The living room was completely dark, save for the flickering of the television screen. A movie was playing, obviously old and, judging from the quality, not one created with the highest of budgets. Xander and Willow sat on either ends of the couch, their attention riveted to the images. Dawn was seated in the middle, the giant bowl of popcorn in her lap within easy reach of the others. Her face was twisted in a sneer as she watched the movie with considerably less interest than her friends. A small bowl of his own popcorn on the end table nearby, Giles had claimed the chair, watching with an almost morbid curiosity.

"Tell me again why we agreed to this?" Dawn asked, clearly unimpressed.

"Question not the chlorophyll-laden goodness that is Triffid," replied Xander without looking away from the screen. "This is classic sci-fi, Dawnster. Don't they teach you anything in school these days?"

Dawn tilted her head, examining the screen critically. "They might've taught me how to dissect one of those last week."

"Pfft," Xander scoffted. "That's not an education. Makes me wonder why I pay my taxes."

"Y'don't," remarked Willow, also not taking her eyes away from the movie.

Xander grinned. "Ahh yes, Willow and her magic fingers strike again, defrauding the government for a brighter tomorrow."

"That, an' you're not workin', ergo no paycheck upon which to not pay taxes."

"A valid point," he conceded, jabbing his finger at Willow before turning to Dawn. "Well, if I were a tax-paying citizen, I would be extremely disgruntled." He shrugged and grabbed another handful of popcorn before turning back to the television. "Instead, I'll have to settle for mildly disappointed."

"It's like I can't look away ..." muttered a transfixed Giles. Nobody acknowledged him.

"So, again," restated Dawn, "why did we agree to watch this?"

Willow tossed a couple of pieces of popcorn in her mouth before answering, "Cuz it's Xander's turn."

Giles tilted his head to one side, staring at the screen. "... I keep trying, but it pulls me back ..."

"And all's fair in love and Scooby Movie Night," Xander declared. "Now I'd thank you to sit quietly and watch the giant killer plants maim and destroy like a good little girl."

Dawn waved her hand at the movie as she exclaimed, "But this sucks! I mean, come on." She turned and watched for a moment. "It's a plant. And it's eating people. That's completely unbelievable."

"It's sci-fi. If it were on Fox as 'When Plants Attack!' I could maybe see your point, but ... " Xander shrugged.

"... I mean, what is it supposed to be? ..." Giles puzzled.

Willow seemed happy to keep watching the cinematic events unfold and remained staring at them while she spoke. "Besides," she inclined her head to Dawn, "it's no worse than the last thing you picked."

The gasp was full of horrified disbelief. "What a Girl Wants is a great movie!" protested Dawn.

Xander had turned back to the screen, watching as a Triffid lumbered across and claimed another victim. "Bet it would've been better with a few hundred self-propelling homicidal carnivorous plants."

"I hear they make everything better," Willow agreed. "Sorta like cheese."

Giles was still off in his own little world. "... How is it even possible that it's consuming human flesh? Is that a head or just a really big flower? ..."

"Oh like you were even paying attention," Dawn accused, poking Xander's knee. "You were too busy checkin' out Kelly Preston." Willow snickered at Xander's guilty look and Dawn rounded on her. "You too!" The snickering died out to be replaced by a nervous cough. Willow suddenly found something very interesting across the room, far away from Dawn's scrutiny.

"... And why are all these blind idiots out wandering around aimlessly anyway? ..."

Kennedy entering the room saved Willow from further discomfort. The Slayer leaned across the couch and grabbed a handful of popcorn, completely missing Dawn's irritated glare, and stole a quick kiss from Willow on her way back up.

"Hey there, sexy," she greeted.

"Hey," smiled Willow. "How was patrol?"

Not answering right away, Kennedy waved her hand at Willow, who got the hint and scooched over on the couch to make room. Forced to move as well, Dawn did so reluctantly, shooting no small number of poison-tipped daggers at Kennedy. They all went unnoticed. A space cleared, Kennedy flopped down next to Willow.

"Ugh," she finally answered. "Dull, dull and oh yeah, dull. It almost wasn't worth me goin' out at all."

Unraveling the deepest secrets of the movie completely forgotten, Giles' entire attention focused on Kennedy. "Do you suspect it's indicative of something larger?"

Kennedy chewed on the question for a moment. "No. I think it's just indicative of way too many Slayers and not enough baddies to go around." She glanced at the television for just a moment, but seemed to get sucked in. They all watched in silence for a few minutes before Kennedy finally commented, "Though if we had a couple of those to fight? Significantly less dull. Man, I don't know if I'd even know where to start killin' one of those things." She started at the Triffid, frowning. "Is that its head?"

"If you figure it out, let me know," said Giles.

Xander glanced over at Kennedy. "They die pretty easy, actually. Salt water."

"Salt water? That's it?" Xander nodded and Kennedy looked disappointed. "Huh. Well that's sort anti-climactic, isn't it?"

"Great, now you ruined the ending," Dawn groused with just a hint of sarcasm. "Just when I was briefly toying with the idea of maybe getting slightly interested in it."

Without announcement, Kennedy put her hands on her knees and stood up, looking at Xander. "We're on for training in a couple days, right? My girls are really looking forward to kickin' your ass."

"And yet despite that, or perhaps even because of it, I'll be there," smirked Xander.

"Cool," Kennedy replied, and then turned to Willow. "I'm heading up. You coming?"

Willow shook her head. "Not just yet. Can't miss the salty conclusion. I'll be up after."

Kennedy nodded and turned to leave, catching one last glance at the movie. "Death by plants. That's somethin' you don't see every day, not even on a Hellmouth."

Raising his fist in an articulate yell, the young man laughed long and loud into the night air, nearly tripping over his own feet as he looked over his shoulder back towards the fraternity house. The music was so loud that it was doubtful anyone heard him, but he didn't seem to take it personally. He took a few swaggering steps, trying to regain his balance. He managed to stay upright, but at the expense of his drink which sloshed all over both himself and the ground.

He swore and crumpled up the plastic cup in his hand before throwing it to the side and trying lamely to wipe the excess liquid off of his letterman's jacket. He was so intent on the task at hand that he nearly walked straight into one of the many trees lining the street. He put his hand out instinctively and avoided a nasty collision, giggling to himself with drunken glee.

As he braced himself to push away from it, something caught his eye and he instead peered closer. Carefully inspecting the bark, he soon made out the unfinished but unmistakable engraving of Greek letters standing out against the dark surface.

"Damn Sigma Nu buttwipes," he growled, searching his pockets and pulling out a butterfly knife. He flipped it open with an elaborate series of moves, quite impressive given his obvious intoxication, and set to work on the tree. "Ain't nobody better'n Tri Kaps!"

He worked for several minutes in silence, tongue sticking out from between his lips as he concentrated. He seemed to have blocked out everything around him, until he heard a rustling of leaves nearby. He stopped carving, standing up straight and looking around. Seeing nothing, he shrugged and kept working until he heard the sound again. The man peered more intently this time, trying to see through the darkness that enshrouded the foliage around the tree.

"Hello?" he called out nervously. "Someone there?"

Receiving no answer, he slowly raised the knife again to the tree when the rustling returned, louder and somehow angry. He spun towards the bushes, brandishing the knife defensively. Taking a few tentative steps toward the sound, he peered forward, trying to see.

A gasp tore itself from his throat as the knife slipped from his numb fingers, bouncing harmlessly on the ground. He turned to run, slipping at first on the grass but never completely falling, and tore across the open space, back toward the light and safety of the fraternity house.

He wasn't able to get more than a few yards before his steps began to falter and he found his feet no longer wanted to move. Nearly falling over from the waist, he looked down. His bottom jaw dangled open, uncomprehending as he saw that where he once had feet, he now had roots – thick, dark roots that had taken firm hold in the ground. He pulled and tugged, tried to kick, but his feet remained solid and unmovable.

As he watched, the substance coating his feet spread upwards at an alarming speed, covering his legs, his waist, his chest. He tried to wipe it off, panting heavily in fear as he thrashed about to get away, but it was relentless. As it reached his face, he screamed, but his cries were drowned out by the sounds of the nearby party.

"Human Nature"

Story by: Jet Wolf and Ultrace
Written by: Jet Wolf
Edited by: Novareinna
Original Airdate: Tuesday, 13 April 2004, 8pm EST

Act One

A hand snapping out at the alarm cut off its nerve-grating buzzing before it had a chance to really get going. Kennedy glanced briefly at the clock as she yawned and stretched, the yawn soon becoming a shiver. She looked down at herself to find that the only part of her covered was her big toe, which had managed to maintain a tenuous grip on the sheets. She looked to her left at the culprit – Willow had managed to curl herself into a tight ball and was nearly buried under a mountain of sheets and blankets.

Practically the only part of Willow visible to the waking world was a shock of red hair, but her voice still came through unmuffled, if sleepy. "Tell the walrus I broke his sweater," she mumbled.

Kennedy propped herself on her elbow, bending over Willow and carefully peeling back the sheets to reveal the witch's face, mouth slightly open, her expression very innocent and trouble-free. Now with a clear view, Kennedy leaned back and simply watched the sleeping Willow for a moment, a look of adoration on the Slayer's face. Shivering again in the cool morning air, she curled up behind Willow and tried to rouse her.

"Will ... "

Her face split into a grin as Willow grumbled darkly and tried to burrow under the blankets, refusing to acknowledge the inevitable.

"C'mon Red, I'm freezin' to death here."

"Nyyh," Willow whined, still half-asleep, "m'comfy."

Kennedy leaned closer, her breath tickling Willow's ear. "Share, or I introduce your back to my sub-zero feet."

With a huge, overly dramatic sigh, Willow shifted, pulling at the covers around her with one hand while she tried to untangle herself. When she felt she had gone above and beyond the call of duty, she flung a handful of the sheets toward Kennedy. The Slayer hastily slipped underneath and resumed her cuddling.

"A wise choice," chuckled Kennedy. "I could keep meat frozen for a week with these things."

Willow scrunched her closed eyes tighter. "That mental image is too strange to deal with right now. I'm going back to—"

Suddenly realizing what time it was, Willow's eyes snapped wide open, all previous traces of sleep vanished. "Oh! Class!"

She tossed off the covers and tried to get up, but Kennedy's arm was still wrapped tightly around her waist and she wasn't able to move more than an inch or two. "Class! Have to— Getting up— Need— With the getting ready— And the learning—" Valiantly, she kept trying to get out of bed and utterly failed every time until finally, she gave up and settled down on her back, looking over to Kennedy, whose eyes were sparkling with amusement. "Kenn ... " she began.

Kennedy squeezed her eyes shut and nestled into Willow's arm, never releasing her grip. "Nyyh, m'comfy," she said, in a passing imitation of her girlfriend.

"Kenn, sweetie ... Class," Willow explained, as though this was all that needed to be said.

"Again? You just had those yesterday," protested Kennedy.

"See, that's the funny thing about school. It's sort of an ... ongoing, perpetual learny thing. Wacky as it sounds, odds are that I'll be going there three, four, sometimes even five times a week."

This seemed only to cement for Kennedy the logic of her plan. "Well since you have so many, you can miss one and never even notice."

"But- But psychology!" said Willow, becoming frantic. "It took me years to stop gettin' sweaty palms from just a glimpse of a psych textbook. And Professor Malone? So good! And the best part is, he's not even remotely interested in creating a cybernetic demon half-breed army! I know, cuz I asked him ..."


"... Though he gets this funny little look on his face whenever he sees me now ..."


Her name finally broke through Willow's ramblings and she fell silent, looking up at Kennedy.

"Stay with me," Kennedy requested, staring intently.

The redhead's face fell. "I can't," she said, regretfully but firmly.

Neither woman moved for a moment, then Kennedy pulled her arm away, releasing Willow and lying flat on her back on her side of the bed.

"Kennedy ... " started Willow gently.

"No, hey, it's cool," Kennedy told her with a shrug, her tone overly light and dismissive. "You got a thing. I understand."

Wearing a pained expression, Willow tried to make eye contact with Kennedy, but the Slayer's gaze remained fixed on the ceiling. "It's not like I don't wanna stay ... "

"I get it," she answered tersely.

With a final regretful sigh, Willow swung her legs off the bed and headed toward the closet to find something to wear.

"Will." Quickly, Willow turned to Kennedy, her face searching and hopeful. The Slayer was resting her head in her hand and smiled slightly at Willow's obvious need for things to be okay. "I get it. Really. You've just got a lot of stuff going on in your life and ... " Kennedy smirked at herself. "I guess you're not the only one who needs to learn how to share."

A few steps brought Willow back to the bed. She leaned over to kiss Kennedy, brief and chaste. "We'll do somethin' fun together real soon," she promised, heading back to the closet, "just the two of us."

Kennedy's grin was anything but chaste as she glanced at the bed underneath her. Willow caught the look and glared, mockingly reproachful. "Something else fun together with just the two of us."

"Maybe I'm aimin' for a double-header," leered Kennedy, wiggling her eyebrows.

"Nice try, but I'm still goin' to class."

A groan filled the room as Kennedy flopped back and pulled the covers over her head.

The front door to the Scoobies' house opened and Giles stepped inside. He looked around and, unable to see anybody, closed the door behind him and followed the sound of running water to the kitchen. Xander stood at the sink, washing dishes.

"Good morning," Giles greeted.

Surprised, Xander glanced over his shoulder. "Giles! I didn't hear you come in. Must have been the delirious, break-neck techno beat that is my life, pounding in my ears. Or maybe it was the running water. It was probably one or the other."

Giles blinked in confusion. "Your life is a techno beat?"

"Oh yeah," agreed Xander enthusiastically. "Although sometimes it's a sensuous little salsa number."

"Never tell me," insisted Giles.

Xander nodded amiably. "You got it."

Peering slightly into the hall behind him, Giles asked, “Where are the others?”

"Will's been released back into her natural habitat," Xander replied, rinsing off a "Witches do it in Circles!" coffee mug and setting it into the draining board. "Dawn's at school too, having decided she'd rather be there than take me up on my very generous offer of truancy to watch Plan 9 from Outer Space and get a real education. And Kennedy's off doin' whatever it is Slayers do when the sun's up," he added with a wave toward the general outdoors.

"And yourself? What are your plans for today?"

With the faucet turned off, the room seemed much quieter. Xander flicked the excess water from his hands and grabbed a nearby towel, drying them off as he turned to Giles. "Well now the dishes are done, I thought I might vacuum the carpets, sweep and mop the floors, watch 'Days of Our Lives' while darning socks, and then curl up into a ball and mourn the complete and utter loss of my manhood." He grinned broadly. "You?"

"Nothing quite so, uhm ... socially constructive," replied Giles after a moment.

"You know what this place needs?" asked Xander, indicating the house in general. "A good woman. One that isn't a minor or approximately one hundred thousand times more powerful than me."

"Yes," smirked Giles, "and perhaps afterwards she can get to work on producing all those male heirs for you."

Xander laughed wistfully and gazed into the distance. "Yeah," he sighed, and then quickly snapped back to reality. "Dear god, please don't tell anyone we talked about this."

"Believe me," Giles replied, polishing his glasses, "it's hardly the shining moment in a lifetime of conversation."

Tossing the dishtowel to one side, Xander moved into the living room, Giles following behind. "So if it's not my rapier-like wit and charmingly backwards notion of gender roles that drew you to The House That Testosterone Forgot, what brings you here?"

Giles sat on the couch as Xander slumped into his usual chair. "You, actually." Giles smiled gently. "I'm concerned, Xander. You seem to have become somewhat ... reclusive?"

"Oh, but I'm pickin' up valuable skills. I mean you should see me darn the heck out of a sock," he smirked, raising one of his sock-clad feet and wiggling his toes.

The older man wasn't buying it. "I know what a difficult time you've had over the past few months—"

"Yeah, everyone's real big with the understanding these days," snapped Xander, instantly looking regretful as the moment passed. "Sorry," he apologized, no trace of anger. "I'm sorry."

Giles nodded, letting Xander know it had already been forgotten.

"I'm just having trouble, y'know, finding ... " trailing off, Xander adjusted himself in the chair so he was facing Giles. "Did you know I had an interview the other day with a construction company?" At Giles' surprised look, he continued, "Yup. Figured if I didn't get somethin' in my day that didn't involve a Proctor & Gamble product, I might as well just grow breasts and be done with it."

"How did it go?" inquired Giles.

"Amazingly, they seemed reluctant to allow someone with half the standard number of eyes around heavy machinery. Personally, I think they just didn't like my shoes."

Softening at Xander’s words, Giles sympathetically said, “I’m very sorry.”

Xander shrugged as though it wasn't a big deal. "It's not that I don't enjoy being Mr. Mom. Which I don't, by the way. But I gotta do something, right? I mean, what good is this one-eyed carpenter to anybody anymore? Really? I might as well sweep, a task hindered only slightly by a complete lack of depth perception. If I can't even be trusted around others with a hammer and a stack of nails, then I certainly can't save An—anyone. And that's what the Scoobies do, right?" His lips puckered, as though he'd just tasted something extremely bitter. "We save people."

Giles said nothing for a moment, considering Xander. When he did speak again, it was decisive. "Actually, I have to confess, I'm glad you didn't get the job."

"I'm so happy you came over to make me feel better," Xander interjected, a trace of amusement back in his voice.

"No no no," Giles backpedaled, "I mean, had you accepted a position, I would have been left somewhat in the lurch. My reasons for coming over today were not entirely selfless," he admitted. "I'm sure it's not escaped your notice, but I have a somewhat extensive collection of books—"

Xander nearly laughed out loud. "Somewhat? Giles, you make the Library of Congress look like a Waldenbooks."

"Yes." A huge, proud grin brightened Giles' face for just a second before returning to his previous train of thought. "Anyway, given the ... volatile nature of some of the volumes, as well as their unusual size in several instances, I've been having trouble locating appropriate storage space. I was rather counting on you to build something for me." Giles favored Xander with an affectionate smile. "You see, I trust you quite implicitly with both a hammer and stack of nails."

"But not heavy machinery?" Xander asked, matching Giles' smile.

"I didn't trust you with that before; I'm certainly not going to do it after," he replied smoothly.

Willow and her friend Erin split apart to duck around a group of jocks taking up most of the sidewalk. They met up again on the other side to resume their conversation.

"So you're saying you don't think that humans are innately selfish?" Erin queried, grabbing her baseball cap as a strong wind nearly carried it away.

"Oh no, we are," replied Willow, shaking her head to get her hair out of her eyes. "I mean, when you get right down to it, we're big hairless apes, right? If you strip it all away, people are just animals with modesty."

Both girls couldn't help but notice a fellow student, only barely wearing a tight baby doll t-shirt and a pair of low-riding hip-huggers, walking in the opposite direction.

"Some of us, anyway," Willow deadpanned once the girl was safely out of earshot. The two succumbed to a momentary giggle fit until Erin waved her hand in the air, forcibly regaining control so they could return to the debate.

"And animals are selfish," she finally managed to prompt.

"Oh, entirely," agreed Willow. "I had this cat once? It was all about her, lemme tell you. 'Feed me! Pet me! No snuggles for you, mommies, Miss Kitty has a hankerin' for some quality string-battin' time!'"

Erin grinned at the imagery. "Which brings us to the part where I'm dazed and confused," she admitted. "All of this was pretty much the crux of Malone's lecture, so what do you disagree with?"

"The simplicity of it all!" exclaimed Willow animatedly. "I've known some truly horrible, bad, selfish people in my time. But I've also known some that are truly good. Then there's the more-than-a-few that walk the thin confusing line in the middle. There's just too much out there to be neatly boxed up and labeled 'people equals selfish'."

Her friend mulled this over, eyes brightening. "The very thing that makes us human defies such a blanket classification," she said slowly, getting it.

"Exactly!" Willow nearly hopped in her excitement. "People have a self-awareness that allows them to rise above the base, animal impulses, so when we succumb to 'em, it's a choice and not an uncontrollable response."

Erin tucked her bangs back under her ballcap where they'd slipped out and cast a sidelong glance at Willow. "Huh. That's pretty sharp. I'm impressed." This time Willow couldn't suppress the delighted little bounce in her step. "So since we're now in agreement that humans are above such simple pulls on their psyche," smirked Erin, "you're gonna let me duck out of that mocha I owe you, right?"

"Oh, no way," replied Willow, the same smile firmly in place.

"What happened to rising above our base impulses?"

"I said we have the self-awareness to choose. And I choose mocha-y delights," the redhead concluded with a definitive nod of her head.

"Can't blame a girl for tryin'."

The path they had been following finally opened into the quad, which was, typically, filled almost to capacity with students walking, talking, sleeping, reading, eating, or doing pretty much whatever they felt like doing at the time. One particularly large group was gathered some distance away, seemingly listening to someone who was standing on a bench and speaking with great fervor. Willow and Erin barely noticed though as they began to part ways. Erin headed to the left, while Willow remained straight.

"I'll get paid tonight," Erin called over her shoulder, "so Monday afternoon?"

Willow nodded. "I want double whipped cream!" she demanded to her friend's retreating back.

With a slight eye roll, Erin waved at Willow and picked up her pace. The redhead continued on her way as well, utterly thrilled to be back in her element and soaking up every minute.

As she moved further into the center of the quad, Willow noticed the throng of people, and walked closer to see what was attracting so much attention. A young woman, pretty in an unassuming way, was marching back and forth on the bench she had claimed. Her voice was loud and clear, easily carrying over the heads of the students gathered around her. She, and others who were obviously part of the same group, were all wearing t-shirts proclaiming themselves to be part of an organization called "Pining Away".

"... The tree doesn't destroy, it creates," the leader was saying. "It does not kill its own kind or violate the world around it. The tree exists in absolute harmony with those who treat it with respect. It is a perfect creation – nurturing, sustaining, life-giving. It is a gift from Mother Earth, a thing of beauty to be cherished."

Willow took a moment to observe the students around her. One or two were nodding their heads, obviously in complete agreement. Several more than that were whispering to their friends, making snide comments and laughing to themselves. Most, however, wore an expression largely born of apathy.

The leader continued as though everyone withing hearing distance shared her vision. "The stability of the entire world rests in the boughs of the tree ... and yet man, in his infinite ignorance and bottomless capacity for greed and corruption, persists in pillaging the land. We are all children of the ..."

Willow had been so engrossed in the speech, she didn't notice that one of the activists had come to stand right next to her. The woman regarded her for a long moment then leaned over to make herself easily heard.

"She's good, isn't she?"

The witch nearly jumped out of her skin and turned wide eyes to the activist. "What? Oh- Oh, yeah!" she stammered, trying to regain her composure. "Very good. She's certainly passionate."

"We all are," she replied, her voice smooth and warm. "It's so easy to feel that way. The trees are our sisters, our mothers, our daughters. They cry out in pain, yet people never hear them. What choice do we have but to speak on their behalf?" The activist asked the question imploringly, her eyes fixed on Willow with such intensity that the redhead shuffled slightly under the scrutiny.

"When you put it that way ... " she began, "well it's kinda creepy, actually, but yeah. I can see what you mean."

"I thought you might. I sensed you were a kindred spirit."

A smile lifted Willow's lips and she started bouncing happily on the balls of her feet again, her previous discomfort forgotten.

The activist returned the smile and extended her hand gracefully. "Xylia," she introduced.

Willow accepted the offered hand and gave it a brief but firm shake. "Hi. Willow."

Xylia cocked her head to one side and smirked. "'Willow'," she repeated. "How appropriate."

"Alright, what is this crap?"

Giles looked up in surprise as Faith burst into his office. She stomped to his desk and slammed her hands on the surface, scattering various papers into the air. Giles moved to snatch them back, but catching the fire in Faith's eyes, decided to wait until later to reorganize.

In traditional Faith fashion, it didn't take her long to come to the point. "Am I part of this thing or not? Cuz if not, fine, you gimme the word and I'm gone – no tears, no fuss." She jabbed her thumb behind her. "But don't make me an idiot out there, Oxford. That crap ain't gonna fly."

The Watcher shook his head, confused. "Faith, what—?"

She pushed off of his desk and began pacing around the room. "Allison Lloyd, Slayer up in Nebraska?" she explained. "I finally get there, psyche myself up for the big 'You're a Slayer, I'm a Slayer' bit, an' just as I'm startin' to get into it, she says she already heard it."

"Already heard it?" repeated Giles, not understanding.

"Yeah. Says someone showed up the day before and already gave her the speech, all about Slayers bandin' together and whatever other Pollyanna crap you got floatin' around," she waved her hand abstractly at Giles." So there I am, gapin' at her an' she's lookin' at me an' I just kinda go 'Oh,' and leave. Not a shining moment," she added angrily.

Giles could only sit and stare at Faith, stunned.

"An' lemme tell you, Nebraska City, not the party town you might expect."

Recovering quickly, Giles looked at the Slayer with a solemn expression. "Faith, I swear to you, I've sent no one else on your dispatches. I wouldn't do that."

Faith's pacing slowed as she began to calm down.

"Nor would I need to," he continued. "You've proven yourself time and again to be an able and valuable member of this team. You are absolutely part of this ... 'thing'," he gestured to include everything around him.

"Yeah, well ... " Faith's eyes darted around the room nervously, feeling embarrassed by her outburst. "Okay then. So if you didn't do it, what the hell?"

Giles frowned at Faith's question as he straightened up the work on his desk. "I have no idea," he admitted. "I suppose I might have accidentally assigned Ms. Lloyd to more than one person, but Willow's usually so meticulous about the lists that I'm finding such difficult to believe."

Faith snorted at the thought. "Yeah, heaven forbid there's a glitch in Red's color-coding. She'll go into complete meltdown."

"Still, I'm at a loss for any other explanation. She didn't say anything else?" he asked.

"Just that she'd heard it all before. Honestly? I was so thrown, I just wanted out ASAP. I didn't ask for a blow-by-blow." Faith wandered over to one of the many interesting items lining the walls of Giles' office. She peered at a statue that appeared to be some sort of tribal relic, a stylized representation of a warrior holding a spear.

"No, no, I'd imagine not," Giles said from behind his desk, sounding far away and no longer paying much attention to the papers in his hand.

Faith poked curiously at the tiny spear in the statue's hand. "Hey, maybe you could call her, though. She seemed like a nice enough kid, probably wouldn't mind tellin' you about my shadow." She frowned. "Though I'm followin' them, so I guess it's more like I'm their shadow." Pondering it for a moment more, Faith shrugged. "Well whatever, try callin'."

Giles only barely seemed to hear what Faith was saying. "Yes, good idea. Thank you."

Another jab at the spear broke the entire statue's hand off, spear and all. Faith's eyes widened and she darted her hand out, catching it before it could clatter to the ground. She anxiously looked over her shoulder at Giles, but he was deep in his own thoughts. Faith opened a box near the statue and smoothly disposed of the evidence. "So, Wood around?" she asked brightly, moving to the other end of the room. "I got some energy from the road, figured we could hook up or somethin'."

"Hm? Oh, no, he's on assignment," replied Giles, refocusing. "Up in Canada, actually."

Faith was impressed. "Canada? Damn, lookit him, all world traveler."

"I would've waited until you got back, but—" Giles began apologetically.

"Wanted fugitive crossing borders, not a good idea."

"Not as such, no," he reluctantly agreed. "I do have Willow working on some way we can expunge your record, however, so you won't be quite so restricted in the future. Nor at quite so much risk while you're away."

Faith shrugged, examining another artifact nearby. She reached out as though to touch this one too, but thought better of it and pulled her hand back. "No rush," she shrugged, returning to the center of the room, "it's all good. I'm gettin' to like runnin' from the cops. Gives me and my bike a work out, helps keep things exciting."

"It's doing well, then?" Giles asked, glancing up from the papers he was sorting.

"The bike? Oh yeah, handles like a dream."

Giles muttered only half to himself, "Bloody well better for the amount it cost."

"Gotta travel in style, yo," grinned Faith, spreading her arms out.

The paper shuffling came to a halt as Giles regarded Faith. "Isn't it amazing how 'style' always seems to come with an astronomical price tag?"

"Yeah, but you should see me on this thing," she grinned wider, "I look hot."

"I'll take your word for it," he smirked back.

Buffy pushed aside a low-hanging branch and moved along at a slow but steady pace. The area was nearly pitch black, what little illumination there was provided entirely by the sliver of moon overhead. And clouds and the thick mist that clung to the air obscured most of that.

"Can't travel during the day, oh no," Buffy chastised herself. "Me heap big Slayer, me scoff at sunlight. Never mind that sunlight is one part sun and one part light, both of which would be welcome in a 'seeing' and 'not freezing my butt off' way right now."

She absorbed the scenery around her before continuing her external internal monologue. "Still, I suppose there's something to be said for the atmosphere. That something probably being 'creepy', but it's a something."

She took a few more steps in complete silence before continuing, "Yup. Just me and my backpack and a setting right out of An American Werewolf in London. What's gotta be wrong with this?"

Buffy jumped as a scream cut through the night. She sighed deeply.

"And of course, I have no one but myself to blame for this," she said to nobody in particular before running in the direction of the scream.

Act Two

Buffy burst through the overgrowth into a small clearing. A man, middle aged, lay on the ground, his legs completely bound by some sort of glistening thread. Scattered around were the contents of a knapsack, including several bottles and some food. What drew Buffy's attention, however, was the monstrosity hunched over the man – dark brown and spiny with elongated arms that ended in sharp, nasty-looking pinchers. It looked up at Buffy's noisy entrance, focusing on the Slayer and snarling. Her eyes widened as she took in the set of very long, very pointy fangs, dripping with saliva or possibly something less pleasant.

The creature pulled itself slowly to its full height, coming in at just about eight feet tall. Buffy watched it rise, her neck craning to follow it all the way up.

"Wow," she managed. "You're ... large. Large ... spider ... thing. There's never a giant shoe around when you need one," she grumbled.

The monster opened its mouth and roared in Buffy's face, letting loose with such force that her hair was blown back. She wrinkled her nose in disgust, "Or a giant toothbrush."

"Run, girl!" the man croaked weakly from the ground.

"Sorry, no can do," she shrugged. "They'd revoke my good-guy license."

With another roar, the monster swiped a massive claw at Buffy. She narrowly avoided being dismembered on the spot, but the claw still managed to catch her shoulder. She hissed in pain, but most of the blow was cushioned by her backpack strap and she was left with only a shallow gash. Her pack dangled only by one shoulder and Buffy shrugged it off, grabbing a stake from one of its many pockets.

She grasped the weapon tightly, and then looked from it to the monster and back again. "Whoever said size doesn't matter obviously never met one of these things."

It pulled back its arm and swung at her again, but she was ready this time and easily dodged, hurling her backpack at the thing with all her strength. Her aim was good and the pack smashed into the side of its head, but this did little more than make it angrier. It targeted Buffy and spat some sort of substance at her. Jumping to the side, the Slayer mostly avoided it, but some caught on her hand. She tried to shake it off, but it was like glue and wouldn't budge.

"Ew," she sneered at the creature. "I see now that brushing is the least of your problems."

Another ball of webbing flew towards her, and as Buffy ducked, it splattered into the tree behind her. She moved off to the side and it tried again, missing once more and coating the trees that Buffy had ducked behind.

Poking her head out cautiously, Buffy checked the distance and then dashed from behind her cover. She dropped to a roll as more webbing flew over her and then got back to her feet and leapt into the air, flipping over the head of the monster and landing solidly between it and its victim. The creature was completely disoriented and the Slayer took advantage, kicking it in the back. It flew across the clearing and collided with the web-covered trees, where it flailed violently, but only succeeded in getting itself more tangled up in the gummy substance.

Buffy watched it struggle for a few moments and allowed herself a happy, self-congratulatory grin before turning to help the man on the ground. "Looks like you're in a sticky situation." She laughed a bit too loudly at her own lame joke. "Oh, I Slay me."

The man wasn't laughing. "Miss?"

She glanced at the items strewn around the clearing for something she could use to cut through the stuff binding the man's legs. Picking up a half-empty bottle of whiskey, she seemed to consider breaking it and using that for a moment before she spotting a dagger and grabbing that instead.

"Yeah, I know, it's not one of my best," admitted Buffy. "I'm out of practice."

The dagger sliced easily through the webbing. Buffy nearly had him free when the man spoke again, his voice nervous. "Uh, miss? I don't think it can really stick to its own webbing."

The Slayer turned to look behind her and saw that he was on to something. The spider-thing was almost entirely free now, and Buffy watched as it gave one last strong yank and tore itself completely away from the trees.

"Oh," Buffy stared. "That can't be good."

If the creature was angry before, it was livid now, as Buffy quickly discovered when it moved with inhuman speed and barreled into her, knocking them both to the ground. Luckily she was still holding the dagger, and managed to bring it up and sink it deep into the monster's side, just as it was getting ready to, quite literally, bite her head off. Instead it started and merely grazed her injured shoulder with one of its fangs. Still, the pain was immense and Buffy cried out, tightening her grip on the dagger and giving it a sharp twist. The monster jumped back, hissing, the dagger still embedded in its side.

Buffy wasn't looking like she felt too much better, her face flushed and sweaty. She searched around anxiously for another weapon until her eyes lit upon the whiskey bottle she'd grabbed earlier. She snatched it up and hurled it with all her strength at the monster. It smashed into its chest, coating it with the strong alcohol. With her good arm, Buffy reached into her jacket pocket and fished out a lighter, flicking open the top and striking a flame. She uttered a silent prayer that it wouldn't go out and tossed it at the creature. Her luck held and it struck home, fully lit.

The reaction was immediate as the fire fed off of the whiskey and consumed the creature. Its hisses turned into otherworldly agonizing screams, and it fled towards the forest, tearing through the trees and leaving behind a flaming, smoking trail.

Buffy watched it go, sweating and panting heavily from more than just the exertion of the fight.

The man, having finally freed himself from enough of the webbing to move, although several strands still clung to him, walked over to Buffy. His eyes never left the direction the creature had fled.

"Thank you!" he exclaimed gratefully. "I was ... It came out of nowhere!"

"No big," Buffy replied shakily, trying to push herself to her feet. "S'a rule. Have to ... follow ... screams ..."

She collapsed in a boneless heap to the ground, unconscious. Her shoulder wound continued to trickle blood and throb, red, painful and angry-looking.

"What made you decide to help out?"

Willow and Xylia sat across from each other at an outdoors table at the local coffee shop, The Common Grounds. The day was slightly more overcast than the day before, but still beautiful and both women were taking full advantage of that fact.

"Well I just starting thinkin', y'know, about what you were saying, and you're right," explained Willow. "Trees with their earthy roots and with the oxygen, and oh! Apples! Which are sort of the main ingredient in apple pie, and what kind of a world would it be without apple pie? Not a world I want to live in, that's for sure mister, cuz apple pie and baseball – cornerstones of democracy, and you need democracy or we'll just tumble into horrible places where you can't vote and I only just got to start voting a little while ago, so ... " She trailed off, realizing that she been babbling again. "So- so gotta get with the tree saving."

Willow quietly took a sip of her mocha, thoroughly embarrassed.

"I'm not sure I followed that," Xylia said carefully, "but if it means you're on board, I'm in complete agreement." At Willow's nod and grin, Xylia produced a stack of fliers and placed them on the table. "I was thinking you could post these up around town."

The redhead took the top flier and examined it.

"We're having a gathering tonight," clarified Xylia. "A ... recruitment drive. The world must be made to hear the weeping of the trees. Everyone can help ... one way or another," she added.

Willow turned the flier around, pointing at it excitedly. "Oo, and you'll have cookies!"

"Sadly, the allure of simply doing the right thing is rarely enough. People are much more inclined to attend with the promise of something tangible."

"And yummy!" exclaimed Willow, still fixated on the idea of cookie goodness. "Who can say no to chocolate chip?" She paused for a moment, considering the flier in her hand. "Isn't it sorta ... ironic that you're using paper fliers in your 'Save the Trees" campaign?"

"Until electronic paper becomes an affordable reality, we have little choice," said Xylia regretfully. "But we only use recycled paper, and for every hundred pages we print, we bring life to a new tree, thus maintaining balance. Trees are generous – they do not mind giving of themselves when respect is shown."

Willow nodded enthusiastically. "Well sure, who doesn't want respect? I mean, they even write songs about it."

Xander strolled down the street, singing to himself, "What you want! Baby, I got it!" It wasn’t a particularly good rendition, but it was certainly enthusiastic, and Xander sang like he felt that should count for something.

"All I'm askin', is for a little respect (just a little bit!)," he continued to belt out, contributing his own back-up vocals. He was in good spirits as he made his way to the lumberyard, and had started adding dance moves to his routine when he heard angry voices in the distance.

He sobered up almost immediately as his Scooby Senses kicked in and he increased his pace. He soon saw a group of women gathered around the entrance to the lumberyard. Xander glanced at their identical shirts, all reading "Pining Away", and watched for a moment as they continued to shout about the assassination of trees, despite not having any obvious audience.

Xander approached cautiously, but with a friendly smile; however before he could take more than a few steps, the group turned towards him angrily.

"You!" one of them shouted, thrusting her finger at Xander.

He stopped suddenly, looking over both shoulders in the hopes that they were mad at someone other than him. He sighed quietly when he realized that wasn't the case, but it was resigned – he hadn't really expected otherwise.

"Uhm, hi?" he queried with what he hoped was a disarming smile.

"Do you plan to enter this slaughter house, to purchase the lifeblood, the heart and soul of Mother Earth?" the woman demanded to know.

Xander's smile remained fixed. "That sounds a liiiittle bit out of my price range," he joked.

Not really bothering to decipher his answer, the woman narrowed her eyes to slits, boring into Xander. Behind her, the others followed suit. "This facility is an affront to all we hold dear, peddling the flesh and muscle stripped from the gentle tree. Those who would deal in such things are enemies of nature. And all those who are enemies of nature become our enemies."

Their attitude was dangerous and unmistakable. For a moment, neither party twitched.

"Okay then!" Xander finally exclaimed nervously, still smiling. "Say, have you considered talking to Ralph Nader? With a few speeches like that, maybe he'd actually get on the ticket."

Nobody laughed. The women continued to glare icily. Xander fidgeted under the attention.

"Right. Not a laughing matter. Note the complete absence of laughing." He pointed around the group at the lumberyard and started to edge toward it. "I'm just gonna be in here. Just browsing! No peddling of any kind," he assured.

The women all turned their heads, following him, the glaring not easing for even a fraction of a second. His tiny baby steps grew larger as he got closer. Upon finally reaching the entrance, Xander ducked inside quickly with a final glance at the activists.

"Note to self: Make sure to arrange for delivery," he muttered.

Finally feeling a modicum of safety, Xander inspected the lumberyard, noticing for the first time how quiet it was. He frowned, puzzled, and moved further in, peering around stacks of wood for any sign of life but finding none.

"Well this isn't at all spooky," he said to himself.

He continued to move through the yard, looking for somebody – anybody. He eventually reached the back without seeing a single soul and headed straight for the office. His attention was drawn instantly to a tree growing just outside the manager's office, appearing almost obscenely out of place, given the setting. Xander examined the tree curiously and then skirted it, poking his head through the open office door.

"Hello?" he called. "Anybody there? Preferably an anybody who's not insane?"

Silence was his only answer. Xander's look of concern deepened.

Giles sat forward in his office chair, examining the papers spread out on the desk in front of him. He frowned and selected one, a list of names and addresses clearly labeled as belonging to Faith. One name, Allison Lloyd, was circled in a bright hi-lighter. He put the paper back down in front of him and looked at the others. Only Faith's was marked.

Reaching over and picking up the phone receiver, Giles began to dial a number. As he waited for someone to answer, he took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose, looking tired and harried. He snapped to life as he heard a voice on the other end, and clumsily replaced his glasses.

"Yes, may I speak to Allison please?" he asked politely. "Rupert Giles. We've spoken before, regarding Allison attending my boarding school...?" He paused, listening. "Yes, that's right."

As the person on the other end explained something, Giles doodled on Faith's paper, drawing little arrows that pointed the direction to nowhere. "Oh!" he finally exclaimed. "Oh, I see. When do you expect her back?" He paused again. "For the whole weekend?"

This line of conversation was obviously troubling to him, but he adpoted a casual air when responding. "Well the allures of youth, you know. I often ran off with my friends without warning." He listened again and then added more seriously, "No, I expect not, she did seem a rather responsible young lady. ... No, that's all right, I'll try back again next week. Thank you very much."

Giles returned the receiver to its cradle very slowly, deep in thought and looking extremely distressed.

Dawn bounced up and down in the dining room chair, swaying occasionally from side to side. She didn't notice Willow enter, since she wasn't facing the entrance to the room, and a pair of headphones firmly attached to her ears blotted out all noise. The witch took in the scene for a moment and then moved further into the dining room. She reached out and yanked the headphones from the jack on her laptop, filling the room with the generically upbeat sound of female voices. Dawn jumped in surprise, ripping off her headphones and looking up at Willow.

Willow listened to the music for a moment. Satisfied, she focused on Dawn. "Well at least ya took me serious when I said 'No more N'Sync on my computer'."

"What, are you kidding? You threatened to turn me into Justin Timberlake and teleport me to the mall," Dawn chuckled. "You better believe I took that seriously."

Pulling out the chair next to Dawn, Willow slunk into it and put the stack of fliers she was carrying on the table next to a grotesquely huge bag of cheesy curls. "So what'cha workin' on?" she asked, taking a handful of chips. "Homework? Need any help?"

"Maybe," replied Dawn, looking back to the laptop. "They're making us write out resumes for college applications. I'm sorta stuck on the extra-curricular activities part. I don't think 'Helped older sister and friends defeat the world's first evil' is going to win me any acceptance letters, y'know?"

"Yeah, I'd leave that part out," Willow agreed, munching on a few stolen chips.

Dawn continued, "And I wasn't even in school for the last part of the year, which leaves me with 'Rode around the country in a beat-up school bus while my sister's best friend taught me enough algebra so I wouldn't have to repeat'."

"Also not big with the sparklies."

The teen tossed her hands in the air, letting them fall back to the laptop. "I suck," she moaned disparagingly.

Willow immediately leapt to her defense. "No! You're just ... extra-curricularly deficient. We just gotta getcha into a few things that'll punch it up. Heck, you're only a junior. Plenty of time," she said confidently.

This was enough for Dawn, who brightened immediately. "Maybe I can get Faith to, like, teach me street fighting!" she suggested. "Extra-curricular and cool."

"I was thinkin' more along the lines of band," replied Willow, wincing at Dawn's idea.

Leveling a flat look at the redhead, Dawn stated, "I'm looking to punch up my resume, not destroy my social life. It may not be much, but it's mine and I'd like to keep it."

"Hm," Willow murmured thoughtfully, chewing on her lip. She glanced at the stack of fliers, and grabbed one, showing it to Dawn. "Oh, hey, how about helpin' me hang up these bad boys? It's a new group on campus, all environmenty. Colleges love that sort of thing," she added confidentially.

Dawn took the flier and read it over. "'Pining Away'. Very punny." Reaching the end of the flier, she squeaked, "Ooo, free cookies!"

"That's not 'til tonight," Willow pointed out. "And all those cookies will be sad and uneaten if we don't get these fliers up."

"Can't have that," decided Dawn, closing the laptop. She jumped to her feet, heading towards the door. Willow scooped up the fliers and was following when Dawn turned back, a thought having occurred to her.

"On the other hand," she drew out, "if nobody else knows about them? More cookies for us."

"'Hogged all the refreshments at activist meeting' also probably not gonna make that resume shine," smirked Willow, patting the girl comfortingly on the shoulder.

Dawn pouted. "Dumb colleges. Their priorities are way screwed up."

Willow moved confidently down the street in the residential section of campus, a stack of fliers tucked in one arm and a roll of tape dangling from her fingers. With her free hand, she deftly juggled everything and securely taped the paper to a signpost. Assured that it would stay put in the strong breeze, she moved further down, towards her next target.

On the other side of the street, Dawn wasn't faring quite as well. She was deeply embroiled in a fierce battle with her roll of tape, and it was clearly only a matter of time before it conquered her utterly. A piece had somehow managed to affix itself to her hair, but she barely even noticed. The roll itself was giving her the most amount of trouble. Tape was wound around two of her fingers and the roll was dangling by a long strip. Her other arm was full of fliers, and she was dangerously close to dropping them all over the place. Swinging the roll of tape, she tried to get it within reach of her other hand without losing her tenuous grip on the papers, but kept missing every time she tried to catch it. She resorted to snapping at it with her teeth, but failed miserably that way too.

"Ergh!" Dawn grunted in frustration. "Stupid tape. Stupid fliers. Stupid tape."

Smirking as she easily hung another flier, Willow watched Dawn out of the corner of her eye. "The path of social reform is undeniably arduous," she chuckled.

Tossing her hands in the air, as well as she could, Dawn gave up. The tape roll swung tauntingly at her in the breeze. "Ahhh!" she cried, stomping across the street to join Willow. "That's it, forget college. I don't even wanna go anymore. I'm just gonna live in my room forever and ever and never come out until I die of old age."

"Move over Gloria Steinem," Willow commented, grinning wider.

She suddenly stopped joking as something caught her attention further up the grass bordering the houses. A jacket was caught in the branches of a tree, which was itself oddly situated in the middle of the lawn. Willow moved closer, considering the jacket carefully. She didn't look away as Dawn approached, still fighting with the tape.

"Why is it even called 'Scotch tape'," she complained, intent on trying to unravel herself.

Willow wasn't listening. She set her own remaining fliers and tape roll on the ground by the base of the tree and reached for the jacket. She stood on her tiptoes and stretched, but it remained out of reach.

Dawn was similarly absorbed. "I mean, are the Scottish the only people alive who can not get caught up in the stupid stuff?"

With a triumphant grin, Dawn finally managed to free her fingers and she hurled the tape to the ground with disgust. She wiggled her fingers at Willow to demonstrate, but found her friend occupied with jumping as high as possible, trying to rescue the jacket but only grabbing thin air. Dawn crossed her arms and smirked. "Want some help there, shorty?"

"Nope!" Willow said, jumping again. "Almost!" her fingers grazed the sleeve. "Got it!"

Managing to achieve that extra inch she grasped the jacket firmly. Gravity returned both her and the jacket to the ground, breaking off most of the branch in the process. Throwing her hands over her head, Willow elbowed Dawn back out of the way, grimacing as the branch landed nearby although it hit neither of them. Confident that things were done falling for the moment, Willow straightened and examined the jacket.

"Not really your color," commented Dawn, also looking closer.

"No," Willow agreed, her voice curious. "How'd it get there, though? It wasn't just tossed up there."

Dawn peered at something on the sleeve. "Frat prank? Look." She pointed out the embroidered Greek letters.

"Maybe. This is Fraternity Row. Maybe they—"

The redhead's words trailed away as she glanced back at the tree, her eyes drawn to where the branch had been. The wood around that area was jagged and ugly looking, but what captured her attention was the dark substance oozing at a steady rate from the spot and gathering on the ground. Dawn followed Willow's gaze and swallowed hard.

"That's ... That's sap, right?" she asked as though she knew it wasn't.

Willow's voice was quiet and uncertain. "I don't think so ... "

As she moved closer, Dawn went to follow but Willow waved for the teen to stay back. For once, she did as she was told without much protest, although with much nervous fidgeting. Making sure neither to get under the flow nor to get any on her, Willow crouched over the small pool on the ground as closely as possible.

"What is it?" Dawn questioned anxiously, trying to get a better look from her faraway position.

Willow scrutinized the wounded section of the tree again. The dark stuff was still flowing strongly and steadily, indicating no sign of slowing down.

"I think it's blood," she replied.

Act Three

Giles deftly moved a priceless and irreplaceable volume of Bahram’s Divinations and Portents out from underneath Xander’s hammer as the young man went to lay it on the desk, heedless of what else might be there. His face appeared pained and very much as though he was regretting his earlier request, but Xander’s mood had visibly improved tenfold and Giles’ disapproving frown soon melted. The Watcher simply sighed and returned to temporarily relocating much of his office to one side of the room.

The other half had been claimed by Xander. Large sections were covered with plastic sheets to help contain the sawdust which was flying in the air as the carpenter worked. He was complaining, and from the sounds of it, had been doing so for some time.

"...so I had to go to go to 'Big Fred’s’, all the way across town. More expensive, but at least someone was actually there to relieve me of all my hard earned cash. Well, your hard-earned cash. And as an added bonus, I didn't get threatened by scary tree-people."

"I can’t believe 'Big Fred’ hasn’t worked those two selling points into an advertising campaign," remarked Giles dryly.

Xander jabbed the pencil he’d been using to mark off sections of the wood at the Watcher. "I’m tellin’ ya though, Giles, it was freaky, all deserted like that. I mean yeah, you don’t typically expect a lumberyard to be the most happenin’ place in town," he shrugged, "but you’d think someone would’ve at least been around for customers. But nothin’. Just a group of women with a wood fetish. Which I’m usually all for, but—"

The office door opened, effectively cutting off that entire thread of conversation and relieving the pained look that had returned to Giles’ face. "Andrew! How marvelous to see you," greeted Giles. Then his words sank in and he sighed ruefully. "Oh, how far I’ve fallen."

Andrew missed that part, however. "Why thank you, Mr. Giles!" he beamed, obviously flattered. "It’s marvelous to see you too!"

"Hey Andy," nodded Xander, not looking up from measuring the lumber.

"Xander!" Andrew went to move closer, but then realized he would be stepping on the plastic. Unsure if that was something he should do, he danced back and forth for a moment, finally deciding to stay where he was. "I was hoping to run into you. I was thinking we could indulge ourselves for 97 minutes in the movie that will put the 'slash’ back into 'slasher films’: Freddy vs. Jason. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve heard it’s really good ... in a totally bad kind of way," he added, losing some enthusiasm, but just for a second. "And who hasn’t been waiting for this exciting clash of the horror movie titans? It’ll be like a modern-day Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla. Only do you think there’ll be more blood? Because blood makes me really queasy now. Blood and pork." Andrew looked uncomfortable and rubbed his tummy.

"No thanks, Andy. Kinda workin’ on somethin’ here," Xander replied, inclining his head towards the supplies.

"Oh," pouted Andrew. "But I thought I remembered you saying back in Sunnydale how excited you were about it? Or was that Aliens vs. Predator? Hey, do you think they’ll bring back Ripley? I don’t mean weird Robo-Ripley, I mean real Ripley."

Xander turned to the blond with amazement. "What, are you kidding me? She got all chest-bursting with the Alien thing and threw herself into a gigantic fire pit. You don’t just dust yourself off and walk away from that."

"And then they wonder why I choose to remain ignorant about most of their conversations," Giles muttered, still packing away his books.

"Plus, Ripley would totally kick the Aliens’ and Predators' asses," Andrew added with great certainty.

"Totally," echoed Xander just as surely, but then his face darkened and he turned his attention back to the bookcase. "But no. Not really in the mood right now for big screens and dealing with lots of people."

Andrew nodded reluctantly. "Okay. Maybe later though?" he asked hopefully. "Underworld is coming out soon, and that looks really good. Vampires, werewolves ... " He trailed off and surveyed his surroundings. "Although I guess when you put it in perspective ..."

The phone chose that moment to ring and Giles quickly picked it up, grateful for yet another distraction. "Hello?"

Willow’s voice came through, strained and nervous. "Giles? I-I need you to come down here. To campus. There’s something ... Bad. Bad things. Really bad. An-And kinda gross," she amended almost as an afterthought.

"Willow, what? Are you all right?"

Hearing Willow’s name, Xander’s head jerked up from his work and he quickly moved to Giles’ desk. "What’s goin’ on?" he demanded.

Giles didn’t answer, instead waving his hand for Xander to be quiet as he listened to the phone.

"Yeah, yeah, we’re okay, me and Dawnie. We- We were just hangin’ fliers for this— Oh, but th-then there was the jacket and the tree and then snap! There went the branch only now it’s all with the blood and— Bad," Willow finally summed her entire experience up into that one word. "Giles, I need you to get down here, a-and bring some stuff. Spell stuff. I wanna do a spell."

A raised eyebrow spoke volumes. "A spell?" Giles asked. "Are you quite sure?"

"Giles, trees are bleeding," emphasized Willow. "Real blood. Real, human, O-positive-type blood. Or, well, I guess it could be AB-negative or something, I didn’t test it, but— blood, Giles."

"All right," he relented. "Tell me what you need."

The Watcher grabbed the pencil out of Xander’s hand and began scribbling down ingredients on the first piece of paper he found. Cautiously, as though afraid he would disturb something vital, Andrew joined Xander by the desk.

"Willow’s gonna cast a spell?" he whispered to Xander. "The last time she did that, she nearly blew off the door of her Sanctuary."

Xander glanced at Andrew but when he spoke, his full attention was focused on Giles. "I know. She’s gettin’ better, though," he said with a touch of pride. "She and Giles have been workin’ together to sort of stabilize her power. She’s still a bit iffy now and then when she’s on her own, but she’s workin’ on it."

Andrew nodded as Giles spoke again.

"Yes, I know where that is. I’ll gather the supplies and be there as soon as I can." Giles hung up the phone and looked to Xander and Andrew. "Willow’s discovered something rather unusual at University. We’re going to cast a spell to determine exactly what it is."

Clapping his hands together, Xander rubbed them anxiously. "What’re we waitin’ for? Let’s make with the mojo."

"I’m certain we can handle this. You’re welcome to remain here and continue working—"

"What and miss out on all the unusual unusualness?" asked Xander with a grin. "It’s what we do, what we thrive on. It’s our bread and butter, our meat and potatoes, and is anyone else gettin’ hungry?"

Giles rolled his eyes. "Come on," he said, moving for the door, Xander right behind him.

Andrew watched them go. His stomach growled and he looked down at it.

The shiny red sports car pulled up alongside Dawn who was resting her chin in her hands and moping. Giles and Xander got out of the car, Giles nodded a quick greeting to Dawn before heading straight for Willow, who was standing next to the tree. Her hand was gently pressed against its trunk and her eyes were closed tightly in concentration. As Giles approached, he set the armload of supplies on the ground and moved next to her. Xander watched them both for a moment and then turned to Dawn.

"Yet another potential resume item marred by the weirdness that is us," she offered as an explanation for her mood.

He didn’t get it. "Huh?"

Dawn rose to her feet, brushing her pants as they both walked across the lawn towards Willow and Giles. "Nothing," she sighed. "Just trying to write my college resume. I was hoping this would help, but ... " she waved her hand at the bleeding tree.

"You know the secret to those things is embellishing," said Xander, glancing at Dawn. When he saw she didn’t understand, he clarified. "Look, there’s no way they’re gonna check up on everything you write down. Do you think they’re gonna bother calling up some small-town group of tree huggers with zero celebrity backing, just to see if you really spent a Saturday hanging up fliers? No way, they’re too busy wonderin’ if they can jack up tuition next year. So you embellish."

The light slowly came on. "So ... rather than saying 'Helped find out why some tree was doing this freaky bleeding thing’ ..."

"... You say, 'Investigated the condition of and worked to preserve the health and well-being of local forestry’."

Dawn practically jumped in the air as she squealed in delight. "Oh my god!" she bubbled. "That’s so brilliant!"

He shrugged sheepishly and grinned. "Xander Harris: Making as little look like as much as possible for 23 years."

Having reached the others, they turned their attention to the other major problem of the day. Willow was seated on the ground Indian-style at the center of a makeshift circle. Nearby, herbs and incense were burning, creating a heady but not overwhelming scent. Giles stood close, watching Willow intently.

"Just relax," he soothed. "I’ll be right here if you should need me."

Willow laughed nervously. "Right. Relax. Tree bleeding, general feeling of unease and discomfort. What’s to not relax about?"

She closed her eyes, breathing deeply and steadily. For several moments it seemed as though nothing would happen, but then –

Flashes. The frat boy walking. Carving into the trunk of a tree. Fear. A female face. A t-shirt. A hand stretching out. Unable to run. The bark spreading. A scream—

With a gasp Willow jolted back and her eyes snapped open. The others were instantly at her side as she swayed, ready to catch her if she fell, but she didn’t. Instead she turned to the tree, regarding it with horror and sadness.

"It’s a-a person," she said, her voice wavering. "Was a person...? He was ... He was doing something, to that tree o-over there," she pointed not too far from where they were all gathered. Xander got up to investigate as Willow continued, "an-and then ... Something saw him. He was scared, tried to run, then ..."

She craned her head to look at the tree, focusing on the wound. The blood had stopped flowing by now. It had dried and crusted around the bark, continuing to be an unpleasant sight, and Willow shuddered. "It hurt so much. It still hurts," she whispered, rubbing her arms for comfort.

Dawn looked almost as freaked out as Willow. "So much for the 'plants can’t feel pain’ theory." Trying to find the bright side, she asked, "Hey, does this mean I don’t have to eat Brussels sprouts any more?"

She was spared the refusal by Xander’s return. He held out an open butterfly knife to the group. "I found this. There’s a couple of carvings in the tree, but it doesn’t look like either one was finished."

"Did he get a good look at who did this to him?" Giles asked Willow.

Willow shook her head. "No, just ... Female. And ... " Her eyes widened as she remembered a detail from the visions. "Pining Away! She-She had a Pining Away t-shirt!"

"The scarily intimidating 'nature good, man bad’ girls are behind this? Color me not surprised," Xander stated.

"But how?" queried Dawn. "This is way beyond making speeches and handing out fliers."

Giles frowned, looking from one tree to the next. "There’s clearly something eldritch at work here. I-I think it’s imperative that we track down the group as soon as possible and get to the bottom of this." He turned back to the redhead. "Willow, did you get an address or-or phone number where we can contact them?"

Willow had calmed down considerably and was packing away the ingredients she’d used in the spell. "No," she admitted. "I met up with Xylia at The Common Grounds, I have no idea where they are ..."

She reached for a bundle of herbs she’d placed on top of the fliers next to her and then stopped, rereading carefully.

"... but I know where they will be."

Faith glanced over her shoulder as she heard the front door opening. She took another drag of her cigarette and watched as Kennedy stepped outside, squinting in the sunlight. She walked down the front steps of the complex that had become known as "Slayer Central".

"Yo, Brat," Faith tipped her head to the side, blowing smoke away from the other girl, "you goin’ somewhere?"

Kennedy nodded, checking her pockets for something. "Yeah. Willow’s wrapped up in some school thing, so I thought I’d go hit a few places downtown. Do some window-shopping." Finally finding what she was looking for, Kennedy flipped open the arms of her sunglasses and put them on. She looked around and smiled slightly. Much better.

"Oh?" Faith looked directly into the sun before puffing on her cigarette again. "An’ what’re we shoppin’ for?"

"Oh, nothin’," Kennedy replied nonchalantly, but unable to hide a mischievous smirk.

It certainly didn’t escape Faith’s notice. "Uh-uh. I know that look. That look means evil. An’ as a Slayer—" she dropped her voice an octave and spoke with exaggerated exactness. "I have a sacred duty to confront and defeat evil wherever I may find it." With a grin she took another pull. "Though I been known to team up with it on occasion, so spill."

Kennedy glanced around and then moved away from the entrance, beckoning for the other Slayer to follow her. Faith raised a questioning eyebrow, but flicked her cigarette into the grass and did just that.

"Okay, so you know how Nate has this thing about bugs?" Kennedy spoke in a low, secretive manner, leaning over to Faith.

"No, but okay," replied Faith in her normal tone, not at all playing along.

"Well he does. So I was thinkin’," she grinned maliciously, "how much fun would it be to buy a whole bunch of those rubber cockroaches and stuff, and leave them lying around his office!"

Delighted with her plan, an expectant smile appeared on Kennedy's face. Faith simply stared.

"You went to boarding school for how many years, and that’s the best you can come up with?" she finally commented, thoroughly unimpressed.

The other girl deflated. "Well I’m out of practice."

"What’cha got against Giles Junior anyway?" Faith asked. "He seems harmless."

"Mostly harmless," grumbled Kennedy. "And mostly irritating. If I have to listen to him tell me one more time to work on my temper, I’ll—"

She looked over at Faith’s smirk and unballed the fist she’d unconsciously clenched. "Shut up," she poked her finger at her friend.

Faith threw her hands in the air, still smirking. "Not sayin’ a word. Don’t hafta." Kennedy stomped off, Faith quickly following behind. "I’m just sayin’—"

"I can’t help but notice those are words," remarked Kennedy. "Words that you just said you didn’t need to say."

"—you should give him a chance," she finished. "I know these Watcher guys are uptight and boring and take way too long to say stuff, but y’might learn somethin’. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t know everything."

"Unlike you," Kennedy shot back sarcastically.

That only caused Faith’s grin to widen. "Oh hell no, I dunno jack about squat."

"And yet here we both are, and only one of us has their Watcher space filled to capacity."

"Tried the Watcher thing, didn’t work out." That earned her a glare. "Hey, I’m not sayin’ it’s for everyone," Faith conceded. "I’m pretty much livin’ proof of that. But y’don’t know 'til y’try, right? I mean you had your Watcher for what? All of a couple’a weeks before the Bringers got him?"

Kennedy opened her mouth to retaliate, but Faith kept going, not waiting for a response. "You never know, the whole Slayer/Watcher thing might do just fine by you. Lookit B, she was practically glued to hers, and she turned out okay. Better’n okay. 'Cept for dyin’ a few times," she added with a shrug. "Anyway, I just think you should try, that’s all I’m sayin’."

"Oh, I’m trying," Kennedy agreed with enthusiasm. "Right now I’m tryin’ to think where I can buy rubber roaches in bulk."

Faith slung a companionable arm around Kennedy’s neck as the two walked. "I think I know a place. Though hey," she asked brightly, "have you considered real roaches?"

She completely missed the look of mild disgust Kennedy shot her.

"You don’t think you should’ve told Kennedy?" questioned Xander.

He and Willow were in Giles’ office. Xander was tidying up the mess he’d left earlier, trying to make the area a little less of an affront to the Watcher. He moved one partially cut board to the top of a stack, patting at his shirt and sending a plume of sawdust into the air. He nearly sneezed, but managed to hold it in.

On the other side of the room, near where Giles had been earlier, Willow reached into an open cabinet and retrieving supplies, placing them carefully in a small bag nearby. "Well ... No. Maybe. It’s just— It’s not that I don’t trust Kenn, but—"

She sighed and paused for a moment to collect her thoughts. "They’re not evil," she tried again. "Okay, yeah, people into trees, not really toppin’ the list of good deeds. But way deep down, I don’t think they’re evil. I wanna do this without bones breakin’ a-and body parts flyin’, and Kenn sometimes? Not so good with the plans that don’t involve decapitation."

Xander threw her an admonishing look. "I’m not sure lyin’ to her is the best way to go here, Will."

"I didn’t lie!" protested Willow immediately. "I-I told her I had to go to a meeting. And I do. So see? No lie. I ... skimped. Glossed over. There’s just a-a thin glossy veneer over the truth. Hardly even noticeable," she tried to dismiss.

Xander’s expression didn’t change.

The redhead became even more flustered and defensive. "Well you’ve seen how she gets! Just a whiff of something a little teeny bit dangerous, and she goes all butch and defendery. I-It’s better this way. We go, we talk, we rationalize, we stop the death-by-treeing, and then it’s home for hot chocolate and snuggles."

"Things must be so nice in your world," commented an envious Xander. "You’ll have to show me slides sometime."

Willow’s response was to toss a pencil at him. It bounced harmlessly off his chest. "Hey watch it!" he exclaimed. "You’ll put my only eye out."

Seizing the opportunity for a subject change, Willow turned back to the cabinet and asked, "How about you, how is being Xander workin’ out for ya?"

He shrugged noncommittally. "Eh, it’s passable. I’m really jazzed about the bookcase project. Which probably says more about me than I’d like," he acknowledged. "This helps, though. Us, goin’ out to fight the good fight ... " Xander glanced over nervously at Willow’s glare. "Or debate the good debate, whatever."

"And ... the other thing?" she broached tentatively. "The leaving thing?"

"I dunno. It comes and goes. Sometimes I feel almost claustrophobic. But other times," he took in the room and smiled, "I can’t imagine bein’ anywhere else. I guess I’m really just takin’ it one day at a time."

Willow nodded in agreement. "Sometimes that’s all you can do. People can only deal with stuff how it’s best for them, y’know?"

Dusk was settling over the park where the members of Pining Away were setting up for their rally that night. The area was mostly just grass, however there were several long tables holding refreshments and a small makeshift stage set up to one side facing rows of folding chairs. One member in particular, the woman Willow had seen speaking in the quad, was mingling with the others, speaking to them in the same passionate, confident manner.

"The time of bending in the wind like saplings has passed, my Sisters. Soon, they will come. Lured by greed, curiosity, boredom, or cruelty, they will come. There will be some among them that are Kindred. To those, we will bestow upon them the gift of sisterhood. To the rest ..." she gazed around the clearing, a shadow of a smile on her lips. "We shall give their worthless lives meaning. They will finally become part of the Earth that they feel themselves so far above."

Moving toward the park entrance, she turned away from the others. Her face began to change, her skin becoming a pale brown and her hair transforming into a rich forest green. Her hands and feet morphed, adopting a bark-like appearance. She raised her hand, she flexed fingers that were now akin to long, thin branches.

"Such are the failings of human nature. They will come."

Act Four

Kennedy's hand snaked out to snatch a handful of cheesy curls from the super-sized bag before Dawn had even realized the Slayer was there. "Hey!" she exclaimed angrily.

"Oh, sorry," Kennedy munched, not sounding sorry at all, "I know you only have a few ... thousand left."

With a withering glare, Dawn very deliberately transported the bag to the other side of the computer, out of Kennedy's easy reach. The Slayer crunched extra loudly on the chips she'd already stolen.

"Kinda not the point," growled Dawn. "I bought these with my own money."

Smirking, Kennedy teased, "You sure you're not an only child?"

Dawn didn't bother to justify that with a response, choosing instead to simply glower at the laptop screen and try to ignore the other girl's presence.

Still highly amused, Kennedy also glanced at the computer. "So what're you working on?"

"Stuff," came the curt reply.

Kennedy leaned forward from her perch on the arm of the couch, peering unnoticed over Dawn's shoulder. "'Assisted in the care and maintenance of vehicles crucial to the transportation of disaster victims'?" she read aloud.

The laptop snapped shut and Dawn spun around, irate and embarrassed. Her jaw kept moving up and down, but nothing was coming out.

"Are you talking about that time the bus got a flat tire and you handed Buffy a wrench?" Kennedy chuckled.

"No! I-I was ... Uhhh ... Look, you don't know what I do!" Dawn finally got out, unable to think of anything better.

"Well I know what you don't," came the highly amused retort.

"Don't you have to meet up with Willow or something? Some place that's else?" Dawn asked pointedly.

The Slayer shook her head, cheerfully ignoring the point. "She's got some thing at school."

Dawn regarded Kennedy as though she might quite possibly be the stupidest creature on the entire planet. "Yeah, I know? The tree monster freak out from earlier? I figured you'd be all Dudley Do-Right, so why are you here intruding on my time?"

Her jovial demeanor slipped for a moment as Kennedy filtered through Dawn's words. "Wait, what tree monster?"

Preparing to explain very, very slowly and carefully, Dawn took a deep breath, but stopped when realization hit her. "Ohhh, she didn't tell you." Recognizing that the tables had suddenly turned in her favor, Dawn's eye took on an evil glint. "Funny."

"Yeah, funny ..." Kennedy frowned.

"I guess she figured this wasn't your kind of thing," mused Dawn aloud. "I mean she's going to talk to them, not wave a stake around and make lame jokes. And I'm guessing, stake? Not very threatening when you're made of wood."

"No ... I guess not."

Dawn pressed on relentlessly. "Shame, though. It's probably the sort of thing she could use backup on." She snuck a glance a Kennedy, making sure the Slayer was still listening. "I know that she and Tara were huge with the whole one-with-nature thing. Having someone like that around would probably help." Shrugging, Dawn dismissed the idea. "But Willow's the Big Brain, I'm sure she'll work it through without'cha, completely violence-free." She punctuated the end of her speech with an overly large and bright smile.

"Yeah," Kennedy said distractedly, standing and heading out of the room. "Hey, I'm gonna go ... Go work out or somethin'," she said. She sounded defeated and gestured at the still-closed laptop. "Good luck with that."

"Sure thing!" chirped Dawn, the same smile plastered on her face. She watched Kennedy leave and waited for the sound of the front door closing before allowing the smile to turn into a satisfied smirk. "And Spike thought I never paid attention," she murmured happily, turning back to the computer.

Willow, Giles and Xander filed through the park entrance cautiously, alert for any sign of imminent danger. They were conspicuously weapon-free, a fact which seemed to make Xander particularly nervous; he kept flexing his hand as though wishing he felt something solid, sharp and pointy in it.

The activists, their number reduced to ten or so from when they had been setting up the area, were clustered around the stage, absorbed in whatever they were doing.

"Hello?" Willow called.

As one, the group looked up, startled. Xylia quickly stepped forward, however, and smiled warmly at the redhead.

"Willow! I'm so glad you could make it! Though you're early. We haven't finished our preparations just yet."

Willow fidgeted nervously, wringing her hands when she wasn't gesturing with them. "Xylia, hi. I'm here. Sorry. For-For the early, sorry, not the being here. Here is good, it's usually the best place to find yourself. I mean, if you get lost, you at least always know that wherever you are, you're 'here', right?" She grinned weakly.

Xylia blinked, utterly confused and unable to follow the conversation at all. Giles cleared his throat and Willow took a deep breath.

"I had some questions," she tried again. "Some stuff that was buggin' me."

This made much more sense, and Xylia nodded encouragingly. A short distance away, the other activists watched, curious.

"Okay. Well, there's this ... guy. Frat guy. A-And I know this sounds, you know, crazy, but i-it seems that he's now ... Sorta ..." Unable to find any way to say it besides the direct way, Willow took another deep breath before blurting out, "A tree. I think he got turned into a tree."

The activists looked at one another, as though unsure of what they'd heard her say. Stunned, Xylia merely stared at Willow.

"I know, crazy," interjected Willow quickly. "I was hoping— I mean, I didn't think you guys had anything to do with it." She turned to Xander and Giles. "We'll have to start research, find out—"

"For you to have detected this ..." Xylia breathed wondrously in a near-whisper, "you must truly be one of us!"

"—what could have—" Willow's attention returned to the activist, "Wait, what?"

Xylia gazed reverenly at Willow, making the redhead start fidgeting again. "Your bond with Mother Earth, it's one of the strongest we've ever seen in your kind."

Giles finally stepped forward, pondering Xylia's words. "What do you mean, 'our kind'?"

For the first time, Xylia noticed that Willow wasn't alone. She smiled at the newcomers and then addressed Willow. "And you've brought friends. Are they, too, Kindred? We don't traditionally accept males, however—"

She broke off, stiffening, sensing that something wasn't right. Giles looked to Willow for an explanation, but received only a shrug in response. Then Xylia whirled at Xander, her eyes blazing.

"You!" she practically shouted.

"Oh no, not again," muttered Xander, taking an involuntary step backwards.

"You reek of the spilled essence!" she spat from between clenched teeth, quivering with barely contained fury.

Xander glanced at himself and sniffed experimentally, casting an anxious look to his friends who were equally at a loss.

The enraged woman turned to her fellow activists, thrusting her finger at Xander. "He profanes our sacred place, bathed in the dust of our Sisters!"

"Dust?" Giles repeated questioningly.

Willow puzzled over it for a moment, then her eyes widened. "Ohhhh," she drawled, looking at Xander's shirt.

Following Willow's gaze, Xander looked down at his clothes. He ran a hand across the front, brushing sawdust into the air. His head jerked up and he looked at Xylia, a little panicked.

"I have a hamster?" he offered feebly.

The rest of Xylia's group were converging on the Scoobies, and they moved closer together, slowly backing away as one.

"Xander," said Giles, his eyes glued on the women in front of him, "remind me to never again ask you for a favor when we get out of this."

"Oh hey, the night's lookin' up already," Xander replied.

Willow was intent on the activists, her hands held up in front of her. "N-Now wait just a minute. I know this looks bad, but i-it's just a bookcase. Bookcases are good, they hold ... books and stuff."

"So he desecrates trees," growled Xylia, "warping them into a twisted parody, and uses the results to showcase further evidence of man's relentless disregard for nature!"

Xander grimaced. "Will? Stop helping me."

"Enough," the leader announced, stepping forward. "He has made his choice."

She waved her hand at Xander, and to his horror, his feet began to cover over with a bark-like substance, tendrils reaching into the ground and taking hold.

"Gyyaaahh!!" cried Xander, thoroughly wigged as he started dancing in place. The action afforded no opportunity for his feet to become rooted, a fact which Giles noticed.

"Off the ground!" the Watcher commanded. "It can't take hold if we're not touching the ground!"

Giles scrambled for the nearest table and clambered on top of it. Xander followed suit on a different table, moving with a speed he would not normally be capable of. As he watched, the bark on his feet crumbled and fell to the tabletop. He kicked it away as though it was poisonous and looked down.

"Oh, feet," he cooed. "Precious feet. How I missed you. Let's never almost part again. I've lost enough bits of me for one lifetime."

Still on the ground, Willow was trying desperately to get through to the women. "No, stop!" she pleaded. "He didn't mean any disrespect!"

"They rarely do. Humans, like this male," the leader sneered, gesturing at Xander, "simply do not think. They are selfish and ignorant, and our sister trees suffer and die by the thousands every day as a result. The Dryads will no longer simply stand by and watch as the plague of man spirals the Earth into complete destruction."

Watching from the tabletop, Xander turned to Giles, raising his voice slightly to make sure it carried. "I think we're approaching a Red Alert situation here, Giles! These ... whatever-they-are's are startin' to make Earth First! look like a Tupperware party. I'm thinkin' some backup of the Slay variety is in order!"

This was obviously a conclusion Giles had already reached, and he held his cell phone in two hands, fighting with it. "I agree, but I can't get this unholy device to place a call!" He punched a few more buttons. "Blast!"

Xander turned his attention back to Willow while Giles continued pushing random buttons and swearing. As he watched, the dryads, one after the other, began to shed their human appearance and reveal their true selves.

"And me without my Weed B Gone," he muttered worriedly.

Faith was leading a small group of four girls cautiously through a cemetery on patrol. They moved stealthily, each hardly making a sound. As they stalked, their eyes constantly scanned the shadows in search of for danger. It seemed at first as though there was simply nothing to be found, but then a rustling from the nearby bushes caused five heads to snap to attention.

Faith gestured for two of the girls to get on either side of the bushes. Both complied instantly. The other two girls took up a position on each side of Faith, who was now facing the location of the rustling. All had their stakes out and at the ready. With a nod from Faith, the ones on bush detail yanked it aside. The Slayers raised their weapons, ready to attack ... only to see that the noise was being made by a couple making out.

"Oh for ... " Faith began, rolling her eyes with disgust and lowering her stake. She glared accusingly at the guy, who was scrambling to make himself presentable. "What, you too cheap to spring for a room or somethin'? I mean a graveyard. Come on. You got any idea how tacky that is? I know tacky. This is tacky. " Pointing her finger at one of the Junior Slayers without looking away from the guy, Faith added, "Lynn, I know you're underage."

Lynn blushed a deep crimson and quickly averted her eyes.

The couple, meanwhile, had managed to get to their feet. Disheveled and totally mortified, they were stammering apologies, but Faith cut them off with a wave of her hand.

"Don't go apologizin' to me, I ain't the one you gotta deal with tomorrow morning." She dismissed the pair with a 'shoo' gesture. "Now go on, get outta here. Go make out in your mom's Lexus like good hormone bombs."

They quickly ran off, grateful for the reprieve, and the Slayers watched them for a moment.

"Like people don't die easy enough in this town, they gotta help," Faith shook her head in wonder before continuing her patrol.

The other Slayers fell into step behind her. Heather and Asura, the two who had been closest to the bushes, trailed at the back of the group.

"You know it's a slow night when that's the most exciting thing that's happened," whispered Heather.

Asura grinned broadly. "We're just that bad-ass, girlfriend. When Slayers thrust—" she demonstrated theatrically with her stake, "—vampires dust."

The two shared an enthusiastic high-five. Which was interrupted by Asura being violently yanked backwards. She gasped as she struggled, finding herself trapped in an unbreakable grip. A stronger leg was wrapped around one of her own and both her arms were pinned behind her back. Her head was similarly held immobile. The younger Slayer resisted, whimpering as she realized it was futile. Her whimper soon became a cry of pain and surprise as she felt teeth sink into her neck.

"I'm a vamp," Faith hissed into her ear. "I just ripped your throat out."

Faith pushed the girl away, sending Asura flying into Heather but she didn't fall. She spun around to Faith, shock, anger and respect all warring on her face. Bringing her fingertips up to her neck, Asura pulled them back to check for blood. There wasn't any, but it would be days before the mark disappeared completely.

"Don't get cocky," lectured Faith. "Bein' cocky makes you sloppy. Bein' sloppy makes you dead. Dead Slayer ain't nothin' to nobody."

The loud ringing of her cell phone cut through the night, and Faith pulled it out of her jacket. While she talked, the Junior Slayers gathered together in a tight huddle, all watching Faith closely.

Asura glared openly, still touching her neck. "Bitch is insane!"

"Maybe a little," Lynn admittedly in a quiet voice. "But you know what? I think she's right."

Faith snapped her cell phone closed and turned to the others. "Gotta go," she informed. "You girls go meet up with Vi and Rona's group; they're up in the north part. Tell 'em I need 'em at Penn, Mueller Park. Super fast. Stay together, an' be careful. Remember what I said."

Faith took off without looking back, and the remaining girls ran in the opposite direction.

Lifting it just in time, Giles narrowly avoided a tree-like arm that was aiming for his foot. Another reached out from the side and he kicked it away.

"Faith's on her way!" he called over to Xander.

Xander wasn't faring much better than Giles, possibly even worse considering the bulk of the dryads seemed to fixate on him as their primary target. He had grabbed one of the folding chairs and was using it as both a shield and a weapon.

"Well thank god!" he yelled back. "This is the least fun table dance ever!"

He blocked an approaching grabby hand with the chair, and then swung it around heavily into the head of dryad that was coming a bit too close for comfort. As she fell back, Xander shook his stinging arm, jarred from the solid weight of the creatures. Yet another hand reached out for him while he was distracted, and although it missed him, it did leave a painful scratch on his hand.

"Industrial-strength Jergens, ladies. Look into it," Xander advised. To Giles he asked, "Not that I'm complain', but why are they stayin' down there? Again, I stress the lack of complaining."

"I suspect they're nyfeds, young dryads who've yet to amass the strength necessary to be out of contact with the Earth," Giles explained, still managing to provide the necessary information while ducking and dodging. He swayed on the table's surface for a moment, keenly aware of how rickety and unstable it was. "They also seem rather ... dim, much to our benefit," he added gratefully.

Giles kicked a big bowl of fruit punch directly into the face of one of the dryads. As she stumbled away, he couldn't help but grin, like he'd just scored the winning goal.

Meanwhile, Willow was working on holding the attention of Xylia and the leader, obviously the stronger of the dryads. "This is nuts!" she reasoned desperately. "You can't just go around turning people into either a tree or a dryad! What kind of choice is that?"

"It is the only choice," Xylia patiently explained. "When you are one of us, Willow, you will understand."

"Understand? Understand what? That it's okay to-to torture people? To kill them? Sorry, already learned the lesson, and guess what? It's not okay!"

The leader was unmoved. "But they must be made to suffer," she insisted, "as they have made the trees suffer. The human disease is no part of—"

"But that's just it! Humans are a part! Mother Earth made us, too! A-And yeah, okay, she made us stupid and selfish," Willow admitted, "but she also made us loving and giving. We have ... so much power to do good. We just sometimes lose sight of the big picture. We can't see the forest for the trees." She paused, tipping her head to one side. "Okay, weird analogy, given the circumstances. But you can't just go around thinkin' that no more humans'll mean everything's hunky-dory. We're ... not just some plague blighting the world. We're part of it. And you're giving up on us."

"Your kind gave up on us long ago," the leader replied stonily.

Willow shook her head. "No, we haven't. You said it yourself; there are 'kindred' out there. Maybe they're only 1% of 1% of the people you talk to, but still! That's someone – some human – you've turned to your cause. In a good, natural way, not a ... scary species-changing way. A-And then that person? They talk, an' they listen, an' they convince someone else. It's not the quick and easy solution. It'll take a whole lotta effort and time and patience. Changing someone's nature is hard, yeah, but when it happens, you know it's done forever." She shrugged and smiled. "Besides, isn't waiting patiently for things to grow naturally what trees do best?"

Xylia and the leader regarded at each other, seriously considering the redhead's words. Neither said anything for a long while, and Willow held her breath anxiously. Finally, they looked to her.

"You speak with the deeply rooted passion of the forest, Willow. You would make an excellent Dryad." Willow tensed involuntarily. "But you are right," the leader continued. "It is not ... natural."

The tension flowed out of Willow and she slumped, finally remembering to breathe again. Responding to some unknown cue, the dryads who were still trying to reach Xander and Giles stopped, moving back towards their sisters. The two men looked at each other uneasily for a moment, then Giles took a tentative step off the table. He went to Willow and then glanced over to Xander when he realized the other hadn't moved. Xander stood stock still on the table, hugging the folding chair to his chest tightly and shook his head. He made no move whatsoever to get down from the table.

The dryad leader considered Willow with some regret. "We allowed our rage to blind us to the beautiful latticework Mother Nature has crafted around her children. All of her children. Even those whose actions are less than savory," she added with a meaningful look in Xander's direction. He clutched the chair tighter, and she turned back to Willow. "Thank you for reminding us."

"Well thank you for not ... You know ..." Willow gestured at the gathered dryads and grinned. "Brown's not really my color. I'm more a pastels kinda gal."

Faith burst suddenly into the park, a stake held tightly in her fist. Her eyes darted around, taking in the scene. When she detected a definitive absence of trouble, she frowned and lowered the stake slightly.

"Okay, I'm here," she announced. "Where'd the bad guys go?"

Willow pointed to the dryads. "The bad guys kinda became the good guys," she explained happily.

"Damn, we back to ambiguous evil again?" complained Faith. "Y'know, that's what I always liked about the First. Y'never questioned whose side it was on."

The day was absolutely beautiful. The sun was shining overhead, but the occasional cloud drifted by, ensuring that it never became overpowering, and a cool breeze kept everything well within comfortable temperatures. Xander and Willow walked side-by-side through an open field, toward a line of trees in the near distance. Their pace was casual, neither in much of a rush.

"I did warn you," Xander told his best friend.

"No 'I told you so's, please," she begged. "I feel poopy enough as it is."

"Okay." The pause was brief. "But I did warn you."

Willow's sigh was extremely loud. "Yes, okay, you warned me. You were right, I was wrong. I should, in all matters of the heart and otherwise, defer to the time-honored wisdom of Alexander Harris."

He waved his hand dismissively. "Nah, don't do that. I don't want the blame when I'm wrong. You admitted I was right, and that's enough for me," he remarked with a broad smile. "I can now die a happy man."

"And if you keep this up, you just might," replied Willow in a threatening tone.

"Oo, temper temper." They continued to walk in silence for a moment before Xander glanced over. "Seriously though, Will, you hurt her feelings pretty bad."

"I know," Willow agreed sadly. "A-And I'll make it up to her. Just as soon as she's talking to me again," she added under her breath. Snapping out of it for the moment, she brightened. "But that's for later. Right now is for us."

Xander grinned like a kid on Christmas morning. "And on behalf of us, may I say we're very excited? What's all this about?"

The two of them had reached the trees a few paces back and were now moving through them. They arrived upon a decent-sized clearing, well shaded by the branches of a huge tree off to one side. Nearby, a stream happily flowed, watering the trees and other plants that lined its banks. Then, positively beaming at Xander, Willow pointed out the tiny seedling growing in the center of the area.

He didn't quite get it. "I gotta say, plants? Not as cute as they were a few days ago."

Willow settled on the ground, facing the sapling and leaning her back against the big tree. Xander joined her. They sat quietly for a long moment, simply enjoying each other's company.

"Before they left," Willow eventually began, breaking the silence, "Xylia asked if they could do something special for me. Turns out their power only works one way, so bringin' back the tree people was out." She looked pained for a moment before continuing, "But they were pretty insistent about doin' something, so I thought of this."

Xander said nothing. His gaze was fixed on Willow, patient that all would eventually be made clear.

"I've been thinking about what you said, about there being no connection? A-And I think it's about more than just The Bronze or your apartment. It's—"

She paused, dissatisfied with that train of thought. Taking a deep breath to steel herself, she tried again another way.

"I used to visit all the time, you know? Tara. I mean, not so much once the Bringers started tryin' to kill us all every time we set foot outside. But before, and whenever I could after. When we first got here, we were so busy that it didn't even hit me. Not until later, when I finally had some time to myself and I thought, 'I know, I'll go see Tara'. Then I realized ... I can't."

Her next breath was shaky and her eyes began to tear up. Xander looked at her with an echoing pain, and he gently took her hand. Willow flashed him a grateful smile, but pressed on, well aware how important it was for both of them that she get this out.

"I can't visit her anymore. I can't go to her and talk about my day. I can't tell her how much I miss her. I can't touch her name or bring her roses." The tears were flowing freely now, but Willow didn't bother to brush them away. "She still lives in me, and I feel that, but sometimes ... It's like the rest of the world's somehow managed to forget that it was only bright while she was in it. And without even her grave to remind them ..."

Choking back a sobbing laugh, Willow shook her head. Xander tightened his grip, and felt her return the support.

"God, I cried so hard when I realized, I didn't think I was ever gonna stop. It's been rough, and you guys have helped so much, but what I needed was a place. Somewhere I could go, just to think of her. So when Xylia made her offer to do something ..." Willow inclined her head toward the sapling. Xander looked at it, as though seeing the tiny tree for the first time.

After a brief moment to recompose herself, Willow continued to explain. "It's all connected, y'know? It really is. I helped her imbue it with our thoughts and our love. Not just for Tara, but Anya, Joyce, Ms. Calendar, Jesse, even Spike. And since it's all connected, I think ..." She shook her head, then more forcibly, "No, I know they know. This is our place now. And they'll be here."

Xander was overcome, unable to speak, but his smile said volumes. He gently pulled Willow toward him and kissed her on the forehead, holding his lips there for a long moment. When he finally released her, he slipped an arm around her shoulder, and she leaned against him. The two sat there together, resting against the old, strong tree and watched the new one sway serenely in the breeze.

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