Given the bracing wind and distinct morning chill, most of the patrons frequenting "Java the Hut" had opted to sip their satisfyingly hot beverages within the cozy interior of the café – save two notable exceptions. Willow and Xander sat outside, facing each other across a table. Xander, chin buried in the upturned collar of his coat, dunked tiny marshmallows floating atop his tall mug of chocolate while Willow, teeth chattering, tried to de-ice her fingers around a cup of mocha. Buffy and Tara appeared at the doorway, each carrying their own steaming beverages. They didn't seem to be quite so embittered by the cold.
"There are plenty of tables inside," Tara told Willow, taking note of her quivering jaw. "You know, inside? Where it's not so piercingly brisk?"
"Oh no, we cant' go in there," said Xander, his words heavily laced with sarcasm. "Warmth removes all possible chances of experimenting with frostbite."
"I like it out here!" declared Willow, breath crystalizing as she spoke. "It's n-nice! Smell that winter air!" She valiantly attempted to sniff but wasn't altogether successful. "Well I can't exactly smell right now because my nostrils have frozen together, but- but still! Not the point!"
Exchanging a glance, Buffy and Tara relented and claimed the two remaining empty chairs.
"And that point is?" queried Buffy, tearing open two sugar packets.
Xander hunkered further into his thick woolen jacket. "When you figure it out, lemme know. All week it's been, 'Xander, come meet me for overpriced drinks and hypothermia!'"
"But you do it," chuckled Buffy, stirring vigorously with her spoon.
"I do it," admitted Xander with a long-suffering sigh. "You know what they say: Xander Harris, he's a marshmallow." He poked mournfully at the marshmallows swirling on the surface of his cocoa.
Sipping her tea appraisingly, Tara shrugged. "It's okay, but nothing special. And if you wanted to freeze there are plenty of places closer to campus."
Buffy narrowed her suspiciously. "We're onto you. Spill, Will."
Willow's expression was one of injured innocence. "There is no to-ing of me with which to be on!" Her companions seemed puzzled by that statement and Willow herself appeared no less befuddled, but she pressed on regardless. "I just like it, okay? Does there have to be some sinister ulterior motive?" She arched an indignant eyebrow in every direction. "Maybe- Maybe I just wanted to share this neat new place with my friends."
Tara, Buffy and Xander shared a look.
"Well then, thank you, sweetie," said Tara, patting Willow's icy hand. "It's very nice." She took an encouraging pull from her cup while Buffy continued to regard Willow with some doubt.
"I still don't trust you," she stated, "but okay."
"Thanks!" grumbled Willow. "Thanks a bunch!"
Buffy nodded agreeably. "No prob." She turned her attention to the steaming beverage in front of her. "Mm, chai."
"I want everyone to know that while a lesser man might succumb to these sub-arctic conditions," announced Xander, jiggling his legs up and down to disguise the shivers, "I remain warm and toasty thanks to the torrential rivers of testosterone that flow through my veins."
"Noted," Buffy told him briskly.
"Thank god," murmured Xander, yielding to his shudders with grateful abandon.
Though amused by Xander's disintegrating machismo, Tara graciously allowed him to retain the shreds of his dignity and instead, addressed the Slayer. "So Buffy, how was work last night?"
"Pretty standard Slayage," acknowledged Buffy. "The girls did good. Yay them."
Tara nodded and then turned to Willow, sensing the penetrating gaze. The redhead's nose was now almost the same color as her hair and her eyes flitted covetously toward the crocheted scarf draped loosely around Tara's neck.
"Nobody hurt?" asked Xander, peering over the rim of his mug.
With piteous expression, Willow pawed hopefully at the colorful fringe of wool.
"Just the vamps," replied Buffy.
With a half-smile, Tara quickly unwrapped the scarf and handed it to Willow.
"Nobody important then," Xander concluded as Willow promptly put her newly-acquired possession to good use.
"Xander?" came an astonished voice.
The party at the table looked up immediately and a beam of extreme happiness invaded Willow's face as she noted the presence of Serafina.
"I thought it was you," Serafina told Xander with bright smile before her eyes traveled around the little gathering. "And Willow!" The smile instantly broadened as three expressions registered shock upon realizing that Serafina and Willow were previously acquainted.
"I guess this just officially became my lucky day," Serafina proclaimed delightedly.
"Hey! You're here!" greeted Willow with much enthusiasm. She blinked innocuously through her sunny welcome. "That's such a surprise!"
It didn't take Xander long to put two and two together and get 'Willow is dead.' He leveled a flat stare at the object of his newly-found wrath, who patently refused to acknowledge the glower in any way, shape or form. Frowning in confusion, Buffy looked from one person to the next, trying to get a handle on the situation while Tara had apparently already drawn her own conclusions. She glanced from Serafina – tall, toned, undeniably attractive Serafina – to Willow. She was not a happy Tara.
"Decided to check it out, huh?" asked Serafina, nudging Willow's shoulder. "What do you think?"
Tara's raised eyebrow climbed higher still at the implied intimacy, but Willow remained in a state of blissful ignorance. "It's good!" she gushed. "The hot chocolate. What with the hot, a-and the chocolate."
Serafina grinned as her eyes roamed the table. "I practically live here," she confided.
The announcement was followed by a period of silence. Willow, openly wallowing in self-satisfaction, continued to snub Xander's disapproving glare, while remaining blithely oblivious to the replicated expression mirrored by Tara. As the situation needle steadily crept from 'mildly awkward' to 'ragingly uncomfortable', Serafina cleared her throat. Ever the hero, Buffy took to the task of clearing the air.
"Apparently 'rude' is the extra ingredient in the coffee," she said, tossing Serafina a heartening smile. "I'm Buffy."
Serafina seemed grateful to have the hush broken. "Serafina," she nodded in friendly fashion. "Sera's fine, though."
"This is Tara," said Willow proudly, gesturing behind her.
Serafina met Tara's shrouded eyes. "I've heard so much about you," she said.
"Funny how I can't say the same," she returned icily.
Frowning at the tone, Willow quickly glanced over her shoulder but Tara's expression was largely inscrutable and matters were already moving along.
"I feel like I'm coming in halfway through the movie," Buffy chuckled wryly. "Someone recap."
Serafina was only too happy to do so. "Oh, well, Xander did some woodwork for me earlier this year." She threw him a warm acknowledgment. "He still loves it, by the way." Xander's sullen mask slipped just long enough for him to display genuine pleasure at the news before sliding smoothly back into place. "Willow," continued Serafina, "I met on a message board I visit. We started chatting online, and soon found out we had a Xander in common."
Pointedly, Xander quirked an eyebrow. "Imagine that."
"What message board?" asked Tara, elbows planted securely on the table and chin resting upon interlaced fingers. Her head tilted questioningly to one side.
"The Summit," Serafina supplied. She noted the dumbfounded expressions and hastened to clarify. "You know, for rock climbing?"
"Rock climbing?" asked Buffy dubiously. "Rocks bigger than pebbles?"
Serafina was now experiencing her own brand of suspicions. "Yeeeeah...?"
"Willow, you get vertigo going up a handicapped ramp," challenged Buffy.
For a moment, Willow looked like a deer trapped in the headlights but she was quick to institute a cover-up. "Sera, sit down! Here!" she demanded.
Seizing Buffy by the arm, Willow abruptly yanked the blonde out of the chair, thereby vacating the seat between herself and Xander. Needless to say, Buffy was quite alarmed at the sudden invasion.
"Sit here!" Willow reiterated firmly.
Serafina chuckled and then shook her head wonderingly at what she apparently deemed to be odd behavior. "That's okay. I can't stay long. Work beckons."
Disentangling her arm, Buffy resumed her seat and displayed an slightly evil little smile.
"Don't leave too fast," she wheedled. "Obviously there's a whole side to Willow, never before discovered." Buffy's eyes widened with awe. "I want to hear ALL about the many exciting rock climbing adventures she told you."
Abandoning the relative "ups and downs" related to the scaling of large granite elevations, Willow turned to Tara. It was with no small surprise that she met a pair of displeased and accusatory eyes. Willow's brows arched quizzically and thus began an elaborate exhibition of wordless confrontation.
Tara blinked rapidly several times, signaling her surprise that Willow would even need to ask. To drive the point home, her sour gaze traveled from Willow to the animated Serafina and then back again. Willow's eyes grew round as saucers as her mouth formed into a perfect 'O' as the clue mallet made contact. She wiggled her finger surreptitiously as possible, indicating herself and Serafina as she vehemently shook her head in a tight side-to-side motion. Employing a strange blend of subtlety and exaggeration, she jerked her chin toward Xander and then in the direction of Serafina. Immediately, her features launched into an ogling and lecherous caricature, complete with a leering, eyebrow-wagging display. That was when she glanced at Xander. He had caught the entire pantomime, watched all the acts, and, from his expression, was planning on writing a scathing review for the evening edition.
For the second time in less than half an hour, Willow was a trapped deer. Hesitantly, she smiled sheepishly at Xander and when her efforts went unrewarded, carefully examined the fringe of her scarf.
"Wow, Kilimanjaro, Will?" Buffy was exclaiming with undisguised admiration. "And right out of high school!" She pondered thoughtfully. "See, you'd think I'd remember that, but all I've got is a trip with your parents to visit a cousin in Poughkeepsie." She favored Willow with an innocent stare.
Willow laughed nervously and waggled her fingers in Buffy's direction. "Oh, silly, silly, forgetful Buffy."
"Uh-huh," Buffy agreed a little too promptly.
Eyes twinkling with amusement, Serafina shook her head.
"Obviously you guys have a lot of catching up to do," she said crisply, "and I'm sure there's a fire somewhere just waiting for me to get on duty." She nodded first to Buffy and then to Tara. "It was nice to finally meet you." She smiled at Willow's not entirely convincing demeanor. "We'll talk." Then, she turned to Xander. "See you later, Mr. Silent Broody Man," she waved.
Looking up from his reverie – a most satisfactory fantasy where tiny but well-honed daggers emanating from his eye and found a target deep in Willow's calculating brain – Xander blinked. "What?"
But Serafina had already made good her departure.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Willow rallied. "That was great! Wasn't that great?" She beamed at the faces around her. "That was so great."
Buffy leaned back in her chair, bringing the cup of tea to her lips. "I was particularly impressed by the subtlety."
"I know!" enthused Willow, clasping Tara's hand. Her expression was one of undiluted delight. "Is that love in the air I detect?"
Willow tried to sniff, but her red nose was too clogged and stuffy. She tried again. This time, her efforts brought about a fit of choking and coughing.
"Is that love in the air I detect?" asked Ginny, bouncing up and down in front of Brenda's locker.
Leaning against the wall, Jackie took a tentative sniff and then wrinkled her nose. "I think it's floor wax."
"Oh," said Ginny, her buoyancy rapidly deflating.
Megan stood on tiptoe and peered over Dawn's shoulder. "But there are boys of cuteness in the proximity," she observed with relish.
Instantly extricating her head, Brenda whipped around and promptly collided with the metal door. Hissing with pain, she careened backward, hand clasped to her forehead and narrowly avoiding grinding her heel into Megan's instep as she staggered.
"Smooth," remarked Jackie, arching an eyebrow.
As Brenda held back her bangs, Dawn checked for permanent damage.
"The scarring should fade in a few years," she said.
"I knew I should've stayed in bed today," groaned Brenda, gingerly probing her wound. "I could've faked FLOTCH syndrome."
Ginny blinked at Brenda curiously. "What's FLOTCH syndrome?"
"It wouldn't matter," shrugged Brenda with a grimace. "My parents wouldn't wanna look stupid by not knowing either, so they'd take my word for it."
Jackie glanced along the corridor. "The cuteness flees," she informed briskly.
The girls watched ruefully as the trio of guys who had attracted Megan's attention moved down the hallway.
"Eh," remarked Megan, wrinkling her nose. "They weren't my type anyway."
Jackie openly snickered. "They had a pulse. They were totally your type."
As Megan delivered a hefty and indignant shove to Jackie's shoulder, Ginny turned to Dawn, who was not looking particularly perky.
"What'd you think, Dawn?" she asked.
Still clutching her head, Brenda one-handedly transferred items from her backpack to the locker, repeated the process in reverse and then slammed the door. Jackie pushed herself away from the wall as the group headed down the corridor.
"I wasn't really looking," admitted Dawn.
"Start," instructed Megan firmly, leading the way. "You're a free agent now."
Bringing up the rear, Jackie nodded in a wise manner. "You should listen to Megan. She knows all about being a free agent."
Megan's abrupt halt created something of a concertina effect as those behind her, one-by-one, ran into each other. Noting Megan's threatening stance, Jackie decided to avoid direct confrontation by moving swiftly to the far side of the flock, next to Brenda. Eyes narrowed, Megan chose not to pursue the matter – for the moment at least – and carried on walking. The rest followed suit in a straggling line.
"Have you talked to him? At all?" queried Brenda.
Regretfully, Dawn shook her head. "I stopped calling his house when I was afraid his parents were planning a restraining order. At school, I can't ever find him long enough to—"
Her sudden stop was equally unexpected as Megan's had been moments before and created a similar stumbling block situation, save that Megan still strode along the corridor for another yard or so before realizing she was alone. Glancing over her shoulder, she hurried back to the fold with a quizzical expression. Following Dawn's gaze, her four friends soon discovered the reason for Dawn's ground-rooting.
Grip stood at the intersection a short distance away. He regarded Dawn soberly. Not even the most meager of smiles graced his lips, yet there was a certain cast to his eyes – a trace of hurt, perhaps even a little pensive. But Dawn could detect no sign of anger or accusation and a tiny sliver of hope crept into her face.
In silence, Dawn's friends held a collective breath as they looked from Dawn to Grip and back again. Ginny began to bubble expectantly although she said nothing. Hesitantly, Dawn lifted her hand in greeting. But then, Grip seemed to give a sigh and determinedly settled his booksack on his shoulder before disappearing around the corner. Dawn's hand faltered for a moment and then fell heavily to her side. The hopeful expression visibly crumbled and Ginny was there in an instant to offer support. She seized Dawn's limp fingers and delivered a comforting squeeze.
Jackie, however, virtually seethed with righteous fury. "Want us to go beat him up for you?" she asked.
Brenda was also uncharacteristically fierce. "We'll hold him down," she stated with conviction, "and you can kick him right in the—"
Jackie recoiled in surprise. "Whoa, dude."
"C'mon," said Megan. "It'll be a fun exercise of our grrl power." Somewhat unenthusiastically, she raised a clenched fist to demonstrate said 'grrl power'.
Dawn's wavering smile of thanks was sincere but she vehemently shook her head. "While I appreciate the offer of violence of my behalf ... that's okay. I-It's not his fault."
The girls shuffled onward to their destination, Ginny continuing to hold Dawn's hand.
"Right," sneered Jackie, "cuz it's your fault."
Dawn didn't respond, but her guilt was palpable anyway.
"I just don't understand." Ginny sighed in sympathetic sorrow. "You seemed so happy, but then just because you have stuff to do ..."
"Like we don't all have stuff to do," snorted Megan, obviously outraged.
"We get it," Jackie reassured. "And if he doesn't, then who needs him?"
As the girls passed the intersection recently occupied by Grip, Dawn peered wistfully down the hallway. It was depressingly empty. Grip had long gone.
In Slayer Central's large communal gymnasium, Buffy marched back and forth before the large group of Juniors gathered in front of her.
"Last night was crazy," she said with a confirming nod. "Lots of vamps, lots of danger." She grinned. "Lots of dry cleaning."
The gathering chuckled appreciatively.
Unnoticed by the crowd, Giles slipped through the door and hovered on the threshold, listening to Buffy's words.
"It was nuts," Buffy continued, "but it was plain nuts. Your standard jar of Mr. Planter's." There was another ripple of amusement. "Next time you could be looking at almonds. Cashews. The party mix assortment of evil. But you know what?" Confidently, Buffy surveyed the earnest young faces. "I think you guys can take it. You're doing a seriously great job out there."
"Praise from the master?" remarked one of the Juniors to the girl next to her. "Aw yeah, we so rule."
The pair exchanged a delighted high five while the rest of the company laughed. Giles absorbed the scene with something of a neutral expression.
"Don't get cocky," advised Buffy. A smile lingered on her lips but her delivery was sober. "There's still plenty of stuff out there that'd love to put a Slayer in the win column."
"We can handle it!" declared a freckle-faced Junior with an abundance of enthusiasm.
Her colleagues were in total agreement on that point.
Buffy held up a hand. "Maybe you can," she conceded. "But stop being careful, and that 'maybe' turns into a big fat 'no way'."
"Even if we screw up, you'll be there to save our asses, right?" asked another of the girls.
"Only on the nights when it's Xander's turn to cook," Buffy told her primly.
There was another outburst of laughter. Morale and camaraderie were both running high. Giles continued to watch, but then something attracted his attention. It was a subtle movement, a slight shift in his peripheral vision. Glancing to one side, he noticed a young girl isolated from the rest of the room. Dressed in black, she stood like a statue, regarding him through eyes that were openly hostile. A puzzled frown crossed his forehead and he blinked, but there was no trace of figure. As the frown deepened, and even has his head turned toward Buffy, his gaze lingered over the empty space.
"Basically," Buffy was concluding, "I just wanted to say: You're doing good. Now don't screw it up."
Noticing Giles' presence, she moved swiftly into wrap-up mode and briskly clapped her hands.
"Okay, break into teams," she instructed. "Practice quick, efficient attacks until three." Immediately, the Juniors moved into action. "And don't forget your one-on-ones scheduled later this week!" added Buffy before turning to a blonde who was standing nearby. "Sonya?"
With an affirming nod, Sonya began to meander through the sparring girls with a critical eye as Buffy made her way to Giles. As she approached, he shook off his aura of bewilderment and confusion.
"Well, you all appear to be quite ... chummy," he observed dryly as they left the gym together.
A number of Watchers with their charges in tow greeted the pair. Buffy acknowledged the friendly salutations with a smile, but Giles seemed unaware of anyone other than Buffy as he hurried along.
"Yeah, I guess we are," admitted Buffy. She appeared rather pleased at the notion. "It's nice, not always having to be the dour-faced, no-fun general. I think it works better, too, like they listen more, you know?"
"It needs to stop."
Buffy frowned. "Listening bad?"
"Of course not," came the terse reply.
They entered the private training room, each promptly selecting a weapon. Buffy gripped a steel staff in both fists and jogged lightly in place, hair bouncing up and down around her shoulders. She watched Giles swing his broadsword by one hand for a moment and then spoke.
"Then pretend for a second that I'm a dumb California blonde and use more words," she told him crisply. "Just make sure they're small."
Giles circled warily. "I don't think that being friends with them is for the best."
"It's not like I'm inviting them out for karaoke," said Buffy wryly, effectively blocking his attack. "Which I'd never do anyway, but."
"You're their leader, Buffy," advised Giles sternly. "You should be teaching them how to be Slayers, not how to braid hair." He lunged again.
Buffy hopped nimbly to one side. "Okay, was I replaced by an alien clone for that part? Because I'm pretty sure the topic never came up. Between talking about boys and eye shadow, it was a packed day." She bounced on her toes once more, watching and waiting.
"I'm being serious," said Giles, recovering quickly.
"Which is what makes this so not," returned Buffy with an expert twirl that very nearly relieved the Watcher of his weapon altogether. "Giles, I get it. We play Follow the Leader. We're good little killers."
A hush descended as the two opponents concentrated solely on sparring for a few minutes until Giles tried once more.
"I simply want to ensure that you're prepared," he said gravely.
Legs astride, Buffy drove the point of her staff into the floor. "For what? Dealing with snarky old people?"
"For whatever needs doing!" came the sharp response as Giles' sword hit the ground with a clatter.
Having clearly lost his temper, Giles fished deep for a handkerchief and immediately set about the task of polishing his glasses. Buffy maintained her silence while fixing him with a darkly grim stare. Giving a small cough, Giles composed himself and settled his glasses on the bridge of his nose. He thrust his hands into his trouser pockets and began to pace. Buffy watched him with narrowed eyes.
"We never know what it is we'll face next," he explained. "The consequences could be relatively minor or unspeakably grave. All that stands between victory and complete annihilation may be those girls. Any one of them, quite possibly all of them, could die painful, horrifying deaths." He looked to Buffy. "And you might be the one to order it."
Buffy's mouth formed a tight line. "You think I don't know that?"
She rolled her eyes. "Maybe you're not getting the conversational déjô vu. We've talked about this before, Giles, and I did what I had to do." She took a step forward. "Or maybe you DON'T remember us running out of a Hellmouth with less people than we brought in?"
Giles ran a hand through his hair. "Do you remember who was lost?"
"Of course I do," protested Buffy indignantly. "Anya, and Amanda, and ..."
With a frown, Buffy's voice trailed into nothingness. She bit her lip. Despite her protestation, she apparently didn't remember with any true clarity.
"Gretchen?" she asked doubtfully, struggling to recall. "No, that was ..." She jabbed the point of her staff into the floor, more forcefully this time.
"You don't remember their names."
The assertion was delivered in a purely factual tone, but Buffy viewed it as accusatory anyway and instantly adopted a defensive attitude.
"It's not like it just happened this morning, you know!" she answered sharply. "Plus, with all the chaos and exhaustion oh, yeah, the mind-numbing fear, I didn't exactly get the chance to—"
"To chat about boys and eye shadow?" finished Giles.
Buffy's brow knitted and a small pout appeared.
"Buffy, how many Slayers report directly to you?" asked Giles.
"Sixty-four," she relayed peevishly.
"Do you know all their names?"
Buffy nodded vehemently. "Yes, but I don't see—"
"Will you still remember them, one year from now?"
"What does that have to do with anything?" asked Buffy suspiciously.
Giles pushed the question. "Will you?"
"What about five years?" pressed Giles. "Ten? How long will it take you to forget those who've died on your command?"
Buffy didn't try to disguise her glare. "If there's a point in here somewhere, it'd be nice to get there right about nowish."
"My point is that with so many lives in your responsibility ..." He paused for a moment and massaged his temples, clearing his throat before continuing. "Perhaps the fewer names you can recall, the better."
"Thanks for the life lesson, Mr. Freeze. Boy," snapped Buffy, her knuckles showing white around the haft of her weapon. "And I thought I'd cornered the market on aloof and detached a few years back."
"Death is inevitable," Giles countered with a heavy sigh. "It is a part of our lives, every day."
"Right. Part," rejoined Buffy. She directed her eyes to one side, apparently finding the sight of Giles not much to her liking at that present moment in time. "My life is more than death," she said, her tone angry and insistent.
Turning away completely, she took a few steps away.
"Living like it's the be all and end all – sort of unintentionally ironic," she remarked scornfully.
"It is the 'end all'," reminded Giles.
But Buffy refused to look at him and Giles sighed again.
"I am trying to save you the inevitable pain," he counseled, tone calm and rational. "You don't—" He shook his head, obviously negating the intended path of original advice, instead embarking on a different tack. "We all saw what happened to Faith when Hazel was killed."
Buffy's shoulders straightened. "I'm not Faith," she informed icily.
"I never said you—"
Giles was taken aback by Buffy's incensed expression as she spun around to face him.
"I am not a murderer."
Giles' bewilderment at the proclamation was plain, but he had no time to respond or even ponder the statement. With a swift whirl, Buffy held aloft her staff and prepared to launch an attack. Hurriedly, Giles bent to retrieve his sword. Still on one knee, he was forced to parry and there was the strident clash of metal-on-metal.
"You're afraid of what'll happen to me if my Slayers die?" gritted Buffy, moving in threateningly for another attempt. "Be more afraid for the thing that kills them."
Giles scrambled to his feet and adopted a defensive stance as the sparring began anew.
Comfortably dressed in gray sweatpants and a red muscle shirt, Faith loitered in one of Slayer Central's hallways. Her expression was unreadable as she stared at the closed door in front of her, but still Giles' voice filtered through.
"I never said you—"
However, it was the response that brought an almost imperceptible wince to Faith's features.
"I am not a murderer."
She squeezed her eyelids tight, face running a gamut of subdued emotions. It was a rapidly changing pattern with disgust seeming to be the most prominent underlying factor. Quite what Faith found so distasteful, however, was impossible to determine. Xander's cheery greeting disturbed her apparent soul-searching.
"Hey there, Faith and Family Values."
Faith blinked as he approached and a frown creased her forehead.
"What's the what?" he challenged. "Are we eavesdropping?"
Upon arrival, he pressed an ear to the door.
"Nah. Nothing worth hearing," announced Faith with forced indifference as she shook her head.
Turning sharply on her heel, she made her way along the corridor. Xander watched her departure for a moment and then quickly followed.
"I thought you were working out? What with the tank top o' doom." He gestured at her clothing with a broad grin. "Or is this not the "o' doom" one?" He peered closer and shrugged. "There're so many. The tank top o' doom, the tank top o' quiet reflection, the tank top o' Martha Stewart Living, which is sometimes confused with the previous two."
Faith was not amused. "Do you even know what you're sayin' before you say it any more?"
"No," admitted Xander chirpily. "My words are a constant mystery. So no plans?"
"None now," said Faith, lengthening her stride.
Xander's long legs easily kept pace. "Good."
Abruptly, he ducked through a nearby door, seizing Faith by the elbow in the process and taking her with him. She was too surprised by the unexpected abduction to put up much of a fight as she suddenly found herself in the cafeteria. The darkening sky beyond the tall windows pronounced it to be early evening and the area was packed with Juniors and Watchers, some on their way out already and some toting overloaded trays in search of a vacant table. The pair bobbed and weaved through the crowd.
"Don't you hate going out to dinner by yourself?" asked Xander. "Just sitting there, a fish alone in a sea of happily dining groupers?"
Faith didn't give the observation much thought. "Don't bother me. I'm hungry, I eat." She arched an eyebrow. "Not so much needing the social validation."
"Then my opinion is the only one that matters in this conversation," Xander decided firmly. "I can't stand it. Its sadness outweighs even that of going to the movies by your lonesome. But only by virtue of dinner rarely happening in complete, shame-hiding darkness."
"And they say I got issues."
"Which you do," Xander hastened to remind. "You just don't have a monopoly."
The large, well-equipped and well-stocked kitchen stood at the rear of the cafeteria. This was Andrew's domain and he guarded it with unbridled if ineffectual enthusiasm. Upon reaching the entrance to this kingdom, Faith and Xander couldn't help but take note of Andrew's attempts to chastise the current would-be usurpers – a handful of apparently ravenous Juniors. He wore an apron bearing the statement "Alton Gives Good Eats" over his turtleneck sweater and generic jeans which seemed to match well with his expression of utter dismay at the unwelcome invasion.
"Do I come in the gym and start using all your big muscle equipment stuff?" he demanded, but didn't wait for an answer. "No, I don't. Not since I really hurt myself that one time." He crossed his arms over his chest and did his level best to convey an impression of superiority. "So leave me to my task, dear ladies, and I shall leave you to yours."
Blatantly ignoring Andrew's proclamation, the impudent scavengers didn't miss a beat. The pose of haughty nonchalance maintained for a few moments more before succumbing to a much more familiar slump of defeat. Andrew emitted a pathetic noise of dejection and then noticed the presence of Faith and Xander. Expecting righteous support, Andrew straightened with renewed confidence and kept his accusatory gaze fixed upon the ransacking girls, although he declined to address them directly.
"Faith, these Junior Slayers are harassing an innocent working man as he attempts to go about his sworn duties," he declared with an emphatic nod. "They're being stubborn, and mean, and are not vigilant defenders of truth and justice. I don't think they're being very heroic."
Faith vaulted onto one of the long counters.
"I don't care," she replied.
Opening the closest overhead cupboard, she began to root around its contents. Andrew visibly wilted as the little self-made world crumbled about his ears. Collectively, the young band of marauders snickered, but when Xander frowned at the spectacle, jerking his chin meaningfully toward the exit, they immediately straggled from the kitchen.
"Well that settles it," said Andrew decisively. "They don't get chocolate cake." Grabbing a padded mitt, he opened the oven. "They'll have to make do with that weird white cake stuff Mr. Giles likes," he muttered vengefully, extracting a rectangular pan and disappearing into the noisy cafeteria area.
Mouth twitching with amusement, Xander made his way to the refrigerator and began to remove the necessary elements required to make a man-sized sandwich.
Faith glanced in his direction. "So why eat here? Don't you have four courses waiting at home?"
"Probably," shrugged Xander, liberally coating six pieces of bread with mayonnaise. "I'm avoiding Will."
"Huh. Why?" asked Faith, adding as afterthought, "Not that you need a reason."
Xander slapped a square of ham, followed by a round of bologna and a thick wedge of cheese onto each slice. "She's on a little Willow warpath," he said, piling the end result onto a plate and reaching back inside the fridge for a cold drink. "She's convinced that I need me some hot lovin'."
Faith blinked in surprise. "She said that?"
"Well not in so many words," mumbled Xander through one of his thick sandwiches. "She thinks I need someone. A girl someone." He took another bite. "She's apparently gone shopping already and picked me out the latest model. Made a down payment and everything."
Faith continued to root through the cupboard, sneering at a can of SpaghettiOs before putting it back. "Those meddling kids. Surprised though." She cocked her head to one side. "Figured if anyone'd have decent taste in girls for you, it'd be Will. Nailed you a dud, huh?"
"Not exactly the word I'd pick," said Xander, popping his can of soda.
"So you like her?" returned Faith with an evil twinkle.
Xander pondered that for a moment and took a thoughtful sip.
"I could like her."
"Then what's the prob?" asked Faith. Having now demolished the orderly interior of the first cupboard, she moved to the next.
"I could like her."
Looking a little frazzled, Andrew re-entered, minus the baking pan. Picking up a wooden spoon, he proceeded to stir the contents of a dutch oven simmering on the range.
"They're worse than Lyekka!" he whined bitterly. "They're not Slayers, they're animals!" He nodded to himself. "Which I guess IS in keeping with their questionably primal origins." The revolutions of the spoon slowed considerably as Andrew quietly mused. "Maybe Slayers are, in essence, two separate entities forced to share one body, each side fighting for dominance in a never-ending internal battle of wills. Like Bruce Banner and the Hulk, or like Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin. It's an interesting theory indeed." He shot Faith a sideways glance. "Perhaps our very own Dark Slayer would like to weigh in on this enlightening hypothesis?"
He extended the dripping spoon toward Faith as though it were a microphone.
Abandoning her hunt, Faith perched cross-legged on the counter and swiped the offending spoon aside. "Are you for real? Seriously."
Reluctantly, Andrew lowered the spoon.
"You should be nicer to me," he pouted. "We're like two peas in a pod."
Faith looked at Andrew with disgust. "My pea ain't goin' anywhere near your pod."
Xander choked momentarily on a mouthful of cold cuts and crumbs.
"But we're both redemptionists," insisted Andrew, "seeking to atone for our evil deeds. Treading lightly on the path of angels." He waved the spoon vaguely in the air. "Our step is tenuous and uncertain, for we know that any moment we could stumble and succumb once more to temptations far greater than ourselves."
"Whatever," said Faith, leaping from the counter. "I'm here for a sandwich."
"I don't think you're a very good redemptionist," Andrew said with a frown.
Faith poked a knife into the open the jar of mayonnaise while Xander put two slices of bread on a plate. "An' your opinion was SO important."
Andrew wiped the spoon with a paper towel, obviously dispirited but trying not to let it show.
"Fine," he said with a sniff. "My quest remains a solitary one. A lonely traveler, am I."
Still clutching the spoon, Andrew made his way toward the door and then turned back.
"Do you wanna swap atonements?" he asked wistfully. "I'm running out and getting bored."
With an expression of anticipation, he regarded Faith earnestly. Her reciprocating look left little room for hope and Andrew's shoulders drooped as he exited the kitchen.
Xander watched him leave. "Andy's a shining example of ... well, I'm not exactly sure, but he's a shining example of it." He shrugged and then turned to Faith. "You don't think you super-sized the harsh?"
"He drives me up the wall with that crap," rejoined Faith irritably, depositing the knife into the almost empty jar of mayonnaise with a clatter. "Pretty phrases that don't mean nothin'."
Xander dumped his cleaned plate into the sink. "He's trying. In his own special way," he said.
"He really wants to try?" challenged Faith. "How about he drops the act and try talkin' straight? Callin' it what it is."
She took her sandwich and moved toward the door.
Grabbing his soda, Xander followed. "What's that?"
"Guilty," responded Faith matter-of-factly as she continued on her way.
Wearily, Giles turned the key to his loft. Opening the door, he deposited his bulging briefcase by the wall and tossed his key ring onto a small but elegant glass-topped table. With an expression of sheer exhaustion, he dragged off his jacket and hung it in a tiny closet before flicking the switch to the overhead light. Loosening his tie and removing his glasses, he pinched the bridge of his nose while his vision adjusted to the flood of illumination. Then, his body stiffened.
In the middle of the main area stood a figure clad in black – the same young girl he had seen earlier at Slayer Central. She made no move toward him, simply observing him through brooding eyes that seemed to radiate with raw and naked animosity.
This time, recognition was instantaneous. Giles drew a sharp intake of breath and his voice was little more than a whisper.