In Slayer Central's main hallway, the muted tinkle of breaking glass could be heard originating from behind a tightly shut door. It was a brittle sound, as though something fragile and infinitely delicate had splintered. The populace bustling along the corridor were barely aware of the occurrence and there was an energetic buzz as Watchers, most clutching clipboards, busily consulted with their contingents of Juniors and moved at a brisk pace toward their varying destinations. The delicate shattering was accompanied by a muttered, incomprehensible curse and then a moment of silence, abruptly followed by another tinkling and more vehemently expressed blaspheming.
The closed door of the Sanctum had been posted with the usual and customary signs of caution and warning. From within came yet another burst of breaking glass and the unmistakable sound of Willow's voice.
"Dammit! Dammit, dammit!"
Her expletive increased in volume and violence with every utterance.
There was a brief hush, and then a much louder crash.
This time, Willow's tone was entirely pathetic in its frustration. "Dammit."
Within the Sanctum, her chin dejectedly slumped, Willow was sitting in a chair looking extremely sorry for herself. On a table across from her lay the littered fragments of a now-demolished quartz bottle. The ruby-colored shards were surrounded by similar splinters, smaller and more translucent. She raised her head as Giles came into her line of vision. He stared first at the pulverized wreckage and then at Willow. Slowly, his eyebrows arched.
"Feel better?" he asked.
Willow's lips formed a pout. "Not even a little."
"Well that's something, at least."
Opening a drawer, he retrieved a small hand broom and then tugged over a trashcan, sweeping the remnants from the surface of the table into the bin. "We've been at this for several hours now," he said, glancing at the wall clock, "and I was thinking—"
Willow was instantly apologetic. "Oh, wow, totally. Go. Go and ... Go do Watchery things." She nodded emphatically in Giles' direction. "I'm good."
"What?" Giles frowned as he returned the little broom to its former resting place.
"I'm fine here by myself," Willow assured. "Or if, you know, that's a problem then I can grab another Watcher to babysit or something."
Befuddled, Giles shook his head. "I wasn't trying to get rid of you."
"Oh," Willow's eyes grew wide with surprise, but she quickly morphed it into an obvious dismissal. "Yeah, I knew that. But still, what with Buffy and Faith, plus Dawn, plus me, if it's too much ..." She waved vaguely at the door.
Giles took a step toward her. "Willow, I'm not trying to get rid of you," he reiterated. "I was merely going to suggest that we take a break."
"Ah. Yeah," acknowledged Willow. "Can't." She pointed to the table. "Rack 'em up."
Opening a large cabinet, Giles produced another crystal bottle and a handful of slender glass rods. In random fashion, he began to fill the bottle so the rods landed at odd, criss-crossed positions and angles, resulting in something like a finespun version of Pick-up-Sticks. Standing back, he refocused on Willow.
"Aren't you tired?"
"I don't have time for tired," said Willow. "I need to do this."
"Now," she asserted firmly. "Today."
With an expression of concern, Giles watched Willow settle herself into the chair. She rolled her head from side to side and shook out her shoulders in order to limber up, looking a little like a prizefighter preparing for a title bout. Placing the few remaining rods on the table, Giles gave Willow his full attention. The gaze behind his glasses grew narrow and suspicious.
"All right, what's this about?"
Confused, Willow blinked and darted her eyes first left then right in an attempt to decipher the meaning behind Giles' question.
"Magick control?" she finally ventured.
Giles folded his arms. "No, I mean this sudden surge of interest." He took a step closer. "Our regular sessions were beginning to peter out, but you told me that was because you were working diligently with Tara." He regarded her soberly over his glasses and quirked an eyebrow, as though querying if such were indeed the truth. Willow immediately nodded in confirmation but Giles wasn't totally convinced. "I don't begrudge the resumption of our lessons," he added with all sincerity, "but I can't help but question why?"
Willow took a deep breath, holding it for a moment before exhaling with a huge puff.
"Trouble," she announced.
Not surprisingly, Giles was alarmed. "There's trouble?"
Giles' alarm crept up a notch or two. "Yes."
"Well, no," Willow quickly admitted.
"Yes," backpedaled Willow. "There's always trouble." She glanced at Giles. Obviously, he was experiencing some trouble in following her thought process. She sighed heavily. "There's always some big bad to fight, some new doubled-stuffed evil we have to beat back. Which, yeah, not news, but after the thing with Dawn the other day, I guess it just really hit me." She wrinkled her nose. "She saved herself, and that's great, but what about next time?" Willow's fingers twisted restlessly in her lap. "A-And Buffy's going nuts because, you know, she's Buffy. She won't say anything, but she's totally freaking out, so it's sort of like we have to be better than good not just for Dawn but for Buffy too, and that's not to mention Xander and you and oh, hey," Willow threw up her hands in desperation, "the whole gosh darned world!"
Giles tracked the meandering monologue to the best of his ability and then nodded, albeit in a rather bewildered manner. "I thought that with Tara you were achieving new levels of fine control."
"I am," said Willow with certainty. "But what happens if Tara's not around?" Her fingers knotted together. "What happens when Tara's who I have to help?"
Giles thought about this, long and hard. "Well it's not as if we can let it get out that I'm not completely in support of increased training measures," he advised slowly.
Willow was in complete agreement. "Your rep would be forever tarnished," she pointed out brightly.
"Can't have that," he replied, returning to the delicate task of setting up glass rods for the next practice session. Everything was almost ready when Willow's cell phone rang.
"Hello?" she said, bringing it swiftly to her ear.
Willow's face broke into a delighted smile. "Kennedy!"
Kennedy was standing in a spacious room full of young girls engaged in various activities. Some lounged in armchairs or on sofas, while others chit-chatted around small tables. Despite the atmosphere of geniality, however, the overall feel of the area was far from "homey." It could have been the well-decorated lobby of an upper class hotel – pleasant enough to walk through, but not necessarily somewhere conducive to just hanging out. Leaning against a wall, Kennedy balanced what seemed to be a communal telephone between her chin and shoulder. She twirled the cord around her fingers and grinned at the enthusiasm of her reception.
"Oh my god," Willow bubbled, "it's so great to hear you!"
"See, with this kind of reaction, I'd call more," Kennedy told her with a smirk.
"Nah," returned Willow. "We can't have your ego blowin' up."
Kennedy audibly scoffed. "Oh it's already too late for that."
As Willow's near nonstop-babble continued, Kennedy's grin broadened until she spied a young Junior approaching. Abruptly, her eyes narrowed. The petite blonde settled into a nearby chair, indicating that she was queuing for use of the telephone.
The blonde smiled brightly at Kennedy. There was no aura of impatience about the girl, and she seemed perfectly content to wait her turn. But however open her smile, it wasn't a gesture Kennedy felt inclined to return. Her expression was flat as she simply stared at the Junior. The girl's smile faltered and a hint of apprehension crept into her blue eyes. She glanced away and cleared her throat nervously before refocusing on Kennedy. The attitude hadn't changed and the blonde was now visibly uncomfortable beneath the penetrating challenge. Rising from her chair, she literally slunk away. Kennedy watched her go with a roll of her eyes. Meanwhile, Willow's excited blather had not diminished in the least and showed no sign of coming to a halt, or even slowing down.
"Yeah, that's great," interrupted Kennedy, apparently not having heard a solitary word. "Listen, you got a sec?"
Nodding, Willow opened her mouth to respond in the affirmative, but then glanced over her shoulder at Giles. Immediately, her face fell.
"I don't," she said regretfully. "I-I've got this thing that I have to—"
Giles effectively severed the pending refusal with a dismissive wave. "Why don't we continue this later. Tomorrow, perhaps, or the day after."
"Yeah, but—" objected the redhead.
"I have plenty of other work to be doing anyway," Giles told her with one of his most charming smiles.
"Oh. O-Okay," Willow agreed with the slightest of frowns. She watched as Giles promptly undertook the clearing process by returning the bottle and numerous glass rods to the cabinet.
"Is that Giles?" asked Kennedy.
"Tell him I hate his country."
"Kennedy's having a great time," Willow informed.
Giles glanced at her distractedly. "What? Oh, yes. Excellent," he muttered before resuming the task at hand.
"Okay," said Willow with a shrug. "Well, looks like I am free."
"Not anymore," Kennedy decided. "I'm penciled in."
Phone still glued to her ear, Willow left Giles and the Sanctum behind as she walked out the door.
"First we chat," Kennedy instructed. "You fill me in on what you crazy people are doing over there, because I'm still not sure I buy the part where Dawn glows like she's high on luciferase."
Stopping dead in her tracks, Willow held the mobile out in front of her and favored it with a long, hard stare.
Through the earpiece, she heard Kennedy give a long-suffering sigh. "It's like nonstop BBC over here," she complained bitterly. "If it's not some stupid documentary, it's 'Pop Idol'." Kennedy then snorted with derision. "I never thought I'd find the day when I thought Americans were moderate."
Willow didn't even try to stifle the chuckles as she continued her leisurely stroll along the hallway.
In Slayer Central's large gymnasium, a small area had been sectioned off as a makeshift half-basketball court and brisk competition was in progress. It was a two-on-two game: Xander and Faith versus Buffy and Hannah. A complement of Juniors sat cross-legged around the sidelines on the parquet floor, watching with heightened interest. Keeping score, one of them balanced a chalkboard on her knees. The current tally revealed that Buffy and Hannah had secured a slight lead, but all four played with gritty determination.
Ducking and weaving, Xander dribbled the ball toward the goal. With a challenging grin, Buffy blocked his path, bobbing deftly from side to side and standing ready for whatever play Xander might have in the offing.
"Not gonna happen," she told him cheerfully.
Xander's chin displayed his bullheadedness. "Oh, it's gonna happen."
"I'm the Slayer."
Xander threw her a quick glance. "I'm the Slayer's friend. Which one of us do you think has the harder job?"
In the meantime, Hannah and Faith were guarding each other. From their fidgeting, it was obvious both harbored a strong desire to make a break but were fearful of leaving access to the other wide open. The end result was that each appeared to be supremely indecisive.
"Interesting sport, this," remarked Hannah, eyes never leaving Faith's face.
"Too much for ya, huh?" Faith interpreted. She nodded. "I can see that. Lifetime playin' cricket'll do that."
"Do you even know anything about cricket?" asked Hannah with a smirk.
"Know you stand around for like sixteen hours to hit a little red ball," said Faith, faking a move to the left which Hannah promptly covered. "About all that needs knowing." She dwelled on the issue a moment longer before amending, "Well, that an' you're a hundred years older'n me."
Hannah's movements came to an abrupt halt. Faith followed suit. Straightening to her full stature – which was considerably taller than Faith – Hannah looked her opponent up and down.
"A hundred years?" she muttered.
"At least," returned Faith cockily.
"Well," Hannah conceded, "I suppose I'll simply have to rely on being a hundred years more crafty as well."
And she seized the moment to hip check Faith sufficiently to knock the Slayer off-balance for a brief second. It was nothing major, but it was enough for Hannah to capitalize and break free.
In the center of the court, Xander and Buffy continued to banter. Xander maintained his rhythmic dribbling, although he was gaining no ground.
"What I'm saying is, there's a time and a place," he lectured. "To everything, turn, turn, tur—"
Unfortunately for Xander, this was neither the time nor the place. To his total astonishment, Hannah swooped past like an avaricious seagull, stole the ball from under his nose and bounced it expertly toward the goal. With Faith and Xander hot on her trail, Hannah sprang gracefully into the air and made her shot. It was a perfect basket. The watching Juniors cheered wildly as Buffy and Hannah exchanged a high-five. Xander and Faith huddled in bitter contemplation as they watched the joyous celebration.
"You sure she don't have superpowers?" asked Faith, crossing her arms.
"Well she was voluntarily married to Giles," sniffed Xander with derision. "That's one right there."
Both glowered as Buffy swaggered toward them.
"Wanna keep going, or do you just want to quit while you're ahead?" she queried with accentuated politeness. Then, Buffy struck the side of her temple with her palm, as though suddenly hit with a remembrance. "Oh, wait, you aren't." She regarded the pair sympathetically for a minute and then smiled with saccharine sweetness.
"Yuck it up, B.," sneered Faith.
"We gonna talk, or we gonna play," said Xander. "And notice how I said that without a hint of the intimidation I'm actually feeling," he pointed out.
Grinning wickedly, Hannah tossed Xander the ball. He caught it with one hand and the two teams prepared to face off once more. None of them noticed Willow enter the gymnasium, cell phone in hand.
"Wait! Hold up!" she called.
Nobody seemed to hear. Executing a speed dribble, Xander skirted Hannah's outstretched arm and passed to ball to Faith, who leapt beyond Buffy's guarded pose to snatch it safely from the air. Wasting no time, she immediately bounded toward the goal, Buffy barring her way in every direction.
Willow hurried closer to the game, almost slipping on the highly polished boards. "Time!" she yelled peevishly. "Time out! Time whatever!"
Her words seemed to finally reach a pair of receiving ears, and Buffy glanced over her shoulder. Willow waved the cell phone to make sure she had Buffy's full attention.
"Willow?" Buffy called out. "What's wrong?"
Still caught in the heat of the moment, Faith pressed her advantage and took aim. Exempt from the pressure of confinement, the ball soared high and dropped through the hoop, barely grazing the net as it plummeted to the floor.
An expression of delight invaded Faith's features. "Yes! Check that—"
She whirled on her heels, hands held aloft to high-five Xander. But Xander wasn't there to high-five. Nobody was there. Everyone was gathered around Willow.
Faith sighed. "Naturally."
Abandoning the ball, she approached the group, where Willow was already talking nineteen-to-the-dozen.
"No, nothing's wrong." The redhead shook her head emphatically. "I just need ..."
Her gaze rested on Faith. Immediately, she thrust the cell phone at the Slayer. Confused, Faith accepted instinctively, blinking first at Willow and then at the phone.
"Talk!" instructed Willow. "It's really important."
Faith's confusion wasn't lessened one whit by the urgent command, but then Willow tossed her a wide-eyed look of impatience and Faith, much to her own surprise, complied. A scowl appeared as she wandered away from the group. "Yeah?"
"Christ," uttered Kennedy, "it's about time."
Rolling her eyes, Faith leaned against the wall and looked out of the window. "Oh. It's you."
"It's me," confirmed Kennedy dryly, settling into an armchair. "Where the hell have you been?"
"I was playin' basketball 'til someone interrupted."
Kennedy grinned. "Glad I could help."
Faith's gaze traveled back to the court. Xander slowly bounced the ball up and down as Buffy indicated Faith with a jerk of her thumb and Hannah nodded. Willow was looking from one to the other.
"Sorta talking about the past month though," continued Kennedy, propping her feet on a small nearby table. "You don't call. I leave messages, they get ignored. A lesser person might start taking it personally."
"Lucky for us you're so much bigger'n that," Faith retorted.
She peered curiously at Willow, who was jabbing herself forcefully in the chest. Expressions of doubt and uncertainty crept across the faces of Xander, Buffy and Hannah, but Willow was seemingly adamant. She gestured toward Faith and then energetically poked herself again.
Kennedy tugged on the snarled phone cord and then released it. She smirked as it became even more tangled. "No argument. So, what's up?"
"'What's up?'" echoed Faith. "That's the best you got?"
"I was trying to ease in," countered Kennedy. "But fine, we'll skip the foreplay. Why are you ignoring me?"
Faith slid down the wall and sat on the floor. "I'm not."
By now, the game had tentatively resumed with a change in line-up: Buffy and Hannah versus Willow and Xander. Dribbling the ball, Buffy advanced somewhat menacingly on Willow, who was obviously out of her element. She was attempting to block, but did so by randomly thrashing her arms up and down while, at the same time, taking wide bounces from foot to foot. She was trying so hard to be everywhere at once, that she subsequently wound up being nowhere much at all.
Meanwhile in England, Kennedy watched a small group of Juniors gather around the bulletin board and add their names to the sign-up sheet for The Nutcracker. "So there's just no more love, that it?" she asked.
Faith didn't bother to repress a snort at that. "Don't be stupid."
Faith didn't answer immediately. She watched Hannah effectively block Xander as Buffy ran a few circles around Willow before easily making a basket. As the triumphant Buffy and Hannah exchanged enthusiastic self-congratulations, Willow scowled at her own performance. But then Xander was there, grinning as he whispered in Willow's ear while nudging her affectionately in the ribs.
"If you hung up on me," came Kennedy's curt voice through the phone, "I'm catching the next flight out and kicking your ass back in time so you can not hang up on me." She paused for a moment and her tone grew more gentle. "Have you visited her grave yet?"
"She's not here," Faith quickly replied. "Her parents, they ... She's back home."
"How 'bout you?" rejoined Faith. "Must have, what? Hundred, hundred-fifty Slayers there now?"
Kennedy's lips grew tight. "Like I'm not noticing the topic change here."
"We both know you can't help talkin' 'bout yourself," Faith responded without apology.
"This is true," Kennedy easily agreed, but then she sighed. "Things are okay, I guess. Every time I think we're getting a rhythm, something else comes along, and we're starting all over."
Willow's gameplay was steadily going from bad to worse. Having let through another goal, she was clearly becoming dispirited. Xander made the best of it though, dismissing the faux pas with a casual wave of his hand and making jokes. His efforts, however, were clearly having less and less impact, despite Willow's best efforts to disguise her ever-spiraling mood. Noticing the miserable expression, Buffy bit her lower lip.
"Then two days ago ..."
As Kennedy's sentence went unfinished, Faith frowned. The crease furrowed even more at the heavy sigh that followed.
"I was really wanting to talk to Will about this," admitted Kennedy, "but she seemed sort of ... I dunno. I didn't want to load this on her."
Faith transferred to phone to her other ear. "What happened?"
Kennedy took a deep breath. "One of the girls. Filippa. Good kid. Not the best Slayer ever. Not even close. She tries real hard, but can't quite hit ... it." There was another sigh. "You know what I mean? That moment when they become what they were meant to be."
Faith continued to watch the game, but it seemed more background noise as her attention was now focused solely on the conversation. Bouncing the ball in an almost tantalizing fashion, Xander faced Buffy. Feigning right, he passed the ball to Willow who, with a gigantic leap, managed to fumble it into her arms. She instantly headed down court, but her dribbling left much to be desired and Hannah easily stole the ball from the redhead's hesitant hand.
Kennedy cleared her throat. "I'm probably talking out my ass. I tell the girls about stuff like this every day, and they look at me like I inhaled a tank of helium." She grudgingly removed her feet from the table as a rather chunky Junior with curly brown hair deposited a huge box of Christmas ornaments on its surface. "Maybe it's just me."
"It's not just you," said Faith. "I get it."
The Junior gestured toward the bare fir tree in the corner and raised her eyebrows meaningfully in Kennedy's direction. Kennedy shook her head and the Junior retrieved the box, once more leaving room for Kennedy's feet. She promptly took advantage. "Means it must be them, then," Kennedy agreed. "That makes so much more sense."
"So this girl ..." prompted Faith.
Instantly, Kennedy was all seriousness.
"Filippa," she supplied. "She's been trying, but not enough. I can see she's close though, right at a breakthrough. I push her hard. Real hard." Kennedy's eyes dropped to the hand in her lap. "Maybe too hard."
Kennedy paused and Faith waited patiently for her to resume. She didn't have to wait long.
"Two days ago, she didn't show up for practice so I sent someone to go find her. I told them to drag her here by her hair if they had to. I had all these big plans, make an example out of her. I hate it when they blow off practice." Kennedy's free hand involuntarily tightened into a fist. "So when she comes back without Filippa, I go ballistic. Yelling about responsibility and how important training is ... every word my Watcher ever said to me coming back in crystal clear, high-definition quality. I'm bitching so much, I don't even hear the first time."
The line fell silent once more.
"What'd she say?" Faith asked.
Kennedy leaned her head against the back of the chair. "Filippa's in her room. She won't wake up. There's an empty bottle next to her. Sleeping pills. She must've—" There was another sigh, this one more ragged than those that had gone before. "She's still in the hospital. I haven't seen her yet, but Robin's been there pretty much non-stop."
In a mirroring gesture, Faith leaned her head against the gymnasium wall and closed her eyes. "It's not you fault."
Despite the gesture going unseen, Kennedy shrugged. "I keep thinking that if I hadn't—"
"It's not your fault," reiterated Faith. "It takes more than yelling at someone or ordering 'em around. There's other stuff going on there. Stuff bigger'n you."
"Maybe," said Kennedy. "That doesn't stop me seeing Chloe's body swinging in the bathroom every time I go to sleep. You ever wonder ..."
When it seemed the question would go unfinished without some help, Faith interceded. "Wonder what?"
"You ever wonder if we're maybe not cut out for this? Not you or Buffy," Kennedy hastened to clarify. "I mean, you're the real deals, but the rest of us?" Her gaze traveled around the packed communal room. "Like it's all just one big mistake that someone's gonna have to correct one day."
Faith had no immediate reply to that. Instead, she watched as Willow dribbled past Buffy, narrowly managing to keep the ball out of the Slayer's reach. With the tip of her tongue protruding from the corner of her mouth, Willow focused on the goal and made her shot. The ball ricocheted off the backboard and rebounded from one side of the rim to the other. It was touch and go for a breathless second, and then it rolled slowly through the hoop. The area was instantly flooded with the sounds of hearty cheering which reverberated through the phone line.
Kennedy frowned. "What's going on?"
"Your ex just scored a goal on Buffy," Faith reported, matter-of-factly.
On the makeshift court, a beaming and delighted Willow basked in glory. Xander seized her in a hug while Buffy and Hannah thumped her on the back.
"We're talking about Willow, right?" queried a dubious Kennedy.
"You got some other ex I don't know about?" said Faith wryly.
"Lots," Kennedy deadpanned. "But Willow? Against Buffy?" She peered momentarily into the mouthpiece of the phone, as though she might actually get a glimpse of the phenomenon if she concentrated hard enough. "Is Buffy crippled in some way? How'd that happen?"
With much pleasure, Willow pantomimed the shot again. An expression of supreme pride crossed Xander's face, while Hannah smiled and Buffy simply looked happy to know that Willow was so happy.
Faith shrugged. "Buffy let her."
"Ah." It was all the explanation Kennedy needed, and she nodded in satisfaction of a mystery solved.
Faith watched the festivities for another second or two and then gazed out of the window at the gray clouds drifting across the sky. The bare tree branches swayed in the brisk wind.
"I dunno," she finally said with a sigh. "I think some mistakes, you leave 'em alone too long, it just gets way too late to fix."
Behind her, on the makeshift basketball court, the two teams prepared to face off one more time.
"I think I have it," announced Xander.
In the living room of the Scooby House, Xander and Giles sat across from each other on the couch. Research volumes and notebooks filled with scribblings lay on the cushion between them. Sitting in Xander's chair, Tara doodled in an open sketchpad balanced upon on her knees. Remote control clutched in her hand, Buffy lounged on the floor, randomly flipping channels.
Giles peered expectantly over the rim of his glasses. "What did you discover?" He leaned forward, eagerly eyeing Xander's notes.
Xander massaged his aching temples. "The most painful migraine in history." He tossed his pad and pen onto the coffee table and sighed. "I can't make heads or tails. It's like someone took every word of every language – including a few they made up – and shoved 'em in a blender for the world's most annoying set of refrigerator magnet poetry."
"Poetry," muttered Giles thoughtfully. "Hm."
Xander shook his head. "I'm not sure I'm your guy for this."
"Hm?" queried Giles, somewhat distracted as he reexamined his own pages of scrawl.
He visibly started as a nerve-shattering clang came from the area of the kitchen, rather like a mini pots-specific disaster in progress.
"Dawn?" called Buffy, eyes never leaving the television screen.
Another clatter or two followed, but they were relatively minor, and soon gave way to a moment of silence.
"I'm okay!" finally came the assurance.
Tara looked up from her sketchbook. "I think it's sweet that she wants to help, but I'm not so sure it should be with cooking." She glanced nervously toward the kitchen. "Whenever she decides to invent something new, we end up getting pizza."
"I think it's part of a master plan," said Buffy with a sage nod.
"We're not ordering out," informed Tara loudly, making sure her voice carried. "Whatever you make, we're eating."
Another period of silence ensued. This one was a tad longer than the first. It was broken by the faintest sound of Dawn emitting a tiny groan of disappointment.
Xander leaned against the back of the couch. "Seriously, I'm not sure I'm the right person for research help. Now if you want me to help carry the research to those more qualified, I can pitch in, but the actual act ..."
Giles continued to concentrate on his notepad, with an occasional glance at a research volume. "Xander, you sell yourself short," he informed briskly.
"Actually, you've said pretty much that exact same thing to me before."
"Oh," replied Giles, casting a sideways look at Xander. "Well then I sell you too short. Besides, you started this, so it's really all your fault." He refocused on his books, plainly indicating that the discussion was at an end. "So back to work."
"The universe is punishing me for something, huh?" puffed Xander.
"Most likely," Giles readily agreed. "Now look at this." Xander complied by scooting closer. "When you mentioned poetry, I took another look at the references around some of the words we continually see mentioned." Giles jabbed at a certain passage. "Look at this sentence structure."
Amiably, Xander did indeed look and then frowned.
"I have a bit of experience with structures," he stated. "I'm not sure what structure I'm looking at, but I am pretty sure it wouldn't be up to code."
Rubbing his forehead, Giles breathed a little sigh of exasperation, but pressed on regardless.
"See here—" He hopefully prodded the text, "—and here." Another prod quickly followed. "They're peculiar breaks in the rhythm." He waited with anticipation.
"Yeah, okay," agreed Xander doubtfully. "So what does it mean? According to my translation, I'm still left with" Snatching up his notepad, Xander flipped through the pages. "'Something something, something something, blood blood blood, something something'." He was clearly unimpressed. "Watch out, Maya Angelou."
"'Blood flowing'," said Tara.
Surprised, both Giles and Xander glanced behind to find Tara reading the notes over Xander's shoulder. She squinted and then leaned closer, trying to get a better look at the scrawl.
She bit her lip thoughtfully, finding the exercise something of a struggle. "'Blood' ..."
"Taken," supplied Xander.
"'Blood taken'," Tara confirmed. She pointed at a patch of the notepad. "What's that?"
Xander peered at the next passage. "I can't make it all out yet," he admitted with a shrug. "It's something like 'Forcing up and down', but I don't think that's right." He indicated another part of his notes. "Then something else about blood – which is a disturbing theme, by the way – and then this."
"'Freely, she will fall'," murmured Tara. She mulled over the translation for a moment, but then her eyes began to grow wide. Her gaze darted first to Xander, who simply blinked, and then to Giles, who wore an expression of subdued excitement and realization.
"It's a prophecy," said Tara.
Buffy's head whirled in their direction. "What? No. No prophecies." She shook her head in absolute denial and got to her feet. "New house rule."
"Which one is that for?" Giles asked Xander.
"Uhh ..." Xander hurriedly checked his notes. "'The 'Sangerand'."
"Hello?" said Buffy sharply. "No prophecies. Not unless they say, 'If by chance your name is Buffy, you get something cute and fluffy.'" She crossed her arms. "The word 'blood' must not appear, and definitely not in multiple instances."
Giles regarded her sternly. "Buffy, there are- are literally hundreds of thousands of prophecies in this world. You've yourself have defied them, several times. As you well know, they don't necessarily mean what they say. Still, I think we'd be remiss to not look into it further."
"And hey," interjected Xander blithely, "it only took us about two months to get this far, so we're sure to crack it any day now."
Tara noted the stubborn set of Buffy's jaw. "It's better to be informed, right?" she urged gently.
"I have a bad feeling about this," muttered Buffy with a heavy sigh.
"Dinner's ready!" announced Dawn triumphantly, suddenly appearing in the doorway to the kitchen. Her hair and clothes bore testament to the fierce battle that had precluded that victory cry.
Buffy looked at Dawn with a pained expression. "Or maybe that's what I have a bad feeling about."
"Already?" asked Tara, obviously quite surprised. She glanced at the clock with a frown. "It's later than I thought. Willow should be home by now."
Reaching for the telephone, she began to punch numbers as Giles started to pack away the research materials.
"I'll see you all tomorrow, then," he said, placing everything neatly into a leather case. "Remember, Buffy, we have a training session at 8am before your classes," he reminded, snapping shut the small brass locks. "Don't be late."
"Huh?" said Buffy, arching an eyebrow. "Where do you think you're going?"
"Home?" replied Giles uncertainly.
Xander removed the case from Giles' hand and set it on the floor. "Oh, nuh-uh," he refuted. "You're here, there's food, and by custom, you have to join us."
Buffy linked arms with Giles, who was beginning to look trapped. "Besides, you can't say no to our ..." She paused and glanced at Dawn. "What are we having?"
But Dawn was glowering at Tara, who was waiting for her call to be answered. "Not pizza, apparently," she said with a huff.
Buffy turned back to Giles and squeezed his elbow. He winced a little at the pressure. "Well whatever it is," she told him with a smile, "you can't say no to it."
"I'm quite sure I could, actually," Giles responded, trying to disengage himself as gracefully as possible from Buffy's grip. It was a lost cause. Xander was now on his feet and had taken possession of Giles' other elbow. Like an unwelcome patron being forcibly ejected from a bar by a couple of determined bouncers, Giles was steered toward to the kitchen.
There was a momentary reprieve, courtesy of Tara calling Buffy's name. She turned, but her hold on Giles didn't diminish. "You are staying for dinner, young man," she told him, "and you're not leaving that table until you eat every bite."
As Giles' mouth opened and closed rapidly in search of a convincing retort, Buffy relinquished him to Xander's custody and moved toward Tara. Dawn hurriedly assumed Buffy's position, and Giles, now accepting his fate, allowed himself to be dragged away. Buffy waited while Tara continued her conversation into the phone.
"I know. I know," she assured. "I'm not saying you can't take care of yourself, Will, I just—" Her gaze traveled to Buffy. "Willow's still on campus. She was supposed to get a ride home, but she sort of lost track of time in the lab. She wants to walk home, but with it being late and really dark, I was wondering if you'd ..."
"Not a problem," Buffy responded without hesitation. She headed for the front door, grabbing her keys and jacket on the way. "I'm on Willow Retrieval Duty."
Tara smiled her gratitude and relief. "Thank you."
"Keep dinner warm for us," said Buffy, slipping her arms into the jacket. "Or cold, if it's supposed to be cold." She raised a querying eyebrow. "Do you think it's supposed to be cold?"
She cast a suspicious eye in the direction of the kitchen. Tara did the same.
"Maybe stop and get a pizza on the way home?" suggested Tara.
Buffy exited with an enthusiastic nod of approval.
The campus of Penn State was enveloped in darkness, illuminated only by outside street lamps and the occasional light which shone through a few of the windows. Willow and one fellow student were the only occupants of the otherwise deserted research lab. The area they were in contained the latest in technological equipment while nearby in a separate area, a ring of CRT screens had been designated for monitoring. As Willow logged the displayed readings, her companion began to gather his belongings. Tall and gangly with a shock of platinum hair, he regarded Willow through the thick lenses of his owl-like glasses.
"I'm heading home."
Distracted, Willow gave a cursory nod. "Okay."
"You should maybe too?" he suggested.
Willow's reply was no less inattentive than before. "Uh-huh."
The young man grinned. The fact that Willow wasn't actually listening to his advice apparently came as no great surprise. He moved closer.
"So what's got a death grip on your attention, wunderkind?" he asked.
"Oh!" responded Willow, looking up with her pencil poised. "This is the rest of the data from our experiment on Saturday." Her eyes twinkled. "We're working on the theory that reality is nothing but interpretation, and that with sufficient power – both personal power and with a little boost from outside – you could actually warp it to your own perceptions and you don't think this is even a little bit as cool as I do, do you?"
Her companion's grin became wider. "Nah, it's great that you're enthusiastic," he chuckled. "I only barely know enough to not touch anything."
"That's not very sciency," Willow chastised, waggling her pencil at him.
He shrugged indifferently. "Hey, I'm just in it for the credits."
With a shake of her head, Willow refocused on her clipboard.
"Have fun with that," the student told her, hefting his books and heading for the exit.
"I will," said Willow as he reached for the handle. "Oh, hey, leave the door unlocked, okay? I have a friend coming to pick me up, because apparently being the most powerful witch in the world doesn’t mean anything past 9 o'clock."
The young man paused on the threshold and treated Willow to an odd glance, but seemed content to chalk up the statement to eccentric genius. The door closed with a soft click as he departed and the room fell silent, save the muted whir of machinery. Willow hummed to herself, cheerfully but tunelessly, as she continued her task. After a few minutes, the door opened once more.
"Hey Buff," said Willow, still concentrating on her clipboard. "Gimme just one more sec and I'll be ready to go."
"Take all the time you need," came the amiable answer.
The voice was not one Willow had expected to hear. With a frown, she glanced over her shoulder.
"But try not to make it too long, okay?" urged Amy, standing on the top stair leading down into the laboratory. "We've got a busy night ahead of us."