In the Scoobies' House, the large dining room table was been fully set for dinner. The house residents, along with Faith, were gathered around the ending of what appeared to have been a well-received meal.
At the head of the table rested a seventh place setting, although the chair was empty. Given the clean plate and unused utensils, that particular guest had failed to show. Despite this, the pervading atmosphere was intimate and affable – warm and cozy, with the curtains drawn to obliterate the chilly darkness of night.
Xander shoveled a final forkful into his mouth and leaned back with a contented sigh. It was the sound of a man who had eaten his fill and was blissfully happy to be in such a satisfactory condition.
"I can't eat another bite," he announced.
"You sure?" asked Dawn, raising a speculative eyebrow. "Cuz you said that like twelve bites ago."
Xander nodded. "I am the surest man in Sureiton."
Willow pushed back her chair. "Well for those of us who didn't act like Porky's second cousin, we still have some leftover Christmas cookies that—"
"Cookie?" questioned Xander with perked interest.
"Thought you were full?" challenged Faith, chomping on the last buttered roll.
Xander dismissed the notion with a wave. "Dessert doesn't count."
Faith's gaze traveled around the table with a 'Did that make sense to anyone here?' expression.
"It's Xander-logic," explained Buffy with shrug. "Attempts to understand only bring pain."
Returning with a large tin, Willow began to distribute cookies. Impatiently waiting for her to pass his way, Xander noted her progress with an eager eye.
"Man, and I thought I was a pig," said Faith. " You got serious put-away power, boy."
Unabashed and definitely unashamed, Xander responded by helping himself to a fistful of cookies, immediately stuffing one whole into his mouth.
"It's almost for the best that Mr. Giles didn't show up," remarked Tara. "I think he would've gone hungry."
"Or gone nauseous," added Buffy, studiously ignoring Xander. Tossing her napkin onto the table, she got to her feet.
As Buffy set about clearing the table, Dawn took great enjoyment in watching Xander scarf down three more cookies in quick succession. She was marveling at the way not a solitary crumb escaped consumption when Buffy gave her a decided nudge. It was a signal to help and delivered with no attempt to be covert about it. With a resigned roll of the eyes, Dawn reluctantly complied.
"Hey, thanks for havin' me over," said Faith, licking her fingers.
"Pish," Willow told her, having now reclaimed her seat.
Tara smiled. "We should do it more often. It's nice."
She placed Willow's plate atop on her own and then handed both to Dawn, as Buffy moved in a circle around the table gathering silverware.
"Butt in on the very special 'Little House on the Hellmouth' dinners?" scoffed Faith good-naturedly, drumming her knife until Buffy pried it from her fingers. "I look like Nellie Oleson to you?"
Balancing plates, Dawn snickered gleefully. "Oh my god, have you seen pictures of Buffy when she was little?" A mischievous grin invaded her lips at the thought. "Mom used to do up her hair in these little ringlet things—"
"Dawn. Dishes," interrupted Buffy with an undisguised threat.
But Dawn would not be deterred. "—like the love child of Cindy Brady and—"
Piling the dirty cutlery onto the top plate in Dawn's hands, Buffy physically shouldered Dawn into the kitchen. "Goodnight, Dawn Boy."
"That's 'The Waltons', loser," Dawn retorted, now out of sight but not out of earshot.
"She's stuck on early '70s pop culture and I'm the loser?"
"My Y-chromosome votes in favor of Faith-filled dinners," said Xander. At Faith's semi-dubious glance, he cheerily burst out, "C'mon, get happy!" When it did little but gain him fully-dubious looks very absolutely everyone, he shrugged. "I hate being left out."
Tara turned to Faith with a decisive nod, as though that has settled the matter. "This time next week then, okay?"
Buffy regarded Faith sincerely. "Really, you shouldn't be alone all the time." Before anyone could react to that, though, she rolled her eyes. "I mean I've seen your room. Hemmingway described it as 'a little depressing'."
Scooting around Buffy, a tray-bearing Dawn collected the glasses. "It'll be great," she tossed enthusiastically at Faith. "Come over really hungry one night, and we can watch you and Xander race!"
"Battle of the Network Guts!" Willow heartily seconded.
Simultaneously, Faith and Xander took stock of their respective stomachs. Xander inhaled deeply and sat up a little straighter in his chair.
Faith gave an overly nonchalant shrug that wasn't entirely convincing. "Yeah. Yeah, okay." Quick to change the subject, she said, "Food was great."
No longer bothering to suck it in, Xander patted his stomach appreciatively. "A seriously fine meal."
With a laugh, Dawn opened her mouth as she slid into her seat next to Xander, but before she could let loose with whatever witty jab she had planned, Xander's hand had clapped across her open mouth.
"Now is Quiet Time for all little girls who would like Uncle Xander on her side come prom season," he advised.
Dawn's eyes opened wide as she emphatically nodded her understanding.
"There was goodness a'plenty," agreed Buffy who had now also rejoined the group around the table. "What was it?"
Tara dabbled at the ring of water left by her glass. "Oh, you know," she replied with a shrug. "Nothing much. Secret family recipe."
"I thought it was Tuna Helper," said Faith with genuine innocence.
Tara fidgeted uneasily beneath the gazes that came her way, complete with their varying degrees of amusement and surprise.
"Busted!" whispered a grinning Willow, delivering the statement out of the corner of her mouth.
Xander cocked his head at Tara with an exaggerated look of disapproval and wagged his finger. "Ancient Chinese secret, huh?"
"I was tired, and- and it's nutritious!" Tara defended weakly. "In that ... sort of ... box-y, preservativey way."
"You actually touched something with powered sauce and fed it to us?" queried Buffy. An overly-sentimental expression crossed her face. "Oh Tara, you've grown so much."
She remained smiling sweetly through Tara's dark yet not entirely un-amused glower.
"Don't worry, baby," commiserated Willow, patting Tara's hand. "She's just jealous of your pre-packaged prowess. Remind me to tell you about the time she made me brownies in high school."
Xander almost choked on his snorting laugh.
"No fair," pouted Buffy, knitting her brows. "We made a solemn pact to never speak of that again."
The reminder fell on deaf ears. "Apparently a half-cup of oil? Just the same as a cup and a half."
Chuckling at the expense of her sister, Dawn regarded the unused place setting that had not yet been removed. "So what about the man who wasn't there? Aren't we clearing that up?"
"Nope," said Buffy firmly. "It stays as a symbolic gesture. I'm hoping to encourage spiders to web."
"I really thought Giles'd show up," sighed Willow, her merriment rapidly evaporating. "There were promises and everything."
Faith shrugged. "He's been bushed too. Maybe he called it early."
"Or maybe now we're talking about him, he'll show up and—"
Tara was interrupted by the sound of the front door opening.
"Hello?" came a call from the foyer.
Much impressed, Xander eyed Tara with admiration. "That was so cool."
Tara favored him with an enigmatic smile.
"We're in here!" shouted Willow.
A moment passed before Giles appeared in the doorway, looking haggard and bearing a small white box. Slowly, he absorbed the scene before him – the cleared table and the vaguely recriminating expressions. He glanced sheepishly at Buffy, who wasn't so much worried about being vague. Nervously, Giles shuffled his feet.
"I, uh, I- I don't suppose we haven't started yet?"
"You don't suppose correctly," verified Xander.
"Over and done," Faith confirmed.
Buffy's reply was delivered with a healthy dose of righteous indignation. "You said you'd be here an hour ago."
"Yes, I know," Giles apologized. "Something came up at the last minute. One of Harrington's Slayers was rather disgruntled with ..."
He allowed the excuse to die a natural death. It was plain nobody cared. Seeking clemency, he displayed the white box. "I brought cake?"
Though still wearing a frown, Buffy yielded to a small degree. "Chocolate?"
"Torte," said Giles, encouraged by any signs of thaw.
Chuckling with delight, Willow instantly launched into an inspired response. "And so- so then later we can get together with the cake ..." A broad grin crossed her face and she waved her hands enthusiastically. "Mix up a few civil law changes, tinker with a slice of litigation, and ..."
She surveyed the blank expressions. Still, she hung in there tenaciously.
"And ... reform the ..." She paused expectantly for a moment, but to no avail.
"Reform the torte?" she finished hopefully.
Nothing. Zilch. A big fat zero.
"Tort reform?" She opened her mouth in a huge grin, and lifted her eyebrows, certain that waves of hilarity would be coming her way any moment.
When they didn't, she slumped in her seat with a hrmph. "It's funny, dammit," she insisted peevishly.
Tara patted Willow's shoulder in a way that seemed somehow both supportive and condescending as she got up to relieve Giles of his peace offering. "Are you hungry?" she asked. "I can make you a sandwich or something?"
"Oh, uh, you- you don't have to do that," flustered Giles. "I can—"
"I don't mind." She glanced meaningfully behind her. "Besides, I think you have more important things to do right now."
Giles followed her gaze. Indeed, a distinctly sulky group inhabited the dining room, save for Faith, who seemed far too entertained to be upset.
"Good point," agreed Giles as she passed him on her way to the kitchen. He hovered uncertainly on the threshold. "I am sorry," he said ruefully.
Buffy leaned her elbows on the table. "Should we forgive him?"
"I dunno," tutted Xander reprovingly. "There's a decided lack of groveling here."
Her previous gloomy mood forgotten, Willow was more sympathetic to Giles' plight. "Aww, but look at him – he gets all cute and chagrined when he's in trouble, like a- a little boy in the headmaster's office from an old English movie."
It was an accurate observation. With shoulders slumped and hands clasped behind his back, Giles had been fidgeting uneasily as he stared shame-faced at the carpet. With a small frown, he realized the fact and quickly straightened, doing his best to regain some level of authoritative dignity. He was not entirely successful.
As one, those around the table glanced to Faith, soliciting her opinion. She leaned back, balancing her chair on two precarious legs as she crossed her arms.
"Don't look at me," she advised. "This is all you guys."
"I say forgive ..." relented Dawn, "on one condition."
"Movie night?" suggested Buffy with a sharp nod.
"Movie night," the company echoed.
"Oh dear," Giles sighed.
"Well then do it! Go on!" urged the voice emanating from the television speakers.
"Maybe I will, gosh!" came the response.
Lying next to each other on the floor, Dawn and Xander giggled hysterically. The expressions of the remaining Scoobies ranged from amused to bemused.
Having laid claim to Xander's favorite resting spot, Giles was unable to fully suppress a sneer. "This is what passes for humor now, is it?"
Dawn glanced over her shoulder. "It's funny!" she insisted. "You don't think it's funny?"
There was no reply in the affirmative or otherwise as Giles stared at the screen with something akin to disgust.
"It's like a geek thing," explained Willow. "Not a me-type geek!" she hastened to add. "Different geek."
Giles regarded her over the rims of his glasses. "I know theoretically you're speaking English, but ..."
With a puff, Faith pushed up from the chair. "You just need more beer," she recommended confidently. "Ain't nothin' can't be funnier with beer."
Apparently, the offer was met with little excitement as Giles stretched and then yawned widely. In keeping with the unwritten law, his yawn spread like an infectious virus. Despite the relative earliness of the hour, everyone seemed worn out and drained.
"Not that I want to miss a moment of this ... truly fascinating social experiment," he assured wearily, "but perhaps sleep would serve us best."
Tara nodded, blinking rapidly to keep her eyes open. "I wouldn't say no."
"Mm," purred Buffy like a contented cat. "Saturday tomorrow. Saturdays are for sleeping in."
"And cartoons!" reminded Willow with gusto.
Returning with two bottles of chilled brew, Faith handed one to Giles before settling back into the armchair and flinging her leg over the side.
"Gotta patrol before I crash," she said, taking a long pull. "Dust a few vamps, make a full day." She glanced in Buffy's direction. "Want in, B?"
There was the slightest of pauses from Buffy before she replied, "I'm good. I've got Barb and Xue leading a couple groups. We're covered."
With a nod, Faith took another swig of beer.
Leaning forward, Giles addressed the two Slayers. "Don't forget that tomorrow we have more evaluations, as well as—"
Buffy yawned again, though it was impossible to say if it was natural or for show. "Big day, same boring stuff as yesterday."
"Except for the rumors of those marauding packs of trained demonic poodles," Giles noted.
At that, expression in the room became alert. Uncertain looks were exchanged, and Buffy eyed Giles hopefully but with a modicum of suspicion.
With a boyish grin, Giles shook his head. "No, not really."
"I hate it when he's all sarcastic," Willow grumbled.
Tara was mulling over the possibilities. "Was anyone else wondering if they went around doing evil while balancing on giant beach balls?"
This time, it was her turn to be the recipient of odd glances.
"Just me, then," she concluded quietly.
Shrugging off the absurd and yet strangely fascinating image, Giles rested his elbows on his knees. "The rest of you, I was hoping to enlist your aid on further research on the possible prophecy this weekend." His eyes grew speculative. "The Watchers I have working on it are making decent progress, but perhaps a fresh perspective would not go amiss."
"No substitute for Scooby intuition," said Xander.
"Quite," Giles confirmed.
"I don't think I can swing it," said Dawn regretfully. "I've got the SATs Monday and panic cramming is totally penciled in every waking moment."
Giles nodded. "Yes of course. Your studies must come first." He treated Dawn to an encouraging smile. "I'm sure you'll do splendidly."
"It's only like the rest of your entire life hinges on this test," Buffy mused aloud. "Will you be a doctor, or the girl who cleans the grease trap on Friday nights at Burger Bill's? Monday morning at 9am, we'll find out."
"But no pressure," Xander assured.
Dawn's high-pitched but muted squeak indicated anxiety of the highest possible magnitude.
"So," Willow concluded from around another yawn. "Another day, another baddie to fight." The summation was lackluster and it took some effort, but she raised her fist in the air. "Go team us."
As if by unspoken consent, the conversation slowly dwindled into silence. The movie continued to play out on the screen, but nobody was truly watching any more. The gathering had arrived at its conclusion, but everyone appeared far too drained and tired to move. Xander's gaze traveled from one face to another as he scanned the room. With a nod, he appeared to make a decision.
"Okay then," he announced briskly.
Without another word, he pushed up from the floor and vanished into the foyer, leaving behind an aura of puzzlement and confusion. There was the sound of rustling, and then he reemerged with something in his hand.
"Look at us," he jeered. "Big evil fighters, right? We can't even fight the evil that is this movie."
Dawn immediately puffed up. "I thought you liked it!"
"Not the point," Xander promptly dismissed. "The past few weeks have not handled us with the velvet gloves of mercy. The doom, the gloom, the ... something else that ends in '-oom'. We deserve a break today."
"I'm all for the good and easy life of rocking chairs, Ed Sullivan, and a cat to pet," agreed Buffy cautiously, "but—"
Willow turned to her with a frown. "You're not for any of those things."
"Not the point," Buffy told her firmly. "I mean, you remember this summer. Our vacation lasted all of four days before we freaked out about Trillium collapsing in on itself and rushed home."
"We have- have responsibilities," Giles reminded. "Watchers and Slayers and—"
"And adults who don't need a babysitter," interrupted Xander. "Look, you've trained these guys. They're good. They don't need us 24/7. And yay for that, cuz we can't be everywhere. But right now? We're not anywhere. We're beat. If you guys saw someone on your team as wiped as us, what would you do? Make 'em keep at it or take a breather?"
They all duly considered the question. Eventually, Giles looked to Buffy. She arched her eyebrow slightly and give a small shrug.
"I suppose a weekend of relaxation might do us good," Giles pondered, still not totally convinced. "What do you propose?"
"If it has anything to do with bowling," protested Buffy adamantly, "I'm out."
Xander held aloft the item he had collected from the foyer. It was a brochure.
"I was picking up some stuff at Lehmen's Hardware downtown and they had a bunch of these at the counter," he told them. "It was that thing." He paused and dug deep for the correct word. It refused to materialize. "That thing where you get something good." He frowned and then snapped his fingers. "Sillypudity?" Slowly, he shook his head. No, that didn't sound right.
"Serendipity?" suggested Tara.
"Yeah, seripidity," echoed Xander uncertainly, his tongue tripping over the syllables. "It was lucky. See, this new campground opened up not too far from here."
Buffy was instantly skeptical. "You wanna go camping."
"Yeah!" Xander enthused. "It's up in the woods, only about forty miles away, so we get all the getting away with the bonus safety net of being home in 15 minutes if we absolutely have to. Plus there's the part where it's camping. It's fun for the whole family." His grin was undoubtedly contagious, but Buffy was apparently immune.
"It's January," she said in disbelief.
"Details," dismissed Xander, unfolding the brochure and waving it in a wide circle so everyone could get a good look. "Besides, it says there's a network of hot springs that keeps the area nice and toasty, even in winter. So there." Well pleased with himself, he nodded curtly in Buffy's direction. "Your attempts at logic are once more thwarted, puny Slayer."
Tara's eyes glittered with delightful anticipation. For a moment, it seemed as though she might even clap her hands, but she managed to restrain herself. "I think it's a great idea."
Xander beamed happily at the show of support.
"I haven't gone camping since I was thirteen," continued Tara. "It's a lot of fun."
"I'm totally in," said Willow, basking in the glow of Tara's exuberance. "This'll be great! Us in the wild. The barest essentials. Roughin' it, as men do."
"You're not a man," Buffy told her dryly.
"Details," Willow promptly dismissed.
"And we can roast hot dogs and sing songs and ..." Dawn's excitement suddenly became flat. "And I can be sitting here at home studying analogies and quantitative comparisons and Grah!!" Her head slumped. "My life sucks."
"But only your immediate life," said Willow trying to be helpful and offer comfort. "If your future life is nowhere near grease traps, that's a step in the right direction, right?"
Dawn blinked miserably. "I hate being responsible."
"I heard that," agreed Faith. "It's good though. You guys go unwind, I'll hold down the fort. I'll even play nice. By the time you get back, probably only have to replace three, four Watchers max."
But Xander was having none of that. "This weekend you're holding down nothing but a newfound and healthy respect for nature," he said determinedly.
"I just agreed to dinner with you people, ain't that enough?" retaliated Faith with equal determination.
"As it turns out, no," Xander told her.
Faith frowned. "Yeah, but someone should stay—"
Giles cut her off mid-sentence. "As much as it pains me to say so, I agree with Xander." Xander sniffed at the thinly-veiled insult. "We all could use some time away, including you, Faith." Giles removed his glasses and began to clean them on his ever-present handkerchief. "Additionally, this provides invaluable leadership experience to those we'll leave behind in our stead."
Suitably appeased, Xander puffed out his chest. "Didja hear that?" he asked of the room at large. "My plan is multi-layered."
"I'm so proud," Willow praised.
"As well you should be," Xander was quick to acknowledge.
Faith looked from Giles to Xander and then back again. "You want me to take a break, no prob," she conceded. "I can do the Philly scene a few days, be back bright-eyed Monday morning. But out there?" She wrinkled her nose in disgust. "Call me nuts, but outdoors? Like keepin' it outdoors."
"Why Faith," murmured Buffy, appearing suddenly at Faith's shoulder, causing her to jump. "Is that actual fear in your eyes?"
Faith's upper lip curled as she scoffed lightly. "Just at the thought'a sharing sleeping space with one'a you freaks."
"You should go, Faith," urged a very dejected Dawn. "Have fun for those of us not going." She sighed heavily.
Faith's sigh was no less heavy. "Fine. But I ain't eatin' nothing don't come outta bags and boxes," she warned.
"See?" Willow's beam was radiant. "Roughin' it, as men do."
The sun's position in a cloudless sky proclaimed the time of day to be late-afternoon, give or take. The air was cool but bracing and the forest clearing was peaceful in its quietude. Yet, the tranquility was doomed to soon be shattered by the pounding of footsteps. Someone, or perhaps more than a solitary someone, was hurtling full tilt through the undergrowth. Brush was being trampled with reckless abandon and there was the unmistakable puff of labored breathing. To all intents and purposes, it seemed that the runner was engaged in a race for life or death.
Small bushes on either side of the dirt path leading to the clearing were obliged to bend and sway as the dizzying blur of motion rushed past like a tornado. As the blur slowed and came to a stop, it revealed its source of energy – Buffy and Faith. Both sported windblown hair and flushed cheeks, as well as heavy backpacks.
"Who won?" gasped Buffy, bending over and resting her hands on her knees .
Faith leaned gratefully against a tree, sucking in one lungful of air after another. "Me."
"If you asked you don't know," panted Faith. "So ... Me."
"I was asking out of politeness," Buffy told her, trying her best to look superior while folded in half. "It was a courtesy ask. I so very clearly beat you here."
"Yeah?" returned Faith, shrugging off her backpack. "Prove it."
"I just did!"
Grinning, Faith pushed off from the tree. "Ehh, not convinced," she cheerfully denied. "Up for another?"
"Oh, it's on," replied Buffy, depositing her pack on the ground.
Faith jogged in place. "Think you can take me, Princess Perfect?"
"I know I can, Lady Slutsalot."
Exchanging challenging nods, the Slayers prepared for another heat as the sound of more labored breathing could be heard coming along the trail. There was no indication of running this time, however, simply a body being forced to endure an inordinate amount of strain. Laden like a pack mule, Xander rounded the final curve. He was sweating profusely and seemed utterly exhausted.
"Tell me ... you're running ... to get help for my knees," he appealed in all seriousness. "I think they died about a mile back." On wobbly legs, he staggered to the center of the clearing.
Willow was right behind, carrying a not inconsiderable load herself. Though severely winded, she managed to draw on her limited reserves long enough speak.
"Left 'em at Wounded Knee?" she asked in a breathless snicker.
Xander threw himself face down into the dirt. "You'll be sleeping ten feet away, Will," he warned, voice muffled. "Don't make me abuse that detail."
Giles and Tara arrived together, both similarly burdened. As with those who had already reached their destination, the long hike had taken its toll, particularly on Giles. Tiny twigs had taken up residence in his hair and his boots were covered in mud up to the ankles. His lips were set in a tight line and he inhaled sharply with every breath. Still, he noted his panting companions with mild disapproval.
"I'm half a century old," he wheezed. "What's your excuse?"
"I signed up for 16th century literature instead of tennis?" offered Tara, pushing her damp hair out of her eyes.
With supreme effort, Xander made it to a kneeling position. With a sigh of relief, he allowed his overloaded pack to hit the ground, where it landed with a dull thud. "I blame Canada," he grunted.
Lending Giles a much-needed hand, Buffy made a grand announcement. "I won."
"Whatever helps you sleep," shrugged Faith, starting to unload the gear.
Before long, everyone had sufficiently recovered enough to begin unpacking.
"This was a really great idea, Xander," Tara told him with a charming smile. "I love camping."
"Oh, go on," he replied, returning her smile before focusing on the mystifying array of tent poles.
Willow stopped digging in the depths of the bags long enough to cast a glance over her shoulder. "You used to do this a lot?" she asked.
"Uh-huh," said Tara, sorting through various cooking utensils. "Every year my dad would load up the camper and we'd head into the mountains."
As the group went about the task of preparing the campsite, they listened with much interest to Tara's reminiscences.
"It was our family vacation. I loved it. Though on reflection, it was probably just because he was too cheap for Disneyworld. There aren't that many situations where you can buy a few packs of on-sale hot dogs and call it a vacation."
She waggled a package of wieners by way of illustration before continuing.
"We'd stay up there for four or five days. Every year like clockwork, come the third week of July." A tiny frown appeared as she considered it. "That was before it was clear I could do magick, though. Everything pretty much changed after that."
The lively holiday atmosphere within the clearing dampened somewhat. Moving to Tara's side, Willow slipped her arm into the crook of Tara'a elbow and delivered a supportive squeeze. Turning, Tara smiled and shook her head to dispel what seemed to be distasteful images.
"That's what I'm saying," she assured, returning the squeeze in kind. "This is a good thing. I've got lots of great memories around camping." The happy glow appeared once more as she arched an eyebrow. "I mean, one year Donnie went fishing and fell in the lake. You think I don't cherish that?"
The pervading aura of melancholy quickly dispelled. Looking to Xander, Tara tossed him a look of genuine gratitude. "So thanks."
"Aww shucks," he replied with a wave of his hand. "T'weren't nothin' ma'am."
Retrieving some poles and a still-folded tent, Willow began dragging the items to a spot that she had presumably claimed to be her own.
"I emphatically agree," she said brightly, digging in her backpack once more. "This is gonna be great. Blue skies, fresh air, getting away from it all ... What could possibly go wro—"
Immediately, she clapped her hand over her mouth as her eyes widened with horror. Her companions reacted in similar fashion, gazing at Willow in utter disbelief that she could be so rash as to tempt the fates in such a cavalier manner. But it was too late – the words had been spoken and there was no taking them back. Taking a deep breath, Willow held it for a moment then let her hand drop to her leg with a harsh slap.