Distanced from the bright lights of Trillium, the stars glittered crisply – sharp pinpoints in a sky of darkness. Forked branches of tall trees, stark and barren, formed a latticed ceiling above the wooded area and within the dense undergrowth, small nocturnal animals burrowed their way home or foraged for a midnight snack. Wispy clouds, driven by a brisk and chilling breeze, scuttled across the face of the moon, painting the cratered surface with vague and ever-changing patterns of grey. The brittle needles of lofty pines rattled as a low-lying mist snaked through piles of decaying leaves. Hordes of unseen insects chirped with monotonous regularity, only to be silenced en masse before suddenly resuming their eerily repetitious serenade.
Several campfires littered the area, sputtering warmth into the dank air. Drawn with suicidal captivation to the flames, errant moths fluttered wildly in the smoke and heat until, with singed wings, they spiraled downward to be consumed by the blaze.
A voice droned faintly from the depths of a nearby clearing. The tone was hushed, as though imparting secrets of paramount importance. Although the words were otherwise indistinguishable, the speaker was definitely male. The owner proved to be a young man, thin and wiry, in his late teens. Hunched forward, he was spinning a yarn for the pleasure of his three companions, all around the same age as the storyteller. The four shadows they cast appeared huge in the flickering light, hovering like shrouded and silent listeners before being swallowed into the gloom beyond the limited glow of the campfire. The attention of the storyteller was riveted on the two girls across from him, who could see nothing of his eyes, only sparking tongues of yellow and orange reflected in the lenses of his gold-rimmed glasses. Occasionally, he would glance over his shoulder and then give an exaggerated shudder.
The two girls seemed spellbound by the unfolding tale. Neither moved a muscle as they hung on every word. Huddled together as close as their quilted parkas would allow, they had involuntarily clasped hands in search of mutual comfort and support. Two pairs of wide eyes anxiously followed the storyteller as he stole a furtive glimpse behind once more – but nothing could be seen, save impenetrable darkness. An amused smile formed on the boy's lips, but was quickly squelched before turning back to his captive audience and throwing himself into the drama of the moment again.
"She ran across the lawn, faster than she'd ever run before," he murmured. "Too scared to breathe, her chest burned for air, but she ignored it. All she could think about was the tingling chill at the base of her spine and the fact that she knew he was right behind her. Could feel it."
With a muffled gasp, one of the girls threw a fearful half-look around the clearing. Her darting green eyes radiated with obvious apprehension. The second girl, chestnut ponytail swinging, repeated the action, but again there was nothing untoward, nothing to be seen but oppressive darkness. The fourth member of the group, a strapping youth with the physique of a college quarterback, sported a mischievous grin, apparently finding much enjoyment in the mounting dread of his female companions. There was nothing especially evil in his delight, but he clearly found their trepidation to be highly entertaining.
"Even as she raced for safety," the story continued, "she kept waiting for the moment when he'd grab her and it would be all over." The voice of the storyteller lowered a little as the flames leapt within the lenses of his glasses. "The thought gave her an extra burst of speed and she threw herself into the door. She could hear him right behind her, walking at his own pace and sure that no matter what she did, he'd catch her."
From deep within the gloom came the sound of a footfall as someone – something – moved leisurely and measuredly through the dry brush with an agonizingly patient stroll . Leaves crunched and twigs snapped. The girls grabbed each other in a tight hug, eyes straining frantically to penetrate the darkness. But the sounds abruptly ceased and the storyteller seemed to have heard nothing at all. Slowly and cautiously, the girls unwound from their panic-inspired embrace.
"Her sweaty hand slipped from the doorknob, and a sob escaped her as she fumbled to try and grab it. She could feel his hot breath on her neck."
In a turtle-like motion, the green-eyed girl subconsciously withdrew her own neck further into the parka, instinctively protecting every inch of exposed flesh.
"She could feel her last seconds ticking away, but just before she reached zero, she managed to wrestle the door open. She didn't hesitate," he told them, leaning further forward. "Bursting into the house, she threw all of her weight on the door and slammed it shut. Before she could even think, her hands were working the locks, latching every latch, barricading herself in safety. A few moments later and every nearby piece of furniture was drafted into the good fight. Then, and only then, did she allow herself to breathe."
Taking this as their cue, the two girls collectively heaved a huge sigh of relief. The storyteller's eyes sparkled.
"Backing away from the door slowly, the girl spared a glance to look around. The house was dark and utterly silent, except for the pounding of her heart and the sound of a tree branch scraping the roof. She was alone. She was safe."
Tension began to ease from the girls' bodies and their postures relaxed. They had exchanged small smiles of satisfaction when the tale resumed.
"There was a phone on the wall nearby, and for the first time, she felt hope. She'd call for help. The police, the national guard. Hell, even that annoying kid next door with his slingshot would be welcome right about now." The girls sniggered a little at that. "With a shaking hand, she reached for the receiver. A voice in the back of her mind noted that the wind must really be picking up outside. The scratching was getting louder."
The sniggers immediately choked in their throats.
"Her hand froze an inch from the phone. That sound. Just a branch? Or something else? And what else could she hear now? Was that a mouse, or...?" Two involuntary gasps could be heard as fingers became entwined. "Her eyes widened as her gaze was drawn to the dark stairs. The shadows were playing tricks on her now, seeming to move all on their own."
The storyteller abruptly ceased talking. He tilted his head to one side and his brow furrowed, as though he were listening to something as yet only vaguely discernable. The shadows surrounding the four group members appeared to shift and merge of their own accord, adopting a different shape not easily recognized but seeming to exude a sinister aura. A trick of the light? Perhaps, since the flames of the fire now flickered and for a moment, threatened to expire altogether before leaping ever higher.
Nobody spoke for a long time –far too long. The storyteller, head remaining stationary so that only his eyes moved behind the glasses, focused upon the two girls. He arched an eyebrow.
"Definitely not a mouse."
With no forewarning, the quarterback let out a loud and booming, "MUAHAHAHA!" as he lunged toward the two girls. The desired response was delivered in record time. The girls obliged by opening their mouths in a collectively ear-splitting scream that echoed in the darkness and caused a pair of frogs to croak loudly in protest.
The green-eyed girl was the first to recover. Her gaze narrowed as she rapidly channeled all her considerable fear into no less considerable anger.
"Jason, you retard!"
She took a swipe at the quarterback, who was holding his sides as tears of laughter trickled down his cheeks. Apparently, Jason found the audience participation of their outing to be the most comedic aspect. Dodging the blow, he guffawed even louder.
Meanwhile, the storyteller was trying with limited success to subdue his own bubbling mirth. He rocked back and forth even as he tried to inquire about his victims' well-being. "A-Are you—"
Shrieking in falsetto mockery, Jason flapped his hands from side to side in imitation of ineffectual protection.
Succumbing to hilarity, for a moment it seemed the storyteller would pass out from lack of oxygen. It was with supreme effort that he struggled to regain composure. "Dude, shut up, shut up!" he hissed at Jason, trying to bite back his laughter. Maneuvering his expression – barely – into one of concern, he then addressed the girls. "You okay?"
The ponytailed brunette, who had remained locked in panicked terror until now, opened her mouth to reply. To her chagrin, the only sound her vocal chords could manage was a thin, weak, strangled sound, not entirely unlike the shriek Jason had uttered only moments before.
The feeble scream sent the guys into another fit of hysterical laughter. It seemed likely that their amusement might well last until doomsday, when a bag of jumbo "So Puft Up" marshmallows landed squarely in the face of the storyteller. This only served to add to Jason's unending delight – at least until he was hit in the head with a giant box of graham crackers, swiftly followed by a package of chocolate bars. Looking at the girls through streaming eyes, he held up his hands in defense, merriment slowly transforming to anxiety for his immediate welfare.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, hey, hold it. Time out."
The green-eyed girl was hefting a rather large can of pork 'n' beans, which promisingly bore the slogan, "Now with more pork for the joy of your fork!"
"You throw that, that's bioterrorism," Jason warned. "I don't think you wanna go there."
His opponent wasn't so sure. "I think I might. It's got a good weight to it." She balanced it speculatively in her palm. "It sort of cries out, 'Please, please, throw me into the mouth of the irritating one.'" She tossed Jason an endearing smile. "Who am I to ignore the will of the bean?"
Scrambling to his feet, Jason cautiously approached. He took a stab at being contrite, but couldn't quite pull it off. He also failed miserably to mask his expression of amusement at the whole situation. He looked rather like a small boy who'd been caught with his hand in the cookie jar and, by way of retribution, was offering it to his accuser.
"It was just a little story," he wheedled, inching closer. "Where's the harm in a story?"
The green-eyed girl continued to glare. Apparently, she was no stranger to Jason's roguish charm.
He slipped an arm around her waist. "Aw, I'm sorry, baby."
"You're not even a little bit sorry."
Jason grinned. "Really not."
"You're such a jerk," she said, shaking her head.
His grin grew wider. "That's what you love best about me."
For his part, the storyteller had gallantly escorted the remaining victim to a nearby fallen log. He brushed it off with his hand and then invited her to take a seat, settling beside her. He peered into her sullen face.
"Shelly? You okay?"
"I hate it out here," she told him pointedly, although more piqued and whiny than truly adamant. "It's cold and it's creepy. I miss my bed. I miss my TV." She shot him an accusatory glance. "I miss being able to pee indoors." She shifted uncomfortably on the log.
Tugging her parka closer to her body, Shelly's friend sat next to her, while Jason began to wander the perimeter of the clearing, hands thrust deep into the pockets of his jacket.
"Sort of agree," said the green-eyed girl. "Maybe we should just head back tomorrow?"
"Oh, no way," protested the storyteller. "We've still got three days left!"
Retrieving a stick from the dirt, Jason started to prod half-heartedly at the dry earth. He didn't appear to be looking for anything special, save perhaps a distraction from boredom that was quickly settling in now that the excitement had faded. He meandered into the darkness that lurked just beyond the circle of firelight.
"But Brian—" Shelly started to complain.
"D'you know what it cost me to book this spot?" asked Brian, waving his hand for emphasis. "Prime location, brand new campground? We are not talking cheap, ladies. Do the words 'pre-pay, no refund' mean anything to you?"
Jason poked his stick aimlessly into a dense clump of bushes. An unexpected response caused him to freeze. A noise – a sound, a shuffle of leaves, or maybe nothing at all. Stick poised, Jason's eyes narrowed as he scrutinized the gloom before him. "Hey, did you guys hear—?"
His three friends were far too involved in their conversation to pay any attention.
"But if we're not having fun ..." the green-eyed girl began.
"Who's not having fun?" demanded Brian. "I'm having fun." He looked up. "Jason, you having fun?" he shouted.
Jason didn't answer. He was too fixated on what his ears were picking up from the shrouded woods. The sound of a rustling footfall. Someone – something – moving steadily through the undergrowth. Heading in his direction.
Jason shuffled nervously. "Guys ..."
"Aren't you having fun?" Brian asked of Shelly.
Shelly sniffed peevishly. "I'd be having more fun if I could pee indoors."
Still, Brian took this as an affirmative. "See?" he announced in self-satisfied fashion.
Gaze rooted firmly upon a spot not too far in the distance, Jason began to defensively back away. He grasped the stick in front of him with both hands, as though it were a weapon.
"Fun a'plenty," Brian firmly decided. "Now please may we continue shore leave, Colonel Laura?"
Laura rolled her eyes and crossed her arms, but she admitted defeat as graciously as she was able. "Fine, you win. We'll stay." She chafed her shoulders against the cold. "Even if it kills us."
It was then that a form stumbled clumsily out of the brush, staggering unsteadily across Jason's path. Jason screamed – although it was more like the bellow of a petrified bull. Not to be outdone, Brian also screamed, closely followed by both girls. The trio on the log leapt to their feet and promptly huddled in a tight knit circle, even as the figure that had just emerged from the darkened thicket added yet another strident and panicked cry to the bedlam.
He was a young man, probably mid to late 20s. His bleached blond hair was shaggy and he was dressed in the dark green uniform of a park ranger, complete with wide-brimmed hat. There was nothing especially remarkable about him. Indeed, if he hadn't been screaming at the top of his lungs, he would have probably appeared a relatively normal human being.
It didn't take long the for the campers to realize that their current situation was far from deadly. Gradually, the frenzied yelling dissipated, save for that of the Ranger who continued to screech for a good few seconds after everyone else had stopped. Indeed, his mouth remained open in prime scream-position for some time even though the sound had died away. Eventually, his lips came together in repose once more and a prolonged silence fell upon the clearing. Then he grinned at everyone in general and nobody in particular.
Now that the screaming had stopped, the Ranger seemed almost to have forgotten it ever happened. His lips turned upward in a constant grin as easy as it was vacant. His eyes held a glassy sheen, and seemed to take an extra few moments to process before transmitting any information to his brain. Given his choice of profession, there could be no doubting the Ranger's love of nature. There could also be no doubt that love extend to repeated use of many and varied interesting herbal substances.
The quartet of campers seemed too shocked to respond to his easy-going greeting. The Ranger, however, was undeterred.
"Who is he?" Jason asked his companions. Not waiting for a response, he turned to the Ranger. "Who are you?"
The Ranger's eyes widened a little. "Oh!" He extended a forefinger upward to his hat. "Ranger!" he identified cheerily.
"What are—" began Laura, joining Jason at the front of the group. It seemed she might inch closer, but Jason blocked her path with his outstretched arm. The Ranger didn't seem to notice the act of restraint, although he did notice Laura. He treated Jason to a conspiratorial wink and a huge toothy grin.
"Dude!" He gave the thumbs-up. "Nice one!"
Laura's eyes narrowed. "What are you doing here?"
"Patrolling," the Ranger offered with a dismissive shrug. "Part'a the job."
His eyebrows knitted together as he squinted at the moon. His expression was one of rapt concentration as he recited, with excruciating slowness, from what was a questionable memory at best.
"'Rule 16. Three times a night, patrol campground. Investigate any possible disturbances'." He beamed with overt pleasure, obviously delighted at his magnificent recall abilities.
"S'what Uncle Max said," he told them with a confident nod. "Gotta do what Uncle Max says, or, uh ..." He frowned and seemed to be probing the mysterious depths of his memory bank for a second time. The campers waited impatiently until his expression became animated once more. "Or my 'sorry good for nothing ass can rot in that cell next time'," he stated with a sunny smile, which rapidly deteriorated into a grimace of dismay. "Which would way suck."
"Disturbances?" queried Shelly anxiously.
"Aw yeah, thanks dude!" said the Ranger brightly. "There I was, right, just walkin' along, doin' the whole Ranger thing, when I hear someone screaming!" He shivered. "Freaked me out for a sec cuz I thought it was me and I forgot. Turned out, not me. So I followed it and here I am." He spread out his arms as though to verify the fact.
Brian stepped forward to join Jason and Laura.
"Well thank you for checking ... sir," he said, tone indicating such a respectful address was not one he'd customarily use for a person of the Ranger's stamp. "We apologize for dragging you all the way over here. We were just telling stories."
The Ranger was confused by the explanation. Of course, the Ranger would be confused by buffalo wings, so this was not saying much.
"You know, scary stories," clarified Jason, as though he were speaking to a small child. "Whooo, ghosties, monsters, and other wholesome family topics." Looking at the others, he gave a subdued eye-roll.
"Oh, that's cool," agreed the Ranger happily. "I like stories. I remember when I was little, my mom used to tell me stories all the time." He smiled fondly at the remembrance. "She'd tuck me in and hand me Archduke Nooklin – my special friend – and she'd say, 'Rick, what story do you want to hear tonight?' and I'd say, 'Tell me about the rabbits again!' and she'd—"
"Say, that's really fascinating," Jason told him in a patronizing tone, "and I mean that from the bottom of my heart, but don't you have other patrons to freak out and then bore?"
The Ranger took no offense at the interruption, assuming he understood it. "Yeah, yeah, you're right. So, uh, lemme know if you guys need anything, 'kay?" He nodded cordially and jammed his thumbs into his belt.
"I'm sure you're at the very tippy-top of our contact list," Jason guaranteed.
Then, all but shoving the Ranger from the campsite, Jason hustled him to the edge of the clearing. With a parting wave, the Ranger resumed his dutiful patrol, a merry albeit somewhat tuneless whistle on his lips. Waiting until the Ranger's footfalls and unmelodious whistling had evaporated into the far off darkness, Jason turned to the others.
"All that money you paid, and you couldn't upgrade room service?" he said to Brian, delivering not unfriendly prods to his friend's chest.
Nonchalantly, Brian brushed away the attacks. "The dollar only stretches so far." He yawned and stretched. "I think he sapped my will to live for today. Bed?"
It seemed as though all were in agreement, save Laura who obviously had other ideas.
"Oh no." She shook her head decisively. "You think you get to just freak us out and leave it at that?" Her ensuing chuckle was far from pleasant. "I think not. Hunker down boys. It's time for the girls to show you how a campfire tale is really done."
Exchanging a "Yeah, right" glance, the two young men resumed their former positions around the fire. Laura and Shelly conferred for a brief moment in hushed voices and then turned to the guys with smirks that appeared almost wicked through the flames. The sputtering kindling only served to enhance the girls' menacing attitude.
"It all started when a group of friends went camping one January weekend," Laura murmured. "They were ready for fun and laughs. But they weren't even a little ready for what was already there, waiting for them in the darkness ..."
Shelly stifled a giggle as the wavering shades surrounding four group members appeared to shift and merge of their own accord, adopting a different form not easily recognized but seeming to move ever closer.
In the heart of the woods, the Ranger picked his way through the dense undergrowth, guided by the pale light of the overhanging moon. He pondered the recent events of the night, talking to himself softly, since silence appeared to muddle the clarity of his thoughts. He appeared quite accustomed to engaging in such external monologue.
"Nice guys. Way cool." He nodded with a smile. "Too bad they're—"
But his musing was disrupted by a series of horrendous shrieking that totally dwarfed what he had heard earlier. Stopping short in his tracks, the Ranger threw a glance over his shoulder. His expression registered no alarm. Instead, he smiled and gave a tiny chuckle.
"Must be one hell of a story," he said, before continuing on his way.
Story by: Jet Wolf and Ultrace
Scripted by: Jet Wolf
Prose by: Novareinna and Jet Wolf
Edited by: Jet Wolf and Novareinna
Original Airdate: Thursday, 10 August 2006, 8pm ET
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.
The sun had already disappeared below the horizon and night was fast approaching as the clomping of boots made their way along the forest trail. Lugging three extremely large and over-stuffed duffel bags, Faith struggled a little beneath the cumbersome weight but adopted a more sprightly step as she came into view of the campsite and its waiting inhabitants, as though the load were nothing more than a mere hindrance. Willow lost no time in coming to greet her, eyes sparkling with anticipation.
"Yay, nummies!" she declared with undisguised enthusiasm.
Faith inclined her chin toward the bags. "Where d'you want—"
"Ah, thank you, Faith," interrupted Giles with a broad smile. "Yes, I think all of that should hold us over quite nicely." He nodded his approval.
"Glad to hear it," acknowledged Faith. "So where should I—"
"I've been working on a rudimentary pulley system to keep our food safe from- from any marauding bands of thoroughly disgusting creatures," Giles told Willow as the pair moved into the center of the clearing.
"And Xander," added Willow wryly.
"And Xander," Giles agreed. "And I was wondering if you'd lend your opinion on—"
Faith watched their retreating backs. "On where you want this crap?" she suggested, raising her voice a little.
"What?" asked Giles, half-turning. "No ..."
"Sure. I'll be happy to take a gander. This is gonna be so great, guys," Willow announced to everyone within earshot. "I checked online before we left and packed all the staple goodies." She checked the items on her fingers. "Weenies and marshmallows and raisins and weenies and granola and yet more weenies. Oh, and for breakfast?" Her smile grew even brighter. "Kosher sausages and—"
Deciding enough was enough, Faith unceremoniously dumped her burden on the ground. The bags landed with a solid thump and one of them toppled over. The task completed to her personal satisfaction, Faith also made her way into the middle of the campsite. Willow blinked at the discarded load with wide-eyed distress.
"—eggs!" she whimpered.
"I take mine scrambled," Faith informed her without a backward glance before inspecting the progress made in the tent department while she'd been absent.
One had been fully erected, while another appeared to be somewhere between completion and chaos. Faith approached the finished tent. A rustling came from within and she rapped on the canvas flap as though it were a door.
"Nice, B," she said with approval. "Kills me a little to admit it, but I'm impressed."
Tara's head emerged through the opening. "Thanks. Buffy's next door though."
Registering surprise, Faith turned her attention to the nearby shambles. Someone was moving beneath the mostly-fallen tarp. The way it was draped on and around the figure made it seem as though a ghost haunted the campsite. Tiny grunts could be heard as the unseen Tent Specter apparently struggled with every inch of the contraption. Gradually, the muted utterances became more aggravated and the thrashing more frantic. Tara and Faith shared a look.
"I'm sleepin' with you," announced Faith, hands on her hips.
But then, Willow suddenly materialized from nowhere, complete with narrowed eyes and crossed arms.
Faith didn't miss a beat. "I'm sleepin' with Buffy," she immediately amended.
An amused frown creased Tara's forehead at the implication behind that declaration. At first, Willow simply nodded emphatically but then, her nods began to slow and the corner of her mouth crept upward in a wicked smile as Faith's proclamation took on a whole new life.
"And me without my 7 megapixel digital camera with night vision technology," Xander said with a sigh from somewhere nearby.
He was in the midst of constructing the third and final tent arrangement – although it was truly still more a heap of random parts rather than anything remotely resembling a temporary dwelling. Several metal poles had been rammed partway into the ground, but they leaned at odd angles and one of them shimmied precariously with the wind. A crumpled tarp, covered with muddy footprints, has been tossed to one side, and in the middle of the disaster stood a very forlorn Xander, brandishing a mallet. He wielded it as though it were a weapon, obviously desperately hoping, praying, that he could use it on something – anything – with a modicum of success, if only the appropriate recipient would be willing to step forward and volunteer.
Hair disheveled and face flushed, Buffy crawled out from beneath her own personal wreckage to jab an accusing finger in Xander's direction.
"You are sick."
"And you girls are my antibiotic," replied Xander, voice as smooth as silk.
The remark earned him a healthy dose of all-around glares. He hastily pointed to the ruin at his feet, anxious to divert attention. "Hey look! Tent!" he said before throwing himself wholeheartedly back into the fray of failure.
The next object of Buffy's accusatory digit was Faith. "And you are taking a turn."
Brushing her palms together, Buffy marched away from the mess, leaving Faith to gawk in disbelief. Joining Willow and Tara, Buffy sighed deeply.
"I can fight off hundreds of super-evil primal vampires, but I can't put a piece of canvas on a hollow rod. What does that say about me?"
"That your talents are precious and unique," said Tara, patting Buffy's arm.
A rattling clang of metal was quickly followed by Faith's exasperated, "Dammit!"
Buffy chose to ignore the outburst. "So fess up." She eyed the witches critically. "You guys use a little mojo muju?"
"This is one hundred percent solid hand craftsmanship, baby!" Willow told her with an affirmative nod.
By way of emphasis, she slapped proudly on the canvas. In response, the tarp buckled and the tent very nearly collapsed on one side. Willow's panicked hands fluttered helplessly over the cave-in for a moment, but she seemed afraid to touch it any further. She looked around fearfully, but her unfortunate show of confidence appeared to have gone unnoticed. She sidled in front of the damage and stood there, nervously blocking the view.
"Besides, that's just cheating," Tara was telling Buffy, oblivious to Willow's mishap.
Willow was more than eager to enhance the distraction. "And hey, magick all over the place already. Why add, right?" She smiled a little too brightly.
"All you need is a little practice and patience," Tara agreed.
A violent string of expletives burst from nearby.
"Thankfully, there's enough of those to share," Tara tossed over her shoulder as she hurried away with a warning shout of, "Faith, don't slay the tarpaulin!"
Willow and Buffy watched her rush to the rescue, then faced each other. Buffy's brows knitted as Willow treated her to a radiant smile, shuffling a few degrees to make sure she was shielding anything that might be incriminating. Buffy leaned a little to the right. Willow immediately followed suit. Buffy leaned to the left. Again, Willow tracked the movement. Buffy feinted back to the right, faked Willow out, and caught an eyeful of tent dent.
Willow seemed unwilling to sacrifice any more dignity to the matter. "In that it's neither a liquid nor a gas, yes."
Mission accomplished, Buffy began to move away and Willow rushed to catch up.
"So what's this about magick everywhere?" Buffy asked.
The two of them soon fell in step. "Oh, it's, you know." Buffy clearly didn't know, so Willow tried to explain. "Big woods, lots of nature. Get some magick as a bonus gift. Pretty much a given."
The pair strolled leisurely past Faith who, with Tara's aid, had now refrained from trying to inflict bodily harm upon the tent and was actually making progress with its construction.
"But nothing serious? We're living evil-free?"
"We're on the Tri-Mouth, Buff," said Willow with a chuckle. " Everything's at least a little evil. But i-it's nothing major. It's more sort of ..." She thought deeply about the correct description, carefully feeling out the exact terminology. "Neutral?" She finally decided, still not absolutely sure. "Like it hasn't made up its mind yet?"
Willow's expression indicated she wasn't entirely satisfied with the explanation, but she seemed at a loss for any other way to put it.
"You think it's safe though?" Buffy pressed.
"Oh, yeah," dismissed Willow easily. "We're A-O-peachy-K fine."
"Easy for you to say," Xander told them as they reached his tent – or what would have been his tent, if a camper were supposed to sleep wrapped in tarpaulin like a butterfly in a cocoon. Xander's tone was a testament to his mounting stress. The two women exchanged a glance of undisguised amusement.
"Are you sure that's right?" criticized Giles, sitting on a nearby log and studying the instructions. He peered from the booklet balanced on his knees to the dubious fruits of Xander's labor and then back again.
"Yes," snapped Xander. "This is exactly how it's supposed to look. It's the latest in camping fashion, you nutty British guy."
Giles seemed mildly affronted. "There's no need for sarcasm."
"The only things shielding my damaged pride here are a piece of blue plastic and sarcasm," responded Xander. "So, I'd say my need is great."
Willow bit her lip to stifle a giggle while Buffy gazed heavenward, mouth twitching.
"Need some help, Xan?" she asked, giving a little cough to disguise the chuckle.
"As much as I wish no – yes."
But that didn't seem quite enough. "What do you need help with?" Buffy asked, as though the sight of Xander wrapped up like a giant cigar didn't provide enough hints.
"My final shred of dignity?"
Buffy's response was to nudge Willow, who was unable to smother her giggle. They glanced at Giles, now trying valiantly to straighten a tent pole with one hand, while he scrutinized the instructions clutched tightly in the other. His expression was one of abject confusion.
"What exactly do you need help with?" asked Buffy, clearing her throat as she and Willow worked very hard to subdue their bubbling laughter.
"Finding a new career, because my ability to build things has been thrown into serious question," Xander grumbled, his patience well dissolved by now.
Willow pretended to have not heard. "What was that?" she asked innocently.
"I need help pitching my tent, okay?" Xander finally exclaimed.
As soon as the words left his mouth, Buffy and Willow dissolved into a fit of giggles. They clung to each other for strength, and at that moment, Giles lost his grip on the pole. It hit the ground with a resounding thud, and the sight served only to set the girls into another fit of laughter.
Xander was not a happy camper. He glowered at Buffy and Willow, now gasping for breath as tears rolled down their cheeks.
"Hear they make a pill for that, Harris," Faith told him, as she and Tara joined the group.
The remark did nothing to lighten Xander's mood. "Perverts," he muttered darkly, looking very much as though he wanted to leave, but lacking the ability to move more than a few exposed fingers.
No comment was made on the grand irony of Xander making that statement. It took some effort, but Willow and Buffy were able to bring their laughter under control, and together they all set about untangling Xander from the mess he'd gotten himself into. The undertaking created something of a silent disagreement about whether to wind clockwise or counterclockwise, whether to push or to pull. The process wasn't made any easier by Xander's semi-frantic yet feeble efforts to shake and hop free. Still, surprisingly, no tempers flared.
The situation also seemed to have stirred a memory in Buffy. "Hey, do you guys remember a few years ago when—" she began.
But her story was cut short as Xander, no longer encumbered, exclaimed, "Oh sweet Mother Freedom!"
In his exuberance, he promptly seized Willow's face and planted a kiss atop her head with a loud, "Mmmwah!" Still exalted, he turned to Buffy and did exactly the same thing. Moving down the line, he "Mmmwahed!" Tara and then reached for the next person – Giles.
Recoiling from Xander's outstretched hands, Giles wore an expression of horror. Xander's reaction was similarly violent, accompanied by a note of disgust. Instinctively, he sought another party and found Faith. No hesitation this time, except that Faith thrust a balled-up fist between them. Xander was thwarted, but there was still a "Mmmwah!" that cried out to be delivered, and he opted to give it to Buffy.
The moment seemed over, but Xander apparently had more to give. He attempted, and connected, with a third kiss, but as he went in for a fourth, Buffy squirmed out of reach.
"Okay, affection overload."
"I was thinkin' much the same thing," Xander agreed. "But hey, momentum."
With both Xander and the parts now free, the group set to work assembling the final tent. Willow and Giles conferred over the directions, turning the booklet this way and that in an effort to make sense of the illustrations. Tara, on the other hand, worked on instinct alone and seemed to be making remarkable progress.
"So once upon a time," began Xander without preamble, as he retrieved his mallet, "there were these brave little Boosklies."
Buffy shook out the tarpaulin. "Hah?"
"Little what?" queried Giles, looking up from the booklet.
"Boosklies," repeated Xander.
"What's a Booskly?" Willow asked with a frown.
"I've never heard of them," Tara replied, relieving Xander of the mallet and pounding a peg into the ground.
"Well now you have," replied Xander, putting the remaining pegs in a neat pile.
Willow was still frowning. "Giles, what's a Booskly?"
"No idea," he replied with a puzzled expression.
"It's fun to say though, isn't it?" said Buffy, shaking out the tarpaulin. "Booskly, booskly—"
"Yeah, move your 'booskly'," Faith told her, "you're standin' on my rope."
Perplexed, Willow looked at Xander. "Xander, what's a—"
Xander raised a forefinger. "Momentum, people," he advised. "Look it up with 'patience'." He waited until he was sure there would be no more questions for the moment and then continued. "Once upon a time, there were these brave little Boosklies. They had the hardest job in the whole Booskly village, because they had to guard the pit of Hell...er...mou...ncia."
A few of the Scoobies exchanged glances, but nobody broke the silence.
"Hellermouncia," Xander repeated with more gusto this time. "Not a nice place to visit. Lots of bad stuff came outta there, like dead Boosklies and giant bugs and infomercials. But the brave little Boosklies protected it with their lives. If they didn't, who else would?"
Most of the group were catching his drift by now, but there were no interruptions as work on the tent continued.
"It was a tough life, being a brave little Booskly," Xander continued, helping Giles pull the canvas taut. "Sometimes it was no life at all. Literally. But they stuck it out together. Whatever the Hellermouncia threw at 'em – even when it got bigger and eviler, moved to another village and started calling itself the Triplehellermouncia – they faced it. Took it all on and beat it every time. You know why?"
"Destiny said so?" offered Buffy, helping Tara and Faith tie down the ropes.
"Because it's the right thing to do!" announced Willow, neatly folding the instructions.
Taking a step back, Xander eyed the now fully-functional tent and bestowed his seal of approval. It appeared more sturdy than either of the other two and seemed very well constructed indeed. Draping one arm around Willow's shoulders and the other around Buffy. Xander smiled.
"Cuz the Boosklies knew that there wasn't anything they couldn't do, so long as they did it together," he told them.
There was a brief pause as everyone absorbed Xander's tale.
Giles polished his glasses. "That was very sweet," Xander."
"Why thank you," said Xander, taking a small bow.
"Utterly lacking in subtlety," Giles amended, "but sweet."
Faith looked vaguely ill. "To the nth degree. Ugh, I feel like I need a shower after that, I think you got some schmaltz on me." She stepped away from the group, heading toward the rear perimeter of the clearing.
"So what's next for the Boosklies?" asked Tara.
But before Xander could reply, there was the sound of a loud rumbling. With a grimace, Buffy regarded her stomach.
"Let's hope dinner," she stated firmly.
"After felling this mighty beast," said Xander, gesturing toward the newly-erected tent, "I'd say we earned it."
Willow led the way toward the food pulley system. "Who's on cooking duty?"
"I thought I'd try my hand," said Giles, untying the ropes. "When I was much younger, some friends and I used to spend days, even weeks, in the woods around the Forest of Dean. It's been a few years, but I became quite proficient at cooking over an open flame."
Xander at least was in total agreement. "Sounds like a volunteer to me."
Giles nodded quite cheerfully. "Buffy, why don't you ..."
As he began to assign tasks, Tara leaned across to Willow.
"I'll go get Faith," she said. "You know Slayers, if they go without food for a few hours, they get really grumpy."
With a smile of acknowledgment, Willow turned her attention to Giles, listening to what he needed done. Leaving the gathering, Tara began to trace Faith's path. She moved beyond the campsite into the wooded area. It was dark with only the minimum amount of moonlight filtering through the tree branches. Still, Tara didn't appear particularly nervous or apprehensive as she made her way over the dense brush. It wasn't long before she arrived at a small, peaceful clearing bordered by a stream. Sitting on the bank, leaning against a tree, Faith was watching the reflection of the shimmering stars in the calm water, its surface broken only occasionally, courtesy of the ripples created by the wind. Faith's elbow rested on her knee and a cigarette dangled from between her fingers.
Tara smiled. "Doesn't that sort of ruin the 'pure and tranquil' part of all this?" she asked softly, obviously referring to Faith's cigarette.
"Sums me up in a nutshell," said Faith. There was no trace of bitterness, just a simple statement of truth.
She took another drag, followed by a long pull from a bottle at her side, and then sighed a satisfied sigh. A plume of smoke trailed lazily from her lips. As Tara came closer, Faith continued to gaze upon the water.
"It's very beautiful," Tara observed.
Faith nodded. "Yeah, it is. Last time I saw a forest like this, I had a whole pack'a vamps on my tail. Funny how much nicer it is when you're not runnin' through it at thirty miles an hour."
Tara moved next to Faith and made as though to sit down. Faith moved her outstretched leg to give Tara more room and sat Indian style.
"So," began Tara, settling herself comfortably, "are you enjoying yourself?"
Taking another pull, Faith turned away from the water and looked at Tara for the first time. Exhaling through the corner of her mouth, she gave a tiny shrug. "What do you think?"
"I think," replied Tara with a twinkle in her eye, "that you're having a blast."
Faith grinned. "Who am I to argue with the empathic one?"
She lifted the bottle and took another swig. "It's good you're here," she told her.
The implication of the statement had a moment to settle before Faith thrust the bottle into the other woman's hands. Arching an eyebrow, Tara studied it. It was of a smoky-brownish glass, but otherwise entirely nondescript, revealing nothing of its contents. Tara turned to Faith with a questioning expression.
Faith flicked the ash from her cigarette and grinned even wider. She gestured with her chin. A clear and open invitation for Tara to find out for herself.
In the kitchen of the Scoobies' house, a female derriere was protruding from the open refrigerator as foraging noises came from within. Before too long, Dawn withdrew her head, balancing several assorted jars in her hands. Amazing, she managed to get them all to the counter without any breakage. Placing two slices of bread on a plate, she slathered both with peanut butter while peering at a study guide and muttering to herself.
"'The East Coast Hamstaz was a terrible rap and R&B group in the early '90s; its music was dull and its lyrics ...'" She scanned the multiple choices. "Well it's not thaaat ..." she stated confidently, marking through one of the selections with a thick black pencil. In order to do so, she had to cross her right hand awkwardly over her left, which was still busy wielding a knife laden with peanut butter. "Or thaaat ..." Dawn continued, and then grimaced. She stared at the remaining options, pencil hovering. Apparently, she wasn't too sure what her next move should be.
"'Truculent'?" she scoffed. "Now they're just making stuff up." Chewing on her lower lip, she declared with as much certainty as she was able to muster, "E, fatuous."
Flipping through the incredibly thick book, she found the answer section and quickly scanned down the page. Her resulting expression was delighted triumph.
"'E'! You're a smarty every day, Me," she congratulated herself. "Got this SAT thing in the bag. I think you deserve ..." She surveyed her range of possible consumable rewards. "... more peanut butter!"
Bolstered by her performance thus far, Dawn scooped out another heaping knifeful of peanut butter, managing to get most of it all around the plate, but leaving sufficient to coat her fingers as well. She dealt with the latter dilemma by attempting to lick it off as she eyed the other items to determine which ingredient should next be added.
Her gaze rested upon a bottle of mini-pickles and then flitted to the in-progress peanut butter sandwich. Instinctively, she wrinkled her nose, but the sneer transformed into an expression of contemplation. Finally, she gave a shrug.
"If it was good enough for Mom ..."
Wiping her hands on a paper towel, she twisted off the cap and started to fish out the little pickles. Shoving one whole into her mouth, she talked around it.
"'Courf, fhe wuf prenant wif 'uffy fo you know fhe wuf profufly crayhe," she mumbled knowingly.
Pleased with such a wise observation, Dawn pressed onward. Jamming several pickles into the liberal mound of peanut butter on one slice, she balanced the other in her palm and then smooshed the entire sandwich together. Snaring a few more pickles as a side order, Dawn then picked up the plate and the study guide. The kitchen countertop looked a little worse for wear, with its smears of peanut butter and puddles of pickle juice, to say nothing of an open bread wrapper, sticky knife, balled-up napkins and discarded jar caps. But cleaning was a later task for lesser mortals, and Dawn didn't spare it a glance as she made her way toward the living room.
As she walked, she peered into the open book in her hand and couldn't entirely suppress a sigh. "Saturday night, and it's me, a pickle, and a thousand pages of boring. Oh yeah. Beware the coolness of me."
Raising the plate to her lips, she snagged a pickle between her front teeth and then jumped as the doorbell chimed. Since she was already closer to the front door than anywhere else, she looked around for a place to deposit her burden – but there wasn't enough room on the small foyer table and she had no spare hand with which to answer the door. She quickly began to succumb to the blind panic that often rises when communication devices become demanding. Consequently, she did the first thing that came to mind. She draped the open book atop her head. As she threw the latch, the bell rang again.
Dawn blinked at the visitor, eyes wide as she stood there, wearing her SAT prep guide like the most unattractive hat ever and holding a messy plate full of peanut butter-and-pickle sandwich. There was a tiny dab of peanut butter on the tip of her nose and a thin stream of green juice dribbled down her chin from the pickle clenched between her teeth.
Outside, standing on the threshold, was Grip, his finger still poised over the bell.
"Grih!" stammered Dawn, nearly dropping the pickle in her surprise.
And that was as far as she got. Surprised seemed to have struck Dawn mute, and paralysis soon followed. She could only watch as Grip lowered his hand and thrust it into his jacket pocket. He looked Dawn up and down for a few seconds, his expression inscrutable.
"Is that a pickle in your mouth," he asked deadpan, "or are you happy to see me?"
Dawn continued to simply stand in the doorway, as the SAT book slowly slid from her head and toppled to the floor.
Underneath a dark sky, over which an ever-stiffening wind drove the clouds like a herd of grey cattle, three young men sat huddled around a campfire. One was spinning a tale while his two companions listened intently, gaze fixed upon the storyteller whose own eyes darted quickly from one to the other as the words spilled from his mouth.
"Luke walked down the road as fast as he could. He swung the empty gas canister at his side and tried to focus on the outline of the cabin he could see in the distance. He tried not to think about the news reports. He tried not to think about Betty Kirkwood's funeral just two days ago. Get to the cabin, get gas, get the hell outta there."
His friends were listening intently, willing passengers along for the ride.
"He was so busy focusing on everything else that he never saw THE CHAINSAW KILLER RIGHT BEHIND HIM!"
It was difficult to say if it was the story or the sudden increase in volume that scared the audience. But they jumped, and the storyteller seemed to feel that was really all that was important.
"Luke screamed and screamed before turning and running away. He didn't know where he was going, he just knew he HAD TO GET AWAY! It didn't matter how fast he ran though, he could still here the ROAR of the CHAINSAW and the sound of the killer's boots – the boots that looked a little too much like Betty Kirkwood – getting CLOSER and CLOSER!" The storyteller paused briefly to suck in a much-needed breath. "He ducked to get around a tree blocking his path, but THE CHAINSAW KILLER WAS RIGHT IN FRONT OF—"
But the tale ended abruptly as the area was suddenly engulfed by the deafening whine and whir of a chainsaw, and as the towering figure wielding it crashed through the foliage and into the campsite.
The three young men shrieked in terror, but the piercing roar of the machine quickly suffocated their sounds.
As the distant buzz of a faint but unmistakable chainsaw reached their ears, Buffy, Willow, Xander and Giles looked up with quizzical expressions.
"Little late to be lumberjackin'," observed Willow.
Buffy frowned. "They can't cut trees down here, can they?"
"Well they sure got enough of 'em," said Xander. "They'll never miss one."
The sound attracting no particular alarm, Giles turned his attention back to the iron skillet he was holding to the fire. He gave the contents one final shake and then nodded in satisfaction at a job well done.
"Dinner's ready," he declared with a cheery smile. "We just need Faith and—" He noted the sound of approaching footfalls. "Ah, here they come."
Indeed, it was Faith and Tara who emerged from the forest behind the tents. They were conversing in voices just a tad too loud, but nobody seemed alarmed at this – until the pair was within the illuminated area of the site. Then, it was all too apparent that the only reason Tara was maintaining an upright position was due to the fact that Faith was holding her there.
Willow was the first to reach them, but the other three weren't far behind, all of them anxious at the appearance of their seemingly wounded friends.
"Are you okay?" asked Willow, frantically searching for signs of blood. She turned to Faith. "Is she okay? What ha—"
Upon hearing Willow's voice, Tara threw both arms around her girlfriend's neck and leaned forward, all her weight how coming to rest on the unprepared Willow. She staggered, and would have fallen, had Buffy not been behind Willow to offer support.
"Tara?" queried Willow with a worried frown.
Stirring, Tara looked up at Willow with a huge and goofy smile. She inhaled deeply, as though she were about to impart something of paramount importance.
"Hey," was the grand announcement.
"Hey?" echoed Willow, utterly confused.
Then she got a hearty whiff of Tara's breath.
"Hey!" she muttered, as her eyes narrowed in Faith's direction. "Hey!"
"Yeah, hey," acknowledged Faith. "Heard you the first time."
Giles hovered like a mother hen. "What's the matter, is anyone hurt?"
"Not yet," an amused Buffy told him.
Emergency over, Xander had returned to the fire. He dipped a large spoon into Giles' culinary masterpiece and scooped himself a super-sized helping. "Dinner and a show? You shouldn't have."
Meanwhile, Tara still beamed adoringly at Willow. "Hey," she repeated huskily.
Having regained her equilibrium, Willow was now able to sustain Tara without assistance, but the totality of her attention was focused on Faith.
Faith nodded. "You're welcome."
Unconcerned and as steady as ever on her feet, Faith deftly took the spoon from Xander and began to load her plate. Spying an aluminum tray of rolls, she snared two and sat cross-legged on the ground.
"'Mnot drunk!" denied Tara vehemently.
She struggled to straighten. It was a valiant effort to make her declared state of sobriety more convincing, but she was unable to pull it off. She flopped back into Willow's waiting arms and then lolled her head toward Giles.
"I am soooo drunk," she confided in a loud and not-in-the-least-confidential whisper.
"Yes, so it would appear," Giles patiently acknowledged. "Willow, perhaps we should..?"
He gestured to the logs that formed benches around the campfire. Firmly taking an arm while Willow took the other, they escorted Tara to the seating area, where they gently placed her down. But Willow wasn't about to let Faith get off so easily. She continued to toss glares, which Faith blithely ignored as she pushed food onto her fork with a piece of bread. Standing nearby, Buffy was ready to lend a hand if need be, but it seemed Giles and Willow had it under control, and she leaned down to Faith.
"She's gonna kill you."
"Nah," returned Faith through a mouthful of crumbs. "We don't do that any more. It's in the Reformed Bad Guy charter."
Once Tara appeared safely situated, the entirely of Willow's wrathful attention was directed at Faith. However, now devoid of any support, Tara leaned back too far and slowly slid from the log with a piercing yelp, her legs flailing desperately in the air. Immediately, Willow, Giles and Buffy hurried to assist the hapless Tara, while Xander quickly disposed of his plate and rushed to add his contribution to the rescue attempt. Entirely unmoved, Faith relieved the aluminum tray of another bread roll.
"Let her be," she recommended cheerfully. "She's fine."
Willow was incensed. "Fine? Fine?"
"The ground looks funny!" giggled Tara, lying flat on her back, head resting on a pile of dry leaves.
"That's fine?" asked Willow, eyes blazing.
After some rapid organization, Tara was once again righted and placed upon the log. For a second, it seemed she might take a second tumble, but Buffy was in attendance and Tara simply slumped backward an inch before coming to a stop.
"Nah-ah. We like our Taras up here, not down there."
Tara gave this statement serious consideration as she craned her neck in order to stare up at Buffy. Finally, she grinned.
"Okay," confirmed Buffy, patting Tara's head.
"God, Will," sighed Faith. "Give the girl some space. She's packed in so tight she's gonna crack."
Willow's brows knitted. "But—"
"She needed it to be okay to not be Tara for like two seconds," continued Faith, mopping her plate and then stuffing the last remnant of roll into her mouth. "So calm the hell down and let her have that."
Willow wanted nothing more than to formulate some scathing response, but found nothing coming out of her mouth, no matter how many times she opened and closed it. It was possible she would have kept trying all night, had she not felt a hand slipping into her own. Looking down, Willow saw that Tara was now sitting upright all by herself, albeit a little wobbly. Taking a more firm hold on Willow's fingers, Tara started to tug. Willow put up no resistance and allowed herself to be pulled down. As soon as she took her seat, Tara flung her arms around Willow's neck again and planted her with a resounding and smacking kiss to the cheek. Deep in thought, Willow absently brushed away tiny twigs and leaves that had become embedded in Tara's hair.
"Tara, you okay?" Willow finally asked.
Tara snuggled against Willow's shoulder. "Am now," she assured.
As though that settled everything, Willow gave a curt nod. "Okay then," she said, without a trace of her previous anger. "So let's get you settled with a few yummy carbohydrates and lots of water ..."
She delivered a squeeze to Tara's fingers and then moved to the fire, beginning to prepare a plate for each of them. Tara watched for a moment and then loudly announced, "I looooove you."
"At least she's a happy drunk," Xander noted. "Not that I've ever actually met a happy drunk. It's a Harris family tradition to get hateful and psychotic."
Tara's eyes drifted lazily in Xander's direction. She had a little trouble focusing, but then smiled. "I looooove you."
"This? So much better."
Faith stretched out her legs. "So what's next?" She held aloft a glass bottle, smoky-brown in color, and tipped it upside-down to show it was empty. "I'm all outta fun."
"We could break out the marshmallows?" suggested Willow.
Xander rubbed his palms together. "Marshmallows and storytime, sounds like a plan."
"Oh, I've got one!" said Buffy, bouncing up and down.
But Tara wasn't much in the mood for polite decorum. "Once there was—" began Tara, choking back a bubbling laugh. "There was this- this liiiiittle bitty bananan...anana, and he—" She almost fell off the log in her merriment. "The banana, not the captain!" She made a series of odd wheezes as she tried to hold in her amusement. "And, and, and when he painted the couch he said, he said ..."
It seemed that what "he said" would forever remain a mystery since Tara, now consumed with infinite jest, was unable to continue. Her laughter was of the open-mouthed, soundless variety. She flapped her hands helplessly and drove her heels into the dirt again and again, before finally holding her stomach and rocking back and forth in silent hilarity.
Willow's face showed no sign of emotion. "Can we have another bottle of water please?" she asked in monotone.
Giles was quick to comply.
"Your girlfriend's weird," commented Faith, which earned her one of Willow's finest glares.
"So Giles!" declared Xander, hoping to ease the mounting tension. "You used to go camping a lot, you must have lots of stories. What were you lovely lads up to in those deep, deep, dark, dark, deep dark woods?"
Handing the bottle of water to Willow, Giles reclaimed his seat. "They weren't that bad," Giles told him. "It was quite a pleasant place, really. But where I always preferred to go on holiday was the seaside. I remember one trip in particular when I was a small boy."
He settled his glasses on his nose and opened a large bag of marshmallows. As he spoke, he impaled them on long sticks and distributed them all around.
"My grandmother went with us that year," he recalled, "which was something of a rarity in itself. One night, much as we're doing now, we all gathered around the fireplace and told stories. Most of them were probably rubbish. I'm quite sure mine was, at any rate. But even now, I can remember hers."
He cleared his throat as the flames crackled.
"In a time not long ago, there were two best friends. As fate would have it, they were also sisters, and princesses. Everything they had was shared, and they shared everything they had. Until one day, when a handsome young man visited their castle and began courting the eldest princess."
The bulk of her attention on Giles, Buffy paid no heed as her marshmallow began melting horribly and dripping into the heart of the fire.
"For several months he would call upon the family, wooing the elder sister. But it was the younger who began to win his heart, and he hers. Still, he asked for the elder princess's hand in marriage and she, delighted, accepted. A wedding date was set and all was well."
Tara's eyelids began to droop a little, but she hiccupped happily.
"For a time. Until the elder princess discovered their true feelings. Blinded by rage, the elder sister dragged her younger sister to the ocean and pushed her into its hungry depths. She stood on the shore, watching her sister drown, and did not leave until she was certain of death. The body gave feast to the creatures of the deep, until finally nothing but bones and hair returned to land some distance away."
Xander impaled an ambitious three marshmallows on his stick. Feeling up to the challenge, he added a fourth, and continued to pass the bag down the line.
"A traveling harper chanced to see the remains," continued Giles, "and fashioned them into a grand new harp. His travels continued until he arrived at a castle, where he had been commanded to play at the lavish wedding between a handsome suitor and the now sole heir to the realm. Despite a pall of sadness, the festivities were magnificent, and the harper played with his new instrument as never before. After his performance, he set the harp on stage and went to join in the feast."
Giles paused for effect.
"And then the harp began to play itself, and sang to the entire kingdom the truth of how her older sister and best friend had murdered her."
There was a subdued silence as the tale came to an end. Willow was the first to speak.
"Good story, Giles! Really ... freakishly disturbing, but- but good!"
"Though you make me fear for your country," mumbled Xander, gooey marshmallow clinging to his mouth and fingers.
Giles calmly regarded the marshmallow he was currently roasting. "We've been fearing for yours since you destroyed a criminal amount of tea," he said curtly, "so that seems fair."
With a final resentful pop, the wood in the campfire curled, and the flames dipped well below prime roasting levels.
"More firewood time," Buffy announced, getting to her feet. "And a chance to reaffirm why I Just Say No to harps."
She stretched her muscles and then headed toward the woods. Tara, who apparently hadn't been asleep after all, leaned toward Giles.
"Mr. Giles?" she whispered – and this time it was in fact a whisper.
"You didn't tell us what you and your friends were doing in those woods."
Giles continued attempting to roast his marshmallow. "Tara," he said quite pleasantly, "do shut up."
"Okay," she agreed amicably, voice still hushed.
Buffy, meanwhile, was moving through the undergrowth, gathering what she considered to be suitable kindling. Initially, she hummed softly to herself but, the notes slowly died away, the deeper she went. Her gaze shifted constantly, taking in her surroundings. Everything seemed as it should be. She continued to collect firewood but her instincts remained on high alert. Bending down to retrieve a large piece of tree bark, it seemed that something rustled in the foliage to her left. It was impossible to be certain since the only available light was courtesy of the moon – intermittent at best, given the increasing cloud cover. Still, Buffy frowned. Her posture grew tenser as she straightened and faced the direction of the vague noises. She strained her ears but heard nothing. With a slight shrug, she returned to her foraging. There it was again. Out of the corner of her eye, it seemed as though shadows were moving in the dense bush. She straightened immediately, but the shades, if indeed they had ever been there, evaporated before she could be sure. Moving stealthily, she made her way forward.
So focused was Buffy on what she thought she saw, she completely failed to notice the vampire stalking her every step, coming closer and closer until within striking range, silently poised for the kill.
The vampire's fangs glistened wet in the moonlight. His eyes narrowed dangerously as he prepared to launch a final, deadly assault, but it never came. There was a flash of movement from behind the vampire, and suddenly he was gone.
Buffy whirled instantly, the scurrying shadows forgotten in favor of the sudden rustling from behind. One of the larger sticks was poised in her hand like a weapon, held aloft in strike position. She blinked at the raised stake, which she apparently didn't remember brandishing, and a strange expression crossed her features for a moment. Regardless, however, she pushed cautiously forward, parting the bushes and peering into the dense foliage. She waited for several heartbeats, her senses straining, but there was no sign of anything out of the ordinary. Still on alert, Buffy stepped back and began re-gathering the dropped firewood. With a final inspection of the surroundings, she made her way back to the campsite.
The silent trees remained vigilant in her wake, but not all were uninhabited. Loitering sure-footed -on a sturdy branch some fifteen to twenty feet above the ground, stood Oringo. In his fist, he clutched the lapels of the vampire who, only moments before, had been preparing to attack Buffy. The miserable creature was suspended like a rag doll that had lost most of its stuffing. Oringo's darkly piercing eyes followed Buffy as she moved away. He paid no attention to the muted gurgling of his captive, the only sounds possible from a throat that had been ripped to shreds.
Oringo gave the wretched vampire a shake. "Chad. Who do you think that is?" he asked, seeming to be disappointed.
In helpful fashion, Oringo rotated the vampire a few degrees so Chad dangled in Buffy's direction. For Buffy's part, although still proceeding with due caution, she was unaware of the events transpiring some distance behind.
"Think hard," said Oringo patiently. "I'll wait."
Finally, Chad managed a strangled splutter that may or may not have been an answer. With a sigh, Oringo returned the hapless vampire to his former position and hoisted him a little higher so they were face to face. He looked vaguely offended, like an instructor accustomed to only the best and brightest being forced to tutor a sub-par student.
"A Slayer, Chad," he told him, frustration beginning to creep into his voice, laced with an undertone of anger. "A Slayer. And if you'd killed her, what do you think would have happened, hm?" He waited and shook Chad again for good measure. "Lots more Slayers. The whole bloody Watcher's Council, that's what! Here! Now!"
Taking a deep breath, Oringo battled to regain his composure.
"This, Chad," he said calmly and quietly, "is why we have briefings."
Origino's prominently etched features gleamed like polished ebony by the light of the moon. He stared for a long while into Chad's eyes, as though he were probing the brain to see if any of this was getting through. The prisoner kicked his feet feebly as wet sounds bubbled sickly from a gaping hole where his throat used to be. Plainly unimpressed, Oringo allowed the vampire to drop unceremoniously from his hand.
Chad's descent was rapid, but abruptly halted about halfway down the trunk when he became impaled, with pinpoint accuracy, on the dual tines of a forked bough. He exploded into a cloud of dust, which was still spiraling as Oringo, with the agility of a panther, leapt from his perch and passed through its core. He landed with confident grace, disturbing not a single leaf lying on the forest floor. Straightening, he brushed himself off with an air of disdain and made his way deeper into the woods, away from Buffy.
He eventually arrived at a large clearing, three or four times the size of any campsite. A small group of robed figures, perhaps six in number, were slowly circling the perimeter of the clearing, their lips moving in silent chant. Scattered at strategic intervals were individual vampires, positioned to stand guard. These vampires were clothed in the same uniform worn by the now departed Chad. Indeed, Oringo was similarly dressed, except that his attire sported a distinctive ribbon of slim gold braid decorating the lapels and cuffs of his jacket.
Ignoring the posted guards, who kept their eyes diverted and their spines straight while maintaining an ever-watchful vigil, Oringo proceeded directly to the robed individuals. As he moved closer, it was clear that these too were vampires, although the symbols on their dark green garments suggested an association with the magickal arts. All were in a deep trancelike state, heavily involved in the process of a complex ritual.
"We're pulling out," Oringo announced with authority.
At the declaration, the uniformed vampires immediately sprang into action. With silent and swift efficiency, they set to work clearing the site. The robed individuals, however, did not seem to have heard the urgent command.
"Hey," said Oringo sharply, seizing one of the mystics by the arm. She stared through him as though he didn't exist, lips continuing to form the words of her soundless incantation. He snapped his fingers in front of her face, and eventually she emerged from the depths of her spellbound reverie. "Pack it up, we're leaving," he told her.
She blinked, slowly at first and then more rapidly as his words sunk in. "But we've only barely started." She was quite indignant "The location of the nexus must be precise. Even one millimeter off and—"
"I know," Oringo told her, grabbing another mage by the scruff of the neck as he glided along. "I don't care. Slayers are here."
The second mystic, having been so rudely awakened, recovered from his trance much faster than the first and when it became apparent that the ceremony had been disturbed, the remainder also quickly reentered the realm of reality.
"Slayers?" queried the first vampire sage with something of a sneer. "But ... surely you can handle a few Slayers."
Oringo refused to be goaded.
"My orders are not to 'handle' them," he said briskly. "And neither are yours. They'll learn of us when we're ready, and not one second before."
"But the nexus—"
"—will still be there. Go."
Unwilling and even somewhat fearful of crossing Oringo any further, the mystic signaled for her companions to gather their paraphernalia. With narrowed eyes, Oringo surveyed the clearing, his gaze coming to rest on the direction Buffy had taken.
At the campsite, Faith was in the process of telling a story. The Scoobies were gathered around attentively, all except Tara. Her ear's attention was definitely elsewhere. She sat off to one side, leaning over, her head mere inches from the ground as she listened intently. Nearby, Willow stood watch.
"You. Are so. Right!" declared Tara without warning. She straightened, but over-compensated. Still, she managed to retain her balance and seemed inordinately pleased with herself for doing so. She glanced around the immediate area.
"WillWillWillWillWillWill—" she began to chant.
Despite having devoted her full attention to watching Tara and seeing nothing wrong, Willow was instantly alarmed. "What? What is it?"
Tara blinked in Willow's direction but apparently failed to register anything.
"—WillWillWillWillWi—" She abruptly stopped and peered up into Willow's anxious face. "There y'are, finally. C'mere!"
By bending at the waist, Willow was already face-level to Tara. But that was clearly insufficient, as she suddenly found herself being wrestled all the way to the ground. Tara's arms were firmly clamped around Willow's neck and there was no escape. The pair tumbled backward and Tara giggled with glee.
Willow stared disconsolately at the overhead stars. "When's Sober Tara coming home again?" she asked with a plaintive sigh.
"Mr. Grass has a secret for you!" Tara confided in a loud stage whisper.
Struggling to sit upright and pulling Willow with her, she carefully scoped out her surroundings to make sure there were no unwanted eavesdroppers. She needn't have worried. Everyone else seemed perfectly content to leave the Tara Wrangling to Willow as they continued to listen to Faith's tale.
"Weebles wobble but they don't fall down," murmured Tara with a knowing nod.
But her neck bones appeared to turn to rubber at the movement and she was unable to maintain her equilibrium. Lurching sideways, she flopped into Willow's lap.
Arching an eyebrow, Willow gazed at the snuggling Tara with an indulgent smile. "Hate to break this to ya, baby, but I think you fail at Weeble."
With a short and barking laugh, Tara acknowledged the sentiment with a broad grin and a hiccup.
"I looooove you."
Willow shook her head with amusement. "Okay, okay, Drunk Tara can stay a little bit longer."
Faith, meanwhile, was fully engaged in her story. "So we wind up at some recycling plant, right," she said, leaning forward, "and I tell the guy, 'For the last time, buzz off!' Well you can guess how that went down, and he comes runnin' at me. I'm ready for him this time though. So I wait 'til just the last second and pull one'a those judo body flip things? Bam!" She punched a fist into her open palm. "Right in the crushed glass. Do my thing, and that's that." Sitting back, she let out a most contented sigh. "Hell of a night. Sure learned my lesson though."
Giles turned to Xander with a puzzled frown. Xander shrugged. He had nothing.
Polishing his glasses, Giles threw Faith an inquiring glance. "And, uhm, what- what was that exactly?"
"Never use blue ink," Faith advised, tapping a cigarette from her pack. Then, sensing a swift approach through the gloom beyond the camp, she quickly turned.
Everyone immediately tracked Faith's gaze, eyes straining to penetrate the darkness. Everyone that is except Tara, who was focused solely on Willow and busy informing her with no small amount of wonder that she was, "Oooooh sooo verrrry special."
Within seconds Buffy emerged into the firelight, her arms laden with assorted kindling. Casting a brief look over her shoulder, she frowned and then joined the group.
Xander stood to relieve Buffy of her load. "Finally," he said, tossing a handful of dry twigs into the sputtering flames. "What'd you do, grow your own tree?"
But Buffy chose to ignore the jibe. "Hey, has anyone felt like maybe there's something weird going on?"
"I want sixteen pecans! Not fifteen, sixteen," demanded Tara.
Willow looked at Buffy with a blank expression. "Yes."
But Buffy impatiently waved that aside. "I mean, something weird without a reason. Something US-weird."
"I can't say I've noticed anything particularly unusual," pondered Giles. "Faith?"
Faith puffed on her cigarette and shook her head. "I ain't seen a 7-11 in like eight hours. My concept of weird's waaay off."
Both Willow and Xander also shook their heads, but the negative assurances did little to ease Buffy's nagging instinct.
"I just got serious vibeage in the forest," said Buffy soberly. "I think there's something out there."
Giles was somewhat doubtful. "It is possible you're simply not used to being in this environment," he offered. "The open air, the- the lack of traffic, the sheer number of creatures that must inhabit this area ..."
"Yeah," agreed Buffy, "and it's the creatures I'm worried about. There's a lot of people up here with no clue what could really be out there."
Xander was eager for a little action. "I've got a marshmallow stick and a day's worth of stubble," he announced. "Let's do this."
"All right," agreed Giles, pushing up from his log. "I suppose a quick patrol of the surrounding area wouldn't go amiss."
The others also got to their feet, including Willow but not so much Tara. She was making a valiant effort and Willow was doing her utmost to help, but it appeared to be a losing battle.
"Will, maybe you and Tara should hold down the fort?" suggested Buffy.
Willow's expression plainly indicated her divided loyalty. "But if there's big nasties out there ..."
"Don't come much bigger an' nastier than this," grinned Faith, jerking her thumb at the group in general.
Giles adjusted his glasses. "Thank you. I think."
"I'm sure it's nothing," said Buffy, dismissing her own concern. "Don't worry. And hey, if nothing turns into something, we have our witchy-powered backup posse."
"She said 'posse'," snorted Tara, breaking into a giggle.
With an amused roll of her eyes, Willow situated Tara safely back on the ground in front of the fire and then sat beside her.
"Me and Giles, you and Xander?" asked Buffy, looking to Faith for verification.
Faith was agreeable. "Works for me."
Giles checked his wristwatch. "We'll meet back here in half an hour?"
There were nods of acknowledgment all round as Buffy and Giles exited to the left, while Faith and Xander veered to the right. The pair remaining behind watched their departure.
"Okay, bye!" called Tara.
At the edge of the clearing, Xander turned to give her a wave. With much enthusiasm, Tara waved back. And then, the two groups were swallowed by the darkness.
Willow patted Tara's hand. "So! What'cha wanna do now?"
"Tell me a story."
Willow was rather pleased with the suggestion. "You got it." She settled herself comfortably. "Once upon a time there was a little—"
"Not you! Silly billy!
Confused, Willow frowned as Tara's attention turned to the campfire.
"You!" she commanded, pointing to the flames and promptly listening with rapt attention.
A dubious expression crossed Willow's face for a moment as she observed the scene. Then she sighed, grabbed the open bag of marshmallows and popped one into her mouth.
The fire blazing in the living room hearth filled the area with a warm and comfortable intimacy. Dawn and Grip sat cross-legged on the rug in front of the fireplace grate. The coffee table to the side held an abandoned and forgotten SAT study guide, together with an untouched peanut butter-and-pickle sandwich.
Grip stared into the flames. Deep in thought, he didn't look at Dawn. She had inched as close as she felt appropriate, while still giving Grip plenty of space. She waited patiently, silently, for him to speak, her eyes never leaving his profile.
"A god?" asked Grip eventually.
"A hellgod," Dawn eagerly clarified. " God of Hell. So ... yeah, basically a god, but with extra features."
Grip could do nothing but blink and shake his head a little as he continued to focus forward.
Still, it was a question, and Dawn took her little bit of encouragement and ran with it. "But she'd been reborn and had to share her body with this guy Ben who turned out to be an even bigger slimewad than Glory (if you can imagine it) so she was sort of de-powered from normal hellgod levels."
"And you're a key."
"The Key," Dawn corrected, babbling nervously again. "Capital-K. I know, sort of uncreative. I think I'd rather be, I dunno. The Parmposet. Or some other weird word those Dragon Dungeon geeks use."
She attempted a smile as Grip turned toward her. He searched her face with his dark brown eyes, apparently seeking something. Dawn willingly bore the scrutiny, returning Grip's gaze with a candid expression until he looked away again.
"Are you ..." He swallowed. "Are you human?"
For most people, an easy question to answer, but Dawn wasn't most people. Wanting to be as honest as possible, she gave it serious consideration.
"Yeah," she finally stated with conviction. "But ... more."
Grip's voice became hushed. "Are you a god?"
"If I was a god," Dawn replied with a wry grin, "do you think I would punish myself with Chemistry?"
Her joke succeeded in lessening the tension somewhat, and Grip couldn't help but chuckle.
"I'm not a god," she assured. "I'm the Key." She frowned and shook her head. That wasn't quite right. "I'm Dawn."
Grip focused on Dawn once more. He seemed to be committing her features to memory, perhaps even comparing them to the mental picture of the girl he had first met. There were no visible differences between then and now. As for the differences he couldn't see...
Sighing, Grip faced the fire. "So this god ..." he prompted.
Picking up on the cue, Dawn continued with her story. "It took a while, but she finally figured out that I was the Key. Actually, Tara kind of told her— But accidentally," she was quick to defend, "because she was all mindsucked at the time and—"
She stopped as Grip began to massage his forehead, now even more lost than ever.
"Less details, less confusion. Got it." Dawn hurried back on track. "Glory found out it was me. Me was the Key. And she needed the Key real bad for her ritual to get back to her home hell dimension."
Grip's brows knitted as he made a supreme effort to reconcile within his brain the fantastical details he was hearing. Still, he maintained his silence and listened without interruption.
"We'd been fighting her for months," Dawn explained. "But nothing was really working. She was just too powerful. So Buffy decided we'd run for it. She just, boom, dropped everything to try and keep me safe."
A tiny smile crossed Dawn's lips and the words were delivered with no small amount of affectionate pride. But the mood didn't linger.
"Unfortunately we got caught by these Knights of Byzantium guys – think way obsessed Dragon Dungeon geeks – and cornered in this old smelly gas station in the middle of the nowhere. That's when Glory found us."
Grip turned sharply to Dawn, looking at her with great concern. Dawn tried to smile reassuringly, but despite herself, she seemed to become smaller and more vulnerable.
"I've never been so scared in my entire life. She was just ..." She tried to laugh, but it came out more like a choked sob. "Really freaking crazy, you know? And all she could talk about was bleeding me to death, a-and saying it like it was a fun thing, like- like we were going to the carnival or something."
Biting her lip, Dawn stared at the ceiling, fighting to keep from reliving that night any more than she already was.
Deep as she was in her own thoughts, it was with surprise that she felt something warm and familiar. She looked down to see that Grip had taken her hand in his own and was gently squeezing her fingers, offering whatever comfort he was able to give. She turned her head toward him to find his expression no longer reflecting anger or hurt or disbelief – only caring.
Another sobbing laugh bubbled from Dawn's throat, but this one echoed with gratitude. Rubbing her nose and giving a huge sniff, she took a deep breath and continued.
"I tried so hard to be brave." Her expression took on one of defiance. "I kept telling Glory that Buffy was coming, that Buffy would kick her lame-o god ass all the way to hell personally. Even when they made me put on the ritual gown, even on the top of that tower, even after they started slicing me open—" Alarmed, Grip squeezed her fingers even tighter, but Dawn didn't notice. "I knew Buffy would save me."
Dawn lifted her chin and treated him to an extremely proud smile. "And you know what? She did."
Her eyes were shining wet, and Dawn swiped her free hand across them. "Buffy beat a god for me. Buffy di—"
But she stopped short, unwilling to jump straight to the end. Calming again, she continued in a more sober tone.
"Like I said, they cut me up pretty good. With the blood already flowing, there wasn't anything anybody could do. The walls between dimensions were falling, and everything started spilling in and mixing together. Demons and monsters and every nightmare you've ever had. And it was growing. The ritual needed blood, and until it had enough, it was going to get worse."
Realizing Grip was still squeezing her fingers, she reciprocated with a smile. He nodded encouragingly, providing her with support to continue.
"I should've died on that tower, Grip." His face displayed open anxiety at that statement. "And I tried, you know? I was ready to do what I had to, to save the everybody. But Buffy saved me from that, too. Buffy died for me."
Having made it that far, Dawn blinked with some surprise. Telling the whole story, to someone who didn't have their own overriding memories of that horrible night, seemed to have been a unexpected catharsis. Bolstered by both that sensation and the fact that Grip hadn't already fled the scene – was, in fact, still there and holding her hand – Dawn continued. Her voice adopted a distinctly lighter tone.
"That summer was just, oh my god, the worst. We had to make sure nobody knew that—"
But Grip was not sharing her enthusiasm. Far from being freed from a burden, he looked as though he'd just been told to carry the entire Library of Alexandria through an obstacle course. And there seemed to be one focal point in particular, one hurdle that he couldn't quite leap.
"Oh, well, not now, of course," replied Dawn, still obliviously riding her cathartic high. "Willow brought her back."
Grip's complexion grew even more pallid. For some reason, he now felt compelled to talk in a whisper. "Willow can bring back the dead?"
"Not all the dead," admitted Dawn. "It's pretty complicated, trust me. Like, she couldn't bring Tara back when—"
The small amount of blood that still colored Grip's face dissipated in its entirety. "Tara's dead?"
Dawn chafed his hand sympathetically.
"These are really a bunch of different stories we're kinda mashin' into one here." She tossed him something of a self-depreciating smirk. "I have a lot of stories."
Grip remained shell-shocked. "Yeah, I'm seeing that."
Slowly, he disentangled his fingers, and Dawn began to realize that Grip was not sharing in her jubilant mood. As quickly as she rose, she crashed.
Running his newly-liberated hand through his hair, Grip tried to organize his thoughts.
"I meant what I said, Dawn," he told her, and there was no doubting his sincerity. "I want to understand. Not being with you ..." He shook his head slowly. "It feels like I'll never be happy again if you're not around. But—"
"Can't we just forget the 'but's and focus on the first part?" Dawn asked, but without genuine hope.
"But," Grip insisted, "all this. Gods and vampires and Slayers and ... and Keys. I don't— What am I supposed to think?"
Despite everything she had said, everything he had heard, one thing remained clear. "You still don't believe me."
"I want to believe you, I swear I do," Grip insisted. "Just that—"
"Proof," Dawn finished for him.
"You need proof."
"I ..." Grip puffed and thought about it. "Yeah? I dunno ... Maybe? Maybe something to—"
"It's okay," Dawn said soberly. "I get that. You need proof?"
Extending both hands in front of her, palms upward, Dawn closed her eyes and began to concentrate, her brow becoming deeply furrowed. Grip watched the theatrics with an unmistakably skeptical eye. But then a green glow materialized, hovering over Dawn's hands. Instinctively, Grip leaned back, regarding Dawn with nervous anxiety. She continued to focus as the glow intensified. Across the room, a similar radiance emanated from inside a large wooden chest. Slowly, deliberately, and with perhaps a touch more drama than was entirely necessary, Dawn's fingers began to curl as though she was grasping the light itself. Just as both her hands formed fists, the dual glows escalated to their highest points of illumination. Just as quickly as they had flared, they dissipated, and Dawn was left clutching two sharpened stakes, one in each hand.
She gave one to Grip, who accepted it more from automatic courtesy than anything else. He stared at the pointed stick with amazement while Dawn hefted the one she held in a very business-like fashion. She nodded with confidence.
"I'll give you proof."
In the depths of the forest, the silence was shattered by the sound of footsteps running, accompanied by much huffing and puffing. Tree branches rustled violently at the rapid approach, and it wasn't long before Xander and Faith galloped through the foliage. Rounding the nearest tree, they hid behind the thick trunk, each peering out from either side. After a second or two, they threw each other a quick glance and nodded. The coast was clear.
The immediate danger past, the two burst into gales of laughter. Folded almost entirely in half, Faith fought to regain control. For his part, Xander slid down the trunk and collapsed onto the forest floor, kicking his legs and making a supreme effort to stifle his booming laughter for fear of attracting unwanted attention.
"Did you— Did you see her face?" panted Faith, still doubled over.
Xander threw himself wholeheartedly into a fresh bout of hilarity. "That wasn't all I saw!" he wheezed.
Faith roared and leaned on the tree for support while Xander clutched as his sides and rolled back and forth on a blanket of leaves.
"Oh man, and the—" Xander wiped his streaming eyes. "The way you went chargin' in there!"
Faith brandished her stake high and, her voice deepened due to the weight of the extra bravado it now carried, heroically announced, "Don't worry, I'll save you!"
This set them both into a fresh bout of uncontrollable laughter.
"Serious— Seriously," choked Faith struggling for composure. "I thought he was gonna kill you."
Inhaling deeply, Xander managed to sit up straight, his chuckles beginning to subside. "Me too, for a second there." His eyes began to well up again. "Until he fell tryin' to get his pants on and brought the whole tent down!"
Within seconds, it was as though the laughter had never stopped. No longer concerned with keeping a low profile, they both gave up trying to keep the noise to a minimum, and just allowed the giggle fit to run its course. Eventually, when it seemed like much less of a losing battle, they were able to exert some control.
Leaning over, Faith offered Xander a hand, which he graciously accepted. With Faith's help, he brushed himself clean of dry twigs and dead leaves.
"Ahhhh," sighed Xander contentedly. "So, evil?"
Faith shrugged. "Got another five minutes to kill, why not?"
In amiable silence, they made their way along the overgrown path, alert but casual about it. Xander was the first to break the hush.
"So Faith," he broached, capitalizing on the jovial atmosphere. "We haven't really talked a whole lot lately. How've you been?" He gave her a sideways glance. "With, you know ... Hazel and everything."
"Forget me," Faith was quick to dismiss. "What's this I hear about you finally hoppin' back in the dating pool?"
"What?" he exclaimed, obviously taken aback. "How did you hear about that? And hey, don't change the subject!"
"Heard she's a helluva looker too," smirked Faith, twirling her stake like a baton.
Xander gave a soppy grin. "Yeah, she is pretty— Hey! You did it again! Stop that!"
"Firefighter too, huh?" Faith pushed. "Bet she can put out your flame any time she—"
"Faith, I mean it," warned Xander.
With a sigh of aggravation, Faith pulled up short and turned to Xander.
"Look," she told him. "It's as much a surprise to me as anyone, but I'm actually having fun this weekend. I really don't wanna take a crap all over that right now, okay?"
With no small amount of reluctance, Xander nodded his agreement. "Okay. But later, we're talking about this."
"Rain check, signed, sealed, delivered," confirmed Faith, and the patrol continued.
"So this new girl," she resumed. "You two all serious?"
"Not all serious," Xander replied. "Maybe one-seventy-fifths serious."
"Little too serious for my tastes, but whatever rocks your boat."
They continued for another few paces.
"She rockin' your boat yet?" asked Faith with a sly grin, oblivious to Xander's much-suffering groan.
In a different area of the forest, Giles and Buffy were exploring and investigating without much luck. Giles checked his watch and surveyed the surrounding quiet.
"We ought to be heading back now," he advised. "I don't think there's anything particularly strange out here ... save for the incessant need to put food on sticks."
"Yeah, all's quiet on the wooden front," Buffy confirmed and then shook her head. "I swear I felt something."
"Well, perhaps you frightened it away with your remarkably vibrant jacket," said Giles dryly.
With an offended expression, Buffy regarded her jacket – perfectly normal by Buffy-standards – and glared at Giles' retreating back for a satisfyingly long moment before following.
They had gone no more than a few yards before Buffy reached out and grabbed his sleeve. Giles had heard it too, a distinct rustling in the undergrowth. Buffy gestured for Giles to move to one side. He complied, picking up a sturdy branch in the process. Buffy moved across from him, makeshift stake at the ready. They waited in silence for the rustling to come closer, which it did. Closer and closer until the foliage eventually parted.
Stepping out of the gloom came the Ranger. He blinked at Giles, tree branch reared back to strike, and then at Buffy, stick aloft in her hand. He nodded affably to both of them.
"Hey. You two playin' a game?"
Giles looked at the hefty branch he was holding and quickly hid it behind his back.
"Yeah," said Buffy. "We're playing ... hide and go stake."
The Ranger nodded and gave them the thumbs-up. "Most excellent."
"I assume you are the, uhm ... primary authority for- for this area?" asked Giles, settling his glasses on his nose.
"Huh?" queried the Ranger in jovial but puzzled fashion.
Giles sighed. "You're in charge?"
"Oh, yeah!" came the reply. "11 to 6, every night!"
Buffy narrowed her eyes. "Have you noticed anything ... weird?"
The Ranger considered the question for a moment. "Saw a bunny rabbit playin' blackjack with an anchovy. That was pretty weird," he offered.
Giles regarded the other man with an extremely odd expression. He looked to Buffy, who promptly made a flapping motion by the side of her head, while gazing heavenward and making an "ooo" shape with her lips. Giles turned back to the Ranger.
"Have you perchance come to observe anything especially untoward with regard to this forest's temporary human inhabitants?" he inquired politely.
"Now you're doing it on purpose," hissed Buffy under her breath.
"Maybe a little," Giles admitted, also under his breath.
Buffy translated. "Have you noticed anything weird about the campers?"
"Oh!" He thought long and hard. "No, not really. They don't stay too long, but Uncle Max says ..." He frowned and seemed to be probing the mysterious depths of his memory bank. "'That is to be expected during the bitter winter months and shouldn't be a concern'."
He grinned, extremely pleased with his powers of instant recall.
Giles ignored him utterly. "I really don't think there's anything here, Buffy."
"You need snacks or somethin'?" asked the Ranger in friendly fashion, jabbing a thumb over his shoulder. "I got a mini-fridge back at the cabin."
"Your generous offering is most cordial indeed," Giles told him. "Nevertheless we must regretfully decline in lieu of an exceedingly crucial engagement elsewhere."
The Ranger looked from Buffy to Giles and then to Buffy again. "Huh?" he queried.
"Maybe next time," said Buffy.
"Cool!" he declared happily. "Catch you later!"
They watched him continue on his merry way before going off on their own.
Buffy was obviously amused, but she tried to hide the fact. "You are such a snob sometimes."
"I'm a Watcher," said Giles with an air of warranted superiority. "We're trained to be."
Upon their arrival at the campsite, they found that Xander and Faith had already returned. The pair was sitting close to Willow, chatting animatedly amongst themselves. Providing stark contrast, Tara was utterly inanimate. Sprawled on the ground with her head cradled in Willow's lap, her mouth was wide open and, at regular intervals, a soft snore escaped from her lips.
Willow turned to Giles and Buffy. "Find anything?"
Hands in his pockets, Giles looked up at the moon. "No intelligent life to speak of."
Buffy rolled her eyes. "We found the guy in charge of the campsite. No joy luck there either." With a sigh, she threw herself down next to Willow. "Just another case of paranoia Buffy."
"Better paranoid than paradead," said Willow firmly.
"Yeah, it's all good," agreed Xander, resting against a log with his legs stretched out in front of him. The open bag of marshmallows was in his lap. "Now we can enjoy a wiggins-free weekend."
"Thanks, guys," said Buffy. She inclined her chin toward Tara. "So what's up with Sleeping Beauty?"
Willow regarded the comatose Tara with much fondness. "She conked out about ten minutes ago. This was after talking to the grass and getting into a fistfight with a pine cone for talkin' crap about me." She flailed small punches into the air by way of effect and grinned.
"Yeah, your girlfriend's weird," Faith confirmed with a nod.
Again came Willow's most intimidating glare. Again, Faith didn't appear to be overly concerned.
"I think Tara's paving the way for us all," observed Xander. "But first there are some who are shirking their storytelling duties."
Brightening, Buffy raised her eyebrows expectantly.
"So cough us up a story, Will," said Xander.
With a thinly disguised huff, Buffy slumped back to the ground, just as Willow rose to the challenge.
"Story, story ... Okay!" She stated with delight.
Clearing her throat in readiness, Willow settled herself and managed to nudge the side of Tara's head in the process. Annoyed at being disturbed, Tara gave a strange whiny growl and swatted in Willow's general direction but didn't awaken.
"Once upon a time," Willow began, "there was beautiful unicorn, who lived in the field of Evershine. All day, the unicorn would play with the butterflies, eat dandelions and drink from the Sweetwater River. One day—"
"Boo. Boooo," heckled Xander.
"Lame," sneered Faith.
"Mega-lame," Buffy agreed.
Giles didn't lend much in the way of support either. "It does seem a little ... saccharine?"
Willow regarded the group with a "hrmph", but was determined not to give up. Once more, she cleared her throat.
"Okay," she began again. "Once upon a time, there was a poor little orphan girl. Her only friend in the whole wide world was her stuffed dog Horace, and she wanted more than anything for Horace to be real. So one night, when she saw a falling star, she closed her eyes and wished and wished—"
The heckler returned with a vengeance. "Again I say booo."
"I look eight to you?" asked Faith.
"Work with your target audience, Will," advised Buffy. "Not against them."
Giles simply stared. "Horace?"
Although somewhat disgruntled, Willow refused to be brought down. She took a deep breath, thought long and hard for a moment, and with a wicked grin, prepared for another try.
"In the very heart of the Black Forest," she began, speaking slowly and dramatically while using her best creepy, low voice, "there lived a creature so vile, so evil that the local villagers refused to even say its name, for fear it would hear them ... and come for them."
There were no protestations this time. Very pleased and bolstered by the lack of interruption, Willow threw herself into the story with even more energy.
"The beast stood six— No, no, seven feet tall, wi-with skin as black as evil itself and huge hollow sockets where its eyes should be but instead there were living flames just- just shooting out." Her fingers jabbed outward from her eyes, illustrating said flames.
"And no nose! And huge, razor-sharp claws on each hand, and the teeth!" She gave a mock snarl. "Its mouth went from ear to ear, a-a-and when it opened its mouth there were tw- thr- five rows of giant dagger-like teeth that could grind bone into powder in less than a second, and when it roared, i-it sounded like—"
Everyone – except Tara, who was still blissfully dead to the world – jumped as a thunderous and bellowing growl suddenly echoed around the campsite. It was spine-chilling, ear-splitting, mind-blowing. All the horrific sounds of creation combined into one terrifying symphony.
"—that!" finished Willow in a tiny squeak.
The threatening growl was quickly followed by another. Even Tara stirred grumpily and then opened her eyes. Despite the instinctive fear the sound produced, it didn't take long for the Scoobies to move into alert mode. Scrambling to their feet – Willow unceremoniously displacing Tara's head in the process – they anxiously scanned the surrounding area, but the roar seemed to be assaulting their ears from every conceivable direction. After a few nerve-wracking seconds, Giles spied a movement in the bushes to the left.
All eyes turned to look.
"Oh my god, that's it!" announced a stunned Willow. "That's— Hey, I made you up!" she accused the monster, offended that it had the gall to step out of her story and become real.
The creature lumbered toward them and for several agonizing moments, paralysis struck the group as a whole. Still on the ground, Tara sat up unsteadily and swayed a little as she eyed the monstrosity.
"Whoa," she observed with no little awe. "Thassa big cat."
Grip grunted loudly as he was slammed against a marble headstone. Thoroughly winded, he slumped to the ground and was just beginning to regain his bearings when a heavy boot lashed out, aimed directly at his stomach. But Grip had seen the attack coming and was able to curve with the impact. Consequently, the blow didn't hurt quite as much as it might, but was nonetheless painful. The boot prepared for a repeat trip, and this time, Grip was able to avoid it altogether by a desperate body roll. He was trying to scramble to his feet when a hand reached out and snatched a fistful of tee-shirt. Suddenly, Grip found himself staring into the cold and lividly yellow eyes of a vampire. The sound that burst from Grip's throat was almost primal, a gut reaction born from coming face-to-face with something that logically should never exist. Acting wholly on instinct, he landed a solid uppercut to the vampire's jaw. The vampire was rocked back, but its hold on Grip didn't falter. What was more, the vampire was grinning, relishing in the idea of prey fighting back.
But the glee was short-lived. With a high-pitched shriek, probably intended to be a battle cry, Dawn leapt on the vampire's back and began to rain punches on the top of his head. She inflicted little real damage, but the whole affair was agonizingly annoying. Flinging Grip to one side, he scrabbled at his back, trying to extract Dawn from his person.
Landing on the ground in a heap, Grip shook his head in an attempt to clear both mind and vision. Seeing the vampire flailing to get a hold on Dawn, Grip didn't hesitate. He covered the distance rapidly with his lengthy stride and, mustering every ounce of strength, struck the monster across the chin with a double-fisted blow.
The end result was a vampire with a split lip - and one who was now even more pissed off than before. Grip realized that this was far from a good situation, but he wasted no time in capitalizing on his perceived advantage. He tried to duplicate the move, but this time, the vampire was ready for him. Just as Grip swung, leaving himself exposed and vulnerable, the vampire lashed out at Grip's already injured midsection.
Once again, Grip found himself on intimate terms with graveyard soil. Temporarily out of commission, he was helpless to assist Dawn, who was now screaming in both fear and frustration as the vampire grabbed her by the hair, wrenching her roughly from atop his shoulders. He made ready to kill, lips drawn back in a snarl to reveal wickedly honed fangs, but he lingered too long in pleasurable anticipation.
Launching a flying tackle that would have made any college quarterback proud, Grip plowed into the vampire's legs and they all tumbled to the ground in a heap. Recovering quickly, Dawn immediately perched on the vampire's chest, doing her best to pin him down in a move she had likely picked up from her training sessions with Kennedy. There was a thrashing flurry of limbs, but for the moment Dawn had leverage.
"Grip, the stake!" she shouted, barely managing to contain the vampire. "Get a stake!"
For a brief second, it seemed that Grip didn't understand, but then something clicked and he began scouring his surroundings as rapidly as possible for one of the fallen weapons.
"Stake, stake, stake, stake," he chanted in something of a panicked mantra. Then, his eyes glittered as he spotted one of the pointed sticks. Hurriedly, he scooped it up with a triumphant, "Stake!"
In his rush to get back to Dawn, who in danger of losing her advantage at any moment, he failed to notice a second vampire emerge from behind a crypt. The vampire didnít miss a beat in engaging in hot pursuit. Dawn's eyes opened wide in terror as she screamed, almost drowning out Grip's cry of pain and surprise.
There was no screaming at the campsite. No pain, no surprise. There was, in fact, no sound at all. No terrifying howls, no clash of weapons, not even a hint of labored breathing. Everything seemed entirely normal, save perhaps for the unmoving body of the giant monster sprawled just inches from where it had appeared. One tent pole, slightly used, was sticking out of its chest at an angle that could only be described as "uncomfortable". This, coupled with the tattered remains of blue tarpaulin in Faith's hands, were the only signs that a battle may have taken place.
The Scoobies had gathered around the head of the beast, peering down at it with mild wonder.
Buffy tilted her head first to one side and then the other, her bangs dangling in her face. "That," she finally decided, "was so disappointing."
Faith gave a somber nod. "It was like goin' out with a body builder," she said, trying unsuccessfully to push her hair back out of her face. "You see a lot of promisin' stuff, but when you get right down to it? Zero bang for your buck."
She shook her head ruefully, heedless of the stares she was now receiving from everyone, even semi-intoxicated Tara. But the allure of the creature was too strong, and the group returned to staring down at it, contemplating.
"He's your terrifying piece of evil, Will," stated Xander. "What's he supposed to do now?"
Willow shrugged. "I was making him up as I went along, I hadn't got that far yet."
"Bad kitty," Tara admonished with a frown.
"I almost wish you hadn't dispatched it quite so quickly," confessed Giles. "I admit curiosity as to what it might actually have done."
Xander was in complete agreement. "One push, and you might've knocked it the hell over. Then maybe you could've not used our tent as a murder weapon."
"Yes, that was my other thought," Giles mused.
Glancing away from the monster to shoot an accusatory look at Buffy, he continued, "I mean didja have to go all Bruce Jenner with our stuff?"
Buffy was unapologetic. "It was closest."
Drawing in a shuddering breath, Tara asked, "Is anybody else maybe ... maybe wondering where it came from?" She looked as though the question caused had caused her no small amount of pain.
The Scoobies immediately redirected their focus.
"Tara?" Willow asked hopefully.
Tara's response was to wince and hold her forehead as though she were fighting to keep her brain from bursting out of her skull in a very Athenian way. "Ow."
"I think she's sobering up!" Willow announced happily to the others.
"I'd like to stop now please, okay?" Tara croaked.
Xander shook his head wistfully. "Oh, the many nights I've said that."
With the initial interest now past, the group straightened and looked away from the fairly grotesque body of the dead monster.
"Tara's right," said Giles. "We need to figure out where this creature came from, and how it came about at all."
As Giles spoke, Buffy caught Faith's eye and, with her gaze, indicated a section of the woods a few yards away. Faith gave an almost imperceptible nod and, slowly and casually, began to inch her way closer.
"Let's start with what we know," began Buffy, speaking in a voice that was slightly louder than really necessary. As she spoke, she began pacing back and forth as though doing her best attention-attracting Hercule Poirot. "Willow was telling a really bad story—"
"Hey!" came an indignant cry.
"—followed by a really bad story, followed by a potentially less-bad story." Buffy spun on her heel and continued pacing. "She describes a scary monster in vivid detail, and seconds later, that monster shows up." Spin. "But that's not the really weird part."
Without warning, Faith threw the remains of the tarp into the brush and dove after it. The sounds of scuffling – and more than a little swearing - reached the Scoobies, but before they could move to investigate, Faith was on her feet once more, holding the tarp aloft like a sack.
And not just any sack. A sack full of something squirming and violently thrashing about.
"The really weird part," Buffy continued as though there has been no interruption, "is the whatever-that-is watching our every move."
Faith and the sack rejoined the group. Although somewhat muffled, from within the small swatch of tarp came a high-pitched, thoroughly nerve-grating series of sounds that seemed to be without end. That is, until Faith lashed out with her sack-free hand and, judging from the immediate lack of thrashing, managed to get her fist around whatever was inside.
Faith addressed the sack in a calm, clear voice. "Cut that out, or I squash you into paste and we try this again with one'a your buddies."
The noise cut out immediately with a squeak of "ooo!", and the bag fell silent.
With a nod to the others, Faith indicated that she was ready, and began to open the bag. Slowly, and careful to maintain her firm grip, she peeled back folds of tarp like a banana.
As she did so, Buffy decided to compound on the threat. "You saw what we did to your big friend? That was a warm-up act."
Finally the thing's head became visible. Although its body was still encased in tarp and Faith's fist, it appeared as though the short, silky russet brown fur on its head would be found all over. Starting from the ridge of its forehead and disappearing from view down its back was a raised tuft of lighter, pearly grey fur. It had heavy eyebrows of the same russet color, and beneath, a pair of beady, unblinking coal-black eyes. With these, it stared at Buffy. Buffy's expression did not change.
"Not for paste!" the little creature pleaded, clearly believing every word the Slayers had said. "Wilderkin enjoy three-dimensions!"
Its voice might have been described as "melodious", if the melody was performed by a third grade orchestra made entirely of kazoos. Tara in particular grimaced at the shrill sound and held her head again.
Willow stared with fascination. "'Wilderkin'? Is that your name?"
"Wilderkin is Wilderkin," it responded. "All are or are not."
Also peering closer, Giles suggested, "The name of their species, perhaps?"
Faith gave the creature a small shake to attract its attention. "How many'a you are there?"
It didn't answer immediately, giving the question some thought.
"Four," it finally declared.
The Scoobies exchanged a glance.
"Bring them all out here," Buffy told it.
This was clearly not such a good idea from the creature's perspective. "Wilderkin are shy to the meeting of those not of the—"
There was a slight crunching sound as Faith began to apply pressure.
"—but always we are adapting!" it finished in a strained voice.
The Wilderkin opened it mouth and another series of piercing notes, presumably its native language, spilled out. The noise was painful to everyone, though again Tara seemed to suffer the most. Had she been offered the choice of continuing to listen to the Wilderkin or putting her tongue in a vice, she would have found the decision a difficult one.
Xander was trying to shove his hands entirely into his ears to block the sound. "It's like Alvin and the Chipmunks singing Marilyn Manson!" he complained over the din.
Eventually, the horrible screeching ceased, and the Scoobies could hear the rustling of something moving in the forest. As they watched, more Wilderkin appeared. A lot more. At first glance there were at least thirty of them.
On average, the Wilderkin stood no higher than 12 inches tall. Their arms were short, ending in little padded paws with rudimentary claws that seemed to be designed more for digging than for fighting. Their large feet were visible from beneath their rotund bellies, but there was no sign of a leg to speak of. The Wilderkin appeared to go straight from torso to ankle without anything in between.
Giles peered at their captive. "I thought you said there were four of you?"
Its hands incapacitated, the Wilderkin could only use its head to point. "One," it said, indicating the closest of its kind. "Two. Three. Rest are four. Do not paste!"
Faith rolled her eyes at the plea and glared at the creature. "I'm puttin' you down now, but if you— If any'a you," she warned, addressing the entire gathering, "so much as thinks about runnin' ..." She brought the heel of her boot down hard on a nearby twig. The resulting snap echoed through the clearing, and a rumble of nervous, high-pitched chatter ran through the assembled Wilderkin.
The one in her hand nodded its head as vigorously as it could. Tentatively, Faith removed the tarp and set it down in front of its fellows.
Buffy decided to hammer the point further home. "And a little more food for thought. Do any of you know what a witch is?"
There was another rush of chatter, but Buffy didn't wait for confirmation before she looked to Willow.
In an almost detached manner, Willow extended her right palm toward the campfire. Tall tongues of dazzling orange instantly leapt from the burning wood. Her left hand hovered above the blaze, manipulating the flames with lightning speed. They swirled and danced like a reborn Phoenix with fluttering wings. Abruptly allowing her left hand to fall at her side, she threw her right arm to the heavens, stretching upward as far as she could reach. The fiery tongues immediately obeyed her silent command. Crackling with energy, the sparking darts burned brighter and brighter, higher and higher, following an invisible path that journeyed into the depths of the night sky. Without a word, Willow cast her arm back again, and the orange flames promptly returned to the kindling.
"That was awesome," Xander whispered.
"Jus' this lil' thing I do," Willow replied with a grin.
Highly impressed, the Wilderkin chatter increased tenfold. The effect for the Scoobies was like having fingernails raked over their exposed spinal cords.
Speaking loud to be heard over the din, Buffy dramatically announced, "And we've got two witches."
Willow ran her hand up and down Tara's back sympathetically. "Only the other has a teensy headache."
"So if you could maybe not make that sound again ... ever," a pained Tara managed to get out, "that would be really nice."
The noise died immediately. The threats had worked like a charm. The Wilderkin were nervous, but trying to run was the farthest thing from their minds.
Xander leaned toward his friends, speaking in a low voice from the corner of his mouth. "So we've managed to scare the crap out of 'em, what now?"
Giles spoke out first. "I assume that this-" he gestured to the monster that still lay dead a short distance away, "was your doing?"
There was another burst of chatter from the Wilderkin, though this time in their slightly less shrill English. For the most part, the sound was pure chaos, with each individual speaking over the others. But occasionally, a few voices seemed to ring out louder and more clearly than the rest.
"Very proud!" cried one Wilderkin.
"Masterpiece!" shouted another.
"Nice, yes?" asked the one that had been captured. It seemed to have become the de facto leader of the group, surely due to its wealth of experience in dealing with the Scoobies.
"Not how I'd put it," Xander replied with distaste. He sniffed and wrinkled his nose. "And I think it's starting to smell."
The Wilderkin all spoke at once again, and the monster carcass faded away. The tent pole that had been lodged in its chest fell to the ground, still bent, but blood-free.
Buffy shook her head, still not fully understanding. "Why? Why go through all that?"
"Interlopers!" squeaked a voice from the chittering crowd.
"Wilderkin here first!" a second protested.
"There goes neighborhood!" groaned a third.
"Wilderkin live here," the leader told them. "Nice area. Lots of trees for nesting and very conveniently located. Peaceful is Wilderkin way." His bushy eyebrows furrowed in anger. "Except for sparrows."
The leader continued. "Always there are Wilderkin. Then there is big magick too. Magick in forest, forest for Wilderkin, magick for Wilderkin!"
"Saw it first!"
"Get your own!"
"More and more not-Wilderkin come. Wilderkin patient. Wait for time when only Wilderkin again. Wait and wait and wait!"
"Move on already!"
"Wilderkin tired of waiting. Leaving they not, leaving Wilderkin make!" At this proclamation, the gathered Wilderkin let out a rousing cheer. The leader spread his stumpy little paws wide and pressed on. "But not-Wilderkin big. How with the making?"
"Listening a skill."
"Wilderkin fast learners."
"Not-Wilderkin deeply stupid," the leader said with a mournful shake of his head. "If only with listening patience, not-Wilderkin tell Wilderkin of fear! Get to making of the fear, not-Wilderkin go leaving!"
"Run run run!"
"Bye big stupids!"
Buffy's voice rose above the excited chatter, and the crowd fell silent. "Wait, wait, so you've done this before?"
"Though work not with sparrows."
Up to this point, Willow had seemed entranced by the furry little creatures, but something seemed to click and an expression of dread filled her features. "That must be what we've been hearing," she said slowly, turning to her friends. "With the ... the screaming, a-and the ... chainsaws."
Xander blanched. "Oh god."
Faith whirled on the Wilderkin, only a hair's breadth away from making good on her earlier threats. "How many people've you psychotic little hamsters killed?"
As a group, the Wilderkin looked aghast at the suggestion.
"Wilderkin not for killing!"
"Wilderkin for leaving!"
"Killing big others bring more big others!" the leader hastened to explain. "Antithesis, yes? Fear outside, hollow inside."
"It makes sense ... in a sort of broken grammatical way," Tara said. She looked at the Wilderkin with a critical eye. "I- I really don't think they've hurt anyone."
The Wilderkin all agreed with that observation most emphatically. Although some nodded while others shook their heads, the overall message of complete agreement still managed to come through.
Buffy sighed and relaxed a little. "Still, this has gotta stop, before someone does get hurt." Addressing the creatures she said, "Look, you can't keep doing that, okay? The big fear thing."
The gathering was immediately up in arms.
"But Wilderkin here first!"
"I know, I know," Buffy tried to soothe, "but ..."
At a loss for what to say to the now highly agitated Wilderkin, she looked around for help.
Xander stepped forward and put on his Understanding Guy voice. "I get where you're comin' from, I really do. But people are people, and they're gonna keep comin' here whether you want 'em to or not. Eventually someone's gonna be more interested than scared, and when they find you ..." He grimaced dramatically. "Well, I think paste will be the least of your worries."
In a flash, the situation was diffused, and Wilderkin went from angry back to nervous again.
"Perhaps we can arrange a deal?" Giles tentatively offered. "Compensation of some sort for your inconvenience."
This seemed to be of great interest, and at once the Wilderkin exploded with a flurry of unintelligible suggestions.
Finally, the leader spoke. "Remove sparrows?"
"Show them boss!"
"I-I'm pretty sure we can't de-sparrow an entire forest," Willow replied reluctantly.
The Wilderkin seemed disappointed at this news, but returned to their discussions with much fervor until another suggestion was reached.
"Fresh virgin every moon?" the leader asked hopefully.
"Healthy and satisfying!"
Giles immediately whipped off his glasses. "Good lord."
"Oh that is so not gonna happen," Buffy told them with a note of finality.
The Wilderkin huddled once more.
"An' you ain't gettin' animals neither," Faith called out.
A sound much like "aww" ran through the gathered Wilderkin, but they continued to chitter amongst themselves. Similarly, the Scoobies inched closer together and began speaking in low voices.
"Are we sure this is a good idea?" questioned Buffy.
Tara gave a little shrug. "Do we really have another choice?"
"Our options seem limited," said Giles. "We can either attempt to control their behavior, or- or consider them a threat and remove them entirely."
"And given how big these woods are, we could be huntin' for a year and still not catch 'em all," Xander pointed out. "Pokemon they are not."
Checking over her shoulder to make sure the Wilderkin were still busy, Willow nodded. "I think we scared 'em pretty good. If we can come up with something here that doesn't involve blood or icky fluids in any way, I think it's the best choice for everyone."
As the Wilderkin buzz began to die down, the Scoobies separated.
"If virgin is cannot then Wilderkin seek next best," announced the leader. He paused for dramatic effect. "Chocolate."
The creatures once more burst forth with burbles of pure excitement.
As soon as the suggestion had been made, the Wilderkin seemed to finally be on the same page. Every of them began squeaking "Godiva!" over and over, although since each had its own particular rhythm, the whole thing was just one chaotic mess.
When the initial wave had died down, the leader drew himself up to his full 12-inch height and addressed the Scoobies with a proud tilt to his chin.
"Wilderkin demand Godiva assortment box—"
"Not four-piece crap!"
"—every moon, to be left on great stump!"
Buffy did her best to hide a smirk at the absurdly semi-serious turn the proceedings seemed to have taken. "And in return...?"
"In return," the leader dutifully replied, "Wilderkin making not big fear. Non-Wilderkin welcome. Non-Wilderkin may borrow Wilderkin home."
Xander shook his head. "Sucks to be a sparrow."
Bending down, Buffy extended her index finger to the Wilderkin leader, who shook it. The deal now set, the Wilderkin burst into a cacophony of cheers in their natural language, much to everyone else's distress. Especially Tara's.
"That's nice," she groaned, trying vainly to shuffle away from the pain. "I'll just go over here. And die. Again."
The graveyard was quiet. The battle was done. To the victors go the spoils of war. And Dawn and Grip certainly looked like they'd could do with a bit of spoiling. Both seemed utterly exhausted as they slumped, shoulder-to-shoulder, against the side wall of a crypt. Dawn sported a nasty gash across her forehead, standing out among the other assorted cuts and scrapes. Grip had the beginnings of a spectacular shiner and a purple bruise was starting to blossom on his jaw. Whenever he inhaled, he couldn't help but wince a little. Both stared straight ahead as their breathing gradually became easier. Grip looked down at his disheveled appearance and with one hand, pulled on the torn fabric of his tee-shirt. A plume of dust immediately spiraled into the air. Grip sneezed and then coughed.
"So that's the remains of a living thing that became a dead thing that became an animated dead thing and is now a REALLY dead thing," he said wearily.
Dawn nodded. "That pretty much sums it up."
"I think I can safely say that this is the most disgusting thing I've ever had on me. And I was not a tidy baby."
Rolling her head to the side, Dawn looked into Grip's face.
"Do you believe me now?"
Grip didn't return her gaze. Instead, he seriously regarded his tattered shirt.
"They were either vampires or the world's most sinister dust bunnies," he joked tiredly before turning to Dawn. He stared into her eyes.
"I believe you."
The statement should have been cause for celebration, but Grip seemed to withdraw into himself and went back to examining his tee-shirt. Dawn's hopeful expression faded to be replaced by one of sadness. She lowered her head and nodded her understanding.
"I left the house tonight thinking that if we just sat down and talked, you'd tell me the truth and everything would be alright," Grip told her. "I guess I kept thinking you were making up these ... these stories because you didn't trust me enough to tell me what was really going on." He sighed. "Turns out, you weren't the one not doing enough trusting."
He blinked several times, seeming utterly overwhelmed by the whole experience. Dawn held her tongue, and her breath, as she waited for him to continue. She was afraid for what he would say next, but knew he had to say it.
"Monsters are real." He allowed that to sink in as he stared at the stars. "Your sister's a Slayer." He mulled that over for a bit and then took a deep breath for the hardest reality of all. "You're the Key."
He fell silent. Dawn waited patiently, but it was impossible to tell if Grip planned to add anything.
Eventually, she broke the awkward hush. "That's true," she acknowledged gently. "And there's still a whole lot more scary stuff in the world. There's magick. Hellmouths. Demons that make you sing. It's ..." A rueful smile crossed her lips. "That's part of my life."
She studied Grip's expression but there was no visible reaction to her words.
"But there's this whole other part, you know? Where I'm a senior in high school, worried about SATs, application essays, and not wearing last week's shoes. And ... And you put both of those parts together and that's me." She spread out her arms. "That's Dawn."
Still Grip didn't respond, lost deep in thought.
"I'm sort of a package deal," Dawn said tentatively. "I don't want to give you just half a Dawn."
The silence between them took on a life of its own. There was nothing more Dawn could say or do. It was all up to Grip now.
"I don't want half a Dawn either," he agreed. "I'm an all or nothing kind of guy. Give me a bag of Lays, and I really can't eat just one. I've gotta have it all." Seriously, he regarded her face, tenderly running a finger along the gash marring her forehead. "But that part of you. The Key part. It scares the hell out of me. I don't know if I can deal."
He quickly withdrew his hand and gazed into the distance. Dawn's face, her entire body, seemed to fall, collapsing under the weight of a grief she was just beginning to feel.
"So I was thinking maybe dinner and a movie, and I'll start finding out," he casually suggested.
Dawn stopped collapsing. Had she heard correctly? She turned to Grip, and saw that he was smiling at her.
"Dinner and a movie," she repeated, still not trusting her own ears. "With me."
"I've already had a lot or practice dealing with MY parts," he stated with a shrug. "I'm pretty sure I can swing that one by now."
Dawn's face broke into a huge grin and the pair started to get to their feet. It was a struggle, but eventually, they helped each other to stand. Side-by-side, they walked toward the cemetery gates. Reaching out, Grip took Dawn's hand. She looked down and her face lit up even more to see their fingers intertwined.
"No horror movies though," Grip declared. "I'm thinking something starring someone who used to be funny when they were on 'Saturday Night Live'."
Dawn was only too happy to agree. "Sounds like a plan."
Their clasped hands swinging between them, they continued walking. Neither spoke for a moment and then Grip ruffled his hair.
"Demons that make you sing?"
"It's a long story," chuckled Dawn.
Grip smiled. "My favorite kind."
"You like your job, right?"
"And the people? The campers who come up here?"
"Absolutely! Especially the ones that give me candy."
"Funny you should mention candy ..."
The figure continued to proceed cautiously and warily through the undergrowth, moving aside every branch with great care. Each step was placed gingerly – left then right, left then right. There was a distinct air of nervousness and uncertainty, but progress was steady and sure. The moonlight cast a golden glow upon an item held with much respect beneath one arm.
"What am I doin' with this again?"
"Perhaps you'd best write it down for him in crayon."
The Ranger checked the package under his arm to make sure it was safe and secure. He pushed aside a tangle of branches to reveal a small clearing. In the center was a large tree stump, ancient and gnarled. Moss clung to its base and mushrooms nestled in every damp crevice. Despite that fact that the tree itself was long gone, there was still something majestic about what it had left behind, all that remained of its legacy.
"The same day, every month. No exceptions. This is so important, you can't forget."
"Aw, I won't forget! An' if I get confused, I got this pretty note right there! Thanks, mister!"
"My pleasure, I'm sure."
The Ranger stepped into the open area, scoping out the surroundings, but there was no sign of anything at all.
"Okay, I think I got it. But, ah ... why?"
While still looking around, the Ranger reverently placed his precious golden box on the tree stump and tilted his head to better see the embossed image decorating the lid – a lady riding a horse.
"Because there are little men in the forest who will scare everyone away if they don't get chocolate.""Oh."
Continuing to be on the alert for a sign of something – anything – the Ranger slowly backed away from the stump. But there was nothing to be seen. Giving one final look, he shrugged, turned and began to walk into the forest.
From behind, came the distinct rustling of movement, followed by a high-pitched noise that sounded like several tiny voices raised in joyful celebration. There were hearty cheers of, "Godiva!" "Godiva!"
Stopping, he peered through the foliage into the clearing and a crooked smile crossed his face.
"Coooool," he murmured softly.
The Scoobies were in the process of making their way back to the campsite.
"It's been a productive day," stated Willow with much satisfaction. "Got some fresh air, ate a marshmallow, killed a monster, orchestrated lasting peace ... I feel good."
"That makes one of us," groaned Tara piteously, a cloth pressed to her forehead.
"Aw," commiserated Willow, rubbing Tara's arm.
"If I'd known camping was this much fun," said Faith with enthusiasm, "I'd'a gone years ago."
Giles wearily massaged the back of his neck as they arrived at their designated clearing.
"Well I for one wouldn't mind a little more relaxation in my relaxation," he sighed.
There was a collective murmur of tired agreement and it appeared that the intrepid campers were about to split into their respective tent assignments. But Xander had other ideas.
"Wait, wait, wait, we can't sleep yet."
Five pairs of eyes regarded him blearily.
"Not everyone's told a story," he chastised before turning expectantly. "Buff?"
Buffy opened her mouth and promptly closed it again with a shake of her head.
"Come on," urged Xander, tossing the last of the kindling into the fire. It spluttered for a moment and then caught in a nice cozy blaze. "I know you have one you're just dying to tell."
Still Buffy declined. "It's been too long now," she said. "Nobody cares about hearing my stupid old story anymore."
Eyes sparkling, Willow plopped herself down next to Xander. "Well I do!" she announced with enthusiasm.
Giles also took a seat. "I'm always up for a good tale," he said cheerily.
Tara joined them, sinking slowly to the ground. "And I missed half of them, so I'd love a story."
Faith had already claimed a prime spot in front of the fire. "Let's hear it, B."
There was a token second of hesitation. "Okay!"
Despite her earlier protestations, Buffy quickly found herself a place and promptly settled in very comfortably. She smiled happily at the undivided attention coming her way.
"It was a time of bleak darkness," she began. "The people had been waiting for so long, and it seemed the world was nothing but despair. But then, one day, something shifted, and for the first time in a long time, there was hope."
Everyone nodded and looked to each other with excitement. This was going to be good.
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