The vampire lifted his victim off the ground, one meaty hand clenched around her throat. She kicked her feet lamely and tried to call out, but the sound died, becoming an inarticulate guttural noise. Her hands scrabbled at the one that was slowly crushing her windpipe, but the motion was ineffectual and its frantic nature only served to drain what little oxygen was left in her lungs. Her struggling became weaker and her arms dropped to her sides, hanging limply as she slowly lost consciousness. With a hungry growl, the vampire bared his fangs and dipped his head towards her exposed neck.
The look of anticipation that crossed his demonic features quickly became one of alarm and disbelief as he crumbled to dust around the stake that had punctured his heart from the rear. The woman tumbled to the ground, coughing as she rested on one elbow and looked up at her savior.
"Willow, you okay?"
The redhead nodded, her throat still too sore to comfortably form words. She massaged the bruised flesh and glared at the spot where the vampire had been just moments before with profound indignity.
"A little help over here!" a voice called out from across the graveyard, and Willow's rescuer immediately ran towards it. Xander was cornered against a large, ornately carved crypt by three more vampires, all female and much less brawny than the first but making up for the lesser physical bulk with speed and agility. Every time Xander would try to duck around one to get into a more favorable position, the vampires would sense his movement and counter it. Every tentative thrust of the longsword he gripped tightly in both hands was met with a dodge and a cruel sneer. The vampires were clearly playing with their food, and it was only a matter of time before they became bored and decided to end the game.
Xander's usually jovial face was marred with fear and concern as his lone eye darted from one vampire to the next and then back again, never resting in one place for long. "I don't suppose you ladies are just looking for a fourth to play Bridge..?" he asked hopefully. An inhuman snarl was his only response. "Didn't think so," Xander said with a grim smile.
This seemed to act as some sort of trigger to the trio of vampires, and as one they leapt at the carpenter. Xander just had time to give a short, womanly scream as he swung his sword in a wild, desperate arc. It hit nothing, and one of the vampires batted it out of his hand. As the vampires converged on their prey the sword went flying, sailing through the air and landing solidly in an outstretched palm. Fingers closed around the hilt without missing a beat as the figure strode with absolute confidence towards the vampires, who were attempting to pin down a squirming, struggling Xander.
"Hey!" the figure called out, and the vampires looked up, startled at the interruption. "You skanks feel up to a real challenge, or do you only get off on gang banging weak and defenseless guys?"
"Weak?" came an offended voice from somewhere on the ground. "I had them right where they wanted me."
With an enraged animal yell, the vampires abandoned Xander and leapt at the newcomer. A flash of steel, then a second and a third, and soon three heads hit the ground and bounced, turning to dust along with their now useless bodies. Tossing the sword away, the figure extended a hand towards Xander, easily pulling him to his feet. He brushed off his jeans, smiling his appreciation for the timely rescue. "Was that all of 'em?" he asked.
"Not quite," was the reply. "There's still one more." In a blur of motion, a mini-crossbow appeared in the figure's hands. The trigger was pulled instantly, and a bolt flew several yards before embedding itself with deadly accuracy in the chest of the final vampire. The dust rained down on the blonde who had been just moments away from becoming its midnight snack.
Buffy coughed and patted her clothes, sending clouds of dust flying into the air. "Nice moves, Dawn," she said with great respect and admiration.
Dawn flashed a toothy grin, slinging the crossbow back over her shoulder. "All in a days work," she said nonchalantly. She walked a few paces away from Xander, coming face-to-face with a young man, dressed in tight black leather pants and a thin, filmy white shirt that lay open and flapping in the sudden breeze that sprang up. He was all chiseled jaw and chest, and looked at the girl with burning passion and undying love.
"Oh Dawn," he whispered, bending down and sweeping her into a blazing kiss that seemed to last for days. Finally they broke apart, Dawn's eyes heavy-lidded and unfocused. "Do you want Raisin Bran or Corn Pops?" he asked.
Dawn's eyes snapped open and she looked around in confusion. She was lying in her bed, her arms curled around her pillow and her hair tousled.
"Dawnie! Breakfast! C'mon, let's go!" Willow's voice called from downstairs.
"Your Pops are gettin' all mushy!" yelled Xander.
Glancing at her clock, Dawn saw that it read 7:08 AM. With a groan, she grabbed the covers and pulled them over her head. "Buffy's so lucky she doesn't have to deal with stuff like this."
Buffy was jolted awake by the unpleasant stinging slap of a wet sock falling onto her face. With a splutter she sat upright in the tiny bed, her hands clawing at the unknown and rather damp assailant. The offending item in hand, she clenched it tightly and glared up at the girl standing a few feet away who was depositing an armload of equally wet articles of clothing unceremoniously on the bed next to Buffy's. The girl remained oblivious, draping clothes on the radiator, the headboard, the lamp ... any place airy or slightly warm. Buffy rolled her eyes and dropped the sock to the ground where it landed with a sick squelch on the throw rug between the two beds. She laid down again, pulling the covers over her head.
Story by: Jet Wolf and Ultrace
Written by: Jet Wolf
Edited by: Novareinna
Original Airdate: Tuesday, 6 April 2004, 8pm EST
Dawn bounced down the stairs and into the dining room, now fully dressed and ready for school. "Hey guys," she said, throwing herself heavily into one of the chairs and grabbing an empty glass and carton of orange juice that sat in the center.
"'Bout time you joined the waking world," Willow said, looking up from her laptop to smile at the teen. "This wake-by-shouting is starting to be a habit, though. We need to getcha an alarm clock."
"Oh, I have an alarm clock," Dawn replied, draining her glass and snatching the toast that was sitting on Willow's plate. "I just, you know ... ignore it."
Her eyes focused on the glowing screen of the laptop, Willow reached blindly towards her plate, her hand grasping at the air where the toast had been just moments before. She felt around the general area with confusion, then glanced up to see the last of her buttery repast disappear into Dawn's mouth. The withering glare was completely lost on Dawn.
"Ahh, selective hearing. I know it well." Xander entered the room with a decent-sized stack of waffles and a bottle of syrup. He placed the plate in front of an empty chair and dusted his hands off on the frilly pink apron he wore tied around his waist. "Mornin' Dawnster," he beamed. "Want some toast? I think I've finally mastered the little knob with the numbers on it and I'm anxious to demonstrate my new culinary skills."
"No thanks, I've already eaten," Dawn replied, ignoring Willow's loud grumbles. "I have to leave to catch the bus in a minute anyway." Dawn got a wistful, far-away glint in her eye. "Catching the bus to school. The dream of every junior girl. Certainly not getting her license and maybe a sweet little convertible paid for by Council funds that have been conveniently redirected to easily accessible accounts by an incredibly loving and generous and wonderful redhead hacker-witch." Her speech complete, she grinned hopefully and turned her huge doe-eyes on Willow.
Willow stared back with an expression that clearly said this ploy wasn't working. At all. "Sorry, I couldn't hear you. I was too busy not eating my toast."
Xander snickered and shoveled a huge forkful of syrupy waffle into his mouth.
"Wil-low, c'mon. It's a measly drop in an extremely vast and deep bucket," pleaded Dawn.
"And it's also not what the money is for! We're using it to rebuild the Council from the ground-up, to- to make it actually work for the Slayers instead of just sitting back there all imperious and order-y. It's not for buying personal stuff, Dawn, you know that."
"Like, say, a state of the art, fully-loaded laptop?"
Willow unconsciously curled her arms protectively around the computer in front of her. "That's different. I use it for Council work."
"Plus she lets me log on and play Everquest sometimes," added Xander with a grin that faltered as soon as he caught Willow's look. "I mean ... No convertibles. Convertibles bad."
Dawn sighed the long-suffering sigh of teenagers everywhere. "Fine," she pouted. "Can I at least get my license?"
"Learning to drive first might be a good idea," Xander said around another mouthful of waffle.
Willow nodded. "An' you kinda ... you know ... "
"You drive like Buffy."
Jaw agape, Dawn turned on Xander. "I so do not."
"Yeah, kinda." The only response was a series of inarticulate yet clearly insulted noises. "How many times have I had to fix the mailbox?" asked Xander. Dawn closed her mouth and huffed. "I rest my case."
"Well how can I ever get better without practice?"
Xander and Willow shared a look for a moment, and then Willow turned to Dawn. "You're right. We'll ... We'll start letting you drive with us. Again. After we stock up on valium."
"God help us all," Xander added softly.
Dawn squealed in delight and leapt to her feet. "You guys are the best! This very nearly makes up for the horrific scars of adolescence that I'll be carrying for the rest of my life by riding the school bus today."
"Just remember that when you write that nasty tell-all book," smirked Willow, kissing Dawn's cheek as the teenager bent down to give her a hug. Dawn moved to Xander, who mirrored Willow's actions.
"And make sure not to leave out the parts where we locked you in a closet for three days and nights with only a crust of bread and a ladle of water after making you scrub the bathroom floors with a toothbrush."
Dawn rolled her eyes but the huge grin on her face sapped away any clinging elements of sarcasm. She gathered her books and headed towards the door. "I'll see you guys later," she said.
"Have a good day at school!" called Willow.
"Learn a lot!" Xander said.
"Good luck on your math test!"
"Don't talk to strangers!"
"Look both ways before crossing the street!"
"God, I'm living with June and Ward Cleaver," Dawn chuckled, closing the door behind her.
Xander considered Dawn's parting words carefully before standing up and gathering the dirty dishes from the table. "So which one of us is which?"
With an appraising eye, Willow looked at Xander from head to toe. "Let's just say I don't think Ward would be caught dead in that apron."
With something akin to repulsion, Xander looked down at the lacy pink garment still tied around his waist. "Oh god," he said with horror, quickly heading into the kitchen with the dishes while Willow laughed and shook her head.
"Anything new and fascinating on the World Wide Whatever-it-is?" Xander called from the kitchen over the sound of running water.
"Not a lot," Willow replied. "My e-mail to Oz keeps bouncing. Oo, that's so typical of him! Here I am, all talky, and he's just sittin' back wherever being Mr. Stony Face. Except, of course, they're bouncing ... which I guess means he's not actually seeing them, but I feel my point is still valid. Anyway, last time I heard from him, we were still planning on setting up shop in Cleveland, so I hope he doesn't try to pull another spontaneous doorstep arrival or he'll be bitterly disappointed."
"How about Buffy, heard from her lately?"
Willow frowned and shook her head, despite Xander not being able to see the motion. "Not a thing, not since she left London." She looked up at Xander as he re-entered the room, now sans apron, and took the seat next to her. "I-I'm kinda worried about her. But she's Buffy, so I probably shouldn't worry. I'm sure she's off livin' the life of Riley." Willow paused and frowned again. "Though probably not with Riley since he's all super secret undercover monster-fighting jungle agent guy. And, you know, married. Plus I don't think there are many jungles in London. ...Do you think she's with Riley, do you think maybe that's why she hasn't called?"
"I doubt she's with Riley," said Xander, "but I'm sure she's okay. She's most likely hanging out in some cozy little British pub, drinking lukewarm beer and desperately trying to figure out the 'bangers' in bangers and mash."
The redhead nodded, but her expression became sad as she trailed her finger aimlessly over the touchpad on her laptop. "D'you ... Do you think she misses us?"
Xander reached over and gently squeezed Willow's shoulder. "I know she does. She misses us just as much as we miss her."
"Then why won't she come home?" Willow asked, a hint of anger touching her voice. "She's been gone for nearly two months now, and she doesn't even call to check up on us anymore! I-It's like, now there's a couple hundred Slayers in the world, she's just washed her hands of the whole thing. Like- Like she only ever hung around because there was always some new evil to fight."
"Will." At the gentle tone in Xander's voice, Willow looked up, her eyes beginning to shine with unshed tears of hurt and anger. "Buffy was not just our friend because we helped her take out vampires, banish a Hellgod and beat the crap out of some cybernetic demon Frankenstein who looked like he stepped out of a Picasso painting. Buffy loves us. For us. She just needs this. She's spent the last seven years fighting evil on the Hellmouth and she needs a break. That's all."
This did little to placate Willow, and she waved her hand in frustration at Xander's words. "Us too, Xander. You, me, Giles, we all fought on the Hellmouth for the last seven years. We've all felt the pain and we've all made sacrifices. But we're still here. We didn't just decide to up and run to Europe the second we got settled down again."
"I know, but that was our choice. We were volunteers in Buffy's army, and we could've quit any time we wanted to. We still could. Buffy never had that. Now she does, and this is her choice. We've gotta respect that."
Willow sighed heavily and ran a hand through her hair. "Yeah, I know. It's just ... I miss her, Xander. I want Buffy to come home."
"Me too, Will. Me too."
At the sound of the door opening, Giles looked up from the stack of papers on the desk in front of him and smiled broadly. He rose to his feet and quickly strode across the room to greet the young girl who tentatively entered his office. She seemed tall for her age and moved with a gangly awkwardness as she walked forward, tucking a lock of short, jet-black hair behind her ear.
"Mr. Giles, this is Judith. Judith, this is Mr. Giles." Andrew leaned towards the girl and lowered his voice to what he thought was a conspiratorial whisper. "He seems really intimidating and stuff, but it's really just the accent."
Giles shot Andrew a look that managed to be intimidating without a word being spoken, and the young man immediately went rigid and stepped away from Judith's side. "Uhm, tea! I bet you'd like some tea, right Mr. Giles? Would you like some tea, Judith? I just picked up an exciting variety pack of Twinings for a very reasonable price. I believe a cup of English breakfast tea would help you relax after your flight. Although it's not really breakfast time anymore, is it? Can you have English breakfast tea for lunch, Mr. Giles?"
Andrew looked expectantly at Giles, his tangent having dispelled any lingering tension. Giles for his part had removed his glasses and was massaging the bridge of his nose as Andrew's tension found its new home. "That sounds lovely, Andrew, two cups please," he sighed, ignoring the question.
"Okey-dokey," said Andrew cheerily, and he left the office, closing the door behind him.
Giles readjusted his glasses and smiled warmly at the girl standing in front of him. "I do apologize for Andrew. His ... enthusiasm is often less than infectious, but he means well." He gestured to one of the plush, comfortable-looking chairs arranged in front of his desk and moved around to his own. Judith took the offered seat and visibly tried to relax.
"Yeah, I kinda gathered that." She looked around the room, her eyes taking in the piles of boxes and assorted books that littered every available square inch of surface, including most of the floor.
"Please excuse the mess. I'm afraid we're still in the moving-in process." Judith nodded shyly and continued to examine the volumes with their strange and ornate covers, before moving to the tapestries and photographs lining the walls. Her eyes finally came to rest on the scythe mounted on the wall behind Giles' desk.
Judith tried not to openly gape, but she couldn't completely help herself. "Is that..?" she started to ask. Giles followed her gaze and smiled at her reaction.
"I see Faith actually went through the part about the Slayer history this time," he said, obviously pleased.
Judith smirked at that and looked at Giles. "Well, she said something like, 'Red worked the mojo on this big-ass Slayer axe that unlocked all the newbie potentials. That's why you can punch a hole through a brick wall and have the stamina of a racehorse.' Then she told me I should 'get my butt to Pennsylvania' and gave me your business card."
Giles removed his glasses and began polishing them on the handkerchief that he'd whipped out of his pants pocket. "Yes, well, not quite the speech we'd written for her, but I suppose it gets the message across."
"Mr. Giles, this is all so ... " Judith took a deep breath and tried to focus her thoughts. "Strange. I mean, one second I'm lying on my bed feeling exhausted from a long day at school, and the next I feel like I could run ten miles and still have energy left over. I know puberty brings some changes, but this seems kinda much."
He chuckled and leaned forward, clasping his hands together and resting them on the desktop. "I can only imagine." Giles' face became earnest as he locked eyes with the girl in front of him. "But that's why we're here, Judith. That's why you're here. There are great evils in the world, dark forces that would conspire to destroy all that we hold dear. For millennia, there was only one girl who stood alone against those forces, a lone girl who would fight, and die, for the safety of the world. Now there are many, each gifted with supernatural speed, strength, senses and ability. My compatriots and I are working to bring these girls together, to train them, teach them how to use their abilities. I won't lie to you, Judith. The life of a Slayer is violent and dangerous. You will be out there, directly battling those forces. I cannot guarantee you safety, nor can I guarantee you a life free from pain. I can, however, guarantee you the absolute best training in the control and use of your powers, and the fact that unlike the Slayers before you, you will never have to face evil alone."
Giles leaned back in his chair, judging from the look on Judith's face that she had heard, and fully understood what he was telling her. "I can also guarantee you something that no Slayer before you has ever had – a choice. You can walk out of here right now and not look back, and you will never hear from us again. Or, you can decide to embrace the powers that have been given to you, stay here with the Council and help us protect the world. The choice is yours, Judith."
The door opened, and Judith jumped as she turned. Andrew entered, carrying an old-time silver tea tray with a teapot, two cups and a plate of cookies much like the one that was half dangling out of Andrew's mouth. He placed the tray on the clear spot Giles had made and smiled at the girl as he chewed a bite of the cookie. "Jaffa cakes," he explained. "Mr. Giles gets them on order from England. They're scrumdidlyumptious."
"What a delightful word. I'm going to assume it's a compliment," said Giles dryly, pouring tea first for Judith and then himself.
Andrew "mmm"'d in agreement and regarded Judith, who was blowing tentatively on her cup of tea. "So, what's the verdict? You planning on living up to your womanly potential and embracing your destiny as a Slayer of Vampyres?"
The girl considered this question carefully, looking first at Andrew and then at Giles. Whereas Andrew was only barely able to contain his desire to root for the home team, Giles met Judith's gaze calmly and without a hint of pressure as he sipped his tea. "I think..." said Judith, glancing up at the scythe and then back to Giles. "I think I'd like to learn to be a Slayer."
"Yes!" Andrew exclaimed enthusiastically. "Oh, you'll love it here, Judith. Slayer Central has the most awesome rec room. Xander – I can't wait 'til you meet Xander, he's just the coolest guy in the entire world – built us a custom entertainment center with a wide-screen hi-definition TV, progressive scan DVD player, and a space for my Xbox. I'm currently on my fifth game of 'Knights of the Old Republic'. Do you like Star Wars? I can't wait for Episode Three ..."
As Andrew babbled to a slightly overwhelmed Judith, Giles continued to sip his tea and smile happily.
The roar of the motorcycle shattered the idyllic peace of the quiet neighborhood as it rounded a corner at a speed considerably above that of the posted 20 MPH limit. An elderly lady looked up from her gardening to glare at the rider as the bike tore down the street, but the vehicle neither sped up nor slowed down. With pursed lips, the woman turned back to her pogonias, muttering under her breath about the lack of respect in the youth of today.
At a four-way intersection, the rider brought the motorcycle to a stop. Faith inspected the street sign and flicked her eyes to one side, trying to remember which direction she was supposed to go next. The street names not ringing any bells, she took stock of her surroundings as though searching for some clue that would point her the right way. Instead she found herself examining the rows of bright, clean, cookie-cutter houses that lined both sides of the street; each with a perfectly manicured lawn, two car garage, and absolutely no character whatsoever.
"Check out the American dream," she said to herself with no small amount of disdain. Faith stuck her hand into the pocket of her tight leather jacket and pulled out a folded and slightly crumpled piece of paper. She smoothed the page, tracing her finger down the list of directions until finally coming to a stop at the bottom. Double-checking the street signs, Faith seemed satisfied that she knew where to go and quickly folded the paper, shoving it back into her pocket. Settling down in the seat once more, she revved the engine and turned right, startling a squirrel who ran up one of the many trees that lined the street. The thunder of the engine echoed long after the bike had disappeared from view.
"Forty-seven! Forty-eight! Forty-nine! Fifty!" Kennedy's voice rang out and reverberated around the gymnasium. She watched the group of fifteen girls complete their jumping jacks, her arms crossed over her chest as she marched back and forth in front of them. Her hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail that swished around her face whenever she spun on her heel and her mouth was set in a hard line. Kennedy was all business.
"Alright, pair off! We're practicing the Korfec maneuver. Alternate roles between attacker and attackee. You're not leaving here today until you complete it successfully on me. Lynn, up front; we'll start with you."
A girl about six inches taller than Kennedy stepped forward from the group. Her hair was a light brown and her eyes a pale blue, which only served to further the contrast between the two. Kennedy smirked and looked up at Lynn, clearly feeling no intimidation whatsoever at the height difference. As for Lynn, her face was a mask of intense concentration as she narrowed her eyes and tensed her muscles, sinking further into the mats that covered the gymnasium floor. The tension between the pair of combatants grew, but they simply continued to stare at each other.
The only forewarning Kennedy had for Lynn's attack was a slight shift in her weight, but it was enough. The younger girl's fist never had a chance to connect with its intended target as Kennedy's arm swung around and deflected the blow rushing towards the side of her head. Lynn had focused all of her strength behind the punch, so she was severely thrown off balance when it missed and she stumbled. Kennedy didn't, and immediately dropped to the ground. Executing a perfect leg sweep, she knocked Lynn into the air. Continuing the momentum from her move, Kennedy leapt to her feet and shot her hand out to wrap it around Lynn's neck. Forcefully, but not severe enough to cause any damage outside of some external bruising, Kennedy drove the girl flat on her back into the mat. Lynn grunted as the air was forced from her body and she blinked rapidly, her eyes struggling to focus. The first thing they saw was Kennedy leaning over, her hand still wrapped firmly around the girl's throat and the smirk that hadn't once wavered continuing to curl her lips.
Kennedy released her grip and stood up, offering her hand. The girl accepted and was pulled to her feet, rubbing unconsciously at her neck. "Sloppy," Kennedy appraised. "Don't put everything you've got behind a move that'll leave you so exposed, especially when you telegraph it from a mile away. My gran'ma would've seen that coming, and she's been blind since '96." Lynn nodded, still massaging her throat and trying hard to regain some of the dignity she'd left behind on the mat.
She opened her mouth to say something else, but Kennedy's attention was drawn to a well-groomed man in a three-piece suit standing off to the side observing the training class with rapt attention. He saw Kennedy notice him and smiled, nodding his head with approval and encouraging her to continue. Instead she frowned and looked back at Lynn. "Go join Xue and Martha," she said, "I'll be back in a few."
Trusting that her commands were being followed, Kennedy devoted her entire attention to the man in front of her as she strode purposely towards him.
"Kennedy," he greeted warmly, the faintest touch of a British accent coming through in his speech. "Most impressive maneuver out there. The class is coming along well?"
"What're you doing here?" she replied, crossing her arms again and glaring.
"Guess I walked into that one. What else would a Watcher do?" asked Kennedy mostly to herself.
The Watcher's face split in a genuine, if somewhat goofy-looking grin and he barked out a laugh. "Yes, I suppose that was to be expected."
Kennedy rolled her eyes, not bothering to hide her disdain for the conversation, and walked briskly past the man towards a stack of mats against the wall. She grabbed a towel that was tossed on top of the stack, wiping her face and draping it around her neck as she fished out a bottle of water from the nearby ice chest. She turned around again to find the Watcher standing directly behind her.
"Personal space, Nate. It's a bold new concept. Look into it."
"Nathaniel, please," he corrected, watching Kennedy move a few feet away and lean against the wall. "And I'm sorry that you feel my presence here is an intrusion, but—"
"I feel like it's an intrusion because it is an intrusion," Kennedy interrupted. "Look, I know you're just doing your job..." She looked the man up and down with a critically appraising eye. "...Whatever the hell that may be. But the bottom line is, I know what I'm doing. I don't need a babysitter standing over my shoulder telling me which end of a sword is the pointy one."
Nathaniel visibly bristled at Kennedy's words, but when he spoke, it was with a calm and even voice. "You're quite talented, true. Nobody is saying otherwise. But you are a new Slayer, Kennedy. You have had your powers for the exact same length of time as the rest of these girls." He held his hand up to cut off the Slayer's protests before they could be given voice. "I know you've had training. I know you've had a Watcher. But the very fact that you feel you have learned all you need to know only further proves that you have not."
Kennedy stopped drinking and paused, the bottle still tilted to her lips. After a moment she lowered it and looked at Nathaniel, her eyes narrowing. "And you think you're the one to teach me."
If he felt intimidated by the look, he never let it show. "I believe that we have a lot to teach each other, if you will only give us a chance."
The two held a locked gaze for several heartbeats, neither willing to be the first to look away. Then Kennedy's face shifted and her entire stance changed. She shrugged nonchalantly and took a final quick sip from the water bottle before capping it and tossing it on top of the mats. "Ah what the hell," she resigned, "it could be good for a few laughs."
Nathaniel blinked in surprise, clearly thrown off by the drastic turn-around but recovering quickly. "Splendid! This should be a highly enriching experience for us both."
"We're just training, Nate, don't get all excited. Besides, I'm taken..." Kennedy marched back towards the group of Slayers who were still attacking each other with gusto. Nathaniel quickly followed and she cast a look over her shoulder at him as she walked across the gym. "...And you're really not my type."
Any possible reply was cut off by Kennedy's return to the group. "Alright, listen up maggots!" she shouted, demanding everyone's full attention. "Switch partners and get ready to come up here and show me what you've got."
As the Slayers rearranged themselves, Kennedy turned to Nathaniel. "So, what's up first for you and me?"
"I was thinking we might address your, uhm ... People skills," the Watcher replied. "'Maggot'?" he repeated, incredulously.
"Oh yeah, this Watcher thing's gonna be real enriching."
The sound of the lunch bell continued to ring in the distance, drowned out by the loud laughter and chatter of Trillium High School's student body. Dawn and two other girls broke away from the crowd and made their way to one of the park benches dotting the front lawn, unslinging their backpacks and dropping their books on the tabletop.
"So I was, like, 'Pharmaceuticals? Like I want to be a glorified drug pusher for the rest of my life'," Jackie complained, a sneer twisting her features. She shook her head, tossing red hair that was obviously from a bottle out of her eyes as she searched for something in her backpack. "I mean, seriously, can you see me stuck in a lab coat selling Xanex and Viagra every day? Nooo thank you."
Brenda finished unwrapping a sandwich and looked up. "My parents haven't really started yet," she said in her usual quiet voice, "but my mother's bringing home those postcards for college catalogues and stuff, so I figure I'm due for the talk any day now."
Popping the top of her Coke, Dawn nodded in understanding. "I'm not sure what I want to do either. I mean, the obvious answer is research, but—" She broke off when she noticed the other two staring at her, disbelief etched on their faces.
"It sounds really boring, I know, but you'd be surprised," Dawn clarified. "Some of the texts I've seen would make you ... Well, let's just say that Stephen King could write fifty books this year on just one of the volumes Giles has," she added with a hint of amusement.
Her friends didn't share in the humor. "Research? Eww," shuddered Jackie. "I thought the point of getting a degree was to get away from school, not consign yourself to a hell of perpetual homework."
"Honestly, it's not that bad," countered Dawn, trying to persuade her friends without obviously trying to persuade them. A separate thought occurred to her and she rolled her eyes slightly with no small amount of contempt. "Besides, it's better than my slacker older sister. She dropped out to go wander around Europe for god knows how long."
"Europe? That is so cool!" Brenda exclaimed with great enthusiasm as Dawn blinked at her with surprise.
Jackie echoed that statement with gusto. "Totally! Christina's brother did the same thing. He was gone for like half a year or something and when he came back he was all rugged and had tons of stories and all these interesting friends from all over the world. It's real-life stuff, you know? That's what I'm talking about." She poked a Cheeto towards her friends for emphasis. "Life isn't all about school and surrounding yourself with a bunch of boring facts and dusty old books that nobody gives a crap about anymore. It's about living." She took a swig of Dawn's Coke, feeling very proud of herself for having made such an important declaration.
"Maybe we should do that after graduation," Brenda suggested.
"Yeah, maybe!" Jackie looked up, her eyes sparkling with excitement, but she calmed again quickly as a thought occurred to her. "Can you see me telling my dad that, though? I think his head would explode. Then he'd prescribe me some Paxil or something." She rolled her eyes at the ceaseless lack of understanding inherent in all parents.
Her friends agreed with much sympathy. Brenda took another bite of sandwich and glanced next to her at the mountain of stuff Dawn had pulled out of her backpack during her quest for lunch. Her eyes were pulled to a small black velvet pouch, drawn closed tightly with a red string. "Hey Dawn, what's this?" she asked, gesturing at the pouch.
Dawn glanced over, leaning to one side to peer around a pile of books blocking her view. "Oh, that's just something my..." She trailed off, looking for a word to properly describe her relationship with the witch. She gave up with a small shrug when nothing came to mind. "Something Willow gave me. It's for protection and stuff."
"Protection?" queried Jackie, raising her eyebrows in interest.
"Yeah. Some herbs, a bit of—" Dawn wiggled her fingers. "Nothing major, just a little ward," she added with an almost bored tone.
Brenda's eyes widened and she scooted closer to Dawn, dropping her voice to a whisper. "Magic?"
Dawn shrugged again. "Something like that. It's really more herbally earthy goodness, though." She turned back to her lunch, dismissing the pouch without much of a second thought, not finding anything particularly compelling about it.
Her friends clearly didn't share her nonchalance. "Wow," sighed Brenda, full of awe as she sat back.
Jackie took it much more in stride, but was also clearly impressed. "Magic. I swear, Dawn, you have the coolest family ever." She glanced at Dawn seriously. "How did you wind up wanting to do boring stuff like research when you have all these awesome people around you?"
The girl shook her head, expressing her utter incomprehension of Dawn's choices as she stole another drink of Coke. Dawn looked at Jackie for a moment before dropping her gaze, suddenly finding her peanut butter sandwich fascinating.
"I'll have the grilled salmon with baked potato," Robin Wood said, folding his menu and handing it to the waitress.
Giles followed suit with his menu. "Fish and chips, please." He glanced over at Wood's amused look and added, "I feel it's my duty to live up to the stereotype."
"So long as you can do it without eating some internal organ that was never meant to be eaten, I support you," responded Wood with a grin.
As the waitress left to place the order, the two sat in companionable silence, unwrapping their silverware and straightening out the napkin. Giles took a sip of water, wetting his throat.
"How was the flight?" he finally asked.
"Cramped, bumpy and devoid of peanuts. I won't mind sleeping for a few days in my actual bed, let me tell you." Giles nodded in understanding. "But the trip was good," Wood continued. "I think she'll join us."
"Most excellent." Both men looked up and thanked the waitress as she delivered a basket of breadsticks to the table. Giles reached for one and placed it on his plate, but abandoned it there as he returned to the conversation. "Our Watcher to Slayer ratio is in desperate need of balancing. We've already had to double up most Watchers. Some even have three Slayers, which is far from ideal." He removed his glasses and polished them on the handkerchief he had produced from his jacket pocket. "I-I'm not sure what we'll do if we don't get more Watchers soon."
Wood tore the end off of his own breadstick and looked at Giles. "Sorta makes you wish Willow could've unlocked some Watcher potentials while she was busy changing the world, huh? You know, awakened that deep, spiritual need to train, organize and drink tea that exists somewhere deep in the hearts of the chosen few." He smirked as he popped the piece of bread into his mouth.
"Ahh yes, my life's role reduced to a few choice verbs," remarked Giles. He checked his glasses one final time before putting them back on. "I sincerely hope you used a less concentrated version when talking to Ms. Newbury."
The nod he received was enthusiastic. "Don't worry. I stressed the death and danger aspects too."
"I'm sure they'll be flocking to our doors," Giles said with no small amount of sarcasm.
"Well you do offer a nice dental plan."
Reaching for the glass of water in front of him, the Watcher traced a finger around the rim. "How were things otherwise?" he finally asked. "Anything else of interest?"
"Not especially. It was a pretty average town," replied Wood easily. He then gave Giles' question more thought, and frowned slightly. "Were you expecting something else?"
Giles shook his head, but his face was worried. "No, no, not as such. Just that..." There was a pause as Giles sorted out his thoughts. "The magicks Willow harnessed to unlock the power of the scythe were far greater than any seen in this world for centuries. That kind of power simply does not pass without notice. And with Slayers awakening around the world... There are just so many of them now, relatively speaking." His face became gravely serious. "A veritable army of Slayers. Few could stand against them."
Wood pushed back slightly from Giles, having leaned closer as the conversation sobered. "Which is good, right? I mean I know that I feel safer battling evil with a platoon of Slayers at my back," he added hopefully.
"Provided that we were able to convince every Slayer in the world to join our cause, I would agree with you wholeheartedly. However experience has shown us that not every Slayer is called with a sense of altruism." Giles ran a hand through his hair and his eyes took on a far-away look. "I wonder ... how long can it be before someone else realizes that?"
Faith pulled her motorcycle up to the front of a house that looked different from the others around it in only the most superficial of ways – light blue siding instead of cream, the door to the right of the window instead of to the left. It was all so generically lacking character that Faith couldn't help but roll her eyes. She turned off the bike's engine and lowered the kickstand, stretching as she stood to work out some of the kinks in her back. With one final glance at the paper in her hand to make sure she had the right house number, Faith strode to the door and rang the doorbell. She didn't recognize the overly elaborate tune that she heard playing inside. That fact didn't bother her.
The door opened tentatively to reveal a pair of large blue eyes and a face framed by shoulder-length light brown hair that looked as though it was perpetually messy. The girl blinked at Faith, seemingly taken aback by the Slayer's predominantly leather outfit, which seemed out of place in the middle of the suburban wasteland.
"Hazel MacFadden?" Faith asked, her voice rough and gravelly from the road.
Hazel's eyes widened even further. "Yes?"
"Hey. I'm Faith. I spoke to you on the phone last night."
Recognition suddenly dawned on Hazel's face, and any trace of nervous suspicion fled. "Yeah!" she exclaimed with obvious excitement. "Yeah, hi! Hi. Uhm ... Hi," she finished lamely.
"I think we covered that," smirked Faith, highly amused. "Can I come in?"
"Oh god! Yeah, come in." Hazel jumped back out of the doorway and gestured for Faith to come inside. She rolled her eyes at herself and shook her head. "Sorry. I'm just ... This is so freaky. I've been jitters since you called." Closing the door behind them, Hazel led Faith into the living room, swinging her arms back and forth as though unsure what else to do with them.
"I get that a lot," Faith said, shrugging. She looked around the room, admiring the huge vault ceilings and the spaciousness. "Nice place," she complimented.
Hazel glanced around as well. "Thanks. I've lived here all my life." The girl's expression softened as she examined it more closely. "I love this house. I feel so safe and protected here. Like nothing out there can ever get in, you know?" A dark look clouded Hazel's face and she wrapped her arms around herself as though she'd caught a sudden chill. "It used to feel safe. Doesn't feel safe anymore."
"When'd it change?" Faith asked gently.
She didn't answer immediately, instead rubbing her hands up and down her arms. "When I ripped my bedroom door off its hinges," whispered Hazel in a voice so low that Faith might not have caught it if not for Slayer hearing.
Faith watched Hazel for a moment then seemed to reach a decision. "I never had a safe place myself," she said conversationally, moving around the room. "Didn't like to get tied down to one place too long." The Slayer paused and glanced towards Hazel. "Kinda findin' a place now, though. It's a good place." She stopped in the center of the room, catching Hazel's eyes. "For people like you and me."
A moment of understanding passed between them and Hazel lowered her arms. "When you called, that stuff you said..." she began. "How did you know? I mean, no one knows. Not even my parents."
"How'd you explain the door?"
Hazel shuffled her feet, clearly embarrassed. "I told them I tripped and fell into it. They- They thought it was weird, but didn't really ask." She grinned at Faith's chuckle, but quickly became serious again. "But you know. About ... the strength and the speed. And the fact that I'm hungry all the time."
"Oh yeah, you'll be livin' off Wendy's 99-cent menu, lemme tell you," advised Faith, examining a little ceramic knick-knack over the fireplace. She paused and turned back to Hazel, "I know there's some seriously out there stuff goin' on with you right now. I know, cuz I been there."
The girl frowned at Faith, her face etched with confusion.
"You an' me, Haze? We're super-heroes."
Hazel blinked at Faith.
With an energetic bounce, Willow came down the stairs, turning right at the bottom and heading down the hall towards the living room. "Hey, Xander?" she called out before actually seeing her friend, knowing from the sounds of the television where he would be. Which he was, slumped down listlessly in one of the chairs with an open bottle in one hand and the remote control in the other.
"I'm goin' bonkers all cooped up inside. I was thinkin' about hitting the mall, so I could ... be all cooped up inside ... there." Willow frowned at her lack of logic, but broke into an excited grin as her mind forged a new path of justification. "Oh! But they have skylights and trees, so it's like an artificial outside inside!" She beamed at Xander.
He didn't even glance at her. "Nah, I think I'm just gonna stay here."
Willow moved in front of Xander, not quite blocking the TV but coming close. "Oh, come on! It'll be fun! There's a big squishy pretzel in it for you!" she enticed in a singsong voice. "We can even get some of that way-too-orange faux cheese sauce that one can only find in mall food courts."
Xander finally tore his eye away from the television and smiled at Willow fondly, though he remained slouched in chair looking very dispirited. "Tempting though my colon may find that offer, I think I'll pass. Oprah's got Dr. Phil on, and you know what a rare televisual treat that is."
The redhead gasped at Xander with mock dismay. "You're spurning me for daytime talk shows?" She touched her heart dramatically. "The second you choose Jerry Springer over me, I'm leaving you."
"Aww Will, you know I'll always love you more than the transsexual nazi prostitutes." His tone was teasing but flat, and with a brief, sad smile he returned his full attention to the television.
All traces of humor vanished from Willow's face to be replaced with concern. "C'mon Xander. You need to get out more. You spend practically all day sitting here in front of the TV," she said, gesturing behind her to the object in question. "Even 24/7 Discovery Channel isn't good for you."
"Yeah, but I could now tell you absolutely anything you ever wanted to know about building a car from the husk of a Mercedes with only a single blowtorch, a lawn mower and a synthesizer keyboard," he quipped on automatic.
She reached out and touched his arm. Xander glanced at her, his lone eye connecting with hers for just a moment before looking away again towards the pictures on the screen but staring straight through them.
"I know you've felt kinda ... out of sorts since Sunnydale, but—"
"'Out of sorts' doesn't really begin to cover it," he replied with a touch of bitterness, taking a drink from the bottle clenched tightly in his left hand.
"I-I know, and I understand, I really do," said Willow gently. "But you can't just spend the rest of your life wasting away here. It hurts, but you have people who love you, who want to help you. Do you think Anya would want—"
"Hey, while you're at the mall, do you think you could stop by Suncoast and pick up Bulletproof Monk for me? I got it on pre-order and I think it should be in by now." Xander's voice was lively, sounding much more like his regular self. Neither one of them were fooled.
Willow sighed deeply, but backed away, letting the matter drop. For the moment. "Okay," she said, touching Xander's arm again. "I'll be back in a few hours."
"And this," Andrew announced in an all-important voice, sweeping his arms in a grand flourish, "is my domain. The kitchen." Following Andrew into the room, Judith did her best to appear fascinated. She didn't quite pull it off, but Andrew was so engrossed he didn't notice. "I am Lord and Master over—"
Spying an open jar of peanut butter sitting on the counter, all pretenses vanished. "Hey!" he whined, bringing his hands down with an audible slap to his thighs. He grabbed the jar and brought it up to eye level, shaking it as though it were personally to blame. "I ask for one thing, one tiny thing. Just clean up after yourselves. Like I don't have better things to do with my time!"
Andrew paused while screwing the lid back on the jar and glanced to one side. "Okay, maybe I don't, but I hardly think that's the point, do you?" he asked Judith.
"So ... you're the cook?" she inquired instead, wanting nothing to do with the previous conversation.
Nodding with unabashed pride, Andrew returned the peanut butter to its proper place in one of the many cupboards lining the walls. "Meal preparation is but one of my many duties in our ongoing battle against evil," explained to the blond purposely. "I also ... uhm, I sometimes help Xander build stuff."
Judith raised her eyebrows in interest.
"...When he doesn't chase me away with the power saw," Andrew added half under his breath.
The interest turned to a confused frown.
He continued with greater conviction. "And I help Mr. Giles keep organized with appointments and things like that. Oh, and I also make tea." Andrew grabbed the aforementioned box of Twinings, smiling broadly as he ran his hand underneath and to the sides of the box "Price is Right" style.
"Certain to be the deciding factor on Judgment Day," smirked Judith.
Andrew's smile remained fixed. Then it fell slightly as he puzzled over her words. He eventually decided on a weaker version somewhere in-between.
The new Slayer looked around the kitchen, settling on the large window that dominated the far wall. Outside was any generic peaceful, sunny afternoon. "Trillium though, huh?" she finally asked. "This seems like such a sleepy little town. I can't imagine there being much evil to fight here."
Putting the box down on the counter, Andrew patted Judith's shoulder condescendingly. "Tsk. Young, naïve Padawan," he sighed wistfully, shaking his head. "You have much to learn."
Andrew steepled his fingers together and began to pace slowly around the kitchen, paying no attention to the look Judith was shooting at him. When he spoke, it was with a voice to rival all the best documentary filmmakers. At least in his mind.
"Trillium is actually a fascinating place. You see it's nestled snug in the exact center of a three-Hellmouth triangle. After that unfortunate incident with the Dale of the Sun, our intrepid band of stalwart adventurers had planned to relocate home base to Cleveland, Ohio. Cleveland was, next to Sunnydale, the city with the largest active Hellmouth. But when Buffy led her core group of trusted generals to the—" he made quotation marks with his fingers "—'Mistake on the Lake', her recently redeemed lesbian witch Willow detected a flow of energy away from that Hellmouth."
Andrew paused for dramatic effect. Judith blinked at him. He held the pause for another beat, then spun on his heel and continued.
"The fearless heroes pressed onwards, following the dark power until they arrived here in Trillium. They discovered that the energy from the Cleveland Hellmouth was being drawn by and mingling with the power from two more nearby Hellmouths, both of which had grown mightily since the destruction of Sunnydale – one in Syracuse, New York, and the other in Washington DC."
She had been busy twirling a wooden mixing spoon between her fingers, but upon hearing that, Judith stopped and looked at Andrew with genuine surprise. "DC is on a Hellmouth?"
"You have to admit, it makes a sort of sense," replied Andrew matter-of-factly.
Judith considered this for a moment, and then nodded in a conciliatory gesture.
He continued pacing as though he had never been interrupted. "Realizing that this nexus of energies had the potential to become even more volatile than any singular Hellmouth, Buffy and Company decided to make Trillium their new headquarters. It's only four hours or so away from each of the three nearby Hellmouths, which makes it easy to monitor them and dispatch Slayers as needed. There are decent schools here for the new Slayers to continue their education, including a branch of Penn State. Plus," he grinned, "the constant influx of dark energies really keeps the property values down so we could buy up all this land for Slayer Central."
"So," began Judith, putting it all into her own words, "this is sort of a Bermuda Triangle of evil."
Andrew clapped his hands once and beamed at the girl. "Exactly!"
"Uh oh. You've related to him on some level. He's never going to leave you alone now," Kennedy cautioned, striding into the kitchen and ignoring Andrew's gaping and wounded look. She peered at the countertops, scowling. "Hey, where'd my peanut butter go?"
His jaw moved up and down soundlessly, but Andrew was unable to articulate any words. If Kennedy saw him, she didn't acknowledge it as she hopped upon the counter and reached behind her to retrieve the jar and a tube of crackers from the cupboard. She twisted the top off and tossed it carelessly to one side, fishing out a cracker and using it to scoop peanut butter directly from the container. Andrew's eyes bulged.
"So," Kennedy said, gesturing the cracker in Judith's general direction before popping it into her mouth, "you're new."
"Yeah, I just arrived today. Judith." She offered her hand to Kennedy, who shook it once and grabbed another cracker. "Andrew was giving me the grand tour," Judith smiled at Andrew, who was torn between wanting to smile back at the new Slayer and continue glaring at the old one. He resulted in doing both rather unsuccessfully.
Kennedy snorted. "Poor thing." She munched on another cracker. "Have you done the rec room yet?"
With a glance at Andrew, Judith smirked, "No, but I've already heard so much about it."
As though she had just reached a decision, Kennedy put her snack to the side. "I'll take you," she announced. "If you go with Andy, you might be tempted to impale yourself on a pool cue just to escape the pain."
"Hey!" yelped Andrew indignantly, finally finding his voice.
"Besides," Kennedy muttered, mostly to herself without regard for Andrew's outburst, "I apparently have 'people skills' issues I need to work on. Whatever the hell that's about." She jumped down off the counter, brushing the cracker crumbs from her jeans and t-shirt into the floor without a passing thought and headed towards the exit.
Andrew began to turn an interesting shade of red as he looked from the floor to the abandoned mess on the countertop to Kennedy and back again.
The new Slayer remained rooted to the spot, clearly unsure who she should follow.
Kennedy stood in the doorway and looked back to Judith. "C'mon," she said, gesturing towards the other room with her head. "Unless you want to hear all about why Star Trek V is underrated."
"It is!" Andrew exclaimed waving the dishtowel he was holding for emphasis. "Kirk facing off against God was a brilliant metaphor for hard science replacing blind faith, and Sybok—"
"Coming," Judith told Kennedy without hesitation. As she followed Kennedy out of the room, she turned to Andrew and flashed a smile at him. "Thanks for the tour. I learned a lot."
Andrew stood by the counter and watched them leave. "I didn't say it was better than Wrath of Khan, geez," he complained to an empty room. With a sigh, he began to wipe off the counter top and once more returned the peanut butter to the cupboard.
Hazel shook her head at Faith and stepped forward, as though proximity would bring sudden clarity. "What? Super-heroes? You mean, like, the X-Men or the Fantastic Four?"
"I dunno nothin' about that," answered Faith, "you'd have to ask Xander or somethin'. But yeah, real-live, honest-to-god super-heroes."
Eyes shining, Hazel lowered her voice to a secretive level. "Do we have costumes and codenames and stuff?"
"Hell no," the Slayer responded with a sneer.
Hazel's face fell. "Oh," she said with obvious disappointment.
"But there's this whole thing where we kick evil's ass, and that doesn't suck."
"Oh!" exclaimed Hazel with some of her earlier enthusiasm.
"An' that's why I'm here," continued Faith, capitalizing on the momentum. "See, there used to be just one of us." She paused, reconsidering. "Well, two of us, only one was all prima donna and everyone's little perfect angel and generally a pain in the—" Faith caught herself quickly, waving her hand as though literally cutting off that line of thought. "Anyway, there used to be two, and now there's a whole bunch runnin' around with no clue what the hell's happened to 'em. So we've set up this place where you can come and learn and live and train to kill vamps and demons and stuff."
"See, this is like the X-Men with—" Hazel did a double take. "Wait, kill what?"
"Vamps and demons and stuff," repeated Faith casually. Hazel continued to merely gaze, her expression blank. "Vampires?" she dragged out slowly, expecting Hazel to catch on at any moment.
The girl crossed her arms and stared at Faith. "Get out," she said in disbelief.
"Vampires." Hazel watched Faith closely for any sign that this was all some hugely elaborate joke at her expense. "Fangy, blood-sucking, garlic-hating, Anne Rice-inspiring vampires."
Taking it all in stride, Faith simply said, "Yeah."
"Get out," she restated in the exact same tone.
Faith was amazed. "What's the big? You accept you're a super-hero. You know you can rip sections of your house apart with your bare hands. Why's it so hard to believe you got your powers so you can turn a goth girl's wet dream to dust?"
Her arms still crossed, Hazel shrugged. "I suppose you gotta draw the line somewhere. For some, it was Crystal Pepsi. For others, it's was when Rachel slept with Ross." She shrugged again. "I guess for me it's the thought of turning into a seventeen-year old female Van Helsing."
With an exasperated sigh, Faith began talking to herself. "It's always this part where I lose 'em. I need to start travelin' with demo vamps or somethin'."
She turned to Hazel, pointing at the girl with both hands. "Okay, you don't believe me. That's your choice, I respect that. But I got somethin' to show you. Might just make you see the world a bit different."
Hazel cocked her eyebrow and gave the older woman a wary look. "Okaaaay...?" she drawled.
"Tonight," said Faith. "I'll come back by here, 'bout eight? Be ready."
"Ready for what?"
Faith leveled an intense gaze at Hazel, completely serious.
"Your life to change."
The door to the Scoobies' house swung open and Willow entered, several bags swinging from her hands. She kicked the door closed and spoke loudly into the air, despite not seeing anyone. "That's so much better. Nothing like contributing to our nation's ongoing quest for just the right combination of material goods that equals true happiness."
Following the sounds of the television, Willow made her way into the living room. She found Xander still slumped in the chair in the exact same position she left him. Glancing around, she focused on the collection of empty beer bottles scattered on the nearby table and frowned in concern. Her eyes flicked to Xander, who hadn't acknowledged her return in the slightest. With a deep breath, Willow reset her expression to one of near normality.
"I got your movie," she said, pulling the DVD from one of the bags and offering it to Xander. When he made no move to take it, Willow pulled it back and examined the cover with intense interest. "I have it on good authority that Chow Yun-Fat fights people in this one, so that should be exciting and new. It's good that they're giving him so much range."
She glanced hopefully at Xander. He did nothing but continue to stare straight ahead at the television. She reached into the bag and pulled out another DVD. "I also picked up Dracula 2000 cuz I figured, you know, who can resist a comedy?"
Another expectant peek at Xander. Nothing. Willow's face fell, but soon became determined. "Then," she said, her voice taking on an alluring tone, "I stopped off at Victoria's Secret and picked up a couple of shiny, slinky things for me and Kennedy. Wanna see?"
Willow watched Xander intently for signs of life. Getting none, she dropped to her knees at Xander's side, the packages discarded and forgotten. She reached out and removed the remote from where it was resting limply in his palm. Putting it to one side, she took his hand in both of hers.
"Xander." Willow squeezed his hand tightly, peering at him until Xander finally looked over at her, his face slack with such sadness that Willow felt her eyes tearing up in sympathy. "Xander," she repeated, "I know how much you hurt. And I wanna help." Willow squeezed his hand again and looked at him imploringly. "Please. These mood swings, with the TV and the drinking and ... I'm worried about you. This can't go on."
Xander looked at Willow for a long time, searching her face. Finally, he took a deep, shuddering breath and closed his eye tightly. "You're right. It can't."
In response, Willow tightened her grip reassuringly, relief flooding her features.
He opened his eye and met hers, decisively. "That's why I'm leaving."
All signs of relief vanished in an instant.
"You're what?" Willow's voice was riddled with so many emotions that it was difficult to tell which was taking precedence.
Xander sighed and pulled his hand away. "I've given this a lot of thought," he began, looking down. "Being here, remembering ... It's too much."
Her eyes bored into Xander. "So ... So you'd rather be somewhere else remembering? Because the remembering? Takes more than a change of scenery to stop."
The opening of the front door broke into Xander's explanation and they both looked up, startled.
"Hello?" called Giles.
Realizing who it was, Willow stood up and walked towards the room's entrance, catching Giles' attention. He smiled as he saw her and came forward, also smiling a greeting at Xander when he spied the young man still seated on the couch.
"Giles!" Xander exclaimed with great enthusiasm and no trace of his previous somber mood. "What remarkable timing! I applaud your entrance like you were our wacky British neighbor!" He paused for just a moment before adding, "Oh, hey, you are!"
"Yes, I expect to have the laugh track installed any day now," responded Giles offhandedly.
Willow couldn't keep from staring at Xander, wide-eyed and worried. She turned to Giles, keen to bring somebody else into her world of concern. "Xander was just—"
Leaping immediately to his feet, Xander interrupted, "I was telling Willow about how I was thinkin' of customizing my eye patch. Maybe gettin' a whole line of 'em." He gestured towards his missing eye vaguely. "You know, with the days of the week, or hey, maybe a smiley face?" Xander nodded to himself, liking the idea. "Mood patch. Could be the next big thing for the disfigured among us."
Willow wasn't sure her eyes could get wider, but they somehow managed it. She boggled at Xander, unsure of what to say when he shot her a pleading look that clearly indicated 'not now'. With a frown, Willow nodded reluctantly.
Their exchange went completely unnoticed by Giles, who was struggling with the appropriate response to Xander's comments. "Well, I-if you wanted a ... variety of-of eye patches, we could certainly, uhm, look into some design patterns and-and—"
Xander jumped in, saving Giles from the awkward situation. "Be at peace, British man," he said with a warm smile. "For the moment, I'll stick with basic black. Simple, yet elegant."
It appeared for a minute as though Giles was going to pursue the odd conversation, troubled over Xander’s glibness, but turned to Willow instead as he remembered the reason for his visit.
"I wanted to stop by and confirm our training session next week?" he queried.
"Yup," confirmed Willow brightly. "I'll be there with bells and whistles. Only, you know, not literally cuz ... noisy."
The Watcher seemed troubled by her joke. "It's extremely important that we resume a regular schedule," he persuaded. "Your power levels are still uncharted and, shall we say, unpredictable? We still don't know the full range of effects that empowering all the Slayers has had on you. It's vital that we—"
"Giles, I know," Willow broke through calmly, understanding what was at the heart of his mini-tirade. "I'm Serious Gal about this. Now with 110% more Serious. I've made a big red check in the 'Understand and Control Your Powers' column. I'm on board," she assured him.
He contemplated Willow for a moment before throwing her an embarrassed and apologetic glance. "Sorry. I seem to communicate mostly in dramatic speeches these days."
"Maybe Buffy was contagious," Xander theorized.
Giles was horrified. "Good lord. If I ever become that bad, you have my permission to beat me soundly about the head."
The response was instantaneous and filled with the hope of being able to do just that, often and in the very near future. "Could I get that in writing?" asked Xander with delight.
A flash of warning was his only answer, but behind it, Giles smiled. The comfortable familiarity of their teasing settled into the room. "How are things here? No problems?" he inquired.
Willow's eyes immediately darted to Xander, who affixed her with the same desperate expression from earlier. "Nothing we can't handle," she finally responded.
Having noticed their wordless exchange, Giles looked from one to the other, seeking further clarification but finding none. "Excellent," he said, displaying no indication that he noticed anything amiss. "And Dawn?"
"She's back on the license thing again," sighed Willow.
Giles suddenly seemed much paler.
"It's times like this that I'm thankful for my lack of depth perception. I hereby declare myself unfit for Dawnster Driving Duty," Xander announced.
"That hardly seems fair," protested Giles.
"Talk to the patch."
The Watcher rolled his eyes. "Yes, well, I suppose we'll deal with that budding apocalypse when it happens. Until then, I must be off. We brought in a new Slayer today, I want to make sure things are moving along smoothly."
Willow flapped her hands in the air at Giles, unable to contain her excitement. "Oh! Oh! Did you use the 'You have a choice' speech?" she asked, dropping her voice announcer-style. Her face was split in a thousand-watt grin. "That one's my favorite."
"Erm, yes," replied Giles quickly, feeling embarrassed all over again. Which Xander immediately recognized and capitalized on.
"I liked it better when you played the stirring music in the background. I still think you should have kept that," he smirked.
"If you're quite done mocking me..." began Giles.
Xander waved his hand in dismissal. "Oh, we'll never be done mocking you."
Giles treated Xander to his usual look of patience on the verge of being pushed too far and said his goodbyes. Willow and Xander waved happily, stopping only when the front door closed with an audible click. Immediately, Willow rounded on Xander, resolve face firmly set.
"You. Me. Talking. Now."
As the two women walked into the entrance hall of the facility, Kennedy threw her arms open to encompass all they had seen. "...Which brings us back to the foyer," she concluded. "Was it everything you hoped for?"
"And so much more," chuckled Judith with the required amount of sarcasm.
Kennedy grinned with genuine amusement. "I know it's a lot to take in," she sympathized.
"Well it's certainly not where I expected to be this time last week," Judith conceded. "I'm impressed, though. What's happened to me—to us—is so ... chaotic. But coming here, it seems like the most natural thing in the world. Slayers, Watchers," she motioned towards the room, "this place. It all feels so together."
She raised her eyebrows at Kennedy's low snigger. "Yeah, we put on a good show."
The senior Slayer was surprised that she'd spoken aloud. "Oh, well ... " she hesitated, uncertain of whether or not to continue, but soon shrugged her shoulders. "Yeah. I mean we got the basics down." Kennedy ticked them off on her fingers. "Place to train, place to sleep, food to eat. Giles has been working his ass off for the past few months gettin' everything semi-presentable. But there's a lot under the surface," she admitted. "Rules and stuff, boring pencil pushin' crap. I dunno, I don't bother with it all that much. I just know what Willow tells me; Giles has got her working almost as hard as him." Her face clouded briefly, but the moment passed as quickly as it had arrived. "I don't follow a lot of it, it being really dull and all, but I know they stress. Will worries a lot that it bleeds through to the newbies, so she'll be happy to hear that it doesn't."
"Willow, she's...?" prompted Judith.
Kennedy's face lit up. "She's my girl."
"Oh!" Judith exclaimed, momentarily taken aback, but quickly regaining her composure. "That's cool," she affirmed. "Is she a Watcher like Giles?"
"You'd think," the other woman grumbled, then brightened again. "But no, Willow's our resident witchy power. You have her to thank for your new lifetime of off-hours sleeping," she added with a smirk.
Judith was suitably impressed. "One person did all this?" Kennedy nodded with unabashed pride. "She must be some girl."
"That she is," Kennedy preened on Willow's behalf.
"Where's her room?" asked Judith, looking around. "Maybe I can meet her?"
"She's not here in the dorms," she explained. "We live in a house not too far from here with Xander, Dawn and, technically, Buffy. Her schedule's packed kinda tight at the moment and she's going back to school in a few days, but she'd love to meet you. I'll let her know to come find you."
"Cool," Judith remarked, collecting her thoughts. After a moment, she posed another question. "So, what's up with the Watchers? Will I be getting one?"
Kennedy leaned against a nearby doorframe, getting comfortable. "Yeah, you'll be assigned to one within a few days. You may have to share, though. There aren't enough Watchers to go around right now, but they're working on that." A short, humorless laugh escaped. "And if that doesn't work, you can always have mine."
An eyebrow snaked its way back into Judith's hairline, and she regarded Kennedy with astonishment. "You have a Watcher?"
"And I'm real thrilled about it," Kennedy replied, sarcasm unmistakable.
"But I thought you were a trainer yourself?" puzzled the younger girl.
The previous sarcasm turned quickly into bitterness. "Yeah," smirked Kennedy. "Funny how that works, huh?"
"Do the other Slayer trainers have Watchers?"
Kennedy shook her head, tossing her wild mane of hair over her shoulder. "The only other permanent trainer is Faith. And she is decidedly lacking in the Big Brother department."
"That hardly seems fair."
"Again, funny, huh?" Kennedy shifted her weight to the other foot and huffed. "Something about Faith being a Slayer for years while I've only been active for three months, yadda yadda. Whatever," she grumbled angrily.
Closing her eyes and taking a deep breath, Kennedy seemed to be having an internal conversation. She soon opened them again with a single shake of her head and smiled, her previous irritation dissipated.
"And listen to me; I'm being a brat again. I have 'get my way' issues," she explained, "in that I pretty much get like this when I don't." She shrugged, not dwelling on it too deeply. "It's a thing. I'm workin' on it." Obviously wishing to drop the whole matter, Kennedy grinned at Judith with child-like glee. "How about you and me head to the weapons room and play with lots of sharp, deadly toys?"
The other Slayer's reply was an equally delighted expression.
"It looks ... sharp," Jackie observed.
"And quite possibly deadly," said Dawn.
Brenda considered the subject carefully. "I think it's cute," she declared. Her friends affixed her with a look that promised the need for much therapy. Brenda ducked her head to escape their eyes.
"Well I do," she added, quietly but defensively.
Three sets of eyes returned to the matter at hand. Across the hallway from the lockers they were leaning against stood a group of boys, fellow students. One in particular attracted their attention. Tall and sinewy, in the way of most adolescent males, he was dressed ultra-casual in a pair of baggy, low-slung jeans, dark t-shirt and bright, unbuttoned over shirt. But what was particularly eye-catching was his hair – dyed a bright blue and gelled into a series of short spikes.
"You have to admit it's different," said Brenda, looking for the bright side.
Dawn scoffed, feeling she didn't have to admit anything at all. "He looks like a Smurf."
Her eyes not wavering from the target, Jackie inclined her head towards her friends. "Would you go out with him?"
"Oh yes," replied Brenda without hesitation.
"He has hair like a Crayola!" exclaimed Dawn incredulously, turning to Brenda with wide, 'what the hell is wrong with you?' eyes.
But Brenda was now lost in her own world. "Yeah, but have you seen him skateboard?" she asked dreamily.
Jackie and Dawn smirked at their smitten friend and rolled their eyes at the hopelessness of the situation.
The sound of the bell ringing shook all three out of their reverie, and Jackie turned to her locker, fishing out a textbook from deep within its depths. She slammed the door shut and turned back, just in time to see the boy in question walking past. All three girls followed his movement, something that didn't fail to escape his notice. He smirked slightly to himself and nodded at them congenially.
"Hey," he said, calm and cool.
"Hey," the girls echoed, just as cool. They remained aloof and disinterested until he was safely out of range. Then all three moved, as one, to lean further into the hall and watch his departure. When he was completely out of sight, they snapped back into action, as though never having been distracted.
"And 'Grip'," Dawn spat with a disgusted tone. "What kind of name is 'Grip'?" She spun on her heel and walked in the opposite direction, Jackie and Brenda following.
Brenda explained. "It's short for 'Agrippa'. His father's like a big Roman history professor at Penn State."
Dawn wouldn't be placated. "It's a verb. That's just wrong."
"Yeah, we can't all be named after a time of day," noted Jackie.
"Plus," added Brenda, "your sister's name is 'Buffy'. I hardly think you're in a position to judge."
"Well whatever," Dawn quickly dismissed. "He just seems weird, that's all I'm saying."
Her friend's eyebrow twitched. "UH-huh," drawled Jackie knowingly, causing Dawn to once again roll her eyes dramatically.
Brenda glanced nervously from one to the next. "So," she cut in with great exuberance before things could escalate, "you guys wanna come over to my place for dinner tonight?"
"I'm in," Jackie agreed without much consideration. "My mom's on this weird sauerkraut kick. Very disturbing. I'm anxious for any chance to escape."
Dawn nodded to Brenda. "Sounds good. Lemme just check in."
The three friends stopped outside one of the buildings as Dawn reached into her purse for her cell phone. She moved a few paces away from Brenda and Jackie, who were chatting, and called up a number on speed dial. She put the phone to her ear and waited a few seconds for someone to pick up.
"Hey, Willow? Brenda invited me and Jackie over for dinner, can I go?" Dawn paused for a minute, listening. "Hang on a sec," she replied, and then turned back to her friends. "Can one of you guys drive me home after?" Jackie nodded and Dawn flashed her a grateful smile before returning to the phone. "Yeah, Jackie'll bring me home. She actually has her license," Dawn couldn't help adding with amusement. She listened for another moment and then laughed. "Okay, okay, observe me stopping." Another pause. "Cool, thanks. I'll see you guys later tonight. Love you."
"Love you too," Willow said into the phone. She returned it to its cradle and focused on Xander, now seated on one end of the couch. "That was Dawn," she explained, sitting next to him. "She's going to Brenda's for dinner."
"And here I was all ready to finally reveal the 'surprise' in my tuna surprise," remarked Xander with a rueful shake of his head. "Ahh well, ya schmooze, ya lose."
The tone in Willow's voice was unmistakable. "Xander..." she warned.
It worked. Xander was instantly the very picture of seriousness. "I don't know what else to say, Will. I know it seems sudden—"
Willow immediately became agitated. "Seems sudden? One minute we're discussing the finer points of daytime television, then I leave for a little bit and when I come back you say you're going away!"
"—but it's really not," he finished as though she had never interrupted. "I've been thinking about this for a while now." Xander paused, trying to find the words. "There's nothing here for me," he finally added.
Becoming alarmed as Willow’s face crumpled, he realized what he'd just said. He reached out and took one of her hands, holding it gently between both of his own.
"I didn't mean it like that. I mean ... You and Giles, you're doin' the really important work – all the hard bureaucratic stuff that puts me to sleep within seconds." He let Willow's hand go and gestured vaguely over his shoulder. "I can't effectively train our platoon of Super Soldiers like Kennedy and Faith. My aversion to tweed rules me out as a Watcher. I can't be a recruiter because I'm so damned bitter that all I want to tell these girls is to run for their lives and never look back. Hell, even Andrew contributes more to the workings of this place than I do." He peered at the redhead intently, heavily emphasizing his words. "I'm less useful than Andrew. Say it to yourself and feel the pathetic."
"You are not pathetic," defended Willow vehemently. "I-If it weren't for you, we'd still be up to our eyeballs in hairy, flabby construction guys. And, ew? Huge 'ew' factor. But-but you stepped right up and whipped 'em all into shape and now look at how big and pretty and to-code Slayer Central is." When Xander failed to look convinced, she continued. "Plus, you build stuff and fix stuff and do all those impressive things with tools with intimidating names like- like 'nibbler' and 'lathe' and ... 'hammer'." She frowned at the last one, but soon regained her momentum. "I mean, you said it yourself this morning, how many times have you had to save the mailbox from a Dawn-related disaster?"
"I'm handy with a glue gun, sure," Xander relented, waving it away contemptuously, "but I don't do anything that nobody else could do by reading a safety booklet. You could go out there, get married to any generic man, and he could do what I do." He stopped, noticing Willow's 'I don't think so' look. "You know, if you wanted," he amended before adding as an afterthought, "I suppose Kennedy could count. I can see her wearing my tool belt."
Xander shook his head as his mood darkened again. "But it's not just that. Everything here feels so ..." He gazed at Willow, wanting desperately for her to understand. "There's no connection. Don't you feel it?"
Willow smiled sadly as she nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, I kinda do. I mean we grew up in Sunnydale. We spent our whole lives there. To everyone else, it was just another place. But to us, it was home."
"Be it ever so Hellmouthy."
"No more Bronze. No more Expresso Pump. No more Stevenson Hall."
"No more Alpert crypt. No more Sunnydale High, not even charred. No more Revello Drive."
The two best friends sat in comfortable silence for a while, each lost in their thoughts. When Willow spoke again, it was softly and with sad understanding.
"What sparked it off?" she asked Xander.
His head dropped as he looked away, seeming just a little angry with himself. "It was the stupidest thing. I was flippin' channels and CNN had a commercial for 'Moneyline'." He paused and turned to Willow, his face full of remorse. "She never missed it," he reflected, his voice hoarse. "Even with all the fear and the dying and the übervamps, she never missed a single episode."
"The smells get me the hardest," commiserated Willow. "When I least expect it, there'll be just this right combination of scents. Like ... like rain and jasmine and magick."
Another silence blanketed the room, sadder but filled with mutual understanding.
"There's no connection here, you're right," Willow reluctantly agreed, "but I think there can be if we let it. But that's gonna take time. You have to give it time," she implored Xander.
He didn't answer straight away. "Will it ever stop hurting?" he eventually managed to get out, unable to look at Willow directly.
She considered his question very carefully. "Completely? I hope not. I think the day that happens is the day they're gone forever. But one day ... maybe not today or tomorrow or the day after ... but one day you'll wake up, remember the good times, and smile instead of cry."
Xander was finally able to meet her gaze, his eye shining with unshed tears. Willow swallowed her own before continuing, her voice strong and sincere.
"When I was at my darkest, you were there. All I wanted was to curl up and die. And, yeah, bring the rest of the world with me, but let's face it, I was projecting. The point is, you were there and you wouldn't let me. You didn't just save the world, Xander, you saved me." The corners of her lips twitched upwards, almost managing a smile. "Now stop being such a schmuck about it and let me return the favor."
A ghost of a smile flickered across Xander's face as his friend's words sunk in. He looked at Willow with undisguised affection. "I dunno about tomorrow or the day after. I can't promise the long-term. But for today?" The smile was weak, but he managed to make it stick. "Consider me unschmucked."
Willow's face brightened and she engulfed Xander in a tight embrace while he clung to her like a lifeline.
Hazel wandered through the cemetery, closely following behind Faith. It was dark and foreboding, as cemeteries often are, and the cool glow from the moon shining in a cloudless sky only seemed to heighten her tension.
"I have to say," Hazel muttered, her voice barely above a whisper as though unsure what volume level was appropriate for the situation, "I've snuck out of my house to go to some weird places before, but this?" She cast her gaze around her. "This is new."
A few paces in front, Faith shrugged. Her own voice was conversational, neither loud nor soft. "You get used to it real quick. It's almost ... comforting," she added.
"Wandering through a cemetery in the middle of the night is comforting?" asked Hazel, not bothering to disguise the skepticism in her voice.
"Well, feels a bit early for me. My prime time doesn't kick in until about midnight. But otherwise ... yeah." Faith glanced over her shoulder at Hazel for a moment before continuing to sweep the area around them while she explained. "Graveyards for the most part are predictable. You got your perfectly mowed grass, your neat little rows of tombstones. Don't matter where you go in the world, the cemeteries are all basically the same. And yet, there's still the question. What's really buried under there? What's in the shadows just waitin' for you to let your guard down? Gives it a kick," she balled her fingers into a fist which she used to punctuate her words. "Makes you feel alive."
Not for the first time, Hazel regarded Faith as though she might be just a little bit insane. "Hangin' with the dead after-hours makes you feel alive," she intoned, not making it a question. Faith nodded and shrugged. "Oh yeah, totally looking forward to understanding that one."
"Give it a while. A few patrols, you'll know what I mean."
"Goodie," replied Hazel, super-sizing the sarcasm.
They continued to move through the cemetery. Faith's posture was completely at ease, although her eyes never stopped their search of the shadows surrounding them. Hazel was considerably less comfortable, and she shivered – either from the atmosphere or the breeze that just blew past them – and she pulled her jacket closer. As the silence dragged on, she fidgeted nervously, finally giving in to the urge to break it.
"So, uhm ... You've been doing this for a while, huh?" she asked, unsure what was an appropriate social topic for this particular situation.
Faith didn't look back as she answered. "Little over five years now. Took some time off for a while, though. Needed to get my head on straight."
"And you like it?"
For the first time, Faith stopped, her whole face becoming animated as she considered Hazel. "I love it. There's nothin' in the world like Slaying." She paused, lost in thought for a moment. "I like it a little too much sometimes, but hey. We all got our quirks, right? Keeps us human," she grinned.
The younger girl wasn't able to muster the same enthusiasm. "I'm not sure I could get to like it that much. I mean," she looked down at her hands, flexing her fingers. "I'm starting to enjoy how good all this power makes me feel, but ... " Her hand dropped to the side and she turned to Faith. "I dunno. It almost feels like it's too much. Like, if I don't watch it, it could get ... bigger than me. I still feel in control, you know? But only just." Hazel gave a frustrated sigh. "I don't think I'm explaining this well."
"No, it's cool." Faith reached out and touched Hazel's arm briefly as a show of support. "I know what you mean. And it's good." At Hazel's confused look, she clarified, "I mean it's good that you're pickin' up on that." Suddenly Faith laughed, a short, acerbic sound. "Takes some of us a whole lot longer to come around."
Hazel's brow furrowed and she opened her mouth. Faith anticipated the question and spun on her heel, heading further into the cemetery. Hazel rushed to keep up, her words forgotten. "You seem like a smart kid, Haze," Faith continued. "That's good too. That'll keep you alive longer than anything else."
"If I'm so smart, how come I'm wandering around a graveyard at night with someone I just met?" chuckled Hazel.
The pair came to a stop in front of a fresh grave. Faith looked it for a moment and then smirked at Hazel, "My natural charms. You just couldn't say no." Hazel snickered, genuinely amused. "Plus don't forget," added Faith, "you needed something."
"What could I possibly need that we're going to find all the way out here?"
The girl jumped back and gasped as a hand suddenly broke through the freshly turned earth at her feet.
Faith regarded the hand with indifference while Hazel's jaw opened and closed of its own accord, her eyes wide. The Slayer turned to Hazel.
A strangled scream clawed its way out of Hazel's throat as she backed away from the boiling earth, gaping at the monstrosity pulling itself from the grave at her feet.
"Wha—What the hell is that?!" she managed to get out, her voice tight and shrill.
"Vampire," Faith remarked simply. "Weren't you listening earlier?"
"Bu-Bu-Bu…" stuttered Hazel, her mind and mouth not yet able to get in sync.
"I think your record's stuck," said Faith. "Here." Faith produced a decent-sized wooden stake and tossed it to Hazel. The younger girl reached out and snatched it from the air automatically, and then inspected it as though she had never seen anything quite like it before. Her attention was torn between the item in her hand and the vampire who was nearly free from his grave.
Her confusion etched into every feature, Hazel held the stake towards Faith. "Wha—?" she articulated.
Faith had moved to one side, leaning casually against a nearby crypt. "Stake," she explained. "Slayers Union weapon of choice. Sharp end goes in him." She gestured with her head towards the newly emerged vampire, who was looking around trying to get his bearings. His cold, yellow eyes focused on Hazel. Hazel seemed unable to do anything but blink stupidly from Faith to the stake to the vampire and back again.
"Looks like our boy's ready to party," grinned Faith, settling in to watch the show.
Hazel's brain was still processing. "Ready to … Union … " She gave Faith a sharp look as something clicked. "What?"
A feral snarl cut into any possible answer as the vampire sprung into action and lunged for Hazel. The girl screamed again and reacted instinctively, bringing her leg up between them and kicking the vampire away from her. Faith continued to lounge on the sidelines, watching intently but making no move to intercede.
Recovering quickly, the vampire regrouped and attacked again, connecting with Hazel's jaw and sending the girl stumbling backwards. Faith winced, gritting her teeth in sympathetic pain. Hazel regained her balance and raised the stake firmly gripped in her right hand. Her eyes clenched tightly shut, she started jabbing the air in repeated, haphazard motions.
The vampire paused several feet away from the girl, well out of striking distance and simply watched her for a long moment. Hazel's stabbing never once slowed, despite her complete failure to connect with anything solid.
"What're you doing?" the vampire finally asked.
The stake began to slow, making tentative slices through the air as Hazel cracked one eye open and peered at the vampire. All she could say was, "Huh?"
"I mean, what's with the…?" The vampire pantomimed the jabbing motions and then shrugged. "I gotta say, not too intimidating."
Hazel straightened and looked at the stake in her hand. "Well I … I'm … " She suddenly frowned and glared at the vampire. "Are you making fun of me?"
"No!" he protested, holding his hands up defensively. "No, I'm … Okay, yeah, a little bit. I mean, come on." His laugh was more than a tad patronizing. "You should see yourself."
Eyes flashing, Hazel's previous fear completely evaporated, leaving behind only indignant anger. "Oh, like you're such a vision," she spat, giving the vampire a once-over. "I know I've never seen a vampire before, but I was expecting something a bit more … I dunno, Brad Pitt-ish?" The vampire looked down at himself, offended. Hazel was on a roll now, and crossed her arms as her gaze became more critical. "And what's with that suit? Did your mother pick that out for you?"
The vampire considered this for a moment. "Yeah, probably," he concluded.
"Oh," Hazel responded weakly, the full implication behind that detail suddenly hitting her.
With a sigh, the vampire said wistfully, "Good ol' Mom. I should stop by for dinner. But I'm thinking first of something she always used to tell me."
"Don't play with your food."
Faster than her eye could follow, the vampire closed the distance between them and knocked the stake out of Hazel's grasp, sending it flying across the cemetery. Hazel gaped at her now empty hand and then back to the vampire, just in time to take a powerful left hook that spun her around and sent her to the ground in a sprawling heap. A loud, hungry growl filled the air as the vampire flipped Hazel onto her back, pinning her helplessly. The girl struggled valiantly, but she simply couldn't attain any leverage to shake off the monster. Realizing this, the vampire grinned, full of malice, and took his time lowering his bared fangs to her throat, savoring the moment.
"No!" Hazel protested, desperate to stave off the inevitable.
The vampire chuckled and continued his descent, and then suddenly jolted upright in utter astonishment. Hazel watched in complete disbelief as the vampire began to turn to dust, beginning at his heart where the point of a wooden stake had embedded itself. She watched as first his skin crumbled away, leaving only a skeleton until that, too, disintegrated and scattered in the breeze to reveal a smirking Faith.
"Don'tcha hate guys who won't take 'no' for an answer?"
Tossing the stake over her shoulder, Faith extended her hand to Hazel, who had regressed back to her 'I have no idea what's going on' state of mind. The Slayer pulled the other girl to her feet and began patting her jacket to free it from its coating of vampire dust. Hazel simply stood there and let Faith clean her up, her hand moving subconsciously to the side of her neck where the vampire had nearly attached himself just moments before.
"He … He was gonna kill me!" she exclaimed as though this were a very important new discovery.
"Yeah, well, it's pretty much what they do," replied Faith offhandedly. "Don't take it personally."
Her eyes full of wonder, Hazel turned to Faith. "You saved me!" she fawned.
"Well that's pretty much what I do." She paused before adding, "You can take that part personally if you want."
Hazel chose to do just that, flinging her arms around Faith's neck in a bone-crunching hug. Faith jumped, startled by the girl's sudden proximity. She looked around, wondering what to do before patting Hazel on the back exactly two times, very stiff and robotic.
"Thank you!" Hazel cried, very close to tears.
"S'no big," remarked Faith, clearly meaning it literally and not just modestly.
However Hazel was insistent. "No, it is! You saved my life!" She tightened her hug. "I don't know how to thank you!"
"No need to thank. We're five by five."
Hazel still refused to move, beaming with gratitude and relief. Faith tried to simply let the girl get it out of her system. That lasted about two seconds before her discomfort got the better of her and she started to fidget. Still Hazel refused to let go.
"And hey," Faith piped up, "I was the one who brought you out here to the vamp in the first place, remember."
That did it. Hazel backed away from Faith with a frown. "Oh yeah."
Faith's sigh was deep and full of relief.
The girl seemed to come back to herself, the reality of the situation sinking in. She looked down at the ground where she'd just had such a close call. "Wow," she breathed. "That was really a vampire."
"Finally, she catches up," joked Faith.
This new revelation settled. "So demons and other stuff?" Hazel asked, turning to Faith. "That's all real too?"
"And they're all over the world?"
Faith nodded. "Yeah. Some places more than others. It's a Hellmouth thing." Hazel's face became confused again, but Faith brushed it aside. "You can learn about that later. But it's all true. Every horror movie you've ever seen, alive – kinda – and in living color."
She paused as Hazel chewed over this information. It was clear that a million thoughts were running through the girl's head, but it was impossible to tell exactly what they might be.
"So," Faith finally said, shattering Hazel's thoughts and bringing her back to reality, "now you know. What're you gonna do about it?"
The girl appeared lost and confused. "I … I don't know," she admitted quietly.
"Way I see it, you're at a crossroads." Faith gestured towards the cemetery exit. "You can go back to your safe little house in your perfect little neighborhood and pretend none of this happened. You can keep laughin' at the idea of vamps and demons comin' out at night. Maybe one day you'll even convince yourself that this was all some whacked out dream. You could do that." Faith challenged, standing tall. "Or, you can step up and embrace that power you got, an' come fight with us."
Hazel seemed torn. She glanced at Faith and then over her shoulder towards the exit. She suddenly seemed very small, a young girl with a terribly big decision to make and no obvious right or wrong answer.
Faith was sympathetic. "You don't gotta decide now," she said, not unkindly. "We're not goin' nowhere." Reaching into one of the pockets of her jacket, she fished out a business card and handed it to Hazel. The girl took it and stared, not really reading it. "When you decide, or if you just want more info, call this number. Giles'll hook you up."
Continuing to stare at the card, Hazel said nothing.
"C'mon," began Faith, taking the girl by the elbow and leading her out of the graveyard. "Let's get you back home. Been a big day."
Hazel allowed Faith to guide her, attention still fixated on the small piece of paper in her hands. They walked like that for short distance, neither saying anything until Hazel glanced up at Faith.
She frowned. "Five by five?"
"In-progress" would probably be the best way to describe the loft. Much like its office counterpart, Giles' home was a mess, boxes strewn about in seemingly random fashion; some still sealed, others open as though they'd been lived out of for several weeks. Despite the clutter, there was still plenty of room, allowing the loft to retain its spacious, open quality.
A coffee table surrounded by a couch and several chairs were the prevalent pieces of furniture, situated in a section of the floor plan that had obviously been designated as the living room. All available seats were filled with extremely prim and proper individuals, each one appearing very professional. This included the man sitting in a beanbag chair, looking every bit as though he had never experienced such a thing in his life, nor was he planning to repeat it any time soon.
Giles appeared somewhat out of place in his jeans and casual shirt, but the other attendees didn't pay any outward attention to their differences, regarding the man and his space with respect. He paced back and forth in front of a series of massive windows that dominated one wall, sipping his tea as he listened to a woman with long brown hair.
"I spoke with a representative earlier today and the paperwork should be complete by the end of next week," she reported.
A man sinking into a plush chair to her left smiled. "That'll make it a little easier on the Slayers who choose to keep their gifts a secret. We'll be able to help out more girls this way."
"Good job, keep on them," Giles said, raising his cup in a small congratulatory gesture. "It'll be a while yet before we're able to build the Council's presence in this area. Until then, I'm afraid the red tape remains … extensive. And quite irritating," he added, taking a sip.
A second man jumped in, eagerly shuffling the stack of papers in his lap. "My team has begun filing preliminary reports on locations for the next branch of the Council of Watchers. As of now, a return to England may be our best option." He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "As you know, relations in the past between the Council and the Covens in that area have been strained at best. We could do a lot of good together if we were able to forge an alliance with them." Sitting back, he shuffled through the papers until he finally found what he was looking for and scanned it quickly to confirm. "Regardless of what location we choose, however, we are currently on schedule to have the new facility operational by this time next year."
"I think we learned our lesson about keeping all our eggs in one basket, so to speak," said the man in the beanbag. "Also, international branches will help us monitor Hellmouths all over the world, rather than ignoring all but the most potent." He somehow managed to say all of this without losing his prudish air, despite nearly slipping out of the beanbag twice.
Jumping back in, the second man added with great pride, "Should things continue, we could have a branch on every major continent before the decade is out."
Giles smiled, amused. "If all goes well, we'll soon be more prolific than Starbucks." The others merely stared at him, not comprehending. "Yes, you're right," he amended, intentionally misinterpreting their silence, "nothing is more prolific than Starbucks." At the complete lack of any outward reaction, Giles turned to the blonde woman seated in a separate chair who had been scribbling on a legal pad throughout the meeting. "Make a note: we need to incorporate a module on 'humor' into the training curriculum."
"Speaking of," the man in the plush chair segued, "we've about exhausted our options as far as Council members who were outside of headquarters goes. We're bringing in all that we can but most … " He trailed off, searching for diplomatic phrasing. "Well, they seem less than enthusiastic about our new direction."
"Good riddance then," Giles said immediately and with great passion. "The days of looking at the Slayer as nothing more than a tool are over. A complete restructuring of the Council as an ally of the Slayer, rather than a puppet master, has been a long time in coming. We can well do without those who insist on clinging to the past."
The gathered Council members glanced at each other, uncertain of how to react to Giles' vehemence. Beanbag spoke first, his tone courteous but inquisitive. "Though it does beg the question, where else can we turn? We're all in agreement that more Watchers, whatever their role, will be vital in working with so many Slayers."
Giles indulged in another sip of his tea, unconcerned. "New blood for a new Council," he said simply. "They're out there. All we have to do is find them."
A knock at the door caused Giles to start, and he quickly set his cup down. "Ah! Excuse me, but my next appointment has arrived. Very important, quite unavoidable," he stated, leaving no room for discussion.
The Council members immediately began gathering together their assorted papers, tucking them away in briefcases and folders without question. Giles escorted them to the door, smiling and acknowledging the goodbyes. As they filed out of the loft, each paused to look at the appointment in question, most turning to give Giles a largely unreadable look of surprise but none saying anything.
As the last departed, Giles greeted the man at the door with thinly veiled excitement. "Please come in," he held the door open wide.
"Sorry we had to make this for so late, Mr. Giles," the man replied. He was dressed in a pair of well-worn jeans and black t-shirt with florescent pink lettering that proclaimed him to be Tony from the "Delicate Sound of Thunder" audio store. He backed into the loft, pulling a dolly loaded with equipment and a toolbox.
"Not at all," Giles replied.
He directed Tony to an alcove close to the living room where a recessed entertainment center had been built. It was already partially filled with assorted parts and copious wires. Next to the entertainment center, also imbedded in the wall, were a series of shelves loaded to the brim with hundreds of CDs. Tony immediately got to work unloading and unboxing, pausing only briefly to glance at the CDs.
"That's an impressive collection you got going there," he admired. "And I say that with no small amount of envy."
Giles' smile was broad. "Thank you. It's amazing what one can find on the, uhm, online … net web … places these days," he fumbled, uncertain of the correct phraseology.
"I hear ya. I live for Amazon," grinned Tony, pulling a shiny black component free and kicking its empty box aside. He inclined his head towards the shelves, "So all these new?"
"Yes. My record collection was-was lost in a, uh … an earthquake a few months ago." An expression of intense mourning suddenly flashed across his face. "I had an original release 'Sgt. Pepper' and everything."
"Earthquake, huh? California then?" Giles nodded. "Huh … " The installer suddenly looked up, his eyes wide. "Hey, it wasn't that big quake that took out that whole town, was it?"
Giles shifted uncomfortably. "Yes, that was it," he replied reluctantly.
In his excitement, Tony didn't notice the change in Giles' demeanor. "Damn, that was somethin'," he said, full of wonder before shaking himself out of it and returning to work. "I mean, quakes and stuff don't usually make it on the news all the way over here, but wow. Saw some aerial footage. It looked like the whole damn town had just been swallowed up!"
"What an amusingly appropriate choice of words," commented Giles drolly.
Tony wasn't really listening, having half-disappeared behind some of the equipment. "I can't believe you were there. How the hell did you get out?"
With a pause to consider the best answer, Giles finally replied, "A lot of luck and a surprisingly fast school bus."
"Huh," grunted Tony, not really understanding but not pursuing further. "Lost your vinyl though?"
The Watcher's eyes flicked to the side and focused on a small collection of photographs hanging on the wall. Their presence was particularly noticeable, given the otherwise Spartan and impersonal appearance of the loft. He settled on one in particular, several years old now; a large grouping of smiling faces. His eyes touched briefly on three in particular: Joyce, Tara and Anya. Giles hovered on the picture for a moment. "And a great deal more," he finally replied with great sadness.
"Well this should help," Tony said brightly, anxious to dispel the tension of an obviously personal moment. "Albums have a certain … old-fashioned charm to 'em and all, but why keep living in the stereophonic stone age?" As he was intently focused on a cluster of wires, he failed to notice Giles' offended look.
"Well I dare say if it was good enough for the dinosaurs, it's good enough for me. Anyway," he continued, eyeing his new collection with something close to disdain, "I find that-that these 'compact discs' are utterly lacking i-i-in the appeal and … and character of an LP." Giles reached out and plucked one at random from the shelf, turning it over in his hand and regarding it as though it were a dead animal. "They're so cold, impersonal and—"
A sudden blast of music interrupted his diatribe, and Giles looked up at the speakers surrounding that he'd had installed earlier. They were situated in such a way that there was a section which became a "hot spot", a perfect nexus of sound that just happened to be exactly where Giles was standing. The passionate chords of "Sweet Jane" echoed around him, and he raptly absorbed every note.
"Cold and impersonal," he repeated. "And very, very pretty."
Tony grinned broadly. Another satisfied customer.
Dawn flung the front door open, dropping her bookbag by the entrance and hanging up her jacket. Unable to see anybody, she headed into the living room. Xander was back in his chair, the same empty expression on his face, but as soon as he noticed Dawn it was replaced with his trademark grin.
"Our prodigal stomach returns," he joked. "How was dinner?"
"Mmmmm," murmured Dawn appreciatively. "I think Brenda's mom was gonna make this casserole thing, but when she heard we were coming over, Mr. Ridens decided to be all manly about it and made us cheese steak sandwiches instead." She threw herself onto the couch, bouncing slightly. "Cheese steak? So much better than some lame casserole. What'd you guys have?"
Xander smirked. "Some lame casserole."
With a slight grimace, she tried to cover. "Uhh, yeah, so there's not a whole lot, food-wise, this place has going for it. I mean, they think Taco Bell is the height of Mexican cuisine," she sneered contemptuously at the notion. "But I'm not hatin' the cheese steak."
Xander nodded his agreement. "Gotta love a meal that's all about smothering strips of fried cow in more cheese than the human body can safely digest."
"My thoughts exactly," Dawn said cheerfully. "Only more with the 'mmmm'." She paused for a moment, changing directions. "Hey, Xander?" she asked tentatively.
Dawn squirmed uncomfortably, twisting her hands in her lap. "D'you think that…? I mean, am I…?" She sighed and tried again. "Do I come off as…?"
At her third false start, Xander tried to lighten the mood. "I sense there's a question in there somewhere, struggling valiantly to swim through the cheese steaky goodness and be heard."
"Do you think I'm boring?" she managed to spit out.
Whatever Xander was expecting, it wasn't this. "Boring? What? Dawn you're a mystical Key older than recorded history. I'm pretty sure If you looked up 'boring' in the dictionary, the definition would not be 'a mystical Key older than recorded history'." He tilted his head, regarding Dawn carefully. "Where'd this come from?"
"It's just … I mean, the stuff I like to do. Books, computers, organizing my sock drawer by color and length—"
"Organizing your…? Dawn, we can't even get you to clean your room," said Xander.
"Well okay, maybe not the last one. But the other stuff. I like school … at least on principle. I don't go out drinking—" At Xander's look, she quickly added, "—nor will I, because I'm far, far too young for that kind of behavior." She sighed, irritated with herself. "I don't like blue-haired skateboarders, I don't slay vampires, I can't do magick. I just feel so boring."
"You're not boring," Xander assured her. "Trust me. I know boring. Boring makes for Sleepy Xander." He pointed at himself. "See? Wide Awake Xander. No trace of sleepy. Only possible conclusion: Dawn not boring."
Dawn giggled and smacked him lightly on the arm. "Goof."
"And hey, even if you were boring, I'd love ya anyway," he gestured at Dawn. "I'd just have to stock up on No-Doze."
She giggled again and rolled her eyes in the universal teenage way reserved specifically for adults. She hopped to her feet and headed out of the room, but turned back before she left.
"Thanks, Xander," she said gratefully. "You know, nobody can cheer me up better than you." She paused for a moment. "I'm really glad you're here."
She threw him a bright smile and exited. Xander watched her go for a moment, then his face shadowed again and he turned back to the TV.
"I'm really worried about Xander."
At Willow's words, Kennedy looked up from polishing her broadsword. The redhead was lying across the bed, a stack of papers spread out in front of her. They were forgotten for the moment, though, as she regarded Kennedy with a plaintive expression.
"What's wrong with him?" the Slayer asked, only absently cleaning her weapon now, focusing on her girlfriend.
"You mean besides the obvious?" Kennedy looked confused, unsure what Willow considered to be 'the obvious'. "Anya," Willow clarified. "It's like … I don't think it's really hit him yet, you know? I know he knows she's gone and not coming back, but … i-it's like he won't let himself feel it. Like he's in a holding pattern or something." She frowned darkly. "It's not good for him."
"Everyone deals with grief their own way, Will," replied Kennedy, giving her sword a vigorous rub and examining it closely. "Maybe he just needs some time."
Willow shook her head firmly, convinced it wasn't that simple. "But you don't get to see him like I do. With everyone else, he's all 'la la la, all's well in Xander Land!' But it's not. I mean—" An example sprung to her mind, and Willow sat up on the bed, leaning forward. "Okay, today? I'm trying to get some sort of reaction out of him, something. So I told him I went to Victoria's Secret and bought some stuff for us. And what'd he do?" She paused for dramatic effect before flinging her hands in the air. "Nothing. Zero, zip, zilch. Not even a hint of a ghost of a leer." Her eyebrows knitted together with concern and she shook her head. "That's just not Xander."
"You got some stuff at Victoria's Secret?" Kennedy asked, still stuck a few sentences back.
"Noooo," Willow dragged out with mild irritation. "I just said that to get a response."
"I got a response for ya," grinned Kennedy mischievously.
Willow's face held no trace of amusement. "Kenn, I'm being serious. I'm really worried."
The Slayer looked apologetic and she put her sword down, devoting her full attention to Willow. "Okay, you're right. I'm sorry. You know him way better than I do, so if you say there's something to worry about, there's something to worry about. So what can we do to fix it?" she asked, wanting to move straight to the heart of the matter.
"About Anya? Not much," Willow admitted. "Just let him know we're here for him and we care. Try to keep him from gettin' too lost in it. Plus," she added somewhat sadly, "he's feelin' kinda … useless. I was thinking, maybe you guys could include him in the training? Show him we're interested in him for more than his tool skills."
Kennedy smirked. "And you know the last thing I'm interested in is a guy's skills with his tool." She grinned wider as she managed to get an amused look out of Willow, despite herself. Turning back to the topic at hand, she readily agreed. "Sure thing. The girls could use live target practice. In an entirely safe way, of course," she quickly amended before the witch could protest. "I'll talk to Faith as soon as she gets back."
"Thanks," smiled Willow gratefully. "We just need to remind Xander about all the good stuff he has here. Show him that he's loved and of the essence and crazy for spending even one nanosecond thinking about leaving. There will be no more scary talk of leaving," she proclaimed, making it clear the matter was closed in her mind. She turned to Kennedy, her voice adamant. "He has to know. We have to remind him, Kenn."
"Then we will," Kennedy assured, "starting first thing tomorrow." Willow visibly relaxed, Kennedy's easy confidence being infectious. The Slayer moved to sit next to Willow, pulling her close for a brief, one-armed hug. "But we have a whole bunch of hours between now and tomorrow. What'd you wanna do with 'em?"
Her face screwed up as Kennedy rejected the idea. "Not quite what I had in mind. Not that I don't enjoy being reminded every few minutes that my vocabulary is limited to words like 'cat' and 'be' while you're throwin' down 'conjunctiva' and 'ziggurat'." She thought about it for a moment. "Actually, I don't enjoy that at all."
"I just had a couple of really lucky hands," Willow weakly justified.
"We can go dancing?" offered Kennedy. "Maybe it'll be 'Hey, We Finally Got a Band that Doesn't Suck' night at The Vortex."
Willow quickly shook her head. "Ooo, no, not so much in a mood for epilepsy and deafness. I'm more stay in-y."
A quiet moment passed, neither girl being able to think of something to do that would be acceptable to the other. They searched the room desperately for an idea, looking everywhere but at each other. As the minutes stretched, Kennedy finally glanced down at where they were sitting and grinned.
"Well, there's always my personal favorite reason for staying home," she purred, sliding closer to Willow. "And it would be such a shame to waste all those Victoria's Secret-induced mental images."
"Oh, hey, and look," said Willow with cheerful innocence as she patted the bed. "No moving required."
"Oh, I think there'll be plenty of moving."
Downstairs, lost in his own thoughts, Xander slouched in his chair in the living room. It was completely dark, save for the flickering illumination from the TV screen. He raised a bottle of beer to his lips, pausing for just a brief second before taking a long drink. His face remained expressionless as he watched the credits for "Moneyline" flash across the screen.
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