The front door opened to reveal a woman of indeterminate age. Initially, she appeared to be relatively young, but her face aged her, being careworn and heavily lined in places. Her light brown hair was showing streaks of grey and there was a weary droop to her shoulders. The eyes revealed no recognition as she stared at Faith expectantly.
Faith's mouth opened and closed several times as she searched for the right words. None presented themselves however, and a frown creased the woman's forehead. Her fingernails tapped impatiently upon the doorframe.
"I, uhh ..." stumbled Faith.
As the woman took stock of the figure in front of her, there was a spark of realization. Slowly, her eyes began to narrow.
"You," she said accusingly.
"Who is it?" came a man's voice from inside the house.
"How dare you," said the woman, her lips barely moving. "How dare you come back here!"
The male voice spoke again. "What's going—"
The woman took a step toward Faith, who steadfastly stood her ground.
"Go! Get out of here before I—"
She was interrupted by the owner of the male voice appearing behind her. He too seemed haggard and drawn. The woman turned to face him.
"I can't deal with this," she told him with a tone that said she was handing him all responsibility whether he liked it or not.
The man looked at Faith.
"Who are you?" he demanded.
But the woman answered before Faith could provide an explanation.
"It's that bitch who ... Hazel ..."
The woman swallowed and could bring herself to say nothing more. She leaned against the door and closed her eyes. As for the man, his expression twisted into a violent sneer of hatred. The hand at his side clenched into a tight fist.
"You took my little girl away," he said to Faith, tone cold and deadly.
Again, Faith stood her ground.
"You got my little girl killed!"
Raising his fist, he seemed about to strike, but Faith made no move to protect herself. She simply stood there, eyes downcast. From the car, Xander fumbled at the door handle, even though it was obvious he could never make it to Faith in time.
Then, another voice, a young voice, floated from the interior of the house.
Looking up, Faith was taken by surprise as a small girl bounded through the front door and literally flung herself between Faith and the potential attacker. She seized Faith about the waist in a tight embrace. It was with no little effort that the man managed to curtail his impending swing.
"Lucy!" exclaimed the woman, horrified as she reached out to reclaim the girl, who was hanging on for dear life and refusing to be taken.
An expression of panic crossed the woman's face. Instinctively, the man grabbed at the little girl who, this time, was not so successful at evading capture. He ripped her away from Faith and thrust her behind him, trying to keep her at bay as best he could. Lucy, however, was far too energized to be restrained for long. She wriggled and squirmed, doing her best to get back to Faith.
"I knew you'd come!" she exclaimed, her voice laced with excitement.
The man inclined his head toward Faith, speaking at her rather than to her. "Now she can go," he said.
"No!" gasped Lucy. "She just got here!"
"I didn't mean to—" Faith began quietly.
"To what?" snarled the man. "To come here? To upset this family more than you already have? To murder my Haz—"
"Daddy!" cried Lucy.
Her voice cracked, a heartbreaking sound. Startled, her father looked down at her. Fat tears coursed down her cheeks and she stared up at him through wet lashes.
"Daddy, don't be mad at Faith!" she pleaded. "I wrote her a bunch of letters and asked her to come see me! I just wanted to talk to her Daddy, please!"
Clearly lost and in need of help, the man looked toward his wife but he would find no assistance there. Equally as lost, she shrugged and shook her head despairingly as she went back inside the house. Left alone to make the decision, he looked at Lucy, who continued to cry.
"I just miss Hazel so much ..." she managed to get out between hiccups.
It was obviously more than he was able to deal with.
"Talk fast," he told Faith with a warning glance before turning and ushering Lucy ahead of him down the hallway.
The front door remained wide open, but Faith still couldn't seem to move. Looking over her shoulder, she noticed that Xander was now loitering anxiously on the sidewalk, watching and waiting. She said nothing, but didn't have to. He quickly joined her on the step. Taking a deep breath, she crossed the threshold with Xander right behind her.
In the living room of the Scooby house, Giles helped Willow to hang a banner. Squares of printer paper had been rather hastily taped together and sported the message: "Happy Birthday Buffy" in varying shades of highlighter. The floor was littered with balloons, all inflated by mouth and none floating. A few had been taped to the walls but most simply drifted aimlessly along the floor or had found a space in which to settle, bobbing and bouncing in a randomly cheerful fashion.
Tara pulled the transparent lid from a pre-made party tray of veggies and carefully removed the foil cover from the small disposable cup of ranch dip that sat in the center. Several glass bowls contained an assortment of chips, the pouches from which they had been poured still in the plastic grocery bags resting against the leg of the coffee table.
The chime of the doorbell announced a visitor and from upstairs. Dawn called, "I'll get it!"
Galloping down two at a time, she threw open the door. Grip stood on the threshold. Upon seeing Dawn, his face broke into a broad smile.
"I hear there's a crazy party going on. I was hoping to score an invite."
"I might be able to get you in," she said uncertainly. "Depends on what you have to offer."
"Oh I think I've got a few things," said Grip. "A wonderful sense of humor ..."
"Uh-huh ..." replied Dawn, clearly unconvinced.
Grip gestured toward the blue mass on his head. "A truly exceptional hair style ..."
Dawn barely managed to choke back a laugh. "Anything else?"
"Quite possibly something for a very special lady," he added, slowly leaning forward.
Dawn immediately reciprocated, but then Grip noticed that Buffy had suddenly materialized at her sister's shoulder. She regarded him with a level and distinctly unappreciative glare while Dawn found herself mysteriously puckering up to a large bag of Reese's Pieces, complete with a shiny silver bow.
"Candy!" announced Grip.
Dawn tossed an irritated glance in Buffy's direction, but Buffy, although accepting the bag, continued to stare at Grip with narrowed and challenging eyes.
"And what else?" Buffy demanded.
"A solemn promise not to defile your little sister in any way?"
Buffy beamed. "Welcome to the party!"
Striking while the iron was hot, Grip stepped over the threshold as Buffy turned and made her way into the living room, clutching her silver-bowed bag. Dawn sidled toward Grip.
"I've been wondering how much more intimidating she'd be, now I know what she can do," he told Dawn through the side of his mouth, voice very low. "It turns out the answer is 'none'. She has put every single stat point into intimidation and maxed that sucker out."
Reaching the living room, Buffy held aloft her prize. "I have peanut butter candy in a crunchy shell," she announced.
"Better than a shell in crunchy peanut butter!" said Tara.
With a questioning arch to her eyebrows, Buffy blinked.
"Because, uhm," Tara attempted to explain, "it'd be sticky ... a-and not very good. For your teeth."
Buffy blinked again still peering at Tara.
"Just pour the damn candy," said Tara with a roll of her eyes, thrusting a bowl at Buffy, who appeared totally amused at the little outburst.
Giles and Willow moved to the middle of the room in order to better admire their expertise at banner hanging. From a corner, Grip and Dawn also viewed the achievement, but with a slightly more critical attitude.
"I like it," said Willow confidently. "It has that down-home 'I made you in seven minutes' feeling."
Giles was dubious. "An entire seven minutes?"
"Taping is hard," Willow informed him defensively.
Buffy joined them.
"I like it too," she said with sincerity. "This is really great you guys."
Willow smiled. "And it's just the beginning! We have music a-and movies and cake and—"
Over Buffy's shoulder, Willow spotted Tara vehemently shaking her head. Willow frowned, trying to figure out what she was being told without alerting Buffy to anything amiss.
She began slowly. "The movies are ..."
With a rapid nod, Tara gave the thumbs up.
"—are here!" announced a sunny-faced Willow. "And good! I don't exactly know what they are but I'm sure they're good!" Her eyes drifted back to Tara. "And the cake is—"
Tara gave another vehement shake of her head. Willow's eyes widened in panic.
"Jus' a sec," she said with an over-abundance of patently false cheer.
Hurrying to Tara, Willow seized her by the elbow and quickly guided her to a far corner. Buffy didn't seem to notice as she looked to Giles, whose expression was one of extreme fondness for the birthday girl.
"Happy birthday Buffy," he said.
"Aww shucks," drawled Buffy. "You didn't have to—" She interrupted herself. "Wait, this is the part where you're supposed to give me a present. You did get me a present, right?"
"And risk an evening in traction for failure to deliver?" Giles smiled. "Heaven forbid."
In the corner, the exchange taking place between Willow and Tara was carried out in hurried whispers.
"The cake," said Tara. "There's a situation."
"Situation? What? What situation?"
"In that there's not so much a cake."
Willow was horrified. "Tara!"
"I tried, but no place in town really took me seriously when I said it was an emergency."
"But it's supposed to be a birthday! It can't be a birthday without a birthday cake!"
Meanwhile, from a different corner, Grip was curiously inspecting the balloons littering the carpet. Noticing one in particular, he scooped it up to examine it more closely. It sported a face that had been carefully drawn upon its surface, complete with toothy smile, small smudge of a nose, one eye, one eyepatch and a couple of little squiggles near the top that apparently were intended to represent hair. Grip looked at Dawn questioningly.
"It's Xander," she told him.
Grip tilted his head to one side. "He has less mass than I remember."
Dawn bumped him with her hip. "Ha. But you know how I told you Xander's not here right? Well Buffy's sort of grouchy about it so we made these as, you know, Xander-stand-ins. But what's really cool is— Go give it to her," she encouraged with a tiny shove in Buffy's direction.
Grip seemed uncertain at first but then, with a shrug, decided to do as he had been instructed and walked over to Buffy and Giles, who were engaged in conversation.
"...expecting we'd have dinner tomorrow instead, so I had to cut a meeting short," Giles was telling Buffy. "I might receive an important phone call, but..."
Buffy nodded. "It's totally cool—"
Curiously, Grip extended the balloon toward Buffy. She took it without looking and while allowing her exchange with Giles to continue uninterrupted, pierced the balloon with her fingernails. It burst immediately, popping like a gunshot and causing Grip to jump. However, nobody else even appeared to notice what had just transpired.
"—it means a lot that you're here," Buffy finished with a calm, cool and collected air, as shreds of mangled balloon spiraled to her feet.
Still a little shell-shocked, Grip wandered back to Dawn, who was displaying a huge grin.
"Not what I expected," he said, as much to himself as to Dawn. "I'm not sure what I expected, but I don't think it was that."
Delighted by the entire spectacle, Dawn was ecstatic. "I know, right?" she enthused. "We have a whole supply of 'em."
She led Grip behind a drop-leaf table, where lurked a stash of fifteen or so "Xander balloons".
By now, Grip was recovering quite nicely. "Sweet," he nodded with a broad grin.
In the meantime, Willow and Tara were still conferring.
"What are we gonna do?" asked Willow, her fingers becoming entangled into a tight knot.
"I got a pie," Tara said, as though this settled the matter entirely.
"A birthday pie."
"There's no such thing as a birthday pie!"
"So we'll start a new tradition."
"Get over it, sweetie."
She turned as the phone behind her began to ring and went to answer it while Willow meandered nervously and rather reluctantly to where Buffy was standing.
"Hey Buff!" she greeted with cheerful nervousness. "Uhm, so remember when I mentioned the cake thing...?"
"Hello?" said Tara into the phone. She smiled upon recognizing the voice. "Oh, hi Kennedy!"
In Slayer Central Headquarters, London Branch, Kennedy sat cross-legged upon the bed in her room. From her expression, she wasn't exactly in the highest of spirits.
"Hey Tara," she returned. "I was— Wait, crap, what time is it there? I didn't wake you guys up did I?"
Tara moved the receiver to her other ear, giving Willow, who had quickly joined her when she found out who was making the call, more room to peer over her shoulder.
"Oh no, it's not late here," assured Tara. "We're just having Buffy's birthday party."
"Oh, oh yeah," said Kennedy. "Tell her 'happy birthday'."
"Kennedy says 'happy birthday' Buffy," called Tara.
"Tell her thanks," responded Buffy, "and that an ocean in no way absolves her from present duty."
"She said—" began Tara into the phone.
"I heard," interrupted Kennedy dryly. "Tell her to kiss my ass."
"She said it's already on the way," Tara told Buffy with a smile. She turned her attention back to the caller. "So how are you?"
"I'm ... I dunno. I just really need to talk to someone."
"Oh! Sure thing," said Tara, her tone becoming concerned. "Willow's right here, you want to talk to her?" She half-offered the receiver to Willow, who immediately extended an expectant hand.
"Yeah ... no," wavered Kennedy before adding firmly, "you. If you've got time."
Looking over her shoulder at Willow, Tara shook her head at Willow's waiting expression.
"Of course I do," she said into the telephone.
Smiling apologetically, Tara took hold of Willow's extended hand, squeezed it and gently kissed the tips of her fingers. Then, she moved away to one side as though seeking out privacy. A flicker of rejection crossed Willow's face, but she remained where she was and made no attempt to follow in Tara's wake. She seemed a little lost until Buffy arrived and laid her chin on Willow's shoulder.
"Hey," whispered Buffy. "I'm the only one who can look all pouty on my birthday."
With some effort, Willow tore her eyes away from Tara and the transatlantic conversation and immediately set to perking up her rapidly disintegrating celebratory mood.
"Who's pouty?" she demanded. "No pouty here. I am all party and no pouty."
"Good," Buffy told her with an emphatic nod. "So, you were gonna tell me something?"
"Huh? Oh, right. Yeah. Cake. About that. Funny story ..."
Faith and Xander sat together on the loveseat in the MacFadden home. Directly opposite, Mr. MacFadden perched on the edge of the sofa cushion, leaning forward with his face expressionless and elbows resting on his knees. Mrs. MacFadden loitered uneasily at the back of the room. Her gaze of overt loathing was fixated upon Faith and she stood, arms crossed defensively across her chest. Lucy sat next to her father, fidgety and restless. Her obvious desire was to go to Faith but something about Mr. MacFadden's posture prevented her from doing so.
Xander was on his best behavior, making every effort to appear respectful while still trying to fade into the background. The attempt was proving very successful since the center of everybody's attention was undoubtedly Faith, who sat very still with folded hands resting in her lap. Swallowing, she gave a small cough.
"I know seeing me has gotta be hard. I didn't want to cause you more grief. I'm just here to ..."
She glanced at Lucy. In response, the little girl beamed brightly.
Faith lowered her eyes. "It don't matter."
Mrs. MacFadden took a step further into the room. "You're damn right it doesn't matter, you—"
"Carol, please!" snapped Mr. MacFadden harshly, holding up a restraining palm.
Her fixed stare of disgust shifted momentarily from its original victim to her husband, somehow managing to appear even more vicious. As for Mr. MacFadden, he failed to even notice. His entire focus was solely on Faith.
"I know I can't ever make it right," said Faith. "Believe me, I would give anything for Hazel to still be here. It eats me up every day that she's gone. And I just ... wanted to say I'm sorry. You have no idea how sorry I am."
There was a pause, tense, heavy and uncomfortable. It was Mr. MacFadden who broke the strained silence.
"Fine. Now get out."
"Daddy!" protested Lucy.
But her father ignored the plea and rose to his feet.
"Don't you dare ever show your face here again. The next time I see you I'll—"
With an imperceptible nod of understanding, Faith accepted the ultimatum, but Xander was not quite so stoic.
"Time out," he said cautiously. "Let's just all take a deep breath here."
"And what?" challenged Mr. MacFadden. "She wanted to say something, she said it. Now it's my turn." He prodded an accusatory finger at Faith. "What did you want from us? Forgiveness? Absolution? Never. I hope you never know peace. You say it eats you up? Good. I pray to God that every second of every day for the rest of your life is a living hell."
"That's enough!" said Xander forcefully.
Faith shook her head. "It's okay."
"No, it's not okay!" said Xander. He looked at Mr. MacFadden. "I'm sorry Hazel's gone, I really am. She was a good person and we all miss her. Her death was a tragedy, but it's not Faith's fault."
"She took her!" shouted Mr. MacFadden, again thrusting a finger in Faith's direction.
"Did I miss the part where Faith broke in and carried Hazel out in sack?" asked Xander, his own temper on the rise. "Faith came and talked to her about her powers, the Council gave you all the information about her future, but you put her on a bus and sent her to us!"
In unison, both the MacFaddens recoiled as though they had been slapped.
"Now maybe you did it because you thought it was the best for Hazel," Xander continued. "Or maybe you did it because you were too absorbed with your own little problems and were grateful to have one less thing to worry about." He shrugged. "I don't know. But if you really think Faith is guilty of killing your daughter then take a long hard look in the mirror and think about who else you should blame."
Xander's words obviously struck a nerve; Mr. MacFadden's face became a deeper red, and the veins stood out starkly on his neck and forehead.
"Get. Out," he said in a deathly calm voice, his trembling forefinger pointing toward to the front door.
Getting to her feet, it appeared as though Faith might say something more, but then her mouth closed and she made her way out of the house. Xander followed closely behind.
"Faith, wait!" cried Lucy, as her father sank heavily into the cushions of the sofa.
But neither Faith nor Xander turned around. Once outside, Xander closed the door firmly behind them. Almost immediately, the sound of angry voices emanated from inside. The voices were loud, accusatory, and getting steadily angrier. As Faith and Xander made their way down the walkway, the yelling grew to a crescendo and even though the words were now unintelligible, there could be no mistaking their hurtful intent. With a heavy sigh, Xander scrubbed at his forehead.
"And that," he said, "is why I never pursued that career in grief counseling." He glanced sideways at Faith. "I'm sorry."
Faith shrugged. "Nothin' to be sorry about. You got us tossed out, what? Five, six seconds early?"
Xander remained repentant. "I shouldn't have lost my cool. It's just ... I know how much Hazel's death affected you, and for them to say it's your fault ..."
Faith held up her hand to stem the flow. "They ain't saying nothin' I ain't thought a hundred times already. They need a scapegoat. It's the least I can do."
Her stride came to a halt by a small voice from behind.
Turning, they saw Lucy standing there. The yelling from inside the house continued as heated as before, indicating that the little girl's absence had gone thus far unnoticed.
Lucy gave them a pleading look. "Faith, don't go."
Faith looked as though she'd be much more comfortable back inside facing the accusations of the MacFaddens than going one-on-one with Lucy. Xander gave Faith an encouraging pat on the back and moved away to give them some privacy.
Faith thrust her hands into her pockets, half pulled out her pack of cigarettes, and then thought better of it. "You shouldn't be out here kiddo," she said. "I think your dad's pissed enough for one night."
"But I'm ready!" Lucy told her with a bright smile. "Like I said, in my letters! I'm ready to be a Slayer!"
Faith's wince was barely perceptible. "Look half-pint, you're what? Four? Five?"
Lucy drew herself up to her full height. "I'm seven and a half!" she said indignantly.
"Yeah well," acknowledged Faith grudgingly, "that's not old enough to be a Slayer."
Lucy was dismayed. "But ... but you came! To take me away, to teach me to be a hero like Hazel!"
Going down on one knee, Faith looked Lucy in the eye. Her tone was gentle but firm.
"I came here to tell you to forget about that crap."
Lucy's expression went from dismay to shock.
"I dunno if you think it's cool or exciting or what, but it's not," Faith told her. "It's dark and dirty and dangerous and I want you to stay away from it. Okay?"
"But I found a monster!" said Lucy. She nodded at Faith with total confidence.
Closing her eyes, Faith sighed. Reaching out, Lucy shook Faith's shoulder.
"Mr. Kelsey, my art teacher! I know he's a monster! He's always acting weird and I watch him after school and—"
"Just stop, okay?" said Faith. It came out sharper than she had intended, and for a moment it looked like she might ruffle Lucy's hair by way of apology, but her hand stopped short and instead indicated the side of the house where a few toys and other objects were laying. "You should be playing with your bike and your ..." Faith desperately searched for some other little girl-type favorite "... Polly Pocket ..."
Lucy was befuddled. "My what?"
"Whatever the hell you seven year olds play with," said Faith, getting to her feet. She shrugged, "I dunno. But it sure as hell shouldn't be monsters and demons."
Lucy was insistent and determined. "But Faith, I know Mr. Kelsey is—"
"Dammit," snapped Faith, "this isn't a game!"
"I mean it, kid," Faith said, her tone indicating the discussion was over. "Leave that world alone. It's no place for children. Never was."
And with that, Faith turned and marched past Xander without a look back. Fat tears filled Lucy's blue eyes and spilled onto her cheeks as she quietly sobbed, but Faith paid the little girl no mind. Jerking open the car door, she got behind the wheel and waited impatiently for Xander to join her. Foot almost to the floor, she peeled out into the empty street.
Still crying, Lucy watched them go.
Standing near the foyer, with her back to the living room, Tara continued to press the phone to her ear. She was completely absorbed in the conversation, periodically nodding and at other times speaking in a very low tone.
Perched on a chair, Willow watched Tara from over her shoulder. She clearly would love nothing more than to join in Tara's exchange with Kennedy but she refused to intrude. More, she was doing her best to seem indifferent about the whole scenario, but nonchalance was hardly Willow's strong suit. Still, to maintain appearances, she was technically involved in a conversation with Buffy and dedicated to holding up her end.
"That was a cool thing we did," she remarked with no small amount of distraction. "That thing that was cool."
Buffy was no less preoccupied. "Yeah," she replied. "I think purple's really gonna be a hot color this year."
Seated in a chair next to Willow, Buffy's attitude was a mirror image of her friend, save that she was facing forward and wholly focused on Giles, who was sitting on the couch talking with Grip and Dawn.
"Holy water?" asked Grip.
Giles nodded. "Absolutely."
"Seems to be a myth, interestingly enough," admitted Giles. "But Grip, what I really must impress upon you—"
Seated between the two, Dawn rolled her eyes and threw herself against the couch cushion with smile. "Here it comes."
Grip smiled in return, but remained intent on what Giles was saying. For his part, Giles ignored Dawn completely.
"—is that vampires, and in fact all manner of- of demonic and supernatural creatures, are extremely dangerous. Should you encounter one, I want your first response to be flight, do you understand?" Through his glasses, Giles' eyes glinted seriously. "Don't let familiarity and a—" He paused to stare pointedly at Dawn. "—far too cavalier attitude—" His gaze returned to Grip. "—distract you from that. You're to fight only if there are no other options. First, you run."
Dawn huffed, clearly offended. "Giles, he's not stupid! We already went over that!"
"No, it's okay," Grip said, attempting to sooth the feathers ruffled on his behalf. "He just wants to make sure. It's like shop class. I've only heard the speech about safety and power tools like fifteen times, but every semester I get to hear it again."
Having somewhat mollified Dawn, Grip refocused on Giles. "I hear you loud and clear Mr. Giles," he assured. "Believe me, that one time was enough. My brain was Nightmare Central for days."
"Good," said Giles. "I'd be more concerned if it wasn't."
"So I am 100% fine with leaving the hands-on to the professionals," Grip promised. He was hesitant for a moment, then he added, "I won't lie though, I'm hella interested and I've got a million questions ..."
Giles beamed. It was the type of beam he saved for those rare moments when someone showed a genuine interest in the supernatural beyond how to kill it. "I've always believed that it's better to have too much information than not enough." He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. "I'd be happy to answer what I can."
Virtually bristling with excitement, Grip also leaned forward, prepared to give Giles his undivided attention.
Dawn grinned and squeezed Grip's arm affectionately. "You're gonna be sorry you said that Giles," she warned. "This guy is like a sponge."
"Okay, so, uhm ..." began Grip. "Oh man, where to start?" He worked quickly to gather his thoughts. "Okay, okay, where do vampires come from?"
Giles steepled his fingers like a lecturing professor. "Well for eons, demons walked the earth. They were ... terrible, beyond reckoning. We know them as the Old Ones, and ..."
"I'm not sure Dawn should've told him," confided a concerned Buffy. "What do you think, Will?"
"Yeah, that was cool too," replied Willow, obviously still a little lacking in the concentration department.
Buffy frowned. "What?"
Willow blinked. "What? Yes? Hi."
"Do you think Dawn should've told Grip about all ..." Buffy waved an encompassing hand "...this. The Big Stuff."
"I dunno," shrugged Willow. "I guess she thought he was ready. That's how we usually do it, isn't it? I don't remember us having a big meeting to vote on letting Tara know, or- or Anya, or Riley ..."
"But they already knew about The Big Stuff."
"Well yeah," acknowledged Willow, "but we didn't know they knew. I mean, I guess we kinda knew Anya knew but—" She shook her head and changed tracks. "Yeah, okay, your mom then."
Buffy sighed. "I guess. I just, I dunno. I remember the good ol' days, when Giles used to flip his little British wig whenever he thought we were letting someone else in."
"That was forever ago," said Willow. "'Sides, we have how many Slayers here now? Not exactly the best kept secret ever anymore."
Buffy gave another sigh. "It just seemed so much simpler then."
"Tell me about it," murmured Willow with a pensive glance over her shoulder.
"So unless I say 'Come in' they can't?" asked Grip, tilting his head to one side.
"Essentially, yes," confirmed Giles.
"They can be really sneaky about it though," warned Dawn. "Like, an implied invitation for everybody could work too."
"That's crazy," replied Grip. "I guess we should change our welcome mat from 'Hey everybody c'mon in!' to 'Get lost and that means you!'" He gave a chuckle. "I wonder if Mom would mind."
"Nah," said Dawn with a wave of her hand. "I'm sure she'll be fine with it."
"She might be if she knew why," said Grip. He tossed a troubled frown in Giles' direction. "Honestly though, have you guys considered ... I dunno, a press conference or something? I mean, this is pretty serious information. It seems like people should know."
Giles accepted the suggestion with all due solemnity. "It's ... something we've considered in the Council. I'm still not altogether convinced that the world is ready to accept what's truly out there."
Grip's frown intensified. "But the government should at least know. The Army and stuff ..."
"They are well aware, trust me on this," Buffy told him.
Grip blinked at her, pausing for a second to allow the information to be fully absorbed. "Crazy. But at least, I guess, it's easy to tell the bad guys from the good guys, huh? If it's got big teeth and doesn't answer to 'Fido" then kill it 'til it's dead. Again."
Buffy fidgeted uncomfortably in her seat. "It's not that—"
"Yes," agreed Giles in a very firm tone. "Although it may appear human, a vampire is nothing but a- a shell." A merry ring tone began to emanate from his jacket pocket and he fumbled to extract the phone. "A husk that walks and talks like the person it used to be, but housing a monster," he finished hurriedly.
Managing to pull the phone free, he tried to flip it open with one hand but failed miserably. As it flew from his fingers, he succeeded admirably in catching it with his other hand before it hit the floor. Looking quite pleased with himself Giles finally attained a secure hold. "Hello?" he said into the mouthpiece, getting up from the couch and moving away to one side.
Buffy had watched this display with a distant look in her eye, lost in her thoughts.
Grip wore a similar expression, then he smiled thoughtfully at Dawn. "Huh. So no good vampires?"
Dawn visibly hesitated. The question had roused Buffy, and she was intent on Dawn's answer.
"I used to think maybe. But ..." Dawn glanced at Buffy and the sisters shared a look. "No," she said confidently before turning back to Grip. "Even if you think they're good, they're really not."
Grip glanced at Buffy and then to Dawn. Sensing an air of potential turbulence, he cheerfully changed the subject.
"Well I just gotta say," he remarked as he surveyed the room. "I'm glad you guys decided to have a party. This is way better than a movie."
"What were you going to see?" asked Buffy.
"Elektra," replied Dawn.
"Well better than that movie anyway," said Buffy.
Stuffing the phone back into his pocket, Giles rejoined the gathering.
"Buffy, I'm so sorry, but I have to go," he told her, unable to contain his exhilaration. "There's been a- a- a breakthrough with the, uhm, the prophecy. It appears that there are- are several passages we didn't even realize before, seven or- or eight at least, and while we haven't entirely deciphered the translation yet this could, uhm, c-could—"
Buffy laid a calming hand on his arm. "It's okay Giles. Go. Go before you explode."
Willow got to her feet. "Hey Giles, I could maybe come help? I'm in a helpy sorta mood." She smiled hopefully.
But Giles was already halfway to the door. "Thank you Willow, but I don't think that's necessary. You should stay. Have fun."
In his haste, he almost tripped over the telephone cord and Tara rushed to help steady him and untangle his ankle. He smiled gratefully before grabbing his coat and dashing out. Deflated, Willow slowly sat down again. Buffy appeared no less crestfallen.
Grip, on the other hand, was totally caught up in everything going on around him.
"Way better than Elektra," he announced with an enthusiastic grin.
In his hotel room, Xander sprawled across the bed, lying with his arm behind his head. Pointing the remote control at the television screen, he flipped through the channels as he muttered to himself.
"Infomercial. Seinfeld rerun. Classic movie. Infomercial. Local news. Scrambled porn. Scrambled porn. Scrambled porn. Friends rerun." He heaved a sigh. "It's comforting to know that TV sucks no matter where you are in the country."
Depressing the 'power' button, he switched off the set just as his stomach emitted a loud and protesting rumble. Lifting his head, he peered at his midsection.
"Yeah, me too buddy," he commiserated. "Well maybe Faith doesn't have to eat, but the Xander Machine needs fuel to continue this madcap pace."
Swinging his legs to the floor, he got to his feet, grabbed his jacket and room key, and opened the door. Faith was standing on the other side. With a screech of alarm, he took a step backward. Faith seemed to be oblivious to his sudden outburst and simply stood in the doorway.
"Holy crap, Faith," said Xander breathlessly. "You wanna drive back alone, you could've just said rather than trying to scare me to death."
"Sorry," she told him without a shred of remorse.
Quickly recovering from his fright, Xander waited for a moment, but Faith didn't appear inclined to continue the conversation.
"So," he smiled, "did you change your mind? You hungry?"
And, for the second time in less than a minute, Xander was taken by surprise as Faith seized a fistful of shirt, pulled him toward her and began to kiss him.