Dawn walked through the bustling hallway of Trillium High, sandwiched between two of her friends. All three of them seemed to buzz with anticipation and more than a little self-involvement as they took up over half the available space in the hall but continued to walk side-by-side.
"This is gonna be so cool," Virginia enthused. She was by far the smallest of the three and her exuberance was making her jittery, like she'd had too much caffeine.
Meghan was much heartier than her friend and naturally inclined to being laid back. Still, she too was excited as she agreed, "Way cool. The last slumber party I went to, Theresa's mother decided she needed to, like, live her second childhood through us. I swear she was practically regressing before my eyes. Very mid-life crisis. And also lame," she added with great conviction.
"No danger of that here," assured Dawn. "Willow and Xander haven't quite hit the need to regress yet. Then I consider Xander and his love of cartoons and think that maybe it's because they never grew up."
"Oh, do you think Brad Watkins and his friends are gonna crash?" asked Virginia, unable to keep her hands still as she spoke and nearly dropping her books as a consequence. "I heard they crashed Lisa Ferguson's party and were total lame-o's, with dead fish and making spooky noises and stuff outside." She rolled her eyes dramatically. "Hello? Creativity counts!"
"I don't think so," Dawn replied. "I doubt they ever know about it."
Virginia's face fell. "Oh." She immediately brightened as she asked, "Can we tell 'em?"
"Well I for one think we can do without," declared Meghan. "Who needs a bunch of sex-starved muscleheads gawking through windows, trying to catch a glimpse of us in our underwear?" Virginia seemed very much like she did, but remained silent anyway. "We've got us, a DVD player, pizza money, an empty house and all night. The perfect ingredients for fun and teenaged girl hijinks." She paused for a moment and then flashed a proud smile at the others. "I've been trying to work 'hijinks' into a sentence for three days, go me."
"That's my goal," Dawn said with a firm nod. "Although less with the hijinks if I don't want to get turned into a toad or something." When she noticed the others staring at her with an odd expression, she hastily corrected herself. "Grounded. I mean grounded. But yes, fun for all. Large with the fun."
Still pouting a little, Virginia glanced at her friends. "Not even a little bit of gawking?" she asked hopefully.
On the grounds in front of an impressively large house, Giles handed several bills to the well-dressed man across from him. A chest was resting on the ground next to them, only one of many items that covered the area. Several people were milling about, browsing carefully or being helped by individuals scattered in strategic locations around the merchandise.
"This chest is truly a work of art," the man said, placing the money in a bag he was carrying with him. "I know you'll be happy with it."
Giles admired the chest, taking in the elaborate carvings that decorated its surface "Yes, it's quite lovely," he agreed appreciatively. "And just about the right size to hold broadswords."
Regarding Giles strangely for a moment, the man seemed about to say something, but then thought better of it. Instead, he turned his attention back to the chest.
"Miss Ashley carved the designs herself. She was quite phenomenally gifted. In fact, she created many of the items available today," he gestured around him. "We're selling several of her paintings as well if you'd like to take a look."
"No, thank you," Giles declined, putting his wallet back into the inner pocket of his jacket. "I don't really have the wall space available. However I did notice them earlier, and they are indeed beautiful. I'm surprised that her family is parting with so many personal items."
The estate agent didn't find that strange at all. "Miss Ashley didn't really have any family left," he explained. "Her parents both died in car accident about ten years ago. It was only Miss Ashley and her younger sister, Lydia. But the two never got along. After Miss Ashley unexpectedly fell ill, Miss Lydia made arrangements for home care and then all but disappeared. That was a little over a year ago."
"If it's not too forward to ask, what did Ms. Buchanan die from?"
"Well that's the thing, no one could ever find out," the man replied. "Miss Lydia made sure that her sister got the best care possible and saw doctors from around the world, but nobody could ever pinpoint what was wrong. Miss Ashley just slipped into a coma and never woke up again." He shook his head ruefully. "Such a shame. She would have been 27 this year."
"Interesting. And the sister, Lydia? You say she disappeared?" Giles' curiosity was definitely peaked.
"Not literally," he elaborated, "but she may as well have. She would contact us regularly to check on Miss Ashley and make sure that she was being cared for, but when she left town, to the best of my knowledge she never came back."
Frowning, the Watcher pressed for more information. "Nobody found that rather ...suspicious?"
The man leaned closer to Giles, who followed suit. "Well yes, actually," he answered. "I've known them for years, since their parents died. As I said, they never got along. Lydia hated Ashley. Personally, I think it was jealousy," confided the agent. "Ashley ...she had so much talent. She excelled at practically everything she did. Painting, dancing, even the few sports she tried. You name it, Ashley could do it, and like she'd been doing it her whole life. Lydia simply couldn't compete."
He thought about his statement and then amended, "Except for singing. Miss Lydia had a beautiful voice. She was actually giving serious consideration to singing professionally." He chuckled mostly to himself at a memory. "Ashley's voice could make your ears bleed." He glanced at Giles again and shrugged. "But nobody could ever find out what was wrong with Miss Ashley, let alone that it was Miss Lydia's fault. One of those great unsolved mysteries, I suppose."
The conspiracy talk over, both men straightened as the agent turned to Giles' purchase. "Sort of like this chest. We never found the key, who knows what's in it?"
Smiling warmly, Giles replied, "Yes, but that's half the attraction. I'm afraid it won't fit in my car." He smirked. "There's barely room enough for me. If you wouldn't mind holding it here, I'll send someone along later today to collect it."
"Oh sure, no problem," They shook hands and Giles turned to leave. He stopped and turned back as the agent called out, "Hey, if you find anything interesting in there, let me know. I've been wondering what's in this thing for a week."
Giles nodded and regarded the chest for a minute before heading back towards his car. "Yes, quite the mystery," he said to himself.
Story by: Jet Wolf and Ultrace
Written by: Jet Wolf
Tireless support and mucho de editing assistance by: Novareinna
Original Airdate: Tuesday, 27 April 2004, 8pm EST
"...and the gum! Faith, it's incessant!"
"Uh-huh," Faith nodded, recognizing that her input wasn't really required, or even necessarily a part of the conversation at this point, but wanting to show her support.
Hazel was livid and given her flushed complexion, she'd been that way for some time. The younger girl wasn't even bothering to make eye contact with Faith as they walked; she mostly stared at something imagined as she ranted. They passed several other people in the hall, both Slayers and Watchers, who began to call out a greeting ... until they picked up on the danger vibe pouring off Hazel and wisely decided to simply go about their business. Quickly.
"It's not that I have anything against gum personally. Four out of five dentists recommend chewing it between meals, and who am I to question the wisdom of the ADA?" Shaking her hands as though she was itching to feel a neck between them, Hazel gritted her teeth. "But it's constant! An unceasing cacophony of smacking and chewing! A miasma of mastication, a—"
"You do know you lost me at 'coffee knees', right?" interrupted Faith.
Hazel ran a frustrated hand through her hair, which had no apparent impact on its perpetual unruliness, and sighed heavily. "It just never stops," she whined.
Ducking out of the way of a Watcher carrying an armload of books so high she could barely see where she was going, Faith said, "So to sum up: roommate sitch, not so hot."
"Judith's nice enough, I suppose," began Hazel with another sigh, "it's just that she drives me nuts!" The girl whipped her head around to Faith. "I did mention she only occassionally throws the gum away, right? Turns out the Blu-Tack on the wall? Not quite Blu-Tack." She shook her head sadly as she added, "I'll never look at Russell Crowe the same way again."
Faith hid a smirk as she shoved her hands into her jacket pockets. "This your first roomie?" she asked, discovering a long-forgotten pen. Pulling it free, she gave it a quick once over and then proceeded to twirl it around in her fingers as she walked.
The Junior Slayer shook her head. "I shared a room with my little sister for about six years, but when she used to irritate me, I just punched her and she stopped." Pausing to consider this, Hazel clarified, "Well first there was the crying and the tattling, but the stopping came eventually. I don't think that'll work with Judith, though. For many reasons, not the least of which being my fears for the condition of the rest of the building if we really got into it."
"Maybe you can threaten to steal her Barbie instead," suggested Faith, voice laced with sarcasm.
Hazel completely missed it. "Yeah, maybe! Do you think she brought any Barbies with her?"
Wisely choosing to let it slide, Faith decided to try more straightforward advice. "You can always ask Giles for a dorm switch, y'know. He's pretty big into keepin' the place with all four walls, so he probably won't mind."
"I thought of that after the first couple of days, but then it hit me. Two girls." Hazel held up the appropriate number of fingers to emphasize her point. "The first: cute, perky, kinda smart in all the best non-nerdy ways, bubbling with youthful enthusiasm—"
"—raging ego, anal retentive—"
"–doesn't interrupt when others are talking ..." countered Hazel, raising her voice to drown out Faith. "Your standard sweet girl." She flashed her most saccharine smile at her companion, who remained entirely unmoved. Hazel continued, unconcerned, "Then you have the other: loud, oafish, extremely troubling oral fixation, and, yes, a much better music collection. You know what this is?"
Faith spun the pen around one finger, managing to somehow defy gravity and keep it from falling. "Another bad "Odd Couple" remake?" she offered.
The younger girl snatched the pen away, flipping it in the air and catching it solidly in her hand. "It's a competition. She's testing me. She wants me to leave." Hazel grinned and jabbed the pen at Faith before tossing it back. "But I won't give her that satisfaction. I can take anything she can dish out."
Regarding Hazel for a moment, Faith admitted, "I was gonna coach you on bein' immature but, y'know," she smirked, "I'd do the exact same thing."
Hazel beamed proudly. "How about you, no Roomie from Hell stories to share?" she asked, not wanting to completely dominate the conversation.
"The advantages of Slayer seniority. Just me, myself and I, an' we're all five by five." Faith was concentrating on making the pen "walk" across her knuckles and nearly dropped it when she jumped at Hazel's exclamation.
"That was it! I couldn't remember what you said! Ugh, it's been drivin' me nuts for weeks!" With a sidelong glance, Hazel frowned, "'Five by five' ... what does that even mean?"
"It means ... y'know ... " Faith searched for the right words to explain the phrase. "Five by five," she said after several seconds had passed, frowning at her limited vocabulary.
Her companion didn't seem to hold it against her however, and Hazel chuckled. "Okay, 'Fiver'."
Faith's head swung towards the other girl. "What'd you call me? It better not be somethin' I'm gonna have to kick your ass for." The warning in her voice was only half joking.
Eyes growing wide, Hazel was quick to defuse the situation. "What? No! No, I said 'Fiver'. It's a character, you know, from a book. One of my favorites. It's called Watership Down, and it's all about these rabbits and their journey to find a new warren and—" Noticing Faith's disinterested stare, Hazel moved on. "Anyway, Fiver's one of the rabbits in the book. He's Hazel's little brother, actually, and since I'm Hazel and you have this weird 'five' thing going ..." She looked down at her feet, embarrassed. "I dunno, I thought it was cute. I won't do it again, though."
After a moment's pause to consider this new information, Faith shrugged, the faintest twinge of a smile on her lips. "Nah, it's cool. I been called worse." The twinge grew into a full-blown grin at Hazel's obvious pleasure. "Little brother, though?" she queried.
"Well you have to admit," replied Hazel, "it loses some charm the other way."
Passing a closed door on the left, their conversation was interrupted by the sound of a muffled explosion. Faith and Hazel glanced at each other, then Faith banged on the door, noticing the wisps of white smoke starting to curl from behind the door.
"Yo, everythin' five—" She caught herself, smirking at Hazel before correcting, "Everythin' okay in there?"
"Yes!" both Willow and Giles snapped in union, both voices strained.
Faith backed away slowly from the door. "Oooookay then."
Without a glance back, she and Hazel slunk down the hall.
Coughing, Giles flung open the window, trying to air the room of the billowing smoke. Willow was lying on her back in the center, arms and legs spread at random angles as though she had simply flopped down and not cared much where they landed. Remnants of a spell were scattered around the room, discarded and forgotten for the moment.
"I'm a terrible witch," Willow moaned dejectedly.
A flash of annoyance crossed Giles' face. "Would you please stop saying that, you are not a terrible witch."
Willow raised her head just enough to see the Watcher. "It was a locator spell, Giles. A simple, 'I've done this a thousand times what's one more?' locator spell." Her eyes cast around the room, taking in the smoke. "The only thing we located here was the nearest exit." She let her head fall back to the floor. "I suck."
Sighing, Giles squatted down next to Willow. She glanced at him sadly, but didn't move.
"Willow, you are going through something ... extraordinary. The power you tapped to awaken the Slayers was far beyond anything you had done before." With an amazed chuckle, Giles removed his glasses and began cleaning them. "It's beyond anything anyone has done before. I-It's completely understandable that your power levels would be off-balance as a result. You have, in a short span of time, harnessed and controlled two diametrically opposed forces. You shouldn't expect to have complete control." He replaced his glasses, regarding Willow seriously. "Frankly, I'd be more concerned if you did."
His words did little to make the redhead feel better. "But it's sooo frustrating!" she exclaimed. "I mean, you want an army of vampires incinerated, I'm your girl. 'Course I might take you and half the country with them, but hey – mission accomplished, vamps are flamey dust." Willow waved her hands in the air before dropping them back to the ground where the landed with a slap. "But I can't even float a pencil any more. I used to be so good at floating pencils," she pouted.
"We'll get there," Giles reassured her gently, placing his hand on her shoulder. "Give it time."
"Stupid time," the witch grumbled. She sat up suddenly and Giles retracted his hand. "You know what I really hate about this? The fact that we're just flyin' blind. I mean, if nobody's ever really gone through this before ..." Willow glanced up a the ceiling, searching for the right way to phrase her thoughts. "I-It's like I have this huge test, but I can't study for it because nobody bothered to write a textbook."
"Yes, I suppose it is rather like that," agreed Giles.
Willow's eyes grew wide and panicked. "But- But what if I don't pass!" she cried. "I mean gettin' a 'B' would be bad enough, but we're talking about me sneezing and sending North America to an alternate dimension! A-And then not even being able to do a locator spell to find out where I put it!" Her voice became bitter as she motioned to her head, adding, "Oh, an' let's not forget the optional black-or-white hair accessory! Take your pick which one we'll see today, cuz I sure as heck don't know!"
"Willow ..." Giles interjected firmly. She sighed and flashed him an apologetic glance.
"It would at least be nice if my hair color changes could make up their mind," she muttered, much calmer but clearly every bit as frustrated. "I'm like some weird monochrome rainbow."
Amused by the image, Giles smiled. "Time. Patience. The spells you did to awaken the powers within you were tremendous. Wi-With the scythe and the ..." He trailed off, reluctant to put the events into words. "The other," he finally settled on, "you channeled the power, pointed it in the right direction an-and then simply let it go. It's not at all surprising that your ... 'control muscles', if you will, are atrophied. Letting loose with everything one has is easy; paring it down, as you've discovered, is the difficult part."
He returned his hand to Willow's shoulder, gripping it tightly and letting his confidence in her show through. She looked at him hopefully. "Difficult," he repeated, "but not impossible."
With a deep breath, Willow nodded and Giles stood up to refresh the necessary spell supplies. He pulled out a fresh map of the town from a nearby stack of fifteen or twenty and placed it in front of the redhead.
"All right, now let's try again," he instructed.
Willow settled back into position, breathing deeply and steadily, trying to relax and find her center. Giles studied her, moving across the room to lean against wall, giving her plenty of space to work.
In the hallway, a passing Watcher dropped the folder he was carrying in alarm when he heard the muffled sound of an explosion coming from behind the door.
Dawn and her friends had commandeered a shady section of the school's front lawn. They sat in a circle, stealing little bits of each other's lunch as the mood to sample struck them.
"I can't believe you've never had Meghan over to your house!" Brenda admonished Dawn.
Meghan nodded, a look of exaggerated pain on her face. "Yeah, I'm startin' to feel all left out here."
"Oh, that is so not fair," Dawn protested. "I've asked you over dozens of times."
"Twice, I think," corrected Meghan, grabbing a small handful of Virginia's grapes.
"Which is two more than never," she insisted. "It's not my fault you and your dad are always off doing your dirt bike thing." With a shrug, Meghan relented, clearly accepting some sacrifices had to be made in the interest of life's finer things. "I still say you guys should come with us some time. There's nothing like it." Her eyes took on a far-away gaze.
The others all shared a look that indicated this 'spacing out' occurrence was a regular one.
Jackie in particular was unimpressed as she rolled her eyes. "Thank god for that. Why would you want to do something that leaves no question about how filthy you're gonna get?" She ignored Meghan's death-glare as she munched on a carrot stick. "I'd much rather spend my weekend on more civilized pursuits."
"Like seeing how far you can shove that stick up your—"
"Dawn's house is the coolest!" Brenda hurriedly interrupted Meghan, her smile overly large and forced but holding up under the weight of the other girl's glower. "It's huge! And there's this giant field behind it, and a stream and—"
Virginia bounced in place, attracting everyone's attention. "And Xander," she enthused. "You have to meet Xander. He's just about the funniest most awesome guy in the entire world." Turning to Dawn, the little blonde practically swooned. "You're so lucky to live with him. Do you ever ... you know ..."
Dawn's eyes got impossibly huge and she choked on the Coke she was drinking, nearly spluttering it on her friends. Managing to compose herself, she shuddered with revulsion. "EW! EWWWWWWW! With Xander?! Oh my god, that's like ... " She fumbled for a word expressive enough to voice her disgust, finally setting on another, "EWWWW!"
Her friends burst into laughter, but Virginia simply sat and looked at Dawn in complete confusion, her sandwich hovering halfway to her mouth. "But he's—" she began.
"He's Xander," emphasized Dawn, as though this should be sufficient explanation for any sane person. "He's like my brother."
Unable to let such a golden opportunity pass her bye, Brenda leaned over to her flabbergasted friend. Her voice low, she probed, "So you never once thought about you and him...?"
Squirming under all the attention, Dawn looked quite sick. "Are you trying to make me barf up my lunch? Never. No way ..." Her eyes darted around nervously and she refused to meet anyone's gaze. "Not since I was fourteen. Fifteen at the latest."
The girls leapt upon this new tidbit of gossip with a shark-like feeding frenzy. Questions started flying from all directions until Jackie finally broke through the mayhem.
"Guys! Let's save some stuff for tonight, huh?" She grinned evilly. The others quickly echoed it.
"Anyway," Dawn said a bit too brightly, anxious to change the subject to something besides her younger teenage fantasies, "Xander won't be there. He's going out."
Virginia's face fell at this news. "No Xander? But ... but I was specifically counting on Xander-time. I bought a new nightshirt and everything." Her lower lip jutted out in definite pout formation.
Dawn was unable to completely hide her hurt at Virginia's words, but she swiftly recovered and no one seemed to notice. "Nope, no Xander," she confirmed. "No Willow or Kennedy either. We've got the whole house to ourselves! Until ten or eleven or so, anyway."
This time it was Brenda who was disappointed by Dawn's news. "Willow's going too? I-I was hoping she could maybe ... talk to us about magic."
Raising her eyebrow, Meghan regarded Brenda. "Magic? Like card tricks?"
"Nah," replied Jackie, stealing the last of Virginia's grapes. She ignored the glare the smaller girl flashed her. "Willow's big into Wicca. Full-blown witch stuff, right Dawn?"
Not particularly inclined to spend much time on this subject either, Dawn answered, "Emphasis on the 'blown' at the moment, but something like that."
Meghan picked up on Jackie's description and latched on to it. "Witch?" she repeated, disbelief evident in her voice. "Like with warts and broomsticks and black cats?"
"Those are all stereotypes," corrected Dawn, waving a Cheeto at her friend. Pausing to think for a second she admitted, "Well, maybe not the cat."
"Last time I was there," Brenda jumped in enthusiastically, "I tried to get Willow to do magic, but she said it wasn't really something you take out and show to people like vacation slides. Instead, she gave me a book on Wicca, which was really interesting." Her face easily displayed her disappointment. "I'd hoped she'd be around tonight so I could ask her some questions."
The same hurt expression settled on Dawn, only she wasn't as successful at hiding it this time. Her voice was strained and obviously forced. "Nope, sorry. Just, uh ... Just me!" she laughed uncomfortably.
"Suits me fine. More fun to go 'round for us," Meghan shrugged, gathering up her trash from lunch. She, like the others, hadn't seemed to pick up on Dawn's mood shift, but Dawn brightened at the words just the same.
"Speaking of fun, I got my sister to pick us up a little something for tonight," Jackie said, her seriousness attracting everyone's full attention.
Grabbing her backpack, Jackie pulled it in front of her, settling it so her friends all had a clear view. She unzipped one side and opened it slightly. Everyone leaned close, a gasp running through the circle as they saw the bottle of Zima. Jackie quickly zipped the backpack closed again and sat back, looking extremely proud of herself.
Nobody spoke for a minute. Finally Meghan broke the silence by simply saying, "Cool." She nonchalantly sipped on a Caprisun, seemingly unconcerned.
Her friends weren't quite so composed. Virginia's eyes looked ready to pop out of her skull and she was so red she practically glowed. "Oh my god!" she squealed, flinching at the chorus of "Shhh!"s that her friends hissed around her. In a stage whisper she continued, "I can't believe you brought that to school!"
"If you get caught with that, you're so busted," Brenda cautioned, but still clearly awed.
"So I won't get caught," retorted Jackie cockily.
For Dawn, though, this wasn't something to be impressed by. It was something to be stomped on, thrown away and erased forever from recorded history. "No way," she said, her tone leaving no room for debate. "There's no way you can bring that over tonight. I'll be so dead they'll have to kill me and bring me back just to kill me again."
Making her exasperation plain for all to see, Jackie rolled her eyes at Dawn. "Oh, lighten up, Summers! It's just a couple of six-packs! What, are you chicken?" she challenged.
Dawn was unrelenting. "No, but I might become one if they catch me with that. Jackie, please," she pleaded, "I'm serious. Leave it at home tonight."
Jackie sighed, making it as exaggerated as humanly possible. "Fine, it's your house." Virginia and Brenda glanced at each other, disappointed again. Meghan was busy alternately blowing up and compressing her empty Caprisun pouch and didn't seem to care much about the conversation one way or the other.
Carefully tucking her backpack to one side, drawing attention to its precious cargo, Jackie looked at her friends. "We'll just save it for when you guys come over to my place for a real party."
This appeared to settle the matter, and the girls returned to discussing what movies they were going to watch that night. Dawn remained silent, however, gaining little comfort from knowing she had done the right thing.
Kennedy glanced towards the entrance to the huge training room as Faith and Hazel entered. There were a dozen or so Slayers in the room, some lifting weights, some working out with one of the punching bags, and still others sparring with each other on the mats that were liberally sprinkled about the room. The two girls were headed towards one of the empty set of weights when Kennedy called out and they changed directions to join her and Judith.
Both Judith and Kennedy were sweating and panting slightly, having been sparring themselves for a while. As Faith approached, she raised her popsicle in greeting.
Judith seemed to notice Hazel for the first time. "Hey!" she exclaimed, smiling.
"Hi," Hazel replied with a touch of frost, then seemed to catch her tone and tried to smile back. It didn't entirely work, but Judith didn't indicate that she noticed.
"Where'd you go this morning?" the larger girl asked after taking a gulp of bottled water. "I woke up for a minute at, like, six and you were gone."
Hazel shrugged. "Oh, I don't like to sleep too late. I feel like I'm wasting the day," she said matter-of-factly.
"The luxuries of not actually patrolling yet," commented Judith wistfully, sneaking a sideways glance at Hazel to catch her reaction. "I'm sure that once they make you a real Slayer, you'll be sleeping in until reasonable hours like the rest of us."
Kennedy had stepped back off the mat to stand next to Faith, who was still eating her popsicle and watching the two Junior Slayers with interest. With a low voice, Kennedy leaned over to Faith and asked, "Is it just me, or is there some underlying tension here?"
"It's not just you," Faith assured her, remaining focused on the unfolding events.
"Score one for me. And Willow says I'm insensitive."
Hazel and Judith hadn't caught a word of this exchange, fully concentrated on each other. Hazel was flushed with anger and embarrassment, but showed no signs of backing down.
"Oh, a 'real' Slayer, is that what you are?" she inquired with a sarcastic tone. "And what does it take to achieve that lofty title? The awe-inspiring ability to occasionally remember what trashcans are for?"
"Oo," Faith grinned from the sidelines.
"Or maybe it's the power to scream like a little girl when confronted with a Gortha demon?" Hazel mused aloud, crossing her arms. "I heard it was your team's easiest kill yet, it was laughing so hard."
"Ooooooo," both Faith and Kennedy egged on.
Judith looked righteously furious for a long moment ... then she simply smiled sweetly and, ever so slowly and deliberately, blew a bubble and popped her gum at Hazel. The effect was instantaneous and Hazel turned approximately fifteen shades of darker red.
Kennedy leaned over to Faith. "You realize this can only end in violence," she stated.
Pulling the clean stick out of her mouth, Faith regarded it briefly before tossing it to one side. "And just in time, I'm out of popsicle."
Hazel and Judith did indeed appear to be converging on the violence. They were circling each other on the mats, both tense and ready to either attack or defend at any given moment. The two Seniors stood by as the younger girls tested each other tentatively, watching like hawks for any opening to gain the advantage.
"Hazel's gonna kick your girl's ass," Faith observed to Kennedy.
Kennedy gaped at Faith like she'd just suggested they walk down Main Street at 2am wearing an "All You Can Eat" sign around their neck. "What? No way!" she protested.
"Yup," came the simple reply.
Watching as Judith made a swipe at Hazel that was easily avoided, Kennedy carefully examined both girls. "Judith's got height and weight on Hazel, plus weeks of additional training, plus field experience," remarked Kennedy. "What's Hazel got?"
Faith made no indication that she considered any of these details to be particularly important. "Haze is resourceful. She don't look like much, but she's got a real fire to her too. Fight can be won on that alone." She grinned and pointed to herself. "And she's got me. I been workin' with her."
"Well that's not much of an advantage," replied Kenned off-handedly. "I've been workin' with Judith myself."
The laugh was instinctive, though not cruel – which in no way prevented Kennedy from becoming insulted. "Yeah, but you know that don't compare," Faith pointed out.
Kennedy crossed her arms and narrowed her gaze. "What?"
"Well it's just—" the other woman began as it occurred to her how this was coming across. "Look, you know I think you're good an' all Brat, but you can't seriously be thinkin' anythin' but me takin' you down, ten outta ten. Way I see it," she concluded, turning back to the sparring match unfolding in front of them, "that puts advantage to Haze."
There was no more becoming insulted, insulted had arrived and brought friends.
"Actually," Kennedy virtually growled, "I'm seriously thinkin' a whole lot more than that. Including how someone's way inflated ego needs some major popping."
Faith shrugged nonchalantly. "Ain't ego, yo, just how it is."
"Fine, then you won't mind a friendly little wager."
"A bet?" Faith grinned confidently. "I dunno, I don't like to take advantage of the weak an' underprivileged. Someone taught me once I'm supposed to 'help the helpless'." She frowned, trying to remember. "Or was it 'help the hopeless'?"
Pressing on, Kennedy placed her hands on her hips, her body language screaming out a challenge. "Well as Weak Underprivileged Helpless Hopeless Girl, I give you permission to take advantage of me all you want," she taunted.
"Better not let Red hear you say that. But yeah, okay. Gives me one more way to know I can kick your ass."
As one, they returned their attentions to Judith and Hazel, who were grappling but with no clearly evident winner emerging yet. The two Seniors began to shout out to their respective counterpart, urging them on to victory through any means necessary.
Xander threw the door open harder than he had intended and flinched as it banged loudly against the wall. Shuffling awkwardly, he carried the collapsed table into the center of the room. Wood followed closely behind, carrying two folding chairs tucked under each arm.
Unfolding the square table, Xander eyed the room critically. It was somewhere between a tiny room and a large closet, and he seemed perfectly okay with that until his gaze lit upon the overhead light. He frowned and reached for a chair that Wood had leaned against the wall, unfolding it and climbing on the seat. Wood crossed his arms and watched with amusement as Xander fiddled with the dome covering the light bulb, finally managing to remove it. He stepped down from the chair and surveyed his handiwork, smiling. Perfect.
"You know there is such a thing as too much atmosphere," Wood commented.
Xander waved his hand, dismissing the idea as ludicrous. "Pffft. No such creature."
"So you don't think you're going just a little bit overboard then," he replied flatly.
"Not even remotely," grinned Xander, placing the dome on one of the many nearby empty shelves. "This room—"
"—closet has the deepest honor of being selected as the site for our very first Men's Poker Night." Xander clapped his hands together and bowed his head reverently. "All must be made perfect."
Cocking an eyebrow, Wood glanced around him at the two nearest walls, both almost within reach from where he was standing. He shook his head, still finding the situation entertaining. "And perfect is a tiny room with one lone, naked bulb," he asked, not really making it a question.
Xander sighed with deep contentment. "Yes. Yes it is."
They stared at each other for a moment. "Okay then," Wood finally relented cheerfully. "So glad I agreed to this tonight."
"Ah, you won't be sayin' that when I've stripped you of every last dime, my friend," joked Xander as he carefully arranged the chairs around the table.
Scoffing, not feeling the least bit intimidated, Wood replied, "I'll take my chances."
"Tonight, we'll take a stand for men everywhere," the other man proclaimed, standing tall and proud. "The right to smoke cigars, drink beer, tell dirty jokes and gamble away our life savings."
"That's quite the stand we're making from our closet," remarked Wood wryly.
Xander deflated and he shot a glare over his shoulder. "Couldja at least try an' work with me here?"
Literally wiping the smile from his face, Wood coughed and became quite serious. "Right, sorry. Consider me trying from here on out."
That was all Xander needed, and he straightened again, speaking as though to a large, invisible audience. "This is a chance for men to celebrate the manness of being men. It's a sacred tradition that we should have been embarking on since we cast our lot with the Britney Brigade." His voice became more and more impassioned and he raised his fist in the air. "We will, united as men, pursue ... the ..." Looking behind him, he snapped, "Can you not sniff me?"
Sure enough, Wood had moved close to Xander and was sniffing him curiously.
"But you smell so pretty," he smirked.
Xander became flustered, gesturing his hands around as he tried to explain. "Look, I was out of soap this morning and I just had to grab something. 'Apricot Delight' was, believe it or not, the most macho thing I could find." He sighed. "I live with two lesbians for cryin' out loud, is to too much to ask for one of them to use Old Spice or somethin'?"
Wood merely grinned as Xander sighed again and moved to the closet door, holding it open for the other man. As they walked out, Xander flipped the light switch, leaving the room only partially illuminated by the hallway.
"You know you've ruined this for me," he accused.
"And I'm crying about it on the inside," Wood responded. "In a manly way, of course."
Xander shook his head sadly and closed the door behind him.
Giles and Willow walked into his office, Giles limping slightly as he carried the remnants of the spell they had been casting earlier. He placed the remaining maps, now depleted to five or six, on his desk and moved to the nearby cabinet to began putting things away. Willow watched him work, looking slightly frazzled.
"Hey, well, at least I was able to finally pinpoint you. You know, before the map went all kerplewy. Again. That's an improvement ... right?" she grinned hopefully.
Absolutely," Giles reassured her. "And I never liked these shoes anyway."
Willow glanced at the pair of shoes he dropped in the nearby trashcan. The soles had been melted into a thick, formless rubber and thin wisps of smoke rose into the air. Giles rubbed the bottom of his sock-clad feet and smiled as Willow threw herself into one of the chairs situated in front of his desk, looking very sheepish.
Giles went about taking stock of his supply cabinet as Willow picked at the arm of the chair she was sitting in. Neither said anything for a time, then Willow, with deliberate casualness, asked, "Have you ... heard from Buffy?"
"No, not a word," replied Giles, holding a red bottle up to the light and shaking it, trying to gauge how much was left inside. "You did say you were able to contact her, though? Explained the situation?"
"Yup, she's all in the know," the witch confirmed. "I figured she'd, y'know, call or somethin'." Willow shrugged, as though indicating that it didn't really matter much to her one way or the other. "But oh well. She's off doing whatever she's doing and I guess she's pretty busy with the doing of it wherever she is that isn't here."
Giles paused in his inventory, his brow furrowed in confusion. "Yes?" he offered tentatively, not really sure if there was a question in there somewhere that he was expected to answer.
Willow refocused her efforts on playing with the trim on the leather seats, her face set in an unmistakable pout.
"You'd hoped she'd return," the Watcher interpreted softly.
"No!" Willow responded immediately. "Well, yes." She frowned. "No. I-It's just that we have all these newbie Slayers an' we could really use Buffy's help with training. Y'know, impart 'em with that special 'Alpha Slayer' knowledge. So she should be here. Imparting."
Willow nodded to herself, then her eyes widened as another thought popped into her brain. "Oh, and plus, I need to go clothes shopping because I'm back at school now and, hello, they have sales for just that reason. Only I was thinkin' about not lookin' like a bag of Skittles threw up all over me, an' you know that's what usually happens when I'm allowed to shop by myself. And mochas!" She became even more enthusiastic, whirling in her seat to face Giles. "Kennedy doesn't like mochas, which is simply unnatural by the way and has me partially convinced she is not of this earth, and don't you think it's really selfish of Buffy to leave me without a mocha partner?" The redhead's bottom lip began to jut out again, threatening to return to pout mode at any moment.
"I miss her too," he said kindly.
Unable to completely hide the twinge of sadness in her eyes, Willow smiled at Giles, then both jumped as the door was thrown open and Andrew shuffled into the room. He was carrying the chest that Giles had bought earlier that day and clearly having a great deal of trouble with it. Still, he seemed to prefer the idea of a hernia to asking one of the many of super-strong Slayers for help, and he placed the chest before Giles with great reverence.
Gasping for breath at every other word, Andrew wheezed, "Here's that ... thing ... Mr. Giles ... " He tightly clenched his eyes closed and straightened up, hands supporting his lower back.
Giles moved to the chest, squatting down to inspect it carefully. "Ahh, excellent. Thank you, Andrew."
"Oh, no problem," Andrew responded with a dismissive wave, fighting to control his breathing. "I've been working out, you know. Why just yesterday I moved the pin thingie up to two." He grinned broadly, very proud of his achievements.
"Most impressive. And how many repetitions did you do?" The Watcher sounded vaguely distracted as he examined the chest.
Andrew's grin faltered. "Repetitions?"
Moving to join them, Willow lightly backhanded Andrew across the stomach in a playful gesture. "That's our He-Man," she snickered as he winced.
"By the power of Grayskull," he replied weakly.
Giles missed out on most of the banter, remaining intent on his purchase. Convinced he was unable to get it open any other way, he stood and went to one of the dozens of drawers that lined his office walls, pulling it open and rummaging around inside. Willow took his place in front of the chest, running her hand across the carvings on the top and sides.
"Giles, this is gorgeous," she breathed.
"Mmm," murmured Giles in agreement, "I was quite taken with it myself. However there's no key, so we'll have to rely on a more ... unconventional method of opening it."
Willow and Andrew moved to one side as Giles returned with a long, bony, vaguely key-shaped artifact in his hand. He put it in the lock and gave it a half-turn. "Descuiat," he intoned, and both the key and the lock began to glow a soft white, followed by an audible click. Satisfied, Giles removed the artifact and placed it on the desk behind him.
"Neat," Andrew said appreciatively. "What is that, like a skeleton key?"
"Yes," answered Giles.
Andrew considered this for a moment. "It's made from a real skeleton, isn't it?"
"Yes," Giles responded in the exact same tone.
"You guys are so cool."
Opening the lid without further comment, they all peered at the contents. It was about two-thirds full of all manner of curiosities, seeming to have no real rhyme or reason. Several items in particular stood out among the bottles, envelopes and assorted papers – a stack of books, which Giles immediately reached for, and a large round black disc with red lettering.
The disc attracted Willow's attention, and she snatched it from the chest with an excited, "Ooo!" Andrew was equally interested, and followed as she moved off to the side to examine it more closely. Remaining by the chest, Giles grabbed the first book and flipped through it. He frowned and placed it on the ground, leafing through the second and then the third.
"Diaries. Pity," he remarked, clearly disappointed.
Across the room, Willow and Andrew had discovered that the disc, approximately the size of a large pizza, was in fact a ouija board. They had commandeered a clear, empty glass from somewhere and had it upside down on the board. Their fingers were resting on the top of the glass, using it as a makeshift planchette.
"You're moving it! You're making it move!" Andrew protested through his giggles.
"I don't know what you're talking about," denied Willow vehemently as the glass tried to jerkily move across the board. "If the spirit world thinks that Matrix: Revolutions will suck, then who are we to disagree?"
They snickered at each other, quite taken with their own silliness.
"Oh Great and Powerful ... uhm, Power People," Andrew chanted in a low, even voice, his eyes closed. "Is Willow Rosenberg a big dorkhead?"
Willow gasped in exaggerated indignation as Andrew fought with her to bring the glass to the large "YES". Then suddenly Giles was there, clearing his throat. The pair straightened up, the board forgotten as the redhead grabbed the glass and gingerly returned it, right side up, to Giles' desk. They stood there side-by-side, beaming at him. The very picture of innocence.
Which he didn't buy for a second.
His disapproval quite apparent, Giles frowned at the both of them. "The ouija board is not a toy."
They stammered "Oh no!"s, "Absolutely not!"s and other such sounds of complete agreement.
"It was Andrew's idea," Willow quickly added.
Andrew gaped at her openly. She didn't meet his gaze, simply elbowing him sharply in the side. He winced again and rubbed it, sulking.
"I'm quite serious." Giles fixed them with an intense stare, and they shuffled uncomfortably. "You should both know better. Potent forces can-can be unleashed with devices such as these, i-it's best not to even pretend to use them. There's no way of knowing what might be listening."
As one, they hung their heads, suitably chastised as they mumbled their apologies.
"Yes, well ... " Giles trailed off, growing uncomfortable himself. "Don't let it happen again or you'll both be sent to your room without supper. Now if we're all quite done playing out these extremely disturbing roles...? Willow, I was wondering if you could perhaps do a casting on these items. Determine which, if any, are magickal in nature?"
Willow nodded, happy to no longer feel like she was five years old again. "Sure, so long as there's nothing in there you won't mind gettin' back a little extra-crispy if things start goin' all wacky."
Giles placed the ouija board back into the chest and closed the lid.
Dawn poured the remainder of the Doritos into the mostly-full bowl in front of her, crumpling the bag and throwing it in the trashcan. It was but one of many snack bowls surrounding her in the kitchen, filled to the brim with all manner of chips or candy. She surveyed the bowls critically, only barely acknowledging Xander as he entered the room.
She did, however, acknowledge the handful of M&Ms he grabbed from the bowl closest to him, and smacked his hand lightly. He ignored her, tossing his ill-gotten gains into his mouth anyway.
"Quite the feast you got goin' here, Dawnster," he said appreciatively. "Enough to feed a small army. Or a bunch of teenage girls, I suppose." Xander cocked is head to one side, thinking. "What's the grouping name for teenage girls anyway? Gaggle? A 'gaggle' of girls? Huh." Dawn bapped his hand as he made off with another handful of candy.
"There won't be any left if you don't quit it," she complained.
"I think you can spare a few crumbs for a growing boy. And I mean growing this way," he held his hand about an inch over his head, "and not this way," his hand hovered over his stomach. Xander glanced down, noticing just how far out his hand was. He regarded it carefully, as though seeing it for the first time. Moving his hand away from and towards his stomach, gauging the distance, he reached a conclusion and guilty returned the remaining candy to the bowl.
Dawn was occupied with fussing over the bowl arrangement, twisting one slightly clockwise here, pushing another a millimeter back there. "I just want everything to be perfect."
"Hey, it's guaranteed to be a swingin' smorgasbord of Summers ... " Trailing off, Xander tried to find the right word, quickly giving up. "Something fun that begins with 's'." He paused again as his train of thought jumped tracks. "Maybe it's a 'google' of girls? Nah, that sounds like a naughty search engine."
The teenager turned to Xander, focusing all of her attention on him. "Now you and Willow are leaving, right? You guys will be gone?"
Xander nodded, reassuring Dawn through her slightly manic anxiety. "Yup. Will and Kenn'll be doin' their smoochy romantic dinner thing until late. And as for me, I have Manly Man Poker Night until all hours. And I mean that quite literally. Because we are men of the manly variety and with the poker and the ... " He broke off, interrupting himself with a wave of his hand. "Ah, this is Running Out of Words Day. The house'll be yours for a while, that's the point."
"Although there are rules, missy," Willow added in a stern voice as she entered the kitchen. Spying the tantalizing bowl of candy on the counter, she eagerly grabbed a handful, mindless of Dawn's plaintive protests.
"Oh absolutely," Xander agreed emphatically.
"There will be no leaving of the house once we're gone," began Willow, ticking the rule off on her finger.
Echoing her motion, Xander said, "No boys over. Unless they're me. Okay, ow?" he protested as the redhead smacked his arm.
She ignored him, raising a third finger. "No summoning demons or other nasties."
"No destruction of property," continued Xander. "I'm still way behind on Giles' bookcases."
"No anchovies on your pizza," she shuddered, "cuz it's just wrong."
Dawn cut them off, sounding more amused than irritated. "Guys. I know. We covered this yesterday. And the day before, and oh, I think I still have the list Willow printed out last week..."
Andrew shuffling into the kitchen, panting heavily again and once more holding his lower back, interrupted her assurances.
"I think I should get workman's comp," he whined.
The witch paid no attention to his complaints, instead asking, "Where'd you put it?"
Stretching his back with a wince, he replied, "I left it in the living room. If you want me to carry it anywhere else, I want a back brace first. But not one of those ugly orange ones like they use at Home Depot, okay?"
He moved further into the kitchen, grabbing a handful of M&Ms. Dawn very pointedly moved the bowl of candy to the other side of the counter. Andrew popped a few in his mouth and then lifted up a single green candy, showing it to the group. He grinned in what was probably supposed to be something of a leer, but it instead came across more like a pathetic grimace.
"Hey, you know what they say about the green ones." He ate it, chewing knowingly. "They turn you into a demon."
Andrew waited, as though this was new and important knowledge that everyone should have been thrilled he imparted. Instead, they simply stared.
"A demon," he explained. "You know? With ... horns?" He poked two fingers out on either side of his head to demonstrate. When nobody said anything, his tone became reassuring. "But not really, so it's okay."
Still nobody said anything. On an unspoken agreement, they decided to pretend it never happened.
"So, Will," Xander began with exaggerated cheeriness, "I've been wonderin': what's the grouping name for teenage girls?"
"A 'gossip'?" Willow guessed with a shrug. Xander nodded sagely, completely satisfied with this answer.
The group looked over to the other kitchen entrance as Kennedy strode in. She immediately noticed the bowl of candy close to her and grabbed a large handful on her way past. Dawn made a shocked and mournful sound and moved the now half-empty bowl of M&Ms to the counter behind her, where she stood guard with her arms crossed.
Kennedy moved toward Willow and briefly kissed her hello. "Hey, you about ready?" she asked.
"Yeah, lemme just get changed," replied Willow, heading upstairs.
Munching on the candy, Kennedy leaned against the far wall, considering Dawn. "So, the big night. What're you guys plannin' on doin' with yourselves?" She smirked, a touch of contempt in her voice. "Trying on eye shadow and swooning over Ben Affleck?"
Dawn sneered and pulled a face at Kennedy like she had suggested Dawn and her friends spend the evening crocheting oven mitts and playing Bingo. "Ben Affleck? Yeah, whatever."
"Or whoever the 'hunk' of the week is," shrugged Kennedy, "I can never remember."
Andrew turned to Xander, wanting no part of the obvious tension rising in the room. "Everything ready for tonight?" he asked brightly.
"Just about. I just need to head on over to Zig's for the Buffalo wings." Xander held up his hand in a solemn vow. "I will get Giles to eat a wing tonight if it's the last thing I do." He checked to make sure he had his keys before going to Dawn. "Have fun tonight, okay? Call if you need anything."
Xander affectionately placed a kiss on the top of Dawn's head and then turned to the door, Andrew following on his heels.
"This is gonna be so cool," the blond enthused. "Like Lock Stock, only without all the drugs and antique guns and ironic plot twists. Hey, can I be Bacon?"
Perched on top one of the many filing cabinets spread around the room, Faith watched as Hazel tried to make heads or tails of the mountains of paperwork strewn across the room in a way that could only be considered "haphazard". Hazel's brow was furrowed in stress and confusion; Faith just looked pissed.
"I can't believe you let her beat you."
Hazel sighed heavily, letting her hands drop to her thighs with a loud slap that only partly gave vent to her frustration. "For the sixty thousandth time," she stressed, "I did not let her beat me. She cheated," the junior Slayer added huffily.
Faith continued to stare at Hazel, her expression unchanging.
"She tickled me! Somewhere, somehow, that's gotta be cheating," Hazel insisted.
"I just can't believe you let her beat you."
Hazel banged her head repeatedly on the nearest filing cabinet.
"An' I can't believe I lost to the Brat," continued Faith, running a hand through her hair before jabbing a finger at Hazel. "She's gonna be impossible now, you got no idea."
"What do you have to do?" the girl asked cautiously.
Faith ground her teeth together, finding the entire situation quite distasteful. "It involves a 'Kennedy Was Right' t-shirt an' the rest of my pride. That's all you need to know."
Despite herself, Hazel snickered. She was rewarded with a rubber band bouncing off the back of her head.
"Yeah, so anyway," continued Faith, no longer wanting to dwell on that subject. "You cause me pain an' strife, you get my crap jobs. Giles said this place gotta be all indexed or whatever by this system he and Red cooked up. I tuned out the details, so you got questions, bug one'a them."
With that, Faith jumped down from the cabinet and headed towards the door. Hazel looked around despairingly at the hundreds of files, glancing up when Faith turned back.
"Oh, an' you're meetin' me tomorrow, 9am sharp," she stated. "We're gonna work out this 'tickling' thing, then you're rematchin' with Princess Bubble Yum, got it?"
Hazel saluted sharply, earning a smirk from Faith before the older woman walked out of the room, not bothering to close the door. Still seeming every bit as lost as before, Hazel turned around in a circle amongst the sea of files, trying to discern the best place to start. After a few moments of complete indecision, she simply grabbed the stack closest to her and started trying to make sense of it all. She worked peacefully for a time, becoming absorbed in the task and completely oblivious to someone walking by in the hallway.
Judith was humming to herself, an unrecognizable and slightly off-key tune, and just happened to glance casually into the open room. Not expecting to see anything of interest she kept walking, but quickly backed up a few paces when her brain processed what her eyes had seen. Smirking to herself, she lounged against the entrance, watching an unaware Hazel sort through a couple of files.
"Knock knock," she grinned, rapping lightly on the doorframe.
Startled by the interruption, Hazel whirled around sharply. When she realized who it was, she rolled her eyes. "Oh goodie. I was just wondering how this could get worse."
Judith remained unphased. "My 'sore loser' sense is tingling," she commented dryly.
The other girl merely grunted in a noncommittal fashion and returned to her work, doing her best to ignore Judith altogether. Which of course only served as encouragement.
"So what's up with all this?" asked Judith, walking into the room and motioning at the files. "You being punished or something?"
"Yes, actually," Hazel grudgingly admitted.
The smirk died on Judith's lips as she was taken aback, blinking several times in surprise. "Oh. Wow, sorry," she offered, astonished. "Faith, uh ... doesn't like losing, does she?"
"No, it doesn't appear to be one of her more charming personality traits," Hazel replied ruefully.
Judith became amused again. "That would probably be her natural congeniality." Her body language changed. She looked more tightly wound and dangerous. "I'm Faith," she impersonated, lowering her voice slightly and making it scratchy, "I'm the baddest o' badass Slayers. An' if you don't believe me, just check out these pants. Pure leather, yo. Fear me." She struck a pose at the end, challenging anyone and everyone to deny her proclamation, but could only hold it for a second before both she and Hazel dissolved into a fit of giggles. When they were finally able to get themselves back under control, the two girls shared a smile, the previous tension dissipated.
"Seriously, I'm sorry," Judith told Hazel earnestly. "I didn't mean to get you into trouble."
Hazel shrugged, gesturing with the files still held in her hands. "Eh, it's not so bad. I actually don't mind helping out with stuff like this. Besides," she added, tilting her head to one side, "I'm finding the whole 'losing' experience highly motivating. And next time? Rib protectors."
"Better I find out your weakness than some ... Tickle Demon or something." They both chuckled at the thought of such a creature. "I mean honestly, is there nothing that doesn't have some sort of demonic personification?" wondered Judith.
"I don't think there's a 'Sneeze Demon'."
"We probably just haven't found it yet. I'm sure it's lurking in the dusty corners of Hell, just waiting for the right number of sneezes to bring it forth into the world, where it will run around blowing pepper at poor unsuspecting victims."
Looking quite grave, Hazel managed to say with a completely straight face, "It'll be the Slayers' sacred duty to bring Kleenex to the world."
The stoicism failed to last very long, and they were soon back to giggling like lunatics. Finally able to regain control, they wiped their eyes and clenched their aching sides.
"Hey, look," began Judith, after taking a deep, steadying breath. "I know we kinda got off on the wrong foot. Or feet. Mile. Whatever. But maybe we can try again?" She regarded Hazel seriously. "I think we have a lot to learn from each other, and I'd rather not completely alienate my roommate within in the first month. Usually it takes at least six for someone to decide they can't stand me," she added with a grin.
Hazel smiled, brightly and with genuine pleasure. "Okay."
"Okay," echoed Judith with an agreeable nod. When Hazel turned back to the filing, Judith picked up a small stack and set about helping. Neither said anything for several minutes until Hazel finally broke the silence.
"You know I'll take you in the end, though, right?" she said without looking up.
Judith smiled at Hazel. "What's important is you believe that."
Willow and Kennedy sat across from each other at a table in the center of a restaurant. The lights were low, but the candles on the table provided plenty of illumination. Willow was talking animatedly while Kennedy listened, sipping her drink occasionally and nodding at the appropriate moments. She was immersed in the story, hanging on Willow's every word.
"...so then I reach behind the counter, and she's there. Right behind me, all skanky and evil."
"What'd you do?" Kennedy prompted eagerly.
Willow put on her tough face, jutting her chin out defiantly. "I told her to just back the heck off! Told her to crawl right back to the alternate hell dimension she came from, a-and then— No, okay, I panicked," she confessed, no longer even remotely puffed up. "Then there was neck licking and everything got really, really confusing."
Kennedy slurped up some of her soda through the straw, completely engrossed. "And...?"
"I shot her with Oz's tranquilizer gun and then Buffy got an idea – and you know that can't end well – so I ..." Trailing off, a mischievous glint appeared in Willow's eyes. "Oh, but wait. I seem to be getting fuzzy memories. Possibly brought on by the lack of mutual shareage. It's going ... going ... Oh, it's gone. Nope, can't remember a thing." She gave her head a definitive shake.
The straw dropped away and Kennedy smirked at the redhead. "That's so wrong," she groused, sounding more amused than irritated.
"But it feels so right," grinned Willow.
"Okay, fine," the Slayer relented after a minute of glaring. "One story from my sordid past coming up, but then I want more details on this neck licking thing. Because I think that would explain a lot about you."
Willow's grin broadened and she nodded happily, settling in her seat like an expectant child at story time. Kennedy remained silent, gathering her thoughts before beginning.
"So this one time, I was probably about eleven or twelve, Dad had us with him on an extended business trip in London. We were staying in this flat in Knightsbridge, I think it was. Pretty nice place from what I can remember. Anyway, we'd been there for about a week when one day, me and my sister started feelin' kinda bored. We went outside to play cuz we were drivin' my step mom nuts, but there wasn't a whole lot for us to do. I remember swinging around on these railing things that were separating the upstairs flat from the one downstairs, while Mackenzie just slipped through 'em like a cat. We were trying to think of something to do to pass the time when it turned into sort of a game of Truth or Dare."
"Only without the 'Truth' part, I'll bet."
"Yeah, pretty much. I mean, what kind of truth could a big bad twelve-year old want from some kid who'd only been around for six or seven? I already knew all her secrets anyway, I read her diary constantly," Kennedy added with a smirk.
Willow couldn't help but grin back. "You're so bad."
"And you know you love it. But anyway, so we're playing 'Truth or Dare Minus the Truth' and she dares me to crawl through the railing like she's been doin' all afternoon."
"Well forget the logic of the fact that she's about half my size and as big around as my pinky finger," Kennedy held up said digit for emphasis, "there was no way I was gonna pass on a dare." The Slayer hunkered down, as though reliving the experience as she continued her story. "I got down on my hands and knees and just poked my head through the railing. It actually went in pretty easy, so I figured 'Okay, this isn't so hard.' Of course, then I tried to squeeze the rest of me through it, and that part? Not so easy."
Willow only made a token gesture at stifling the giggles. "God. What happened?"
"There was no way I was gettin' these shoulders through there, so I tried to back out completely ... only my head was stuck."
Laughing out loud, Willow didn't even bother to try and hide her amusement.
The laughter was infectious, and Kennedy couldn't help but match it. "I tried to go forward again, then back ... Nothing worked, my head was stuck."
Tears streaming down her face, Willow shook her head, trying to clear it. "I can just picture this. You must've been goin' nuts."
"I admit it wasn't my most dignified moment ever. Mac, of course, nearly laughed herself unconscious, but finally went to get my step mom. There was nothing she could do, though. Then the neighbors started coming out and offering 'helpful' advice. I never did find out who suggested buttering my head," she mumbled darkly.
Willow erupted into new peals of laughter, struggling to speak. "How ... How – oh god ... How did you get out?"
"They called Dad. Pulled him out of a meeting and everything. He came home and bent the bars apart, simple as that. Less simple was getting him to trust me around tight spaces again. To this day he glares whenever we pass a railing."
The laughter eventually died away, Willow taking several deep breaths to bring it under control. She drank some of her soda, smiling across the table. "This is nice. Good. Nicely good. I'm really glad we talked stuff out. Angry not-talking? Less nicely good."
"One of these days I'm gonna write my own 'Willow to English' dictionary," the Slayer remarked with a grin. "'How to Speak Willow in 21 Days'."
The waitress arriving with a large plate stacked high with mozzarella sticks interrupted the conversation, and Willow forgot any retort in the face of cheesy goodness. She grabbed one hungrily and scooped out a big dollop of marinara sauce before chomping down. Kennedy made no move to share, content to simply play with the straw as she watched the redhead.
"MMmMMMmmm," Willow groaned around a string of melted cheese. "Oh, this is so good."
She glanced up to see Kennedy staring at her, a slightly goofy smile on the Slayer's face.
"What?" said Willow self-consciously. "What? Oh, god, do I have sauce—?" Grabbing her napkin out of her lap, she frantically wiped her mouth and turned back to Kennedy. "Is it gone?"
"Nope, pretty much still there," came the nonchalant reply.
Willow resumed her wiping and then sensed she was being toyed with. "Kenn ... " she warned.
The Slayer wasn't in the least bit remorseful. "You're just ... so damned adorable, you know that?"
Her mouth snapped shut and Willow ducked her head, blushing furiously. Kennedy continued to affix the other woman with an intense stare.
"I swear I could spend all day just watching you do the most mundane boring stuff," she stated with something like wonder. "It's like ... you make every little thing you do seem like it's the most incredible moment of your whole life."
Willow's blush intensified, but a pleased smile crossed her lips. "I really like fried cheese...?" she offered.
With no apparent warning, something in Kennedy's mood shifted drastically, catching Willow by surprise. It was Kennedy's turn to duck her head, and she fidgeted in her chair. The Slayer was clearly feeling nervous about something, and the emotion was so foreign on her that Willow's earlier discomfort was completely forgotten. "Is something wrong?" she asked, a note of alarm in her voice.
Kennedy shook her head a little more violently than necessary as though to clear it. "No. No, everything's ... right. It's perfect." She sighed heavily. "I wanted to ... " Trailing off, the Slayer sighed again, frustrated with herself. "Dammit, this shouldn't be so hard."
The strange behavior was affecting Willow, and she now appeared more nervous than Kennedy. Her hand reached out across the table and rested over the other woman's, squeezing lightly. "Kennedy? What is it, sweetie? You can tell me anything," Willow assured her.
"Would you—?" Kennedy blurted out, cutting herself off almost immediately. She rolled her eyes, giving up as she said, "Ahh, hell," and without further comment placed a ring box on the table in front of Willow.
Willow immediately released Kennedy's hand, jerking it back as though she'd been shocked. She said nothing, her jaw working soundlessly as her eyes widened, staring at the box like a deer caught in a pair of headlights.
The credits rolled on the television screen as Dawn reached over to the lamp next to the couch, flipping it on and bathing the room in a soft light. Her friends all stretched out the kinks from their various positions around the room, some snuggling pillows and all dressed in their PJs for the night. Dawn's eyes darted from person to person anxiously, checking to see if anyone was exhibiting signs of having less than a fantastic time.
"That movie rocks," commented Meghan, rolling on to her back and staring at the ceiling.
"Orlando Bloom," Virginia sighed.
The room fell still, each girl wallowing for a moment in silent agreement for the implied yumminess of Orlando Bloom.
Finally Brenda spoke, snapping everyone out of her own private little fantasy world. "So I got this new 'Persuasion' eye shadow, you guys wanna try it out?"
"Kennedy can never hear of this," grinned Dawn.
Jackie started rising to her feet. "More Coke for me, I think," she groaned, stifling a yawn.
Seeing the action, Dawn was instantly there, seizing the plastic cup. "I can get that! Anybody else want anything?"
At their negative, Dawn headed into the kitchen, the grin plastered on her face faltering as soon as she was safely alone. Pulling the bottle of Coke out of the refrigerator, she began talking to herself, softly and reassuringly.
"See? These are just your friends. They're all having a great time. No need to be so nervous. It's not like your entire fragile social life rests on tonight going well. Not like you don't have people lined up outside the door waiting to be your friend." Dawn closed her eyes and put the bottle back on the countertop. "Oh god, why couldn't the monks have given me natural popularity?" she sighed. Recapping the bottle securely and placing it back in the fridge, Dawn took a deep breath, picked up the now-full cup, grabbed a fresh bowl of chips and walked back into the living room.
"Here you—" she started cheerfully, the words trailing off as entered the room.
Her friends were now gathered at the side of the room near the chest that Andrew had brought over earlier that evening. It was wide open, its contents spread around the room. Brenda was sitting with the stack of books next to her, nose buried in one of the volumes. Half of Virginia's body had disappeared as she was rummaging around in the chest, and Meghan and Jackie were both peering with interest at the ouija board on the carpet between them.
"What are you guys doing?" Dawn asked, her voice rising slightly in panic.
Virginia's head jerked out of the chest and she regarded Dawn with guilt. "We were— Meghan saw— It was just—"
Meghan leapt to her spastic friend's defense. "I saw the chest against the wall and thought it was pulchritudinous, so I checked it out," she explained.
"Pulchritudinous," Meghan told Jackie. "Pretty. It's actually a word you can technically only use for people, but I've been trying for ten days now to work it into a sentence, so ..." She shrugged.
Not paying attention to the exchange, Dawn's eyes darted from the chest to the stuff on the floor and back again. She began to twist her hands together nervously. "Guys, I don't think we should be—"
Glancing up from her reading, Brenda looked at Dawn. "When I realized these weren't written by anyone in your family, I went ahead and started reading. I hope that's okay?" Dawn sort of moved her head back and forth in a gesture that was neither 'yes' nor 'no', so Brenda decided to take it as a 'yes'. She held one of the volumes, showing it to the others. "They're interesting; it looks like all this stuff belonged to 'Ashley Buchanan'. Did you know her?"
Dawn shook her head, chewing on her bottom lip. "No, this is some stuff that Giles bought the other day, but I don't think—"
Jackie interrupted, lifting the board. "What is this? Is this one of those witchboard things?" the redhead asked. "No offense," she added to Dawn.
Dawn opened her mouth to say something, but Meghan answered first. "'Ouija board'," she corrected. "And yeah, I think so. I've never seen one quite like this before, though. Do you know anything about it, Dawn?"
Stepping forward, Dawn took the board out of Jackie's hands, finally finding her voice. "Only that we shouldn't be playing with this stuff," she said firmly, gesturing to the contents of the chest. "This is Giles stuff. Giles stuff is high on the 'Not To Be Played With' list. Buffy always said—"
"Is there anything we can do?" snapped an exasperated Jackie. "Geez Summers, your sister's halfway around the world or something and you're still living under her shadow."
Dawn flinched and looked stricken, but Jackie pressed on.
"She's not here. Willow, Xander and Giles aren't here. It's just us and you, Summers. For once in your life, stop trying to be what others have made you and just have fun."
Considering this, Dawn glanced at each of her friends, then at the board in her hand. Her face broke into a small smile and she nodded, handing the board back to Jackie and sitting on the floor next to them.
Four bodies sitting around the folding table in the middle of the supply closet didn't do much for making the place feel roomier. Regardless, Xander was upbeat and happy as he clenched half a breadstick between his teeth like a cigar. Radiating equal enthusiasm, Andrew sat next to Xander, peeking out from beneath the visor he wore with a grim and stony expression that seemed entirely out of place on him. By contrast, Wood and Giles were the picture of normality, even down to Giles' air of ultimate indulgence.
Extending a hand, Andrew prepared to drop three blue chips in the pile but hesitated at the last moment. "How much are the blue chips again?" he queried.
"Ten dollars," Wood replied, not looking up from his cards.
The blond considered this. "And the white?"
Andrew slowly withdrew his hand, gently returning the blue chips back to his stash and picking up three white ones instead. "I raise three dollars," he proclaimed grandly.
Almost as an off-hand gesture, Andrew tossed the chips into the pile in the center of the table, where they skimmed off the top and directly into the neat and orderly stacks Giles had arranged in front of him. Giles' towers of plastic money collapsed, and he scrambled to reclaim it, but not before shooting a glare of pure irritation at Andrew, who withered under its intensity.
Neither Wood nor Xander acknowledged the destruction, the former content to remain impassively focused on his cards while Xander removed his breadstick with two fingers, almost pretending to puff on it.
"This is the life," Xander sighed contentedly, moving the "cigar" back to his mouth.
Andrew watched the movement with appreciation. "You look like Largo from Thunderball," he commented.
"All I need now are some killer sharks," replied Xander as he rearranged his hand.
Tilting his head to one side, Andrew looked contemplative. "Didn't you think that Timothy Dalton got the short end of the stick? From the first time you see him on that mountain in The Living Daylights, he is James Bond and when—"
Xander jabbed his breadstick at Andrew. "You're insane. Pierce Brosnan is Bond, bottom line."
With a long-suffering sigh, Giles rolled his eyes at the conversation. "You're both unspeakably stupid. Sean Connery, and that should be the end of the discussion."
Andrew and Xander both turned to Wood expectantly. "Uh-uh, I'm stayin' outta this," he remarked with a shake of his head.
Letting it drop, Xander admitted to Andrew, "Still though, you got a point. Some days the patch makes me feel very Nick Fury." He chomped down on the breadstick to complete the look.
Andrew gasped in delight at this new concept. "We can be your Howlin' Commandos!" he exclaimed.
"Absolutely." Xander gestured to Wood, "You can be Gabriel Jones ..."
Wood's eyes remained focused on his cards. "He was the token black guy, wasn't he?"
Xander cleared his throat but didn't confirm, instead moving to Giles. "You're Percival Pinkerton ..."
"I most certainly am not," the Watcher responded immediately, also without looking away from his cards.
Andrew beamed and waited patiently as Xander turned to him.
"And you're Dum Dum."
For a moment Andrew's expression was one of great joy, then the words began to take on another meaning and his face fell. "Hey!"
Giles appeared to be trying very hard to pay no attention whatsoever to the other half of the table, only acknowledging Wood. "Remind me again why we agreed to this?" he asked plaintively.
"You said it had something to do with Xander's relentless nagging, along with a desire to take him for every cent and, quote, 'put an end to this pointless display of chauvinistic, elitist male behavior once and for all.' Unquote."
"Ahh yes," Giles nodded, remembering. "I believe I also wanted to purchase some new compact discs, and Xander's money should do well to supplement my disposable income."
Xander remained unimpressed. "Brave words, 'Pinky'," he smirked confidently. "Let's see what'cha got. I call."
The four men spread their cards face up on the table. Giles was the clear victor with a full house, and he quickly set about adding his new winnings to the neat and tidy piles in front of him.
"Well sure," Xander finally spat indignantly, "when you play it that way, of course you're gonna win. And what do you mean 'chauvinistic elitist male behavior'?" he accused. "You belonged to a group that was the very definition of elitist males. Do you feel no sense of solidarity, man?"
Wood shook his head and sighed slightly to himself as he dealt the next hand.
In an extremely patient voice, Giles explained, "Xander, I have devoted my life to training 15-year old girls who could easily squash my head like a grape. Even if I had any such tendencies, my sense of self-preservation would have very quickly compelled me to push them aside."
"Wood, help me out here," compelled Xander.
"See above, re: 'stayin' outta this'," Wood replied, still dealing.
Xander gathered his cards together, huffing slightly. "You just don't want word getting' back to Faith."
"And knowing what you know of Faith, does this surprise you?"
Xander's slight huffing turned into a full-blown pout. "You're ruining my manly man poker night," he whined.
Intently focused on his cards, Andrew drawled, "'Hate don't belong in a card game, but old man, I'm gonna take every grain of gold you have in front of you.'"
The others stared at him, and his eyes darted from one to the next. With an embarrassed grin, he picked up a few white chips and carefully placed them in the center of the table.
"I bet three dollars."
Willow's mouth was stuck in a loop. It opened and closed of its own accord, seemingly heedless to the fact that her brain could supply no words. Her attention was riveted to the box sitting in the center of the table and she regarded it with something akin to terror. All of this went unnoticed by Kennedy, as the Slayer had been unable to make eye contact since she decided to follow through with her plan.
"I want you to have this," Kennedy stated, her tone strong despite her inability to focus on anything but the chair across the room.
"What—" began Willow, her voice cracking under the stress. She swallowed and tried again. "What is it?"
Kennedy didn't answer, instead pushing the box even further toward to the redhead, who appeared close to bolting like a frightened bunny. She managed to remain seated, however, and reached for it with a trembling hand. Kennedy fidgeted impatiently, but her gaze never faltered from its focal point.
Flinching as though it might explode in her face, Willow cracked open the box, one eye clenched tightly shut. When she spied the contents she relaxed, opening it all the way to reveal a stone – a shiny, silver stone. A wave of relief washed over Willow, leaving only puzzlement as she regarded the stone curiously.
"It's a butterfly tear!" Kennedy blurted out, then immediately cursed herself for doing so. Willow said nothing, simply shaking her head in confusion. The Slayer inhaled deeply, steeling herself before finally lifting her head and looking at Willow.
"When I was little, before Mac was born, my brother and me used to play around in this big field by our house – the summer house. I think some construction company or something must've owned the lot, cuz there was this huge pile of gravel off to one side. It was spring, and there were butterflies all over the place, and I got it in my head that I was gonna catch one."
Kennedy smiled fondly at the memory as she recalled the scene in her mind's eye, toying absently with the drink straw. "It was beautiful, with these bright blue wings like the sky at night, just before the sun completely goes down. I couldn't get it, though, it kept flying away. Finally, it landed part way up the gravel, so I scrambled after it." She smirked ruefully, "This was way before Slayer balance, though, and I fell, skinning the hell outta my hands and knees on the way down. When I finally hit the bottom I just laid there, cryin' like a little baby. My brother came running over, figuring I must've broken every bone in my body the way I was carryin' on. After he made sure it was pretty much just my pride, he tried calming me down, but I had worked myself up into a pretty good snit by this point and just kept bawling my head off. So then he hands me this stone."
Willow glanced down at the box in her hand as Kennedy indicated to it. The stone didn't look like much, and from the nicks and dents that marred the surface, it had been around for some time, but the Slayer spoke of it with great reverence.
"I'm sure he just found it lying in the gravel, but ... " she shrugged, continuing. "So anyway, he tells me it's a butterfly tear, and it's magic. He said that butterflies only cried for really special little girls, and that by keeping this stone I'd always have a reminder of how someone out there thought I was special."
Moved, Willow traced her finger across the face of the stone. "I can't—" she began, but the other woman cut her off.
"I pretty much stopped believing in magic not long after that. As you know," added Kennedy. "But lately? I'm thinkin' maybe there's somethin' to it after all. And I want you to have this. To help you remember how there's always someone out there who thinks you're special."
"Kennedy, this is ... wow." The redhead gently closed the lid and extended her hand. "But I can't. I can't take this. Your brother—"
The Slayer reached out and forced Willow's hand back. "I want you to have it, so he'd want you to have it." Willow took a deep breath, gearing up for further protest. "Please," Kennedy implored.
Releasing the breath slowly, the witch nodded, and with a smile placed the box next to her on the table. Kennedy nodded also, relieved in a way that it was over. Both sat in silence, unsure of what to say or do next, and the Slayer motioned to the plate of neglected mozzarella.
"So. Cheese? Because I didn't just dump a whole boatload of it all over you."
Willow grinned, grabbing another stick, dunking it in the marinara and began eating again with the same intense gusto. Kennedy sat back, content to simply watch.
"You sure you don't wanna join in?" Virginia chirped happily. "This is ... whoa. This is awesome."
All the girls, save Brenda, were gathered in the center of the room, huddled around the ouija board lying between them. Their fingers were splayed on a plain, well-worn planchette that was carved from a dark, almost black wood. The device was moving in a lazy figure eight pattern across the board's surface. Meghan and Jackie sat across from each other, shooting glares. Virginia practically bounced up and down in place, boiling over with energy and delighted to be part of whatever was going on. Only Dawn appeared nervous, gnawing at her lower lip as she watched her hands being directed back and forth.
Brenda was curled up in a nearby chair, the stack of diaries on a table next to her. Intent on reading through one of them, she glanced up only occasionally to observe her friends. Smiling, she declined Virginia's offer. "Nah, I'm good. These are interesting. Whoever 'Ashley' was, she was a pretty good writer."
"You're moving it," Meghan growled at Jackie in a low, accusatory tone, completely oblivious to whatever else might be going on around her.
Jackie's expression was equally damning. "Your little pointed finger routine won't work with me; you're the one moving it."
"Will someone please just admit to moving it?" pleaded a worried Dawn.
Having perceived a question, the planchette broke its holding pattern and glided toward the letters surrounding the perimeter of the board. First "M", then "E", before it returned to tracing figure eights.
"'Me'"? read Jackie. "Very funny, Meghan."
A retort poised on her lips, Meghan opened her mouth, but Brenda stopped her short. "Looks like writing wasn't all Ashley was good at," the girl summarized. "According to what I've read so far, she was pretty much tops at everything she did. Constantly on the honor roll, whiz on the piano ... she even sold some paintings while she was still in high school."
"Ugh, I hate people like that. So perfect," complained Virginia, although coming from the small girl it sounded more like a passing comment than a declaration of thorough dislike. "Bet she was pretty and had all these guys swooning over her too. Does it mention swooning? I bet it mentions swooning."
"O Spirits," Meghan proclaimed, "will Virginia ever manage to hold a conversation without letting her hormones take it over?"
The room erupted into laughter as the planchette swung to "NO" – save Virginia, who was busy looking offended. She swiped at Meghan, which resulted in nothing but renewed laughter.
Only barely glancing away from her reading, Brenda reported, "Seems to be swoon-free. There is a lot in here about her younger sister Lydia, though. Poor kid, Ashley was really worried about her. Sounds like everyone pretty much just considered her 'Ashley's Sister'."
Dawn barked a quick, humorless laugh. "Is Lydia's phone number in there?" she asked bitterly, mostly to herself. "Maybe we can start a club."
With one ear cocked toward Brenda to indicate she was continuing to listen, Jackie addressed the still-swirling planchette. "Is Mrs. Carver secretly an agent of evil sent here to destroy innocent young minds by boring them to death with pointless, never-ending lectures about 18th century social reform in Italy?"
The planchette completed another rotation, then drifted easily to "YES".
"See? Told you so," Jackie informed the room with a self-satisfied smirk.
"Oh, hey, Ginny? I think I found some swooning for you." Shifting in her seat, Brenda leaned forward in her chair as the other girl's pouting finally faded and she perked up considerably. "Check this out: 'Lydia came home today, crying over Steven. I feel bad for her; I know how much she liked him. But she shouldn't have said those horrible things to me. It's not my fault that he broke up with her to be with me. And really, what did she expect? Lydia's a wonderful girl, but I hope she realizes soon that she just can't compete with me. The quicker she accepts that, the happier she'll be.'"
Brenda's reading completed, the room fell into contemplative silence.
"Okay, not really swoony ..." conceded Brenda. Virginia shook her head in wide-eyed, emphatic agreement.
"No, it's really not," Dawn echoed. "Geez, can she be more egocentric? What a bee-yatch."
The planchette began whirling faster, angrier, causing all the girls to focus their attention on it in surprise.
Meghan smirked, "I think the spirits are feeling neglected."
"Well I guess it's understandable," commented Jackie. "Being spirits and all, I guess they don't have much to do but float around and wait for someone to make a call on Hell's cell phone here."
"Spirits!" Virginia announced suddenly, causing everyone to jump. "Hear my question and impart upon me your wisdom!" She paused for dramatic effect. "Will Doug Matthews ask me to the Spring Fling?"
A loud groan was her only answer, as Meghan reached out and pushed hard against Virginia's forehead. The blonde fell back easily, flopping into the pile of pillows behind her, squeaking "What? I'm just asking!"
"Who are you?" Dawn asked the board without preamble, refocusing everyone's attention.
At this, the planchette slowed. It began to slide toward the letters, but then resumed its figure eight pattern without touching any of them.
Jackie eyed the ouija board critically. "Huh. Maybe they've been dead so long they forgot."
"Jackie!" Virginia admonished, shocked.
The other girl grinned. "Or maybe Meghan forgot how to spell."
Interrupting the inevitable retort, Brenda waved her hand. "Guys, guys, listen to this." She cleared her throat. "'I found something horrible in Lydia's room today, deep in the back of her closet. I wasn't sure what it was at first, but after doing some checking, I found out it's something called a 'ouija board'. People use it talk to ghosts and demons and things like that. I confronted her about it of course, and all she could do is ask me how I found it. Like that was even the issue. I didn't let up though, and she finally admitted she had been using it. She says she was just tying to talk to Mom and Dad, but I know better. She's trying to hurt me. I thought her jealousy might be getting the better of her, and now I have proof.'"
"Uhhh, so am I alone in thinking 'Go Lydia' at this point?" Meghan asked the group with a raised eyebrow, looking down as the planchette gained momentum and moved with certainty over the letters.
L Y D I A, it spelled, then darted to NO.
Laughing, Jackie regarded Meghan. "You can't even agree with yourself now?"
Meghan gave a bone-weary sigh. "Jackie, get over it already, it stopped being funny three lifetimes ago."
"Well I for one am completely registered with the pro-Lydia party," stated Dawn firmly. "Bad enough she had this way larger-than-life older sister, but Ashley's, like, the most self-absorbed person ever!" She pondered this for a moment before adding, "Second most."
"I feel bad for her," Virginia commiserated, her face openly displaying empathy for the unknown girl's plight. "Poor Lydia. Didn't she have anything that was just, you know, hers?"
The friends were engrossed in their conversation, and failed to notice when the planchette stopped weaving in its steady holding pattern to swing back and forth between YES and NO.
Brenda glanced up briefly from the diary. "Actually, yeah, it looks like she did. I'm toward the end now, but it looks like Lydia had a hidden talent after all. According to this, she had a beautiful singing voice. Ashley had no idea. And couldn't even come close to competing." She wore a delighted expression as she addressed the others. "I guess we finally found something she couldn't do."
"I'm sure that sat well with Little Miss Perfect," Jackie commented, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
Dawn was only barely paying attention to the conversation; her eyes were firmly glued to the ouija board, the marker still moving in a ceaseless YES/NO pattern. She tilted her head to one side, narrowing her eyes in concentration. "If the board was in with Ashley's diaries, and we know she took it from Lydia ..." she trailed off as pieces started clicking into place. To the board, she asked, "Did you know them? The Buchanans?"
"And did they use the board? Did someone try to do something?"
"Hey Jackie, you were right," Brenda said from behind the book. "Ashley started out saying she was glad Lydia had finally found her thing, but as these entries go on, it's pretty clear she was anything but. I'm reading some stuff now ..." Narrowing her gaze, she frowned at the text. "They're kinda disjointed and hard to follow, but it looks like Ashley convinced herself that Lydia somehow stole the singing ability from her. And the last entry? It just says, 'She can't get away with that. It was mine. I know it was mine. Everything is mine. I'm going to make it mine.'"
"Whew, overwritten," remarked Meghan with a 'whoa' expression. "Looks like she left her writing ability the same place as her sanity."
Unnoticed by everyone save Dawn, the planchette had stopped swinging from YES to NO and was instead tracing out L Y D I A, very deliberately if casually. Brenda closed the final diary and placed it to one side with the others, leaning forward in her chair to watch her friends and the board.
"Did it work?" Dawn questioned the ouija with some urgency. "What they wanted to happen?"
Virginia's eyes flashed from the board to the other girl. "Dawn...?" she began, her voice wavering.
But Dawn was too wrapped up in unraveling the puzzle to pay her friend any attention. The planchette's pace increased, unceasing as it spelled out L Y D I A again and again. The girls watched nervously, glancing at each other for reassurance and finding none.
"What happened to Ashley – Lydia was innocent, wasn't she?" Dawn pressed.
YES – L Y D I A L Y D I A
Dawn took a deep breath. "...Are you Ashley Buchanan?"
As soon as it had answered Dawn's question, the planchette began to fly across the surface of the board. The girls were jerked along as it picked up speed, their fingers still firmly affixed. They watched in rising panic as its movements became a blur.
L Y D I A L Y D I A L Y D I A L Y D I A
"Meghan?!" Jackie asked fearfully.
"It's not me!" was the equally scared reply.
Virginia had turned white as sheet, unable to do anything but gasp, "Oh god. Oh god."
Practically leaping out of the chair, Brenda yelled to the others, "Take your fingers off! Just let go!"
"I-I can't!" Dawn shot back, struggling to move away from the board. "It's like they're stuck!"
L Y D I A L Y D I A L Y D I A L Y D I A L Y D I A—
The planchette suddenly whirled to GOODBYE and came to a halt, as though it had run into an invisible wall. Four sets of fingers were ripped violently from the surface, as the girls no longer encountered any resistance.
Nobody said a word, and the room was almost preternaturally quiet, save the sounds of terrified panting.
Then a howling sound, like a strong wind blowing through treetops echoed in the room. Heads whipped, trying to locate the source, but nothing could be seen. An actual breeze sweeping into the room soon accompanied the wailing, although all the doors and windows were firmly shut. The wind grew more intense, the force opening one of the diaries and ruffling the pages. Half-empty cups of soda tipped over as they rolled across the carpet, spilling their contents. The girls edged away from the board, huddling together against the far wall, their hair being whipped in all directions.
They screamed as a lamp, hurled by an invisible hand, crashed through one of the windows, raining shards of glass into the room, caught by the wind. CDs and DVDs started toppling of their own accord from nearby shelves, and the girls flinched away from the walls, covering their heads for protection.
The incessant howling of the wind reached a fever pitch, transforming into something that sounded unholy and full of rage. Then a flash of light from the discarded ouija board blinded everyone momentarily with its intensity. Light and wind both dissipated quickly to reveal a ghost – a pale and twisted parody of what was once probably a very attractive young woman. She hovered about a foot over the ouija board
"LYDIA!!" shrieked the apparition. Its voice could have been resounding from the very gates of hell.
The girls trembled, paralyzed in the face of this horror.
"I told you it wasn't me," Meghan whispered shakily.
Dawn and her friends huddled together in fear, backing away from the spectre in a shuffling mess, attempting to move as one cumbersome organism. For every step they took, the ghost would follow. Thankfully, its screams had now died away, but it was staring at them intently. The effect was particularly disconcerting, as it had no eyes, only bottomless, hollow sockets.
Its gaze swept to one side, to the CDs and DVDs that had been knocked from the shelves during its initial assault, and the cases began to snap open. The discs inside levitated and began to spin, slowly at first and then gaining momentum. The girls screamed again and only barely reached cover behind the couch before the discs flew towards them with unnatural speed. Lacking targets, the discs connected with the walls, most bouncing off, a few shattering on impact, and a couple imbedding themselves half inside.
Behind the couch, the girls tried to catch their breath, feeling safe for the moment, quickly rising to panic again as the entire couch was swept out of the way by an unseen hand, leaving them exposed.
Ducking, they tried to run to the other side of the room, back the way they had come. The ghost shrieked again as they attempted to flee past her, and the wind returned, swirling like a self-contained tornado, picking up any small objects that weren't nailed down and forming an effective barricade against any movement in that direction. The girls had no choice but to retreat.
"Oh god! Oh god!" Virginia continued to sob.
Brenda fed off of the smaller girl's rising panic. "We're all gonna die!"
"We're not gonna die!" Dawn broke in, sounding as confident as possible, given the situation. "Just- Just stay calm! Everyone! I-I've been through this sorta thing before—"
The surprise that statement carried refocused everyone, and four heads turned for the first time away from the terror before them to regard Dawn with disbelief.
"Are you serious?" Jackie asked incredulously.
"–and we should be okay so long as the TV stays off when you unplug it," continued Dawn, having tuned out everything else around her.
Convinced that Dawn had lost it, her friends simply stared at each other, shaking their heads and shrugging. They were so thrown by these new developments that they had momentarily ceased paying any attention to the ghost, and consequently oblivious to the large picture frame speeding toward them.
But Dawn wasn't. "Get down!" she yelled, throwing herself at the cluster of girls and knocking them all to the ground. The picture frame collided with the wall precisely where they had been, shattering the glass and raining shards down on them.
"You're hurt!" exclaimed Virginia, reaching out to a shallow cut on Dawn's cheek.
"It doesn't matter," Dawn dismissed with a shake of her head, "we've gotta figure out how to stop this."
Resolved, Dawn examined the living room, searching for something that would help them, when she noticed the ouija board at the center of the chaotic whirlwind. It still glowed and was wholly undisturbed.
"That must be it," she muttered to herself, while announcing to the others, "Guys, I've got it! Listen—"
The spirit glanced sharply at Dawn and gestured toward the kitchen. A long, sharp knife pulled itself free from the wooden block that housed it and soared out of the room. Reaching the living room, it headed straight for Dawn.
"—it's the oui—"
Sensing something, Dawn looked up and spied the knife, rushing at her much, much too fast. Her eyes grew wide as she realized with dread that there was no possible way to avoid it.
They grew even wider as a stake appeared from seeming nowhere and intercepted the knife. The blade embedded itself deep within the stake instead of Dawn, and both weapons tumbled to the side, safely avoiding everyone. The girls stared at Dawn, then at the stake, then at the ghost, trying to make sense out what had happened. The spirit, however, whipped its head towards the entrance and snarled. Noticing the movement, everyone followed the gaze.
Her backpack slung over one shoulder, Buffy stood in the entranceway to the living room as though waiting casually to be greeted.
"Hi honey, I'm home."
A lone buffalo wing resided on a paper plate, sauce dripping down the sides and staining the area underneath with a thin film of grease. Giles peered at it with open, unabashed disgust.
"Xander, if this is part of some master plan to make me so ill that I'll stop winning ..."
"No way," Xander shook his head at Giles. "No need. I sense your luck is about to change."
Giles stared at the wing as though it were contagious. "Yes, I'm getting that feeling as well."
"This is all about being a full-on part of Manly Man Poker Night," the carpenter explained patiently.
Tilting his head, eyes still riveted to the plate, Giles looked plaintive. "I assure you, I was quite content to be a fringe part."
Xander would have none of it. "Nuh-uh. Full-on. That includes the beer—" Reaching out with his brew, he clinked bottle necks with Wood. "—the dirty jokes—"
Opening his mouth excitedly, Andrew took this as his cue and leaned forward. Xander jabbed a finger at him, and the blond settled back, dejected.
"—when I am NOT in the middle of talking—" continued Xander, "—and the munchies. Which, in this instance, happens to be of the buffalo variety."
"You assured me this was chicken," Giles accused, glaring.
"And I continue to assure you," he soothed with the slightest condescending twinge. "Now eat it so we can get back to the game."
Giles returned to the wing, his expression pitiful. "I was quite content with my pretzel 'munchies'."
"Quit being The Whiniest Little Watcher and eat the darn thing."
Wood had been watching the exchange with a blank expression, only the slight raising of one eyebrow betraying his amusement. "They're actually quite good, Rupert," he encouraged the Watcher. "Especially with ranch dressing." Giles shot Wood a look of complete and utter repulsion. Wood shrugged and sipped his beer. "Different strokes."
"If you don't want it ..." began Andrew, his hand snaking out, only to have it smacked by an irritated Xander. He jerked his hand back, cradling it against his chest protectively. "O-o-o-wwww," he whined as he rubbed it.
Xander paid the blond no heed and pushed the plate closer to Giles. "You are of a people who consume all aspects of the cow. This shouldn't be that difficult."
Leaning back further in his chair away from the wing as though it might suddenly decide to bite him, Giles resumed his horrified staring. "But-But it's ... orange. Meat shouldn't be orange." He shuddered involuntarily. "It's unnatural."
"You wanna talk unnatural? Let's talk black pudding," countered Xander vehemently, clearly having a very strong opinion on this topic. "Pudding should be chocolate, or butterscotch – or quite possibly banana – and endorsed by Bill Cosby. You're not qualified to deem anything unnatural," he concluded with a firm nod of his head.
A look of panic crossed Giles' face as he realized he was running out of options. With the utmost reluctance, he reached out a trembling hand for the buffalo wing while simultaneously flinching away from it. Ever so slowly he moved closer and closer, his fingers almost grazing the surface.
The door bursting open startled everyone in the room, and Giles jerked his hand away, an expression of deep relief etched on his face. Faith strode in, her arms swinging freely by her sides as she took in the room.
"Well well, what have we here?" she questioned casually.
Panicked, Andrew whirled to the carpenter. "Girl!" he cried unnecessarily, pointing at Faith. "Xander! Girl!"
"Don't worry, Andy, I'll take care of it," reassured Xander, patting Andrew's shoulder as he walked to the Slayer. "Faith!" he greeted. "How nice of you to stop by. We don't wanna keep you, though. I'm sure you've got a busy night ahead: places to go, things to kill. Can't be late with the killin', makes vamps all cranky, so if you'll just get the door on your way out ..." He extended an arm, attempting to escort the woman from his Men's Only haven.
"Nah, I'm in no rush," Faith replied, intentionally missing the social cues. The Slayer moved further into the room and spied Wood, sitting at the table with his back to the door. "You here too, huh?" she asked, nudging his chair leg with her foot. Reaching over his shoulder, she grabbed his beer bottle, raising it to her lips. Smoothly, Wood took it back before she could drink, and reached into the ice chest next to him to produce a beer of her very own. He handed it to Faith and she smirked, easily twisting off the bottle cap and tossing it aside.
"These fine gentlemen were so eager to give me all their money, it seemed rude to not take them up on the offer," he explained.
Xander had returned to his seat across from Wood, although he had yet to sit down. "Tough talk comin' from the guy who lost seven whole dollars to my three-of-a-kind," Xander stated proudly.
"That was over an hour ago."
"Seven dollars, my friend!" he insisted.
Faith raised her hands in a parody of being impressed. "I can see this is a tough room. So I'm sure you won't mind addin' another player."
Panicking again, Andrew threw Xander a look of alarm.
"Actually—" Xander began.
"Great," concluded Faith. She grabbed a large box from the corner of the closet and brought it to the table, placing it between Wood and Andrew before settling comfortably on top.
As Xander watched Faith, desperation crossed his face. "We're playin' for real money here," he told her hopefully, as though this fact would somehow deter the game crasher.
"Works for me," the Slayer replied without pause. "I got ..." Leaning back and digging a hand deep into her pockets, she came out with a handful and dumped the contents on the table. She flicked aside a few pennies, a balled up receipt and a paperclip to reveal a wadded up dollar bill and some silver change. "A buck fifty," Faith concluded. "And a peppermint."
Snatching the mint, she unwrapped it and popped it in her mouth before tossing the dollar and two quarters in the center of the table and looking at Xander expectantly.
Panic mounting, Andrew also looked to Xander, while Wood simply sat with a detached interest, watching the events unfold. The carpenter floundered, unsure of what he should do next, and Giles rolled his eyes at the entire situation.
"Xander, if Faith wants to play a quick round, I'm sure we can indulge her," the Watcher sighed.
"But ... Manly Man Poker Night!" protested Xander, gesturing toward the table.
"...Can surely be momentarily suspended for the single hand it will take Faith to lose her ... generous contribution."
Faith raised an eyebrow at Giles. "I ain't sure, but those sounded like fightin' words." Tipping her head, she glanced to a hesitant Xander, a smile curling her lips. "C'mon, X-Man, you gonna let a girl ruin your testosterone party?"
With a sigh, Xander sat back in his seat, shuffling the cards. On the other side of the carpenter, Andrew glanced nervously at Faith. She grinned back, predatorily, and he scooched his chair as far in the other direction as possible.
A pair of vases hurtled in Buffy's direction, but she cartwheeled between them easily, using the opportunity to bring herself closer to the ghost. The remaining steak knives followed, and the Slayer dodged them with no effort, snatching out to grab one in each hand. In a fluid motion, she threw the knives back, where they sailed harmlessly through the ghost's chest and head.
"Okay, see, this is a sign you've taken the diet a bit too far," Buffy admonished.
Against the far wall, the girls were still crouching, trying to remain as small and unobtrusive as possible, but all previous traces of fear had vanished, replaced by awe and wonder.
Jackie jerked her head at Buffy as she focused on Dawn. "Is that your sister?" she queried, suitably impressed.
The sighing reply was long and resigned. "Yeah, that's Buffy."
"She's awesome," Meghan breathed admiringly.
With a wave of a translucent hand, Xander's chair went flying at the Slayer. Rather than duck, Buffy vaulted into the air and landed on top of it as it sailed by, using it as launch point to dive across the room toward the ghost, eliminating the remaining distance between them. Now close enough for physical attacks, the Slayer executed a spinning kick, following immediately with a one-two combo. All passed through the spectre with no effect, but Buffy never once lost her balance. Searching for some weak point, she unleashed a barrage of lightning fast punches at every point of its body, each one futile.
"Buffy!" Dawn called out, seeing her sister's ineffectual attacks. "It's the ouija board!"
Responding immediately, the Slayer whirled her head around the room, searching for the board and turning her attention away from the ghost. It leapt upon this fact and sent a huge, jagged shard from either the window or a fractured picture frame flying at Buffy. Despite there being no way for her to see it coming, she ducked, and the glass sailed harmlessly over her head and shattered against the wall.
Closer to the ground, Buffy finally spotted the ouija board and began to move toward it, only to suddenly jerk her head up in time to see the coffee table, flat side first, heading straight for her. Scrambling to her feet, the Slayer managed to secure her footing and throw her hands out just in time. She grunted and strained and succeeded in holding her ground. For a moment it looked like a stalemate, then with a loud splitting sound, a crack formed in the center of the table. It widened further and further until suddenly splintering in two. Buffy dove between the two halves, rolling to a stop in front of the ouija board and, with one powerful downward punch, smashed it into pieces.
The ghost shrieked, bringing its hands to its head, as it seemed to collapse into itself, faster and faster until it disappeared completely within a flash of light. The scream lingered on for a few seconds longer until it, too, faded away.
Buffy remained poised, ready to face another assault for a few heartbeats before relaxing and straightening, bringing herself to her full height. She smiled, pleased with herself as she commented, "I guess she got 'bored'."
Things were considerably less jovial and relaxed around the poker table. Andrew's visor was crooked and only barely perched on his head. Xander rubbed his face, staring despondently at the cards in his hand. Giles' hair was mussed, like something other than a comb had been run through it several hundred times. Even Wood appeared worn out, like he'd taken on a dozen vamps solo.
Also conspicuously missing were the poker chips. Whereas before each player had possessed a neat stack of varying colors, they now had only one or two lone chips. The bulk had relocated to a high and thoroughly disorganized pile in front of Faith. The Slayer sat contentedly behind it, peacefully slipping her beer and inspecting her cards. She grabbed a handful of chips at random, not bothering to sort out which color or how many.
"I raise ..." She paused briefly to consider those in her hand, then shrugged and tossed them in the center of the table. "...that much."
A chorus of groans erupted around the room. Wood and Giles both threw down their hands and pushed away from the table. Trying desperately to find some way not to surrender, Xander hesitated only a moment longer before also slamming his cards down with a disgusted "Bah!"
Andrew displayed no signs of irritation. Very calmly, he laid his cards face down on the table and regarded Faith with a cool expression. "In the game of life," he stated sagely, "women are the rake."
This earned him several strange looks, but no one asked for clarification. Faith glanced from one player to the next, taking in all the defeated faces. "Aw, the 'Manly Men' foldin'? Ain't got the stamina to outlast a little girl?"
There was no response as four sets of eyes all focused somewhere else.
"Well, I know I've had a blast," announced the Slayer. Standing, she grabbed a small box from a nearby shelf and, dumping the contents, began shoveling her winnings inside. "I'll just take these back to my room," she explained conversationally, "an' catch ya later for the trade-off. I think you guys could use some alone time, an' I do so hate to see grown men cry."
Blowing the room a big kiss, Faith strode out much like she had entered.
"I think I liked her better when she was tryin' to kill us all," muttered Xander. Giles nodded vaguely in agreement.
Wood rose to the scraping sound of his chair being pushed back. "Well, I'd like to say it's been fun, but ... " He trailed off, considering what to say next, finally settling on saying nothing at all and simply walking out of the room.
"Yes, thank you, Xander," Giles agreed, also rising. "Next time you host one of these events, do please feel free to tell me nothing about it."
Xander watched Giles leave, still staring at the door after the Watcher had disappeared from sight. To nobody, he grumbled, "Well you were the one who was all, 'Oh, pshaw, what's one round?' ...git. I'm not even sure what a 'git' is, but right now he sure feels like one."
Encouragingly, Andrew piped up with a big smile and bright voice. "Well I had fun," he declared. "I think this was an enriching experience. I, for one, feel bonded in all sorts of exciting new ways!"
Blinking a couple of times at Andrew, Xander decided to simply leave it, sighing and, with a hung head, slinking from the room. Now alone, Andrew absorbed his surroundings in silence, then, trying his best to look sneaky, snagged a nearby beer bottle. He hesitated for only a moment before taking a tentative sip, instantly gagging and pulling a face.
"Smooth," he strained.
Buffy gingerly stepped over the broken remains of ... something. It was impossible to tell what it had once been. Regarding the room critically, she raised an eyebrow. "Wow. You know, I don't remember this place being such a dump when I left."
From their position of relative safety, the girls were rising, moving forward tentatively. Dawn wore an expression of vague annoyance, while her friends gaped openly at the Slayer.
"Buffy," Dawn stated.
For the first time, Buffy really had the chance to focus on her little sister.
"Dawn," replied Buffy in the same tone.
A minute passed, both Summers appraising each other. Finally, Dawn crossed her arms. "So. What'd you bring me?"
"A 'My sister went on extended sabbatical and all I got was this lousy t-shirt' shirt."
Buffy broke their staring contest to gaze around the room. "Though I'm thinking maybe I should've gotten you a broom," she amended.
As though seeing the destruction – really seeing it for the first time, Dawn's eyes grew wide. Throughout the ordeal with the ghost she had been relatively calm and collected, but now panic seemed to be rushing in as she fully comprehended the damage.
"Or maybe some life insurance," continued Buffy, kicking a broken statue to one side. "Will's gonna kill you when she sees this." Noticing the window, she casually added, "Oh, and Xander too. An' he thought his window-fixin' days were behind him. Silly, silly carpenter."
Reluctantly, Dawn bent down and picked up a lamp that used to be on an end table, which appeared to be missing-in-action. She looked at it hopefully for a moment, then the futility of it struck and she let it drop back to the ground. It broke into a few more pieces. She whimpered.
"Wow," Virginia breathed at Buffy's elbow, causing the older blonde to start as she took in the group of girls who had made their way to be within touching distance of the Slayer.
"Oh. Hi," she said with a touch of unease at their proximity. "I'm Buffy. You guys must be Dawn's friends...?"
The question went ignored. Meghan, in a state unusual for her, was so excited she was having trouble articulating herself. "That stuff you did," she enthused. "With the—" she chopped the air with her hand, "—and the—" she pulled off a weak imitation of Buffy's kick, "—and the jumping off the chair?" Taking a deep breath, Meghan started intently at the Slayer. "Coolest. Thing. Ever."
Buffy puffed visibly. "Oh, well, thank you," she smiled, flattered.
"It was like watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," agreed Jackie enthusiastically, "only ... shorter, no wires and with a much better ending."
Smiling again, Buffy accepted the praise, totally relishing the attention being showered on her. Unnoticed, Dawn stood to one side watching her sister surrounded by her friends. She considered the state of the room again, and sighed heavily.
"How did you do all that stuff?" wondered Virginia. Her hand hovered over Buffy's arm, as though she wanted desperately to touch the older girl but was too afraid to do so.
Buffy blinked at this, unsure of how to answer. "I, uhh ... I eat my Wheaties."
Virginia nodded firmly, taking this information to heart. She looked very much as though she would eat Wheaties every morning for the rest of her natural life.
Still fixated on the action, Meghan continued to enthuse, mimicking each move she described. "And the way you caught those knives in mid air like that! You were movin' so fast I couldn't even follow you!" She gasped, a thought having just occurred to her, and she leaned in close to Buffy. "Do you have your own Bullet Time?"
The Slayer opened her mouth to answer, but Brenda jumped in. "How did you know?" the girl queried, her voice softer than the others but still full of wonder at what she had seen. "About the board, I mean. I'm guessing that Ashley somehow tried to make a deal with something to steal Lydia's singing, but that something must've gone wrong ..." She shook her head. "But I never would've guessed that breaking the board would have dispelled her spirit. How did you figure it out?"
Turning to her sister, pride evident, Buffy smiled. "Dawn, actually." Dawn perked up immediately, delighted to be credited for her deductive reasoning. "She just knew what to do."
But Dawn's friends were clearly not interested in hearing about anything other than the Slayer's awe-inspiring achievements, and they began to babble about which part of the fight they liked best. Dawn's face fell, as did Buffy's, taking note of Dawn's expression.
"I think my favorite part was when she broke the table," Jackie said excitedly. "I mean, she didn't even move, just ... Snap! Two tables."
Meghan nodded emphatically. "Coolest. Thing. Ever."
A inarticulate gurgling sound attracted everyone's attention, and they spun around to see Willow standing in the doorway of the living room. Kennedy was close behind with raised eyebrows, as both took in the massive damage.
The redhead was beside herself. "Whuu—? How did—? What the—? And the—? When did—?"
Suspecting things were about to get very ugly, Dawn's friends began to slowly back away.
"Uhh, Dawn?" announced a nervous Jackie. "We'll be in your room ..."
Without waiting for confirmation, the four girls tore off, the sound of pounding feet disappearing up the stairs. Dawn gulped and went to Willow, wearing what was supposed to be a placating smile on her lips. It looked more like a grimace.
"It's not what you think," the teen began defensively.
Willow gaped at Dawn, green eyes flashing. "I'm thinkin' the living room's pretty much destroyed!"
"Okay, it is what you think ..."
Appraising Dawn critically, Willow conducted a quick inventory. "I see two arms, two legs, and you're forming complete sentences. Those were pretty much your only tickets outta this conversation, so start talkin'."
Kennedy gave the pair a wide berth, intent instead on surveying the damage, appearing a little impressed with its extensiveness. Going further in the room she finally spotted Buffy, standing back and watching Willow and Dawn uncertainly. "Oh, hey," she greeted. "When'd you get back?"
"Not too long ago," replied Buffy. "Came in, saved some people, defeated a monster." She shrugged. "It's like I never left."
"Funny how that works."
The two Slayers stood together, watching as Willow vented and Dawn hung her head. After a few seconds, Kennedy turned to Buffy. "Well I sense this is gonna take a while, an' I'm not much for the discipline side of things. Tell Willow I went to bed?" The other Slayer nodded. "They'll be glad you're home. An' me too, I guess," Kennedy added with a smirk before leaving.
"'A ghost'?" repeated Willow incredulously. "Rule number three!" The witch held up three fingers and shook them angrily. "'No summoning demons or other nasties'! I specifically said no summoning of nasties! Room-destroying ghosts count as nasties!"
"I know, and I'm sorry! I didn't know that would—"
Xander interrupted Dawn's sixteenth or seventeenth apology, his eye wide as he kept glancing over his shoulder into the hall. "Could someone please explain why my chair is in the hall with half the DVDs?"
"Nasties!" Willow exclaimed, offering nothing more.
"Ah, yes, it's all clear now." Very slowly, he craned his head around the room, frowning. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but weren't we pretty specific about the lack of destruction that was to occur tonight?"
Willow gasped, rounding on Dawn. "Oh! Oh! That was rule four!" Her tone became more angry and sarcastic as she demanded, "Gee, what other ones didja shatter? Got a hidden stash of boys in your room?"
Jerking her head up, Buffy started wide-eyed at Dawn. "You have boys in your room?"
Dawn, apparently having forgotten Buffy was there, whirled around. She looked all the more frazzled at the idea of facing an assault on three fronts. "What? No! I swear," she pleaded, "no boys!"
"Buffy?" Willow whispered, having noticed the blonde for the first time.
"Buffy?" echoed Xander, blinking in surprise.
Dawn gestured at her sister. "Oh, and yeah, Buffy's home," she added lamely.
Without hesitation, Xander arrived in front of Buffy within a few striding steps. He gathered her up in a huge bear hug, which she gladly returned. "Man, it's good to see you," he beamed. Breaking the hug, he stepped back, keeping his hands on her upper arms for just a moment as he appraised her. "You're lookin' good. European Slackin' must agree with ya."
"Thanks," Buffy replied, with a grin, brushing the back of her hand against his arm as she made her own assessment. "You look good too. Really good." Smiling hopefully, she questioned, "Things are better?"
Xander shrugged his shoulders and gave her his little boy grin. "They're gettin' there. One day at a time, y'know?"
"Yeah, I know," she replied sincerely.
Xander stepped back as Buffy turned to Willow. The redhead hadn't moved, she still gaped at Buffy, the surprise at seeing her there seeming to have sucked all the steam out of her anger with Dawn. Faced now with her best friend, Willow didn't seem to know what to do.
Sensing the awkwardness, Dawn began to back away. "I'm ... gonna go to my room," she stated, managing to make it sound more like a question. "You can finish yelling at me later?"
Willow nodded distractedly, but it was enough for Dawn, and she turned to Buffy, wrapping the Slayer in a hug. "You suck for staying away so long," Dawn told her.
"Yeah, well, you suck for ... I'm not sure what, but I've only been back for about 10 minutes. Give me at least 30 and I'm guaranteed to have something," retorted Buffy with a grin.
Smiling happily despite what had occurred earlier, Dawn pulled away and left the room, heading upstairs.
Buffy looked at Willow. Neither said anything and the moment dragged on. Finally Buffy spoke up, waving her hand at the room. "So, here we are, all corporeal and everything."
The redhead ducked her head, embarrassed, then stepped forward and the two embraced in a tight hug.
"I missed you," Buffy breathed, her eyes closed tightly.
"Me too, I missed you too," assured Willow. "I'm so glad you're home."
Almost reluctantly, they released each other and took a step back.
The Slayer nodded. "Me too. Home is good," she decided. "Be it ever so mangled ..."
Buffy trailed off as she, Willow and Xander eyed the destroyed remnants of the room.
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