The young man turned up the collar of his coat as he walked slowly through the cemetery. It was a chilly night and the brilliant stars twinkled crisply. One hand was stuffed deep into his pocket, fingernails digging into his palm, while the other clutched a small bouquet. He looked neither right nor left as he made his way along the gravel path, eyes fixed on the ground in front of him.
Instinctively, he paused at the foot of a grave, the earth only just settled from the relatively recent burial. He blinked in misery at the newly erected headstone that read
Moving forward, he brushed glittering frost from the arch of the stone with great care and then positioned the flowers within a slender marble vase. That having been accomplished, he stood with head bowed and took a deep breath, swallowing a huge lump in his throat. He said nothing for several moments, appearing to be searching for something appropriate. At last, he sighed.
"Hi, Nancy." His lips formed a smile, brief and trembling. "It's Paul. I brought you some flowers. Orchids. Your favorite." He stared sorrowfully at the little vase and its contents. "I-I'm not sure how long they'll last out here. It's so cold. So cold."
His voice wavered and he stared upward at the sky, as though he were unable to bear looking upon the tombstone or his token offering for a moment longer. His face twisted with pain as he turned sharply and retreated from the gravesite before coming to a halt by the edge of the pathway. As his chin dropped to his chest, he failed to notice a mound of freshly tilled earth begin to stir behind him.
"I've been trying, ever since—" he muttered piteously, but was forced to abandon the statement. "I keep thinking that it's all my fault," he continued. "If it weren't for me, we'd both be home right now, making fun of TV and eating those little cheese crackers that you loved." He swiped the back of his hand across his eyes. "I always thought they were so gross. I found a half-empty box of them in my apartment yesterday. I can't bring myself to throw them away."
The ground churned more violently as a body struggled to break the surface. Still, the young man was oblivious to the ongoing efforts.
"I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm so sorry. I just wish ... I hope you can forgive me."
"Don't worry, lover—" assured a voice at his shoulder.
As a cold hand caressed the nape of his neck, Paul whirled to find himself face-to-face with a female vampire. His eyes opened wide in shock and terror.
Her tiny smile soon became a wide sneer, exposing wicked fangs. "I forgive ..."
She leaned purposefully toward the hollow of his throat but then abruptly paused. The pair stared at each other, expressions frozen for the most part, but discombobulation obviously reigned.
"Who are you?" both asked in unison.
"You ... called me ..." said Paul, trying to quell the anxiety that was quickly rising.
Releasing her hold, the vampire took a step backward. "Oh, wow. Hey, what a complete— I thought you were someone else. Totally. With the mourning, and the guilt, and ..." She sniffed at the air and focused on the young man. "Is that Obsession?"
Paul shook his head somewhat dumbly. "Eternity."
"Funny how I'd mess that up, now of all times!" she returned, and then took a deep breath to excise her embarrassment. "So yeah!" She grinned ruefully. "Sorry about that."
"That's okay," said Paul, obviously still floundering in a state of confusion.
The vampire regarded him seriously for a moment. "You're sweet," she finally assessed. "Thanks, uhh ..." she prompted, arching an eyebrow and apparently waiting for a name to be supplied.
"Oh! Paul," he provided, startled into civility.
He extended his hand and she accepted the cordial gesture with all due politeness.
"Pleased to meet you," acknowledged Paul with a small nod as the handshake came to an end. He shivered a little and then rubbed his palms together. "You're cold."
"Am I?" queried Rachel. She shrugged. "It's hard to judge. I don't really feel it anymore."
Paul's forehead crinkled in a befuddled fashion. Obviously in some shock, he attempted to cope with his present situation to the best of his limited ability. Trapped in some bizarre social ritual where the rules didn't apply, he played by them anyway since there appeared to be nothing else he to do.
"You here visiting family?" asked Rachel pleasantly.
Paul blinked and swallowed hard. His eyes drifted back to Nancy's grave and the grief returned in full measure. "My girlfriend," he murmured sadly, indicating the tombstone.
Rachel followed his gaze with sympathy. "Vampire?"
"Like me," clarified Rachel, but Paul remained baffled.
She made exaggerated 'quote' motions on either side of her head and clarified, "Neck trauma?"
Paul stared for a moment. "Uhm, no? It was a car accident."
"So she's probably not coming back then, huh?" said Rachel, her tone laced with compassion.
"What?" he said yet again.
"Which also means she doesn't have dibs!" Rachel told him brightly.
Paul frowned, trying his best to follow along and failing miserably.
"So why all the guilt?" queried Rachel curiously. Nostrils flaring, she sniffed at him again. "I can just smell it pouring off you. I guess Calvin Klein's miracle machine only goes so far."
Paul's expression became stricken. "I was supposed to pick her up from work, but ... but I got distracted and was running late." He shuffled miserably. "She told me not to worry about it, that she could get a ride with a friend, and—"
"Hey, Paul?" interrupted Rachel.
Lunging forward, she seized his shoulders and pulled him toward her, sinking her fangs into his throat. Paul instantly shrieked in horror, eyes wide with panic, but then Rachel was abruptly yanked backward. Stumbling, she fell across Nancy's grave, toppling the little marble vase and crushing the flowers beneath her weight. Unable to move, Paul's brain tried desperately to process. His eyes flickered toward the girl who stood defensively between him and the sprawling vampire.
"Run," Buffy ordered firmly.
Paul clasped his hand to his neck, face white and ashen. "She bit me!" he whispered.
"Bandage it," said Buffy curtly. "Wear a scarf."
On the ground, Rachel was beginning to regain her senses and struggling to get to her feet. Noticing where she had fallen, Paul pointed toward the pathetic ruination of marble vase and orchid petals and was instantly offended.
"Nancy!" he protested.
"Unless you want to join her, you'll run. Now!" informed Buffy, losing patience.
But she had no further time to argue the point. Moving into attack mode, Rachel launched an assault. As the pair grappled, Paul snapped out of his stupor and apparently decided to take Buffy's advice. He fled the scene as fast as his quivering legs could carry him. With her height advantage, Rachel had managed to gain some leverage, but Buffy was not the Slayer for nothing. Still, Rachel had Buffy by the lapels and was shaking the blonde like a rag doll.
"That was my dinner!" she growled menacingly.
Forcefully driving her arms upward, Buffy easily broke the hold. "Hey, vamp girl?" she said matter-of-factly. "Nobody cares."
Rachel's mouth contorted into an ugly snarl, which promptly became a grunt of agony as she exploded into a cloud of dust. The stake protruding from her back tumbled into the dirt as Buffy brushed her jacket free of particles and Faith approached from the shadows.
"Good aim," Buffy told her approvingly.
"I'm ever strapped for money, the Red Sox are a definite consideration."
"Was that the last one?" asked Buffy, keenly surveying the immediate area.
"Hope so," returned Faith as she retrieved the stake. "Is it just me or is the vamp action gettin' mad crazy lately?"
"It's not you."
Faith nodded. "Figures. Only ever right about the bad stuff." She glanced at her wristwatch. "Better check on the Legion of Substitutes. They start facin' more'n like ten a night, I get twitchy."
Her boots heels crackled against the frost-tipped grass as Faith strode briskly into the night. Buffy lingered a while, quietly appraising her surroundings, taking stock of that section of the cemetery in general. Before too long, she followed in Faith's footsteps and was soon within speaking distance.
"Maybe it goes in cycles," she pondered. "Like, instead of wabbit season, we get vamp season."
"Whatever. All I know is, I got a serious jones for a stack of waffles like that big." Faith held her hands a considerable waffle-portioned distance apart.
The pair plodded along in companionable silence for a few moments.
"How many vampires would you say you've Slayed?"
Faith gave the question due consideration. "Dunno," she finally admitted. "I stopped keepin' count when this shrink I had got on some kick about a competitive complex."
"Hundreds?" probed Buffy.
"Doubtful," came the sardonic response. "I spent one year in a coma and the next three in jail. 'Bout the most I Slayed there was cockroaches, so unless they got some steamy subculture I ain't aware of ..." She turned and grinned in Buffy's direction.
"I think I must've killed thousands by now," mused Buffy.
"Probably," acknowledged Faith. "I mean, you're the Queen B, right?"
"Yeah, that's me," said Buffy without enthusiasm. "Buffy, Queen of the Slayers."
Faith twirled the stake between her fingers. "Hundreds, thousands ... You wanna badge or somethin'?"
"I've been thinking about it little lately." Buffy tossed Faith a sideways glance. "A lot little."
Buffy sighed. "The vampires."
"It's probably just some cycle thing, like you said," dismissed Faith.
"Not that part," said Buffy with a quick shake of her head. "That girl said something to me. Denali, remember her?"
"Slayer chick, long hair, bad attitude," confirmed Faith wryly. "Don't get that combo much."
"I brought her out here." Buffy jerked her thumb over her shoulder, indicating the area near Nancy's grave. "Just over there, actually. I was trying to make a point about how not all demons are bad."
Faith was amused. "Given how that all turned out? Great job."
"Yeah, not my best speech effort," admitted Buffy. "She said some stuff though, that's sort of been at the back of my mind ever since. And I've just been thinking ... Angel and Spike, when they got the chance, they did good. Some real, serious, bonafide hero-type good."
"Uh-huh." Faith's reply was noncommittal.
"So ..." continued Buffy. "So maybe all vampires have that capacity. You know, with some serious help. And possibly a curse or two, but if there's even a little chance ..." She looked to Faith for some sign of affirmation, an indication of agreement.
Expressionlessly, Faith returned the gaze. "What?"
"What do you think?" asked Buffy.
"You mean besides the fact that you're freakin' nuts?"
Buffy frowned a little at that but pursued her theory anyway. "Doesn't it sound, I dunno ... logical?"
Coming to a halt, Faith turned to her companion, also bringing Buffy to a stop. The pair faced each other.
"Shovin' souls down the throat of every vamp we come across?" said Faith with no small hint of accusation. "You do a spell, you curse 'em, and then what?" Buffy blinked at the outburst. "You gonna babysit 'em through the next few months – years – of crazy? Just so you can force 'em to spend the rest of forever tortured by what they are? Knowin', every day, they can't be happy, not ever, cuz'a what's in here?" Violently, Faith thumped her own chest. "No, B, that ain't exactly hittin' the logic center."
"But Angel—" Buffy protested.
Disbelievingly, Faith threw her hands to the side. "Were you maybe not payin' attention to what Angel has to go through every single day?"
"Of course I was!" returned Buffy angrily. "Don't you think I know that? I know. I know better than anyone. But Angel faces it. He does it because he can help people. Because it's the right thing to do."
Legs astride, Faith folded her arms. "An' there's just so many people already with a perfectly good soul who stand up an' help people because it's 'the right thing to do'."
But Buffy didn't respond immediately and the pair scowled at each other for a moment.
"I don't get it," Buffy eventually puffed. "How can you not think about it? The death, with a side of death, and for dessert, how about death? It just never stops, and ..." She sighed and looked at Faith wearily. "Don't you get tired of it?"
Faith shrugged her shoulders. "Things live. Sometimes they die. Sometimes we kill them." She turned with finality and resumed her journey. "I did my thinking about it. It's done," she threw over her shoulder.
Buffy stared at Faith for a moment as she walked off. Thrusting her hands into her pockets, she hurriedly caught up and the two Slayers continued on in silence.
As soon as they were some distance away, a young man emerged from behind the trunk of a tree. Despite his shock of white hair, he was certainly no older than 20 and possibly a year or two younger. He exuded something of a nervous and disheveled air and there was a certain cast in his eyes, a hint that things upstairs weren't exactly as stable as they should be. Nonetheless, there was no doubting the sanity of the penetrating gaze which bore into Faith's retreating figure – or the open display of unbridled hatred.
Like a mute shadow, a woman materialized from the gloom to stand at his side. Her skin was the color of sienna and her facial features angular. While far from attractive in the conventional sense, there was something strangely alluring and exotic about her – glossy chestnut ringlets tumbling halfway down her back. She draped an arm around the young man. Her curling fingernails dug into the flesh of his upper arm while her sharp chin rested on his shoulder. But he didn't react and seemed almost unaware of her presence.
Peering into his face with rapt attention, the tip of her nose brushing against his cheek, the woman observed the young man's fixed expression for several seconds, an interested smile playing about her thin lips. Then, her mahogany eyes drifted toward Faith and the smile widened into a broad grin.
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, 11 October 2005, 8pm ET
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.
The pale sun of a wintry afternoon sparkled through the windows of Giles' office. Seated behind his desk, he held the telephone to his ear and randomly shuffled papers in front of him. His expression was tense and from the dark smudges beneath his eyes. it was apparent that he hadn't slept well the night before. The words he spoke into the receiver were strained and heavy.
"When I looked again, no one was there." He sighed and stared fixedly at the closed door. "I spent hours searching from top to bottom, but the flat was empty."
As he listened, Wood propped his feet on the desk of his London office and watched the scurrying clouds journey across the darkened sky outside, threatening to bring a fall of snow before daybreak. The room was similar to that currently inhabited by Giles, but contained far fewer research books and a more extensive collection of personal mementos. Of particular note were the vast number of photographs on display. Hanging dominantly on the wall above the open door was a tastefully-matted rectangular picture set in a magnificently carved walnut frame. Reminiscent of a high school graduating class, it depicted Wood standing in the center of a huge group of fresh-face girls and young women. The hallway beyond was a buzz of activity, but Wood didn't seem bothered or even distracted by the incessant hubbub.
"I don't doubt it was," he said and then paused before continuing. "You know that what you're saying is impossible."
Giles massaged the back of his neck. "Is it?" He corrected himself. "I mean, yes, of course it is."
"Has this happened before?" asked Wood, thoughtfully twirling a fountain pen between his fingers.
Initially, it didn't appear as though Giles were inclined to answer, but Wood simply waited in sympathetic silence.
"I saw—" Giles eventually responded hesitantly. "I thought I saw her a few times at the facility yesterday. Just staring at me."
Wood's feet hit the floor as he leaned forward in his chair. "Maybe you need a rest," he advised with all sincerity. "A nice vacation to someplace tropical, where they serve drinks with funny names. God knows the stress levels never go down in this job."
"No rest for the wicked," chuckled Giles mirthlessly. "I appreciate your concern. I know it's foolish, I just ..."
"You wanted to hear it from someone else," suggested Wood.
Giles nodded, even though Wood was unable to see the gesture. "Yes."
"It's foolish," Wood immediately furnished.
"Thank you for the reassurance."
"Any time," Wood told him with a wry smile. "It's not too far from here, you know," he added. "If you're really concerned, I can send some of my Slayers to check on her. Hell, I'll go myself if it'll make you feel better."
"That's quite all right," Giles replied, perhaps a little too hastily. "I'm sure it's nothing."
Wood frowned. "If you change your mind, just call me. It's no trouble."
There was another period of hush before Wood spoke again.
"Rupert ... You did what you had to do. Nobody blames you."
Giles pinched the bridge of his nose. "No, I expect they don't. That would be difficult, seeing as how they don't know there's anything to blame me for."
The ensuing silence spoke volumes between the two men. Wood's expression was one of anxiety. Giles simply looked very tired.
"Well, now that I've done an exceptional job in overrunning this conversation and killing it quite effectively," said Giles in a businesslike manner, "I suppose I'd best incorporate some pleasantries. And how are things on your end? Is there any news about that poor girl?"
Wood's features rapidly transformed from concern for Giles to an open show of regret. Rising from his chair, he strode to the door, firmly grasping the handle.
"None good," he admitted worriedly. "She's still in a coma ..."
As the door closed behind him, Kennedy strolled past making her way along the hall. A cell phone was all but glued to her ear. She was chatting, loudly and enthusiastically.
"It's great. No more being tethered down, no more waiting in line to make a call ..."
"Because I could so see you waiting," said Willow, rolling her eyes as she one-handedly maneuvered the car through a thankfully light flow of traffic in downtown Trillium.
"Believe it or not," returned Kennedy curtly, "I do possess the ability to be patient."
This was greeted by another eye-roll. "Please. You're the one who told me Quaker Instant Oatmeal should change its name to 'Quaker Instant Starvation'."
"I said I possessed the ability," returned Kennedy with a grin. "I didn't say I used it. Anyway, my point is, the freedom of phone mobility is mine. I intend to abuse it at least as much as the Council credit card that'll be paying its bill."
"I appreciate the warning," nodded Willow, grinding to a stop at a red light.
Arriving at the kitchen, Kennedy busied herself with making a cup of coffee – smidgen of milk and heaping spoonfuls of sugar. Making sure she was alone and unobserved, Kennedy then helped herself to an unopened packet of chocolate digestives. She tore open the cellophane with her teeth.
"So. I got your e-mail this morning," she mumbled into the mouthpiece.
Willow's fingers drummed nervously on the steering wheel. "Yeah. I was— I thought we could talk. About ... something."
"Little fuzzy on the details," said Kennedy, vigorously stirring her coffee, "but confident in my ability to fake it if I have to. Go ahead."
"It's ... big." Willow jumped as the jarring blast from an impatient motorist informed her that the light had turned green. She smiled apologetically into the rear view mirror as she pulled away.
Kennedy was unfazed. "Okay."
"Really big. Or, well, not really big. Sort of ... pseudo big." Willow wrinkled her nose. "A bigness that can really only be determined by perception which, really, isn't that what size is? I mean sure, you can look at a- a humpback whale and say, 'Wow, now that's big!' But put it next to Jupiter, and suddenly you're not so big now, are ya Mr. Whale?" She nodded, seemingly satisfied with the comparison. "It's like that."
"Like a planet-sized whale?" asked Kennedy, frowning in her confusion.
Willow's eyes grew wide. "Oh god, you think it's that big?"
"Wait, I mean no?" Kennedy hastened to correct. "Will, you're doing serious damage to my confidence in faking it. What're we talking about?"
Even though Kennedy was the only person within earshot, Willow's voice still lowered to a conspirative whisper. "I have ... something. Something important. I-I wanna tell everyone, but ... I mean, the way they'd react would just ... Because this isn't supposed to be me, right?"
Kennedy munched thoughtfully as she tried to follow along. She was meeting with limited success but nonetheless, decided to give it her best shot. "Are you breaking up with Tara?"
Willow blinked in horror. "What? No!"
"Oh, okay," returned Kennedy. "Good. Cuz I'd have a lot of feelings on that one, and I'm not sure they'd all be feelings I should have."
"There's a secret," confided Willow. "A big one. But nobody knows about it."
"In keeping with the 'secret' theme," remarked Kennedy.
Willow had no time for irony. "Yeah. This secret, though ... I think it's good. I honestly do. The thing is, nobody else'll see like that." She nibbled at her lower lip. "They'll get judgey, a-and confiscatey. Which, you know, not blaming here. But still ... it's lying, right? Knowing something and not telling anyone, that's wrong?"
Kennedy returned the milk to the refrigerator and put her cup in the sink. She stowed what remained of the digestives in her pocket for later consumption.
"First up, I'm not even gonna pretend I know what you're talking about here," she counseled. "That makes it rough to pass a judgment. Even if I could, I'm not sure I would."
Arriving home, Willow pulled into the driveway and removed the key from the ignition. The engine idled for a moment before shutting down, but Willow made no move to leave the vehicle. She stared through the windscreen, twisting her fingers in her lap and waiting for Kennedy to continue. The wait was not a lengthy one.
"Here's my take, a page from the Kennedy rulebook: if it feels like you've done something wrong, you probably did."
Willow visibly wilted and Kennedy was sensitive to the ensuing silence.
"Not what you wanted to hear, huh?" she smirked.
"Well I was sorta lookin' for someone to either slap my wrist or give me a pat on the head," Willow admitted somewhat ruefully.
"Sorry babe, you lost pain and pleasure rights," Kennedy informed briskly, smiling at Willow's burst of laughter. "Feeling better?"
"Not really," responded Willow, still grinning.
"Then my job here is done," Kennedy determined with an affirmative nod.
"Thanks," Willow told her. "Seriously."
"Hey, I said if you needed me for anything at all. I meant it."
"I know," acknowledged Willow. "You too."
An evil glint crept into Kennedy's eye. "Of course, if you ever do decide to break up with Tara ..."
"Later," said Kennedy, thoroughly amused.
She hummed cheerfully as she snapped shut the phone and sauntered from the kitchen. Her spirits were high and she seemed more than a little pleased with herself as she reemerged into the hall. The mood persisted until she turned a corner and was confronted by a small group of Juniors heading her way. They moved slowly in a tight huddle. Some were openly crying while others wore expressions of shock or stunned disbelief. Instantly concerned, she hurried toward the sad gathering.
The girls looked at her, but none seemed able to speak. Eventually, a slim brunette found her trembling voice. "Carla just got back from the hospital."
The assembly parted to reveal Carla, a petite Junior with bobbed blonde hair. Her eyes were red-rimmed, the elfin face marred by blotches. Tears spilled unchecked down her cheeks as the girl closest to her laid a protective arm around Carla's shuddering shoulders.
"Filippa's dead," whispered the brunette, staring at the floor.
Kennedy's gaze traveled over the sorrowful little group with no small amount of shock. She shook her head in an attempt to fully process the news, almost as though she were denying the truth. Moments that found Kennedy at a loss for words were rare indeed, but this was just such a moment. Her eyes came to rest on Carla, whose own brimming eyes were fixed on Kennedy's face.
"She just gave up," Carla murmured miserably. "The doctors, they said she ..." Wracked with sobs, she started to cough and then appeared to pull herself together somewhat. "She was my best friend. I should've—" The composure was short-lived.
"It's not your fault," said Kennedy numbly.
"She was my best friend!" cried Carla. "She must've been so sad, but I ... I never noticed. I should've noticed!" In despair, she looked around the hovering group and was immediately enveloped by a communal hug. "It is my fault!"
"No," said Kennedy. Her tone was detached, almost distant, as she struggled for comforting words. "We couldn't ... I know it feels like you did something wrong, but ..."
The company regarded her with sober faces. Some looked to her for leadership – a way to make sense from the senselessness – but a few others accosted her with unspoken accusations. Kennedy floundered, unable to provide any answers.
Her grip tightened around the cell phone in her hand. With one rapidly smooth movement, she turned and hurled it with all her strength into the wall. It shattered on impact, fracturing the plaster and spewing particles of plastic and delicate circuitry onto the floor. The girls visibly started at the violent outburst and some of them begin crying with renewed desperation. Kicking aside the rubble, Kennedy said nothing as the Juniors watched her walk away.
"I'm home!" called Willow, closing the front door behind her and depositing her keys onto the hall table. She set her backpack on the floor. "Freshly erudite from the hallowed halls of higher learning!" She removed her jacket and hug it on a vacant peg, tilting her head in search of a greeting. None was forthcoming. "Hello?"
There was still no welcoming answer and she peered into the living room. It was empty. There was no sign of life in the kitchen either so Willow made her way upstairs. All was still and silent until she reached the room she shared with Tara. The blonde was sitting on the edge of the bed, her back toward the open doorway. Focused solely on the book she balanced on her knees, Tara was unaware of Willow's arrival.
Drawing an involuntary sharp breath, Willow froze on the threshold. She couldn't see the book from where she was standing, but could tell it held Tara's rapt attention as the blonde riffled through the pages.
"Tara?" she asked nervously.
As Tara turned, Willow could see the book was the photograph album that Tara had brought back from Hope Falls. For a second, Willow's eyes closed in grateful relief, but Tara didn't seem to notice. With a smile, she extended her hand and Willow was only too happy to comply. Settling herself comfortably behind Tara, she rested her chin on the blonde's shoulder so she could get a good view of the pictures.
"Nice stroll down Memory Lane?" she asked, lifting Tara's hair to kiss the hollow of her neck.
"With a brief detour down Introspection Avenue," Tara added.
Willow waggled her eyebrows. "If you're wonderin' what to get me for Chanukah, I've got a few ideas that won't cost ya a dime."
Tara chuckled as she gently patted Willow's cheek. "We already celebrated Chanukah, silly."
"Christmas then," declared Willow. "I'll convert this year. What I have in mind is totally worth my father's wrath."
Tara's eyes twinkled with amusement as she resumed browsing. The album was open at a drab picture of a young woman, probably in her mid-teens, wearing a gown with belted waist and skirted blouse. A wide-brimmed hat sporting an overly-large flower adorned her head, but it was an otherwise unimpressive portrait. Willow was content to simply observe and wait until Tara felt like talking, which she eventually did.
"It's funny. All these women ... all part of me, and I hardly know anything about them." She ran a finger over the picture. "This is my great-grandmother, and I don't even know her name."
Snaking an arm around Tara's shoulder, Willow reached out and lifted a corner of the sheet covering the page. She looked questioningly at Tara and after receiving a nod of agreement, cautiously lifted the plastic. Delicately, she removed the photograph and turned it over. The penciled letters were barely legible and Willow squinted to make out the words written on the back.
Mary E. Maclay Sunday, May 14, 1916
She turned it around again so the picture was face upward.
"Mary, meet Tara. Tara, meet Mary," she introduced formally, handing the photo to Tara, who stared at it as though it were the key to some great mystery.
"She died years before my mother was born," Tara told Willow softly. "Mom said my grandmother never talked about her much." She indicated the picture. "Mary. She was a witch, of course, but she hardly ever practiced. She was ashamed of her power. Of the demon."
Carefully Tara replaced the picture and smoothed the plastic over the page before turning to another. There were a few more shots of Mary as she advanced in age. A smattering where she was proudly cradling a baby girl – presumably Tara's grandmother – and then again when the infant had grown to be a young teenager. Those were followed by photographs of the teenager herself on her own now, but somewhat older. Approaching 20 perhaps. As with most of the females shown in the album, there was a strong physical resemblance to Tara. One of these poses in particular caught Tara's fancy. The woman appeared to be uncomfortable, even self-conscious, in her tailored suit with the padded shoulders and slim pencil skirt. She almost glowered at the camera and seemed to be in a decidedly grumpy mood. Tara chuckled as she curiously peeled away the film and extracted the photo.
Edna R. Maclay, Peregrine Park, Hope Falls
August 4, 1946
Tara examined the picture more closely. While there was little outwardly interesting about Mary, doubtless attributable, at least in part, to the morose style of early photographs, the same certainly couldn't be said for Edna. Despite the facial expression, there was something more behind the scowl. An air of audacity and confident set to the jaw, coupled with a certain indefinable quality that Tara herself sometimes exhibited.
Willow arched an eyebrow. "Not seeing her taking the ashamed route."
Tara smiled at the keen observation. "No. My grandmother was the one who really embraced magick. She believed in the demon, but thought that if she understood it, she could break the curse and finally free us." She shook her head in wonder. "She had so much power. But not enough."
With a sigh, she replaced the photo. "She died a few weeks after mom turned 20."
Willow's arms encircled Tara in a warm hug as she continued to thumb through the album, finally arriving at pictures of her mother. These, she didn't need to inspect quite so diligently. Her gaze meandered to the bare tree branches beyond the window before traveling back to the collection of photographs.
"Mary died, Edna died. Mom died ... I died."
Instantly concerned, Willow craned her neck to better see Tara's expression, but Tara's attention remained riveted on the album.
"I keep wondering why," Tara murumured, as much to herself as to Willow. "All of these women lived their entire lives, afraid that they were something so evil. Knowing that deep down they were. When I think about the things they went through, all because of a lie ..." She rubbed her forehead. "But I got to escape. To go to Sunnydale and finally find where I belonged. It was my second chance, Will." Her eyes raked Willow's anxious face. "My new life. When it ended ..."
Willow swallowed hard, obviously not wishing to pursue a topic that was distasteful to her. Still, she allowed Tara to continue.
"That should've been it," said Tara with conviction. "I was done. I-I wanted more, because you always do, but ... but it was more than THEY ever dreamed." Her fingers trailed over the pictures as she turned the pages one by one. "So- So I shouldn't be selfish, right?"
Upset and lost, Tara looked to Willow, blinking rapidly to hold back tears.
"Death is cruel and unfair but it's natural," she said in a thick voice. "It's what's supposed to happen. And if death is what's natural, then I must be ..."
Willow gently laid a forefinger across Tara's lips. "Shh." It was followed by a tender kiss, but nothing served to calm Tara's desperation.
"I thought that if I went home I'd find some sort of answer," Tara insisted. "Maybe that the demon thing wasn't so much a family legend after all. But it w-was, and I don't know if that makes me feel better or worse. I just keep wondering, why? Why am I back?"
"Because there are people here who love you too damn much to let you go," Willow told her, her own voice catching. Brushing the album to one side, she pulled Tara into a fierce embrace.
"It's not natural, Willow," murmured Tara, her head buried in Willow's shoulder. "It can't be right."
Willow's response was to hug Tara even tighter as their tears mingled.
"I don't care," Willow stated firmly, smothering Tara's wet cheeks with tiny kisses.
Over Tara's head, Willow focused on the desk with its stacks of books. Somewhere near the bottom, she spied one in particular – Calvin & Hobbes. Her chin jutted defiantly.
"I don't care."
Floundering in the moody depths of apathy, Dawn rested her chin on her forearms and listened to the repeated rap of fingernails drumming against the surface of the table. Raising her eyes only, she looked up to find Buffy staring down at her. This was a grumpy-faced Buffy. A Buffy who seemed to be somewhat put out that Dawn was just sitting.
"Didn't you come in here to do research for a history paper?" asked Buffy, meaningfully eying the library in general.
Dawn sighed. "Yeah."
"Is this some new form of research?" asked Buffy, quirking an eyebrow. "A bookless variety of which I was previous unaware?" She frowned. "Bearing in mind that if the answer to this question is 'yes', you are in so much trouble for not telling me about it until now."
Dawn blinked mournfully. "So basically, I'm screwed no matter what I say."
Dawn sighed again. "That sucks."
"Life's savage cruelty knows no bounds," agreed Buffy wisely.
"Now she tells me."
Lifting her head, Dawn leaned heavily upon her upturned palm and slid further down her chair.
Buffy's expression softened a smidgen with sympathy as she stroked Dawn's hair. "I know it hurts."
Dawn gave a bitter laugh. "Why did the monks have to mix in a heaping tablespoon of your relationship drama?" She waved dismissively. "Sure, leave out the super strength, but don't forget the angst!"
Buffy nodded. "I know."
"I keep thinking I should've done something different. Like ... I dunno." She shrugged. "Brought you along for the big show and tell."
Buffy took a seat next to her sister. "That's still an option."
"He won't even stay near me long enough for us to sling barbs," said Dawn with a sorrowful shake of her head. "I don't think forcing him into a demonstration will help a whole lot."
Buffy squeezed Dawn's limp hand – the one not supporting her drooping head. "You're probably right."
She watched Dawn drag a stack of books closer and flip indifferently through the pages. It was no more than an ostensible effort at research, but one that Buffy appreciated nonetheless. Then, a curious expression crossed her face.
"I watch too much TV," admitted Dawn morosely.
Buffy rocked back and forth on the legs of her chair. "Just remember I didn't say it."
Hitting the ground with a thud, she decided to leave Dawn in peace with her project, but Dawn seemed reluctant for her to depart.
"You know what I think the problem is?" she pondered. "Grip's normal."
Buffy sat back down. "Oh, sure, cuz that's usually a big issue."
"Honestly?" said Dawn, eyes wide. "It's not. I mean, look at you guys. Vampire, werewolf, commando guy, vengeance demon, witch ... The supernatural, not so super, you know?" She regarded Buffy seriously. "So when it comes time for the big confession, it's like, 'Okay. Movie on Saturday?'"
"Point," conceded Buffy. "Maybe you just need to find a vampire, demon or werewolf then."
Frowning, she replayed the words in her mind.
"We never had this conversation," she stated firmly. "Normal is good."
Dawn's shoulders slumped. "Not when it won't talk to me any more."
"Give him time," Buffy told her, elbows leaning on the table. " If he's the one, he'll be back."
Getting to her feet once more, she kissed the top of Dawn's head.
"Now speaking of normal, you have some very normal homework that needs doing." She nudged the research books an inch or two closer. "Meanwhile, I have a very abnormal class to teach. You be okay?"
"Yeah," nodded Dawn unenthusiastically. "I'm not getting anywhere with these things though." She shoved the volumes further away and pushed back her chair. "I'll talk to Giles. He was, like, there when history was created, so he'll know stuff."
Linking arms, the sisters exited Slayer Central's library together before heading their separate ways, Buffy departed with an encouraging wave, while Dawn shuffled dejectedly toward her destination. Buffy hadn't traveled very far when she encountered Faith approaching from the opposite direction. Coming to a halt, the Slayers faced each other and the atmosphere was immediately rife with tension.
"Faith," nodded Buffy affably.
Faith responded with a likewise nod, though not quite so affable. "B."
"I was heading to the gym," Buffy explained. "I've got a class."
Faith jammed her hands into the pockets of her leather jacket. "Don't lemme keep."
Since there appeared to be nothing more to say, they sidestepped each other and continued on. But then, Buffy frowned and turned back.
"Hey, are you okay?"
"You mean apart from bein' a murderer?" Nonchalantly, Faith leaned against the wall. "Peachy."
Buffy's frown deepened as she opened her mouth to speak. Faith never gave her the chance.
"'I'm not Faith. I'm not a murderer'," she mimicked with a sneer. "Slayer hearing. Handy."
"Faith, I didn't mean—" began Buffy.
"I'm not," insisted Buffy.
Faith shrugged. "Wouldn't dream of sayin' you were."
Buffy squeezed her eyes shut and massaged her temples. "It's not the same," she tried to clarify. "Killing humans— Killing people, it's ..."
Setting her jaw, Faith delivered a sharp nod. "Nah, I get it, don't need a picture."
Buffy's eyes snapped open and she vehemently shook her head, but Faith wasn't about to be dissuaded.
"I thought we were maybe, I dunno, gettin' better." She pushed away from the wall. "My bad."
"No, we were," assured Buffy, taking a step forward. "We are."
Faith cocked her chin to one side. "'Cept for the fact that I'm still a killer, right?" She grinned in Buffy's direction. "But that's okay. It's true. It's what I am. An' that just makes you so much better'n me."
Appraisingly, she examined Buffy from the top of her blonde head to the toes of her boots. "It's an important little detail, B. Don't ever forget it." Her lips twitched mockingly. "Shouldn't be a problem for you."
Buffy was still searching for something to say long after Faith had long since walked away without a backward glance.
Reading through a pile of reports, Giles sat behind the desk in his office. His face was a study in concentration, although the rest of him was a little ragged. His tie was askew and his shirt badly crumpled. His usually neat hair was in desperate in need of a comb and there was over 24 hours of stubble on his chin. The 'five o'clock shadow' style was definitely not the most flattering to Giles' normally clean cut appearance, but there was no denying his devotion to duty. Indeed, he didn't even flinch when a figure suddenly materialized at his shoulder. Focusing steadily upon the task at hand, he didn't look up and refused to acknowledge the presence.
"And what do we have here?" asked the black-clad female. "Hiding?"
Giles didn't respond but from the set of his jaw, it was apparent that he heard every syllable.
Leaning forward, the girl read from the paper Giles had in front of him.
"'Our first sampling of Slayers come from a wide assortment of ethnic, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. In this study we hope to learn what role experiences – prior to activation by W. Rosenberg – play in development of natural aptitudes and blah blah blah ...'" Disdainfully, she rolled her eyes and bent down to murmur in Giles' ear. "Oh please. If you're going to pretend I'm not here, couldn't you at least pick something interesting?"
Again, Giles declined to qualify her existence with an answer. Instead, he reached with a trembling hand to open the bottom drawer. Inside was a bottle of scotch and a shot glass.
"Good choice," she told him approvingly. "If you can't drown me out one way, try another. See, that's what I like about you, Rupert. You're so ... inventive."
Pouring himself a stiff measure, Giles promptly downed the contents of the glass and immediately went to work on a second.
The girl moved to stand in front of the desk. "It's only in retrospect that I really appreciated just how good you are," she remarked thoughtfully. "How ruthless. I've had a lot of retrospect on my hands. Almost as much as the blood on yours."
Giles watched his hands become instantly drenched in rich, red, glistening blood. It ran in rivulets over his skin, trickling downward to soak through the papers on his desk. He snapped his eyes tightly shut to obliterate the horrifying image.
"Squeamish?" asked the girl in amazement. "You? The man who used a pair of pliers so slowly that I could feel each and every one of the bones in my little finger shattering?"
Fumbling blindly for his glass, Giles drained every drop before opening his eyes once more. The blood had vanished.
"It wasn't long after that, was it? When I started calling for my mommy?" The girl perched comfortably on the edge of Giles' desk.
Giles shuffled the pristine papers before him. "You're not real," he said quietly.
"Oh, I'm real," she assured.
Giles was unresponsive. Getting to his feet, he walked across the room to face the wall, deliberately skirting the girl who watched him with avid interest. She followed, hovering at his elbow.
"I've been thinking lately—" She shrugged with a heavy sigh before adding, "—because really, what else is there for me to do? – and wondering what exactly is it about me that bothers you? It's not the pain and damage. They're old friends."
"Shut up," advised Giles. His tone was calm and controlled. Almost natural, but not quite.
She moved to stand by his other elbow. He continued to stare at the wall, but she didn't seem to mind the conspicuous avoidance of eye contact. She also blatantly ignored his advice to keep her observations to herself.
"And it wasn't the crying and begging either, because we both know you don't hear it."
Giles' hands clenched into tight fists, held rigid against his thighs. "This is all in my mind," he grimly reminded. "Tricks."
Blithely, the girl resumed her dissertation. "So if it wasn't me ... then I guess that just leaves you." She peered into his face with an ugly and twisted smile. "Doesn't it, Rupert?"
He fixated on the floor. "I can drive you out."
"The part of you that told yourself it was necessary." She shrugged. "That torturing me was the best thing. The right thing."
Giles insistence grew stronger. "Leave."
"Or maybe it's more than that," she pondered, beginning to pace back and forth behind him. "Maybe what's really getting to you, what's eating you alive from the inside—"
"Get out." Giles' tone was threatening now, eyes glittering like granite through his glasses.
The girl smirked, sidling next to him in intimate proximity, "...is the part of you that liked it."
Fists raised, Giles whirled to face his accuser. His lips were drawn back in a feral snarl, savage and livid. "I said get out!"
But the black-clad figure was gone and Dawn stood in her place. She visibly blanched and drew a sharp intake of breath as though she'd just been sucker-punched. Tears stung at her eyelids as she looked in confusion from Giles to Hannah, who had witnessed the outburst from her position in the doorway, face registering complete shock.
Shaking his head, Giles was utterly stunned. He blinked rapidly, trying to focus and regain his footing.
"Dawn, I—" he attempted to explain, extending a reassuring hand.
But Dawn took a step backward, her expression a curious mixture of intense hurt and extreme anger. Turning sharply, she exited the room, flouncing past Hannah who, while keeping a wary eye on Giles, stepped aside to afford Dawn clear passage. Giles watched Dawn's speedy departure, seeming not to know what to say or what to do. Hannah, however, was not afflicted by the same restrictions. She marched unwaveringly into Giles' office, virtually pinning him to the wall.
Her eyes were cold and her words frost-coated. "What the hell was that?"
Bewildered, Giles took stock of his surroundings. Quickly, he scanned the room, frowning in his realization that the sole inhabitants were himself and Hannah.
She inched forward, driving Giles even further back against the wall. "Taking Dawn's head off for no good—"
She paused and sniffed suspiciously, aghast at the distinct smell of alcohol. Without missing a beat, she immediately spotted the open bottle and empty shot glass. Her mouth curled contemptuously.
"She's not here," said Giles, brow furrowed.
"No, she's bloody well not," snapped Hannah, "and I don't blame her. With the way you've been acting lately, I'm frankly surprised that anybody wants anything to do with you. Including me."
"But it was ..." He stared at his upturned palms, apparently unable to discern whether they were clean or contaminated. "The blood ..." Desperately, he searched Hannah's face for reassurance, offering his hands as though they were a sacrifice. "Can't you see it?"
There was nothing to see and her fury evaporating, Hannah's expression became one of deep concern.
"Rupert, what's wrong?" she asked gently.
Giles stumbled to the desk, his singular purpose to secure another shot. Hannah was instantly in tune with his intentions, deftly removing both bottle and glass. Uncertainly, Giles raked his hair and rubbed the nape of his neck in an almost vicious fashion.
"I must ..." he murmured vaguely and then, came a moment of clarity. He blinked in Hannah's direction. "I have to go."
But she deliberately barred his path to freedom. "Go? Where?"
"I can't be here," he insisted, trying to shoulder Hannah out of the way. "She'll return, and I- I might ..." His fingernails dug into the back of his neck. "I don't know what I'll do."
"'She'?" queried Hannah, standing her ground. "Who are you talking about? Dawn?"
Pushing her roughly to one side, Giles brushed past and as he did so, Hannah was provided with an unhampered view of the back of his neck. Gripping Giles' belt loop in order to prevent a hasty departure, she peered closer at the strange symbol etched into the flesh. It looked to be a blood-red teardrop. Inside was a second, smaller one, and inside that, a third even smaller still. It sparkled dully with an eerie glow and Hannah's eyes narrowed.
"What is that?"
But Giles was in no mood to investigate.
Hannah maintained her tenuous hold, despite Giles' struggle for liberty.
"Rupert, what's that mark?"
She staggered backward as the stitching which secured the belt loop to Giles' waistband abruptly gave way under the strain. In heartbeat, Giles had possession of his jacket and was bolting for the door. He paused and turned upon reaching the threshold.
"You should stay here," he suggested. "Just in case she ..." He shook his head and threw Hannah a weak but hopeful smile. "Please tell Dawn that I'm sorry."
And with that, he was gone. Stunned, Hannah could do nothing but stare in confusion at the now vacant doorway for a few brief seconds. But she wasted no further time. Hurrying to Giles' desk, she grabbed a pen and the first scrap of paper at hand. With the image still fresh in her mind, she quickly sketched the unusual mark she had seen on the back of Giles' neck. Then, she scoured the bookshelves laden with research materials. Before too long, she settled on a tome entitled, Symbology – A Complete Reference of the Magickal and Demonic. She pulled the thick book from its resting place and tucked it under her arm. On her way out, she spied a few more promising titles. She took those with her as well.
The hotel room was comfortable enough. Nothing too fancy, nothing that would have qualified for a five star ranking, but it was pleasant in a rather mediocre and unimaginative way. A small stack of preprinted stationery proclaimed the establishment to be located in one of Trillium's upper scale districts, within easy distance of exclusive shops and fine restaurants, but the dismal view from the window somewhat belied that assertion. Still, the surrounding neighborhood was peaceful and the aforementioned shops and restaurants could be seen from a distance.
The personal belongings that littered the room were few and meager, although there were a large number of newspaper clippings and grainy photographs scattered atop the small desk.
A figure huddled miserably by the baseboard in a corner. Despite his shock of white hair, this was a young man, probably no more than 20 years of age. His face was haggard and drawn beneath the artificial light. Dark purple smudges in the hollows above his cheek bones suggested that he may not have enjoyed a decent night's sleep in several months, or perhaps much longer than that. The deranged cast to his eyes seemed to indicate an individual who was clinging to sanity by the most fragile of threads. In one hand, he clutched the handle of knife and he wept, silent and shuddering tears.
He traced the tip of the long blade up and down the inside of his forearm. Back and forth, back and forth, with unerring regularity. Although he didn't apply sufficient pressure to pierce the skin, it was apparent he was only a heartbeat away from doing so.
A woman's hand, complete with curling fingernails, reached out and stayed the restless rhythm of the blade. The young man didn't appear startled by her presence and he listened as she addressed him in a calm and pacifying tone.
"Not yet," she said softly.
His features crumpled pathetically at her words.
"There's something we have to do first," she told him. "Do you remember?"
The young man's troubled gaze traveled to the small desk and its collection of news articles. He blinked and soundlessly mouthed some of the more visible headlines:
"Murderer tried and convicted, gets 25 to life"
"Mayor appalled by brutality. Vows, 'I will not rest.'"
"Daring daylight prison break; fugitive still at large"
Prominent among the pictures included with the clippings was a mug shot of Faith.
His lips trembled as he gave a brief nod.
"You can't rest until it's done," the woman said, her voice laced with a hint of severity.
The young man shrank against the wall. "I don't ..." He looked to his companion with something akin to desperation. "What if I can't?"
"You can," assured the woman confidently, her mahogany eyes glowing and mesmerizing.
She massaged the back of his neck, kneading the tensed muscles, but he seemed to find little comfort in her soothing touch. As she withdrew her hand, his chin slumped wearily to his chest, revealing the same mark that was etched into Giles' flesh.
The woman stroked his white hair.
Muttering irately, Buffy made her way along the corridor. Occasionally, she would gesture in agitated fashion with her hands, drawing curious looks from passersby but Buffy didn't notice. Her head was down and she moved with a purpose. Still, there was a weary slump to her shoulders and she seemed tired. Upon entering the library, she wasn't aware of Dawn sitting a table, her own expression none too pleased. With a frown, Dawn took note of her sister's solo conversation.
"I knew I should've put the funny farm on speed dial," said Dawn with a smirk. Shaken from her reverie, Buffy looked in Dawn's direction with a 'Huh?' quirk to the eyebrow. "Hey, when they lock you up and throw away the key," continued Dawn, "can I have everything of yours that's cashmire?"
"First: no," returned Buffy sharply, "and second: what?"
"Your outer inner monologue," clarified Dawn.
"Oh," sighed Buffy. "I've just got a lot on my mind. Hey, have you seen Faith?"
Dawn shook her head. "Nope, not unless she played an important part in The Protestant Reformation." She tapped her pencil thoughtfully on the table. "What's up?"
"Nothing," groaned Buffy, collapsing into a chair next to her sister " Except that I can be a huge jerk sometimes."
"Trust me," informed Dawn with an eye-roll, "she knows."
Buffy regarded Dawn with a look that screamed 'Very funny' before prodding the stack of books.
"I thought you were gonna get Giles in on this?"
Dawn's features immediately became dark. Buffy blinked and sat upright.
"Whoa, sudden thunderstorm warnings. What happened?"
The response was delivered with a great deal of bitterness. "He told me to get out."
A frown of confusion crossed Buffy's face. "Was he in a meeting or something?"
"No," returned Dawn curtly. "He was just standing there, doing nothing. I went up to him, and then he turned around and screamed at me to get out." The pencil-tapping resumed with a high degree of irritability.
Apparently, Buffy found this difficult to comprehend. "Giles isn't exactly the screaming type."
"Shouted, then," snapped Dawn impatiently. "Hollered. Bellowed." Petulantly, she indicated the many rows of bookshelves. "Grab a thesaurus and pick a word."
"I just mean that's not very Giles-like."
Dawn tossed her hair. "Yeah, well, maybe it is now. Maybe 'jerk' is his new default setting."
Buffy considered this for a moment and then vehemently shook her head. "No, I don't believe that. There's something going on. He's been weird for a while, but yelling at you for no reason?"
"Oh, like it's so out there?" returned Dawn, her eyes accusing. "You do it all the time."
Dismissing that statement with a casual wave, Buffy continued. "But that's me, that's not Giles. When Giles wants to cut someone to shreds he'll do it with big words and piercing stares, not yelling. It's too uncouth."
She shook her head again, sure that she was correct. "No," she said with confidence, "there's something else." She pushed away from the table and got to her feet. "It's time we find out what."
"How about I give you a head start?" came a voice from the doorway.
The sisters turned to see Hannah standing at the entrance. She held an open book in her hands, one of the volumes she had taken from Giles' office. Hannah displayed the pertinent page for them to see. It bore an illustration – the image of three combined teardrops.
Giles sat on the edge of an armchair, hunched over the low coffee table at the center of his loft. The area was dimly-lit, illuminated only by two small wall lamps. Keeping a bottle of whiskey and tumbler close at hand, he poured over one of the many research volumes surrounding him. His glasses had been tossed aside, revealing eyes that were bloodshot and bleary. Still, he scanned the material in front of him quickly, riffling the pages with an almost desperate air. His appearance hadn't improved any. If anything, he seemed to be in worse shape than before. At regular intervals, he took a stiff pull of liquid sustenance and then raked his fingernails across the nape of his neck.
Directly across from him, seated comfortably on a small leather sofa, was the girl. She observed Giles' every move with keen interest.
"Trying to get rid of me?" she asked.
He had gone back to deliberately ignoring her, but she didn't seem bothered by the fact. Getting to her feet, she wandered around the room, inspecting and assessing with a critical eye. She paused before a bookcase and tilted her head. Partially obscured by a stack of publications on one of the shelves were some framed photographs of the Scoobies. Clasping her hands behind her, she rocked on her heels and admired the pictures with a wistful smile.
"I had friends like this," she murmured. "Before the whole Slayer thing. Before Robespierre found me. God, I loved them so much." She chuckled wistfully and shook her head. "The trouble we used to get into. Bonnie especially, she could never resist a challenge. One day we dared her to—"
She turned to look at Giles, but he gave no indication he was listening. An expression of mild disappointment crept over her face, but then she continued as though his interest – or lack thereof – was of no consequence.
"They're what convinced me to follow him. The stuff he was saying about making the world a safer place for everybody just made so much sense." She sighed as her attention wandered back to the collection of photographs. "I miss them. Do you think they maybe miss me too? I guess they never found out what happened to me. Unless you told them? Maybe gave an address so they could come visit me sometimes?"
Giles focused on his research but the mask of indifference slipped for a brief second and he was unable to fully suppress the flicker of regret. It did not go unnoticed by the girl.
"Didn't think so." She peered around the publications in order to get a clearer view of the pictures. "Maybe I can just make some new ones," she suggested, indicating the familiar smiling faces. "What do you think? I know we'd have a lot to talk about."
Casting a sly glance in Giles' direction, she watched him from the corner of her eye, waiting for a reaction. She was not disappointed.
His neck snapped in her direction, fists so tightly clenched that the knuckles showed white. The girl's outline with its dark clothing was vague in the dim light. She was little more than a young pale face radiating mockery.
"Don't you dare go near them," he warned.
She threw her hands into the air and backed away. "Fine, fine. It's not like I'd hurt them or anything." She smiled sweetly. "I'll leave that to you."
"I would never ..." declared Giles, instantly on the defensive.
But he found himself unable to complete the sentence and the girl's smile transformed into a wide grin of triumph.
"Are you sure about that?" she asked, crossing her arms. "Can you ever really, truly be sure what you will or won't do?" Her eyebrow arched questioningly. "I mean, if someone told you a year ago you could torture a fourteen-year old girl for ..." She tapped her forehead, as though trying to remember. "How long was it?"
Giles' chin fell heavily to his chest as he reached shakily for the whiskey bottle. The girl simply shrugged. "Well, for however long it was. Do you think you would've been all nods and agreement?"
Filling the tumbler to the rim, Giles carried it to the window, purposefully avoiding his accuser. The mark on the back of his neck was more livid now, more prominently angry.
"I would never hurt them," he whispered.
The girl clacked her tongue disapprovingly. "Of course you would."
But the rebuttal lacked conviction.
She moved to stand at his shoulder. "If it came down to any one of them – every one of them – or the world, you know it's the world that gets to keep right on turning."
Giles shook his head. "It's not that simple."
"So you make it that simple. That's why you've been such a bastard to everybody, isn't it? Pushing them further and further away, so that when the time comes – and we both know that time will come – you can do it, and still live to sacrifice again another day."
Upper lip curled contemptuously, Giles whirled. Amber liquid spilled down the front of his shirt.
"You think you know me so well," he gritted.
The girl smiled at his open hostility. "They do say there's nothing like pain to bring people together."
"You know nothing," was the muttered reply.
"'All that stands between victory and complete annihilation may be those girls'," she mimicked.
Giles flinched to hear the words he had recently spoken to Buffy and was painfully aware that no amount of denial in the universe could make that statement less true.
"'Perhaps the fewer names you can recall, the better.'" She smirked at the fleeting display of recognition. Yet another of Giles' wise doctrines. She sidled closer until they were only inches apart. Giles could see his ravaged reflection in her eyes.
"What's my name, Rupert?"
He swallowed hard and didn't respond.
"What's my name?"
Alone in the room she shared with Tara, Willow lay full-length on the bed staring up at the ceiling. Her face was a study in absorbed contemplation. She didn't notice Xander appear in the open doorway until he rapped lightly on the wooden frame. Raising her head, she smiled in welcome.
Xander nodded. "Hey."
For a moment, an uneasy hush fell between the pair as Xander continued to loiter at the entrance.
"Well don't just stand there," instructed Willow with a grin. "You'll let all the cold air in."
With a dubious expression, Xander wondered at the oddly-placed colloquialism. Willow rolled her eyes and gestured for him to come forward. "Just get in here."
Hesitantly, Xander's shuffling feet obeyed but once inside the room, he didn't look particularly comfortable. Plumping her pillow and then propping it against the headboard, Willow sat up and squirmed backward, legs stretched out in front of her and fingers twisting in her lap.
"I'm glad you're here. We ..." Her voice faltered. "I really need to talk to you. There's a thing."
Xander nodded again. "I know all about it."
"You do?" asked Willow, eyes becoming wide and round. She pulled her knees up to her chin to make room for Xander to sit on the comforter.
"Yeah," he said.
"But," stammered Willow in amazement. "But how did—"
Xander glanced in her direction with a knowing grin. "Because you're so naturally good at subterfuge."
Willow's dumbfounded expression rapidly deteriorated into one of panic.
"Well, I didn't at first," admitted Xander, "but I've had a little time to process."
Now, it was Xander's turn to stammer. "I just ... I think it's too soon, you know?"
Willow shook her head in emphatic denial. "No. Here's me with no knowing whatsoever."
"Serafina's nice and all," confessed Xander, fixating on the floor. "But—"
"Oh!" breathed Willow with some relief. "Oh. Yeah. That. No, she's totally nice."
"I just don't think I'm ready to, you know," Xander rubbed vigorously at his forehead. "Make that kind of commitment."
"Xander, it's a date," said Willow. "No commitment. Except to the general dating principles."
Xander wasn't so sure. "Yeah, but dating could lead to fun. Fun leads to repeat dating. Repeat dating leads to relationships. Relationships lead to the dark side."
"You're being silly," huffed Willow. "Ask her out!"
Xander wasn't convinced. "I don't know."
"Then I'll ask her out for you," Willow determined.
Xander frowned. "You're being very pushy."
"Someone needs to."
"I'm never telling you the name of anybody I ever speak to ever again," sighed Xander, leaning back on his elbows. Willow retracted her feet so they wouldn't get squished.
"Look," she said sternly, "either you go out with my picks or you go out with Buffy's."
Xander turned to look at her. "What's wrong with going out with MY picks?" he challenged.
"Nothing," assured Willow, ruffling his hair. She seemed rather pleased with the mussed and boyish appearance she'd just created. "If you'd ever actually pick. Butcha won't, cuz you're scared and you feel betray-y and I get it." She sat back and looked at him sympathetically. "Believe me, I get it. Someone had to push me back in the pool, and now it's time to return the favor. So put those trunks on, mister. Ooh, and make 'em those really tight ones."
Xander raised an eyebrow at that, but Willow simply favored him with a leering grin and nudged his thigh with her big toe.
"I dunno," said Xander grudgingly. "We'll see."
Willow clasped her hands behind her neck. "Best I'm gonna get right now, huh?"
"You're lucky you're getting anything but my continued cold shoulder," threatened Xander.
"Yay for lucky me."
"It's a blessing to be counted," affirmed Xander. He shot her a sideways glance. "So. I couldn't help but notice you got wide panicky eyes earlier. What's up?"
"I did not get wide panicky eyes," Willow quickly refuted. "And even if I did, it's your job to pretend you didn't notice."
"Didn't I get fired from that job? Sometime between ice cream man and waiter at House of Lard?" He shook his head wryly. "There were so many during my year of shame."
Suddenly, the bantering mood took an abrupt nosedive. Gone was the playful atmosphere, replaced by an aura of seriousness. Xander was acutely aware of the change. Honing in immediately, he moved to close the door before returning to the bed.
Perching on the edge of the mattress, he regarded Willow earnestly. "What's wrong?"
Willow fidgeted uncomfortably beneath his penetrating gaze.
"Will?" prompted Xander.
She visibly buckled under the strain, fingers plucking restlessly at the comforter. "I need to tell someone. The pressure, the ... I hate secrets. All the time, just the- the stress of, 'Will someone find out today?' A-And it's like half the time you want them to find out, just so you don't have to walk around with this huge weight, but- but then it's like, 'What'll they do if they do find out?' There's the rejection, a-a-and the judging, and—"
Xander held up a restraining hand to stem the rambling tirade. "Hey. Hey, this is me," he reminded gently. "No rejection, no judging. But starting to get some fear. What is it?"
Willow stared at Xander's apprehensive expression and inhaled deeply. She held the breath for a second and then blurted, "Swear."
"Oh come on," said Xander incredulously.
"Do the swear!"
Obviously, Xander couldn't believe his ears. "What, are we six?"
As she crossed her arms, Willow's jaw became tightly set with determination. It was clearly the swear or nothing. Xander gave a resigned puff of defeat.
"I solemnly swear, on the—" he began in rapid monotone.
But Willow wasn't about to accept such an inadequate rendering of something so sacred. "Do it right!"
Shooting a withering glance at Her Stubbornness, Xander pushed away from the bed and stood up. His ensuing performance was hardly delivered with a good grace but much to Willow's satisfaction, at least he made no further protest. Putting his right hand over his heart and then covering his right hand with his left, Xander crossed one foot over the other and proceeded to hop up and down while turning in a circle. As he hopped, he recited the hallowed vow.
"I solemnly swear
On the grave of the bear
With my feet in the air
And my heart under there
That I always will care
And not even with dare
Will this secret I share
I'll tell no one nowhere
Or my toes and fingers and eyeballs will be eaten by the tiny mutant rat people who live in my closet."
Somewhat winded, he stopped bouncing and looked to Willow. Rather than seeming appeased, however, she continued to watch him expectantly.
Xander frowned. "I'm not doing the other verses."
"Aw," said Willow with a disappointed pout, but she didn't push. What's more, she appeared more genuinely at ease for having heard it.
As Xander flopped onto the bed, she scooted next to him. "I have a book."
"Please tell me there's more to it than that," he implored.
Willow nodded and after a moment of due consideration, went to her desk. Unearthing the book in question, she carried it to Xander, cradling it in her palms with some reverence. Xander eyed it unenthusiastically, obviously not sharing Willow's awe. She sat next to him on the bed and opened the book, twisting it so he could easily see its contents. He sat up and took note of the exposed comic strips. The look he tossed her way might best have been described as distinctly odd.
"You're afraid Bill Amend will find out you're cheating on him?" he suggested.
Willow didn't respond. Instead, she closed her eyes and after a short period of concentration, ran her fingers over the page. Xander blinked as the cartoon characters disappeared to be replaced by lines of spidery writing.
"Okay," he acknowledged slowly, "mine doesn't do that."
Opening her eyes, Willow watched as Xander moved closer to get a better view. His mystified gaze went from the book to Willow and then back again. "What is it?"
"It's a spell book," said Willow, face aglow. "Only, not so much like other spell books. It can show you how to cast pretty much any spell ever. You just ... think of what you want to do, funnel in a bit of your own power, and ..." She indicated the book with a sharp nod.
Xander peered at the open page. "'To Silence the Barbed Tongue'," he read before tossing Willow a look confusion.
"I wondered how to make big sarcastic guys shut up," she told him with a mischievous little grin.
However, Xander found no humor in the situation. "Will, where did you get this?"
"Last week, when Amy zapped me to Never Ever Land? You guys wondered what she wanted?" She gestured at the book with her chin.
Xander frowned. "You told us you didn't find it."
"Yeah," muttered Willow nervously. "That was sort of a lie."
With narrowed gaze, Xander was obviously getting geared up for a significant chastising rant, and Willow had no trouble in seeing that coming.
"I know. Believe me, I've been ..." Her eyes raked Xander's face with its dour and accusing expression. "I don't know why I lied about it. Just that ... Nobody would understand. Yes, it's powerful and yeah, it can be used to do bad stuff, but- but think of all the good it can do too! That's why I went back and took it. We need it, Xander."
Xander was not so easily swayed. "We've come this far without it."
"And how much further do you think we're gonna go?" asked Willow honestly. "The law of averages. How many times can we win? How many more people will we lose?"
They studied each other intently for a moment and, warily, Xander inspected the book again.
"It's just a tool," said Willow. "Like- Like your power buzzsaw thing. It's how we use it that matters, right? Sure, you could disembowel the neighborhood, or you could use it to build 'em a pretty table."
Still, Xander was doubtful. "I dunno. Maybe ... Maybe, but ..." He pondered the proposition for a long moment. "We need to take it to Giles," he finally decided.
"No," declared Willow, clutching the book protectively to her chest. "Giles would ... He'd take it away. You know how he is, always with the- the poking and prodding and analyzing. Next thing you know, he's sent it to Timbuktu and the Big Bad's knockin' on our door!"
"So we get him to keep it here, and—"
"So he can lock it up somewhere?" objected Willow. "Then when we need it, it's disapproval a-and debates and lectures."
Xander chewed on this, but he obviously remained unconvinced, so Willow pressed further.
"Besides, you know how he's been lately. All Mr. Grumpy Unfeeling Guy. Are you really sure Giles is the best person to have something like this right now?"
"Well no offense Will – and believe me, I say this with nothing but love – but I'm not sure I think you're the best person to have it either."
Willow hung her head a little at that observation and Xander was quick to provide encouragement.
"You're better now," he reassured, "and I know things aren't like they used to be. I don't wanna sound like I don't trust you, but ..." He lifted her chin so he could see her face. "This is huge. And with the lying and the hiding ..."
"It's okay," said Willow with a melancholy twist to her lips. "I agree with you."
It was an admission Xander hadn't exactly expected to hear.
"I've only had it a little while now and already it's ..." Willow's voice was tinged with sadness. "There's so much wrong with the world, you know? I just keep thinking, 'If only this were a little bit better', and 'If only that weren't so hard.'" She gave a tiny smirk. "Sorta the thinking that got me into so much trouble in the first place."
Turning around, she sat cross-legged on the bed so she was completely facing Xander.
"I know I've gotta trust in me," she confided. "I'm workin' on that part. But until then ..."
Carefully, she placed the book in Xander's lap. "I'll trust you."
Xander was immobilized for a brief second. He didn't move to touch the book, instead gingerly leaning backward, as though it were a snake that might strike without provocation at any given moment.
"I can't take this."
"You said it yourself," coaxed Willow. "I'm not the best person to have it."
Swiftly, Xander moved into absolute renunciation. "So that means I am? What about Tara, or Buffy, or—"
Willow immediately dismissed the recommendations. "Xander, it's gotta be you. Buffy would be all suspicious, and Tara ..." She shook her head sadly. "Tara wouldn't want anything to do with it. She'd want it sent away, o-or destroyed. She wouldn't understand. But you do." She smiled. "I know you do."
Her eyes searched Xander's face. She watched as he replayed all the moments of the past nine years and then, slowly, he nodded.
At Xander's acknowledgment, Willow broke into a grateful smile. She waved her fingers over the book and the pages returned to normal. Gingerly, Xander closed the cover.
"I'm hiding it," he informed crisply. "Don't go looking."
"I'm under semi-protest."
"I start getting weird googly vibes about all this – more weird googly vibes – I'm telling the others," he warned. "Swear be damned."
Willow nodded dutifully. "Okay."
Soberly, Xander regarded the book and sighed. "I'm not sure this is the right thing."
"Does it feel wrong?" asked Willow.
"But not completely?"
"No," Xander was forced to confess. "Not completely."
"Guess that's the best we get these days," Willow told him as she leaned her head against his shoulder.
"Yeah," mused Xander thoughtfully. "Guess so."
Faith's room was something of a disaster area, but it had a certain homey feel to it – a sort of 'it's always a mess' kind of mess that was comfortable and familiar. Standing before a bookcase against the wall, Faith scanned the titles but couldn't seem to find anything that appealed. She burrowed deeper, unearthing novels crammed into the shelves every which way. She finally extracted a paperback called The Lovely Bones. It didn't appear to ring any bells, but looked as though it might be interesting. Flipping it over, she scanned the brief synopsis printed on the cover. With a shrug, she carried it to her unmade bed and flopped onto the rumpled comforter.
As she opened the paperback, a snapshot slipped out, having been utilized some time in the past as a book mark. Given Faith's puzzled frown, it obviously didn't recall when. The images captured by the camera, however, were not so easily forgotten.
It was a picture of herself with Kennedy – and Hazel and Judith. Given the air of friendly rivalry the snapshot displayed, it had apparently been taken early in their relationship and there could be no mistaking the sense of camaraderie between the four of them. Faith's eyes narrowed as she stared at the faces frozen in a happier time, particularly those of Hazel and Judith. Sitting at the feet of herself and Kennedy respectively, they had their arms slung around each others' shoulders as they grinned into the lens. Both had exhibited the victory sign just as the shutter closed.
With a sudden exclamation of anger, Faith crushed the picture in her hand and without looking, pitched it across the room. It sailed past the aquarium, where Nemo darted through the portholes of his plastic sunken shipwreck, to land neatly and cleanly in the trashcan.
Tossing the book to the floor, Faith got to her feet and headed for the door. Her actions lacked purpose and she moved aimlessly, almost as though she had no idea where she was going or where she wanted to be. One thing was plain, however – Faith obviously had no desire to remain in her room.
As she neared the Sanctum, Tara stepped into the hallway. Noting Faith's approach, she appeared to be a little embarrassed.
"Hi Faith," she greeted quietly.
Faith's only response was to simply incline her chin. She regarded the closed door of the Sanctum and then looked to Tara.
"You an' Red need some alone time?"
Initially, Tara wasn't on the same wavelength but then it clicked. A blush crept into her cheeks and she became even more self-conscious.
"No, no, nothing like that," she said with a shake of her head. Then, she shrugged. "I come here sometimes. Willow did a really good job balancing the energies in there. It's good place to, you know, meditate? Do some thinking or whatever."
"Yeah?" queried Faith, arching an eyebrow. "Have to try that."
"Sure," encouraged Tara with all sincerity. "You're welcome to whenever you want."
While Faith seemed to be putting Tara's suggestion to good use already, Tara watched and waited in respectful silence for a moment.
"I was about to go home," she finally said, "but it's a lot later than I thought. I know it's probably a huge inconvenience, but I was wondering ..." She glanced in Faith's direction. "If you weren't doing anything super important, could you maybe walk me home?"
The smile on Tara's face was hopeful and unassuming.
"Yeah, 'course," replied Faith without a second thought.
Tara's smile transformed into one of gratitude as the pair set off along the corridor, going back the way Faith had arrived. Neither spoke as they exited Slayer Central, but it was a relatively comfortable hush. Tara appeared content for the ball to be in Faith's court as to whether or not they engaged in conversation.
"So meditating, huh?" Faith finally asked. "Stuff on your mind?"
"Pretty much always," admitted Tara wryly. "It's one of my better traits."
Faith raised an eyebrow. "I always thought it was your aggressive, domineering side."
"That's one of my second best," said Tara with a snicker. "But yeah. Lots to think about. You know. The past, the future, the whole 'dead' thing."
"We got a spot for that," Faith told her, jerking a thumb over her shoulder in the general direction of the area where the sapling had been planted. "Supposed to be all mystical an' everything."
Tara glanced behind. "Yeah ... I dunno. I don't feel right going there. Like, it was sort of made for me, and Joyce, and everyone? I think it'd be like ... like visiting your own grave."
"If I could," said Faith with unbridled enthusiasm, "I'd totally do that."
"Every day," confirmed Faith. "Keep movin' crap around, write 'Faith was here' in big letters ... Just really screw with everyone." She tossed Tara a wicked grin. "Maybe make it on one of those ghost shows they play on Halloween."
That brought a chuckle to Tara's lips and the atmosphere between them grew even more cordial, even though Faith ceaselessly scanned the shadows for any hint of danger. After another moment lapsed into silence, it was Tara who spoke first.
"How about you?"
"How about me what?" queried Faith curiously.
"There's a lot on your mind too."
Faith shrugged. "Don't think anyone'd ever say thinkin' a lot was one of my best traits."
"You don't give yourself enough credit," chastised Tara gently.
Faith's lips twitched with amusement. "There's a switch."
But Tara refused to push and it was a tactic that met with success.
"The past, the future," Faith dismissed with a nonchalant wave. "Wonderin', if you make a mess of one, that mean the other's automatically in the toilet."
A tiny frown creased Tara's forehead. "I don't think that's true. The past influences the future, absolutely, but I don't think it writes it. Not without our permission."
"I dunno," sniffed Faith. "Maybe. Feels like a done deal sometimes."
Tara threw her a sideways glance. "If you really think that, then you're right."
Faith pulled out her cigarettes and then changed her mind. She returned the pack to her jacket pocket. "Just all seems to keep comin' back to the same place. Me the murderer. Don't matter what I do, in the end it's always someone else dead."
"And how many alive? Faith ..." Tara began, coming to an abrupt stop. Faith also slowed to a halt. "I'm not saying that it's okay that you ... that you killed people. It's not. But it's also not all you are. Not unless you let it be."
Faith leaned against the trunk of a nearby tree. "Big believer in redemption, huh?"
"I've got faith," reminded Tara with a subtle twinkle.
Faith gave a little snort. "Cuz I never heard that one before."
"Okay, so original wit isn't one of my best traits," admitted Tara with a tiny smile, but then her tone became more serious. "You're not a murderer, Faith."
With some regret, Faith looked Tara in the eye. "Yeah, I am. That just doesn't—"
Her sentence, however, was fated to remain unfinished. Emerging stealthily from the dark shadows, a figure had decided to capitalize on Faith's distraction. His shock of white hair was like newly-fallen snow beneath the street lights as he roughly seized her arm. Taken totally by surprise, Faith was unprepared for the attack. Fighting to maintain her balance, she was spun around to find a long-bladed knife being driven directly toward her heart.
The hand clutching the knife trembled a little as the blade plunged toward its target. Quickly regaining her composure, Tara begin to mutter an incantation, but it was all too apparent that she would never cast the defensive spell in time. Luckily for Faith, she was every inch a consummate Slayer, replete with all the associated powers.
Instinctively, she swept her arm in an upward curve, deflecting the knife. Nonetheless, the sharp blade still managed to sink into her shoulder. Cursing, Faith kicked out at her assailant, landing a well-aimed boot in his solar plexus. He was still gasping for breath when Tara discharged her spell. Lifted off his feet, the young man careened backward for several yards before making solid impact with a brick wall. Groaning softly, he slumped heavily to the pavement. Immediately, Tara went to Faith, who had fallen to one knee and was grasping the handle of the knife, making ready to pull.
"Goddamn sunova—" she gritted through clenched teeth.
With a forceful wrench, followed by a short cry of pain, Faith yanked the blade free. As blood welled from the injury, Tara tried to assess the damage, but Faith was infuriated and in no mood to receive treatment. Brushing Tara aside, she got to her feet and stalked toward her attacker, who lay sprawled on the concrete.
He was babbling rapidly and incessantly, the words tumbling over themselves as they rolled from his tongue. His eyes were almost deranged, wide and staring.
"I did it," he gibbered. "Just like it was done, I did it, only- only there wasn't as much. I think, I think there should be—"
Faith looked down with angry contempt. "What the hell? Huh? What the hell?!"
He shrank away from her incensed demand, curling into a fetal position and facing the wall. The mark on the back of his neck was livid beneath the lamplight. Standing at Faith's elbow, Tara noted the strange symbol and frowned.
"What is that?"
If Faith heard the question, she apparently didn't care. Reaching for the young man's lapels, she hauled him roughly to his feet using her one good arm, the other being agonizingly out of commission for the time being, and shook him violently.
"You got three seconds to convince me not to gut you like a catfish," she snarled.
He regarded her with eyes that were fearful but contained little of their former lunacy. Nonetheless, his hold on sanity appeared to be tenuous and fleeting at best.
"Was it like this for you?" he asked despairingly. "No. No time. Over too fast. Not fast enough for the rest of us, though. It's not fair."
"Faith, maybe we should—" Tara ventured.
Faith's response was to slam the young man viciously into the brickwork. His skull made contact with a sickening thud, but he managed to maintain consciousness.
"I tell you what we should do," she spat viciously. "Try a little eye for an eye."
Pinning him to the wall, she painfully raised her injured arm. Gripped in her hand was the knife.
"Start talkin', or you get to be the world's first living voodoo doll."
The point of the blade tickled his cheek.
And suddenly, he was no longer afraid, no longer floundering in desperation. His eyes shone with the clarity of an unclouded mind, his expression tranquil and serene.
"Thank you," he told Faith, voice ringing with sincerity. "It's been ... hard. I brought them here but lost myself. Now I remember."
In a flash of movement, he drove his knee into Faith's stomach. Caught off guard, she loosened her hold somewhat and staggered backward. Taking full advantage, he squirmed out of the jacket like a slippery eel and effectuated his escape with breathtaking speed. She recovered quickly and tossing the discarded coat to one side, sprinted after his retreating figure.
"Faith, wait!" called Tara while she was still within earshot. "We need answers first!"
"Fine," Faith threw over her shoulder as she gave chase. "You get 'em your way, I'll get 'em mine."
Tara watched as Faith, intent on nothing but pursuit, became swallowed by the darkness.
A frown of frustration creased Tara's forehead.
"Slayers drive me nuts," she muttered before turning and taking off at a run back to Slayer Central.
Meanwhile, the makeshift research team had expanded their number to include Willow and Xander. There were plenty of books to go around, while Willow had claimed her usual spot behind her laptop. The rapid clicking on the keyboard was supplemented by the constant sound of pages turning.
Taking a moment to indulge in a long stretch, Xander snatched up his legal pad and held it overhead as he bent back over the chair. He swiped a hand across his face and sat upright again. "Okay, so to recap for the folks at home," he declared, "so far we've got squat."
Hannah gazed at him with disapproval from over the top of her volume. "Xander."
"Sorry," he quickly apologized. "We've got squat and a doodle."
"Doodle squat?" offered Buffy.
Dawn plucked the pad from Xander's hand and gave it a once-over of her own before reading aloud. "'Those branded with this curse'd mark, those who tread heavily on the path of shadow, shall know not peace nor rest, not with the breath of the living nor the screams of the dead'." With no small amount of disgust, she tossed the pad on the table. "We so need a modern library."
"Focus," Hannah said sharply. "We know that mark only appeared on Rupert recently, but I for one am not keen to see its long-term effects."
Dragging her finger down her laptop's touch pad, Willow muttered, "Hallucinations, touch of insanity ... Hello, Curse People, originality counts!" She shook her head and reached for the nearby book open to the page containing the teardrop symbol. "'The mark of justice, the touch of madness'."
Now that the words had been spoken aloud, they seemed to prompt a new thought in Willow, and she returned to her laptop just as Andrew entered. He gingerly set down the tray containing a fresh pot of coffee and enough mugs for everyone and took a step back. He waited expectantly. When no reaction was immediately forthcoming, he fiddled with the collar and sleeves of his turtleneck sweater and waited some more. Finally, he cleared his throat.
Hannah glanced up and gave him a brief smile before returning to her reading. "Thank you, Andrew."
It was apparently what he had wanted to hear. "You're very welcome, Mrs. Giles," he replied formally, then set about distributing and filling the mugs.
"I hate stuff that works like this," complained Buffy. "All brain-focused and sneaky. Give me something physical that I can sink my fists into."
"Ahh Buffy," Andrew mused, setting the steaming mug in front of her, "you are a Slayer true. Like a wild animal, relishing in the thrill of the hunt, the rush of the kill. Sugar?"
Buffy shook her head and frowned. "What? I don't— There's no relish."
But Andrew was on a roll. "The final thrust and twist of your weapon into the flesh of your outmatched opponent." He straightened, his expression turning to one of great distress. "Then you stand over him, triumphant and empty as he falls to the ground, his life's blood spilling from his ..."
His voice trailed off and his gaze flitted from one pair of wide, staring eyes to the next. "I've had a lot on my mind," he explained in rushed, sheepish tone. "I'm gonna go now."
True to his word, Andrew hurried from the room without a glance back. The assembled Scoobies could do little but continue to stare after him.
"There's no relish," Buffy insisted to the group at large, and nobody questioned her certainty. "But if something's tormenting Giles, I want it stopped. Sooner than now."
"Great idea," Dawn agreed. "Now all we need is some follow-through."
Further searching was delayed however by the appearance of Tara. She was panting more than a little, evidence that she had most likely run the entire way. "Scooby alert," she said between gasps for breath.
"Someone's gettin' a detention for tardiness," Xander admonished with a wagging finger. "Take a seat. It's a researching extravaganza and you're invited."
Tara was impressed. "Wow, you guys move fast. Faith called you?"
The exchanged, confused looks indicated otherwise.
"Faith hasn't called anyone," said Willow.
"We're researching something affecting Rupert," Hannah explained.
Taking the offered seat, Tara slipped into the chair with a frown. "I don't know anything about Mr. Giles, but Faith got attacked by a- a crazy person, and I think she needs help."
Xander couldn't restrain an exasperated sigh. "Oh, I see, it's one of those days."
"Where is she now?" Buffy asked.
"I don't know, she ran off after him," replied Tara. "But we were on Industrial, heading toward home."
The sound of chair legs scraping against the floor preceded Buffy getting to her feet. "I'll send out some Slayers," she declared, already heading for the door.
Willow reached out and stroked the back of Tara's hand. "You okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," Tara assured with a smile. "He didn't seem to even notice I was there. He just kept babbling, about 'no time' and how it wasn't fair and—"
She broke off when she spied a familiar marking in the book. "That symbol!" she said, gesturing to the illustration. "He had it!"
Hannah leapt immediately on this new piece of information. "Faith's attacker had this mark? You're sure?"
"Yes, absolutely. It was on the back of his neck," Tara answered, pointing to indicate its general location.
"That's great!" exclaimed Xander. "There's two! Two makes a 'them'! 'Them' means ..." He looked to the others to fill in the blank, but no blank-filling was forthcoming. His enthusiasm petered out. "It means we still don't have a clue, doesn't it?"
Willow's expression had regained its previous thoughtfulness. "Two," she said to herself. "I was thinking that it was specific to Giles, but if there's more than one ..."
As the laptop once more demanded Willow's attention, Hannah focused on Tara.
"You said he spoke to you. What do you remember? Anything might be helpful."
Tara's eyebrows knitted together as she tried to remember as many details as possible. "Uhm, I didn't catch a whole lot. He said ... He said it was over too fast, but not fast enough. That Faith had helped him remember something, and ... and that he brought them here."
"There's that 'them' again," Xander pointed out.
"He brought 'them'," repeated Dawn. "A summoning maybe?"
"Can you remember anything else?" Hannah urgently prompted Tara. "What did he look like?"
"A little crazy, actually," said Tara. "Young guy, about our age. White hair – super white, not just bleached," she clarified, "but like pure white."
That detail seemed to trigger a memory in Hannah. She tilted her head to one side, obviously thinking hard, and fell silent.
Buffy reentered the library just as determined as she left it. "The cavalry's on its way," she announced. "What've we got on the Giles front?"
"I think I found something!" Willow exclaimed.
"Oh. Good timing, Will," complimented Buffy as she reclaimed her seat.
"I found a few instances of the symbol popping up. It looks like it's connected with cases of murder and insanity – no real surprises there. People claming voices and visions drove them to it."
Tara leaned to the side so she could get a peek at the laptop screen. "How were they cured?"
"That bit's still a little fuzzy," Willow admitted, returning to her typing. "Just a sec."
Frustrated, Dawn pulled another stack of books toward her. "There's gotta be more on this stupid mark somewhere," she insisted. "Mystic bad symbols don't just pop up out of nowhere without mystic bad things attached the them."
Hannah's mind was still taken with her most recent mystery. "Tara, the young man. Did you get his name?"
"No, he never said."
"I can't be sure without seeing him," Hannah said slowly, "but ... I think I may know him."
"It's a small world after all?" Xander joked without any real humor.
The comment went ignored. "About eighteen months ago, when I was still operating as a bounty hunter, a young man matching the description you gave attempted to contract me. He wanted me to bring him Faith the Vampire Slayer."
"You couldn't do it?" Dawn asked.
Hannah shrugged. "I never tried."
"I don't blame you," commiserated Tara. "Taking on a Slayer? Scary stuff."
"Oh, it wasn't the job, he simply couldn't afford me," Hannah clarified in a matter-of-fact tone. While that detail sunk in, she continued, "The young man was livid. He swore he'd stop at nothing to bring Faith to justice. I believed him."
Blinking rapidly, Buffy sat back in her chair. "Wow. I mean, I've had my mad-on for Faith before, but I like to think I at least had a reason."
"I'm sure he felt the same," Hannah said. "Apparently, Faith killed his father."
For a moment, it seemed as though nobody dared to speak, until Buffy broke the deadlock.
"What was his name?" she asked suspiciously.
Hannah frowned once more and looked aggravated with herself. "I've been trying to remember. I believe ..." Suddenly she snapped her fingers. "Finch. That was it. Allan Finch Jr."
Buffy especially seemed to take the name with some shock, but there was little time to dwell.
"Guys?" Willow tentatively interrupted. "I hate to break up this bad news with yet more bad news, but the people with the symbol?" She glanced around the room with a worried expression. "Not so much cured as ... as committed suicide."
Almost immediately, Xander shot his hand in the air. "Okay, all in favor of finding something better?"
Willow's hand joined his, and a chorus of enthusiastic nods provided the answer when Dawn jumped in.
"Erinyes! The symbol! It's the Erinyes!" She repeatedly jabbed the open page in front of her and began reading. "'Without mercy, the Erinyes punish those they find guilty, driving them to madness and death in the name of vengeance. Those stricken with their mark are to be pitied for their remaining days, for no crime is surely worth the terrible wrath of the Erinyes'."
"Finch must've summoned them," concluded Tara. She nodded to Hannah. "When you turned him down, he must've been so desperate ..."
"You guys keep on this," ordered Buffy, getting to her feet once more. "Find me a way to send these yes-things back where they came from. I'm going to find Giles and make sure he—"
But much to Buffy's surprise, Hannah was already halfway out of the library.
"I'll go. You stay here. Call me the moment you learn anything."
And then she was gone. Buffy took a deep breath and returned to her place at the table. "Okay then. Let's get on this. I want these things stopped. Now."
The Scoobies attacked the research with renewed vigor.
"It's not like there's a whole lot of choice here," said Buffy. "If it's them or Giles ..."
"Nobody's arguin', Buff," Xander stated, sparing her a quick glance before returning to his reading.
That included Tara. "We all agree, we have to help Faith and Mr. Giles."
"And fast," added Dawn. "We can't let Giles ki—" It was as if even saying the words would somehow lend them truth and power, and Dawn hastily corrected, "—hurt himself."
"We won't," Tara assured with an encouraging smile. "We'll find the answers first."
It was an affirmation, and everyone returned to their respective research. Everyone except Willow. Unnoticed, she continued to stare at Xander as hard as she could, willing him with her eyes to look at her. It wasn't long before he did, and the moment their gazes locked, Willow's expression asked the unspoken question.
The conflict was instantaneous, and a battle of emotions played out on Xander's face as Willow watched. It was a long moment of heavy deliberation, but finally Xander had his answer. He couldn't completely sell it, not seeming to be one hundred-percent convinced of his decision, but he was convinced enough. He shook his head.
Willow looked somewhat frustrated, perhaps even a little disappointed, but she nodded her agreement and, without further protest, returned to her computer. Xander watched her for a moment longer, then followed suit with his book.
Finch dashed through the streets, feet pounding the pavement as he ran. An air of wildness lingered but he seemed more in control than before. Indeed, the fine line between sanity and insanity upon which he now teetered appeared to provide him with a sharper edge. He moved with a determined stride – a devoted individual who had just rediscovered his true purpose. He kept a keen lookout on his surroundings, although he focused primarily on covering ground.
Faith tracked her prey with the skill and cunning of a panther. She leapt lightly from rooftop to rooftop in an almost casual manner, never allowing Finch too much leeway to disappear from sight. Eventually, he arrived at his hotel. All the rooms were accessible from outside, so Finch had no reason to enter the lobby. Crouching atop a building located directly across the street, Faith watched him pull out his key to check the room number before hurrying inside.
Without a second thought and with the same ease a normal person would employ when stepping down from a curb, Faith walked to the edge and dropped eight stories to the concrete below. She landed with a nimble hop and sprinted toward the hotel. Her stride was smooth and unfaltering as she made her way to Finch's room, kicking open the door with a well-aimed boot.
Shocked and surprised, Finch visibly started as she entered. His eyes scoured the area for a means of escape, but there was none to be found – except through Faith and that route was obviously not an option.
"I believe I asked you a question," she stated, closing in threateningly.
Seizing him by the throat, she thrust him forcefully against the wall. His fingers scrabbled at the chokehold.
"Looks like I dropped my knife somewhere," she said, paying no mind to his vain efforts to secure freedom. "But that's okay. I'll improvise."
Reaching out toward the radio on a nearby nightstand, she wrenched the antenna free with one hand.
"Not as sharp," she said, inspecting the makeshift weapon. "Make a hell of a mess, but hey – that's what room service is for."
Desperately, Finch's eyes darted toward the sink area. A female figure – the Erinyes – was perched cross-legged on the counter, watching the action with a great deal of interest.
"She's here!" he gasped. "Now! Now's our chance!"
With a frown, Faith followed his gaze. "Who the hell're you talkin' to?"
But the Erinyes simply smiled at Finch, making no move to offer assistance or come to his aid.
"The ladies!" explained Finch, breathless as Faith shook him violently. "The Goodly Ones. One. Only one. And me. I called them. They were supposed to ... to hunt you. Make you crazy. Make you pay." He laughed. It wasn't an entirely rational sound. "I think I messed up."
Faith's hand slid to his chin as she forced him to look her in the eye.
"Why?" she snapped. "I never seen you before you snuck up and tried to shove a knife in my chest."
But the young man had entered the realm of full-blown hysteria. Tears streamed down his cheeks and he simply couldn't stop laughing. Faith's fury was fast approaching boiling point.
His merriment came to an abrupt end. "You killed my father!" He seethed, taking in one wheezing breath after another, but the outburst seemed to leave him drained. All he could manage now was a tiny shrug. "It seemed the least I could do."
A puzzled crease invaded Faith's forehead. Try as she might, she simply couldn't remember what he claimed. "I didn't—"
But Finch was persistent. "You killed him, 'Slayer'. He bled to death in that alley like a dog while you ascended. Took his place at the Mayor's side like you belonged there. Like you earned it." His mouth twisted as his voice climbed an octave. "It was his place!"
Bewildered, Faith shook her head. But then, a memory began to slowly surface. Her eyes widened and then grew narrow.
"I was thirteen when you took my father away from me," Finch said, his voice shrill, "but it was old enough."
Backing away, Faith relinquished her hold.
Finch ruefully massaged his throat. "I watched you in the hospital, and then prison. I thought that maybe, finally, there'd be justice for my dad and I could rest." The bubbling laughter threatened to erupt once more. "But then you escaped! And it's like everyone just forgot you existed! Like my father's killer wasn't worth punishing any more." His hands clenched into tight fists.
Faith opened her mouth. It was painfully obvious that she wanted to say something and it was just as painfully obvious that she had no idea what that something might be. Eventually, the words began to form.
"I ... I know there's nothing I can say," she faltered, "but believe me, I'd give anything – anything – to change what happened. I'm sorry."
Finch stalked forward, looking to take every advantage of the situation. "You can't change it," he agreed, "but you can make it better."
Lunging, he produced another long-bladed knife, seemingly from thin air, and jabbed the sharp point into the hollow of Faith's throat.
"You can die," he snarled.
Faith's arms didn't instinctively raise in self-defense, nor did she launch into an attack. She didn't do anything but stand there, staring at her accuser while the guilt washed over her in waves.
On the counter in the bathroom, unseen by Faith, the Erinyes clapped her hands excitedly. She bounced up and down, thoroughly delighted with the current state of affairs and barely able to maintain any sense of decorum.
Cursing, Hannah fumbled with the key that opened the door to Giles' loft. She cursed again, stumbling across the entrance as the lock finally yielded. Quickly recovering, her keen eyes scanned the room, soon finding the object of her search.
Giles was standing by the window and Hannah's instant reaction of relief swiftly turned to concern when she noticed blood trickling down his arm. On the windowsill lay the shattered remnants of the glass tumbler. The jagged shards also glistened crimson.
"Ziggy!" breathed Hannah, rushing to Giles' side to check on his injuries. He allowed her to examine him without protest, hardly seeming aware of her presence as his gaze remained fixed on a point outside, somewhere beyond the window.
"What've you done, you stupid man?" asked Hannah, tone harsh in her anxiety.
But the wounds weren't fresh and didn't seep as much blood as Hannah had first feared, nor were they as deep. Content that Giles was in no danger of bleeding to death, Hannah tossed him a worried look and then hurried to the bathroom. Giles' seemed as unaware of her sudden absence as he had been at her sudden arrival.
There was the sound of running water before Hannah reemerged with a washcloth and first-aid kit. She maintained her silence as she set to work tending to Giles' cuts, her fingers moving smoothly and efficiently. Eventually, she glanced at Giles' tense expression.
"You're under the effect of a spell. A curse," she told him.
"Yes," Giles acknowledged distantly.
"Whatever you're seeing or hearing—" she began.
"I'm not," said Giles adamantly. "I've blocked her. I told her I would."
He gestured vaguely at the low coffee table bearing the remnants of spell ingredients – herbs and powders liberally sprinkled with droplets of rich blood. Hannah looked from the table to Giles. A relieved puff escaped her lips to realize that such had been the reason for Giles' injuries – self-inflicted, yes, but not for the reasons she'd feared.
Giles frowned and stared at his reflection in the window. "Only it's not working quite as well as I'd hoped. I can still feel her." He massaged his forehead. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised."
Hannah laid a comforting hand on Giles' shoulder. "Someone summoned these creatures against Faith. The Erinyes."
He instantly caught the significance. "Ahh. The Madnesses. Yes." He nodded his understanding. "That would make sense. Though I only saw one? Got bored, I expect." He chuckled sardonically. "There's more than enough guilt to go around."
"Willow and the others are looking for a way to banish them," she said with a small smile of encouragement.
Giles continued to gaze out of the window. "If only it were so easy."
Hannah moved to stand between Giles and his reflection. "Rupert ... who have you been seeing?" she asked. "Who's haunting you?"
He regarded her sadly, eyes shining.
"Justine," he whispered "She thought I didn't know her name." He gave a rueful smile. "She was wrong."
But the name meant nothing to Hannah. Shuffling beyond her reach, Giles rested his brow against the cool windowpane. "You can't understand."
"Try me" she challenged.
"I tortured her," muttered Giles, voice barely audible. "I've been where she was. I know the pain. The terror. None of that mattered."
Hannah's eyes opened wide. "The Super Slayer," she said with conviction. Giles didn't reply but his expression clearly indicated that Hannah was correct. She lost no time in springing to his defense.
"Rupert, you did what was necessary to save lives," she insisted. "We had to know what we were facing, we couldn't go in there blind." She squeezed his limp hand. "And you didn't do it alone. If you're so bound and determined to damn yourself, then damn me too." The clip of her chin was decisive.
"It's not the same," sighed Giles wearily.
"It is the same," Hannah firmly maintained. "I hurt her and you hurt her. We're no different in this." Giles seemed to visibly shrink at her words and he withdrew his hand from her grasp. Hannah had apparently been hoping for a more positive effect. Still, she persisted. "The girl – Justine ... She's getting the best care possible. I'll call Robin, have him contact her doctors—"
Turning sharply, she took a step toward the telephone on the desk, but Giles grabbed her wrist, restraining her from going further. Puzzled, she glanced over her shoulder to see Giles sorrowfully shaking his head.
"There are no doctors," he said flatly. "There never were." He met Hannah's expression of confusion without flinching. "She's dead, Hannah. I killed her."
"What?" The word came out like a harsh whisper.
With a deep breath, Giles started to explain. "After I got the information we needed I administered basic care, but there must've been internal damage I didn't detect. Things happened so quickly after that ..." He released Hannah's hand and leaned against the cool window. "By my estimation, she must've died some time during our battle against Robespierre's Slayers. When Robin returned to headquarters, I told him where she was, but ... but it was already too late."
Hannah processed this news with a collected calm. "But you told me she was in England," she said slowly. "That you'd arranged 24-hour hospital care."
Mournfully, Giles negated the statement with a shake of his head. "Robin took her back to England and buried her there. An unmarked grave. A fourteen-year old girl in an unmarked grave," he wondered aloud. "Is there anything more pitiful?"
"Why didn't you tell me?" asked Hannah, moving closer.
"You shouldn't have to suffer."
"But you should? It was an accident. A terrible accident, but an accident all the same." She continued to move toward Giles until they were only inches apart. "You saved lives that day. How many allies would we have lost without that information? How many innocents would have died if we failed?"
"The ends justify the means," Giles interpreted, scrubbing viciously at the nape of his neck.
"Yes," Hannah replied emphatically. "I think they do."
Giles accepted this with a subdued nod.
"That's also been my philosophy." He gave a tiny shrug. "I've had quite a while to think on it. Justine— The Erinyes," he corrected. "She said things that weren't entirely false. What I did to her exposed a side of me that no one should ever have to see. It's terrifying ... but I've been trying to embrace it. I've felt I must." He turned away so that his back was to the window and his gaze traveled to the ceiling. "That some day, the time will come when it's someone I love sitting before me as she did, and a choice will have to be made." Mournfully, he turned to face Hannah. "I'm afraid I won't be strong enough."
"Ziggy," murmured Hannah. "Oh, Ziggy ..." She shook her head as an incongruous smile invaded her lips. "You're really quite stupid, you know that, don't you?"
Giles managed a small frown, this obviously not being the reaction he was expecting.
"You can't save the world by refusing to live in it." He tried to look away but she held his chin and refused to let go. "Detaching yourself from everything and everyone you care about ... God, who'd want to save a world like that? Might you someday be faced with having to destroy Xander, or Willow, or – heaven forbid – even Buffy? I hope with every fiber of my being that the answer is no. But if you do, then it will be your love that will see you through."
Giles' expression softened, almost crumpled in on itself, his desire to believe was so strong.
"Love saves the world, Ziggy," she insisted. "Apathetic detachment never saved a damned thing."
Without waiting for him to debate or ague again, Hannah gathered Giles in a tight embrace. His body instantly became rigid, almost painfully so, but Hannah refused to let go. For a long moment, they remained that way until, finally, Giles surrendered. He wrapped his arms around Hannah, willingly accepting the comfort she was trying to hard to give.
The Scoobies had relocated to the Sanctum, where they were engaging in an entirely new level of frantic activity. Buffy, Xander and Dawn were, on Willow and Tara's instructions, preparing the area for a spell. Buffy and Dawn were busily mixing ingredients together while Xander was placing candles to exacting specifications.
At the far table, Willow and Tara were reviewing a printout containing spell instructions. The page was covered in notations and modifications, all in Willow's handwriting.
"This says to use ground praxis," Tara noted, pointing to one section of the paper, "but won't that conflict with the—"
"We'll replace it with burdock root," responded Willow, hastily making the correction.
Tara considered the proposed change for a moment, then nodded approvingly. "That's my girl," she praised, and Willow couldn't entirely suppress a happy little bounce.
Glancing over her shoulder, Tara called out, "Add some burdock root, Dawnie."
Dawn went to tall bookcase currently serving as a spice rack on steroids. "Burdock, burdock," she muttered to herself as she scanned the vials.
"Second shelf from the bottom," said Tara. "It's a kind of greenish-brownish—"
Dawn returned to the mixture-in-progress as Buffy joined the two witches. "So this'll send the Yes Men running?"
"Not running so much as strolling," Tara corrected. "It'll break the connection they have to the guy who summoned them. They won't disappear immediately, but they'll begin to fade. They should be completely poofed before too long."
Buffy nodded approvingly. "Sounds good. I'll be glad to see the back of this one. More emotional turmoil we do not need."
Willow looked up as Dawn and Xander approached, their respective tasks now complete. She took one final glance at the sheet of paper, then turned to the others. "We're ready."
"Time to get our vengeance off," announced Xander as he smacked a first into the palm of his other hand.
Rather than fan the flames of morale, however, Xander discovered himself to be under close inspection by his friends. He stuffed his hands into his pockets.
"Fine, next time you guys come up with the snappy 'going into battle' dialogue," he grumbled.
"An eye for an eye," Finch sneered, the knife never wavering. "That's what you said."
Faith remained impassive. "Think that'll make it all better? Cutting my throat? Watchin' me bleed to death on this nice clean carpet?"
The Slayer's expression didn't change. "So get to it."
It seemed almost as though he was simply awaiting her permission. With the delighted giggling and applause from the Erinyes to cheer him on, Finch did exactly that. In one swift motion, he slashed the sharp blade across Faith's exposed throat.
At least, that was what he tried to do.
In reality, the moment he began to move, Faith had locked her hand around his wrist in an unbreakable grip. There was absolutely no way he could attack her now if he tried – and there was no doubt he was trying with all his might.
Delight for the Erinyes quickly turned to disappointment.
"See, that was the part where you were supposed t' have your big moral conflict an' decide killin' ain't the way to go," Faith explained patiently. She shook her head. "You were doin' so well, too. Zero points for the dismount, Junior."
She increased the pressure on his wrist. Finch's mouth opened in a soundless cry and the knife fell from his numb fingers. Faith caught it easily.
There was pain in Finch's eyes, but not enough to cloud the loathing. He stared at her, as though his gaze along would be enough to kill her where she stood.
Faith didn't blink. "You hate me. That's okay. You can go right on hatin' me 'til the day you die – not that you need my permission. But here's the thing."
In one smooth motion, Faith twisted Finch's arm around, forcing him to his knees. Faith went right along with him, until they were both on their knees.
From her perch, the Erinyes became distracted. She frowned and began to look around her, but could see nothing out of the ordinary.
"I'm sorry," Faith repeated sincerely. "You'll never believe how sorry I am. And see," she punctuated her statement by jabbing in the air with her finger, "that's where I start to lose it. I'm just sick an' tired of carryin' around all this guilt, waitin' for somebody else to make it okay to let go. Nobody ever will. So it's down to me."
Almost disgustedly, she tossed Finch's arm to one side and rose to her feet. Immediately, he turned to the Erinyes.
"Help me!" he commanded.
But the creature had other concerns. Her eyes were narrowed in deep thought, and if she heard him at all, she was ignoring him completely.
"Help me destroy her!"
With dawning realization, the Erinyes seemed to pinpoint what wasn't exactly right. Rather than be upset or angry, however, she simply rolled her eyes. With a great sigh, she crossed her legs and straightened her clothing in an attempt to look as dignified as a banishing could possibly allow.
"Where are you going?" Finch cried as she began to fade away. "You have to make it right!"
"Sorry, honey," she said as a cursory apology. "You're on your own."
Finch could only watch with widening eyes as the creature continued to vanish. "Wait!" His desperation was palpable and it sounded more like a plea than a order. "Don't go!"
The Erinyes managed a final shrug before disappearing completely. Finch's mouth opened and closed in silence before he looked up to Faith – only Faith, too, had gone.
Kneeling there on the ground, Finch could only look around his empty hotel room and cradle his injured arm close. "What am I supposed to do?" he asked no one.
No one had an answer to give.
In the wake of a spell well done, the Sanctum had turned from one of hectic preparation to lackadaisical tidying.
Buffy had taken a few steps away from the others while she spoke into her cell phone, but upon hanging up she returned. "They found Faith," she said. "She's okay."
Tara also had information to impart. "I spoke to Hannah. Mr. Giles is okay too."
Xander sniffed the air contentedly. "Are those the makings of a fine victory celebration I smell?"
"The things should be gone now, right? Not coming back any time soon?"
Willow nodded to Buffy. "If they're not gone yet, they'd better wrap it up fast. We won't be seein' 'em again for a nice long time."
"Not that we saw them anyway," Dawn pointed out. That earned her a gesture of agreement from Willow, and the group filed out of the Sanctum.
As they proceeded down the hall, Tara caught Willow's eye. "That was a good spell," she said proudly. "You improvised really well."
"Gotta agree," Xander said with a nod, coming up to stand at Willow's other shoulder. "Nothin' like good, ol' fashioned research to save the day, huh Will?"
He smiled as Willow turned toward him. She smiled back.
"There's just one thing I don't get," Dawn wondered aloud. "Giles said the Erinyes arrived with Finch, but then split up, right?" She looked to Tara for confirmation. "One stayed with him and one went to Giles."
"That's how Hannah explained it."
"But according to the research ... aren't there three of them?"
The group stopped short.
"So where's the third?" asked Dawn.
From a nearby room, a stressed and upset voice filtered into the hallway.
"You think I wanted to do it?" Andrew pleaded for some sign of understanding. "I didn't! He tricked me! Made me use you, and then—"
Without a moment's further hesitation, the Scoobies burst into the room. Andrew jumped nearly a foot, and the cards in his hands went absolutely everywhere as Xander grabbed him in a headlock.
"Check his neck! Check his neck!"
"Watch my neck! Watch my neck!"
As Andrew squirmed, Dawn yanked down the collar of his turtleneck to reveal—
"Nothing." Dawn straightened so that everyone could get a good look. "There's nothing there."
"Just a new pain for my chiropractor!" Andrew snapped.
Reluctantly, Xander let his captive go, and Andrew set about looking very indignant indeed.
"Who were you talking to?" Xander asked suspiciously.
Andrew turned to the table and sifted through the cards there until he found what he was looking for. With an awe verging dangerously on worshipful, Andrew held it out for the others to see. As one they peered closer. It was a Pokemon card of "Mew".
"I lost her in a fierce battle against a cunning and deceitful opponent at my CCG club," he explained. "I convinced him to give me some time to say goodbye, for tonight she will—"
"So ... no voices?" interrupted Dawn. "You haven't been feeling guilty about anything?"
He gave the matter all due thought. "Well I have been feeling a little bad about changing the creamer to a generic brand, but I think you'll find that over time, the savings will really add up."
Tara couldn't help but steal a brief glance at the ceiling. "I don't think it's him."
"There's these ... things," Xander summed up with a wave of his hand. "They've been going around, punishing people for past crimes. Fun stuff."
Andrew's switch flipped back to indignant, and he crossed his arms huffily. "Oh, so naturally you assume I should be punished? I'm not the only one around here guilty of unforgivable deeds, you know."
He narrowed a pointed glare at Willow, which the others followed. As for Willow, she immediately became flustered under the attention.
"It's not me!" she insisted, turning around and lifting her hair out of the way to provide a clear view of skin that was definitely symbol-free.
"Well, I guess ..." Tara began thoughtfully, " I guess it could be someone else."
Buffy shrugged. "It's a big town. I'm sure there's guilt a'plenty to share."
"It's not like everything always has to be about us, right?" added Dawn.
Willow mostly seemed glad that nobody thought it was her, but was keen to toss in two cents. "With the summoning broken, it'll be gone soon anyway."
Clapping his hands together, Xander rubbed them vigorously. "Then I reassert our previous claim of victory and suggest moving swiftly to the celebration phase."
Andrew's eyes lit up, all previous pretense of being insulted forgotten. "Ooh, can I come? I'm hoping that maybe if I keep avoiding that guy, I can keep her."
Lovingly, he stroked his fingers up and down the image of Mew.
Xander suppressed a shudder. "Only if you don't do that ever, ever again."
"Okay," Andrew happily agreed, quickly producing a thin, hard plastic sleeve for the card and depositing it safely within.
As the group made its way out of the room, Buffy lingered behind. "You guys go ahead," she said. "I'm still all sorts of wired – all that adrenaline and nothing to punch. I'll catch up."
With assurances that she'd be along shortly, Buffy went in the opposite direction, heading toward the private training room. Upon reaching it, she entered and gently closed the door behind her. She began to hop in place and go through a few stretches to limber up. That sufficiently done, she fished in her pocket and pulled out a hair tie. In a well-practiced motion, she pulled her hair back into a quick ponytail, exposing the triple-teardrop mark on the back of her neck.
She turned toward the punching bag, and gave no notice to the female vampire reclining casually against the wall nearby.
"Not in the mood to party?" asked Rachel. "Not that I blame you. You've got a lot on your mind."
Every ounce of Buffy's attention was focused on her attack of the bag. One fist after another was driven home, until the Slayer's arms were a blurred motion.
"All those deaths, all those possible heroes – wasted." Rachel shook her head in pity. "I don't envy you. It's a tough spot. On the one hand—" She held out her right hand and tilted her head toward it. "—vampires are evil. If you don't do something, then people die. That's just no good. But on the other hand—" She extended her left hand and her head rolled to the other side. "—maybe, just maybe, there's a chance that vampires can become the good guys. With a little help from their friends." Her hands dropped to her sides and she watched Buffy closely. "You've been told from Day One that a vampire is an irredeemably evil thing. Only you know that's not quite true, don't you?"
Buffy continued to pummel the punching bag without reply.
"Buffy Summers. Judge, jury ... executioner."
As the inevitable fading began to affect Rachel, she stretched luxuriously.
"Time for me to go. But you think about what I said, hm?"
The vampire waggled her fingers in goodbye, but Buffy never saw it.
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