The girl ran through the underbrush, pushing aside the branches and limbs that whipped at her. She jumped a series of roots and landed gracefully on her feet, still moving, only occasionally looking behind.

There was a rustling sound in front of her and to the right. She stopped, peering and squinting into the dark. Hearing the crackling of leaves now behind her, she whirled, her breath coming in anxious gasps. Just as she tried to focus on what might be following, she heard more noises, this time coming from her left. She turned in a circle, her eyes darting around frantically.

"Come on out, whoever you are! I'm not afraid of you!" she yelled, managing to sound forceful until her voice wavered halfway through, completely ruining the effect.

As though to make up for the lack of conviction in her words with might, she reached over to a thick, low-hanging limb attached to a nearby tree and broke it off. Stepping on the branch, she snapped it in two and kicked away the thinner new-growth. Experimentally, she hefted the makeshift club, its comforting weight infusing her with new confidence.

"Come on," she whispered.

The woods fell silent, her rapid breathing the only sound in the air. As she regained more of her composure, this too became slower and quieter. In the stillness of the forest, she suddenly realized it wasn't quiet at all – a heavy breathing echoed all around, and it wasn't coming from her.

A guttural snarl from behind caused her to spin and come face-to-face with her pursuer. The scream carried half a mile or more into the distance, and then everything in the woods was quiet once again.

Giles paced slowly to and fro in his office, listening intently to the cell phone in his hand. He double-checked the door, making sure it was locked before moving toward his desk. "Was there any evidence of a struggle, or-or some sort of other explanation found?"

While he received the answer, Giles took a drink from the cup of tea on his desk, sneering involuntarily when he realized it was stone cold. "And her parents have no idea what could have happened, either?" he asked with a frown, placing the cup back on the saucer.

The Watcher's look of worry deepened as he continued to listen into the phone, clearly not receiving the answer he was hoping for. He resumed his restless pacing.

For a brief moment, an expression of levity flashed across Giles' features before disappearing again into a morass of concern. "Well, certainly I can understand their hesitation. You're neither a member of the police force nor any sort of detective. I probably wouldn't tell you a bloody thing either." He sighed. "Still, if they had any information to divulge, it would certainly have been helpful. What we have right now is painfully scant."

Subconsciously, he set his glasses down with his free hand rubbed the bridge of his nose. "No, that won't be necessary. I don't think you're likely to find anything further, but if you would, make a cursory examination of the area around the home – without being too obtrusive, mind you – and then come back. We can monitor any further developments that get publicized from our location."

Turning back toward his desk, Giles replaced the glasses. "Yes, that sounds good. We can discuss it further upon your return. Have a safe trip."

He disconnected the call and set the phone down on his desk next to a small stack of papers. Picking up the pages, he examined them carefully. Each contained at least two dozen names and addresses, many of which were either marked with notations or highlighted in one of two colors.

Slowly, with a furrowed brow and obvious reluctance, he crossed through the name "Natalie Listrom" with an orange hi-lighter.

"Hide & Seek"

Story by: Jet Wolf and Ultrace
Written by: Ultrace
Edited by: Novareinna

Original Airdate: Tuesday, 20 April 2004, 8pm EST

Act One

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."

Act Two

Willow swiftly exited Giles' office, nearly barreling over a pair of young Slayers she didn't recognize in her rush to escape. She muttered an apology and moved quickly down the hall wincing as Xander called out "Hey Will! Wait up!" She grudgingly slowed.

The carpenter jogged up until he was alongside his friend, then matched her pace. Willow looked surprised when she saw Faith had, completely unnoticed, joined them, walking on Willow's other side. She didn't look pleased to be the filling in this Willow sandwich.

"Okay, so we've all had our dose of business," Xander nudged eagerly. "Now spill with the personal. Weren't you an' Kennedy makin' a day of it?"

Willow let out a resigned sigh, giving up any pretense of keeping her private life private. "We were, but... Then Giles called about the spell an' I had to go an'..." She wrinkled up her face. "Things got bad."

"Brat had a hissy, huh?" Faith surmised.

Her expression changing to one of indignant agreement, Willow nodded emphatically. "Exactly! I mean, yeah, this was supposed to- to be a good day for us, a-and it was, but then she had to go and get all upset about the spell! Stuff like this happens, y'know? I-It's not like I can just say 'Gosh, no Giles, you'll just have to face that big apocalyptic evil without me, I've got this PB&J thing goin' on today'." Willow kicked at an invisible rock on the ground in frustration. "I tried to explain it to her, but she just wouldn't listen."

Xander frowned, puzzling over Willow's version of events. "That seems a bit extreme. I mean, Kennedy's been there, she knows what's at stake." He considered Willow before speaking again, taking care to ensure his words were as calm and non-judgmental as possible. "Maybe she's feelin' a little insecure?"

Willow gaped at Xander like he'd just suggested they introduce the sport of 'puppy kicking' into the next Olympics. "Insecure? Kennedy? Xander, Kennedy makes Dennis Rodman look like a shy choir boy."

"When it comes to most stuff, yeah, but... I mean, with certain things..."

Faith rolled her eyes and jumped into the conversation impatiently. "What Xan's failin' to say is, when it comes to you, Brat don't think so straight."

The witch shook her head, still not understanding. Xander rested a hand on Willow's shoulder, pushing her into an empty room and away from the very public halls of Slayer Central. Faith followed, hopping up on a nearby table and watching the events unfold while doing her best to seem completely disinterested.

"Look, Will, maybe Kennedy's actin' insecure because she feels she has a reason to be insecure."

Willow was instantly on the defensive. "Oh, so you're saying this is my fault? So, what, I'm supposed to just turn my back on Slayers disappearing all over the world so we can have a shiny happy lunch?" she demanded, crossing her arms and glaring intently at her friend.

Fighting the urge to back away from the confrontation, Xander continued in a soothing voice. "No, of course not. You're right, this is more important than a picnic. But maybe if she didn't feel like she was constantly gettin' the brush-off for every little thing, when the really big important stuff came knockin' on your door, she wouldn't get so upset about it."

"It's simple," Faith summed up, not flinching in the least under Willow's furious glare. "Either she's a priority or she ain't. If she ain't, then fine, you gotta deal with her temper tantrums. An' if she is, then she needs to know."

"She does know!" Willow burst out, throwing her hands up in frustration. "She knows what she means to me!" Calming, the redhead's expression softened and she glanced worriedly from Faith to Xander. "...doesn't she?"

"Does she?" Xander countered, not unkindly. "Have you told her? Have you shown her?"

Willow's face fell and she stared at her feet. "I...guess I haven't." She gave a quiet, humorless chuckle. "Doesn't really matter what I think I've done, it's what she thinks I've done, huh?"

Smiling, Xander ducked his head to catch Willow's eyes. "So you find her and make her think so too."

"I was gonna suggest a good swift kick in the ass," Faith announced, hopping down from the table top and stretching out her arms, "but I guess that way works too. An' probably less likely to turn ugly."

With a firm, decisive nod, Willow's face became determined. "You guys are right. I've been Absorbo Gal. I'm gonna go find her. Just cuz the day started out all bumpy doesn't mean it has to end that way."

"That's our brave little Wicca," replied Xander encouragingly.

"If either of you guys see her, give me a call?"

Faith shrugged, "Sure."

"Roger. Me see Kennedy, me call Willow."

Willow beamed. "Thanks, guys." She took off at a near-run.

Hanging back in the room, Faith and Xander lingered for a moment.

"Ahh," sighed Xander dramatically, "to be young and in love."

Somewhere between a sneer and a smirk, Faith added, "Yeah, who needs that crap?"

Evening found Buffy sitting at the dinner table. She looked considerably improved from earlier, but also a heck of a lot hungrier as she worked to demolish a bowl of some sort of soup with a hefty helping of bread on the side. Sitting opposite her at the small table was the man she had rescued.

"Well, it's good to see that your appetite doesn't need recuperating," he chuckled, amused at her enthusiasm for dinner. His voice was rich and deep, and rolled pleasantly with a strong Scottish lilt.

Buffy scooped another heaping spoonful of stew and shoveled it into her mouth. "Mm. This is all with the yummy," she managed through one side. "Thanks, Knight."

Knight smiled broadly, half of it disappearing in the depth of his full ginger beard. "I'm glad you like it. Please, feel free to eat as much as you want. It's been so long since I cooked for anyone else, I think my sense of proportion has deteriorated." He looked back at the large pot sitting on his stove. "I might've made enough for two hundred, not just two."

"Since you asked so nice..." Buffy reached for more bread, piling it high on top of the three slices she had already appropriated.

The Slayer noticed that Knight was watching her intently, but paid no attention. He was much larger than her and she was coming close to eating twice as much without showing signs of slowing down. That would be enough to give most people pause.

"So, where are you from?" Knight asked after several moments of silence. He caught the questioning look and clarified. "It's obvious you're not local. From the accent, I'm guessing America?"

Buffy nodded, swallowing the rest of the food in her mouth. "Yup, Sunny California," she said, then paused uncertainly, adding, "And places beyond."

"Interesting. I've never been to America myself," he admitted, with almost a sigh. "One of the things I always intended to do, but..." He spread his arms wide, gesturing to the quaint dwelling, charming in its own way. "It's a quiet life – well, occasional encounters with legendary beasties aside – but I've grown to appreciate it."

Examining Knight's home a little more closely, it did indeed appear fairly rustic. Most things that weren't made of wood were of stone, although it was decorated with elaborate tapestries and other adornments to give it a splash of color. "Yup, it seems perfect. Nice and quiet, plenty of time to reflect, and..." she paused momentarily, searching for something else to say. "...dry flowers and make your own soap and..." Trailing off completely, Buffy gave up. "So no cable, huh?" she asked point blank.

Knight laughed heartily and then gestured towards the door. "No, but there's a pub in town with a telly. Have to watch the Glasgow Rangers, you know." He looked back to Buffy. "When I'm not tanning leather for new clothes and churning my own butter."

Buffy stared at Knight and then slowly turned to the butter on the table with an air of surprise.

"I'm joking," he told her. "It's from the store. Really."

She let out a nervous chuckle. "Oh! Heh, yeah. Not that I really thought..." Buffy sighed and returned to her stew. "Sheltered much?" she grumbled at herself.

"No need to be embarrassed. I have just as many confused stereotypes about your home," Knight assured her. "Unless you do own five Cadillacs and light your cigarettes with hundred dollar bills."

The thought appeared to throw Buffy off her chewing, and she stifled her choke into a polite little cough. "I worked in fast food for about eight months. So very much not with the money burning. Or the smoking. And I'm not allowed near cars."

"So, see?" Knight asked with a friendly shrug. "This is a mutually enriching experience." He watched as she visibly relaxed, regarding her intently for a moment before wiping his face clean of anything but mild interest. "Are you traveling alone?"

The answer was simple enough that Buffy just nodded, although there was the tiniest hesitation involved. Knight pretended not to notice. "That seems rather unsafe. Although I suppose you proved that you can handle yourself. Still," he pondered, "I thought it was a genetic impossibility for young girls to move in anything but a small pack."

"Boy, we're just shatterin' all sorts of stereotypes today, aren't we?" Buffy responded brightly, hoping to shift the conversation away from her solitude.

Knight tipped his head to one side, furrowing his brow slightly as Buffy continued to eat, but allowed her to direct the flow of conversation. He picked up his bowl and went for a refill, ladling a large helping. "What brings you here?" he questioned casually, watching for her reaction out of the corner of his eye. "It must be quite the change from 'Sunny California.' The Sun part, for example."

Buffy shrugged, seeming to not have given it much thought. "Change of scenery. I finally got some time off from...work. And I figured, 'Hey! Why not do something I've never done before?' And here I am."

Turning to wipe some spilled broth from the edge of his bowl with a tea towel, Knight chuckled. "Yes, I suppose skulking around in shadows and fighting supernatural creatures would be a new experience."

Buffy's stifled a cough as she nearly choked on both her food and the irony of the man's comment. As his back was toward her he missed her expression, and by the time he turned back again she had completely recovered. "How about you?" she asked as he returned to the table. "Where did you learn to make such a killer stew?"

"Oh, you live on your own long enough, you start to get creative when cooking," Knight replied, blowing on his spoonful to cool it. "There's only so many times you can convince yourself that hot dogs fall into any of the food groups before you begin to crave genuine nutrition."

"I know some people back home still waiting for that epiphany," Buffy commented with an eye roll. "No Mrs. Knight, then? Or Mr. Knight's Life Partner, which is totally okay—"

Eyes twinkling with laughter, Knight shook his head. "No. Just me, a 'killer stew' and Herne." At Buffy's expected confusion, he pointed his spoon at the stuffed and mounted deer head that was hanging over the fireplace.

Buffy's nose crinkled in an 'eww' expression she wasn't entirely able to hide. "Funny how less charming and atmospheric that sort of thing becomes when you name it."

"I never said I wasn't eccentric," he grinned.

A silence fell between them at that, not entirely comfortable. Knight continued to study Buffy, as though trying to unravel a deep and thoroughly engrossing mystery. For her part, Buffy focused on her stew and tried to look as uninteresting as possible.

"I suppose all of this is boring to someone like yourself," Knight finally said, indicating his home.

"You'd think," Buffy agreed soundly, her eyes widening as she realized how that came across. "Not that it is!" she hurridly backpedaled. "But... I dunno. I think my life could do with some boredom for a while. I feel like this is the first real chance I've had to breathe for about three years."

"Then why do you seem so unhappy?" he asked pointedly, cutting straight to the chase but still smiling kindly.

Buffy started at the directness, instantly shaking her head to refute his words. "What? No, I'm..." Brightening as she thought of it, the Slayer gestured to her shoulder with an exaggerated wave. "Well, hey, giant spider thing turned me into a pincushion. Gotta admit, not exactly my favorite vacation memory."

"No, that's quite understandable," responded Knight with a sage nod. He squinted his eyes a little in mock confusion. "Still, though, if you don't mind my saying so, you seem to be no stranger to pain." Buffy considered this and shrugged slightly, not disagreeing. "And it's odd how you appeared more...content, more alive when you were fighting the Ettercap than you are now, simply sitting and enjoying a peaceful meal with quiet conversation." He stopped and smirked. "Unless of course it's the fact that I'm such a bore. It's hard to judge – Herne never complains."

There was a vigorous head shaking from the blonde. "No, definitely no! You've been great, really, and I don't mean to seem ungrateful. God, you probably saved my life."

"Well, fair's fair."

"It's just... It's weird," Buffy conceded. She paused, staring intently at her half-empty bowl. When she continued, she seemed distant, no longer talking to anybody in particular. "This is... It should be everything I've wanted. I thought it was. Just time to myself, nobody to answer to, nobody to worry about but me. Then I get it, and..." Taking a deep breath, she looked up at Knight. "I don't know. I keep looking. I'm still looking. But if this is..." Her voice dropped lower, but not low enough to mask the frustration. "What do I want?"

Knight stood, gathering the dishes from the table, the meal now forgotten. "That's a question only you can answer, lass," he advised gently. "All I can tell you is to listen to your heart. I've often found that it's much, much smarter than we are."

"Wow," said an impressed Buffy. "Beef stew for the soul."

Music pounded out of the rec room at Slayer Central, a high-energy techno beat that resounded from all walls. A female voice, energetic and upbeat, accompanied the music.

"Sweet little bumble bee, I know what you want from me..."

Accompanying the song was a stomping sound, mostly occurring in sync with the rhythm. It was caused by the unlikely sight of Andrew and Kennedy jumping around on a large platform set in front of a huge arcade game screen. The screen was surrounded by brightly flashing lights, and a series of arrows flew upwards across it in seemingly random patterns.

Andrew was gripping the side rails surrounding the platform with white knuckles, using them for support as his feet pounded arrows on the mat beneath him. His face was a mask of concentration and beads of sweat were trickling down his face. By contrast, Kennedy's arms were crossed behind her back. The Slayer sported a much more casual expression, not even breathing heavily, and she occasionally took her eyes away from the screen entirely to regard Andrew.

"Dup-i-dup-i-do la da, dup-i-dup-i-do la da..."

Despite the frenzied and unending sequence of motion, Kennedy spoke smoothly. "You sure you wanna keep going?" she questioned. "This is only gonna get more embarrassing."

Gasping, Andrew did his best to scoff at her. "Don't... Make me... Laugh!" he managed to get out through sheer force of will. "My natural affinity... For all things gaming... Is more than a match... For your dancing skills!"

"I wanna be with you until the end..."

The Slayer shrugged without missing a beat. "You sound like a low-budget cartoon bad guy. But I'll take that as a yes."

"Yes, indeed... My... Opponent!"

"I give my heart and soul to you to make you see it's true..."

Unnoticed by either player, Nathaniel entered the room. His expression indicated obvious surprise at seeing them, but he made sure to stand back and watch the proceedings without interruption.

Back in the game, a male voice, obviously synthesized, warned Andrew of impending doom. "Danger! Danger!" it blared as the screen flashed red. As if to punctuate the severity of the situation, an occasional skull appeared on the screen.

"Can't say I didn't warn you," Kennedy smirked, her feet still flying.

"Just letting you... Drop your guard..." came the winded reply.

They continued for a few more moments then the song drew to its conclusion. The screen happily declared that while Andrew had not been eliminated, his rating was a mere "E." Kennedy, meanwhile scored an "S."

"Good thing you got my guard down," Kennedy agreed. "I might have done even better."

Andrew waved his fist dramatically and yet pathetically, all the while panting for breath. "Most impressive. You may have won this time, but the day will yet be mine!"

Nathaniel chose this as the appropriate moment to make his presence known. "Nicely done, Kennedy," he congratulated. The Slayer whirled, watching him with surprise as he considered the large arcade game. "Not the most conventional training device, but anything that helps improve coordination can't be bad," he decided.

"What are you doing here, Nate?"

"I work here, you know," replied the Watcher with a wry grin. "Perhaps I should ask, why are you here? I thought this was to be your day with Willow?"

Kennedy scowled as she answered, "Yeah, I thought that too." She caught his inquiring glance and waved her hand. "Long story, don't wanna go into it."

"As it so happens, I was looking for Vi..." Nathaniel continued, deciding to let the matter drop. "Some of our more junior members seem a little... Cooped up, you could say, and I was going to ask her to take them out and do a little field work."

Immediately, Kennedy's expression brightened. "I'll take care of it. I mean, I got nothing else going except this game, and I don't know how much more of Andrew's lame villain acting I can take."

Nathaniel looked pleased. "Well, if it's not an imposition, then splendid. I'll send them over here directly."

He left without further discussion, and Andrew, having regained both his breath and his composure, pointed a determined finger at Kennedy. "Oh, I see how it is! Running away before I can demand a rematch!"

"I promise I'll come back and humiliate you some more real soon," she replied, rolling her eyes as she walked away.

Faith moved around her room slowly, although the casual observer would be unable to tell if it was due to methodic precision or lack of familiarity with her surroundings. The room was mostly empty, containing only a bed, a few adornments on the wall, a single dresser, and a small stereo system that she was currently in the process of connecting to a speaker in the corner.

Wood walked past the open door, then reappeared a moment later in the doorway. He watched Faith's turned back as she worked to connect the speakers, small smile of approval emerging from his face as she bent over to complete the procedure.

"I know you ain't plannin' on sneakin' up on me," she said, not bothering to move.

Wood chuckled. "I think I know a little better." Taking her comment as an invitation, he moved further into the room, looking around. "I gotta say, it's about time you actually moved in."

"Well, been busy, goin' here, there an' everywhere pickin' up Slayers. Now we're pretty much done with the U.S..." she shrugged, fiddling with the arrangement of the equipment. "Not going anywhere, so I figured what the hell, make it a little less, y'know... Spartan." Satisfied with how things were situated, she stepped back to admire her work.

"You're not missing much from Canada, believe me," assured Wood. "Maybe the Council failed to specify the scenic routes, but all I got was a whole lot of cold."

"Ah, you're just tryin' to make me feel better," she replied with a slight grin. "Anyway, I was thinkin' more like Berlin, or maybe Tokyo. I hear they got the happenin' scene down there."

Wood gave a hesitant look, but mostly for effect. "Frankly, I doubt the Shibuya district is ready for you."

"No place with 'booyah' in the name is ready for me," Faith retorted.

Wood inspected the room. "Spartan" was a good word for it, but he found the few posters on the wall intriguing. One was of a very large, decked-out Harley, but the other... "I didn't know you were a fan of mountains," he commented.

Glancing over her shoulder, Faith saw Wood examining the poster tacked up on the far wall. "That?" Faith confirmed nonchalantly. "No big. I just like 'em. Way I see it, mountain's about the toughest thing around. Ain't nothin' touchin' a mountain. Yeah, you can climb up top, but after you plant your little flag and take a few snapshots for the wife and kiddies, you gotta leave again. The mountain though, it don't much care one way or the other, cuz it knows it's got'cha beat. It can take anythin' you throw at it an' it's still gonna be there long after you're gone."

As though embarrassed by her speech, Faith turned back to her stereo, making a show of dusting it off and fine-tuning its arrangement. Wood smiled slightly, as though receiving confirmation of something. "Why Faith," he said with a note of mock astonishment in his voice, "you have an introspective side."

She waved her hand at him, having none of it. "Yeah, well, I also like how it looks like a big powdered donut if you squint real hard."

Wood chuckled despite himself. "You should see them up close sometime, it's something," he remarked. "But you'll probably want something fancy and exotic, like the Andes in South America, or maybe the Black Forest."

"Maybe I'll check 'em out. I'll see once Red manages to clear my record." She started to pull the entire bed across the floor without any effort whatsoever, an unintentional but obvious show of strength.

"But until then, you're not going anywhere," Wood observed, moving closer to Faith, "which is good because that means we can finally go on that date you promised me."

Faith unceremoniously let the bed drop, straightening quickly and whirling around. "Woah, hold up there, Sparky. I never agreed to no 'date'." She spat the word like it left a bad taste in her mouth.

Wood brought a hand to his chin, narrowing his eyes and looking off as he searched his memory. "I seem to recall you agreeing to let me surprise you if we made it out of Sunnydale. I then recall us making it out of Sunnydale..." He raised his eyebrows at Faith. "Correct me if my memory is failing me here."

"Okay, so?" The Slayer crossed her arms and shot him a look as though daring him continue his thought process.

"This is part of that surprise," Wood patiently explained. "And may I say, you sound surprised already."

Faith was practically incredulous. "Yeah, but a date?"

"Okay, hey, it's cool," replied Wood, holding up his hands. "You're scared, I can understand that. Just forget about it." He turned to leave, getting no more than half a step before the iron grip of the Slayer fastened on his arm.

"Naw, man, no way," she told him flatly. "And let you walk out thinkin' a date with you throws me? Screw that." She tossed his arm back, jutting her chin at him defiantly. "You got'cher date. Anytime, anyplace."

"Fine, then," Wood agreed calmly. "I don't have any plans for tonight."


"I'll be by around 7," Wood confirmed.

Faith fixed him with a powerful stare. "You do that. And don't bring no candy or flowers or crap like that."

"Got it," Wood nodded, heading out the room with a smile. "No candy, no flowers, no crap."

Faith waited until a full minute after he left before turning back to her room. "A date?"

Elsewhere, in a darkened room, a group of robed figures sat, concentrating. A green mist rolled across the floor, only slightly shrouding a pentagram inside a circle surrounded by glyphs and symbols. The totality of the design glowed a deep blue.

Sepulchral voices flowed through the air, chanting one after the other in a focused rhythm.





Suddenly the voices merged into a single entity that seemed to carry beyond the walls around them.

"Mogari... We call you."

The symbols flared with light that leapt from the floor and into the air, squirming and pulsating as though they were alive.

"Mogari... We command you."

The light slowed its movement, forming into a single motionless shape as it ceased glowing. It now appeared as some sort of glistening, hairless hound, fangs bared and slavering. The thing had no eyes, simply smooth gray skin where eyes might have been, but it did have a very pronounced, twitching canine nose at the end of its snarling muzzle.

"Mogari... Seek."

With a single blinding flash, the hound was gone.

It materialized in the center of a generically typical suburban neighborhood, startling the nearby birds and causing them to take flight, screeching their alarm. The hound paused only momentarily to sniff the air before moving off in search of prey.

Act Three

Willow strode purposefully into the rec room of Slayer Central, her eyes searching. She soon realized that her target was nowhere to be seen and her face fell, but just for a moment before she determinedly set her jaw and entered the room, moving towards the occupants inside.

Looking up from his place on the couch, Andrew paused the game he was playing and smiled. "Hey Willow, what brings you to this neck of the..." He took note of the controller in his hand, the television, and all the electronic entertainment equipment in the room. "...woods?" he finished weakly.

The witch nodded curtly, not in a particularly chatty mood at the moment. "Andrew, hi, I was looking for Kennedy. Have you seen her?"

"Yes, actually," the blond answered, happy to be helpful. "She was just here a little while ago, but she went out with some of the other girls for training or something."

"Oh," breathed Willow, her disappointment clearly evident. "Did- Did she mention where she was goin'? I-I was kinda thinkin' we could, you know, pick up where we left off." She grinned hopefully, but it did little to eliminate the kicked puppy look.

Andrew shook his head. "No, sorry, she didn't say where. She left pretty quick. I think she was fearing my mad dance skillz," he added proudly. Rising to his feet, he quickly executed a series of maneuvers to demonstrate said skillz.

"You look like a wounded chicken," Willow commented off-handedly, her mind focused on more important matters.

He wasn't offended, choosing instead to simply smile knowingly. "You call it a wounded chicken, I call it... Victory."

Several of the Slayers nearby had been unabashedly eavesdropping on the conversation, and one of them stepped forward to address the redhead. She seemed tentative, as though afraid of speaking to Willow directly, but her curiosity overrode any niggling fear.

"If you're looking for Kennedy," the girl said, nearly taking a step backward when Willow's attention fell on her, "couldn't you just...call out with your mind or teleport to her or something?" When Willow didn't answer immediately, looking rather pained instead, the Slayer gained a smidgen of confidence. "I mean, I heard you were like this bad-ass witch," she pressed.

"Emphasis on the bad," muttered Willow under her breath. To the girl, she stated firmly, "Because that's not what magick is for."

The Slayer raised her eyebrows as though surprised, at both the words and the force behind them. "Well what good is it then?" she asked honestly, crossing her arms.

"At the moment, I'm wonderin' that myself," the witch replied, turning back to Andrew with considerably less steam than earlier. "I-I'm gonna keep lookin'. Thanks anyway."

As Willow left of the room, Andrew called, "If I see her, you want me to tell her you're looking for her?"

Willow didn't look behind, she simply sighed heavily and shook her head.

The office door opening only barely registered with Giles, he was completely absorbed in the books and papers strewn on the desk in front of him. The room was a mess, part of it being taken up by a partially finished bookcase and pile of carpentry tools, the rest appearing as though a hurricane hit it. Open books were stacked on every surface in a haphazard manner. The overall air of chaos did little to inspire confidence that Giles was making much progress in his research. The Watcher's demeanor betrayed nothing but intense concentration as he glanced from the book next to him to his notes, scribbling madly.

Willow took all this in as she entered. It seemed for a moment that she was going to quietly make her exit, but instead, then changed her mind and stepped forward, softly pushing the door closed behind her.

"Hey Giles," she greeted with a cheeriness she obviously didn't feel.

He grunted noncommittally and continued writing, then the words sunk in and he jerked his head up to stare at the woman. "Willow!" he exclaimed as though he hadn't just seen her earlier that day. "Excellent! Marvelous timing!" Giles stood up and moved to Willow, placing a hand behind her shoulder and escorted her further into the room toward the chairs in front of his desk.

"Yeah, that's great, I'm glad to see you too, but I'm really just here for—"

Giles continued as though Willow hadn't spoken, returning to his seat and focusing on the pages. "Now I've been cross-checking the information we gathered for the main Slayer list with the one of missing girls. I've yet to determine a specific pattern, but I suspect there is one. Also," he stood again, quickly making his way across the room and grabbing one of the many books lying there, seemingly at random. He was so focused that he missed Willow opening her mouth to speak and carried on without pause, "I've been thinking about what you said during the spell. About there being 'something' but 'nothing'."

"You know me, why say something with three simple words when three ... really cryptic ones work just as well?" She frowned at her own strange logic and soldiered on. "B-But I'm not here about that, do you know where—"

"I believe this is vital," Giles persisted as though Willow hadn't spoken. "I'm far from convinced that the appearance of this 'nothing' is coincidental. I-I've been researching, trying to pinpoint ways to-to ... 'break through' whatever is blocking you and—"

"Giles!" the redhead yelled, her tone finally succeeding in bringing the Watcher to a halt.

He blinked at her, as if truly noticing her for the first time. "Yes?" he questioned innocently, the book dangling open in his hands.

"Do you know where Kennedy took a group of Slayers for training?"

"What?" he queried at first, expression blank as his brain caught up with the abrupt topic change. "Oh, no. No, idea, sorry. There's nothing scheduled for this afternoon, so if it's impromptu, they could be anywhere."

Willow nodded grimly to herself. "Of course. It's just been that kind of 'could be anywhere' day."

Turning back to the book, Giles returned to the previous conversation. "Now I was thinking, if we added powdered tacrillum root for focus and clarity..."

Willow brought a hand to her forehead, rubbing gently. "Sure Giles, whatever you want. But can we talk about this tomorrow? I've... I gotta go find Kennedy."

"Tomorrow? But—"

"And besides," she interjected, "I'm kinda mojo'd out. You know, big world-seeing 'find my sisters' thing earlier, an-and I have to try and reach Buffy tonight ..."

Giles expression softened and he closed the book, placing it on the nearest pile. "Yes, of course, you're right." He rested a hand on Willow's upper arm, giving it a small squeeze and she smiled gratefully. Reaching for the papers on his desk, he shuffled through them and began to twist so he and Willow could review them together. "Instead, we can go over these disappearances. As I said earlier, I'm fairly sure there's some sort of pattern, or at least a logic we can determine. Can you put this information into that damnable contraption of yours and—"

"Giles!" Willow repeated in the same tone as earlier and with much the same effect. "Tomorrow?" she reminded.

"For the spell, of course," the Watcher agreed, and then gestured with the pages in his hand. "But this shouldn't be a problem. We just need your brain and that computer, both of which I believe you're rather fond of taxing, yes?" he grinned.

The redhead narrowed her gaze and Giles regarded her with confusion, clearly not understanding. "Normally, yeah, fun pastimes. But not today. Remember? Day off?"

His confusion lingered for another moment, then the memory returned, waving a big red flag. "Oh! Uh, yes, day off. Right." Giles frowned. "Well then why are you here?"

"Startin' to ask myself the same question," Willow muttered, walking out.

"So I been askin' myself, why am I here?" Faith eyed Wood coolly across the restaurant table. They were seated in a booth against the wall of a casual, Texas-themed steak house. The intensity of her gaze, just a few degrees shy of being hostile, would have caused most men to cower and quickly run the other way. Wood, however, sipped his beer straight from the bottle and showed not the slightest indication of discomfort.

"And what did yourself reply?" he asked nonchalantly.

The Slayer smirked and jabbed her finger at the menu in front of her. "At the moment I'm thinkin 'steak' is a pretty good answer." The amusement vanished as quickly as it appeared. "But mostly? I think you tricked me."

Wood raised an eyebrow at Faith. "I tricked you," he repeated, not making it a question.

"That's what I'm thinkin', yeah. You used that...reverse psychology crap on me."

"Oh, that." Wood took another sip of beer, mulling over the accusation. Finally, he shrugged. "Yeah, okay, that's fair."

"Damn straight it's fair," she spat, tossing the menu to the table and glaring at Wood, who continued to show no outward signs of agitation. "An' that means this don't count."

This statement managed to make an impact and he frowned at Faith, carefully putting the bottle down. "What do you mean, 'doesn't count'?" he queried, starting to sound just the slightest bit irritated.

Faith's gestured around her, encompassing everything. "This. None'a this counts. You think you won, gettin' me out here like this...but you tricked me, so it don't count."

Wood soaked this in, then allowed himself a chuckle. "Faith, this isn't a competition."

"You're trippin', course it is," she retorted.

"No," Wood replied, shaking his head slowly, "it really, really isn't."

The Slayer smirked again, a knowing and almost cruel expression darkening her features. "Look, I played this game before, Sparky, I know the rules."

Wood sat back, crossing his arms as he did so. "Then please, by all means, let's hear 'em. I'm obviously at a disadvantage here."

"Okay, it's like this." Faith settled into her side of the booth, turning sideways with her back against the wall and propping one leg up. "Guy – let's say you," she motioned at Wood who nodded, arms still crossed, "wants to 'get to know' a girl – let's say me."

"With you so far."

"Yeah, well, that's the easy part. Cuz see, the girl ain't much in the mood to be gotten to know." Faith paused, frowning at her word choice. "Knowed? Gettin' to be knowed?" She shook her head, dismissing the tangent. "Whatever, she ain't interested. An' all that does is wave a big ol' challenge to the guy. He thinks, 'Hey, I got me somethin' new I gotta conquer. I talk pretty, spend a little money, show her a good time, she'll roll right over.'" The Slayer poked her finger fiercely at Wood, leaning across the table. "But here's a newsflash for ya, Ace, I'm the freakin' mountain, and don't nobody conquer me."

Faith jabbed her finger in the air again for good measure and sat back, daring Wood to dispute her words. He didn't move for a good minute, simply regarding Faith appraisingly. She never glanced away and hardly blinked. The waiter came by, licking his pencil and ready to take their order, but, sensing the extreme levels of tension, slunk away without a word.

"Well you're certainly challenging, I'll give you that," Wood finally said, raising his beer bottle in a toast before taking a drink. "And I think you have a very interesting world view. But you're so very wrong."

The Slayer laughed, managing to make the gesture sound harsh and angry. "Oh, am I?"

"Absolutely," he confirmed. "Yeah, maybe there are some guys out there who think the same way you do, but there are just as many out there who don't. Including me. So here's how this is gonna work."

Faith quirked her eyebrow but said nothing.

"Option one: You leave right now. I won't make you stay—" he raised his hands, anticipating Faith's outburst, "—not that I could. But I mean, if you really find the idea of spending some time getting to know each other in a date setting to be so terrible, then honestly, I'd rather you go."

Casting a gaze toward the door – so near and so far – Faith seemed to be seriously considering it.

Wood caught the look and quickly continued. "Or, there's option two. You stay. We have a nice meal, some...refreshingly different conversation. No pressures, no conquering – just two people, a new understanding, and a few slabs of slightly overpriced meat."

Faith watched Wood out of the corner of her eye. He had turned back to the menu, reading it intently. No pressure whatsoever. She looked toward the door, then again to Wood, and smirked. "Well, far be it from me to pass up some overpriced meat," she shrugged, retrieving her menu from where it had been thrown. Wood hid his smile behind the menu.

Checking the prices, the Slayer widened her eyes. "Daaaamn, you weren't lyin', were you?"

"No," replied Wood, lacing the word with meaning. Faith caught his eye for a moment, then glanced away, back to the menu. "Get whatever you want," he assured her. "I'm buying."

"Oh, well, in that case I'll have the 20-ounce porterhouse," Faith beamed, her first genuine one of the evening.

He couldn't help but mirror it. "You smile like that again, you can have two."

"Now we're into bribery?" questioned Faith, but her tone was less edgy than earlier. Mostly.

"I prefer the term 'bartering'."

"Tell you what, I'll 'barter' you a teeny grin for dessert, how's that?"

Wood chuckled. "I'll take what I can get."

Giles stood in the hallway, talking with one of his Watchers, a young dark haired woman who was clutching a clipboard to her chest and listening. She frowned, and when she spoke it was with a faint and indefinable European accent. "I admit, this does put us in a bit of a bind."

"It's my fault, really," Giles admitted, polishing his glasses with irritation. "I'm terribly sorry, Mina. I should have realized and asked Faith to delay her evening."

Mina shook her head, dismissing Giles' need to apologize as she examined the clipboard closely. "There are a number of Watchers available who could be dispatched."

Neither of them saw Kennedy approaching from the far end of the hall, regarding their conversation with interest.

"I'd rather avoid that if possible," he explained. "Best I think if one of her fellow Slayers were there to greet her. Preferably one with experience, who can answer questions and immediately begin the acclimation process." Giles leaned over and scanned the list Mina was holding, running his finger down it as he searched. "Perhaps Shannon, or—"

"Chao-Ahn?" Mina indicated to the name with a smirk.

That earned her a chuckle. "Let's acclimate Ms. MacFadden to something other than complete confusion, shall we?"

Kennedy stepped toward the two Watchers, leaning over and trying to peer at the list. "Hey," she announced, attracting their attention. "Slayer hearing – makes pretty much every conversation a public one. Did I hear you say you needed an experienced Slayer for something?"

"Kennedy," Giles responded, a note of surprise in his voice. "I believe Willow's been looking for you for some time now. I think she's—"

He started to point in the opposite direction, but Kennedy broke in quickly, and Giles let his arm drop. "Thanks for the info, but I don't think I really feel like dealin' with all that right now." The Slayer took just a second to be introspective, quickly reaching her decision and deftly turning the conversation away from Willow. "So, what'cha got that needs doin'?"

For a moment it appeared as though Giles was reluctant to let the matter drop, but he instead sighed and, replacing his glasses, shifted into business mode. "We have a new Slayer arriving this evening. Her bus will be here in... Half an hour?" he queried, glancing to his assistant for confirmation.

"Half an hour," Mina nodded assuredly.

"I was planning on sending Faith, as she was the one who first spoke to the girl—"

Kennedy chuckled. "Faith got her and she's coming anyway? Brave girl."

"Indeed," agreed Giles, though more at the words and less at their implicated insult. "However Faith is currently unavailable, and we're looking for a replacement to go in her stead."

The Slayer clapped her hands together. "Hey, that's me right there."

Considering the woman, Giles tilted his head to one side. "Are you sure? I mean, something as mundane as—"

"I'm all over it, trust me," confirmed Kennedy, stepping forward.

With only another moment's hesitation, Giles nodded. "All right. And thank you, this is most helpful."

Kennedy's smirk held just a twinge of self-depreciation. "That's me – mostly helpful. But anyway. Who's the new blood?"

Giles grimaced at the expression, but said nothing as he motioned Kennedy towards Mina for the necessary information.

Greyhound #1866 pulled into the terminal with a squealing of brakes and the harsh spit of hydraulics. The door cracked open and passengers began to file out, loaded with bags and stretching, stiff from hours spent in cramped seats. Kennedy stood nearby, unobtrusive but eyeing each carefully.

Hazel was one of the last to emerge, clutching the strap of her backpack tightly and holding a large duffel bag. Nervous, the girl looked around, not at all comfortable with these strange surroundings and very uncertain of what do now that she'd finally arrived.

Kennedy strode forward confidently, an easy smile on her lips. "Hazel?" she queried, causing the young girl to jump and whip around.

"Yeah. Hi. That's me," Hazel stammered in reply, releasing the backpack strap just long enough to give a brief wave before gripping it tightly once more.

"Kennedy," the other Slayer introduced. "I'll be your escort for tonight. No peanuts or in-flight movie, though, sorry."

"You're not Faith," stated Hazel obviously.

Grinning, Kennedy shook her head. "That's definitely one interpretation of 'I'm Kennedy'."

The girl blushed, suddenly painfully aware of how that must have sounded. "Okay, yeah, stupid statement of the year award. I just meant, I thought Faith would be here."

Kennedy turned and motioned for Hazel to follow. After only a moment's hesitation, the girl did so. They made their way through the terminal and onto the street. Night was settling in, and street lamps placed at regular intervals had clicked on, weakly illuminating the approaching darkness.

"She probably would've been, but somethin' came up. But hey, it's your lucky day – I'm much better company." Kennedy smirked, glancing at the other girl. "At least in my mind. Though more rude, maybe," she amended, taking in Hazel's bags for the first time. "You want any help with those?"

Hazel looked down at the duffel, also seeming to have just noticed it. "Nah, I'm fine. It's amazing, actually," she said with wonder, scrutinizing her hand, "I hardly even notice them."

"The buffness takes some getting used to," admitted Kennedy, letting her fingers slip across a light pole as they passed. "Have you had a chip explosion yet?"

"A... chip explosion?"

"Yeah," the Slayer nodded enthusiastically, a grin taking shape. "You go to open a bag of chips, right?" Kennedy raised her hands to pantomime the action and Hazel nodded. "Only the bag won't open. So you tug on it just that liiiittle bit harder, thinkin' it's just enough, and instead you start channeling Superwoman and rip the whole damn thing in half and BAM!" She threw her hands in the air for emphasis. "Chips ahoy."

The younger girl shook her head, smiling now and visibly relaxing. "I haven't had that one. Though I did have the toothpaste version."

"My sympathies," winced Kennedy. "Haven't been there personally, but I've seen the aftermath. Mes-sy."

Hazel nodded vigorously, whole-heartedly agreeing with that assessment. "I think our bathroom still smells minty fresh."

"But at least you can rest easy knowing it's protected against plaque."

"So, you've learned to control it?" Hazel asked, unable to keep from sounding hopeful.

Considering the question, Kennedy regarded Hazel with an honest, open expression. "Kinda," she began finally. "It's always there, just waiting to come out. You lose your cool or get carried away and there it is."

"What, are we a group of female Bruce Banners?" asked Hazel incredulously.

"Only without the purple pants. Actually, strike that, some of the girls do have purple pants. But yeah, that's a decent analogy," Kennedy conceded. Completely serious, she stared intently at the younger girl, commanding her attention. "You gotta be careful. It's hard, but you learn." She grinned again, breaking the mood. "And believe me, when you find a bad guy to unleash against, it's all worth it."

Suddenly, Kennedy's feet were riveted to the pavement. She stood stock still. Without warning, her arm shot out and Hazel slammed directly into it, bouncing back.

"Ow," the girl complained, rubbing her stomach, then falling into a fearful silence at Kennedy's sharp "Shh!"

The two Slayers became like statues, intent on scanning the darkness for signs of danger. The streetlights only served to hinder the search, not providing enough light to see everything and not allowing their eyes to adjust fully to the shadows. Kennedy looked at the nearest lamp and seemed for a moment to consider breaking it, when a rustling, nearby and to the left, demanded her full attention.

Hazel held her breath and took an involuntary step backward just as Kennedy took one forward. The Senior Slayer's muscles tensed as she balled her hands into fists.

Neither moved for several seconds, then Kennedy spied a flash in the bushes. "Look out!" she cried, barreling into Hazel and sending both of them crashing to the ground just as something flew over their heads. Instantly, Kennedy was on her feet again, whirling to face whatever had attacked them.

The snarling hound-like visage of the Mogari demon was also quickly recovering, snapping its head around toward the two women as a low, menacing growl reached their ears.

Still on the ground, Hazel began to scuttle away, crab-like. "W-W-What is that thing?!" she exclaimed, her voice teetering on the verge of panic.

"I dunno," Kennedy replied calmly, not taking her eyes off the creature for even a fraction of a second. "But it's about to be a dead 'I dunno'." She flexed her fingers and hunkered down, ready for anything as an assured grin spread across her face. "The night's definitely lookin' up."

Act Four

Unflinching, Kennedy faced the Mogari, waiting for it to make the first move. It snarled, a rumbling, threatening sound, but the Slayer was unimpressed. She said nothing, made no move – simply waited.

Taking a step towards her, the Mogari snarled again and then sniffed the air. Turning its attention to Hazel, who was still sprawled on the ground, it sniffed again. Immediately, its lips curled to reveal a set of sharp teeth, and its tongue flicked hungrily. The creature slunk forward, focused upon Hazel. The girl scrambled back with a frightened squeak.

"Come on, over here," Kennedy called, moving now to try and divert its attention. She whistled two shrill notes and clapped her hands invitingly before drawing a stake from her jacket pocket. "Over here, ugly, that's it."

The Mogari turned and moved toward the Senior Slayer. Without warning it charged, lunging with alarming speed, but its intended prey was faster. She sidestepped the attack and thrust the stake into its leg with all her strength. A jet of warm, purplish-black goo sprayed all over Kennedy, but the wound was merely superficial and it did little but make the creature angry. Retaliating immediately with a roar of pain, it hurled itself at the Slayer. Kennedy dropped the stake to the ground and managed to catch the Mogari's front paws, one in each hand. Staggering, she nearly collapsed under the weight, but after a few steps managed to regain her balance.

It was all Kennedy could do to keep the thing's snapping jaws from ripping her face off. She landed a few solid kicks to its underbelly, but the demon paid no attention to the blows. Unnoticed by either, Hazel had made it to her feet and was anxiously watching the struggle. She wanted to help, but had no idea what to do.

"That's it, buddy," Kennedy strained from between clenched teeth. "No more Jerky Treats for you until you lose a few pounds."

Pausing in mid-snap, the Mogari once more sniffed Kennedy, then glanced toward Hazel and repeated the action. It growled and pulled itself free from Kennedy's grip, nearly knocking the Slayer off balance, then charged at Hazel.

"She got Milk Bones in that bag or somethin'?" Kennedy asked herself, tearing after the creature.

Hazel was petrified as the monster galloped toward her. "No!" she screamed, lashing out instinctively and landing a heavy punch directly across the Mogari's jaw, snapping its head around. This gave the creature pause and it slowly turned, malevolence and hunger evident in its snarl, the emotion coming through loud and clear and wholly unnerving, given a face devoid of eyes.

"Uh... Good boy?" offered Hazel hopefully.

With a swipe of its massive paw, the Mogari knocked Hazel to the ground and leapt on her. The girl threw her hands up defensively, managing to jam one underneath his muzzle and the other against his neck, effectively keeping its snapping jaws at bay. Hazel's grunts of effort sounded almost like panting screams, and it was obviously only a matter of time before the monster broke the girl's and tore out her throat.

Then Kennedy was there, throwing herself on the Mogari's back with a bellow of rage. Reaching around, the Slayer dug her fingers into the shoulder joints of the creature's front legs and, muscles straining, began to pull back. The monster snapped its jaws at her, desperate to stop the pain, but it didn't come close to reaching her. Further still Kennedy pulled, cords standing out on her neck as she threw everything she had into stopping its attack. The beast began to tip forward, losing leverage, and with a final savage yank, the snap of breaking bones echoed down the deserted street. A howl of agony soon followed, and the Mogari fell, landing directly on top of Hazel. Despite the suffering, its nose began twitching again, and with its maw only inches away from the girl's neck, it tensed to execute a final, fatal lunge.

Still perched on its back, Kennedy sensed what was about to happen and without hesitation, wrapped her hands around either side of the thing's head. She twisted brutally and with every ounce of remaining strength, succeeding in breaking its neck.

Dead, the Mogari slumped forward and Kennedy followed suit, panting to catch her breath as she rested on its back. Hazel, too, was gasping, partly from fear and partly from the weight of both creature and Slayer piled on top of her. Nothing stirred for a moment, and then the Mogari began to shimmer, becoming translucent before completely vanishing without a trace. With a startled yelp, Kennedy found herself in the air. She fell, landing on top of Hazel with a decided lack of grace.

"Thanks for saving my life an' all," snickered Hazel, "but we only just met."

With a groan, Kennedy rolled off the other girl, lying on her back for a moment and staring up at the night sky. "Don't flatter yourself," she retorted, getting to her feet and extending a hand, easily pulling Hazel to her feet. "You okay?"

A little dazed, Hazel nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, I think so." She grinned at Kennedy then, finding something terribly amusing. "You know, I've only had two meetings with you guys, and nearly died both times. This does not bode well."

Kennedy retrieved the backpack and duffel bag from where they had fallen and continued walking, jerking her head to indicate Hazel should follow. "Yeah, but how cool was that? I mean, what other job lets you beat the crap out of overgrown hairless puppies?"

The die bounced across the surface of the Trivial Pursuit board, landing on four. Using his finger, Xander counted four places away from the brown token, pointing to a blue square that featured a picture of the Tower of London. "What's blue?" he queried.

"'People and Places'," replied Dawn.

Xander counted four places in the opposite direction of the brown token, arriving at the image of a caterpillar. "An' what's green?"

"'Science and Nature'."

Sighing heavily, the carpenter glanced from blue to green, green to blue, wracked with indecision.

"Before I graduate would be good..." Dawn prompted, motioning her hand in a "come on" gesture.

Resigning himself to the inevitable, Xander set his token on the blue space. "'People and Places' it is. Last time I checked I was a people, so I at least have a 50% chance of understanding the question this time."

Dawn pulled a card from the box next to her and covered the back with her hand. "'What Tanzanian volcano has a Swahili name meaning 'mountain of the god of cold'?'" She avoided looking at the reverse of the card, instead focusing on her opponent.

After a few seconds of squinting, Xander conceded, "And now we see that comprehension of the question in no way guarantees an answer." There was more squinting, with some furrowing of the brow and a little sighing thrown in for good measure. "Mount Everest?"

"Mount Everest is in Nepal," Dawn vetoed, opening the window for another attempt.

"And I don't know where that is either, so—" he shrugged. "I know when I'm beat, I give. Cold god mountain: 1; Xander: 0."

"Kilimanjaro," Dawn announced. She flipped over the card in confirmation and beamed when she saw she had it right.

Xander openly gaped. "How do you know this stuff?"

"Just smart I guess," she responded, without the good grace to look even a tiny bit chagrined.

"Well, quit it!" Xander demanded, and turned to the board, distaste evident in his expression. "These categories are too hard. They don't cater to the stupid among us. What I need is my own category. A Xander category. It can be all red, like my papers were in high school, and have a big dumb guy on it, just standing there and shrugging."

Dawn was about to respond when the sound of the front door opening caught their attention. They turned to watch a dejected and bushed-looking Willow enter the living room with very little spring in her step.

She waved a weary arm at the pair. "Hey."

"Willster!" greeted Xander, and then, reappraising, "Pouty Willster. No luck, huh?"

Willow shook her head. "No. She apparently went out with a group of newbies at some point, but nobody knew where. I looked every place I could think of, but," she shrugged. "Zippo."

"Maybe they went to Nepal," Xander suggested.


"Never mind."

The redhead kicked off her shoe and began rubbing her foot gently. She pointed with an exaggerated gesture that screamed 'Isn't that typical'. "And now I've got a blister."

"Not your day, huh?" Xander asked with a sympathetic look.

"Anything but. And I think we can safely rule out the chance of 'comforting post-crappy day' snuggles, too."

Dawn gestured at the game board. "Do you wanna play? I could do with an actual challenge." Xander fixed her with a beady one-eye glare, but all it did was make her giggle.

"Love to. Can't," Willow reluctantly declined. "Gotta get all meditate-y for the spell tonight. The preparations take a little while and I only have a narrow window where I can reach Buffy the strongest, so I can't put it off any more. Rain check?"

"Sure," Dawn smiled.

Willow nodded, picked up her shoe and tromped up the stairs, the other shoe still on its respective foot. Dawn watched her go and waited a moment until she was safely out of sight and sound before turning to Xander.

"Okay, so what was that all about?"

"Oh, well, you know how she and Kennedy had this whole nice day planned?" Xander asked, receiving a confirming nod and just a bit of an eye-roll from Dawn in response. "Well, it sorta turned out not so nice."

"Ahh," Dawn acknowledged perkily with the beginnings of a smile.

Xander treated her to another beady-eyed squint, only this time with real feeling behind it. "Dawn Summers, I know you're not getting a kick out of your friend's misery."

"What? No! No way!" came Dawn's offended response, along with a look as if someone had suggested she tortured kittens for fun. "I totally feel bad for Willow! Geez!"

"Then what's with the happy face?"

"Oh! Uhh... I didn't mean... Well, it's just..." She floundered, surprise obvious in her face, then shrugged and gave up. "I mean, come on, you know Kennedy's totally wrong for her, right?"

"I'm pretty sure only Willow knows who's right for Willow."

Dawn stared at him flatly. "Xan-der, come on. Kennedy's so irritating." She raised her arms. "Walking around like she belongs here, like she isn't Door #2, when we all know—"

"Dawn, I'm serious," Xander cut her off. "Whatever you think, Kennedy's been good for her. You know what Will was like after..." He checked himself in mid-statement and reconsidered. "She's happy again, and that's all I care about. It's all you should care about too."

"Yeah, she looks real happy," Dawn muttered to herself.

There was understanding in Xander's voice, but caution all the same. "Dawn..."

"Okay, okay, I'm being good. I'm playing." She picked up the die. "Watch me play."

The resulting roll was a one, exactly what was needed to move her token to the "Arts & Entertainment" pie square. "Whoo-hoo!" she cheered.

"You sure about that move?" Xander questioned. He waved his hands over the box of cards as though it were a crystal ball. "I sense much karmic good fortune in the next 'Sports & Leisure' question. Bad juju emanating from this 'Arts & Entertainment'."

"I'm sure," Dawn confirmed. "Quit stalling and Pink me."

"Next time we're playin' something more my speed," Xander grumbled. "Like Candyland."

Giles slowly paced back and forth in his office, his glasses off and being polished absently. Kennedy was standing casually in front of his desk, watching him with an expression approaching amusement. Behind her, Hazel tried to relax in one of the chairs, still adjusting to her new life. It was evident that the experience had left her just a tad frazzled.

"And you're sure you didn't recognize it?" Giles asked Kennedy.

The Slayer made a mock expression of deep thought. "Lion-sized, no eyes, no hair, lots of teeth, bit on the snappy side? Pretty sure I'd remember one of those things."

"Fascinating," he responded, replacing his glasses. "I don't believe I've ever heard of this creature like this before."

For a moment, he considered the situation, then grabbing a pad and pencil from his desk, he thrust them both at Kennedy. "Do you think you could sketch it?"

Kennedy accepted the items and began drawing while Giles continued his one-sided discussion, still in the mood to pace. "As-as much detail as you can. This could quite possibly be an entirely new species, one that—"

He frowned at Kennedy, who was already holding out the pad and pencil. With a genuine look of surprise, he walked over to review the sketch, eyeing Kennedy curiously. Giles glanced down at the paper, and took in the stick figure man with four legs instead of two. He stared at it for a moment, and then returned his attentions to the Slayer.

"Right," he continued. "Well, if you could perhaps meet with someone tomorrow and describe it in detail while they sketch?"

"Sure thing," replied Kennedy with a mild nod of the head.

"Excellent." Giles gave a small smile that faded slightly. "Pity the body disappeared."

"Tell me about it," Kennedy grumbled darkly. "I'm maybe the first Slayer to ever kill one of these things and I don't even get a souvenir."

"I was thinking more that we might have learned something about its origins," corrected Giles. "Still, can't be helped." He pondered for a moment. "Its behavior does puzzle me, though. You say it wasn't interested in you?"

Kennedy shook her head. "Nope. I mean, sure, while I was in its way it was paying plenty of attention, but that was only for like a second, then it went right back to trying to chomp Hazel into little bitty pieces." She pointed her thumb behind her to the girl in the chair.

Almost as if Giles hadn't previously been aware of Hazel's presence, he looked at the new girl carefully. "Most extraordinary. And you've also never seen the creature before tonight?"

Hazel shook her head emphatically and fidgeted in her chair. "Oh no. Won't mind never seeing one again, either."

"Again, I'm terribly sorry about this," he sighed. "That wasn't quite the welcoming party I was hoping for, I assure you."

Hazel managed something of a smile despite the memory. "That's okay, it was... Different. I've developed a whole new respect for dogs."

"Yes, I'd expect so. Still, you must be tired. I'll show you to your room, and we can conduct a grand tour tomorrow?" Giles waited for affirmation, and she nodded. He proceeded to pick her bags up from the floor. "You'll be sharing a room with Judith, though I believe she's on patrol at the moment. Plenty of time for proper introductions tomorrow, however, after you've had some rest."

As he started to move toward the door, Hazel got up from the chair. She was just preparing to follow him when he stopped and turned back. "Oh, Kennedy?"


"That... Substance on your shirt. That's not your blood, is it?"

Kennedy looked down at her clothes, taking note of the nearly black stain. It had covered at least a third of the shirt and was well-seeped. She frowned. "Nah, I got this on me when I stabbed the thing."

Giles perked up immediately, and turned back into the room, setting Hazel's bags down. "This is the creature's blood?" He began to get excited when Kennedy nodded confirmation. "Could you bring the shirt back with you tomorrow? Th-there are tests we can run to-to determine the—"

He stopped in mid-sentence as Kennedy stripped the shirt off without fanfare, and offered it to him. She waited nonchalantly in her sports bra without an inkling of self-consciousness. Giles accepted the shirt, albeit gingerly. "Th-Thank you," he stuttered.

"Sure." She saunted past, leaving Giles and Hazel in the room alone.

"No picnic, no trophy, ruined shirt..." she muttered to herself. "Today's sucked."

Willow moved about her room in a slow, methodical manner. Collecting various objects and placing them into a small bag without really looking at them, her eyes were glazed and unfocused. Her entire demeanor indicated a trance-like state.

After gathering a dozen or more items, she was apparently satisfied with her belongings, and closed the bag, walking toward the closed door of the room. Turning the knob, she discovered Kennedy standing on the other side, hand in place as if to open the door herself.

A few moments passed between them, and Willow's eyes regained some of their focus. She quickly stepped back from the door. "Kennedy! Hi! I'm, uh, surprised to see you!" she started in a near-babble. "Not that you shouldn't be here, I mean, it's your room too, just that I spent all day trying to find you and it's sorta funny that now I'm not, there you are! Though not really funny cuz not much with the laughing and I'm shutting up now."

Kennedy didn't say anything. With a sigh, she walked into the room, leaving Willow by the door. The redhead watched Kennedy's movements, but made no indication that she was planning to follow.

Kennedy inhaled deeply. "Okay, you know how I avoided you all day?" she asked, eliciting a nod from her girlfriend. "I'm sorry about that. It wasn't mature, I know, but I just needed some time to cool off an' stuff." She waited to see if there would be any reaction from Willow. Not sensing any, she continued. "There's a lot we need to talk about, an' I didn't wanna do it while I was all hyper. But now's better. I'm ready to talk now."

Willow failed to hide her pained expression, and it only took a few seconds for Kennedy to catch on. "...aaand you're not," she concluded.

Willow held up her hands placatingly. "No, I am! But... I can't. There's this thing, this magick thing," she attempted to explain. "I have to contact Buffy a-and my best shot of reaching her is in, oh, about ten minutes, an' I have to—"

Kennedy nodded, her face an inscrutable mask. Willow stopped talking and regarded her with sadness. She opened her mouth but closed it again a moment later. Slowly and silently, she stepped out of the room, closing the door behind her.

Still expressionless, Kennedy simply stared around the empty room, her right hand clenched tight into a fist that was nearly shaking.

Buffy strolled along the edge of... Well, nothing, really. There should have been ground under her feet, but there wasn't, nor was there a sky overhead, or a horizon in the distance. All that could be perceived was black, empty and formless.

"This is my latest dreamscape, huh?" she asked no one, looking around. "Appreciating the lack of gut-wrenching visions, but on the creativity scale? Not even ranking. You disappoint me, Me."

Hearing a noise from behind, the Slayer whirled around, an expression of alarm on her face. As she finally located the source, the alarm resolved itself instead into a smile. "Will."

Willow was indeed standing there. As Buffy watched, the blackness surrounding Willow quickly shifted, seemingly one small block at a time, into the desert scene where she had communed with the spirit of the first Slayer, even down to the raging bonfire. The changing blocks raced toward and past Buffy, completing the environmental transformation and eliminating all traces of the inky void.

"Hi Buffy," Willow said. She gave a small wave.

"So, what part of my subconscious are you representing today?" Buffy asked, casually.

"What?" Willow appeared confused. "No, no subconscious. It's really me."

Buffy echoed the bewilderment. "The really real you?"

A nod. "The really real me that's really real." She paused for a second. "Really. Hi."

"I'm not dreaming?" Buffy asked. She knelt down to the ground and scooped up some sand, watching it trickle between her fingers, then looked back to Willow inquiringly. "You're not gonna start waving cheese slices at me or anything?"

"No, I come cheese-free," Willow confirmed with a grin. "But you are kinda dreaming. Just that I'm here too, with the dreaming. But, hey, still me."

"Oh," Buffy replied, comprehension setting in. Suddenly, she was alarmed again. "What's wrong? Is everyone okay? Is Dawn—"

Willow raised a calming hand. "We're okay, Dawn's okay."

Buffy's anxiety melted to relaxation, but only for a moment before shifting to hostility instead. "Okay, then what's going on? I seem to recall specifically saying not to contact me unless there was an emergency."

Willow looked more than a little hurt. "Yeah, I-I know you did. An' I wouldn't have if we didn't think this was important. There are girls—Slayers—disappearing an-and we don't know who or what or why yet. But if somethin's targeting Slayers..."

"I could be next," Buffy said with an industrial-strength sigh. "I've had more relaxing vacations than this," she grumbled. She thought about it for a moment. "I've had more relaxing apocalypses than this."

"So, it's not all ribbons and cotton candy?" asked Willow, sounding interested and trying not to sound hopeful.

"It has its moments I suppose, but... I dunno."

"Yeah, I guess I can—" Breaking off, Willow suddenly narrowed her eyes at Buffy, regarding the Slayer intently. "Hey, you're hurt." Her expression became accusing. "You didn't say you were hurt. How did you get hurt?"

Surprised, Buffy's gaze flicked to her shoulder. In the dream, her body was perfectly normal, no outward signs of abrasions or injury. She shot a look at Willow, and the redhead caved instantly.

"Sorry. Sorry. You know how it is," explained Willow, waving her hand around her head abstractly, "all with the Slayer connections and everything. A-An' you come through pretty strong most of the time anyway – when you're around," she couldn't help digging under her breath with a nervous glance at her best friend. "And what with this here bein' kinda in your mind, it's pretty obvi—"

The blond was unmoved, crossing her arms. "You know how that weirds me out," she stated flatly.

A flash of renewed pain crossed Willow's face, and she became instantly defensive. "I-I know. And, again, sorry. I'm still learning about it. It's not like it comes with an on/off switch, you know," she huffed.

Relenting, Buffy sighed heavily and perched on one of the nearby rocks, giving Willow a sidelong glance. "I know. I'm sorry, it's not you. I've just had ... a day. It's been a day," she concluded with another sigh, running a hand through her hair.

Willow sat down on an opposite rock, her face mirroring a similar expression. Although on the dreamscape, she didn't so much sit as hover an inch or so over the rock, the effect was much the same. "Tell me about it," she sympathized, her own voice tired and strained.

A comfortable moment passed with neither speaking, but it was a companionable silence and the tension eased somewhat in its wake.

Smirking, Buffy turned to Willow. "What was that about ribbons and cotton candy?"

"Oh, well, not here," the witch brightly replied, jerking a thumb over her shoulder. She gave a short, breathy laugh. "If we had that stuff, you think you would've left? No way, we'd've bribed the heck outta ya!" Shrugging, she added, "Or, failing that, tied you up with the ribbon and force-fed you enough cotton candy to make ya too big to leave the house."

"And on that appealing visual ..." the Slayer drew out, tensing as though she was about to stand up and leave. Then looked around her seemingly seeking a place to go. Finding nothing, she returned to Willow. The redhead was watching her intently.

"We've missed you," Willow said almost casually, but her eyes were searching Buffy's face.

Smiling, a little sadly, Buffy nodded. "I've missed you too. Everyone. You know why I had to do this, right?"

"Buffy, we had this conversation before ya left," reminded Willow with a smirk.

"Yeah, but you didn't understand then," insisted the Slayer.

"Well I do now," was the response. Buffy simply stared. "Okay, I don't," Willow admitted, then pondered for a second. "I do but I don't." The blonde opened her mouth as though to begin explaining again and was cut off by Willow raising a hand. "But it's okay. I don't have to understand. This isn't about me, it's about you. I get that. Just ..." She shrugged slightly, looking down at the hand in her lap. "We miss you."

"I know."

The two friends locked eyes for a moment, feeling awkward again and unsure of what to do next.

"Dreamscape, you know," Willow explained, glancing at their surroundings. "Hugs sort of a corporeal thing, else I'd be—"

Buffy nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, me too."

The witch got to her feet, her appearance growing fuzzy around the edges. "Anyway, I guess I'd better ..."

Also rising, Buffy requested, "Say hi to everyone for me?"

"You betcha," replied Willow, starting to become translucent.

"And if Dawn gives you trouble, just patch me through to her some night." She paused before adding, "Actually, I may have you do that anyway. Could be fun."

This earned her a laugh, even as Willow slowly vanished from the scene. Buffy watched her go, then blurted out, "Will?"

"Yeah?" Willow responded, her voice appearing to come from a great distance.

"I love you."

"Love you too. Be careful."

Then Willow was gone, leaving Buffy standing alone beside the roaring fire for only a moment before it, too, disappeared together with the rest of the scenery. The Slayer experienced a few brief, disconcerting seconds of floating in the void, then her eyes snapped open.

She was lying in the guest bed of Knight's home. Buffy allowed herself a minute or two to regain her bearings, then slipped out of bed, padding softly across the room to her backpack that lay propped against the far wall. Kneeling down, she unzipped the bag, searching around in the darkness for something specific. She finally found the folder she had been seeking and sat fully on the floor.

Spreading the folder out in her lap, Buffy regarded the contents with a hint of melancholy. It contained several color printouts of photographs, some individual shots of Buffy's friends, both with and without her, still others of larger groups. Most prominent to one side of the folder was a full-page printout of Buffy with Dawn and her mother. She lingered there for a moment before focusing her attention on the other side of the folder – one picture in particular. The Slayer pulled it free of the group and held it up; an image of her, many years younger, sitting on a green lawn, a beaming, long-haired Willow over her shoulder and Xander, complete and whole with both eyes, his head in Buffy's lap as he gazed up at the two girls with almost mocking worship. Buffy remained seated on the cold floor, staring at that picture long into the night.

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