely visible above the tangled bushes, which read "Welcome to Trillium." Her breathing became increasingly ragged as her heart hammered relentlessly within her chest.
"There's no help for you. Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide. You're run down, falling out, your back's against the wall. It's just you and whatever little bit of nerve you've got left. So the question is ..." Willow's eyes narrowed and her upper lip formed a challenging curl. "Do you feel lucky, punk?"
In the living room of the Scoobies' house, a game of cards was in full swing. Seated cross-legged on the floor in front of the coffee table, Willow peered over her hand and fixed Dawn with a rough and steady gaze.
"'Do you feel lucky, punk'?" echoed Xander disbelievingly.
Willow frowned briefly in his direction. "Shh. I'm being intimidating."
Xander couldn't quite bring himself to overcome. "'Do you feel lucky, punk'?"
"What? I just ..." Willow flapped her hand in a random pattern. "There were words, and they wanted to come out. And, okay, a few points lost for originality, but- but boy, I betcha Dawn's a'quakin' in her boots now." She looked hopefully in Dawn's direction.
"Quaking," confirmed Dawn affably. "Totally. At least a 7.3."
"Oh, peanut brittle," Willow muttered, shoulders slumping in defeat.
Piles of mini-chocolate chip cookies, variable in number, littered the surface of the coffee table. Willow's heap was moderately respectable, but Xander's stash had become sadly depleted, with perhaps a dozen or so remaining at best. The undeniable big winner of the evening, however, was obviously Dawn. A virtual mountain of the tiny goodies sat next to her cards, which were laying facedown on the table and covered by her protective hand.
Sitting on the couch behind Willow, Tara nodded sagely. "Dawnie's just that hardcore." The expression sounded strange as it rolled off Tara's tongue, and prompted a confused yet entertained look from Willow.
"She's a little shark, is what she is," Xander complained bitterly as he tossed his cards onto the table. "I think Miami John Cernuto had a day job as one of those monks that made her."
Dawn smiled. It enigmatic, but still managed to convey a modicum of pride and an overabundance of self-satisfaction.
"You out with me, Xander?" asked Tara.
Xander eyed his meager cache of cookies. "Enjoy cookie goodness, lose cookie goodness," he pondered, weighing his limited options. "I'm thinking no contest."
Scooping up the remaining stack, he quickly popped two of the cookies into his mouth and then flipped one in Tara's direction. She stretched out a hand to catch it, but Willow executed a deft interception, snapping it between her teeth.
"Why you ..." Throwing her arms around Willow's neck, Tara began to shake the redhead from side to side. "Cookie thief!" she accused.
Willow sighed heavily as she crunched. "Snuggles from a beautiful woman? However will I survive such punishment?" As the swaying began to subside, she leaned contentedly into Tara's arms and looked up at the blonde with a wicked twinkle. "The urge to steal is rising. You'd better keep disciplining me, just in case."
At Tara's raised eyebrow, Willow held aloft a cookie from her own hoard by way of compensation. Grinning to see the instantly opened mouth, Willow dutifully complied.
Dawn drummed impatiently upon her cards. "Hey! I'm winning over here! C'mon Willow, in or out?"
"I'm thinking," responded Willow, continuing to gaze at Tara.
"I bet," Dawn grumbled.
Sorrowfully, Xander glanced at the smattering of crumbs that now claimed the space formerly occupied by his cookies. His eye drifted to a small supply at the far end of the table. Furtively, he glanced toward the kitchen.
"Buffy better get back soon, or I declare her winnings forfeit," he announced with all due officialdom, fingers snaking toward the abandoned harvest.
A blonde head, cell phone glued to one ear, appeared at the entrance to the living room. "Touch them, and never eat again."
Xander promptly retracted his hand as Buffy disappeared back into the kitchen.
"How'd you get to be so good at poker anyway?" asked Willow suspiciously, refocusing on Dawn.
"Spike," Dawn relayed cheerfully. "The summer when Buffy was ... wasn't here. There were lots of card games."
"And his legacy lives on," said Xander.
Nibbling at her bottom lip, Willow examined her cards and then glanced at her opponent. Dawn's expression was inscrutable. Sliding several cookies toward the center of the table, Willow added her stake to the small pile already there.
"I'll see your four, and raise you four."
"You're a woman of derring-do, Will," stated Xander approvingly.
Picking up her cards, Dawn fanned them and carefully scrutinized her hand. There was a fleeting glimmer of concern, but it was abruptly squelched and then the mask of neutrality slid smoothly back into place.
"Everything okay, Buffy?" Tara called, glancing toward the kitchen.
A hand appeared at the entrance forming an 'okay' sign.
Dawn added more cookies to the pot. "Raise four."
"Glad we got out when we did," Xander noted to Tara.
She agreed wholeheartedly. "Cookie Poker – rough game."
"An' only gettin' rougher," announced Willow as she matched Dawn's bet. "I call," she declared firmly, laying down her cards. "Read 'em and weep, bucko."
She smirked victoriously while Xander and Tara could only blink at the two pair she'd just laid on the table.
"Uhm, Will...?" murmured Tara hesitantly.
Xander had no such hesitations. "You do know that sucks, right?"
"It doesn't have to!" protested Willow. "Not if I'm right, and Dawnie has—"
With agonizing slowness, Dawn deliberately spread out her hand. It was a straight flush. With a smile that was smug and yet irritatingly sweet, she swept the spoils toward her.
"No! No, uh-uh!" protested Willow with wide eyes. She jabbed an accusing finger at Dawn. "You had Worried Face! I saw it! It was there, all Worried and everything!"
"Hel-lo, it's called 'bluffing'?" Dawn informed, neatly stacking her winnings.
Willow turned to Buffy, now taking her seat on the floor, phone no longer clamped to her ear.
"Buffy, your sister's being ..." Willow struggled indignantly for the most appropriate description. "Conniving a-and downright underhanded!"
"Welcome to my world," responded Buffy without a drop of sympathy. "I've been telling everyone for, oh, about 18 years now that you can't trust her. Sure, she's all sweet and innocent on the outside ..." Buffy considered that proposition for a moment. "Well, not really," she continued with a shrug. "But it's the stuff on the inside that'll get you every time."
"So says the Queen of the Painfully Obvious Pout," Dawn said matter-of-factly.
Almost immediately, Buffy pouted and emitted a tiny wounded sound, pointedly ignoring Dawn's 'see?' gesture transmitted to the room in general.
"Your deal," prompted Willow, placing the deck at Buffy's elbow. Picking up the cards, Buffy began to shuffle.
"All's well on Slayer duty?" asked Xander, feeling around beneath the table for any wayward cookies.
"Lynn gives the verbal thumbs up."
"I'm sure they'll be fine," Tara assured with a smile.
Buffy nodded. "Me too."
"We could tell," added Willow wryly. "What with the you calling every ten minutes."
"I'm just checking in," defended Buffy. "This is Lynn's first time out with a group all her own and ... and it's rough out there."
Dawn rapped her knuckles on the tabletop. "It's about to get rough in here too, if you don't ante up."
"'Ante up'?" Buffy repeated incredulously. "Where are we, the old west?"
"It's Spike's fault," Xander happily pointed out.
Buffy was skeptical. "I'm fairly certain Spike never once used the phrase 'ante up'."
"Would you deal already?" insisted Dawn.
"Maybe I like holding all the cards."
Dawn simply continued to stare flatly at her sister.
"Fine," acceded Buffy as the dealt cards skidded across the surface of the table. "We'll play it your way."
"At Face Value"
Story by: Jet Wolf and Ultrace
Scripted by: Jet Wolf
Prose by: Novareinna
Edited by: Jet Wolf and Novareinna
Original Airdate: Tuesday, 12 July 2005, 8pm ET
Buffy and Tara sat across from each other at one of the tables that circled the Student Union. With an abundance of gusto, Buffy was making short shift of a gigantic chocolate muffin, while Tara sipped on a cup of tea and read an article from the newspaper. In huge print, the banner headline announced: "Evans Jury Hung; Judge Declares Mistrial."
"After ten days of deliberation," Tara recited, "Judge Franklin Prescott declared a mistrial in the prosecution of Casey Elizabeth Evans, charged with the first degree murder of her husband Richard."
"I'm not sure," mumbled Buffy, spraying crumbs. "Is that a yay?"
Tara regarded her thoughtfully. "Honestly? I'm not sure either. The evidence against her was pretty condemning, but there was just as much showing that he'd abused her really badly for a long time. It's messy."
"I'll say. And pretty gross, too," noted Willow, arriving on the scene with a mocha in-hand and settling herself comfortably between Buffy and Tara. "Honestly Buffy, do you even chew any more?"
With a glower, Buffy plucked a chip from atop the muffin and flicked it at Willow.
"Uhm, not the muffin," corrected Tara. "The trial?" She held out the paper so Willow could see it.
"Oh. Oh!" Willow turned to Buffy with a grimace and an apologetic smile. "Sorry."
"My muffin hates you," Buffy told her curtly.
Willow addressed the offended party with due seriousness. "Sorry, Mr. Muffin." Then out of the corner of her mouth, she replied in her best funny voice, "That's okay, Willow! All is forgiven!" She drew a hand across her forehead. "Whew, glad that's settled. Pastry can be so vindictive."
"Especially cream puffs," cautioned Tara. "It's a deceptive name."
"Doughnut make me come over there," warned Buffy.
At the unanimous wince from her audience, Buffy smiled. "I win."
"Right!" announced Willow in a bright tone, keen to put the terrible pun far, far behind. "So murder, because slightly less painful." She eyed the headline. "We were debating about this in my ethics class today. Hairy tangles. What do you guys think?"
"We'd officially decided on 'No clue'," Tara replied.
"See," interjected Buffy, nodding confidently. "This is why I like Slaying so much."
The conversation stalled.
"Feel free to start building the Golden Gate between points one and two any time now," Willow finally suggested.
"It's the demon world, so there's not a whole lot of these big moral questions," explained Buffy with a patient expression. "If it wants to kill you, you can pretty much assume 'evil'. Whole layers of doubt are blissfully removed."
Tara frowned. "That's pretty ..."
"Easy?" offered Buffy.
"I was thinking more 'dogmatic'," returned Tara.
Buffy considered this. "Not quite so harsh. How about 'puppymatic'?"
Tara didn't seem to fully buy into the theory. "Just that ... demon doesn't always immediately equal bad, right?" She looked to Buffy and then to Willow. "I mean, there was Anya—"
"Who, before being forced into her powerless human state, delighted in a thousand years of mayhem, torment and a frankly terrifying number of eviscerations in the name of scorned women," reminded Willow, taking a sip of her mocha.
Tara's sails were momentarily devoid of wind, but she recovered quickly. "Okay, well ... there's Clem."
Both Willow and Buffy nodded, neither able to find much bad to say about Clem.
"And ..." continued Tara slowly, thoughtfully.
She dug deep. So did Willow and Buffy.
"...Clem..." she finally added.
"But yeah, exactly," pressed Buffy. "Flashback to the part about 'killing me' being a pre-qualifier. I'm all for live and let slime, but the second they start killing people, then it becomes my job." She jabbed a finger emphatically into her chest. "A job which, I must point out, is not called 'The See It From All Sides-er'."
"Well, much as I'd love to stay here in the murky grayness ..." Willow got to her feet, taking her mocha with her. "We're still on for later?" she asked Tara.
Curiosity was getting the better of Buffy. "Where to, Will?"
"I've got a date."
Buffy blinked several times at the glib statement. "A date?"
"Should I be jealous?" probed Tara.
"Are they cute?" Tara probed further.
"One of the greats," affirmed Willow.
"Your love?" questioned Tara, arching an eyebrow.
"They must die," Tara told her with a heavy sigh.
Willow acknowledged the threat with due seriousness. "I'll make sure to warn 'em."
Willow pushed open the door to The Common Grounds and looked around until she spotted the object of her search. "I thought you should know," she announced loudly and cheerily, "Tara's gunnin' for ya."
Small chisel in hand, Xander looked up from his labors. With a leather toolbelt strapped around his waist, he appeared to be more in 'gainfully employed' mode rather than 'date' mode. Surrounded on all sides by wooden chairs, he looked like General Custer might have looked, had General Custer been attacked by furniture.
"Well if she hurries," he said, "she'll save me from the monotony that is this job. And for that, I would thank her heartily."
"Poor Xander," commiserated Willow, patting his shoulder. "Don't you chairish your work?" Quite taken with her clever pun, Willow openly snickered.
Xander apparently found it less than amusing. "Will? Me. Pain. Don't add."
Utilizing admirable control, Willow regained her composure. "Sorry. It's Buffy's fault, she started the whole bad pun thing and ..." It was plain that Xander had absolutely no interest whatsoever, and she wisely let the matter drop. "Anyway, so, chairs?"
"Chairs," affirmed Xander. "They decided they weren't interesting enough, so I now have an order to ..." He waved a hand vaguely at the surrounding circle. "... make them interesting."
A small frown crossed Willow's features. "But ... they're ... chairs."
Xander shrugged, obviously unable to dispute the fact that they were indeed chairs.
Willow glanced at a number of them set to one side, presumably now classified in the 'more interesting' category. They sported attractive carvings along the arms, down the legs and on the backrests.
"Though, now they're better chairs," she offered encouragingly. "Way, way better than those dull, boring things." She wrinkled her nose at the offensively bland outcasts and wiggled dismissive fingers in their direction. "Why, I wouldn't even consider for one single second sitting on one of those inferior, un-decorated pieces of ... of chair excrement!"
"Thanks," Xander acknowledged. "You can stop now."
"Oh, good," Willow sighed gratefully. "I was running out of ways to be indignant about the furniture."
Xander nodded appreciatively. "Big 'A' for effort, though."
Grinning, Willow checked her wristwatch. "So, I'm free for the next hour and a half. You wanted lunch?"
Xander perked up immediately. "Lunch is good. I'm thinking maybe classic Thai or Japanese. Someplace where you sit on something not a chair."
"Any place that's not a coffee house works for me," smirked Willow. "Too many of them for one day."
"Cool. Let me just ..."
Xander's reply was terminated mid-stream by the sound of raised voices.
"Would you stop?" came a woman's emphatic demand.
"But baby ..." a male wheedled in response.
Xander, Willow and virtually everyone else within earshot turned toward the source of what seemed to be an impending argument. A couple stood before the front counter. The young man was tall and muscular. He looked as though he could be intimidating, should he so choose. However, he was wilting badly in the face of his companion's wrath, instead resembling a repentant and chastised puppy. The woman was a figure more readily recognizable as Serafina.
"Don't 'baby' me," Serafina dictated firmly. "What does that— Why do you even use that word?" She threw her hands to the sides. "Am I like three-months old to you or something?"
"Naw, ba—" came the hasty rebuttal, but the man caught himself in time. "'Course you're not. Look, don't be mad. I'm sorry, okay? Just, that guy was flirtin' with you, and—"
"Flirting? Benny, he said 'Have a nice day'! He's in the service industry, he's supposed to say 'Have a nice day'!"
"But it was the way he said it," asserted Benny, intent on making a stand.
Serafina had clearly reached the end of her rope. Deliberately, she settled her purse upon her shoulder. "That's it, it's over."
Benny appeared stunned at the news. "Over?"
"Don't bother coming for your stuff," she told him crisply. "I'll have one of my brothers bring it by your place this weekend."
Benny's eyes narrowed as his lips set in a tight line, showing the signs of finally losing his temper. "We're not—" he protested, but Serafina was in no mood to listen. Turning sharply on her heel, she headed for the door.
"Don't you just walk away from me!" warned Benny angrily, reaching out and grabbing her elbow.
Whirling, Serafina tried to jerk her arm free, but Benny held on fast. The atmosphere in the coffee shop grew tense and there was the grating sound of chairs being shoved aside.
"Let me go," insisted Serafina, eyes flashing tiny daggers.
"We're talking about this."
"No, we're not," she refuted. "Now let me go."
Again, she attempted to free her arm, but met with no more success than before. It was then that she noticed Xander hovering nearby.
"I think the lady just made a request," he told Benny in a calm and quiet tone. "Maybe you wanna honor it voluntarily, while you've still got options."
"Who the hell are you?" sneered Benny.
"He's no one," snapped Serafina. She looked at Xander. "It's okay. Benny wouldn't hurt a fly, he's just excitable." Regardless, Xander stood his ground. "It's okay," she assured.
Both men continued to glower threateningly at each other for a second and then Xander, obviously against his better judgment, backed away. Pouncing upon the momentary distraction, Serafina seized the opportunity to wrench her arm from Benny's grip. Instantly, his demeanor returned to one of a whipped puppy.
"We're done, Benny." Serafina's face was a picture of determined resolution. "Go home."
Like a landed fish, Benny's jaw worked rapidly several times but no words emerged. It took a little while, but he eventually realized that any further objections were doomed to failure. Visibly crushed and slumped in defeat, he shuffled miserably toward the exit.
"All that for a latte," sighed Serafina as the door closed.
Shaking her head, she too made her way to the street, but before leaving, caught Xander's eye. She smiled and mouthed 'Thank you' before she, too, was gone. The Common Grounds remained hushed for a second after her departure, but soon burst into a hubbub of speculative chatter. Xander rejoined Willow, weaving through the jumble of chairs that he had hastily tossed aside not long before. He darted a sheepish glance in her direction. She regarded him with slightly exaggerated schmoopy eyes, hands clasped beneath her chin.
"You're so gallant," she all but swooned.
"Just for that," replied Xander, jabbing a finger in the air, "you're paying."
"'Gallant' means 'cheapskate' in French, right?" queried Willow with a sunny smile.
Xander didn't answer. Snatching his jacket, he tossed an arm over Willow's shoulders and steered her toward the exit. She put up no resistance but as they stepped out onto the sidewalk, glanced behind just in time to see Serafina disappearing around the corner. She looked up at Xander, who stared straight ahead, and a thoughtful expression crept across her face.
A small girl skipped gleefully along the street, corkscrew ringlets bouncing. She appeared to be unsupervised, but the fact apparently didn't worry her any. The sun cast a bright halo around the golden curls and with her big blue eyes and rosy cheeks, she might easily have been the quintessential model for one of Raphael's classic cherubs. She stopped short when she spotted a man approaching. Her eyes grew even larger and more round, but radiated with innocence and she was obviously unafraid. As he came closer, she rocked on her heels and treated him to an adorable smile. The man couldn't help but return the greeting in kind.
She swayed bashfully from side to side and whispered, "Hi."
The man crouched down so he was at eye level with the child. "Are you lost?"
The little girl emphatically shook her head. "Nooo. My mommy's over there." She gestured vaguely behind her and the man glanced in the same direction. He could see nobody that seemed to fit the part and frowned. But he didn't have time to dwell, since the girl promptly announced, "We're goin' out for lots of fun. Today's my birthday!"
"It is?" The man smiled. "Well happy birthday!"
"Thank you!" she beamed.
"What did you get for your birthday?" he asked kindly and was immediately crushed to note the expression of sadness that invaded the child's face. She shuffled her feet and stared at the sidewalk.
"My mommy says we can't afford to get me anything. We're goin' to the park, cuz mommy says it's free, an' we'll have fun, but ... I wanted a doll." She clasped her tiny hands together almost in prayer as she began to talk earnestly about the longed-for present. "She's the most beautiful doll in the whole wide world! She has the longest, bestest hair, an' her eyes actually blink!" Her little face became animated with expectant pleasure. "And this red and white dress, and she's just the most perfectest doll ever!"
Her enthusiasm had been mounting, but as the reality of her situation reasserted itself, the little girl's dreams slowly died. "It's all I want for my birthday," she sighed with yearning.
The man's face crumpled sympathetically and he was visibly moved by her plight. Without hesitation, he dug into his back pocket and whipped out a wallet. Extracting a twenty dollar bill, he offered it to the girl.
"Here. You go buy that doll. In fact—" He pulled out another. "Have a whole day. Go to the zoo or get dinner or ... whatever you want. Anything you want. Okay?"
As she accepted the proffered bills, the little girl's face lit up like a Christmas tree. Her delight was infectious and the man grinned in response.
"Oh thank you! Thank you!" she squealed. On impulse, she threw her arms around his neck and treated him to a huge hug. "This'll be the best birthday ever!"
"Enjoy it," he told her, gently patting her springy curls.
"I will!" she replied with a definite nod.
Releasing her, the man got to his feet and, with a cheery wave, continued his journey, a merry whistle on his lips. She returned the wave, money clutched tightly in her fist, and watched him walk off. As soon as he was a good distance away, she reached into the pocket of her coveralls and took out a roll of bills. The big blue eyes no longer shone with quite the same degree of naivety, becoming replaced with a certain devious cunning. She smiled with satisfaction as she added the two twenties to her stash.
"And that's rent," she chuckled as she resumed skipping along the street, singing softly to herself. "Nothing but a grand illusion, legend in my own mind ..."
She was still humming as she turned into a deserted alleyway and promptly began to morph. The childlike body grew taller, filling out with shapely curves. The flaxen curls became the color of polished mahogany and the round eyes narrowed slightly, changing from blue to jade in the process. By the time Sam arrived at the entrance to 'After Midnight', the transformation was complete. Producing a set of keys, she unlocked the front door of her club and stepped inside, flipping on the overhead lights.
Clearly in high spirits, she tackled the job of preparing the establishment for business. Removing chairs from the tops of tables, she set them neatly on the floor and then moved behind the bar to check on any items that needed to be restocked. It wasn't until she moved into the storeroom that she realized the back door had been forced open.
Sam's eyes narrowed as she warily ventured further into the area. Her hand traveled smoothly to the side to grab the first weapon she could find. It returned with a jar of olives. Irritated, Sam quickly replaced them and grabbed the broom instead. Holding it in front of her defensively, she crept slowly toward the rear exit. Reaching it without incident, she pushed the door closed once more.
Taking a swift but nonetheless in-depth survey of the room and its inventory, she came to the conclusion that nothing had been disturbed and deposited the broom in a corner before heading back to the main bar. She failed to notice the figure that emerged from the shadows behind her, moving closer and closer with every step.
Hands in pockets, Giles walked along the main hallway of Slayer Central, returning the greetings that came his way with an affable nod. Upon arriving at his office, he found Buffy inside waiting for him.
"Buffy, hello," he told her with a degree of surprise in his voice.
She was crouched down, peering at a section of wall, and looked over her shoulder as Giles entered.
"Got a little crayon down here," she informed. "I think it's supposed to be a picture of you." Her eyes returned to the doodle and she tilted her head to one side. "Though I suppose it could be a really angry toothpick."
Giles nodded as he approached his desk. "I was thinking of keeping it as a souvenir. Something to remind us all why I should never again be forced to celebrate a birthday."
"Oo, we can add to it," suggested Buffy, eyes opening wide. "It can be like a whole Toothpick Family special. The Sistine Chapel of crayon."
"I'm sure it's destined to be the brightest tourist spot for miles around," remarked Giles wryly, sinking into his chair as Buffy got to her feet. "Was this a social visit, or ...?"
"Sort of yes, sort of no," Buffy replied, moving to stand in front of the desk, hands clasped behind her back. "I was wondering how Lynn did with her team?"
Giles extracted a folder from a neat stack and flipped open the cover. "Quite well, actually," he reported, scanning the contents for verification. "They defeated three vampires on the east-end of town." He favored Buffy with a quick glance. "Nothing especially unusual, although she did report that it seemed the vampires were low-level warlocks, or shaman."
Buffy frowned. "Magick? But I thought vamps didn't like magick. Gave them the wiggins."
"They don't like it, as a general rule," confirmed Giles. "Lynn admits that she's not completely positive on that point, so it's possible she was mistaken." He replaced the folder on top of the pile. "We'll looking into it regardless, of course."
"Cool," Buffy said firmly. "Good."
"She did well, Buffy. They all did. You should be proud."
"I am," she instantly affirmed. "Proud Buffy keep on burning." She tossed a grateful smile in his direction. "Thanks."
With a nod, Giles returned the smile and then waited for a moment. Since it seemed as though Buffy had fulfilled the purpose of her visit, he presumed the chat to have come to an end and reached for a pen to begin work. He didn't get very far, however, before something was thrust forcefully under his nose.
"This is for you," announced Buffy. "Sort of a belated birthday present." Giles regarded the package suspiciously. "It's certified spell-free, I promise," she assured him.
Still, Giles blinked at the proffered item but made no move to accept. Buffy waggled it back and forth in tempting fashion until Giles took hold.
"You didn't have to," he said.
"Yeah, I did."
Somewhat puzzled, Giles ripped away the wrapping paper to expose an 8x10 photograph in an carved wooden frame. It had obviously been taken at his party, as evidenced by the cone-shaped hat perched atop his head. He was captured in the midst of a group hug, enveloped by Buffy, Willow, Xander, Tara and Dawn some time before the more interesting events of the evening transpired. Even Faith was visible, hovering nearby. She was not participating in the embrace, but given her grin, was apparently enjoying every minute of it nonetheless. In the center of the picture, Giles' face wore an expression that indicated he was trying very hard to be irritated but, for that brief moment in time, couldn't pull it off with any degree of success. The eyes glinting behind his glasses plainly revealed the fact that he was loving every second in spite of himself.
Giles stared at the picture for a long while before looking up at Buffy. She gestured around the room.
"It looks pretty bare in here. I thought a splash of joy would liven it up."
Still Giles didn't respond. He simply refocused on the framed photograph. Buffy said nothing further, content to let the image speak for her, and she slipped quietly from the room.
Still pleased from her visit with Giles, Buffy walked through the neighborhood wearing a satisfied smile. She even took the time to throw her head back and enjoy the clear blue sky before rounding the corner onto Wildwood Drive and continuing toward home. She'd taken no more than a few steps, however, before she felt that something was wrong.
Although the street was deserted, Buffy immediately became tense and on full alert. With narrowed eyes, she surreptitiously surveyed her surroundings, but nothing appeared untoward. She continued on her way, making no further indication that she was aware of anything more than the beautiful day around her.
When Buffy exploded into action, she took the young man directly behind her completely by surprise. Without hesitation, she encircled his windpipe with vice-like fingers and slammed him into the pavement. Before he could even twitch a muscle, she straddled him, knees pinning his shoulders firmly to the ground.
The man wasn't particularly intimidating or threatening – even less so given his current situation. Buffy might even have found him attractive in a different scenario, but as it was, she seemed only to find him irritating.
"Why are you following me?" she asked, tightening her grip on his throat.
"Wow," he gasped. "I knew I looked good, but right here? In public? I'm blushing." Despite his labored breathing, he conveyed an air of superiority that did little to endear him to the Slayer.
She clenched her free hand into a compact fist. "You'll be bleeding in about five seconds, if you don't tell me who you are."
"And here I thought the look would be perfect."
"If you meant 'perfect for getting my face bruised', then hey! You were right," snapped Buffy.
"Cold as ice, princess," he responded.
Frowning, Buffy searched his eyes. Slowly, she slackened her grasp and got to her feet, although she continued to survey him suspiciously. He rose up on one elbow and massaged his bruised throat while forcing out a smile that he hoped was cordial.
"I need your help."
A sign reading "Closed," had been prominently placed in the front window of After Midnight. Both doors had been secured locked and the blinds partially drawn. Standing by the bar, arms crossed, Buffy focused with concentrated suspicion upon Sam, who had taken up position between Buffy and the storage room. The demon had resumed the shape of what was apparently her default character of preference.
Buffy's eyes darted around the premises. "Tell me this big emergency isn't you needing an extra waitress on Wednesdays."
With a smirk, Sam inspected her long, red-tipped fingernails. "Don't worry, I won't be calling on you. I have very high employee standards."
"Is this the part where you're asking for my help?" asked Buffy with a frown. "Because I gotta say, not feeling so big with the helpfulness at the moment."
Taking note of the warning, Sam reined in her antagonistic attitude. "It's not exactly for me," she explained.
Neither were aware of a young woman hovering at the window outside the bar, peering through the blinds. The observer studied the scene taking place with avid interest, her ear tilted toward the glass as though she were listening intently to the conversation.
"Let me guess: it's for a 'friend'," scoffed Buffy. "'I have this "friend" who coincidentally runs a bar and also dresses like a big slut—'"
Buffy's theory was brought to an abrupt halt by the door of the storeroom opening very slowly. Nervously, a female figure emerged from the dark interior. She was around six feet tall with an athletic physique, but clearly skittish and very uneasy. Dirty smudges covered the gray sweatshirt she was wearing – the hood of which had been pulled up to cover her head – and her jeans were ripped at the knee.
Beyond the window, the voyeur narrowed her eyes.
"Strike the 'dresses like a big slut' part," acknowledged Buffy, cocking her head speculatively to one side.
At the sound of Buffy's voice, the girl began to shrink back into the safety of the gloomy storage room, but Sam hastened to encourage her, speaking soft and soothing words, although she made no move to restrain or even touch the obviously apprehensive girl.
"Hey. Hey, Tessa, it's okay," Sam reassured. "This is Buffy Summers. She's here to help."
Tessa ventured into the open once more and blinked in Buffy's direction. "She doesn't look like she could help make a pizza," observed the girl with what was probably supposed to be bravado.
"You're not the first to underestimate my dough-flinging skills," Buffy told her amicably. "Ever hear that phrase about appearances, how they sort of like to deceive?"
Pushing back her hood, Tessa revealed a pair of large silvery horns. Ram-like, they curved from her head downward to her cheeks. Her complexion was extremely pale and luminescent, as though the skin were fashioned from living ivory. The unnatural sheen of her flesh contrasted starkly with the raven hair.
"I'm guessing you have," Buffy decided.
"I know she doesn't look like much of anything, really—" Sam attempted to explain to Tessa.
"As opposed to Sam," countered Buffy, "who looks like much of everything."
"—but give her a chance," Sam concluded. "You'll be surprised."
"No. No, you don’t understand," Tessa insisted. "She's after me, and- and she doesn’t stop. I just want it to stop but she never does!" The girl was quickly becoming agitated to the point of panic. "It doesn't matter where I go or where I hide, she finds me. She always finds me!" She cast quick and furtive glances around the bar. "She's here now, I know it! I can feel it!"
Immediately, Buffy and Sam took stock of the premises, but could see nothing that posed any kind of threat. Outside, the young woman allowed herself one last, lingering, baleful look at the horned demon, and then disappeared into the surrounding scenery as stealthily as she had appeared.
"She's always over my shoulder, and I can't get away!" Tessa's tone betrayed her terror. "I try and I try, but she's always there! I can't sleep, I can never sleep." She took a shuddering breath. "I'm so tired and I just want … I want to go home." Her expression was wretched as she looked to Buffy. "I don't wanna die, I just wanna go home," she implored in a small voice as the tears began to fall. "Please."
Instantly, Sam offered what consolation she could. Buffy said nothing. She watched for a moment as Sam dabbed at the girl's wet cheeks with a bar rag, and then her gaze traveled to the window. But there was nothing to see.
In a small courtyard to one side of Slayer Central's main building, Faith was making some minor adjustments to the throttle of her motorcycle. Intent on her tinkering, she didn't seem to notice as Xander, tool bag in hand, approached from the rear. As he opened his mouth to speak, she revved the engine and his words were lost in the powerful drone of the machine. As the noise died away, he gave it another attempt, but was once again drowned out. A frown crossed Xander's face as he watched Faith work on a little fine tuning until the bike began to purr like a contented kitten. Quickly, he made as though to say something and immediately, the engine roared back into full-fledged life.
"Okay," he announced with a definite nod. "Now I know you're doing it on purpose."
Faith tossed him a grin from over her shoulder. "Busted."
"Is this your unsubtle way of telling me to get lost?"
Faith shook her head. "Nah, just exercisin' my right to be obnoxious."
"How Faith of you," commented Xander wryly before adding, "Something which, may I say, I'm happy to see."
For no immediately obvious reason, she didn't finish her sentence. Instead, she reached into her pocket and pulled out her cell phone.
"Yeah?" She paused for a second and listened. "Out front. You want me to—" She paused again. "I'll be here."
Snapping it closed, she refocused on Xander. "What're you yammerin' about?"
"See? You accused me of yammering." Xander smiled cheerily. "It warms the cockles of my heart."
Faith arched an eyebrow. "Just the cockles? Must be losin' my touch."
"I just mean, it's nice to see you back in the swing," said Xander. "You know. Not locked in your 24/7 Broodathon. Take this set-up, for example." His wave encompassed the entirety of the small courtyard. "You're out in the sunshine, doing something not directly involved in killing. It's a good."
"An' with your approval," Faith was quick to rejoin, "life just gets that much sweeter."
"So, in all due seriousness, you're better now?" queried Xander, leaning against the motorcycle's pillion. A tiny frown creased Faith's forehead, but she tolerated the infraction and considered the question for a moment.
"I look better?"
"You look better," Xander confirmed.
"Guess I must be, then," Faith decided with a shrug.
Emerging from the interior of Slayer Central, Giles squinted into the bright sunlight and then shielded his eyes as he looked around for Faith. Sighting her, he made his way down the front steps.
"Faith. Xander," he acknowledged as he came closer.
"No, please, stop with the mush," insisted Xander, extending his arms as though he were in need of protection. "You'll only embarrass me."
"My apologies," Giles responded. "In the future I'll greet you with a hug and a sloppy kiss, would you prefer that?"
Xander's hands remained in their locked and upright position. "Not only would I not prefer that," he answered with a stunned expression, "I think a part of me just died inside."
"When you're done flirting," prompted Faith, resting her elbows on the handlebars.
Xander continued to look as though his lunch was planning a return trip, but Giles took it all in stride and turned his attention to Faith.
"I'm doing some follow-up work on a report one of the Junior Slayers made last night," he informed briskly. "They believe they may have encountered a small group of vampiric warlocks, and I was wondering if you'd seen anything similar in your patrols." He crossed his arms and peered at Faith. "I'd check your reports, but they curiously appear to be lacking."
"Let me guess," interjected Xander. "They're something like: 'Killed bad guy. Bad guy didn't kill me. Five by five'."
"Even that would be a welcome improvement," said Giles. "I mean they're entirely lacking, in that there hasn't been a single one since your return."
"An' since it took you this long to notice, I can see we have a real problem here," responded Faith, checking her fingernails for signs of grease.
"Well I simply assumed you were—"
"Look," Faith interrupted. "I go out, I do my job. Even give service with a smile. But if you think I'm comin' home an' writin' up a term paper every night, you're freakin' crazy."
"Make one of your Juniors do it," suggested Xander. "They'd figure out a way to walk on water if you asked 'em to."
Faith seemed to seriously consider the possibility. "Hm. Abuse of power." She nodded approvingly. "I can get behind that."
Giles tutted his disapproval. "This is one of the- the most important responsibilities of the primary Slayers, necessary to- to maintain an accurate portrait … of …" His reprimand drifted into nothingness as it become painfully clear that Faith couldn't possibly care less.
He sighed again. "We'll discuss it later." Faith's replying 'should be fun' smirk went ignored as Giles returned to the topic at hand. "So have you? Seen any…?"
"Nope, nothin' even close," declared Faith. "I'll keep my eyes peeled, though."
"If this is a magicky thing, why not bring in the magicky-types?" Xander suggested. "Will and Tara might be able to get more info."
Giles nodded his agreement. "If this becomes more substantiated, certainly. Before then, though, I see no reason to disturb them."
The "DO NOT DISTURB" sign had been affixed to the door of the Sanctum, complete with its accompanying warning and caution signs provided by Dawn and Xander. On the floor inside, Willow and Tara sat across from each other, Indian-style. Their eyes were closed and their hands were clasped. The area was suffused with visible indications of their magick. A silvery glow enveloped the couple, while within and around the radiance, a myriad of small effervescent spheres – some of a soft blue and an even larger number of a powerfully vivid green – engaged in a type of cosmic waltz. The sparkles danced around each woman before darting back and forth between the two witches, who both wore expressions of peace and contentment.
Unconsciously, Tara stroked the back of Willow's hand. In response, the miniscule green twinkles instantly become more intense, growing increasingly excitable in their movements. Although unable to see this phenomenon in the conventional sense, Tara was nevertheless aware of it and she smiled.
"Good to know I haven't lost my touch," she whispered.
Willow shook her head. "Don't think that's even a tiny possibility."
The glimmers continued their playful display. Five of the green flashes encircled one of the blue sparks and then began to pulse. Tara inhaled sharply as the blue twinkle glowed more brightly, while the greens became dimmed. The effect was captured for a few moments, and then the increased blue gleam dissipated, allowing the green flickers to return to their former state of high illumination.
"And the moral of the story?" Willow informed sagely. "It's better to give than to take."
Tara's cheeks were flushed. "I'll remember that for next time."
As the tiny sparks resumed their giddy swirl, a game of chase erupted between a few of them, initiated by a group of green twinkles. They flitted to and fro, closely pursued by an equal number of the blue flashes. The greens hid behind the shade of a table lamp, but were easily spotted by the blues. Next they tried to shakes off their pursuers by weaving in, out and around a collection of glass vials, but to no avail. Finally, they decided on a straight-out race and sped toward the curtains. That too was thwarted. At every turn, the tiny green spheres were foiled by the blue sparkles.
"You're fast," admired Willow.
"You think too much," Tara advised quietly. "Let go. Feel it."
The green glimmers seemed to become agitated.
"Me, magick and feelings – not exactly an award-winning combination," Willow said with a nervous chuckle.
But the blue twinkles were there, bathing the little overly-charged green flashes in a soothing glow.
"Emotions are the soul of power, Will. You have to know them to work with them."
Still, Willow was hesitant and unsure.
Another unit of calming blue sparkles joined the crusade, surrounding the brilliant nucleus of green. Tara gently caressed Willow's hands, offering physical comfort as well.
"Relax. Feel it," she urged.
Focusing every ounce of energy into her assigned task, Willow threw herself utterly into attempting to relax.
Tara opened her eyes and absorbed the sight before her with something akin to awe. Wearing an expression that was only semi-serene, Willow's brow was creased in a furrow of deep concentration. She was emitting hundreds of diminutive green-hued twinkles that ranged in color from deep emerald to pale lime. For a moment, Tara was totally overwhelmed.
"God," she breathed, "you're so beautiful."
Willow's lids fluttered and she looked across at Tara. Initially it seemed as though the redhead believed she had misheard the statement, but then she noted the look in Tara's eyes. The pair did nothing but gaze at each other for a long moment and it was Tara who broke the deadlock. Closing the distance between them, she leaned forward and cradled Willow's face in her palms. Her lips brushed the top of Willow's head, moving down to kiss the forehead and the tip of Willow's nose. Their mouths met tenderly at first, soon to be overtaken by a mounting urgency as Willow's fingers became entangled in Tara's hair. The sparkles of blue and green continued to waltz merrily for a few seconds and then faded as the pair sank to the floor.
There was a murmur of blissful delight and then only the sound of Willow's enraptured whisper.
"I feel it."
A scaly-skinned demon, reptilian in appearance, rapped his claws impatiently on the window of After Midnight. He blinked rapidly to see Sam's face appear and then jerked his head meaningfully toward the door. Taking hold of the plainly-displayed "Closed" sign, Sam waggled it up and down a few times and then waved her hand to shoo him on his way. With a disappointed flick of his forked tongue, the demon shuffled down the street. Sam watched his departure with an exasperated expression before rejoining Buffy and Tessa at one of the small tables.
"You'd think they can't read," she complained with an eye-roll.
"Maybe they can't," suggested Buffy. "I mean, they come here – how smart can they be?"
Sam favored her with a charming smile. "You're so cute when you try to be insulting." She turned to Tessa. "Go ahead, honey."
"It's been almost a year, I guess, since I left," began Tessa hesitantly. "My mother and I'd just had this huge fight." She laughed, and it was a short and bitter sound. "I thought it was so crucial. Now I can't even remember what it was about. I yelled, she yelled, and … I left. I just didn't want to be there any more. I walked for a while, not really going anywhere. I wound up near a Shirconthal."
Buffy put out her hand as though to physically halt Tessa's story. "Hold up, new vocabulary word. 'Shirconthal'?"
Thoughtfully, Tessa tangled the drawstrings of her hood around her fingers. "It sort of translates to …" She paused for moment. "'Misplaced star', I think is the best I can get. Our dimension is on a cusp, and the Shirconthal is a temporary, uhm … leak. A … A sort of hole in the walls." She looked to Sam and Buffy to ensure she was making herself understood. "They pop up randomly all the time. We're taught at a really young age that if we ever see one to leave it alone, because they're so unpredictable. They could go anywhere, and there's no way to know how long they'll stick around. Sometimes they're gone as soon as they appear. Others are older than me."
"And let me guess," Buffy said, connecting the dots, "in your fit of teenage rebelliousness …"
"I went in," finished Tessa, hanging her head. "Not my smartest move ever."
Sam offered comfort by patting the girl's arm. "So you crossed over and got stuck."
"I didn't care at first," declared Tessa. "I was just so happy to be … not there. And this world's so exciting! You've got Robbie Williams, and sushi!" For a moment, her dark eyes sparkled.
"Earth: come for the dimensional rifts, stay for the raw fish," Buffy agreed.
Tessa twiddled the plastic bobble at the end of the drawstring before bringing it absent-mindedly to her mouth. She chewed on it for a second. "I've been wandering around America every since. I arrived in Arizona and I just …" She gestured to her shoes. "Let my fingers do the walking."
The smile she offered was as weak as her pop-culture attempt.
"Those are your feet," Buffy corrected.
Tessa was obviously deflated. "Oh, yeah." She glanced hopefully at Buffy. "Is there a foot reference I can make?"
Buffy considered the poser. "The best I've got is 'These boots are made for walking'."
Sam gave a disdainful snort, which was met by Buffy's glower. "It's hard to make them up when you're on the spot like that, okay?"
Sam held her silence, but remained unapologetic. Buffy glared at Sam for a moment longer and then motioned for Tessa to continue.
"When I'm hungry, I get food. When I'm tired, I find some place to sleep. I made it all the way to Vermont before I began thinking about home again, but once I started, I couldn't stop." Her eyes brimmed with tears. "Then all I wanted was to find the Shirconthal."
A tiny crease appeared on Buffy's forehead. "Please tell me that's not it," she urged. "Cuz you know, sympathetic and all, but this isn't really my sort of—"
"She's being hunted," interrupted Sam briskly. "I found her this afternoon, hiding in my storeroom. After I got her calmed down enough to believe I wasn't there to hurt her, she filled me in." Sam inclined her chin toward Tessa, encouraging her to finish the tale.
"I was somewhere in New York when I decided to stop for the night." Tessa's fingers twisted restlessly in her lap. "I … found a house. The backdoor was open. It looked like everyone had gone away for the weekend or something. So I let myself in, picked the first bed I found and went to sleep."
She shuddered slightly, the memory apparently disturbing.
"The sirens woke me up," she resumed shakily. "The family … they hadn't gone away. They were … They were dead. They were all dead, and it was just horrible. The blood …" As though anticipating the thoughts of her audience, Tessa immediately went on the defensive. "I didn’t do it! They must've been like that when I came in, because I didn’t do it!"
"Honey, nobody's saying you did," Sam gently clarified.
"The police did!" Tessa exclaimed. "They wanted to take me away, but I knew if they realized what I was … So I ran. I ran as fast as I could, and I haven't stopped. I thought I'd gotten away, but I haven't. They sent her after me." Her eyes darted nervously around the room.
Buffy dipped her head, but no further explanation appeared to be coming. "Who's 'her'?"
"I don't know!" Tessa responded miserably. "She's this … this unstoppable monster! It doesn’t matter where I go or how much I try to hide, she can always find me." Her voice grew hushed and wavering in its desperation. "She's gonna kill me." She hugged herself even tighter.
"No she isn't," denied Sam adamantly. She looked to Buffy for corroboration. "Tell her."
But Buffy didn't answer immediately. Her face betrayed no emotion as she studied the wretched demon across from her.
"All I want is to go home," insisted Tessa. "My mom … I want to tell her how sorry I am. How I didn't mean what I said. I don't hate her, I don't ..." The tears began to well once more. "It's the last thing I said to her, and I'm gonna die and she'll never know. I just want to take it all back. I take it all back, Mommy. I'm so sorry …"
Tessa drew her knees up to her chin, curling into the depths of her chair and rocking slowly back and forth. She began to mutter in what was presumably her native tongue, lilting and melodic. Buffy looked at Sam, treated her to a penetrating stare, and then jerked her head toward the far side of the room, out of earshot of the girl, who was now openly weeping. Rising from her seat, Buffy made her way to the corner, assuming that Sam would follow, which she did.
"Here's the part where I officially say 'What the hell?'" snapped Buffy. "You brought me into this exactly why now?"
"Come on," retorted Sam, hands on hips. "You can't seriously believe she killed those people."
The pair glanced at the woeful figure cringing in her chair. She had adopted a near-fetal position and gave no impression that she presented any manner of threat. Indeed, if a creature sporting huge ram's horns could possibly be considered meek, it would have been Tessa.
Sam tutted sympathetically. "I think she'd need therapy if she turned on a light switch and the bulb blew."
Buffy's gaze lingered speculatively for a long moment. "No, I don't think she did it," she eventually admitted. "But I also don't think I run an escort service."
Sam opened her mouth to speak, but Buffy gave her no opportunity.
"As in, 'I will escort you through two time zones to your final destination'," she added sharply. "I mean, in case you hadn't noticed, we're on a Hellmouth-energy-thingie here. Chief Slayer, sort of needed."
Sam arched a disparaging eyebrow. "But I thought you helped the hopeless, or whatever it is?"
Buffy shook her head. "Different branch."
As Sam's mouth worked into another protest, Buffy yielded a little and searched for a solution. "Okay, maybe … a plane ticket," she conceded. "We'll book her on the first flight out."
Sam was clearly dissatisfied with the solution. "What about the thing after her? The kid's terrified. Do you really think she'll be able to fight it off?" She didn't wait for an answer. "I think she'd have to call 'uncle' on an anemic kitten. If this killer thing's followed her this far …"
Buffy held up a staying hand. "Fine, your suggestion?"
Briefly, Sam pondered the problem.
"Maybe you don't have to get her back there," she offered slowly, apparently still thinking it through to some extent. "If these sheer-whatevers are as random as she says, then the odds of just finding one are pretty much impossible anyway. So maybe you can force one. Create it yourself."
"Oh, sure," rejoined Buffy. "I just happen to have a can of Portal-Be-Here in my back pocket. Never leave home without it."
"Maybe not you," admitted Sam with an overly-sweet smile. "But I'm sure as Chief Slayer, you have more competent resources to pull from." Buffy's eyes narrowed at the jab and Sam sighed despondently. "All I know is, she's a scared little girl, trapped a long way from home, who got caught up in something bigger than herself."
Buffy crossed her arms. "Why do you care, anyway?"
"The question you should be asking is, why don't you?"
Buffy said nothing, simply regarding Sam soberly for a while before transferring her attention to Tessa. The young girl had regained a modicum of composure. She no longer cowered despairingly and the tears had ceased, but she now appeared utterly exhausted and very scared. She raised her head as Buffy approached. Her expression was a curious mixture of expectancy and fear.
"Will you help me?" she whispered hopefully.
Buffy maintained her silence for what seemed an eternity before she finally nodded.
The vacated apartment was small and not particularly cheery, save for the bright sun that streamed through curtainless windows. It was devoid of furniture but there was minimal evidence of habitation. A large backpack rested against one wall, flap thrown open. The untidy contents gave the impression that someone was living out of it. The sole inhabitant of the room was an athletically built young woman – the voyeur who had appeared earlier outside After Midnight. Standing before the largest window, she wore a high-tech headset and was dialing a number on her cellular phone.
The recipient of the call answered on the first ring. "Well hey there, gorgeous."
The voice was that of a relatively young male, perhaps in his mid-twenties, and bore the unmistakable accent of one born and bred in the south.
"Lazarus," the young woman greeted briskly.
"Uh-oh, I know that tone," he responded, the smile evident in his voice. "It usually comes before a lotta work for me."
"Good guess," she replied. "Can you see me?"
There was the muted tapping of a keyboard. "Got a fix. God bless GPS, huh?"
The woman apparently was in no mood for technological chit-chat. "About two and a half miles south/south east of here, there's a bar calling itself 'After Midnight'."
The tap of keys could be heard once more, and Lazarus chatted while he worked. "So what's the deal?" he questioned curiously. "If you have it pinned to a place, it should be dead by now. Don't tell me you're gettin' soft, Denali."
"I don't get soft," she chastised sternly.
"Don't I know it," said Lazarus with a sigh. "Okay, got the bar."
"I tracked it there, but it's not alone," Denali informed. "There were two others. Women. I don't know who the first was, but she wanted help from the second, so she must be the more important."
"Ready for standard check," affirmed Lazarus.
There was a pause, with no pitter-patter to indicate that research was being undertaken.
"Come again?" queried Lazarus.
"Buffy Summers," reiterated Denali. "Bee, yuu, eff—"
"Naw," scoffed Lazarus. "I mean … seriously?" He chuckled. "That's her name?"
Denali shrugged. "It could be a nickname."
"Well god, let's hope," stated Lazarus sympathetically as he began to type.
Shifting her weight from one foot to the next, Denali waited with enforced patience as Lazarus apparently called up and sifted through the available information. She did not have to wait too long.
"Okay," he reported slowly. "That's weird."
"I knew it!" she declared emphatically. "I knew there was something about her."
"Actually, there's nothin' about her," contradicted Lazarus, clearly mystified.
Denali frowned, trying to make sense the statement. She failed. "Huh?"
"I mean, there is something," he corrected. "The basics. Born in Los Angeles, January 19, 1981. Grades range from average to less-than. Moved to Sunnydale, California about ten years ago. Current residence: Trillium, Pennsylvania." He paused. "And that's pretty much it."
"That's it?" Denali was disbelieving. "That can't be it. There's more on you, and you don't technically exist."
"Hang on a sec." Lazarus' request was followed by the sound of increased typing. "Ah-ha!" he finally exclaimed. "Oh … oh, that's clever."
When no further explanation was forthcoming, Denali began to get antsy. "Don't leave me hanging."
"You know I'd never do that, darlin'," drawled Lazarus. "There's more on your friend. A lot more. Holes in school records, sealed police files …" Denali listened to the rapidly tapping keys. "Hell, found a hidden path here, looks like it leads right to the goddamn military! Think this Buffy Summers got herself a pet hacker, Deni. So see? You got somethin' in common."
"Then after I kick her ass and kill my demon, we'll have lots to talk about."
Lazarus laughed, but as he continued his research, he merriment turned to caution. "That ass-kicking may not be so easy," he advised. "This is high-level stuff here. Military don't have classified information this high on any Tom, Dick or Susan. We don't know who – or what – she is."
"This would be why I keep you around," purred Denali. "Can you get to the chewy information center?"
"I'm offended you hafta ask," Lazarus replied with all the indignity he could muster. "Whoever hid this stuff is good though, an' bustin' through the military ain't exactly cake. It'll take some time."
"We don't have time," Denali replied urgently. "Every day this thing is on the loose, that's another day it could slaughter someone else."
Kneeling in front of her backpack, she extracted a folder containing a sheaf of papers and a collection of photographs – shots of an exceedingly gruesome crime scene. Denali lingered for a moment on one showing the mangled remains of a small dog collar before moving to the next. Its focus was on the blood-covered hand of a child.
"I won't let it kill another family."
The last series of photographs in the folder were of Tessa, but not the meek and mild teenage girl Sam had discovered in her storeroom. This Tessa appeared dangerous and savage, almost feral. A couple of the pictures had been taken at close range, focusing on the sharp horns and desperate face, but the remainder were of a girl in panicked flight.
"This ends. Now," murmured Denali with a decisive nod.
The contents of the folder having presumably served to further fortify her resolve, she returned the materials to her backpack and spoke once more into the headset.
"If Buffy Summers has her own computer guru, she might have other contacts as well. Get me pictures, names and addresses," she instructed. "If Miss Summers won't give me my demon, we may have to persuade her."
Cross-legged on the couch, Dawn balanced a notebook on her knees. Frowning with concentration, she chewed on the pencil between her teeth and glanced from the pad in front of her to the textbook sitting on a cushion between herself and Giles.
"I still don't get it," she stated with frustration.
Giles peered more closely at the math book.
"You see, first you, uhm ... factor, the- the, uh, the 'x'," he faltered. "Then you're left with ..." He gestured vaguely at the open page, "...this..."
Dawn fixed him with a challenging stare. "You don't get it either."
Giles shook his head. "Not in the slightest."
"I thought you were supposed to know this stuff," insisted Dawn with a pout. "I didn't think they let you graduate in England until you knew everything."
"And at the time, I did know everything," Giles confirmed. "It's since faded somewhat, I'm sad to say."
With a heavy sigh, Dawn tossed her notepad onto the coffee table, where it narrowly avoided collision with a bowl of chips. Her pencil soon met the same fate and rolled slowly off the edge onto the floor. Dawn eyed it with annoyance.
"I hate this," she complained irritably. "When am I ever gonna need trig anyway?"
Giles smiled a little at her vexation. "I remember saying something very similar when I was in school," he commiserated. "But that's just youth talking. You'll be glad for the lessons when you get older."
"So when exactly did you use trig in the real world again?" demanded Dawn, folding her arms over her chest.
"Don't poke holes in my attempts at grown-up logic, it's impolite," Giles chastised. He checked his watch and glanced toward the living room entranceway. "Buffy needs to get here soon. I've got work to attend to."
Dawn's lower lip jutted. "But you just got here! You haven't come over without an armed escort in like forever, and ... it's nice." Her expression brightened as she was struck with the most wonderful idea ever conceived. "You can help me with my homework!" She surveyed the discarded remains of her math. "I mean, homework for stuff that you'd actually know, like ..." She thought for a moment. "Oh! Okay, you can help with my history, because you're so old!" She smiled encouragingly.
"Now you'd think that would've charmed me into staying," Giles wondered aloud. "Can't imagine why it doesn’t appear to be working."
Both glanced toward the front door as it began to open and Buffy made an entrance. "Ah-ah, nobody leaves," Buffy announced firmly, peeking around the corner into the living room. "I've sounded the Scooby alert."
"What for?" asked Giles.
Returning to the foyer, Buffy could be heard trying to coax someone to accompany her inside. After much urging, Tessa inched her way into the living room. Her hands were clasped in front of her and she took stock of her surroundings with restless eyes that darted into every corner. There was no hood covering her head, and consequently, the silvered horns were instantly visible.
Buffy gently prodded the girl forward. "For her. Tessa, this is Giles and Dawn," she introduced. "They're friends."
"Hello," offered Giles doubtfully, while a surprised Dawn simply waved at their visitor.
Tessa flashed them a weak and nervous smile.
"Dawn," Buffy instructed pointedly, "why don't you and Tessa hang out, maybe watch something?" At Dawn's agreeing nod, Buffy headed into the kitchen.
"Wow, an order to stop my homework for TV." Dawn bounced delighted on the couch. "I love this job!" She turned her smile at Tessa, who shyly returned the gesture.
"Of course that TV time comes out of later," Buffy hastened to clarify over her shoulder. "When you'll be finishing up your homework."
Dawn rolled her eyes. "I knew it was too good to be true." She refocused on Tessa. "Hey. So, do you like 'Lost'? I think we still have last week's episode TiVo'd."
"Excuse me one moment," interrupted Giles. Favoring Tessa with a small but intrinsically polite parting nod, he followed Buffy into the kitchen, but she had her cell phone clamped to her ear and he was forced to wait while she completed the call.
"As soon as you can, both of you," Buffy was urging. Her tone grew a tad snippy. "Yes, it's important. Bring whatever stuff you might need to send someone to another dimension." She paused for a moment, listening. "No, not Dawn. It's ..." A tiny frown creased her forehead as her words trailed away. "What are you doing?" she asked. "It sounds like—" Her eyes widened. "Never mind. Do not tell me. Just get here as quick as you can."
She acknowledged confirmation and then disconnected the call.
"Buffy, what's all this about?" whispered Giles.
"We're helping Tessa get home," Buffy told him matter-of-factly, reaching into one of the overhead cupboards for a glass.
Giles lowered his voice even further. "Can Tessa not get herself home?"
"Apparently not," shrugged Buffy, turning on the faucet. "She went through this 'shirk it all' thing in her dimension and wound up here. Now she's stuck." She took a gulp of water. "On top of that, she's got some major badass hunting her down, so we've got to get her home pretty quick."
Giles glanced curiously toward the living room. "And she's being hunted why again?"
Buffy arched a speculative eyebrow. "Whoever it is think she killed some people. Which, I know, cause for pause, but ..."
She moved to the entrance of the kitchen and looked at Dawn and Tessa sitting on the couch. Giles joined her. The eyes of the two teenagers were glued to the television screen. The TiVo had been paused on a bare-chested Sawyer, who was exhibiting his pecs and dimples for the camera. Tessa appeared to be infinitely more relaxed now and the pair were chattering animatedly, appreciating the frozen image with blatant admiration.
Buffy shook her head. "I don't think she's a killer, Giles. Take away the horns, and she could be any one of Dawn's harmless – albeit way, way too phone-obsessed – friends."
Giles wasn't quite so sure. "I don't recognize her species," he advised cautiously. "She doesn't seem dangerous, but ..." His attention turned from the two girls to Buffy. "I want to do some checking. Find out for certain what we're dealing with."
"No argument," she agreed.
As Buffy and Giles conferred, they continued to watch Dawn and Tessa. The bowl had been placed on a cushion between them and the math book tossed carelessly onto the floor. Both were helping themselves to liberal handfuls of chips. They groaned every time Kate opened her mouth and then, in unison, pitched chips at the screen before giggling and nudging each other.
"It's nice," mused Buffy, "helping for a change."
With a serious expression, Giles regarded his Slayer. "Buffy, you help people all the time."
"No, I know I do," she recognized, "but it's sort of a pre-emptive thing. I mean, unless I royally screw up, they don't ever know I'm there at all. This though," she waved a hand in Tessa's direction. "This is me being all proactive. Touching humanity. Or, demanity."
A small frown furrowed her brow. That didn't sound quite right. She shrugged as though to say, 'Oh well.'
"Anyway, it's nice," she confirmed emphatically. "That's my point. I don't feel killy, I feel Peace Prizey."
Giles and Buffy jumped slightly as piercing shrieks of delight emanated from the couch at Sawyer's reappearance.
Buffy visibly winced. "Though if I have to listen to that for too much longer, we could be right back to killy again with alarming speed."
Pushing against one of the heavy wooden doors of Slayer Central's main entrance, Willow held it open for a book-laden Tara before joining the blonde on the top step. Tucking the few volumes she was carrying beneath her arm, Willow hefted a satchel over her shoulder and the couple proceeded down the stone stairway to the street.
"Sorry again for the interruption," Willow said regretfully.
"Stop apologizing," ordered Tara with a twinkle. "It's probably for the best anyway, or we might've been in there all night."
"Then there'd be search parties and unflattering pictures on milk cartons ..." Willow predicted.
Tara nodded. "See? Buffy flashed the Scooby Signal just in time."
"We'll have to thank her for saving us from ourselves."
Turning a corner, the pair passed through a residential area where it appeared the neighbors were engaged in savage competition to see who could create the most obnoxiously ornamental front yard. Neon pink flamingos stood one-legged guard with alarming regularity and ugly little painted gnomes toting various implements were dotted everywhere. Small stone statues, some in good taste and others not so, supplied the source for miniature waterfalls and one yard sported a rock garden that looked as though a dump truck had haphazardly deposited its load from the local quarry. The witches took in their surroundings with a skeptical and unimpressed eye.
"So," Tara broached, keen for a distraction, "what's the emergency?"
"She didn’t say," Willow replied with a frown. "I'm sure there'll be a big exposition scene as soon as we get home."
"But given what she said ..." Tara pressed. "Do you think she wants us to open a gate? Because our last attempt wasn't exactly, you know ... what you'd call a success."
Willow wrinkled her nose. "That order was a pretty darn big one to fill, though. Plus we had Spellapalooza coming up right after and we couldn't go all out." She smiled at Tara comfortingly. "So there's that."
"True," acknowledged Tara slowly, still somewhat doubtful. "And it was a lateral move on the same plane, which is a bit different. Whatever Buffy needs, it sounds dimensional."
"And if we're really lucky? Won't involve a whole army," added Willow.
Tara remained thoughtful. "I'm pretty out of the loop on a lot of dimensional stuff."
Willow turned to her with bubbling enthusiasm. "Oh, it's fascinating! I've learned so much since being on Professor Kane's research team. Like—" She paused, but only for a brief second. "Okay, so you know how we perceive time and space as being fixed, right? All rigid and immutable?" Tara was going to nod, but realized it was pointless since Willow was now on a roll and not necessarily looking for confirmation. "Well Professor Kane theorizes that if you can excite the quantum particles enough to actually bend reality, then an object can become displaced and ..."
Her words trailed away as she noticed that Tara was no longer looking interested simply in the dissertation, but Willow couldn’t entirely interpret the new expression. "What?"
"I love it when you talk geeky to me," Tara responded with an enigmatic smile.
Sporting a huge grin, Willow waggled her eyebrows suggestively. "Well then get ready baby, cuz when we get home, I'm breakin' out my physics textbooks."
"Work first," Tara replied, making every effort to shake the image of such a delightful promise. "Buffy's counting on us to work the magicky mojo, so we'd better—"
Cut off mid-sentence, she was suddenly jerked violently backward. The books she had been carrying tumbled to the pavement as her limbs were twisted and pinned from behind. Before anyone was able to fully digest what had transpired, an arm had snaked around Tara's throat, squeezing so tightly that the blonde was visibly fighting for air, her breath coming in short and labored gasps.
Willow cried out Tara's name, then turned to the captor with a fully-fledged glare of vengeful wrath. Denali regarded her from over Tara's shoulder with quintessential calm. Willow's lips began to move but before she could verbalize, she was issued a warning.
"No spells, witch. I get so much as a tingle of magick and I'll snap your girl's neck."
Willow bit back the impending chant, but her expression grew even more furious. "Let her go. Now."
Denali shook her head. "First, let's chat. Then—"
This time, it was Denali who had no opportunity to finish her sentence as a hefty chunk of rock collided with the back of her skull. Stunned, she allowed Tara to slip from her grasp. Coughing and retching, the blonde staggered forward into Willow's waiting arms. Supporting her partner securely around the waist and now crackling with righteous energy, Willow turned to spit a spell in Denali's direction, but there was no need. Faith had assumed control of the situation and was pulling the dazed attacker to her feet by two fistfuls of shirt.
"Likin' the plan," approved Faith. "Got topic suggestions an' everything."
Much to Faith's surprise, however, Denali was recovering from the assault more swiftly than expected. With a burst of speed that was almost a blur, she hauled back and punched Faith squarely in the jaw. Faith's neck snapped to one side at the force of the impact, but she refused to loosen her hold. Regaining equilibrium at an amazing rate, Faith retaliated with a powerful headbutt. Blinking rapidly, Denali returned with a well-aimed jab but this time, Faith was ready. Releasing one fistful of bunched-up shirt, she easily blocked the blow.
"You're fast," Faith acknowledged.
Apparently Denali had been prepared for her attack to fail, and quickly followed up with a left-handed attack. It took Faith off-guard and connected solidly. Still, Faith maintained her vice-like grip on the front of Denali's shirt.
"Strong, too," Faith commended before striking again with a vicious chop to the windpipe, which Denali was helpless to dodge.
She reeled a little and began to choke, but still Denali didn't buckle. Taking full advantage, Faith followed-up with straight punch to the bridge of the nose. Denali lurched, her resistance beginning to wane. The knee driven sharply into her solar plexus knocked much of the remaining wind from Denali's sails, but Faith wasn't quite done. The coup de grace came with Faith finally releasing her hold on Denali's shirt and letting loose with an uppercut that literally lifted Denali off her feet, sending her crashing to the concrete.
"An' hey, you can dish it out and take it," Faith told the still conscious Denali. "I'm impressed."
From her prone position, Denali clutched at her stomach and looked up at the victor. "What ... what are you?"
Her glare still firmly in place, Willow came to stand next to Faith. Despite her anger, she was studying Denali with interest.
"She's like you," Willow replied. "A Slayer."
Clearly puzzled, Denali stared at Willow for a long moment and then her eyes traveled back to Faith. Slowly, her gaze returned to Willow and she frowned.
In the dining room of the Scoobies' House, Buffy had commandeered Willow's laptop. Though nowhere near as research-savvy as its owner, Buffy was doing her best to ferret out information, tongue protruding from the corner of her mouth. She frowned occasionally at Giles, who alternately breathed down her neck and then jabbed a forefinger at the various site recommendations listed by Google.
Dawn and Tessa, meanwhile, were still watching TV.
"See, that's the thing," Dawn stated firmly, gesturing to the screen with some annoyance. "I can't tell if he's evil. I mean, he's pretty much always creepy, that's a duh." Absent-mindedly, Tessa nodded in agreement. "But then one second he's dishing out advice like he's Dear Abby, and the next he's ripping the skin off pigs and flinging knives. You need a scorecard, y'know?"
Tessa's attention had wandered and she didn't immediately answer She was leaning back against the couch, peering toward the entrance to the kitchen, presumably trying to see through it to what Buffy and Giles were doing. "I think he's evil," she finally responded distractedly.
Despite her thoughts being elsewhere, Tessa nevertheless sounded quite confident in her appraisal – a fact that Dawn seemed to find extremely interesting.
Refocusing on Dawn, Tessa shrugged. "He smiles too much."
An expression of contemplative confusion crossed Dawn's face, and Tessa gave her an amicable smile. It wasn't long, however, before the demon's gaze drifted back toward the kitchen. Almost immediately she caught herself and, seeming ashamed, lowered her head and dropped her eyes to her lap.
"We're going to figure it out," Dawn told her consolingly.
"I feel like I've been running for so long," sighed Tessa, restlessly twisting her fingers. "Like I'm caught in a nightmare and I just can't wake up, you know?" She shot Dawn a desperate glance. "I'm afraid to believe you."
"I get that," nodded Dawn sympathetically. "I really do. A little ways back ... I had someone after me, too. She was strong, and powerful, and seriously scary – and I'm not just talking about her hair." Dawn grinned at her own attempt at levity, but Tessa failed to get the joke. Dawn didn't bother trying to explain it, choosing instead to continue her story. "She was looking for me, and I knew – I just knew she'd find me and when she did ... that'd be it. I'd be dead."
Tessa hungrily absorbed Dawn's every word, listening with rapt attention. It was obvious she felt exactly the same way.
"You know what, though?" Dawn continued with a comforting smile. "I'm still here, and it's because of Buffy." Dawn's own gaze gravitated toward where Buffy was sitting somewhere out of sight. "Buffy swore she'd take care of me, and she did. My sister beat a god for me." She paused and frowned slightly as she glanced back to Tessa. "I’m ... sort of hoping she won't have to do that for you because the story kinda gets a little bumpy after that." She shook off the memory and got back on track. "The point is: you can believe me. Believe her. She's Buffy."
In silence, Tessa processed this information, mulling it over in her mind, and it seemed as though Dawn's conviction was serving to bolster her own spirits. "You know one of the things I miss most?" Tessa asked softly.
Shaking her head, Dawn swiveled toward Tessa, moving a little closer as she sat sideways on the couch. On the television screen, even a shirtless Sawyer was ignored and forgotten.
"There's this place I like to go sometimes," Tessa confided. "Okay, lots of times," she admitted with a chuckle. "When I'm there, I feel ... special. Like it was made just for me?" Dawn nodded her understanding. "It's so beautiful. See, we don't have day and night like you do here. Instead we use the Abatshin. They're ..." She frowned as she tried to fashion a suitable description in a language that was not native to her. "They're little creatures. Like your ..." The frown intensified. "I haven't seen anything like them here. They're small."
She held her palms no more than an inch or two apart to illustrate the diminutive size.
"Very naughty," she relayed in an amused tone. "But harmless. And they sing." She gazed at Dawn's enraptured expression "Oh, Dawn, you've never heard anything so beautiful. There's no sound like it anywhere, not in any dimension. It's ... like love has a voice. And when they sing, the Abatshin glow this green light. It's passion, and comfort, and ..." She laughed happily at the remembrance. "And chocolate! It's everything you've ever wanted. We can tell the time by the intensity of the Abatshin song."
She inched closer to Dawn, as though she were about to impart a secret of paramount importance. Dawn followed suit, anxious to hear more. The pair huddled, heads together.
"In my special place, there's a nest of Abatshin," whispered Tessa. "They enjoy the company, so sometimes they'll dance too. They'll swirl around and play with your hair, always singing, always glowing ..."
By now, Tessa was virtually glowing herself. Her eyes shone and the joy she experienced from simply verbalizing the memory was almost tangible. Dawn couldn't help but be captured within its web. Then, Tessa ruefully shook her head.
"I don't do it justice," she confessed with an irritated frown. "You'd have to ..." Her eyes grew wide. "Do you think that maybe when Buffy finds a way to call a Shirconthal ... you could come visit me?" She took hold of Dawn's hand and squeezed. "I could show you the Abatshin, and- and just everything! There's so much you don’t have here that I want to share with—"
The sound of pounding upon the front door brought Tessa's reminiscences to an abrupt halt. Gone was the carefree and energetic spirit that had been celebrating her home just a moment before. It was replaced by a terrified soul, whose eyes were haunted by the threat of being relentlessly pursued to the grave. For a moment, it seemed as though she might take flight, but Dawn held firm to the trembling fingers.
"Dawn!" called Buffy from the dining room.
"I got it!" she hollered back, and placed her hand comfortingly on Tessa's shoulder. "It's okay. Just stay here, okay?" She pressed the point home. "Don't run."
Appearing nervous and jumpy, Tessa briefly nodded. Beneath Dawn's penetrating stare, she nodded again, more emphatically this time. Confident that Tessa would stay put, Dawn made her way to the door and turned the handle. She blinked in stunned surprise.
"You haven't forgotten my name," he grinned. "It's a good sign."
Dawn squirmed through the small space she'd allowed herself between the frame and the edge of the door, pulling it closed behind her.
"What are you doing here?" she asked.
"Currently, I'm standing on the porch wondering if that was the greeting I was expecting." Grip pondered the dilemma for a moment. "Uhh, hm. Gonna have to go 'no' on that."
"I meant, why are you here?" rephrased Dawn.
Grip raised a questioning eyebrow, but sustained the cheerful attitude. "I need a reason now?"
"Yes," confirmed Dawn without thinking. "I mean no!" she hastily corrected. "No."
"This is a bad time," he interpreted, his enthusiasm beginning to diminish.
"Sort of," Dawn admitted with regret. "See, there's this ... cousin. We have a cousin visiting." She glanced over her shoulder toward the house. "She's from a really long way away, and she's sort of nervy about being here. I'm doing the whole entertain thing." She threw him a tiny smile and Grip instantly brightened.
"Oh, that's cool then," he said. "We can all hang together. I like meeting new people. I'm gregarious that way."
"Yeeeah, no," Dawn countered reluctantly. "She's ... not. With the meeting. She doesn’t interact well with strangers, so I'm thinking not such a good idea."
"I'm sorry," offered Dawn repentantly.
Grip waved a dismissive hand. "No, it's cool. I'll just go hang myself." He smirked at Dawn's open-mouthed display of alarm and corrected, "Hang by myself. There's probably homework I've been neglecting anyway."
Dismally, Dawn studied Grip's expression. "Are you mad?"
"I'm not mad," he replied.
"I promise I'm not mad," he assured, leaning over to deliver a quick kiss. "I'll see you tomorrow."
She wasn't entirely convinced, but Dawn had little choice other than to agree. "Okay."
Dawn watched as Grip returned to his car. Looking back for an instant, he gave her a small goodbye wave, and she wiggled her fingers in return.
Left unsupervised, Tessa inspected the living room with avid interest, taking note of every detail. Leaving the couch, she gazed upon the many photographs lining the walls, but didn't linger. She browsed the DVD collection and examined every knick-knack until she reached a large chest in the corner. Curiously, she raised the lid and her eyes narrowed with appreciation. It contained a fine assortment of high-grade weapons – crossbows, swords, daggers and the like; a veritable arsenal. Kneeling, she examined the superb craftsmanship that had gone into their making and nodded, very favorably impressed indeed. She glanced toward the kitchen and then at the front door, but she was alone. A tiny smile began to form on her lips.
Since the attack, Tara's color and breathing had thankfully returned to normal. She sat next to Willow on a low parapet off of the main street where the attack had taken place. Faith and Denali stood nearby.
Denali was no longer under restraint, but Faith's vigilant eyes never left the face of the other woman. She seemed relaxed, but there was no doubt that at the slightest hint of implied threat or sudden movement, she was ready to act. Denali, however, gave no indication that she was about to launch another assault. She was staring at the stonework – through it – as she absorbed the information she'd learned.
"A Slayer." She rolled the word around on her tongue. "I have a title now." She considered the implications, then shrugged. "Can't say I feel any different." Her eyes fell on Willow. "And you did this?"
"Yeah," confirmed Willow with a crisp nod. "We were desperate. See, there was this really nasty incorporeal original evil, and a Helm's Deep-worth of ubervamps, and this scythe thing that just sort of appeared out of nowhere that I never completely understood but whoo, could that puppy channel some serious power." Her eyes sparkled at the recollection. "So ... So big battle, little spell, and ... here you are."
Faith rocked back and forth on her heels. "Someone shoulda come found you. Explain the mess Red got you in." She ignored Willow's sniff of indignation. "Guess you fell through the cracks."
"I'm not complaining," Denali was quick to assert. "When I felt it, when I became a ... Slayer. It was the best day of my life. Suddenly, I knew I had purpose." Her lips pressed together in a hard line. "When I discovered the demon world, right here on earth, killing people or worse, I just did what felt natural. I haven't stopped since." She puffed up slightly before announcing, "I've made 147 kills so far. Not a single one's escaped me yet."
She regarded Faith out of the corner of her eye as she voiced her accomplishments with something of a challenge, but Faith was unfazed and certainly not impressed.
"I'm proud of my record," Denali continued sharply, "and I plan to keep it in pristine condition. That's why I'm here. You've got a vicious killer loose in this town, and if I don't find it and stop it, there's no telling who it'll kill next."
Tara glanced around the group. "Maybe we should go see Mr. Giles? Tell him what's going on, get his help?"
"You can tell whoever you want, I don't care," replied Denali. "All I care about is that your Buffy Summers is keeping my demon from me." She scoffed openly. "Protecting it. The thing's a vicious killer. I want it back, and then I want it dead."
Willow motioned with her fingers, as though she could rewind the conversation. "Wait, Buffy what?"
Tara reached into the back pocket of Willow's jeans and dug out a cell phone. "Buffy wouldn't protect a killer," she dismissed confidently. Hopping down from the wall, she punched a number into the phone and brought it to her ear, stepping away from the others as she did so.
"Yeah, no way in hell," affirmed Faith. "Not unless she was sleepin' with it, or made it part of the gang or whatever. B's got a strict semi-tolerance policy when it comes t' that sorta thing."
She blatantly ignored Willow's ensuing glare, much as she'd ignored the indignant sniff.
"Good, then I'm sure she'll cooperate and we won't have any trouble," decided Denali. "This Buffy, she's a Slayer too, right?"
"The grade-A original, accept-no-substitutes Slayer," Willow pointedly informed with authority. "That's our Buffy."
Satisfied with the corroborating statement, Denali nodded. "Good, then she'll be able to take care of herself. Let's just hope she's not stupid enough to let that thing near innocents."
In the living room, Dawn and Tessa had resumed watching television. Grabbing her empty glass, Dawn also picked up the one Tessa had been using and arched a questioning eyebrow. With a grateful smile, Tessa nodded and Dawn made her way to the kitchen. As Dawn left the room, Tessa's cordial expression began to rapidly dissipate. She started with alarm at the sound of a doorknob turning and jerked her head sharply toward the main entrance. Without making a sound, she slipped from the couch.
"Hey, I'm—" announced Xander, but he never got to finish his cheery greeting.
With a yell of stunned surprise, he found himself under attack. Everything he was holding went flying from his hands and his body quickly followed. Before he knew what hit him, Xander was propelled out of the door, flat on his back, and being straddled by a horned figure who loomed over him with undeniably malicious intent.
Tessa was now easily identifiable with the photographs in Denali's file. The lips were drawn back menacingly and the eyes, previously soft and even bashful, blazed as though they were fueled by an inner fire. She might have been an entirely different individual from the one who had shared her secret world with Dawn.
Gripped firmly within her tight fist was the hilt of one of the serrated daggers from the weapons chest. Without hesitation, she raised it high above her head. The wickedly honed blade glinted dangerously in the light. Uttering a primeval snarl, she wasted no time in driving it downward.
The fast-descending dagger was aimed unerringly at Xander's lone functional eye and he was acutely aware of that fact. With a surge of adrenaline, he desperately swung out his arm and managed to not only deflect the blow, but also knock the weapon from Tessa's grasp. She recovered remarkably quickly and prepared to launch another attack – this time, with her bare hands. But as she reached for Xander, Buffy came to the rescue and jerked her away.
"It's okay!" she hastily assured, keeping a firm grip on the young girl. "He's a friend!"
Giles and Dawn had followed on Buffy's heels. Giles immediately rushed to aid Xander while Dawn hurried to Tessa's side, anxious to calm the obvious agitation.
"'Friend'?" echoed Xander in disbelief. "Is that we're calling crazy killer monsters now?" He accepted Giles' offer to haul him to his feet. "We're fighting evil with hugs and brownies?"
Dawn treated him to a frown. "Tessa's not evil."
"Of course not," agreed Xander sardonically. "I was three inches from a truly authentic Ray Charles impersonation, but it was in the name of good."
"You should've called first," said Buffy.
"So now I have to make an appointment to get into my own home?" he asked, voice a little shrill.
"No," Buffy corrected. "I left you a message. Sort of giving you the heads up?"
Xander extracted his cell phone and checked the tiny screen. 'One missed call' was prominently displayed, but it didn't appear to make him feel a whole lot better about the situation.
Clearly shaken, Tessa looked from Buffy to Dawn and then hung her head.
"I'm sorry," she humbly apologized. "I thought ... I thought he was coming to get me, and ..."
Buffy patted her shoulder. "It's all right," she comforted. "It was just a misunderstanding. Nobody's hurt."
"Nobody's hurt?" queried Xander, tone climbing higher by yet another octave.
He looked around and retrieved one of the items that had been thoughtlessly and carelessly thrown from his hands upon arrival. It was a take-out bag from Burger King – crushed and flattened. He thrust the bag in the faces of the onlookers, shaking it for good measure. A small quantity of ketchup oozed from the bottom.
"You owe me an Angus burger!"
Giles took a step toward the front door. "Might I suggest we move this inside? Your neighbors are suspicious enough as it is."
Xander was unable to cease glowering at Tessa, who seemed totally deflated and utterly ashamed of her actions. Arm draped consolingly around Tessa's shoulders, Dawn led her back to the couch while Buffy joined Xander, still clinging to his demolished bag. She pried it from his fingers and patted his hand consolingly.
"I'll explain everything as soon as Willow and Tara get here," she promised.
"I'm sure it'll be a wondrous tale of myth and intrigue," he huffed, umbrage not diminished in the slightest, as he marched stiffly toward the kitchen.
With a sigh, Buffy began to follow, but then her phone emitted the "Kim Possible" theme and she brought it quickly to her ear.
"Hey, Will," she answered. A concerned frown crossed her forehead. "Tara? Is everything—?"
She listened to the response, gaze traveling toward the interior of the house where everybody was now safely inside, and paid close attention to the message being conveyed.
"Okay," she acknowledged soberly. "You guys get here as soon as you can. Make sure you bring your new playmate."
Nodding at the confirmation, Buffy snapped shut the phone. Deep in thought, her eyes narrowed.
The living room had become somewhat short of seating since the arrival of Faith, Willow and Tara, with Denali in tow. The only notable absentee was Tessa.
Buffy paced back and forth in front of the coffee table. "It's not that simple," she declared firmly.
Denali appeared genuinely stunned at the statement. "Not that ..." Her searching gaze scoured every face, obviously wondering if any of them perceived Buffy as the crazy individual Denali believed her to be. "Not that simple?" she echoed with a shake of her head. "It slaughtered five people."
"And their little dog, too," Xander added.
"I'm here to make sure it never happens again," continued Denali. "What part of that isn't simple?"
"How about the part where you're killing an innocent?" asked Buffy with a raised eyebrow.
Denali blinked in disbelief at the assertion. "I'm killing innocents?"
"Something I'm sure you know nothing about," Willow jabbed.
Denali narrowed her eyes in Willow's direction as Buffy turned to address the two witches, sitting together on the couch.
"Can you guys do it?"
They regarded each other soberly.
"Maybe?" ventured Tara.
"We can send her somewhere," Willow attempted to assure. "That part's not so much a problem."
"Excuse me," interrupted Denali. "I clearly don't have a handle on this whole Slayer thing yet, but aren't we forgetting about the part where we're Slayers? The thing is evil and it needs to be destroyed."
"She's not a thing, and she's not evil!" Dawn exclaimed from her cross-legged position on the floor. Every eye turned toward her. "She's a person, just like us. She gets scared and lonely, and happy and excited ..."
On the second floor, Tessa sat with her back against a wall near the stairwell, where she was able to hear the conversation taking place below. A fleeting smile of gratitude brightened her otherwise dejected features as Dawn took a bold stand in her defense.
"She just wants to go home," finished Dawn with a scowl.
"Sure she does," scoffed Xander, "now she's actually got a chance of being stopped." Dawn and Buffy shot wounded looks in his direction, but Xander refused to be swayed. "How convenient. She says she's been on earth almost a year, right? Where was this big yen for home before a bunch of people turned up dead?"
Dawn scrambled to her feet. "If you'd just spend time with her—"
"I got all the time I need, thanks," replied Xander, throwing up his hands.
"But it's not even like her species is violent," Buffy insisted. "Right Giles?"
"Uhm, well, not as a general rule, no," agreed Giles. "Most recorded encounters with the Ru'nar were- were benign." He shook his head. "Though I'm not certain the generalization could, or should, be applied to each individual."
Denali rolled her eyes. "I don’t get how this is even a question. It's a demon." It seemed as though Dawn might protest once more at the word choice, but Denali never gave her the opportunity. "It's a demon," she reiterated forcefully. "It was found with the bloody remains of an entire family not ten feet away."
Buffy tapped her chin and glanced up at the ceiling, as though she were solving a great puzzle. "Which, let's think, doesn’t even make sense!" She looked to Denali for the answer to this challenge. "If she'd killed them, why would she hang around?"
Denali simply crossed her arms and refused to give the issue a moment's thought. "I never want to know why a demon does what it does."
"Met girls locked up for less evidence," Faith remarked from her perch on the arm of the couch. "Gotta admit B, it's pretty damning."
"But I know she—" Buffy tried to explain.
"You don't know anything," interjected Xander, tossing his arm out to the side. "You're assuming. Now guess which not-at-all cliché phrase comes next?"
"I'm assuming?" rejoined Buffy, fast losing her temper. "You're the one insisting that she's the bad guy here!"
"I'm not insisting, I'm suggesting," Xander refuted. He narrowed his gaze at Buffy. "Someone's got to."
Buffy jutted her chin defiantly. "How can you be so sure you're right?"
"How can you?"
Tara glanced from Buffy to Xander. "Guys, this isn't helping," she pointed out in a calm voice.
"Research!" Willow announced in a stressed and overly bright tone. "We'll- We'll get into research mode a-and find out for sure. We just hold off on doing anything before—"
"I'm not wasting my time on something I already know," snorted Denali impatiently. "I've been tracking the thing for a week and already that's a week too long. It's here, and I'm going to kill it."
Looking amused despite everything, Faith leaned toward Denali. "Just a tip? Lyin' might be a skill you wanna look into."
"Okay, that's it," Buffy stated, her tone making it clear there would be no further debate. She seized Denali by the elbow and turned her toward the front door. "You and me are having a little chat."
To no avail, Denali tried to wrench her arm free. "What?" she queried with disdain. "I don't have time for 'chatting'."
"If you want the demon, you'll make time," Buffy told her tartly.
Reluctantly and with nothing even resembling a good grace, Denali gave in. Glowering, she allowed Buffy to steer her from the room. As she left, Buffy tossed a meaningful glance in Willow's direction and the redhead communicated her understanding with a brief nod. As the two Slayers departed, a tense hush fell over the room. It was shattered by Dawn.
"I can't believe you're being like this," she said to Xander. Her expression was one of pain and confusion at his attitude.
"Look, I'm sorry you're upset," Xander acknowledged, although he remained largely unrepentant, "but it's the truth. She might've done it. I don’t know. All I do know is that my appetite's taken a week's vacation after seein' those—" He gestured with disgust at the photographs laid out on the coffee table. "—and that I very nearly qualified for a lifetime's supply of handicapped parking, courtesy of the chief suspect. So forgive me for not bein' first in line for her pep squad."
"Xander." Willow's voice was soft, yet the tone commanded immediate attention and everyone turned to look at her. "If you don’t wanna help, that's okay," she told him, though not unkindly. "But for the rest of us, we've got work to do. So let's get to doing."
Dusk was rapidly descending as Buffy and Denali strolled through a cemetery. Clearly bored and blatantly unhappy to be there, Denali kicked at tufts of wet grass with the toe of her boot.
"Are we done chatting yet?" she asked curtly.
"Don't be in such a rush," Buffy counseled. "I've been told that I'm really quite pleasant company."
Denali snorted back a laugh. "Now I know you're crazy."
The pair continued their walk in silence for a moment.
"The way it worked for you should never've happened," Buffy told her. "The way it used to be, once a Slayer died, the next one was called. The Watcher's Council—" She explained as Denali tossed a puzzled glance in her direction. "They were a bunch of stuffy English guys. Sort of like our stuffy English guy, only like times twenty."
Denali didn't seem to appreciate the reference, and Buffy shrugged.
"Anyway, the Council would've found you, and you would've had a Watcher to teach you everything you needed to know. Obviously you didn't get that, so we're gonna go through a crash course. Slaying 101."
"I've been doing my job just fine, thanks." Denali appraised Buffy from head to toe. "And if you're the result of this Council's training, frankly, I'm not interested."
Buffy flittered her hand to wave off the very notion. "Oh no. Me and the Council didn't get along so much. Though they probably would've loved you." In an exact mirrored action, Buffy surveyed Denali. She seemed no more impressed. "Their way isn't exactly how we do things any more."
"Hm," murmured Denali. "Pity."
"See, in some ways," Buffy explained, "it's a pretty simple gig. See Jane Slay. Slay Jane, Slay."
"And the other ways?"
"Ah yes. The other ways. It's the part where you actually stop and think." She emphasized the words, as though they were foreign concepts to her audience-of-one. "Thinking wasn't exactly an officially sponsored extra-curricular activity with the old Council. There was just that a big ol' blanket of conformity. If it's not one of us, kill it." She tilted her head to one side and made an interested noise. "There's probably some ripe social commentary in there somewhere."
"How about a point?" wondered Denali, arching her eyebrow. "Is there one of those in there somewhere too?"
Coming to a halt before a headstone, Buffy turned and looked up at Denali. "Maybe the fact that, I dunno, it's wrong?" she suggested. "Some demons are evil and nasty. You're right. I'd even say most. Trust me," she reassured, "I'm on-board. But some aren't the bad guys. They just wanna be left alone to do their little non-violent demony thing. Some, in fact, are the good guys. Believe it—"
"I don't," was the emphatic response.
"—or not." Buffy finished. "But you not believing it doesn’t make it less true." She considered her words for a moment. "I get what you're doing. It's easier when you don't have to worry about it. No horns good, two horns bad."
Denali stood in front of Buffy, legs astride. "But using the Buffy Summers method," she reasoned with deliberate care, "I take them out to dinner first. If they don't pick up the tab, then I know they're evil and must be destroyed."
Buffy smirked. "You know, sarcasm is the ignorant person's weapon. All I'm saying is, look at each on a case-by-case basis. Trust your instincts." She thought for a moment before adding, "Once we get you some less-murderous ones. Open yourself to the possibility that—"
The lesson was interrupted by the sound of churning earth as a vampire began to rise from the grave at their feet. Denali blinked in surprise, but Buffy was unfazed. With a fluid motion and little aforethought, she seized the front of the vampire's shirt and hoisted him far enough out of the ground to expose his chest before driving a stake into his heart. The deed was completed in record time.
"—that maybe, just maybe," Buffy resumed without missing a beat, "the things you think should be killed really shouldn't."
"Give them a chance, right?" questioned Denali wryly.
Buffy nodded encouragingly. "Yes. Exactly."
"Like you gave that vampire a chance," returned Denali, indicating the pile of ash.
Buffy frowned. "What?"
"The vampire," repeated Denali. "The one you just staked not ten seconds ago."
Buffy examined the stake in her fist and then slipped back inside her jacket. Her mouth grew prim.
"That's different. Vampires are different."
Denali's was immediately skeptical. "So some demons are good, but all vampires are bad?"
"Right," agreed Buffy. She paused for a moment. "Unless they have a soul." She paused a moment longer. "Or a chip."
An expression of contempt tinged with disbelief crossed Denali's features. "Are you even hearing yourself?"
"Vampires aren’t like demons," Buffy said with authority. "Demons can be harmless. They can get by without hurting anyone. Vampires don't have that restraint."
"Unless they have a chip or a soul," Denali repeated incredulously.
Hearing it coming from someone else's mouth, Buffy seemed to be uncomfortably aware that it wasn't exactly the most convincing argument to the average individual. Still, she stuck to her guns. "Uh-huh," she confirmed with a defensive edge.
"Then how do you know the difference?" challenged Denali. "Do they wear special shirts, or have a secret handshake or something?" She waved at the pile of ash once more. "How do you know that one should've been destroyed?"
"Vamps don't come with leashes," Buffy clipped. "You have to give it to them."
"So you can just give a vampire a soul?"
"Not me," admitted Buffy. "But it's possible, yeah."
"And then they become good?"
Denali looked even more puzzled than before. "Soooo then ... Why not give souls to all the vampires?"
A deep furrow appeared on Buffy's brow.
"If it makes them good, then it's what you should do, right?" persisted Denali. "I mean, isn't that what you've been telling me? Only kill the things that deserve to be killed?"
"We can't just reensoul every vampire in the world," rejoined Buffy, becoming irritated. "I've seen how tough it can be to just do one."
"Okay then, streamline the process," Denali proposed without hesitation. "Or start with the ones you find."
Buffy was having trouble with the concept, either in accepting it or outright dismissing it. She perched on the edge of the tombstone standing watch over the now-empty grave and said nothing. Denali favored her with a penetrating gaze, but Buffy's eyes were distant and unseeing as she bit into her lower lip.
Stealthily, Denali moved to stand behind her. "Or is it just easier when you don't have to think about it?" she wondered aloud. "No fangs good, two fangs bad?"
Buffy shook her head, immediately refuting the idea, but seemed unable to articulate an appropriately scathing response that would prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that things simply didn't work that way.
"Maybe we're not so different after all, Buffy Summers," murmured Denali, hefting a large stone urn.
Buffy was totally unprepared for the attack. The urn shattered in a cloud of dust and tiny fragments as it impacted with her skull, and she slumped heavily to the ground.
Denali looked down at the unconscious figure. "Except for the part where you're an idiot," she muttered, shaking her head. "And I'm the amateur?"
She sprinted from the cemetery, leaving Buffy's motionless body sprawling where it had fell.
At one side of the backyard, Willow and Tara sat across from each other on the grass, finalizing the preparations for their spell; the sky, although darkening, still held sufficient light for the task at hand. Xander and Giles stood on the porch, watching and waiting, while Faith had claimed a perch on the wooden railing and was swinging her legs.
By the large tree that dominated the area, Tessa shuffled restlessly within a large circle of white sand. Her expression was a blend of nervousness and excitement. Just beyond the perimeter of the circle, Dawn hovered nearby offering support.
Leaving Tara alone for a moment, Willow made her way to the two young girls. "Okay," she smiled brightly, "So we're about ready to give it a whirl."
Tessa chewed on her lower lip. "It's safe, right?"
"Totally!" affirmed Willow with confidence. "Absolutely! 100% guaranteed ..." She nodded. "...probably completely safe."
A hint of panic crept into Tessa's eyes. "'Probably'?"
Willow glanced to Dawn and then back to Tessa. "It's like I said – the tricky part is hitting the bullseye. The actual process, not so hard. Heck, I teleported a troll once, and he was like three times bigger than you!" Dawn smiled at Tessa encouragingly while Willow continued. "So here's what we're gonna do: you keep thinking about your home. Form a picture of it in your mind and hold it. Concentrate super hard. Me an' Tara are gonna try to tap into that energy to find the path. Okay?"
Taking a deep breath, Tessa indicated her acknowledgment.
"And whatever you do, don't break the circle," Willow instructed both Tessa and Dawn firmly. "There could be feedback issues and that'd just be unpleasant." She pulled a face that was presumably engineered to express said unpleasantness before addressing Tessa once more. "Now, just settle back, fasten your seatbelt, and leave the driving to us."
Willow's smile was reassuring and only weakly returned. As the redhead rejoined Tara, Dawn grinned enthusiastically at Tessa.
"Excited?" asked Dawn in an upbeat fashion, trying her best to help chase away any fears that Tessa might be harboring.
"Mostly right now, I just feel sort of sick," Tessa admitted, rubbing her arms for comfort.
"Like you might barf any second?" commiserated Dawn. Seeming a little queasy, Tessa could only manage a strained nod. "That could be excitement," Dawn affirmed. "Or bad egg salad. I'm gonna go with excited, though."
"In case I don't get the chance later ... thank you," Tessa told Dawn, dark eyes shimmering with genuine affection. "For everything. You, and Buffy, and Willow and everyone." She sighed. "I wish we could stay in touch."
"I'd call, but the long distance fees would probably suck up my allowance until I was 60," replied Dawn with a chuckle.
"Maybe someday, though?"
"I hope so," returned Dawn enthusiastically.
"Because I'm gonna go crazy if I don't find out what's up with that island," Tessa declared peevishly.
The pair smiled at each other across the distance of the circle that separated them.
On the porch, Xander scratched the back of his head. "Explain to me again how this is the right choice," he urged.
"Of the options available, it's either this, allow Denali to do as she pleases, or place constant surveillance on them both until we can ascertain the truth," responded Giles patiently. "Ideally, I prefer the third option, but it would require considerable resources. Teams would need to be dispatched to the location of the crime and contacts established within the ranks of the investigators." He removed his glasses and began to polish them as he spoke. "Then assuming the perpetrator was even discovered – something for which there is no guarantee – there is currently insufficient evidence that it was the work something demonic at all." He replaced the glasses on the bridge of his nose and shook his head. "It simply isn't practical."
"Better t' be wrong bein' right than right bein' wrong, eh Oxford?" Faith tossed over her shoulder, although Giles declined to respond.
"And even if we did all vote for Door #3, I'm not sure Buffy'd listen anyway," said Xander. "You may've noticed how when she gets her righteousness on, things sorta stop being a democracy real quick."
"She is indeed on occasion very ... driven," Giles confessed. "I'm confident she would've listened to reason, however."
Faith and Xander exchanged a look that indicated they didn't share Giles' conviction, but there remained little time to dwell on the possibility.
"Okay, we're ready," Tara announced softly and an expectant hush fell as she began the invocation.
On the path of day
The moon is high and the hour is late
Reach far through beyond
Where thought cannot sway
The moon is low and time will not wait"
Willow took up the chant.
On the path of night
The liturgy abruptly terminated as the arrival Denali, vaulting over the tall fence surrounding the backyard, took everyone by surprise. The instant her feet hit the ground, she raced toward Willow and Tara. Taken totally off-guard, it seemed as though time stood still for everyone but Denali. She reached the two witches without interference and roughly grabbed a handful of Willow's hair from behind. Forcefully jerking the head toward her, Denali delivered a vicious karate chop to Willow's exposed throat. Immediately, Willow began to gasp, fighting for air as she collapsed backward. With a cry of horror, Tara scrabbled across the grass to reach her side while Denali made a beeline for Tessa..
"Xander!" commanded Giles urgently, but Xander was already sprinting through the back door.
He seized the first two weapons within easy reach - a battle axe and a broadsword. From the entranceway, he tossed the axe to Giles, who caught the handle squarely in the palm of his hand. Without further hesitation, the Watcher began to chase down Denali. Xander wasn't far behind.
Denali was no more than a stride's length from breaking the circle when she was brought heavily to the ground from the rear. Looking up, she saw Faith barring her way to the demon. Faith didn't speak. She didn't need to. Her smirk said it all.
Within the ring of sand, Tessa was rapidly losing self-control. Terrified, she came perilously close to taking flight, but Dawn ventured as close as she dared without crossing the line, offering reassurance and trying to instill an air of tranquility.
"She's here. She's here," Tessa muttered almost hysterically. "She'll get me. I've got- I've got to—"
Frantically, her body swiveled toward the fence – a means of escape, an exit. Dawn inched even closer, instinctively reaching out a restraining hand, but stopped just short of encroaching upon the circle. Instead, she called Tessa's name and then moved to block the view of the girl's potential attacker by stretching out her arms. At Dawn's feet, the sand was glowing with a silvery incandescence, and it was apparent that the spell was in-progress. She locked eyes with the petrified demon. The act seemed to bring Tessa a degree of comfort, but it was tenuous at best and her desire to flee was almost palpable.
"You can't!" ordered Dawn. "You have to stay there until it's over!"
Tessa began to murmur in her native language before slipping back into English. "...and I'll die and I'll never make it better and..." Her words became undecipherable once more.
"You're not gonna die," Dawn told her sharply.
But Tessa continued her wretched murmurings, eyes drifting again toward the fence.
"Tessa!" yelled Dawn. Her shout cut through the panic, and Tessa instantly snapped to attention. "You're not gonna die," Dawn told her as though the statement was an immutable fact. "You're gonna go home. I promise." She locked eyes with Tessa, unflinching in her vow. "I promise."
Across the yard, Tara cradled Willow's head in her lap, smoothing the hair away from her damp forehead. "Willow! Oh god, Willow, are you okay?"
Willow's labored breathing was not getting any easier. Her chest heaved as she struggled to capture what oxygen she could, but it was questionable whether the amount would be sufficient to sustain her. Tara decided to take no chances. Hovering her palm over Willow's throat, she closed her eyes and moved her lips in a silent chant. A pure white glow spread from her fingertips to the base of the wrist, bathing Willow's throat in a healing balm. Within seconds, Willow's gasping breaths grew less ragged. Lowering her hand, Tara quickly opened her eyes and looked down anxiously into Willow's pale face.
"Been better," Willow rasped, her voice scratchy and painful. She inhaled deeply and glared. "Man, I hate her."
There was the sound of solid knuckles connecting with an equally solid jaw as Denali stumbled backward in an effort to remain upright. Still off-balance, she swung wildly at Faith, who easily dodged the blow and countered by slamming the heel of her hand squarely into Denali's nose. This time, Denali went down, sprawled on the grass. She looked up to find that Giles and Xander were also blocking her path to Tessa.
"I strongly suggest that you stay down," Giles quietly recommended.
Faith hopped lightly on her toes. "Nah, let her up. It's fun."
"And you consider yourselves heroes?" sneered Denali.
Xander hoisted his sword over one shoulder. "Actually, I consider myself a demigod," he cheerfully corrected, "but I'll take 'hero' on a slow day."
Denali's narrowed gaze became fixed upon Xander. "I thought you at least were on my side."
"I kinda was," he admitted with a brisk nod. "You lost a lotta cred when you came in and went all Bruce Lee on my best friend, though."
Adopting their former positions, Tara and Willow had resumed casting. This did not go unnoticed by Denali, who rose slowly to her feet.
"So that's your solution," she scoffed with open contempt. "Just let them go and cross your fingers."
Faith shrugged. "It lacks the charm a' your 'kill everyone an' let god sort it out' method, but it'll do in a pinch."
"We're not perfect," Giles stated. "Not a one of us."
"Well I am," piped Xander confidently.
Giles shook his head. "We all can only do what we think is best."
"And this ..." Denali gestured with her hand, encompassing the entire area. "This is what's best?"
"I personally think the house needs to be reshingled," advised a voice from behind.
Denali turned to see Buffy standing before her with arms folded across her chest.
"But other than that, it's pretty darned close."
"Hey Buff." Xander inclined his head in greeting. "Nice of you to join us."
"Sorry I'm late" Buffy apologized with a smirk. "You know how those graveyard shifts can be murder."
Giles grinned as well. "I always say—" he began, but he got no further as Denali rushed him, planting a fist savagely into his stomach. Winded, Giles fell to his knees and she snatched the axe from his hand.
In one smooth movement, Denali jumped into the air and executed a spinning kick that caught both Xander and Faith unawares, knocking them back and providing her with an unobstructed path to Tessa's location. Realizing it might be her final chance, Denali immediately pounced upon the opportunity and she hurled the axe toward her target with a deadly aim. Buffy was on her in a heartbeat, but it was already too late.
"Willow, Tara!" shouted Buffy, turning to face the witches, but held as they were within the depths of their spell, they were powerless to react.
The axe continued to rotate with unerring accuracy toward Tessa. She could see it coming – knew it was destined to reach its intended mark – but could only widen her eyes in alarm.
Dawn too was unable to tear her horrified gaze from the fast-flying blade. She clenched her hands into tight fists. "No!"
As the weapon sailed over the threshold of the circle, there was a brilliant flash of green light, immediately followed by a concussive wave of energy that swiftly spread across the area. The first story windows shattered instantly and everyone within range of the powerful force field was lifted from their feet and thrown to the ground. The blinding radiance persisted for a moment longer, and then rapidly dissipated.
For several seconds, there were no signs of life. The yard was a disaster, littered with broken glass and splintered wood. Embedded in the trunk of the tree was the axe, directly behind where Tessa had last been standing, but Tessa herself had vanished. Little by little, bodies began to stir.
Giles raised himself on one elbow and looked around worriedly. "Is everyone all right?"
Buffy groaned, and Faith ruefully examined a rip in her leather jacket. Tara's head peered over the top of a pile of broken planks, Willow's hand waving in the background. Xander struggled to his feet and moved toward the house.
"Hey, look," he commented. "My first window repair job. It's like it's really home now."
One by one, the others joined him.
Giles seemed especially put out by the turn of events. "And I was about to say something terribly amusing before she got the jump on me," he complained. The others turned to him expectantly, perfectly willing to hear the joke belatedly, but Giles could only frown. "Bloody well forgotten it now."
"Where's Denali?" asked Tara as she worked to remove a splinter.
"Did she get impaled by something sharp and painful?" asked Willow hopefully, voice still hoarse. "Cuz I'd be surprisingly okay with that."
"Don't see her," reported Faith after a hasty survey.
Buffy nodded her agreement. "She must've run aw..." Her voice trailed off and her face became concerned. "Dawn?" Her gaze raked the area. "Where's Dawn?"
Immediately everyone began to scour the vicinity with anxious eyes. There was no sign of Dawn.
"Dawn?!" yelled Buffy, a hint of panic beginning to set in.
"Hey, guys?" came a gleeful cry from the far end of the yard.
All heads snapped in the same direction and, one by one, each expression gave way to complete and utter shock.
Dawn was virtually bursting with brilliantly bright green energy. It pulsated with the force of life and radiated from her head all the way down to her toes. Even her eyes were bright with the luminous glow. Extending her arms, Dawn spun on her heel so they could appreciate the effect from every conceivable angle. Grinding to a halt, she turned to her audience with a huge grin.
"Check me out! I – am so – cool!"
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