Strobe lights swirled above the crowded floor of the Vortex, which was packed to capacity. There were no vacant stools in front of the bar and almost every table was occupied. The driving pulse of the live band served one purpose and one purpose alone: to get their listeners on their feet and dancing. In this, they was undeniably successful. Willow and Tara danced to their own special kind of rhythm, while nearby Xander and Buffy moved in a manner that was likely more pleasing to the average spectator. Gleeful smiles were in abundance, and everyone seemed to be having a thoroughly good time – with one notable exception. At a small table, accompanied by her four friends, Dawn was apparently finding it difficult to get into the true spirit of the evening. She leaned on her elbows and rested her chin on entwined fingers. Her expression was glum and every now and again, she let out a deep sigh.
On stage, the number concluded with a dramatic flair – a twirl of drumsticks and an echoing riff – but the session was nowhere near at an end. Before the chord even had time to fade, the lead guitarist, without missing a beat, had launched the group into another equally energetic composition. Buffy immediately responded to the call but Xander, red in the face and completely out of breath, threw up his hands in surrender.
"Uncle," he puffed. "Uncle, and aunt, and every cousin ever conceived." He slumped forward and patted his chest. "I'm a poor working man. Have mercy."
"Nobody likes a quitter," admonished Buffy.
"But the quitter lives to dance another day," Xander countered. "So right now, I'll side with him."
Moving stiffly and painfully, Xander hobbled through the crush and made his way to one of the few empty tables on the perimeter of the floor as Willow and Tara bopped toward Buffy.
"Actually," said Tara, strands of damp hair clinging to her flushed cheeks, "I'm thinking a break sounds really good about now."
"Aww," protested Willow. "But we were just gettin' groovy."
Tara dragged a hand across her forehead. "I think I've depleted my groove reserves."
"A national emergency if ever I've heard one," declared Willow with a grin, linking arms with Tara and delivering a comforting squeeze. "A break it is. Coming, Buff?"
"No," returned Buffy crisply. "I thought I'd just stand out here and keep dancing, all alone, because I haven't really been humiliated lately, and I'm overdue."
With a roll of her eyes, Willow threaded her free hand into the crook of Buffy's elbow and the trio retired to the table recently reclaimed by Xander. However, much to the girls' dismay, upon arrival they discovered that their glasses had been drained. Not one solitary melting ice cube remained. Xander's drink had likewise evaporated. Blinking in disbelief, Willow peered into the non-depths of her glass, while Buffy turned hers upside down and jiggled it regretfully.
"My drink," squeaked Willow.
"Uh-huh," said Xander.
"You drank my drink."
Willow turned to him accusingly. "But it was my drink."
"I think you'll find the operative word here is 'was'," Xander told her with an affirming nod.
Tara sighed thirstily. "I'll go get us some more."
"No need," assured Xander, "for you see ..."
With a grand gesture, he wiggled his fingers in the air. As though on cue, a waitress materialized, suddenly appearing behind the girls and causing both Willow and Tara to visibly jump. Holding aloft a tray, she deposited four fresh beverages on the table.
"Xander taketh, and Xander giveth away," announced the giver-taker in regal fashion.
He was instantly forgiven for his transgressions as the girls settled more comfortably into their seats and reached for the welcome refreshment. But the waitress had not yet fully completed her mission. Beneath Xander's watchful eye, she made one more delivery, moving expertly through the crowd to another table not too far away.
Dawn started as a large, brightly-colored and obviously fruity concoction, complete with floating maraschino cherry on a stem, was thrust under her nose. For a long moment, Dawn seemed puzzled but then she glanced up at the waitress, who jerked her head in Xander's direction, identifying him as the mysterious and unexpected benefactor. Xander grinned, and Dawn briefly smiled her thanks, but it was cursory at best, vaporizing from her face as quickly as it had emerged. Her friends, on the other hand, treated Xander and his three companions to beaming smiles and enthusiastic waves before returning to their apparently self-appointed chore of bolstering Dawn's badly flagging spirits. Realizing that his attempt had done nothing to relieve Dawn's depression, Xander let out a small huff of disappointment.
"That was sweet," said Tara, offering comfort by patting the back of his hand.
Xander sighed. "And yet, ineffective."
"Yeah," agreed Willow with a sympathetic pout. "She's in a real funk. Poor Dawnie."
Buffy glowered darkly. "Explain to me again why I can't give Mr. Finlay a first-hand demonstration on Slayer strength?"
"Cuz that'll lead to police and jail, a life forever tarnished by the cruel reality of The Big House," replied Willow, slurping noisily, "and a rather girthful new love interest nicknamed 'Rita the Beater'." Willow's gaze flittered around the table as everyone stared. "What?" she mumbled around her straw.
Xander regarded her with a narrowed eye. "Your thoughts are not normal thoughts."
"You can't because Dawn asked you not to," Tara stated firmly. "And—" she quickly added as Buffy prepared to launch into a tirade that promised to be quite lengthy and vitriolic, "you can't be mad at Grip."
Buffy was far from convinced. "I think you'll find that being mad at people is something I'm actually pretty good at."
"But it's not his fault," insisted Tara.
Immediately, Buffy dismissed such an unfounded theory. "He broke my little sister's heart, and that's not his fault?"
"It's not all his fault," pressed Tara unwaveringly. "It's just ... I mean, you have to admit, it's a pretty big thing to swallow. I know when Willow first told me, about vampires and Slayers and stuff?" She paused, and her eyebrows knitted together. "Well, okay, I believed it—"
Widening her eyes, Buffy delivered a 'There, see??' gesture.
Tara had already prepared a defense. "But I already had a lot of evidence to back it up."
"Hello, witch," murmured Willow, smirking over the top of her straw.
"Right, exactly," said Tara. "Plus the 'you're a demon' stuff, and the scary floaty quiet men. I already had a frame of reference." She regarded Buffy soberly. "Grip doesn't have that."
"He's a good guy," added Xander. "Maybe in time ..."
Folding her arms, Buffy sat back in her chair. "I just hate seeing her so sad."
Instinctively, three pairs of eyes plus one, drifted toward Dawn's table. She had barely moved since the last time they'd looked at her and hadn't so much as touched her temptingly large, deliciously fruity beverage. Scooting closer, Ginny whispered in Dawn's ear and was instantly rewarded by a sliding of the glass in her direction. With an expression of sheer delight, Ginny popped the cherry into her mouth and then began to slurp. Glancing up, she noticed Xander and company watching – in particular, she noticed Xander. Pointing to the drink, she favored him with a huge thumbs-up. Somewhat awkwardly, Xander responded with a smile and reciprocating acknowledgment. A reflection of smitten dreaminess invaded Ginny's features as she continued to stare at Xander, wistfully and adoringly, while taking long pulls through her straw. Averting his gaze, Xander rapidly turned his attention back to his friends.
"She'll be okay. She'll be fine," assured Willow. "She'll be okay, then fine, a-and finally good. Great, even." She waited for confirmation but none was forthcoming. "It's— I mean, it hurts, but hey, we've all been there, with the relationship pain, and we all got through it without lasting damage. Right?"
Buffy and Xander offered nothing but a flat and level look. Willow's searching eyes darted nervously back and forth between the pair a few times and then became anxious.
"Okay!" she finally said, seizing Tara's hand. "Dance with me."
"But what about—" objected Tara, being pulled mercilessly toward the floor. She was obliged to yield to a force stronger than her own. "Yeah, okay."
The harsh tempo of the band's previous songs had been traded in for a soft, slow tune, and the frantic lighting of the Vortex had been toned down to match. For a minute or two, Buffy and Xander simply watched the couple dance. With closed eyes and contented smiles, they held each other tightly, Tara's cheek resting on Willow's shoulder while Willow caressed Tara's hair.
"Guess it's pretty easy to play the optimism card when your true blue defies death and you get a happily ever after," Xander speculated with a wry smile.
"I wouldn't know," said Buffy simply.
Xander nodded. "Yeah, me neither."
They fell into a companionable silence, a hush that was neither awkward nor uncomfortable, and continued to watch Willow and Tara for a while longer. Then Buffy lifted her glass.
"To happily every after," she announced.
She turned to Xander and they chinked glasses in a toast.
"When In Doubt"
Story by: Jet Wolf and Ultrace
Scripted by: Jet Wolf
Prose by: Novareinna and Jet Wolf
Edited by: Jet Wolf and Novareinna
Original Airdate: Monday, 20 September 2005, 9pm ET
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."
The quiet hum of the lab equipment filled the silence, as the two witches faced each other.
"Amy," Willow all but growled.
"Willow!" beamed Amy with much enthusiasm. "Great to see you. You look good."
Willow's eyes narrowed. "What are you doing here?"
Amy appeared affronted at the lukewarm reception. "What, no 'hi', no 'how are you'?" She pouted and regarded Willow expectantly. "After all we've been through together?"
Willow said nothing, content to allow her suspicious expression do the talking.
"Fine," Amy conceded with an exasperated eye-roll. "God, you're even more boring now than you were in high school." Her voice lowered to a self-mutter. "Didn't think that was possible."
"Get to the point, or get the hell out," instructed Willow sharply.
"You owe me," Amy snapped. "You owe me, and I'm here to collect." She cocked her head to one side and smirked. "To the point enough for you?"
"I don't know what you're—"
"Oh please," said Amy with disdain. "You're not really going to try to tell me you don't remember, are you?" Leisurely, she made her way down the stairs into the main room of the laboratory. "You can remember names, dates and places from every boring textbook ever written, but not when we met just a few months ago?" She shook her head reprovingly. "Lemme refresh you. Los Angeles, high school reunion, and me saving your darling honey dumpling."
Willow's grip on the clipboard tightened. "After you put her in danger!"
"I didn't point the gun. I didn't pull the trigger," Amy curtly reminded. "I didn't even know she was back on her feet and ready for round two. But even if I did, do you think Lilith cares about any of that?" She shrugged. "You prayed, and on her behalf, I delivered. The rest is just details."
Willow glowered at Amy's smug expression. "That isn't fair!"
"Cry me a river," returned Amy. "But fine." She threw her hands into the air. "You don't wanna honor your side, that's your call. I'm not the one breaking oaths to goddesses. I'm sure she'll understand 'this isn't fair'. And besides," she paused and threw Willow a charming smile, "what's the worst that could happen?"
Amy watched Willow absorb the implication. The redhead's eyes widened a little before narrowing once more to an infuriated glare. Amy grinned, secure in the knowledge that she and Willow were now completely on the same page.
"Yeah, nothing much," Amy confirmed chirpily. "Just little retroactive correction, goddess-style. What Lilith gives, she can only too easily take away."
"I can protect Tara," Willow asserted with conviction.
"Cuz you have such a good track record with that."
At Amy's words, Willow's face flushed red with anger. Her fingers twitched threateningly, but Amy didn't flinch.
"Ah ah ah," she admonished. "Attacking me is just a refusal with less words. You know better than that."
Willow's jaw became set and her chin jutted, but she made no further threatening moves and Amy nodded her approval, like a master pleased by his dog's new trick. She began to stroll around the room, Willow's eyes boring into her at every step.
"You'll be getting a book for me," Amy said.
Willow sneered. "Too lazy to go to Barnes and Noble yourself?"
Amy didn't reply, instead tossing Willow a look indicating that her sarcasm wasn't particularly appreciated.
"Where is it?" Willow asked instead.
Amy lifted her eyebrows and shrugged. "I don't know."
"Well what's it called?"
"I don't know that either."
"Okay," said Willow, rolling her eyes. "But'cha do know this is so far the lamest evil mission ever, right?"
"I don't know the specific details," Amy responded. "No one does. These priestesses way back when were afraid of it, so – being busybody priestesses and all – they hid it. All that's left is rumor and legend."
"So you don't even know what it does?" asked Willow dryly.
Amy sniffed. "Not exactly." She frowned as Willow made ready to voice something else equally incredulous and cut her off before she had a chance to speak. "I know it's power," Amy quickly added. "That's all I need to know."
"Actually," huffed Willow, "a way to get it might be handy too."
Amy smiled sweetly. "That's where you come in. I don't know where it's at, but I know how to send you to go fetch."
"How can you—"
Again, Amy effectively cut short Willow's objection.
"What, you think I didn't do my homework?" Amy seemed amazed at the notion. "I've been on the trail of this thing since last year. Using some of mom's old contacts, I finally tracked down a shaman with the final piece to the puzzle. He showed me the way to get there, and said all I need now is someone powerful enough to reach it." She winked at Willow. "Lucky me, huh?"
"If it's so easy, why don't you get it yourself?" said Willow pointedly.
Amy folded her arms. "Who said anything about easy?"
"Well, yeah, but—"
"Look, if I could, I would," Amy told her decisively. "But if I had enough power to get it, I wouldn't need it. Plus," she added as an afterthought, "I'm not exactly sure this is gonna work. He looked kinda shifty, you know?" Amy shrugged as Willow continued to stare her down. "Now get ready. I'm not gettin' any younger."
Closing her eyes, Amy began to draw upon her magick, soon surrounding herself with clouded swirls interspersed with blindingly bright sparkles. Becoming anxious, Willow attempted to make Amy see reason.
"Why don't ... We could ..." she hurriedly stammered. "You don't have to do this."
But Amy refused to listen. Her chant mounted as the conjuration steadily intensified. Behind Willow, a flickering glow appeared around the screens she had been monitoring. The radiance was rapidly expanding to encompass everything in its path.
"It wasn't supposed to be like this!" Willow frantically protested. "We were friends! I don't— What happened?"
There was no response from Amy. Indeed, there was no indication that she had even heard Willow's words and the incantation continued to work its magick.
"Is it your mother?" Willow suddenly blurted.
The chanting abruptly ceased, although the mystical force continued to gather energy. Amy opened her eyes. Her hands dropped to her sides and she looked at Willow as though the redhead were a total imbecile.
"Yeah, that's it," scoffed Amy. "I'm chock full of Mommy issues. I'm sure it has nothing to do with being stuck as a rat for three years of my life."
Willow's eyes darted to the side. Behind Amy, through the open door, she could see Buffy approaching. The Slayer was moving stealthily and silently, obviously fixed upon taking Amy by surprise. Willow swiftly refocused on Amy, intent on keeping her as distracted as possible.
"But that was a-an accident," she assured, "and I tried." She waved the clipboard. "I-I know it took a while, but I—"
Amy sneered and there was an ugly twist to her mouth. "I was supposed to be able to reverse the spell myself. Be a rat, run away, not be a rat. That was the plan. But I couldn't do it." Her tone lowered threateningly and she failed to notice Buffy approaching slowly but surely down the stairs. "Do you know what that's like? To be trapped in this horrible truth and know – know – you don't have enough power to make it right?"
In spite of herself, Willow regarded Amy with sympathetic understanding. But Amy wasn't looking for understanding and was in no mood to listen anyway.
"Well," concluded Amy, pursing her lips together, "I never will again."
The statement had barely rolled off her tongue when Buffy leapt into action. She ran at Amy, planning to tackle her, but unexpectedly, Amy was ready. Without so much as a glance over her shoulder, Amy thrust her hand at Buffy, and the Slayer was stopped dead. When Amy twitched her wrist, Buffy was sent flying to one side, where she crashed into some heavy equipment by the lab wall and slid to the floor. Turning, Amy treated her to a welcoming grin before her gaze traveled once more to Willow.
"Oh look, it's your better half," she announced with undisguised pleasure.
"Buffy!" cried Willow, dropping the clipboard.
Her answer was a muted groan.
Amy sighed. "Now if you don't mind," she said to the crumpled heap of Slayer, although her eyes never left Willow, "I sort of need to borrow your friend for a little bit. I'll put her back when I'm done, good as new." She pondered on that for a second. "Well, sort of," she added with a wicked grin before resuming the incantation.
The chanting had gained intensity, and the swirling current of energy behind Willow seemed to be rapidly approaching critical mass. Noticing the purling maelstrom, Willow tried to give it a wide berth but found herself rooted to the spot.
"I just wanted dinner," Buffy grumbled as she struggled to her feet. "Now I'm pissed and hungry."
Grabbing a metal chair by its legs, she hurled it at Amy's head, but once again, Amy was prepared. Turning sharply, the witch half-closed her eyelids and the chair promptly veered. It whistled past her right ear and made direct contact with the lab equipment Willow had been monitoring. The instrument readings went haywire almost instantly, as random numbers and symbols began to flash across the digital displays. It wasn't alone. The magick started to warp and bend, also threatening instability.
Amy regarded Buffy with alarm. "What did you do?!"
If Buffy had an answer, there was certainly no time to deliver one. In an explosion of light and sound, both Amy and Buffy were knocked off their feet. A violent gust of air began to rotate – a forceful whirlpool sucking everything within its path toward the giddying vortex of energy. Fighting the powerful eddy, Buffy was horrified to note that the magickal essence behind Willow had reached unusually brilliant proportions. The redhead was no more than a wavering silhouette against the whirling backdrop. Inch by agonizing inch, Willow was being dragged into the maelstrom. She reached out ineffectually, searching for an anchor to stem the tide, but the suction was too great.
"No!" objected Willow, employing every ounce of strength to avoid disaster. Her muscles were taut from the strain, but she could gain no foothold and had nothing to hold onto as the whirlpool spun ever faster and even more potent.
"Willow!" cried Buffy, extending her hand.
But it was beyond Willow's reach. "Buffy," she gritted painfully. "I can't—!"
Willow's feet were swept from beneath her as she descended into the vortex. It was time for desperate measures and Buffy responded with a do-or-die lunge. She attempted to grasp Willow's outstretched fingers as an all-encompassing flash filled the entire room, leaving in its wake a blanket of white light.
Slowly, the brilliance began to dissipate. There was an eerie silence. No comforting whir of machinery emanated from the slightly wrecked lab and no data flickered across blank monitors. The magickal energy had dispersed and there was no sign of life. No Amy. No Buffy. No Willow.
Overturned chairs and piles of strewn papers littered the lab area. Near one of the monitoring devices, Willow's head appeared from beneath a heap of clutter. She got to her feet and dusted herself down.
"Xander always swore learning was dangerous," she muttered, brushing the hair back from her face. The action was followed by a sharp, painful hiss. Her fingers gingerly probed the small cut on her forehead. It had already stopped bleeding and wasn't serious, but it was an open wound, consequently raw and tender to the touch. She took stock of her surroundings.
"Buffy?" she queried anxiously.
To her left, Buffy appeared from behind a large server. She bore a few bruises and minor injuries herself but otherwise seemed in good shape. Willow hurried toward her.
"Are you okay?"
"Well I hurt," grimaced Buffy. "That means either yes or no. I'm not sure which yet." Her eyes narrowed. "And speaking of witch ..."
"Maybe a house fell on her and we can steal her shoes," Willow grumbled darkly.
The pair split apart, giving the lab a thorough search. Buffy examined the perimeter of the room and Willow even peeked underneath sheets of paper, but there was no trace of Amy.
"You remember that year I bought her a deluxe exercise ball?" Willow said, lifting aside a slightly charred binder. "There's five bucks wasted. A-And all the times I told Miss Kitty no?" She sighed regretfully. "One blind eye and we'd all be a lot happier."
"No house, no shoes," observed Buffy. "I don't see her." She looked to Willow. "Can she turn herself into a gnat or something?"
"Let's hope," said Willow fervently. "And that there's a huge gnat-eating spider outside."
Buffy couldn't suppress her amusement. "I sense anger."
"You sense right, mister!"
"Well you can vent on the way," declared Buffy, heading for the door. "Tara's probably getting ready to send out a search party any second now."
Willow dug into her pocket for the cell phone. "I'll call and let her know that wow that's strange."
"You might want to rephrase until we get home," suggested Buffy. "That's not exactly a statement of soothing."
Willow shook her head. "No, I mean, that's strange."
She showed Buffy the phone. It was in poor shape. Only half the display exhibited a partial reading of what was normally supposed to be there, while the remainder simply blinked in random weakness or refused to blink at all. It was a distinctly sick instrument of communication and wouldn't respond to any of Willow's punched commands, despite repeated attempts.
"I think it's been mojo jojo'd," she said, mournfully jabbing at a button. "All the swirly, magick-flingin' fun fried it extra crispy."
"Tomorrow we'll give it a decent burial," commiserated Buffy.
Willow visibly pouted. "It took me almost a year to get it all customized the way I like, too."
Gathering her clipboard and associated materials, Willow stuffed everything into her bookbag and slung it over her shoulder before following Buffy to the stairs. They gave the room a brief final survey before exiting. Neither noticed the malfunctioning equipment and flashing digital readouts, all behaving as strangely as Willow's cell phone. The electronic confusion persisted for a few moments and then, simultaneously, all machines simply shut down and died.
The car's headlights pierced the darkness of the street ahead with a yellow glow. Willow had taken the wheel while Buffy rode shotgun. As instructed by the stop signs, they paused at every intersection but it was an uninterrupted journey with no other cars on the road and they made good progress.
"A book?" queried Buffy with a puzzled frown.
Willow nodded. "That's what she said."
"What do you think she'd do with it?"
"Best guess?" Willow glanced briefly at Buffy's profile, silhouetted by a street lamp. "Not bake me a 'sorry for being a vindictive bitch' cake."
"Just as well," smirked Buffy. "The icing would go straight to your hips. Unlike a pint of Super Double Chunky Fudgey Yummy which, of course, contains milk and is therefore good for you." She nodded with much enthusiasm.
"Right, because cake doesn't have eggs or flour or—" Willow abruptly turned the corner without depressing the indicator and then grimaced, quickly checking the rear view mirror but there was no vehicle behind her.
"Shh," instructed Buffy. "I'm making up a point as I go along. It's rude to exploit its weakness."
"Plus it means justification for sweet creamy iced goodness," added Willow with a huge grin. "Consider my logic sufficiently hosed."
Rolling down the window, Buffy luxuriated in the quietude of the night. "We'll have to stop and get some," she said. "I think Dawn inhaled the last carton during one of her increasingly frequent mope sessions."
"Poor Dawnie," sympathized Willow.
Buffy huffed her indignation. "'Poor Dawnie'? I didn't even get a bite."
"Then we'll buy two and you can hide the leftovers," said Willow with a sly grin.
"Yay!" declared Buffy.
They drove in silence for a moment, Willow picking up speed since she appeared to have the road all to herself and Buffy staring out the window at the illuminated houses and bare tree branches bathed in moonlight.
"So, Amy. Think that's it?" Buffy finally asked. "Some flashy lights and then her best Jimmy Hoffa?"
"We should be so lucky," returned Willow. "She'll try again. You can count on it."
A tiny frown appeared on Buffy's forehead as she continued to gaze out the window. Her senses were on alert, but she seemed to have trouble in deciphering exactly what that might imply. "Then we'll just have to be ready for her," she murmured, somewhat distractedly.
"Yeah. Uhh, no," said Willow as Buffy's head began to swivel, her keen eyes rapidly appraising the surroundings from every window and every possible vantage point.
"I mean," continued Willow, oblivious to Buffy's surveillance, "definitely with the ready. I'm Ready Gal. But I just sort of want it over, you know?" The car slowed and then rolled to a stop as Willow arrived at a red light. Her chatter resumed in full force as she leaned back and waited for the signal to turn green. "If I've gotta do something – and there is definitely a something in need of doing here – then maybe this is the best something it could be. We don't even know for sure what it is, so- so maybe it'll be good." She drummed her fingers rhythmically against the steering wheel and, despite the ensuing silence, pressed on regardless. "Maybe it'll make her happy again, or teach her a valuable moral lesson in a safe family-friendly way, or turn her back into a rat again which I'm surprisingly okay with." She nodded a firm confirmation. "I just mean, it could be worse, you know? What she wants me to do. This isn't too bad, right?" She received no answer. "Right?" she reiterated. Still no answer. Willow dragged her gaze away from the signal, which was still irritatingly red despite the lack of traffic in any direction. "Buffy?"
But the passenger door stood wide open and there was no Buffy to be seen.
"Buffy?" questioned Willow nervously, peering into the deserted street.
An abrupt rap on the driver's side window, caused Willow to start violently. She turned to see Buffy's face and, shaking her head, rolled down the window.
"What, we couldn't talk in the car?" said Willow, her waving hand to encompass the interior. "Did the car become some anti-talk zone when I wasn't looking?"
But Buffy wasn't truly paying attention. Her posture was tense, almost defensive and certainly guarded.
"Get out of the car," she said sharply, eyes constantly inspecting the surrounding area.
Willow was astonished. "What?"
"Get out of the car," repeated Buffy urgently.
Since Willow seemed confused and not acting with sufficient promptness to satisfy Buffy, the Slayer took matters into her own hands. Reaching inside the vehicle, she unlocked the door and then opened it. Willow took the hint. She undid her seatbelt and grabbed her backpack.
"What's going on?"
Buffy took a step back as Willow exited. It only took a moment for Willow to appreciate Buffy's consternation. The street and all those surrounding it were completely deserted. Nobody was out enjoying a brisk evening stroll and no dogs were being taken for a walk. No families could be seen gathered around dinner tables within the well-lit houses. And there was no traffic – not a single vehicle of any description was driving on any road.
"Really good question," said Buffy cautiously.
They parted company, each venturing in an opposite direction in search of anything that might be moving in the eerie hush. They discovered nothing.
"Maybe ... Maybe it's just late?" Willow proposed doubtfully. "O-Or, hey, the irresistible allure of Must See TV!" She glanced hopefully over her shoulder but received no response.
Moving down the street slowly and carefully, Buffy regarded anything and everything with a decidedly suspicious eye. Willow made her way to the window of a nearby 24-hour convenience store and checked for any sign of life within. There was none. She opened the door and was immediately greeted by the merry tinkle of welcoming bells.
Suddenly, Buffy was at her shoulder, cautioning and wary. "Will ..."
"It's weird, isn't it?" said Willow, her tone perplexed but also curious.
Hesitantly, she crossed the threshold, Buffy right on her heels. The store was clearly empty, devoid of customers and employees. But there was no indication of a hurried abandonment. The displays were intact, the shelves fully stocked and the cash register secure. It simply appeared that nobody was there.
"'Weird' not a word I'm inclined to disagree with," said Buffy thoughtfully.
The pair continued to scrutinize the store, but it offered no clues, hints, or solutions.
"With the lack of anyone more qualified present," Buffy began, "I think you rank as the Mistress of Mysterious. " Willow frowned at little at this backhanded compliment, but Buffy didn't seem to notice. "So what's the what?"
Willow made a valiant effort to come shining through. "There's no sign of a struggle, no sign of ... of anything, really."
"Yeah, got that far," confirmed Buffy wryly. "So what're we not looking at?"
"I dunno," Willow struggled. "Something must've—"
"Amy, maybe?" interrupted Buffy, moving behind the counter and ducking down to see what lay out of sight.
Unnoticed by either woman, an indistinct shape began to stir within the shadows of the upper shelves.
"I don't think so," returned Willow uncertainly. "Amy doesn’t have the kind of power you'd need to just poof a whole block like this."
"I think maybe it's more than just the block," said Buffy, reappearing after extracting a radio previously hidden from view. It was already turned on but nothing issued forth from the speakers. She cranked the volume to full blast. Still nothing. No dulcet voice of a DJ and no music. No news broadcast or even static. Nothing. Buffy swiveled the control knob. It was the same on every wavelength. Nothing but dead air.
Willow puzzled for a moment over this new and rather disturbing discovery and then her eyes opened wide in alarm. "But what about—?"
But Buffy had already anticipated the question. She lifted the telephone from its cradle. There was no reassuring dial tone. She thumped the receiver hard on the surface of the counter top and then brought it to her ear. Apparently, abuse was not the answer. She glanced anxiously at Willow, who promptly pulled out her mobile. This time, there was no functional display at all.
Willow blinked in panic. "We've got to get home. Tara, a-a-and Xand—"
Suddenly, her body grew rigid.
"Buffy ... we're not alone."
Receiver still clutched tightly in her fist, Buffy froze and slowly looked around the store, all senses tingling on high alert. Two pairs of eyes frantically scoured their respective adjacent areas and came up empty. They spied nothing untoward – not even the vague form stalking them, catlike, as it gradually descended the wall behind Buffy.
It was a relatively small organism, approximately the size of a large rabbit, and appeared to be composed entirely of solid shadow. It possessed no true features to speak of and seemed mostly two-dimensional, but no less horrific regardless of that fact. One of the most discernable characteristics was a mouth that displayed multiple rows of sharp and jagged shadow-teeth. Though not really visible when seen head-on due to the lack of depth, the honed dentitions were only too obvious in profile.
"What is it?" whispered Buffy, unaware of the creature behind her.
Nervously, Willow shook her head. "I'm not sure."
"Well that's helpful," said Buffy as she arched a disparaging eyebrow.
Offended by the sarcastic barb, Willow whirled to face her. "Hey, I'm doing the best I—" Her eyes widened like saucers. "Behind you!"
As Buffy turned, the shadow creature flexed its taloned appendages and sprang from the wall, landing on the Slayer's chest. Rolling with the impact, Buffy hit the floor, trying to avoid the wicked snap of its jaws. Acting on instinct, she thrust the phone handset into its mouth. The plastic disintegrated with a brittle crunch, as though it were a crisp potato chip. Buffy struggled to fend off the barrage of attacks, but it was no easy task and she continued to escape serious injury by the slimmest of margins.
"Messzire!" commanded Willow, thrusting her clenched fist toward the beast.
The snapping abruptly ceased, but further success was a matter for debate. Raising its head, the creature regarded Willow through the vertical slits housing its glowing tawny-yellow eyes. The expression that radiated from within was malicious and brimming with contempt, and Willow couldn't help but take a step away under its malevolent gaze. The maw gaped and although no sound issued forth, the beast gave every impression that it was amused by Willow's ineffectual attempt to curtail its assault. It almost seemed to be laughing at her.
Nonetheless, Willow's distraction had bought Buffy a few precious seconds and the Slayer seized the opportunity to toss the creature away from her. It sailed over the counter and landed without so much as a muted thud, immediately scuttling to its clawed feet. In less than a heartbeat, it had leapt upon a bottom shelf and then upward to another until it reached sanctuary in the shadows that loitered around the ceiling. Regaining her composure, Willow hurried to assist Buffy, neither woman ceasing their scan of the surroundings for even an instant.
"What the hell is that thing?" asked Buffy angrily, brushing dust from the seat of her jeans.
Willow shuddered. "I-I don't know. I've never seen anything like it before."
"Personally," declared Buffy petulantly, "I'd be fine never meeting it again either, but I get the feeling—"
In a blur of movement, Buffy reached out and snatched a baseball bat from behind the counter. She threw it end-over-end at the mocking yellow eyes high above. Her aim was direct and deadly, taking the creature completely by surprise. Toppling from its perch, it plummeted downward. Although the gawking mouth was open wide, it emitted no sound – no screech of pain – as it crumpled to the floor and thrashed in apparent agony.
"—I can't possibly be that lucky," concluded Buffy.
"In here!" cried Willow.
She had run to a sliding-top display freezer near the front of the store and had pulled back one end. Flipping the creature into the air with her boot, Buffy caught it deftly in both hands and quickly dumped the squirming body into the cold depths. Willow wasted no time in sliding the cover back into place. The beast struggled against the glass barrier, thrashing about violently for several seconds, and then seemed to accept its fate. As Buffy and Willow watched, unable to look away, it settled down comfortably amid the frozen confections. Yet even more disconcerting, the creature then raised its luminous eyes and returned their stares in kind.
Willow involuntarily shivered. "I'll never look at a Rocket Pop the same again."
"That's it," said Buffy determinedly. "My little wig is now a full-blown, supersized value meal wig. We're getting out of here, now."
As Willow nodded her wholehearted agreement, the pair headed for the door. As they exited, however, Willow pointed at the car and both women screeched to a halt. At least a dozen of the nasty little shadow creatures were swarming all over the idling vehicle like flies around a new carcass. At the jolly tinkle of the bell, they halted their activities and turned sharply in unison to face Willow and Buffy.
The girls wasted no time. Bolting inside, they slammed the door shut behind them. Willow took the extra precaution of flipping the lock and then, as an afterthought, also lowered the blinds.
Buffy grabbed Willow by the arm. "Let's try the back!"
Together, they dashed into the storage room and breathed a sigh of relief to discover a rear exit. Employing extreme prudence, Buffy cracked open the door and tentatively peeked out. Thankfully, the coast was clear.
"About that staying late after school thing?" she tossed at Willow over her shoulder.
Willow emphatically shook her head. "Never again."
"Just so we're clear."
And they made a run for it.
Buffy and Willow sprinted through a deserted alley and rounded the corner. Trying the handle of a nearby door, Buffy puffed with relief when it easily opened. Holding it wide, she ushered Willow inside and immediately followed, slamming the door firmly shut behind her. The pair leaned against a wall and tried to catch their breath.
"Think we lost 'em?" panted Willow.
Buffy peered through a little dirt-streaked window. "I'd say yes, but then that's what I said the last three times you asked me, and I'm sorta getting sick of being very wrong."
Brushing her hair back from her forehead, Willow winced again at the tiny stinging cut. "There's a pretty strong hate building for these guys. And in such a sort space of time, too! I'm impressing myself."
Buffy ran her fingers down the wall and located a light switch. She flipped it but no welcoming light flooded the area and she sighed bitterly. Willow quickly came to the rescue by extending her hand, palm upward.
"Adustum lucis," she incanted.
Instantly, a small ball of light formed and hovered in mid-air. It cast a golden glow, which revealed the structure to be a modest warehouse.
Buffy crouched on the floor. "We'll rest here for a few minutes," she said, "but then we need to get gone. Make it home, figure out our next move from there."
Joining her on the dusty ground, Willow rummaged through her booksack and produced a water bottle. She took a swig and then tossed it to Buffy, who did the same before tossing it back. For a long moment, neither spoke and then Willow broke the uneasy hush.
"I wanna do a spell." Buffy glanced at her with a questioning look, prompting Willow to explain. "Something weird's going on," she continued, then rolled her eyes at the obvious. "Big duh there. But I've been thinking, and there's pretty much just two options: either Amy zapped away everyone in town but us, or—"
"Or everyone in town's still there and we're not," finished Buffy.
Willow nodded. "There's a razor out there somewhere with Occam's name on it that makes it pretty clear which one's most likely."
Raising up, Buffy peered through the window once more. "But everything looks like our Trillium."
"Big clue for wrongness," Willow agreed. "I'm guessing she only got about half done before the spell got that special Buffy attention. I'm thinking we're in a ... a holding pattern or something. A rest stop in limbo."
Buffy frowned. "So what happens when Amy figures out what happened?"
"She tries to fix it. Only, Amy?" Willow looked dubious. "Not so good at fixing spells that go wrong."
Buffy returned to her squatting position. "Point taken. What about the Black Meanies?"
"Don't have a nifty principle for that one," returned Willow, nibbling thoughtfully on her lower lip. "Hoping not to hang around long enough to make one."
Buffy was in total agreement. "Works for me. What do you need me to do?"
"Just keep an eye out," said Willow nervously. "All joking aside, I don't know how long it'll be before Amy puts two and two together and—"
But before she could finish her sentence, a deafening whoosh echoed around the warehouse, accompanied by a fiercely swirling wind. It heralded the appearance of vortex manifesting behind Willow. She promptly scooted away from the wall and turned to look at the maelstrom, shielding her eyes from the blinding brilliance.
"Sure," Willow muttered through gritted teeth. "Now she learns to add."
The drag of the spinning vortex was intense and Willow staggered backward, unable to withstand the funneling power. A violent wind whipped at her hair and blew spiraling clouds of grit into her eyes from the dusty floor. Her breath came in short gasps as she was pulled ever closer to the entrance of the whirlpool.
"I know I said I wanted to get it over with," she panted, "but now there's the part where I'm terrified!"
Willow didn't have too much time to deliberate, however, as her freedom of choice was ripped away and her legs abruptly swept out from under her. She immediately lost her balance, suspended in mid-air by the sheer power of suction. Rotating like a stream of water gushing down a drain, she tumbled toward the mouth of the eddy. Panic-stricken, she grabbed onto a heavy wooden crate, oblivious to the rough splinters which instantly burrowed into her fingertips. The desperate act slowed her momentum, but her grasp was tenuous at best.
"I can build you a new computer!" Willow frantically called into the void, hoping to strike a bargain. "Homework, for a whole year!"
Apparently, the proposition was unfavorable – possibly even offensive, given that the tug of the maelstrom increased. Willow's hand scrabbled against the crate trying to maintain equilibrium, but her hold was gradually slipping.
"You want books, I got lots of books!" she cried. Her voice was piercing and shrill. "Some even have pictures!"
The offer had barely rolled from Willow's tongue when her fingers lost their flimsy clasp altogether and she flailed helplessly into the gaping maw. Her eyes grew wide with terror and then—
The Slayer's left arm was wrapped around a support beam while her right hand clutched Willow's wrist in a death grip.
"Don't let me go!" said Willow, eyes wide and staring.
The strain was visible on Buffy's face as she fought to keep Willow from entering the force field. "Never ... happen!" she gasped raggedly.
It was far from an easy or painless battle. The ache in Buffy's arm was almost intolerable and her nails dug into Willow's flesh, virtually cutting off the blood supply. For a moment, it was touch-and-go but then, with a mighty heave, Buffy hauled Willow to safety. The vortex erupted into an explosion of brilliant light, sending the pair sprawling to the floor, where they landed in an untidy heap.
Untangling limbs, they rolled to one side, disheveled from the gusting wind and exertion, but in relatively good shape otherwise. Of the maelstrom, there was no sign. Willow's head dropped in relief and the two of them took a few moments to recoup.
"Thanks," murmured Willow.
"Hey, you got me into this," returned Buffy. "No way you're getting out solo."
Willow nodded. "Yeah. Sorry about that."
But Buffy didn't respond, simply shrugging in something of a resigned fashion. A tiny frown creased Willow's forehead at Buffy's nonchalant reaction and an expression of guilt invaded her features. They sat quietly for a few minutes more before climbing to their feet. Still cautious and wary, they stood ready for any further surprises. Buffy remained silent as Willow retrieved her backpack and began to rummage through its contents.
"What's the hunt?" asked Buffy, cocking her head curiously.
"Spell ingredients," said Willow. She noted Buffy's querying gaze. "For the spell? There's still oodles of big question marks. Lots of stuff we don't know."
Buffy emitted a semi-snort. "That's the truth."
"So I'll see if I can't fix that," added Willow, trying her best to sound upbeat. "Can't hurt, right?" She smiled cheerfully at Buffy.
Once again, Buffy refrained from providing any response, either verbal or otherwise. Willow's smile slowly faded, but she said nothing further. Extracting items from her backpack, she handed them one-by-one to Buffy who stood waiting, watchful eyes constantly scanning the shadows.
On the floor of the warehouse, eyes closed in concentration, Willow sat cross-legged in the middle of a partially constructed circle. Sharpening a pencil, Buffy slowly walked around her. The fallen shavings formed a perimeter, and within the makeshift ring, Willow's lips moved in a soft incantation. As she chanted, she anointed herself with a tiny, travel-sized bottle of hand lotion. In front of her, at the center of the circle was a puddle of some dark, gloopy substance. Given the items scattered nearby, the mixture apparently consisted of ink taken from a couple of broken pens, pieces of apple core and small shreds of paper ripped from a textbook.
Her task satisfactorily completed, Buffy stepped back and watched expectantly for something to happen. She frowned when nothing immediately transpired and ruefully considered the whittled nub held between her thumb and forefinger.
"So much for the power of the Number 2 pencil," she sighed.
Busy on preparations, Willow didn't respond. With a final inunction from the bottle of hand lotion, she laid it on the ground and took a deep, centering breath.
"Shepherd of the lost, I beseech thee
Blood of the righteous, I supplicate
Fruit of the pious, I supplicate
Planes of all knowledge, I supplicate
Shepherd of the lost, be lost no more"
The spell cast, Willow waited, hands resting palm-upward on her knees. She waited for a good, long, patient moment, back straight as an arrow and chin uplifted. Then, without warning, her body sagged – not from anything mystical, just regular disappointment of the non-magical variety.
"Yeah, well ... screw you too," she said with mounting irritation. "Stupid shepherd of the lost."
"No joy?" asked Buffy.
Willow shook her head regretfully. "A-And I was all proud of my pun, too." She gave the broken pen casings an indignant prod with her toe. "Blood of the write-ous. See, that's the problem with these super powerful deities – no sense of humor."
Retrieving the bottle of lotion, Buffy wagged it in front of Willow's nose. "But on the bright side," she said cheerily, "at least you smell fruity now."
Grinning, Willow got to her feet and, with Buffy's help, began to clean up the pathetic remains of her unsuccessful spell.
"I'll try again once we get home," she stated confidently. "With actual supplies, I might have luck that's not entirely bad."
"And if we're really lucky," added Buffy, "Tara'll be there."
Willow wasn't sure she'd correctly followed that line of thought.
"Yeeeah?" she questioned dubiously.
"You know," said Buffy, wadding the tiny scraps of textbook paper in her hand and stuffing them into Willow's backpack along with the hand lotion, "since these days you seem to work better on the whole magick thing when she's around. With you helping her out, we'll have an answer in no time, right?"
"Sure. I guess," replied Willow slowly.
Buffy favored her with a most encouraging smile. "No 'guess'. It's a fact." She nodded in confirmation. "You're my Wonder Wiccans."
She didn't argue the point, but Willow couldn't keep from frowning as she repacked her booksack.
High above in the rafters, vague shadows began to shift and move, almost of their own accord.
"I was really hoping you'd get something from the spell though," said Buffy.
"Me too," agreed Willow. "I sort of got a ... a tickle. That's it, though."
Buffy arched an inquiring eyebrow. "Tickle ha-ha?"
"Tickle weird," stated Willow thoughtfully. "Nothing really conclusive. More like a little niggling feeling, like- like when you remember you forgot something, but can't remember to remember what you forgot?"
"Helpful," responded Buffy dryly.
"As a two-legged beagle!" Willow declared. "Which is to say, not all that helpful." She shrugged hopefully. "Maybe more'll come to me."
She tugged on the flap of her booksack and closed the fastener with a sharp click.
"Ready?" asked Buffy, halfway to the exit by now.
With extreme caution, Buffy opened the door, warily poked out her head and looked in both directions. As before, there was no sign of human life and, thankfully, no sign of shadow-beast-with-snapping-teeth life either. She slipped into the street and motioned for Willow to follow.
She paused for a moment and extended her hand into the warehouse. "Blussen," Willow murmured, forming a fist. As she did so, the illuminated ball she had conjured earlier extinguished itself. Quickly following Buffy outside, Willow closed the door behind her.
From the crossbeams of the vaulted ceiling, a pair of tawny-yellow eyes glittered in the darkness. They were soon followed by the appearance of another. Then another. And another. And another and another and another ...
The street was deserted, which was clearly the new norm. Buffy and Willow hurried along as quickly as they could while still keeping an eye out for danger. They arrived at a corner building, ready to turn into another thoroughfare when Buffy held out a restraining arm, preventing Willow from going any further until she'd had a chance to check for safety. When she was as reasonably certain as she could be that nothing evil lurked, the pair continued.
"Buffy?" said Willow hesitantly, lagging behind a little.
"That thing you said back at the warehouse."
Buffy frowned. "Which thing? Odds are good I said things to the count of bunches." She tossed a grin over her shoulder. "Much as I love to hear myself talk, I don't actually listen all that much. Refresh me."
Willow scuffed her feet as she walked. "The thing about Tara."
"Ah," nodded Buffy. "With you now. What about it?"
"I was ..." began Willow somewhat reluctantly. She took a deep breath. "What did you mean?"
Buffy didn't turn around. "Not aware of a whole lotta subtext there, Will."
"I-It sounded like you thought ..." Willow chewed on her bottom lip. "... thought Tara could do a better job. Than me."
Buffy stopped and regarded Willow with wide eyes. "Oh. Oh. No, wow. Okay, Poor Communication Buffy, reporting for duty." She smiled before moving on.
Relieved, Willow breathed a contented sigh, satisfied that she'd simply misheard.
"I just meant," clarified Buffy in a casual manner, "you're weaker on your own." Instantly, Willow's surge of enthusiastic relief began to wane. "That's common knowledge though, right?" added Buffy, still marching steadily forward. "I mean, we all know that."
Willow increased her stride to catch up with the Slayer. "We do?" she asked doubtfully. "I mean – I'm not weaker!" She paused and peered into Buffy's face. "...Am I?"
"Well maybe not 'weaker'," admitted Buffy thoughtfully. She shook her head. "I'm not saying it right. Xander would know what I mean."
"Xander?" echoed Willow in a tight voice.
"Or Giles," Buffy swiftly amended. "You know how I get when Giles starts droning on though." She rolled her eyes and faked a yawn of boredom. "I filter out the fuzzy details, so I can't remember how he put it."
"You ... You've all talked about me?" a stricken Willow asked. "To the point of drone-age?"
"Only when it got really obvious that you needed Tara to make the magick work," said Buffy. She threw a concerned look in Willow's direction. "But you get that, right? We're just worried about what might happen if, you know, worse comes to worse and Tara ..." She trailed off. "Well, nobody wants that again." She came to a complete stop and turned to Willow with an expression of heartfelt anxiety. "We just want what's best for you, Will. That's all." She gave Willow a hug. "We love you."
Willow was quick to return the gesture. "I love you guys too," she murmured. "I don't ever want to hurt you like that again."
Buffy patted Willow's shoulder comfortingly. "So you won't."
As the pair broke their embrace, Buffy treated Willow to a beaming smile of reassurance. Willow did her very best to match it before they resumed their walk, Buffy leading the way.
"The thing with our powers," persisted Willow, apparently unwilling to let the matter drop altogether. "It's not that I'm weaker. I'm not. Mine's just ... different from hers."
Buffy was in agreement. "Tara's healing, life and love," she nodded confidently.
That definition brought Willow to an abrupt halt. Buffy moved several yards ahead before realizing that Willow had stopped dead in her tracks. She turned and regarded Willow questioningly.
Willow's expression had turned stony. "Which makes me destruction, death and hate."
For a moment, it appeared Buffy might refute that statement. But she didn't. Instead, she chose to pacify.
"Yeah, but who went platinum blonde when we needed her?" she encouraged. "And you know what you get when you mix black and white."
"Gray," replied Willow, her tone sharp.
Buffy blinked. "I was gonna say 'slate'," she offered hopefully.
Willow picked up the pace once more. "We'd better keep going," she advised curtly. "People not me are waiting to be useful."
She stomped past Buffy, who was momentarily stunned.
"Will, wait!" she called. "That wasn't what I meant!" But Willow kept on going. Buffy tried again. "Willow!"
Her cries were ignored as Willow strode determinedly along the sidewalk, eyes straight ahead. She failed to notice the swarm of shadowy creatures that started to stream out of the building and alleyway she'd just passed. Some distance behind, however, Buffy couldn't help but see them.
"Hey!" she shouted immediately. "Short, black and indistinct! Over here!"
At the sound of Buffy's voice, Willow turned. Gasping in horror, she stumbled backward to see the sheer mass of teeming creatures close to bearing down on her. Loosing her footing, she landed on the concrete with a heavy thud.
"That's right," said Buffy defiantly, hands on hips. "I'm talkin' to you!"
The cloud of shadow-beasts hovered in place, but their wicked glints were focused solely on Willow, who was scuttling away like a crab. The malicious stares didn't falter and dozens of yellow eyes seemed to be boring into her very soul. Suddenly, a peculiar expression invaded Willow's face, as though she were trying hard to hear and understand something coming from a far off distance. She became so focused that there was no room left for fear. The creatures simply waited and made no move to attack, but Buffy was taking no chances.
Spotting a trashcan bolted to the pavement, Buffy grabbed it and, displaying visible strain, tore it free from its moorings. Holding it over her head, she hurled it toward the center of the swarm with every ounce of power she could summon.
It met its mark and the creatures instantaneously turned their attention her way. Their purpose seemed to be singularly bent on destruction as they descended upon her. Willow didn't appear to notice the change, lost as she was in her own private reverie.
A flurry of well-aimed swats and Buffy was able to dispense with the first wave relatively easily, but their numbers were many and she soon succumbed to the ferocity of their assault. She fell to her knees with a protesting cry of pain, upper body cloaked in shades of black. At the sound, Willow snapped out of her trance. Blinking, she looked around in confusion and then spied the swarming mass where Buffy had formerly been standing.
But the beasts were ignoring her now, and had no care for her protests.
Willow thrust her hands toward them. "Leave her alone!"
There was a bright ripple of energy, which rapidly dispersed as it struck the creatures. Those closest to Willow spun toward her, but as with their counterpart in the convenience store, they appeared to be more amused than apprehensive. Indeed, many seemed to be actually laughing soundlessly at her.
This did little to improve Willow's disposition. "I said, leave her alone!" she ordered.
Again, Willow lashed out. This time, the bolt was stronger and more powerful, but it met with the same success – or lack thereof – as before. Willow panted heavily from exertion and fear. Tiny beads of sweat collected on her forehead and trickled stingingly into her eyes. She brushed them away with an angry fist, scouring the area for something she could use that would be of help to her. Not finding anything of value, she seized her backpack, scrambled to her feet and charged, swinging with all her might in every direction. A large number of the shades attempted to leap on her, but Willow was a whirlwind and most couldn't even come close to touching her. Nonetheless, she did suffer some cuts and scratches in the course of her efforts, all of which were ignored in her desperate need to assist Buffy. It seemed to take an eternity, but eventually, she reached her.
The Slayer was lying on the ground, her clothes ripped and torn. It appeared that every inch of exposed skin had been subjected to vicious attack and she was a mess of nasty bites and bloodied gashes. Worse of all, Buffy wasn't moving. She didn't even seem to be breathing.
Willow dropped the backpack and rushed to her friend. "Buffy? Buffy?"
There was no reaction.
One of the creatures landed on Willow's wrist and sank its teeth into her arm, tearing away a chunk of flesh. Crying out in agony, she whirled on the little monster, eyes black as pitch. Initially, it seemed to regard her with the same cocky attitude as its brethren, but that soon transformed into concern as Willow's eyes began to flicker dangerously with living flame. Almost before it realized what was transpiring, the hapless shade was ablaze – trapped amid an inferno that consumed the creature from within in less than a second, leaving only a plume of smoke in its wake.
Willow's penetrating gaze then jerked upward to the heavens, conjuring a ball of crackling power, much like the one she had manifested earlier but infinitely more grand and magnificent in size and substance. Speedily it expanded, casting a light that rivaled the sun in bright intensity. One by one, the shadow creatures were burned to nothing. When the last had disappeared, Willow slumped to her knees, struggling to focus her entire attention on Buffy – Buffy, who still had yet to move.
"Buffy?" She peered anxiously into the Slayer's pale face. "Buffy, are you...?"
Gently, she chafed Buffy's cold hands, but there was no sign of life. With trembling fingers, she checked the neck and felt no comforting beat of a pulse. Willow's face crumpled as tears coursed down her cheeks and her attempts to rouse Buffy became increasingly vigorous.
"Oh god," she sobbed. "Oh god, Buffy?" She violently shook the limp body. "Please, I can't go through this again! Please! Please be okay, please!"
"Cut that out," rasped the Slayer. "You're crying loud enough to wake the dead." She opened her eyes and coughed weakly. "Hey, check it."
Willow sat back on her heels. "Buffy!" she exclaimed hopefully.
"Seriously Will, you gotta stop doing this. Some day you're gonna have to let me go."
Scooping Buffy into a huge hug, Willow continued to cry, but this time it was with relief. She shook her head emphatically. "Never happen."
Raising her arms, Buffy returned the hug as wisps of ash – all that remained of the shadowed horde – spiraled in a shower around them.
The neighborhood was familiar. A neighborhood that Willow and Buffy knew well. It was home.
At the end of the street, Willow peered around the wall of a house, surveyed the area and then ducked back again. Buffy was sitting on a low parapet. Much of the blood had been wiped away but she was still covered by wounds of varying intensity. She was attempting to tie a makeshift bandage, ripped from the hem of her shirt, around her right hand. Taking over, Willow gently completed the task for her. Other strips of spare fabric had been used as temporary first-aid dressings for some of Buffy's more critical injuries.
Willow smiled weakly as she fashioned a neat bow. "I've got good news and bad news."
"You ever notice how whenever you get a choice like that," Buffy mused aloud, "the good news is never really enough to counteract the bad news?"
"Just so you know, this isn't gonna be the exception that proves the rule."
Buffy heaved a sigh. "Good news?"
"We're probably not gonna get randomly attacked again." Willow delivered this with as much good cheer as she could muster.
Buffy gazed at the sky. "Fearing the bad news."
"Because," said Willow, forced to play the reluctant role as bearer of said bad news, "I think every single one of those things is waiting for us at home."
Exchanging apprehensive glances, the pair craned their necks in unison around the corner. Buffy's eyes opened wide. Willow certainly hadn't been exaggerating. It seemed as though thousands of the shadow creatures had taken it upon themselves to gather together for a morbid welcome home party. Together, Willow and Buffy pulled back to safety.
"It's like someone over-decorated our house, just in time for evil Christmas," declared Buffy dolefully. She turned to Willow. "Are you sure about this?"
Willow hesitated for a moment. "I think so."
"You 'think so'?" Buffy repeated. "Don't think so, know so."
A pained expression crossed Willow's face. "I'm ... It's hard to feel out. I'm trying."
Buffy frowned. "There's enough of those things to fill a small country. We have to be sure. Try harder."
"This is new for me too, okay?!" snapped Willow. "Just- Just back off a second." She rubbed her forehead painfully. "Let me think. I need to think."
"Yes, please," Buffy scoffed with disdain. "Let's try that for a change."
Sparing a moment to first shoot a glare in Buffy's direction, Willow closed her eyes in concentration. As before, it seemed that she was straining to listen to something far away. Her lids flickered.
"They're here ... They're here because it's here. The ..." Her brow furrowed into engrossing creases and she cocked her head to one side. "The ..." She heaved a frustrated sigh and violently shook her head. Her eyes snapped open and shimmered with irritation. "I don't know."
"Then we should try something else," Buffy told her impatiently. "I don't like the odds of fighting our way through an army of those things, just to wind up caught in a deathtrap." She peeked around the corner once more to stare at their home. "There's nobody inside," she concluded. "Whatever put us here obviously didn't affect the others. We can still try to reach them. Maybe if we leave town, we can find a phone that works."
"No, there's something here," insisted Willow. "Something important."
"But what? You just keep saying you don't know." Despairingly, Buffy threw up her hands. "You can't even say how you're suddenly piped into Radio Free Creepazoid!"
Willow was steadfast against the challenge. "I think it was the spell. When I tapped into the magickal energies here, I think it—"
"You think, you guess, you suppose," Buffy interrupted in a cutting tone. "These things already nearly killed me once tonight, Willow. How many times do I have to die before you make up your mind?"
It was as if the words had somehow gained physical form and slapped Willow across the face. For a long moment, she simply sat there, breathing heavily as she stared at Buffy. Her pain was etched into every feature.
"Fine," she finally spat. "My mind's made. I'm going in there. Come or don't."
She pushed away from the parapet but was stalled by Buffy grabbing her arm. She looked down, the hurt evident in her eyes. It was an expression mirrored by Buffy, only accompanied by a tanker truckload of guilt.
"I'm sorry," Buffy apologized in all sincerity. "I'm— I shouldn't have said that." She shook her head. "That wasn't fair. I'm just ... tired and hurt. And between you and me," she tried to joke, "I would seriously like to use my own bathroom sometime within the next half-hour." Tentatively, she offered a tiny, hopeful smile.
Willow shuffled place, obviously wanting to declare that everything was okay and all was forgiven, but unable to do so because it simply wasn't yet.
"If you say we need to get in the house," said Buffy, releasing Willow's arm, "then that's good enough for me."
She staggered a little as she straightened, and it looked for a moment as though she might fall. But Willow was immediately there to help and, working together, they managed to get Buffy to her feet. It took a few seconds for Buffy to gain her equilibrium – seconds during which the two simply regarded each other seriously, neither saying a word.
"I trust you," promised Buffy quietly. "Lead the way."
Gratefully, Willow nodded, indicating it was time for business. Peering around the corner, they surveyed the situation one more time.
"Can you run?" asked Willow.
"With enough motivation, you bet," Buffy reassured.
"There're too many to try for another mass supernova," advised Willow regretfully, but then her eyes widened as she was struck with an idea. "But maybe ... maybe all they need is a good scare. If they think I can do it ..."
Again, Buffy was more than a little dubious at the lack of certainty, prompting Willow to toss her an apologetic shrug. "It's the best I've got."
"We really need to get inside, huh?"
Willow was sure on that point at least. "I can't explain it, but ... yeah. Everything's focused around that house."
Buffy answered with a firm nod. "Then let's do it."
"Wait for an opening," Willow cautioned, stepping boldly onto the sidewalk and walking purposefully toward the creatures.
Initially, her posture was determined and confident, but the closer she got, the more doubtful she became. The number of swarming creatures was far higher than she'd originally anticipated. It was clear from her hesitant step that fear and apprehension had begun to materialize in full force.
And it was then that the little shades noticed her.
As one, they turned to watch her approach. Willow couldn't help but falter in the face of such opposition, but it was a momentary stutter and with a deep breath, she resumed walking with the same resolute stride as before. She stopped only when she was a relatively safe distance from the outermost line.
"I want inside," she stated with authority.
The creatures looked at each other with a high degree of amusement. They didn't move to attack, but they didn't clear a path for her either.
"I want inside, now," she reiterated.
They weren't so easily persuaded. About a dozen broke away from the horde and scuttled toward her. Willow displayed no trace of her previous fear and doubt. She gazed upon the scouting party with eyes blazing. The creatures closest to her opened their mouths wide, screaming in silent torment, but it wasn't for long. Within a heartbeat, they had simply disintegrated. The remaining members of the attack pack slunk to safety.
"So maybe you wanna let me in before I get really cranky," Willow suggested.
She took a step forward and the beasts promptly cleared the way. She took another to the same effect, and then another. Slowly, she inched her way forward. The creatures continued to give ground, but while they remained a respectful distance away, they never fled. Soon Willow found herself surrounded on three sides, and the stress and trepidation were beginning to take a toll. With every inch forward, Willow grew increasingly skittish.
And the shadow-beasts seemed to sense it.
They began to close in, employing caution but moving surely and steadily as their former fright gradually dissipated. One, a little more daring than the rest, seemed to sniff at her but quickly retreated at her threatening snarl. Meanwhile, a rather cunning individual had dropped to the ground and was tentatively clawing at her ankle. They were mere moments away from enveloping her. The time for subtle threats had passed.
"Consider me motivated!" came the welcome answer.
And in the blink of an eye, Buffy was at her shoulder. The flimsy barrier of dread keeping the creatures at bay shattered and they descended upon the two women like a wave crashing into the shore. Buffy and Willow had one goal only: to reach the door, and they worked relentlessly toward that goal. The creatures seemed to be everywhere, but the girls refused to accept defeat.
"Clear!" yelled Willow.
A circular wave of pulsating energy emanated from Willow's body, skirting Buffy and colliding with the Meanies. As it engulfed them, they expired within tongues of flame. It was a weak spell but sufficiently effective to buy some much needed time. With a path now cleared to the entrance of the house, Buffy and Willow seized the opportunity to make good their escape. There was a moment of panic when it seemed the door might not open, but then Buffy turned the handle and they fell across the threshold, slamming it shut behind them.
The pair leaned against the door, puffing heavily. Outside, the shades were plainly agitated to have lost their prey but, for the moment at least, could find no access into the house. Spying the coffee table, Buffy left Willow to stand guard while she made a beeline for the sturdy piece of furniture.
Meanwhile, Willow was inspecting the interior of the home as though she were a visitor seeing it for the first time, despite the fact that it was, in every way imaginable, the Scoobies' house – just sans any other Scoobies at the present time. Making sure the door was locked, she wandered into the foyer, her head cocked like she was again hearing something that issued from far away.
She barely noticed when Buffy passed by, carrying the coffee table. In comparison to the struggle an average person might experience with such a bulky item, she toted it with ease, but she was limping badly and was covered with fresh wounds to go with those that were only a few hours older. She stood the table on its end, using the surface to block the door almost completely, then used a smaller side table to act as a brace. Not yet content, Buffy ransacked the rest of the living room and foyer for any other heavy pieces that would help keep the bad things out and the good things in.
Entranced by whatever it was she was sensing, Willow remained oblivious to the growing rampart.
Finally, Buffy was satisfied. "Okay, we're in. Smooth sailing from here, right?" There was no answer. She glanced over her shoulder. "Will?" The redhead might have been a million miles away. Buffy frowned. "Oh, that is not a look of agreement."
"It's here," murmured Willow, her gaze distant as she focused on the flight of stairs.
Buffy joined her, stared curiously for a minute into Willow's face, and then also looked up to the second story. Whatever was being sensed seemed beyond Buffy's reception. "What's here?"
"Oh, it," acknowledged Buffy. She rolled her eyes. "Of course."
"Amy didn't mess up, Buffy," said Willow, turning to the Slayer. "She did it right. I'm where I need to be." Her gaze traveled back to the upper part of the house. "Can't you feel it?"
"If by 'it' you mean 'impending doom', then yup," returned Buffy. She gave Willow a sideways glance. "I'm sorta hoping you didn't mean that."
Willow didn't respond. She began to drift up the stairs but Buffy grabbed her wrist.
"Will, wait," she cautioned. "You don't know what's up there. 'It' aside, anyway." She jerked her chin toward the front door. "And the natives are getting restless."
Anxiously, Buffy looked at the window. It was a sea of shadowy black and rattling in a very disturbing fashion. There was no doubt – they wanted in.
"It's upstairs," said Willow, gently removing Buffy's hand from her wrist. "I have to go."
In rapid succession, Buffy looked from Willow to the front door to the window and then back to Willow again. She gave a sigh of resignation.
"I'll keep lookout. But hurry."
Adopting a defensive position at the foot of the stairs, Buffy guarded the only way up while still maintaining a sharp and watchful eye on what might transpire below. For her part, Willow was utterly transfixed on something above her as she slowly ascended to the upper level.
Upon arrival at the second story of the house, Willow examined the area. Nothing was amiss or out of place. There was no sign of anything untoward at all. With measured steps, she glided through the hallway.
"I get it now," she murmured. "The book's here. Isn't it?"
There was a faint sound, almost a whisper, but the words – if indeed there were any words – could not be distinguished. Willow moved past Xander's room without even giving it a glance as she continued forward.
"And you're here too. Aren't you?" she queried wonderingly. "Its guardian. Protecting it. From people like me."
There was another unintelligible whisper.
Arriving at the entrance to her own room, Willow halted and a tiny frown creased her forehead.
"I know now. I think I know."
"You don't know anything," came the response, hushed and subdued.
Willow didn't reply. Instead, she reached out and turned the door handle. A blinding flash of radiant light, so bright that she winced and shielded her face with her hands greeted her. When Willow cautiously opened one eye a moment later, there was no such illumination. In fact, the entire room was exactly the way it normally looked on any given day. Nothing unusual. Confused and perplexed, Willow stepped across the threshold.
There was an amused chuckle from behind. "Well hey, stranger."
Startled, Willow whirled. She was face to face – with herself.
Mirror-image Willow grinned.
"Took ya long enough."
The twin Willows faced each other across the room. They were identical in every conceivable way – the same outfit, the same features and the same backpack slung across the shoulder. Even the cuts and scrapes matched perfectly. The expressions, however, were a study in contradiction. An unassuming smile adorned the face of Guardian Willow, while the other seemed to flounder in utter confusion.
"Y...You're me," Willow said, unable to look away from her own face.
"I'm me," the Guardian corrected with Willow's voice.
"So," Willow attempted to sort out, "I'm you?"
The Guardian pointed to herself. "I'm me." Her finger jabbed at her counterpart. "You're you. 100-percent pure you goodness. No additives or preservatives." If that explanation was supposed to clear things up, it failed miserably. Willow was still entirely perplexed, much to the Guardian's amusement. "Not what you expected?"
Willow's mouth opened to form a 'yes'. "No."
"Sure about that?"
Willow shook her head. "Yes?"
Eyebrows knitting together in annoyance, Willow narrowed her eyes at her double. "You're not gonna spend the next hour being all cryptic, are you? Cuz, sort of in a rush."
As though she had all the time in the world, the Guardian wandered the perimeter of the bedroom. "Then you'd best get to thinkin', missy," she instructed, glancing at Willow with a challenging expression. "It's what you're good at, right?"
It was a challenge Willow accepted. "I didn't expect you like this," she said with certainty.
Coming to a halt once more, the Guardian turned to Willow. Her body naturally adopted an identical posture. "But you did expect me."
"Yeah, but ..." Willow's head tipped to one side as she thought it through. "You look different for everyone, don't you? You take your shape from- from whoever's trying to find you."
A bright smile spread across the Guardian's features. "See? You'll be done in no time. My shape, the shape of the world and everything in it – pretty much down to you." She glanced at herself and the surrounding room. "Interesting choices."
The immediate mystery solved, Willow's attention returned once more to the paradox standing before her. From head to toe, her gaze raked the Guardian curiously, mixed with a double-scoop of suspicion. The Guardian bore the examination without protest, content to simply watch Willow watching her.
"But'cha knew all that already, didn't you?" Willow's double prompted. "Way deep down in here—" A slender finger tapped against her temple. "—you had a hunch. So." She clasped her hands behind her back. "If you didn't expect a me in you-clothing, the million-dollar question is, what did you expect?"
"I thought you'd ..." But the question wasn't that easy, and Willow found she had to give it more consideration. "I thought I'd have to face my fear or something."
There was no other reaction, and Willow felt compelled to explain further. "You know, like a room full of frogs, o-or spiders. Maybe frogs and spiders. Not ..."
As though she'd just spotted something interesting, Willow stared at the Guardian intently and with renewed interest. As with before, the Guardian simply stared back. This time, however, there was a flicker. For the briefest of brief moments, the merest fraction of a second, the appearance of the Guardian changed. Her posture and position remained the same, but the visage did not. Although still Willow, for just that instant, she looked darker. Mocking. Evil. Still Willow – but more.
Willow started at the difference, but by the time she had registered it, it was gone. Alarmed, she looked into the Guardian's face, but there was no sign of anything amiss.
"You're not— You—" Willow peered into familiar eyes, trying desperately to see something that couldn't be named. "What are you?"
Patiently, the Guardian bore the interrogation. "For all intents, I'm you."
"But you changed," Willow insisted.
"And you didn't?" Seeing that Willow's suspicions were nowhere close to being allayed, the Guardian sighed and resumed pacing the room. "You're not listening. Everything you are, I am too. The good bits," she said, extending her left hand, "and the not-so-good bits." Her right hand joined its partner, and then they clasped together. "All wrapped up in this cuddly little redheaded package."
Passing the dresser, the Guardian leaned down to see herself in the mirror. Seemingly entranced by the sight, she ran Willow's face through the gamut of expressions: frowns, crossed eyes, all manner of contortions and more. Once satisfied, she turned back to Willow with a grin.
"I like it when we smile," she decided. "We're cute."
Willow wasn't so charmed. "Am I really that narcissistic?" she asked with some disgust.
The Guardian shrugged. "You've got worse faults."
"Gee, thanks, I—" Willow threw up her hands and mentally slammed on the brakes. "Not bantering with myself."
"Aw," her double muttered in disappointment.
"Whatever you are, whoever you are, it doesn't matter." Willow was all business now. "I'm here for the book."
Settling down on the edge of the bed, the Guardian's gaze swept the room. "Title? Author?" Her gesture encompassed the numerous bookcases that surrounded them. "There's an Alexandria-full of 'em in here."
Willow simply crossed her arms, unwilling to play along. "You know the one."
From behind her back, the Guardian produced a large paperback, which she offered to Willow. "The Essential Calvin and Hobbes?"
She didn't seem overly perturbed by the silent glare. The Guardian waved the book temptingly. "You know you love it."
For Willow, patience was a virtue she no longer possessed. "Stop joking around!" she demanded angrily. "If you really are everything I am, then you know what kind of danger we're in! If I don't help Amy, then Tara— "
The statement went uncompleted, but its meaning was nevertheless conveyed. The Guardian's teasing demeanor dropped, and she seemed serious for the first time.
Sensing a possible advantage, Willow hurried to press her point. "Please. Just ... Tell me what I have to do and I'll do it."
The Guardian looked at her with such sympathy that Willow seemed taken aback. The fact that she was receiving the expression from her own face only served to heighten the surreality of the situation. The persuasion, the pleading – it all stopped. Willow was at a loss for words.
Such was not true for the Guardian. "You poor thing," she commiserated in a soft voice. "You're so afraid. Every day, all the time. Afraid of what's coming next, if you'll be able to stop it ... Afraid of what will happen if you can't."
She pushed herself off of the bed and made her way to the desk that rested against one wall. Willow's eyes tracked the Guardian the entire time, but she couldn't seem to find her voice, and thus remained silent.
The desk possessed the sort of organized clutter that only the owner could ever truly understand, but the area by the small gathering of framed photographs remained clear enough so that their images could be seen easily. Most contained small groups, but the Guardian focused on one in particular. With utmost care, she lifted it from its neighbors for closer examination.
The picture showed Willow and Tara, taken at a moment when neither seemed to be aware of the photographer. They were sitting together on the porch swing with their eyes closed. Willow's head rested on Tara's shoulder, while Tara rested her head on Willow's. It had been taken on a beautiful, sunny day. Their fingers were lightly entwined.
Unconsciously, the Guardian touched the image of Tara in the photograph. "In a way," she said without taking her eyes from the picture, "she just makes it worse, doesn't she?"
The frame was replaced, next to one that showed all of the Scoobies beaming for the camera.
"They all do."
Willow hadn't yet answered, and the Guardian turned to face her once more. Their eyes met, and for a moment, it would have been impossible to tell them apart. Their expressions were completely identical. Pain. Loss. Fear.
"You understand," Willow stated.
The Guardian nodded sadly. "Yes."
"So you'll help me?"
The response was given reluctantly. "I'm not sure I can. You know that Amy isn't going to use her power for good." She chuckled without humor. "I mean, I know that, and I'm a conceptualized personification template of an abstract power trace."
Drained, Willow tossed her hands in the air. "What other choice do I have?"
"Only you can answer that question," the Guardian replied with regret.
The stress and exhaustion were beginning to take their toll, and Willow visibly drooped. "Great," she muttered sardonically. "Thanks a bundle."
"Yeah, I hear ya," her double acknowledged.
Willow shuffled to the bed and they both took a seat. Their postures slumped in unison, and they both wore identical half-pouts.
After a few seconds, Willow spoke again. "What does this book thingie even do? Is it evil?"
"It's a book," the Guardian responded wryly. "It doesn't exactly get to pick its place in the moral line-up."
"Do I actually talk to people like you're talking to me?" Willow snapped, irritation leading her to a second wind. "Because if so, then suddenly fifteen years with like one friend is makin' a whole lot more sense."
The Guardian rolled her eyes with a sigh. "Books aren't good and they aren't evil. Hello, not real. It's what you do with them that matters, that's it."
"And this thing Amy wants," Willow pressed, "she could- could do good with it?"
"If she really wanted to, sure."
"Or she could do evil."
Her doppelganger looked Willow in the eye. "Oh yes."
Willow chewed her bottom lip. "It's powerful?"
"It's not been locked away for over a thousand years just cuz," countered the Guardian.
With a deep breath, mirror-Willow took a moment to carefully consider her answer, but after a moment of contemplation, she was forced to shrug. "As powerful as you wanna make it. It's not like there's a table of contents or an index or something," she attempted to explain. "That's too immutable. What you're here for is ... so much more. It's as flexible as its prison." The Guardian gestured to indicate the entire room. "It can look like whatever you want. It can contain whatever you want. Any spell, any curse or enchantment – if it ever existed, then it's in there."
The silence that followed was calculated, and the Guardian studied Willow intently as the full meaning of her explanation began to sink in. Willow didn't meet the gaze, but it was clear that she was indeed absorbing what she was being told. When the Guardian continued, she spoke in even, measured words, ensuring that each and every one was fully understood.
"Any spell. Any purpose. If you can think it, you can cast it. Well," she admitted with a small chuckle, "if you have the power, of course. But that's all it takes. A little power. A little imagination." She shrugged and added, "Maybe a bit of desire, too."
Willow was now looking directly at the Guardian's face – her own face – but she said nothing.
Neither did the Guardian. She was content to remain silent, content to watch as the wheels turned, and Willow's eyes scanned the many, many books that surrounded them. A jumble of emotions crossed Willow's features, too mercurial to name, save one. At every turn, every feeling was replaced with pure, crippling doubt.
"I don't ..." Willow began, then turned her panicked expression to the Guardian. "What should I do? With something like that, Amy could ... But- But if I don't do anything, then—"
The sound of a loud crash from downstairs interrupted her thoughts, and Willow's head whirled to the bedroom entrance.
"Buffy," she whispered.
"Ooh, yeah," the Guardian said with a wince, "I think your little friends outside have about hit the limits of their patience."
Willow was incredulous. "My friends? That's your horde of ugly little carnivorous guardian sidekicks!"
The Guardian shook her head dismissively. "Oh they're not mine."
"So make with the calling off and—" Willow frowned. "Wait, what?"
"Those pointy-toothed things Buffy happens to be fighting as we speak? They're not mine." She shuddered at the mere thought. "Ugh. If I wanted sidekicks, I'd go for something furry and waggy and licky. Probably about that size, though," she conceded.
"They're not yours?" The Guardian shook her head, and Willow was back to being confused again. "But if they're not yours, then whose are they?"
Rather than reply, Willow's double simply looked at her expectantly.
Willow's eyebrows disappeared in her hairline. "Mine?" she squeaked in a tight voice.
With a long-suffering sigh, the Guardian waved her hand airily. "This world, everything in it, formed from you, blah blah blah."
It was information she was clearly ill prepared to receive, and Willow didn't seem to know exactly what she was supposed to do with it. "Well- Well what are they?"
Instead of an answer, Willow suddenly discovered the Calvin & Hobbes book shoved under her nose. "Sure you don't want it?" the Guardian attempted to persuade. "I think Rosalyn's in this one."
Eyes flashing angrily, Willow smacked her double's hand away. "I don't care! Buffy needs our help!"
"So help her," the Guardian said.
"I've tried!" protested Willow. She leapt to her feet and began to pace as her anxiety grew exponentially. "My magick, it doesn't ... I don't know what makes it work against them!"
The Guardian was unmoved by the outburst. "Try answering your own question: what are they?"
Willow let loose with an inarticulate cry of pure frustration. "I hate you!"
Rather than be offended, the Guardian seemed to find the comment amusing. She leaned forward and rested her elbows on her knees. "Think about it. When did they first appear?"
Rocking nervously in place, Willow tried to remember. "In, uh ... I-In the convenience store."
When another crash reverberated from downstairs, Willow nearly bolted from the room to join her friend, but the sound of her own voice held her fast.
"Hey," the Guardian demanded. "Focus front. You'll wanna follow me here." She waited patiently until she had regained Willow's attention, however fidgety that attention was. "What happened right before it appeared?" she calmly asked.
"Buffy and I were talking," Willow answered, bouncing on the balls of her feet. "We were talking, a-about what happened and where we were, and ..." She shook her head, trying to focus. "We were just talking."
"Uh-huh. And the next time?"
"More talking," Willow hurriedly responded. "That's really pretty much all we've done since we got here: talk and fight those things."
The Guardian would not be rushed, however impatiently Willow glared at her. "And what about you," she continued, placing her palms against the bed and leaning back. "What were you feeling right before they showed up and started gettin' munchy? What's the common link?"
Sucking in a short breath and quickly exhaling it, Willow rolled her shoulders and stared at the ceiling. "I was feeling ..." She flapped her hand, trying to pin down the emotions. "Confused, scared, guilty, unsure ..."
With an arched eyebrow, the Guardian watched and waited. A knowing smile began to spread across her lips.
Willow's eyes widened and she stopped moving restlessly. "That's it. That's it, isn't it? It's— When Buffy was talking about how I was weak on my own, o-or just a few seconds ago, when I didn't know what to do about Amy ... They're my insecurities. My self-doubt!"
"And Bingo was his name-o," congratulated the Guardian.
"My doubts," Willow repeated to herself in wonder. "They're ..." She blinked and wrinkled her nose. "Ugly, actually."
"And in danger of killing your friends," her double added with a chuckle. "How's that for metaphoric action? Gotta love it."
Her amusement was met with a level scowl. "Really don't."
"No?" The Guardian shrugged. "Well from this side, it's kinda funny."
But with answer now in hand, Willow had no more time for the Guardian, and without another word, she made to leave the room.
"Wait! What about the—?"
Hesitating, Willow slowly turned to face the Guardian, who watched Willow with equal intensity. Their gazes held for a moment, but then Willow took a further step backward and out into the hallway. As she disappeared from view, an expression of something like surprise invaded the Guardian's features. But there was more than surprise. Above all else, the Guardian seemed disappointed.
Downstairs, Buffy had been forced to move further into the foyer. About a half-dozen of the shadow-creatures had managed to get inside, and they were circling the Slayer, doing their best to keep her off-guard. Buffy's gaze constantly darted all around her – left, right, back, front – doing her best to keep all the monsters in sight. But it was only a matter of time before she slipped, and at some unknown signal, they all leapt at her.
"This!" Buffy grunted, landing a punch that knocked one of the creatures several feet back. "Is not!" A well-placed kick momentarily dispatched another. "My idea!" She ducked and one of the beasts sailed over her head. "Of hurrying!"
Spinning toward the stairwell, Buffy called out, "Willow, get your ass down—"
The statement went unfinished as a ripple of energy burst past Buffy. It struck all of the beasts in the immediate vicinity, blowing them off their feet and away from Buffy. They had disintegrated to nothing before they ever hit the ground.
"—here," Buffy concluded weakly as Willow bounded down the stairs.
"Buffy!" she greeted happily. "I worked it out! Well," she corrected with a shrug, "me and my doppelganger upstairs. But this one isn't evil. At least, I don't think she's evil. Sort of alignment-neutral mostly, but anyway—" Willow waved her hand, brushing off that line of thought, "after the world's single most annoying game of 20 questions ever, we—"
Another couple of the shadow-creatures had managed to get inside unnoticed, and with talons exposed and fangs at the ready, they leapt for Willow's back, eager to rend her to pieces. Buffy opened her mouth to shout a warning and crouched, ready to spring into action. But it wasn't necessary. Without even turning around, Willow flicked her fingers at the creatures, and they combusted immediately. Buffy could only gape in amazement.
"—worked it all out," Willow continued, as though she hadn't been interrupted. "The house, the town, they were all created when—"
"What did you do?" asked Buffy, watching the ashes flit through the air.
"That's what I'm trying to explain," Willow hastily replied. "Amy's spell must've—"
It wasn't what Buffy was interested in hearing about. "Just then. With the—" She flicked her fingers in an irritated imitation of Willow's gesture from moments ago. "What was that?"
"Oh, that." Willow didn't seem to find anything particularly strange in the action. "They were attacking, so I—"
"Where was that an hour ago?" Buffy suddenly demanded. "Hell, where was that ten minutes ago?" Surprised, Willow opened her mouth to reply, but didn't get the chance to answer; Buffy's tirade could not be stopped. "I thought the magick wasn't working right on these guys? You said it was sporadic and unreliable, and lots of other things that meant I had to stay down here getting my butt kicked by the shadow Muppets while you're upstairs chatting to yourself?"
The vitriol in Buffy's tone left Willow stunned. "But I didn't ... I didn't know what they were then," she tried to explain. "N-Now I do, so I can ..."
"Can what? Flick your magick Bic a couple times before you get scared and forget how to do anything again?"
Willow didn't know what to say. She could only stand in silence while Buffy took a deep breath to calm herself. The action soon turned to a sharp hiss, however, and Buffy clutched at her ribs painfully. By now, a fresh gash in her forehead was bleeding profusely, and Buffy ripped one of her bandages from a less critical wound to try and staunch the flow.
Willow watched all of this, simply staring at her battered, bleeding friend while she tried to find the right words.
"Buffy, I ... I'm sorry."
Wearily, Buffy regarded Willow with her least-swollen eye. "Don't be sorry, Will," she implored without a trace of her previous anger. "Be better."
And as she stood there, her breathing difficult and her blood staining the floor at her feet, Buffy watched as Willow's jaw set in determination. Her spine became straighter, and she nodded, just once.
It was a vow. Their eyes locked. Willow didn't look away.
Buffy smiled. "I know."
The sound of breaking glass attracted their attention elsewhere, and both women looked over to see more of the shadow-beasts pouring into their home. Lots more.
Buffy gave the gash in her forehead a final swipe before tossing the ruined bandage aside. "And, uh, now'd probably be a good time to start."
"Sorta gettin' that yeah," Willow replied.
And there, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, Buffy and Willow presented a united front against the impending onslaught.
An eruption of white quickly surrendered to a whirling eddy. The mouth of the vortex gaped wide as howling gusts of a powerful wind spiraled from its center. The noise was almost deafening as a body was hurled violently from the core. Having delivered its booty, the maelstrom imploded almost immediately and the rift sealed as though it had never been in existence.
"Is it—?" someone nervously asked.
Willow groaned and, very gingerly, begin to try and pull herself upright. She was a mess, with what looked to be far more cuts, bites and abrasions than she had skin, but she was thankfully lacking any grave injuries.
Upon seeing her, another voice called out, "She's okay!"
"Thank heavens," a third replied with a sigh of relief.
Before Willow could get her bearings and decipher exactly what was going on, she was hauled to her feet and enveloped in a gigantic bear hug, courtesy of Xander. His eye closed tightly as he held Willow as fiercely as he dared, and he planted a lingering kiss on the top of her head.
"Next time you go missing," he warned her in a voice that tried desperately not to waver, "all you're gettin' is your face on a milk carton. So my advice is: don't."
Off to one side, Willow noticed Tara and Dawn, each being respectively supported by Faith and Giles. Tara's fingers dug deeply into Dawn's shoulders, the knuckles standing white against her skin. It was only with supreme effort that Giles was able to pry loose Tara's desperate grip. Then, it seemed as though Tara's only desire was to reach Willow. Face pale and drawn, she took a faltering step and promptly stumbled, knees buckling. Faith was there to catch her, however, and she lent her support. Xander stepped back as Tara was guided toward Willow, who was waiting with open arms. As Faith handed Tara over, she fell gratefully into Willow's embrace and held on tight.
"I thought I lost you," she whispered.
Tears welled in Willow's eyes, and she gave a shaky laugh. "Tell ya the truth, the thought occurred to me too." She swallowed a lump in her throat. "How did...?"
Her strength returning by the second, Tara pulled back and stroked Willow's cheek, simply enjoying the sight of her. "It took some time," she explained, "but we were able to sort of piece together what happened." She looked over her shoulder, where Giles was tending to thoroughly taxed and exhausted but otherwise perfectly fine Dawn. "With Mr. Giles' help, Dawnie and I were able to, uhm, synch up? Using my link to you, she was able to track you down in that dimension and ..."
Tara gestured to where the vortex had appeared in the center of the Scoobies' living room. "I wasn't sure if it'd work though. W-We tried before, but when we didn't get you back, I was afraid that—"
Her voice broke and Tara's fears remained unspoken. A tear rolled down her cheek, and, gently, Willow kissed it away, heedless of her own being spilled.
"I'm here now," she swore.
"And we're gonna make sure it stays that way."
Surprised, Willow turned to see Buffy standing at her shoulder. But this wasn't a Buffy who had fought and barely survived several hours of brutal attacks. This Buffy didn't look to have been in any recent battles at all. She was certainly tired and more than a little relieved, but her clothes were clean and whole, and there was no sign of blood or injury on her anywhere.
"Next time someone tries to hijack my Willow," she announced to the world at large, "they get a Slayer as a bonus gift."
Willow still couldn't believe her eyes. "Buffy?"
Smiling, Tara stepped back and allowed Buffy to take her place – something Buffy was only too happy to do. She wrapped Willow in her arms, not noticing the expression of complete confusion on Willow's face.
"You scared the hell out of me," Buffy confessed. "I tried to grab you, but ... And when I woke up after Amy's little kablooey to an empty, Willow-free lab. I was afraid you were ..."
It was Buffy's turn to get choked up, and rather than finish that thought, she clutched Willow tighter still.
For Willow's part, she seemed uncertain of what to say. "I'm sorry?" she tentatively offered.
With a watery sniff, Buffy pulled away, holding Willow by the shoulders. "Don't be sorry, Will," she implored. "Be safe."
Buffy smiled and tugged Willow close for another hug as their friends and family gathered around them.
Willow sat at one of the wooden benches outside the student union at Penn State's Trillium branch. Deep in thought, she watched the breeze whip through the branches of a nearby tree and took an occasional sip from the mocha in front of her. Her cuts and abrasions were numerous but had been cleaned, and the healing process had begun. She sensed rather than saw a figure approaching.
"You're punctual," Amy observed. "I like that."
There was no acknowledgment or comment. Willow didn't, in fact, even glance in Amy's direction.
As though that had been an invitation, Amy claimed the seat across from her. She frowned disapprovingly. "Really, would it kill you to at least pretend to have a civil conversation?"
Her only response was an icy stare. Amy sighed at the lack of courtesy, but soon dismissed it and moved to more important matters.
"Where's my book?"
Willow didn't answer.
"Is it here?"
Willow didn't answer.
Amy frowned. "You did get it, didn't you?"
Willow didn't answer.
"Don't just sit there, say something," Amy demanded.
The expression didn't change, but Willow did at least respond this time. "It's not here."
"Okay, great start." Amy nodded, shifting to a more comfortable position in the chair. "Now say something else, like, I don't know," she shrugged, "maybe, 'But I'll go get that for you right now, Amy. Lemme get you an espresso while you wait.'"
Willow pursed her lips and shook her head. "Not so much."
Before Amy could formulate a retort, Willow had pinned her under an intense gaze. "You don't know what you're playing with, Amy," she cautioned. "I know what I'm talking about here. When you mess around with magick this far above you – and believe me when I tell you that this is the Mt. Everest to your Mariana Trench – then all you'll get for your trouble is pain and misery."
'Grateful' wasn't exactly a word that could be used to describe Amy's response. "Thanks for the one to grow on, but I'm a big girl and I'll make my own decisions." Her fist slammed down on the table, attracting a few curious glances from nearby students. "Now give me my book."
Willow sighed at Amy regretfully. "I don't have it."
"Then we'll try again," Amy told her, not dismayed by the news. "And again, and again until you get it."
"No," Willow said calmly. "I don't think so."
Amy was nothing short of utterly shocked by Willow's obstinance. Her jaw worked silently for several moments before she relocated her voice. "Are ... Are you joking? Aren't you forgetting something just a little bit important here?" Her finger jabbed at the tabletop. "You defy me, you break the pledge. You break the pledge, your sweetie's back to kissing dirt, and I think this time we can make it stick!"
The reminders entirely failed to impress Willow. She almost seemed bored by the whole affair. "Third strike, Amy. You're out. See, you're not gonna try and cash in on that debt again. Ever. You try and invoke the goddess? I'll know. You even think about it, I'll know. You come anywhere near me, or Tara, or any of my friends again?"
Without warning, Willow leaned across the table, her face and Amy's now mere inches apart. The move so shocked Amy that she seemed paralyzed as she took in Willow's expression. It wasn't just serious. It was deadly.
Willow stared her in the eye, and even if Amy wanted to, it was unclear if she would be able to look away. Willow's voice was low, but full of promise.
"You will be so very, very sorry."
They stayed that way for a long moment and then, slowly, Willow leaned back into her chair once more. Casually, she lifted her cup and peered at Amy over the top of it.
Amy stumbled to her feet, blindly pushing away from the chair, which crashed to the concrete with a loud clatter. Several people nearby paused to stare curiously, but Willow didn't react – not even the merest flicker of an eyelash; she simply regarded Amy with serious eyes. Taking a wary step backward, Amy promptly turned and began to flee the scene, at first walking as fast as dignity would allow, and then giving up dignity for a full-fledged run.
Willow watched Amy's hastily beaten retreat as the buzz of excited chatter around her increased. Her face betrayed no emotion and she remained still and silent, save to tilt the cup back for a sip.
Night saw Buffy, Xander and Dawn sitting in their living room, enjoying a quiet evening of watching television. At the sound of someone coming down the stairs, they turned to see Tara joining them.
"Sleeping Beauty all settled in for the night?" Xander asked from his chair.
Tara drew her feet underneath her and settled down next to Dawn on the couch. "She's finishing up some homework, but then yeah." She glanced toward the ceiling with a sympathetic expression. "She's still pretty wiped out."
"So not the surprise," Dawn empathized in the tone of one who could understand only too well. "I'm totally bushed, and all I had to do was make a door."
She was surprised to find the TV remote suddenly plucked from her hand. "Sounds like maybe someone needs to join Willow in early nighthood," said Buffy.
Dawn plucked it right back. "At like, 7?" She rolled her eyes and scoffed. "Please."
Clapping his hands together, Xander leaned toward Tara. "So what's the scoop on Minnie Mouse? Will said she scampered on outta town?" He made little energetic little scampering motions with his fingers.
"Please, please, please say she left a forwarding address," begged Buffy.
Tara gave Buffy a look of regret before she answered. "Apparently Willow met with her on campus today. They talked, and Willow said she convinced Amy to give up on the whole debt thing. When Will mentioned in passing how ... really not happy we all were with her, she ran off." Using her chin, Tara indicated upstairs. "We just did locator sweep through Trillium, and there's no sign of Amy." Despite the good news, Tara's eyebrows knitted together. "I think she really did go ..."
Twirling the remote, Dawn commented, "I sense unspoken 'but'."
"But," Tara obliged, "is that really the end of it? I mean, would Amy just ... give up like that?"
Upstairs, in the room she and Tara shared, Willow finished highlighting passages in her textbook and then closed it with a sharp snap. Retrieving her booksack from the floor, she packed everything away and then hesitated for a moment before extracting something from within. Another book. The Essential Calvin and Hobbes. She laid it on the desk in front of her and flipped it open. It was, as would be expected, a compilation of comic strips. Nothing unusual or out of the ordinary. She thumbed through the book and smiled a little at one of the cartoons. Then, as she ran her palm across the page, her smile widened.
"Maybe so," replied Xander. "Willow can be pretty darned persuasive when she wants to be."
The series of comic strips wavered and then faded completely to reveal a hand-written scrawl. The letters were archaic, tightly formed and somewhat spidery in appearance. It was a list of ingredients. Directions for a spell. Willow riffled through the remaining pages. Every one of them had been similarly transformed.
"And if not," Buffy assured her friends, "well ... we'll deal."
Willow glanced over her shoulder at the closed door. Her expression was an inscrutable mask.
Buffy nodded her complete confidence. "No doubt about it."
Slowly, Willow closed the book.
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