The training room was, amazingly, quite empty save for the small group gathered in the center. Two girls in particular were squabbling, and the tension from the conflict was beginning to mount.
"I get Xander next," declared Amity.
"No, I get Xander next," Marissa argued, jabbing her thumb toward herself.
"No need to fight, ladies, there's plenty of me to go around," Xander interjected smoothly with a charming smile. The charm was mostly lost somewhere within the vast folds of his puffy training suit, but he gave it his best effort. "And not just because of my large and stuffed vinyl state," he added.
Both girls rounded on him, hands on their hips. "Stay out of this," they snapped, and then regarded each other with surprise and disdain when they realized they were acting in unison.
"Okay, that's enough," Faith's voice rang out, echoing off the walls. The surrounding girls who had been watching the building argument intently parted to allow the Senior Slayer to pass. "You wanna explain to me what's goin' on here? Cuz way I see it, you'd
rather take on each other than the monsters."
The two girls visibly reined in their tempers, but were unable to completely contain themselves.
"It was my turn with to beat up on Xander," Amity whined to Faith.
Marissa glared. "No," she glowered, "it was my turn."
"And to think, my father told me that I'd never be useful for anything," Xander mused aloud as the two girls advanced on each other.
Faith stepped between the Junior Slayers, all but daring them to come to blows while she was standing there. "Look, there's an easy answer here. Remember Rule #2."
"'We're all on the same side'?" guessed Amity.
Frowning, Marissa attempted, "'Better dead than undead'?"
"No," Faith answered, poking Amity in the shoulder, "and no," she concluded, mirroring the action with Marissa. Both girls rubbed their wounded flesh as they sulked. "Rule #2 is, 'Faith's in charge'."
"What's Rule #1?" a small girl on the sidelines whispered to her friend as they watched.
Faith turned to the group, having easily heard the question. "Rule #1 is, 'Don't die'. You wanna follow Rule #1, you best remember Rule #2." She pointed out to one girl, lounging casually against one of the weight machines. "Judith, you're up."
Running a hand through her short, black hair, Judith stretched, working out the kinks as she stepped forward. "Not really feeling into it right now, boss. I mean beating up on a dummy just doesn't get me going," she added, gesturing to Xander.
The dummy looked indignant. "Hey now, if you think that you can call me names just because I can't currently move any part of me and you can bend steel..." Xander looked at his puffy arms. "Well, you're probably right," he conceded.
"I mean, no offense," she directed at Faith, hands help up defensively. "You're a primo Slayer, no doubt, an' it's good of you to fill in for Kennedy on her day off, but her training sessions are always so...intense." She looked around the room. "And this is kind of not."
"Oh, that so, huh?" Faith challenged, crossing her arms. She took in the group of Slayers surrounding her. "My bad. You're still fresh meat, but I made the mistake of forgettin' you know everything. So hey, you want intense, let's get intense."
"I didn't mean—" Judith anxiously began.
Faith continued, utterly ignoring the interruption. "You don't wanna fight a helpless dummy, fine. You get to protect one." She gestured to Judith, Marissa and Amity. They started at each other, wide-eyed with dread as they stepped forward. "All you gotta do is stop me from hittin' the X-Man," Faith continued her instructions, moving to stand in front of Xander.
"By hitting, do you mean actual hitting?" Xander asked nervously. "Because my doctor has advised me against getting beaten up by supernaturally powerful women." He tried to shuffle backwards in his suit and nearly fell over.
"You're not goin' anywhere," Faith told him, shooting out a hand without looking and grabbing a fistful of puffiness. "Do I gotta remind you that I know where that thing's not padded?"
Xander gulped audibly. "Impeccable timing, thy name be Kennedy..."
It was an idyllic day at Everson Park. The sky was a bright blue, but just overcast enough to keep the temperature from becoming too hot. The birds were singing from the trees dotted around the picnic area, which was completely empty save the occasional squirrel and two women sitting across from each other on a big blue fuzzy blanket. The obligatory wicker basket sat open next to them in all its stereotypical glory, its partial contents spread on the blanket.
Willow reached into the basket and, pulling out a cellophane-wrapped foodstuff, handed it to Kennedy. "And for you, madame, one tuna sandwich..." She returned to the basket, grabbing more items. "With chips and fizzy drink."
Kennedy accepted the offered food with a raised eyebrow. "Madame?"
Willow flashed an innocent smile. "Well, y'know, it seemed fitting. I'm presenting you with food at your table... Even if that table happens to be, you know, a blanket in the middle of a grassy field."
"I see. And how much do I have to tip for a little after-meal service?"
Grinning wryly but not responding, Willow delved again into the depths of the basket and produced her own lunch. "And for me, a good ol' PB&J."
Swallowing enough of her sandwich to speak somewhat more politely, Kennedy commented, "It's funny how you do that."
"Do what?" Willow asked, pulling open a bag of chips.
Kennedy took a drink from her soda, considering her answer. "You know, announce things like what you'll be eating for lunch, even though we both already know what it is."
There was curiosity mixed with a dash of worry in Willow's face. "Funny like, 'ha-ha, good joke', or funny like 'that's nice, you should share that with your therapist'?"
Kennedy smiled. "Don't worry, I love it." She paused a moment, watching as Willow visibly relaxed. "I love you."
"Well then consider the ominous shroud of worry officially lifted." Willow finished unwrapping her sandwich and ceremoniously took a bite, managing with great reflexes to prevent a stray glob of jelly from falling. Her effort went unnoticed as Kennedy examined the surroundings while crunching distractedly on her chips. The breeze rustled through trees, causing the branches to sway and throw ever-changing patterns of shade across the ground.
"Normally I'd call this way too boring and peaceful, but this is nice," the Slayer observed. "We need to do stuff like this more often."
Willow nodded vehemently. "It is. And we should." She gave an involuntary guilty look. "It—it's just hard with everything that's going on. It took a lot of planning just to get to the point where I could put my foot down and take today off. And I did."
Kennedy gave a nonchalant shrug. "I know I've got a little bias action going on, but I say it was worth it." She reached into her bag of chips with a smile that slowly evaporated. She tipped the bag over, watching as a few tiny crumbs fell onto the blanket, before peering into its empty depths. "Speaking of worth it, this bag sure as hell wasn't. 'Big Grab' my ass," she complained, balling it up and throwing it into the basket with disgust.
Casting a glance at the aforementioned body area, the redhead let out a low, slightly naughty "Heh heh." When she noticed her girlfriend conspicuously eyeing her own bag, she said, "Don't worry, sweetie. I gotcha covered." Willow rummaged around in the picnic basket. "First rule of lunch with a Slayer, always bring extra rations. Particularly those of the salty, crunchy, potato-y variety," she grinned proudly, pulling out another, unopened bag.
With no hesitation and only a little more dignity, Kennedy reached for the chips with grabby fingers. "Oooo, gimme," she demanded, tearing into them as the redhead tossed her the bag.
Willow returned to her sandwich, smiling at the Slayer's enthusiasm. "Go me and my powers of forethought. I bet you're just all with the forgiving now, right? All previous glossing incidents happily forgotten?"
Looking up from her lunch, Kennedy examined the witch's open and hopeful face. She glanced down at the chips and shrugged, hiding a grin. "Maybe. I kinda like havin' you all thoughtful and accommodating. Girl could get used to this."
"Don't push it," laughed Willow, the Slayer easily joining in. "So, next on the agenda of the All-You-All-Me day, I figured that we would—" She faltered as a highly synthesized rendition of "Rule Britannia" emanated from her bag. "That we would go and—" She stopped again, her eyes darting to the unseen phone then back to Kennedy. "That's—"
There was no trace of laughter left in Kennedy's expression. It read like a book – one without a happy ending. "I know. It's Giles."
Willow pulled the phone from her bag and stared at it, watching as the caller ID displayed information she already knew and the indicator light flashed merrily.
"Just don't answer it," the Slayer told her conclusively.
With a final, regretful look, Willow shook her head. "I have to," she apologized, flipping the phone open. "Giles?" she spoke into it, turning away from Kennedy's pained glare.
His voice, unmistakably relieved, greeted her from the other end. "Willow. I'm glad you picked up."
"Is something wrong?" she asked, dreading the answer.
There was a momentary pause, as Giles contemplated his response. "We need to meet today. I need you to cast the Slayer locator spell."
"There's a whole lotta need in there, Giles," she pointed out. "Didja happen to remember at any point before callin' about this being my day off and all?"
"Well, yes, of course," he responded in a tone that betrayed at least some amount of surprise, "I understand that, and I wouldn't have called if I didn't feel it was absolutely necessary. This is a serious matter and the sooner we have an answer, the better off we'll all be."
"Necessary and serious? Well, why didn'tcha say so earlier?" Willow snapped with mock enthusiasm, then sighed as she checked herself. "What's going on?"
The answer was a few seconds in coming. Giles' voice was laced with concern, and not the kind reserved for things like discovering he was double-parked. "Nothing, I sincerely hope. But I need to be sure. We can talk about it when you arrive. Come soon, please."
"Sure," she responded meekly, though the call had already been disconnected.
"Wow, I would so totally hate to be Giles right now," Kennedy breathed with a 'woah' gesture. "The way you so told him what was what and everything."
Willow quietly put the cell phone back in her bag with no small amount of visible shame.
Kennedy focused her angry gaze on the redhead. "Just want to make sure I understand everything before I fly off the handle for no good reason, but on our specially planned day together, you're going off to work?"
"It's not that simple."
"Make it that simple."
Willow looked away, shaking her head. "Giles wouldn't have called unless this was important."
"And our day together isn't?" Kennedy crumpled the empty bag in her fist. "We had plans, an agenda and everything, and now our time together just goes out the window?"
"Well, usually the kind of important things Giles calls about are the things that could stop us from ever having any more time together, sweetie," Willow tried to explain. "You get that, right?"
Recognizing defeat, Kennedy stood. "Fine, do what you have to," she snapped.
"Thanks for the sandwich."
Sitting alone among the remains of the ruined picnic, Willow watched as Kennedy stomped away.
Buffy slowly opened her eyes. The room wasn't brightly lit, but it still sent daggers of pain shooting through her head, so she made sure to take her time. When she finally cracked them open enough to take in her surroundings, she noticed that it was cloaked in some sort of supernatural fuzziness. After a few confused moments, Buffy's vision cleared and she realized it was just her.
As everything finally came into focus, she could see that she was in a medium-sized room of what was likely a cabin-type of dwelling, given how it was made mostly of wood. It was largely unfurnished, the most notable feature being the beds; three in total, including the one she was lying on.
"Oookay, feeling a little Goldilocks here..." she muttered to herself. "Hopefully the made-for-kiddies version. Not really..." she paused for breath "...feeling like I could take bears..."
A man walked into the room and Buffy eyed him curiously, her face finally relaxing as she recognized him as the man she had rescued. He was carrying a pile of clothes in his arms and regarded her with surprise when he noticed she was staring at him. "You're awake?" he asked incredulously.
"Seems like popular opinion, still waiting on the mail-in ballots," she quipped feebly, attempting to prop herself up on her elbows. The Slayer grunted as a jolt of white-hot pain shot from her right shoulder and she crumpled back. "Scratch that, ballots are in. No dreams here."
The man set the clothes down on an empty bed, rushing to her side. "Civvens, girl, don't try to get up! It's a miracle you're even alive and a wonder you're conscious at all yet."
"Story of my life, a wonder and a miracle. How long was I out?"
It took a moment of thought for the answer to come. "Five days." He amended his response when Buffy shot him an alarmed look. "The last person to survive the Ettercap's venom didn't wake for three weeks."
"Now I remember," she murmured. "Ettercap? Is that what that was? Wait until Giles hears about this. He'll be so proud that even on sabbatical I'm upholding the noble tradition of fighting things whose names I can barely pronounce."
The effort of the long-winded statement took its toll, and Buffy brought her good arm to her head, wincing.
"You need more rest," her benefactor coaxed.
Reluctantly, Buffy was forced to agree. "Rest... Good. Rest very good," she drifted off, allowing her eyes to close.
Willow stepped gingerly into her Sanctuary, Giles following as he pulled the door closed behind them. They were completely removed from the usual hustle and bustle of Slayer Central, and the deep breath Willow took was audible in the silence.
"Okay, I'm cool with casting this spell and all, but you know this is tricky. We're not tryin' to find where you parked the car. It would kinda help if I knew just what I'm lookin' for."
While Giles tried to find the best way to explain, Willow began pouring beach sand in a circle in the center of the room. "As you well know," he finally said, "when you tapped into the Scythe you were, very briefly, in direct contact with every girl in the world whose Slayer powers you activated. Although that connection has diminished since, I believe it is far from gone. What I'm hoping is that by having you recast the locator spell you did when we first started gathering the girls together, you will reforge that connection and be able to detect any substantial changes."
Willow placed three candles, one each of white, silver and blue on the edges of the circle, spacing them evenly as the points of a triangle. Glancing at Giles as she began to light them, she asked, "Well since we've already moved a bunch of Slayers here, aren't we pretty much guaranteed to see some substantial changes?"
"Yes," he replied after some thought, "but apart from that. Any shifts not caused by us."
The witch nodded her understanding as she placed the final component of the spell in the center of the circle, a crystal globe the size of a small bowling ball. "Okay, that I should be able to do. Just keep an eye out in case things go, you know, a little crazy. Would hate to focus on the wrong thing and see all the frogs in the world instead or something," she offered a nervous grin, settling down in front of the crystal.
She received a reassuring smile from her mentor. "This should actually be fairly easy for you, given its global scope. I have the utmost faith in you."
Willow nodded again, her expression the opposite of fully convinced, but determined. After a deep breath, she started incanting. "Deino, Enyo, Pemphredo... Graea, I ask, share with me your sight. Imbue this orb, though it were your own, so find my sisters I might."
For a few seconds, nothing happened, but Giles waited with patient expectancy. A gentle glow began swirling through the orb, working from the bottom to the top and subsuming it with pale luminance. Willow placed her hands on the surface of the crystal, her face calm and serene without a trace of her previous anxiety. The light left the orb, moving into her arms and then up her body, to her face. Most seeped under her eyelids, settling there, while the rest spread out through her hair, turning it a soft white as it moved.
Watching with fascination, Giles studied Willow as she opened her eyes, which were now swirling with mystical energy. She stood up very slowly, as though in a trance, but her movements were sure. Standing in the exact center of the circle, she rotated slowly, looking at the walls of her Sanctuary but clearly seeing far, far beyond them.
"Wow," she breathed, continuing her scan. "This part is always so neat."
Giles allowed himself a little smile in spite of the seriousness of the situation.
The witch's eyes narrowed as she processed the information she was seeing. "Apart from us... Everything's mostly the same, except... There's less. There're less Slayers than before. And..." she stopped moving and focused, eyes squinting and head slightly tilted in confusion.
"And?" Giles prompted.
"There's something else... But it's... It's nothing, too... A-And I can't tell where... Where it..."
She began to stumble back and Giles was there, waiting to brace her. As he helped Willow step outside of the circle, her hair returned to its normal color and the glowing in her eyes faded. However the pained and confused expression on her face remained.
"Giles... What's going on?"
Giles, Willow, Xander and Wood were gathered in the Watcher's office. Rather than their usual casual, relaxed atmosphere everyone was tense and uneasy. Xander and Willow had claimed two chairs in front of Giles' desk, while Wood leaned against the wall by the door, his arms crossed. Giles himself stood next to the desk, waiting none too patiently for something.
Faith opened the door and swept in, moving quickly but not hurriedly. "Okay, I'm here. No luck findin' her, though."
Turning to Willow, Xander asked, "Hey, wasn't this your day to—"
"Not now," she pleaded quietly.
Faith assumed a position in the corner of the room opposite Wood, also crossing her arms. Their matched positions might have been amusing, had the tone of the room not been so grave.
"Thank you all for coming on such short notice," Giles stated.
Xander shrugged with a grin. "Think nothing of it. Personally, I live for the opportunity to help save the world from somethin' other than dust bunnies and sock holes."
Wood glanced around at the room's occupants. "Is this it? If this is so important, shouldn't we have more people present?"
"What I have to tell you all is undeniably important, however it's also extremely volatile. It should be kept strictly to those in this room – and Kennedy, when we can locate her."
Faith gave Giles an amused look. "So, we're gonna tell the Brat, but not her Watcher?"
Nodding in acknowledgment of the oddness of the situation, Giles explained, "I admit this is something of an unusual circumstance. Until we know more details and can better assess our own security, I don't want any other Watchers or Slayers to be aware of this."
Xander shifted uncomfortably in his chair. "Okay, we're down with the need for secrecy. So, what's all the hubbub, bub?"
A momentary look of confusion crossed the Watcher's face, but he pressed on. "When Willow first cast the spell to locate Slayers, we were able to pinpoint their general distribution and location around the world." He turned around and to pick up a stack of papers from his desk. The papers were the same Giles had been examining earlier, with dozens of names and addresses.
"Utilizing other resources," he continued, "we compiled the list of known and suspected Slayers. This information is what we've used to send out representatives to contact these girls."
"Wait for it, folks, I'm sure there's a surprise twist just waitin' to happen," Xander quipped.
Giles was mildly irritated at the interruption to his explanation. "Slayers are disappearing," he finished curtly.
"Disappearing?" Wood asked, genuinely surprised. "As in, we can't find them?"
"As in 'We can't find them,' yes. We've had multiple occurrences now of Council representatives who have gone to contact a girl, only to find that she is nowhere to be found, with neither parents nor authorities able to pinpoint her whereabouts."
"Maybe they took off," suggested Faith. "Gotta say, thought about it myself an' I knew what was goin' on when I went all Wonder Woman."
Xander began to turn around in his seat towards the Slayer. "Stare at me like you're imagining it, and you'll need Red to buy you a matching eye patch," Faith warned him flatly, causing him to quickly reverse the motion and stare straight ahead.
"I thought that runaways might be a possibility," Giles continued, remaining on track. "So, at my request, Willow recast the locator spell that we used previously, and it confirmed that there are now fewer Slayers."
"It-it wasn't a whole lot less, maybe one percent or so... Could it be, you know, natural causes, maybe?" Willow suggested hopefully.
Faith shook her head. "No such thing for us," she disagreed. "I go through two packs a day, live on junk food, and can still walk away from a hit-and-run."
Xander gestured with a wave of his hand. "Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Faith: your poster child for the extreme generation."
Wood looked to Giles. "So foul play, then. Could it be the First and its Bringers trying to wipe out the new blood again?"
"Is that even likely?" questioned Xander, glancing from Wood to Giles. "I mean, we pretty much buried all the Ray Charles wannabes under thirty thousand tons of Sunnydale."
Willow nodded her agreement. "A-And the First – much more with the terrifying manipulation, less with the corporeal. There's not much he can do about making girls all disappeary with out some serious help."
"We can't rule out any culprit yet," declared Giles, "but the details do seem to point away from the First. Leaving behind bodies was never a concern before, so the need now to remove them entirely is puzzling." Giles placed the papers back on his desk and pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket to polish his glasses. "But more strange are the reports that we have spoken to girls when, in fact, we have not done so."
"Great listeners, those Bringers, but a liiittle weak on the speechmaking," Xander agreed. "Definitely sounds to me like we're lookin' at a new and improved brand of global evil."
Giles replaced his glasses. "With our fortified location, it's less likely that anyone here is in direct danger, but I'd like you all to be extra attentive until we know more. Hopefully the need for secrecy is evident now." He paused, looking at the door to his office as though he could see beyond. "The last thing we need is the possibility of a panic in our headquarters."
"Not that she can't handle herself, but we got some way of tellin' B about this?" Faith interjected.
Willow spoke up. "I'm planning to contact her tonight psychically. I-It'll take a little bit of preparation because she's all, y'know, halfway around the world an' stuff. But she should be asleep in a few hours, an' that'll make her easier to reach."
"Question I got left is, what are we going to do about this?" Wood asked.
An almost-shrug was Giles' response. "Unfortunately, our options are as limited as our information. Research, investigation, and most especially caution are key at the moment."
Xander smiled. "We can pound the books and hit the streets. Just like old times."
"I call streets," Faith chimed in.
"Whatever method we employ," Giles said solemnly, "I only hope we find out the nature of this threat in time."