Three hours earlier...
A well-worn duffel bag lay on Faith's bed at Slayer Central. What Faith was doing could loosely be termed "packing." She had little care for efficiency and even less for the treatment of the things flying over her shoulder – they were tossed in the general direction of the bag and whatever didn't make it in now could look forward to being stuffed into various spaces later. Although relentless in her efforts, Faith wasn't in any particular hurry. Rather, it was as though she were moving inexorably toward something. Something that she needed to do. Something that she needed to do now.
Propped against the base of a lamp on her nightstand was an open envelope. It had been addressed to Faith in the precise yet unsteady hand of a child. In one motion, Faith scooped up the loose items on her bed and dumped them into the duffel bag. With a little poking, the zipper was clear and the bag was sealed. Faith grabbed the handles, snatched the letter, and stuffed it into an outside pocket.
Sitting on the front steps of Slayer Central, Xander addressed a quartet of young Slayers. All were listening dubiously to his lecture with the exception of Chrissie who, much to her delight, had managed to snag the prime position next to her ex-Watcher. Her expression displayed an unwavering belief in every gem of wisdom that Xander had to offer. The faces of her three companions were somewhat lacking in the confidence department.
"And there you have it," said Xander. He clapped his hands together and awaited their gratitude.
There was a long pause during which Chrissie's fellow Slayers exchanged bewildered glances. The first to voice an opinion did so with a wrinkle of her button nose.
"But that doesn't make sense."
Chrissie responded with open exasperation. "God Angela, were you even listening?"
"Hello," replied Angela, "I was sitting right here!"
"Sorry," sighed another of the young Slayers, blinking her brown eyes apologetically, "but I don't get it either."
The third also shook her head, blonde curls bobbing back and forth.
"But since it made so much sense, Chrissie, why don't you explain it to us?" said Angela with a smug expression.
For a moment, Chrissie seemed panicked by the challenge, but then she adopted a haughty air. "Well if you couldn't be bothered to listen the first time, I'm not going to waste my breath." She sniffed audibly with something akin to disdain.
"Evasive and superior," Xander said, inclining his head at Chrissie. "Very nice."
Chrissie beamed at his approval while Angela rolled her eyes and Xander attempted to explain once again.
"Look girls, I know you don't wanna do the numbers thing, but math is important," he encouraged. "You gotta keep up with school, okay? You can't just do Slayerette training all day."
The blonde girl remained unconvinced. "But why, Xander? Everyone keeps saying we've got to, but it doesn't make sense."
"I mean, we're Slayers, right?" added the other girl.
"Right!" declared Angela. "Watchers do the thinking and we do the fighting. What does it matter if we can do algebra or not?"
All the young Slayers were in agreement with this – even Chrissie. As one, they looked to Xander with expectant faces. Beneath the weight of their stares, Xander rubbed the back of his neck.
"Speaking of, shouldn't you guys be going to your Watchers about this? I'm not really sure if I should be—"
"Oh please," said Angela.
"They don't really, you know, talk to us about why we do stuff," said the blonde Slayer. "They just want us to do it."
"I mean, my Watcher's nice and all," admitted Brown Eyes, "but it's not like I can ..." She trailed off, struggling to put her thoughts into a coherent conclusion.
"Talk to him," Angela finished.
This was accompanied by a chorus of enthusiastic agreement and Angela, bolstered by the unanimous show of support, decided to press the matter further.
"But Chrissie said when you were her Watcher she'd talk to you about stuff all the time."
"Yeah," agreed Brown Eyes with conviction. "She said if we asked you, you'd tell us."
"Oh did she now?" said Xander.
He looked to Chrissie with a slightly amused expression. Chrissie returned the gaze with one of supreme faith. Not only did Xander command the entire wisdom of the universe at his very fingertips but, given enough time, he would undoubtedly share it all.
"Alright look," he tried again, "you gotta do the school thing because ..." His mind sprang into action, thinking quickly and trying desperately to reason it out for himself. "Because it's not all about the Slaying."
Xander's raised hand successfully squelched any impending outburst. "I know you think it is, but it's not," he continued. "You might decide one day that you don't wanna do it any more. Or maybe, god forbid, something happens and you get hurt and you can't do it any more. Being a Slayer is important but it's just one part of your life, it's not everything. You're still you. And you needs a good education to get much betterness."
The quartet giggled and Xander smiled indulgently.
"Did you go to school Mr. Xander?" asked Brown Eyes.
Xander proudly puffed out his chest. "Every single day I didn't skip."
"Did you go to college?" asked the blonde girl.
"I went to the campus all the time."
"Do you remember algebra?" asked Angela.
"Every bit as much as I remember any other subject."
Chrissie's face lit up as though she had suddenly been struck with a magnificent idea. "Hey, I bet if we ask, Mr. Xander will help us with our algebra homework every night!"
This proposal was met with an outpouring of lively exuberance – an exuberance that Xander very clearly did not share. Luckily, before he was obliged to find a way to wriggle out of the proposition while still maintaining his spotless reputation, the front door opened and Faith emerged from the building.
"Faith, you beautiful distraction you," he said, scrambling to his feet, "please come and talk to me at length about many things."
Faith, however, failed to acknowledge Xander or anyone else. She strode purposefully down the steps without breaking a single stride.
"Faith?" said Xander, as he watched her march down the path.
Still no reaction.
He frowned and then noticed the duffel bag. His eye widened. Keeping his gaze locked on Faith, as though afraid that if his attention wavered, she would somehow vanish, Xander spoke over the voices of the chattering Junior Slayers.
"Hey, I gotta run," he told them. "You keep going to class okay? Promise?"
"Promise!" came the chiming response.
Xander threw them a quick but charming smile. "That's my girls."
Taking the steps two at a time, he reached the sidewalk and ran after Faith. The Juniors watched him go, all seeming much more content with their lot in life than they had been at the beginning of his lecture.
"Hey, let's go get some ice cream!" said Chrissie – her second magnificent idea in less than five minutes.
"We can't," said the blonde girl. "Andrew keeps it locked up in the freezer."
Unconcerned by this piddling little detail, Chrissie got up and marched back into Slayer Central. The other girls quickly followed.
"Mr. Xander told me that if you tell Andrew that you know where he 'keeps his mint Slave Leia' and that you'll 'open it and his Fett too' that he'll do whatever you want," Chrissie sagely informed the others.
Nobody said anything for a brief moment.
"What does that even mean?" said Angela.
"I dunno," admitted Chrissie with a shrug, "but it always works!"
They chatted happily amongst themselves as they walked through the halls.
Slowing his pace to a jog, Xander came up on Faith's shoulder.
"Hey, where's the fire?" he asked. "And is it an actual fire? Because I have this helmet and why I have it is a story I'm not willing to share."
He grinned but Faith didn't acknowledge the grin, the question or even his presence. Reaching out, Xander took hold of the duffel bag.
"Hey, Lady Rudeness, I—"
Simply relinquishing the bag and allowing it to slip, Faith left it dangling in Xander's hand without a moment's hesitation. Temporarily stunned at the lack of protest, Xander swiftly regained momentum and was soon at Faith's side once again.
"Normally I'd take this as an invitation to riffle through your silky lacy ladythings, but—"
"I ain't got no lacy things." Faith appeared to be mildly offended at the implication.
"You'd be surprised what a little imagination can do," Xander replied. "Hey ..."
Gently taking her by the elbow, he pulled Faith to a halt. She allowed him to stop her but turned to face him with irritation showing on her face. He didn't let it deter him.
Faith audibly huffed, as though she was as annoyed at herself for hearing the question as she was at Xander for asking it.
"I gotta go," she said restlessly.
"Yeah, I got that much," said Xander.
He continued to wait patiently for an answer but Faith was apparently having some difficulty in expressing herself. Huffing again, she reached for her duffel bag. Helpfully, Xander proffered it to her. Unzipping an outside pocket, she retrieved several envelopes, maybe a dozen in number. All had been opened and all were addressed to Faith in the same childlike hand. Faith thrust them at Xander's chest.
Xander frowned. "What is—?"
Faith thrust them at him again, raising her chin to indicate that he should look for himself.
Clutching the envelopes, Xander handed the duffel bag back to Faith. She slung it over one shoulder but made no attempt to leave.
Opening the top envelope, Xander extracted several folded pages of notepaper, the tattered edges showing they had been ripped from a spiral-bound book. A letter. He read it quickly to himself and then looked at the remaining envelopes to confirm they were all from the same person. They were. His gaze searched Faith's face.
"So yeah," she nodded. "Going."
Xander returned the nod. "Got it."
Putting the letter back in its envelope, he kept a grip on the stack and began to walk, passing Faith in the process. He made his way along the path in the direction she had been heading. "Let's go then," he threw behind him.
"Wait wait wait," shouted Faith, quickly catching up. "Who said you're coming?"
"I don't think so."
"And I don't care," Xander replied casually. "What, I'm supposed to just turn away? Say 'drive safe, bring me back a souvenir'?"
Faith opened her mouth as though to speak but Xander gave her no opportunity.
"And don't give me that 'I don't need nobody' bad grammar crap because yes you do."
Uncharacteristically lost for words, Faith closed her mouth.
"I'm coming," said Xander.
Faith found her voice. "Look, it's sweet and all in this pushy and really annoying way, but you're needed here."
"There are no words for how needed here I'm not."
"But Buffy—" began Faith.
"—will understand," finished Xander.
Faith started to argue, but Xander didn't budge. He was coming. Maybe not in the front seat, maybe not even in the same vehicle, but Xander was coming and that was that.
"You're going halves on gas," Faith informed him as she walked away.
"Giles'll be paying either way," he replied, following.
"And you're buying your own food," she added.
"Give me a bag of Cheetos and a six-pack of Dew and I can survive indefinitely."
With a heavy sigh of resignation, Faith handed off her duffel bag to Xander. He hefted it over his shoulder as the pair continued walking, stride-for-stride.
"Hey I just made a new playlist," he said enthusiastically. "Want to listen to it in the car?"
"You make me so lonely baby," crooned Xander along with the voice on the stereo. "I get so lonely. I get so lonely I could die."
The inflections were exaggerated, as was the drawl, the curl of the lip and every other aspect of the impersonation. Faith was visibly amused in spite of herself.
Xander dropped the imitation. "Elvis fan, huh?"
"Sorta," shrugged Faith. "I mean, everybody is a little, right? It's like a law or something."
They continued their journey in silence for a moment or two.
"It's not too late," she told him. "There's a stop just up here. I can drop you off and one of the witches or Summers Junior could have you back in like two seconds."
"I'm good, thanks," said Xander.
"You know B's gonna blame me for this too."
Xander gave a sharp laugh.
"Oh no, trust me, if there's blame, it'll land squarely on these broad and manly shoulders. But Buffy's fine, no worries."
"I am so not fine!"
In the living room, Buffy slumped, sullen and sulky-faced, against the couch cushions. Sitting beside her, Willow adopted the position of comforting best friend while Tara sat Indian-style in Xander's chair.
"Xander told me to drop dead!" said Buffy petulantly.
"Buffy!" accused Tara.
"Buff," added Willow, "we were right here."
"Okay maybe he didn't actually say it ..." she admitted with reluctance.
"It must've been important or I'm sure he wouldn't have gone," said Tara with a small smile.
"Yeah," Willow agreed. "I mean, it sounds like Faith really needs someone around right now."
Buffy's pout intensified. "What about me? Maybe I need someone around right now too?"
Willow huffed with an injured glare. "Well sure, don't let us get in the way of your parade of someones."
"That's not what I meant," Buffy hastily backpedaled. "You're totally someones, you know that."
Willow seemed to be somewhat placated at the reassurance.
"It's just ... it's my birthday," continued Buffy, "and Xander's supposed to be here. Xander's always here. It's not a party without him."
Willow and Tara exchanged a sharp and panic-stricken look.
"Party?" queried Tara nervously.
"We're having a party?" asked Willow anxiously.
Buffy chuckled at the pathetic attempts of an apparent cover-up. "Of course we're having a party! We always have a party!" Then her eyes narrowed and she glanced first at Tara and then at Willow. "We are having a party, right?"
"Sure! O-Of course! I mean, why wouldn't we have a party?" confirmed Willow with excessive buoyancy. "Any excuse to party down, you know me!" She smiled before adding, "Whoo! Party!"
Buffy folded her arms and continued to give Willow a flat stare. "Uh-huh."
"Well you did say you didn't want one this year," Tara said. "Something about attracting badness and flying under the radar?"
Buffy's gaze traveled back to Willow, who gave a reluctant nod. "You kinda did," she said.
"Well I didn't mean it!" Buffy exclaimed, throwing herself back into the cushions.
Willow smacked at her forehead with an open palm. Tara's display of frustration carried more subtlety. She merely massaged her temple with a delicate but probing fingertip.
"Okay, I did mean it," conceded Buffy. "But ... I still thought we'd do a Scooby thing. Movies, popcorn, the works." Her expression grew melancholy. "But it's not a Scooby thing without Xander."
The playful childish tantrum disappeared and Buffy's shoulders drooped. Instantly, Willow provided a one-armed hug of consolation.
"So we'll compromise," she assured firmly.
"Yeah," Tara agreed with a beaming smile in Buffy's direction. "We'll do a mostly-Scooby almost-party. Very non-radar," she finished with an all-knowing nod.
"We'll have a cake—" said Willow.
"A little one," cautioned Tara.
"A-And one streamer and two balloons!" said Willow, becoming more excited.
"But only half inflated," Tara assured.
"Awww" said Buffy, clasping her hands in her lap. "You'd go to a fraction of the trouble just for me?"
"And not a single bit more," Willow told her with a proud nod.
The sign outside the red-brick, two-story building proclaimed it to be "Cherry Hills Elementary," an institute of many learning adventures. The marquee below announced that a Valentine's Day bake sale was mere weeks away and encouraged all parents to be generous with time, support, supplies and donations.
At the ringing of a bell, double doors at the front of the school flew open wide and the young student body began to pour forth, running to the idling yellow buses, or their bicycles chained at the nearby racks, or one of the waiting cars containing parents eager to find out just what their prodigious offspring had learned that day. For a while, the entire area was chaotic and then the crowd began to thin, most of the children now on their way home, doubtless looking forward to a snack and hoping to get away with ignoring their homework for as long as possible.
Within the abandoned corridors of the school, classrooms were empty – all lights extinguished and all doors firmly closed. A few hall lockers, either left open by careless owners or lacking an owner altogether, swung gently against the metal of their neighbors with a muted tap, but otherwise there was no sound. Through the darkened windows of the library, the rows of books maintained their watchful silence. The building seemed entirely deserted. With the exception of one particular room.
Here, the overhead lights had not yet been dimmed and the door stood open. Inside, a young man wearing a royal blue corduroy jacket was gathering up his belongings before leaving for the day. Tucking a leather portfolio under his arm, he patted his pockets until he heard the reassuring jangle of a keyring. Giving the room a last glance, he moved toward to the door and flicked the light switch before exiting. He pulled the handle toward him as he left until he heard a satisfying "click" and then, striding along the hallway, he turned a corner and vanished from sight.
As the young man disappeared, the door he had just closed swung quietly open. The interior of this classroom was spacious, containing desks and easels, upon which were drawings in various stages of completion, all obviously the work of young children. On a low table beneath the window were pots of paint and glass jars filled with an assortment of brushes. Counter tops lined the remaining walls, which were themselves covered with colorful creations, but one in particular seemed worthy of specific focus.
At initial glance, this piece of work certainly didn't appear to be extraordinarily special; simply one of dozens that had found a cursory place for itself upon the teacher's "Wall of Fame." It depicted a girl with brown hair holding the hand of a smaller girl. They were both standing atop a green hill and in the corner of the painting the marigold-orange sun was large as a dinner plate. The taller girl, flashing a hugely happy smile, was clutching a brown triangular object looking something like an ice cream cone without the ice cream. Hesitantly, a hand reached toward the painting.
Suddenly, every corner of the room was bathed in bright light and standing in the doorway was the young man in the corduroy jacket. The nameplate on the door was now visible, reading "Mr. Kelsey, Art, Grades K-3." Both Mr. Kelsey's voice and his expression registered surprise.
A small girl, maybe seven years of age, wearing jeans and a purple-checked flannel shirt, had climbed onto one of the counters. At the sound of her name, she spun around, almost losing her footing, and stared at Mr. Kelsey with a deer-caught-in-the-headlights expression reflected in her large blue eyes.
"What are you doing here?" he asked in a friendly fashion. There was no hint of anger in his tone, just simple curiosity.
Lucy remained frozen as she stared at Mr. Kelsey with apprehension. Propping his portfolio against the wall, he thrust his hands into his pockets and slowly entered the room, trying his best to look as non-threatening as possible.
"I liked your picture," he told her kindly. The light reflected off his short russet hair as he treated Lucy to reassuring nods. "It has a really good energy. I thought maybe we'd leave it up for a while, show it off to the rest of the class. What do you think?"
As he drew closer, Lucy stumbled backward until she came into contact with the wall. Her gaze darted from side-to-side as though searching for a means of escape.
Mr. Kelsey pointed to the smaller of the two girls featured in the painting. "That's you, right?"
Lucy continued to stare, her eyes narrowing a little as she regarded him warily from beneath the long bangs of her dishwater-blonde hair.
"And your sister?" he inquired, reaching out with his forefinger toward the taller of the two girls. He was only a fraction of an inch away from touching the painting.
"No!" shouted Lucy with desperation.
Ripping the picture from the wall, she leapt from the counter and began running the moment her feet hit the floor. Her pink backpack in the shape of a cat bounced upon her shoulders.
Mr. Kelsey was obviously startled. "Lucy!" he cried. "Wait!"
But Lucy was already through the classroom door. He began to give chase, but it was as though her heels were blessed with wings. Within seconds, she had reached the double doors at the front of school and could no longer be seen.
With a sigh, Mr. Kelsey absent-mindedly stroked his neatly-trimmed beard as he turned to inspect the wall where Lucy's painting had formerly resided. All that remained were a few scraps of Scotch tape and one extremely tiny corner of marigold-orange.
The sound of fumbling came from outside a darkened hotel room. Several ineffectual clicks were heard as the electronic key was inserted into the lock, removed and then inserted again with no success. Finally, there was a satisfying beep indicating that the lock had indeed succumbed to persistence. Despite the frantic fumbling of the handle, however, the door remained resolutely closed. A string of muffled obscenities now accompanied the continued bungling until eventually, both beep and handle mechanism were synced. The door opened and Xander stumbled across the threshold.
"Well at least I can sleep easy knowing no force on Earth will ever get that thing open," he muttered, peevishly kicking the door shut behind him.
Xander flipped on the light switch and took stock of the room. It was standard fare, no frills. There was one single bed, a television set bolted to the wall and a tiny table shoved into a corner, complete with generic stationary atop its overly-veneered surface. The small niche at the back of the room contained an even smaller sink with the vague promise of a toilet somewhere in the shadows. Xander tossed his lone bag on the bed. Taking a deep breath, he absorbed the room's atmosphere and then immediately turned on his heel and left.
Three doors down the exterior walkway, Faith was in her room splashing water on her face. She had left the door open. Xander rapped loudly then entered.
"Nice place, huh?" he said. "Free breakfast too. I heard they buy a half dozen donuts and then laugh as we fight over them like jackals."
Faith glanced at him in the mirror. She shrugged. "I been in worse."
"A valid point, to which I can personally attest," agreed Xander. "Still, maybe we can have a bit more fun than the last time. I recommend Pay-Per-View and, as an added bonus, no strangling."
Drying her face on a small towel, Faith declined to respond and Xander decided to change the subject.
"When are you going?" he asked.
"I dunno," said Faith. "Later. Now." Her tone grew firm. "Now."
"Now?" queried Xander, a little stunned. "Like, right now now? Don't you want dinner or something?"
"Not hungry," Faith told him impatiently. "An' I'm gonna be useless until I ... pay my respects or whatever."
She surveyed her surroundings, seemingly somewhat lost.
"They should know I'm here." she muttered, as much to herself as to Xander.
Squaring her shoulders, Faith had apparently made up her mind and there was no point in wasting any more time. Lifting the keys from the bathroom counter, she made her way to the door.
"Works for me then." said Xander cheerily. "Dinner's overrated anyway."
He proceeded to follow Faith out the door into the gathering dusk but she pulled up short and he ran clumsily into the back of her. Faith remained rock solid in the wake of the collision, however Xander was forced to take stagger backward to regain his balance or risk falling.
"You're not going," Faith told him in a tone that indicated "case closed."
Xander sighed. "We did this scene already."
But Xander waved a nonchalant hand and effectively stifled whatever Faith was going to say next. "I'll wait in the car," he said with a nod. "Mr. Backup."
Faith opened her mouth, prepared to launch another argument, but again Xander quickly cut her off.
"The sooner you agree with me, the sooner you're done," he said decidedly. "Plus, if we time it just right, we can catch Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. It looks gloriously terrible."
While it was clear Faith wanted to put up a fight, she also appeared worn down by Xander's constant, affable stubbornness. With a resigned shrug, she continued out the door. Seizing the moment, Xander quickly followed.
"Yay, more time in the car!" he announced to Faith's retreating back. "My favorite!"
The car slid smoothly to a halt in front of a house that was different from its neighbors in only the most superficial of ways: the siding was light blue instead of cream and the front door situated to the right of the window instead of the left. It was a suburban residence generically lacking in character, but Faith appeared to remember it very well. She blinked at the lights burning inside, seemingly warm and inviting. Neither Faith nor Xander spoke for a very long moment.
"It'll be okay, Faith," Xander reassured.
Taking a deep breath, Faith exited the car. The walk from the street to the front door of the house seemed to take an eternity but she eventually arrived. Xander watched her every move, standing ready to offer assistance if the need arose, but doing nothing more than watching for the time being. Faith set her chin and then reached out to the doorbell. The chirpy "ding-dong" from inside seemed to echo in her brain, jangling every nerve as she quickly retracted her finger. Moving to one side, she stood half-hidden in shadow and waited, hands clasped before her.