The four household members who were not Buffy were downstairs having breakfast, which consisted of waffles, toast, eggs, some strips of bacon and a few other choice delicacies. Judging from the plates in front of each person, the majority of food was being consumed by Kennedy, although Willow, Xander and Dawn were each contributing their fair share.
"It's not like it's that important," Dawn complained as she waved around a fork-impaled waffle around, her voice brimming with mild protestation. "What does it matter who the King of France was in 1600? I mean, he's dead, and he was French."
Xander poked his own laden fork at her, as though they would soon duel. "And while I can't argue with those two facts, it's still important to know about things older than last week. They've got a saying just for stuff like that. It has to do with remembering and the past." He waved his fork for good measure before shoveling its contents into his mouth. "I forget exactly what."
All three women rolled their eyes, managing for a brief moment to find some common ground in the face of XanderLogic.
"Regardless," he continued, feeling very much that he was on a roll, "classic European History is a vital, crucial subject that every student needs to learn."
Studying him with a critical eye, Dawn swallowed her last bite of breakfast. "You failed that one, didn't you," she stated flatly, not making it a question.
Xander blinked at her, then turned to Willow. "Did I fail that one?" he asked conversationally.
The redhead nodded brightly. "Yup. As I recall, Mr. Drachensten wasn't even mildly persuaded to give you half credit when said King Louis VI made milk safe to drink."
Dawn looked at Xander with a droll expression.
"Uh, wasn't that Louis Pasteur?" asked Kennedy with a raised eyebrow.
"Hey, I got half his name, I shoulda got half his points," the carpenter insisted with an exaggerated shrug.
"Bottom line, you're not staying home from school today," stated Willow with finality as she jabbed into her eggs. "It's way too early in the school year to be playing hooky anyway."
Dawn started picking up her empty plates. "You think summer school is too early to play hooky," she pointed out.
"Hey now," the redhead protested, a lock of mock offense on her face. "There's plenty of good learning to be had there. That's a whole 33% more knowledge opportunity just waitin' to happen. But I tell ya what, we'll compromise. When July rolls around, you can skip all you want, and I won't make a peep."
"Gee, thanks Mom," retorted Dawn on her way to the kitchen, rolling her eyes, but smirking anyway, clearly having expected no different outcome. She put her dishes in the sink and headed upstairs to finish getting ready.
"Ah, kids," Xander sighed wistfully. "Today it's playin' hooky, tomorrow it'll be a bold and highly visible tattoo to signify her individuality ..." he paused to consider, then turned to look at Willow.
"She is not getting a tattoo," replied Willow, quiet but forceful.
"Damn straight," he agreed.
Interrupting the debate, or lack thereof, Buffy entered the dining room. She didn't seem tired as such, but she was far from her usual morning self – and considering that her usual morning self was about half as cheerful as the average dental patient, that was saying something.
"Well, look who decided to join the land of the living," Kennedy remarked, with just a hint of snide.
"And after last night, never happier to be there," enthused Buffy, ignoring the sentiment of Kennedy's statement.
Willow regarded her quizzically. "You went out last night?"
"Never left my bed. That didn't stop me from tangling with a trio of zombies."
"Just three zombies?" an unimpressed Kennedy asked on her way to the kitchen with her dirty dishes.
"Well, they weren't your usual walking dead," Buffy shot at the other Slayer's retreating back. "For one thing, they were crawling. And they were really strong. Oh, and stinky," she added, wrinkling her nose.
Xander cocked his head thoughtfully to one side. "Would you say they were more Resident Evil or House of the Dead?" All heads turned to look at him. "They were movies too," he defended.
Kennedy ducked briefly back into the dining room to snatch a kiss from Willow. "Gotta run, early training class today."
"Give 'em hell," the witch grinned.
Buffy poured herself some orange juice as Kennedy left, and after taking a sip, continued. "I dunno what kind of zombies they were, but this didn't feel like just a dream."
"More bad-evil visions of an apocalyptic future?" Willow asked hesitantly.
Xander extended the palms of both hands, as if to shield himself from an unseen assailant. "After Hellgods and the prime evil of the world? Not so sure we can handle some smelly dead people crawling across the ground."
"Actually, it was more like ..." Buffy paused. "It didn't seem like they weren't out to get me, more like they wanted my help. The way they reached out ..."
"Yeah, I've heard they do that," nodded Xander. "Right before they snack on your brain."
Buffy was adamant. "No, seriously. Something's definitely weird about this."
"No problem, nothing we can't handle," Willow assured. "I can do some research, see if there's been anything else like this an' stuff going on. We're on the case." She beamed, then the smile faltered just a little. "Uh, got any info that might help us out? Cuz three zombies ... Not a lot to go on."
"Apart from the strong and stinky?" queried Buffy, looking a bit lost. She mulled it over. "There were three of them ... A little boy, a woman, and ... a hand."
Xander stared at her. "A hand," he repeated.
"A hand," Buffy verified. "I mean, I guess it was attached to a body, but that was still in the ground, so ..." She shrugged.
"Are we talking a Palmolive hand, or mighty fist of Conan?"
"Definitely more Conan," she confirmed. "Not much with the softness of dishwashing."
Willow frowned, digging for more helpful clues. "Were they wearing anything special?" She suddenly looked hopeful. "Oh, maybe one of those 'Hello, my name is fill-in-the-blank' tags?" The combined glances she received were enough for her to revisit the statement. "They coulda died at a convention," she grumbled, obviously fond of her idea.
Buffy shook her head. "Not so helpful. Just your usual funeral wear ... The kid had on a gray suit, the woman had on this blue dress. Really blue." She thought it over. "Clashed with her hair."
"Really blue?" Xander asked, smirking at Willow. "Just like that thing last month."
Willow chuckled. "You mean with the paper?"
"And it got all crinkled up ..."
"And we were all like, 'blue!'"
They both cracked up, laughing uproariously and utterly unable to control themselves. After a good half-minute, they slowly began to take notice of Buffy, who looked from one to the other, completely and totally at a loss. It took much visible effort, but Willow reigned herself in sufficiently to attempt an explanation.
"About a month ago ... We had this paper."
"It was blue," Xander interjected. "Bluer than blue. Its blue scale went to 11."
Dawn had reentered the dining room to collect the rest of her books, her backpack slung over one shoulder.
Willow continued, "So, somehow, it gets crinkled—"
Comprehension dawned on the teenager's face and she giggled. It was contagious, and as Xander and Willow turned to her, they started laughing again as well.
All three regarded each other and, in eerie unison, exclaimed "Blue!" dissolving into peels of laughter.
An expression devoid of even the barest understanding had never once left Buffy's face. Indeed, it now appeared as though it were prepared to set up residence for quite some time.
Stomping through the halls of Slayer Central, Buffy was lost in her own private world of irritation and feeling rather inclined to publicly voice it.
"'It's blue! Ah-ha-ha-ha!'" the Slayer faux-laughed in a high-pitched tone dripping with bitterness. Her expression darkened, abandoning all pretense of cheer, false or otherwise, as she grumbled. "Yeah, well ... I know stuff. Funny stuff. Stuff of much funniness that will invoke hilarity and initiate numerous guffaws ... if your name happens to be 'Buffy'," she grudgingly added, with a frustrated pout. "Nyh! It's not fair. How dare they go and find stuff funny without me, just because I happened to be gone for months and months? Isn't there a law against that?"
Lounging casually against a nearby wall, two Slayers watched Buffy as she passed, shooting each other 'check out the crazy chick' glances and smirking. Neither of which was lost on the Senior Slayer, and she rounded on the girls.
"Oh! Oh sure! Go ahead and stare! It's not like I'm busy laughing with my best friends or anything!" she exclaimed angrily. Waving her hands around in the air did little to dispel the image of a Buffy with only a tenuous grip on sanity. "No, I'm over here, not laughing at the joke for which I 'had to be there'. But hey! The there was here when I was there. And if that makes any sense to you, then can you explain it to me, because I think I'm confusing myself."
The pause was brief before the girls took off, far and fast, as though Buffy were the single most terrifying thing they had ever encountered which, given their calling, was certainly saying something.
Buffy watched the dwindling figures and sighed. "Great," she muttered, "now I probably just became somebody else's in-joke." Hanging her head, she continued down the hall, pushing open the door to the private training room. "Giles? Andrew said you were here. I could really use some of the mundanity of quality Watcher/Slayer ... time ..."
Fully entering the room, Buffy took in the sight of quality Watcher/Slayer time. Her face fell as her brain registered the fact that while the Watcher half of the equation was correct, the Slayer part was completely, utterly, inexorably wrong.
Wearing a pair of padded, oversized punch mitts, a sweaty Giles was issuing corrections to an equally sweaty Faith. She swung at him, forcing the Watcher to grit his teeth against the impact, but his critiquing never wavered.
"You're still over-extending yourself," he pointed out patiently. "Too much power, not enough finesse."
"I think we just found my life's catch phrase," Faith smirked, cocking her arm back and unleashing another series of punches.
Giles tsk'ed audibly and frowned at the Slayer. "I could've gotten in at least two blows with that one," he admonished. "You've got to keep your guard up, stop throwing everything behind your attacks."
Her brow furrowing, Faith tried again, and Giles actually rolled his eyes at the effort.
"Now you're just getting sloppy. Reign back the—"
Frustration evident, Faith thew a jab into Giles' outstretched hand with such strength that it was thrown back into his own face, on a direct collision course. "—force," he finished weakly with a groan, pulling off the offending mitt and sinking into the seat of the nearest weight machine. He rubbed his nose tenderly.
"Crap, sorry Oxford," Faith apologized, lowering her hands from the battle stance and moving to stand next to him. She peered down at Giles, trying to get a good look at his injury. "You okay?"
In an instant, Buffy was at Giles' side, a protective hand placed firmly on his shoulder as she glared accusingly at Faith. "What're you doing?" she demanded.
Giles smiled fondly at Buffy's concern, and he patted her hand comfortingly. "It's all right," he soothed. "I think my nose is just—"
"Beating up on Giles is my job!" continued Buffy, shooting daggers at the dark Slayer.
Allowing his hand to fall, Giles gazed into the distance with a pensive expression. "My father was right – being a Watcher is so very rewarding."
"Just a little training, B," shrugged Faith, smirking at the blonde. "You know how it is, gotta keep up the skills."
"Yeah, but with my Giles?" Buffy's glare continued to try and bore burning holes into Faith's skull as she tightened her death grip on Giles' shoulder.
The pain in his nose now forgotten, Giles pried Buffy's fingers out of his flesh, doing his best not to cringe. "Faith may not have an official Watcher, per se," he explained, breathing a sigh of relief as the last of Buffy's fingers detached itself, "but it's still vitally important that she maintain a regular training schedule."
Buffy regarded Faith questioningly. "I thought you hated Watchers?"
"An' what better way to indulge it than beatin' the tar outta one every week?" replied Faith with a grin.
"I could have been a greengrocer," Giles mused to himself, "lived the high life of selling vegetables and various tins of processed foods, but alas ..."
Irritation quickly giving way to poutiness, Buffy's voice adopted a tone usually reserved for little girls wanting an ice cream cone. "But ... this was supposed to be mundane Watcher/Slayer time."
Giles rose to his feet, clearly peevish. "You know, I'm fairly certain that once upon a time, I was respected." The Watcher glanced first from Buffy to Faith, taking in their blank stares. He sighed. "Or perhaps that was a hallucination brought on by any one of a number of head injuries over the years."
"I thought we could ... you know ... do Watcher/Slayer stuff," began Buffy plaintively, but she quickly got excited as an idea occurred to her. "Oh, like you could tell me how to do something, then I could not do it, and you could get all huffy and British about it!" She punctuated her brilliant suggestion with a bright smile.
Faith lightly slapped Buffy's upper arm with the back of her hand, drawing the other woman's attention. "If you're lookin' for someone to spar with, B, I'm up for it. Been a while since you an' me had a good fight."
"I think you were evil at the time," stated Buffy with a wistful expression.
"Those were the days," Faith commented, mirroring the blonde's look.
The two of them paused, sharing the moment.
Buffy broke the silence first. "Actually though, no offense, I was thinking, ... You know. Me and Giles." Turning to Giles, the blonde gazed at him with regret. "I used to love us training."
Giles, however, had a different recollection of events, and he regarded the Slayer with a frown. "I seem to recall you telling me, 'I would rather have my fingernails ripped out with a pair of pliers and be forced to wear Laura Ashley every day for the rest of my life than train'."
"Yeah, but there was love, deep deep down in there," countered Buffy.
"Well, all right then," the Watcher smiled cheerfully, slipping his hand back into the punch mitt. "If you wish to train, we shall train. You can come to my office tomorrow and we'll work out a schedule." He raised his hands as he turned back to Faith, nodding for her to resume the workout and completely missing the crestfallen look on Buffy's face.
"Tomorrow?" she asked with the barest hint of disappointment. "But tomorrow's so ... not today ..."
Giles walked slowly around the edge of the mat, matching Faith's movements as he remained focused on her. "No, that is rather inherent," he supplied off-hand.
"What happened to today?"
He spared the blonde a brief glance, never removing his eyes from Faith for more than a fraction of a second. "I'm afraid I have very little free time today," he explained. "After I finish with Faith I have several meetings to attend. We're currently working at repairing the rift between the old Council and the Covens, and I really can't be absent." Frowning, Giles considered his upcoming commitments. "Actually, now I think about it, I believe the bulk of tomorrow is filled as well. I'll have to check my calendar," he decided, but smiled reassuringly at Buffy. "Thursday, however, I'm certain you can come by and we'll get your training schedule sorted."
With the bulk of his attention focused on the Slayer swinging at him, Giles failed to catch the flash of pain that crossed Buffy's face. She stood there for a moment, watching Faith and Giles circle each other and suddenly looking very uncomfortable and out of place.
Buffy laughed in soft amazement, although there was no real humor in the sound. "Wow, everyone's so busy!" she observed with false cheer. "Thursday. Huh. Yup, just ... pencil me in for Thursday. I'm ... glad I talked to you in enough time for you to just squeeze me on in there."
Holding up a hand to stop Faith's next blow, Giles turned to Buffy, frowning at her with concern. "Is everything all right?" he asked.
"Sure, what's not to be right?" the blonde replied with the same overly perky tone. "I'll ... see you Thursday then."
Heedless of both Giles and Faith's questioning looks, Buffy walked out of the room.
The sun shone brightly through the skylight overhead, bathing the library in a warm glow that did absolutely nothing to dispel the irritated frown darkening Willow's features as she glowered at her laptop. Nearby, at one of the library's fixed computer terminals, Xander was clicking with his mouse at regular intervals, seemingly oblivious to his friend's deteriorating mood.
"You'd think by now I'd stop counting on Hellmouth morgues to only have a few recent deaths," the witch complained.
Xander glanced up briefly before returning to his own monitor. "No joy, huh?"
"Only if you consider sifting through a couple thousand coroners' reports joyful." Willow's tone made it quite evident that she, for one, did not.
"Thanks, I'll pass. Besides, I'm busy over here tryin' desperately to get outta pop-up hell," replied Xander, waving his hand at the machine.
The redhead's disgruntlement evaporated under her amusement. "Xander Harris, are you lookin' at naughty sites again?" she asked in an exaggeratedly chastising tone.
Looking positively mortified, Xander raised an indignant hand to his chest. "I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about, I remain the picture of innocence," he protested, adding, after a slight pause, "You want me to bookmark the good ones for ya?"
With a smirk and an indulgent shake of her head, Willow's focus returned to her computer, and the two continued working. Xander's futile clicking picked up speed as though that would somehow break through the never-ending cycle.
"I wish Buffy could've given us something else to go on," Willow finally said. "I mean, 'dead' and 'stinky', not really the sort of search words I can punch in, y'know?"
"What do you make of this dream?" asked Xander, giving up completely on the computer. "Think it's really one of those visiony things?"
Continuing to type, the witch shrugged her shoulders. "Maybe. It's hard to tell sometimes. But if Buffy thinks it is, it's worth checkin'."
"Oh, totally," the carpenter replied without hesitation. "Just that you think maybe she's ... I dunno. Reaching?"
Willow glanced at Xander, confused. "Reaching?"
"Yeah, you know. Sort of ... embellishing. So we can all do stuff together again."
The witch smirked as she turned back to her laptop. "I'd really rather she bring up a movie night or something. Much less headachy. And I'd like to cast my vote now for 'buttery popcorn' smell over 'rotting corpse'."
Xander wasn't so easily dismissive. "Oh it's out there, no doubt. But maybe she's feeling a bit disconnected."
"Think that'll happen when you spend a few years avoiding your friends for a souled-yet-otherwise-unchanged vampire before running off to frolic through the highlands?" retorted Willow with a snort.
"Just a tad."
"I think she's trying, though," Xander continued. "In her special Buffy way. I mean, we're glad to have her back, so why all the drama?"
Willow's eyes flicked briefly from the computer screen but she remained silent.
"We are glad to have her back, right?" he pressed.
"Yes!" Willow insisted forcibly, but she quickly deflated after the outburst. "Yes, of- of course I'm glad she's back! See me glad? This is me! All with the gladness. Watch me glad!" Pausing, she weakly added, "Yay?"
Xander fixed Willow with a flat stare. "Let's have the 'but'."
"Buuuut ... I dunno. There is no 'but'? No, no, there's a 'but'," she answered herself quickly, proceeding to engage in a heated conversation-of-one. "Definite 'but' action going on here. But I don't know the 'but'. But how can I not know the 'but'? The 'but''s just hangin' out there, makin' us grouchy when- when all we want is to be not-grouchy a-an' 'but'-free', but I—"
Wearing an extremely pained grimace, Xander broke in, "Will, you're hurting me."
"Sorry," she said sheepishly.
"And may I say that I could live the rest of my life never hearing you talk about 'but's hanging anywhere ever again," the carpenter added pointedly.
"Sorry," Willow apologized again, but with an amused grin this time. "I dunno. I guess it's just hard. I-It's like I feel like I've been waiting so long for her to come back to us – really come back to us – that now it looks like maybe she has, I don't know what to do."
Xander furrowed his brow, giving the matter serious thought before his eyes lit up as the answer revealed itself. "Here's a zany thought: be happy?"
"Oh, sure, when you put it that way ..." Willow huffed grumpily, turning back to her laptop.
"It's that simple, isn't it?"
"Is it?" she countered. "I think things stopped being that simple the second she said, 'Hi, I'm Buffy'."
But Xander would not be dissuaded. "Well maybe it's time you both just made 'em that simple again," he stated.
"Starting with some good ol' fashioned Scooby detective work?"
"Can't beat the classics," he smiled.
Nighttime spread over the valleys and wooded areas of Trillium like a black and ominous blanket. Buffy walked along in the dark, using the moon and her own keen senses to see by. She was alongside a roadway atop a small hill. Below and in the distance, the city proper sprawled, the regular arrangement of lights forming a lattice of illumination.
Her reverie was broken by a moan from behind, and it was almost with a sigh that she turned to see the three zombies before her once again, this time all of them up and about. It looked as though the mostly-buried corpse from before had indeed once been a man.
"This is like Night of the Living Dead or something," came the near-complaint. "You know, I hate the classics."
There was more mobility to the trio than previously displayed, all on two feet instead of crawling. It was nothing that Buffy couldn't easily outwalk, but they were definitely moving too quickly to simply ignore. Gone were the formal outfits; in their stead were t-shirts and jeans for the males with a pair of casual slacks for the woman of the group. The boy wore a jacket, the like of a fancy private school. In contrast to the rest of the clothes, the jacket stood out by virtue of its bright gold and green colors, and for the crest insignia it bore: the red head of a griffin overlaid on a shield of gold and black.
Holding up her hands, Buffy backed away from the zombies. "Really, we've gotta stop meeting like this."
It was then that one of the zombies actually spoke for the first time. The voice was rasping, rather like trying to polish a brick with sandpaper, but it was understandable nonetheless. "Heeelp," the older male slurred.
"Yeah, see, I'd like to help you out and everything." Buffy's tone was empathetic. "But I don't know what you want."
It was the woman who beseeched her next, though the voice was also so rough as to be ambiguous of gender. "Heeelp," she pleaded.
Continuing to step away, Buffy raised an admonishing finger. "And by the way, if what you want is to eat my brain, I have to warn you, that could put a serious crimp in our dreamtime relationship."
It was unlikely that the walking dead got the joke or that they found any humor in it. They were, however, definitely slowing in their pursuit. They seemed more hesitant to come after Buffy, who now stood at the edge of the road. As she stepped fully into the center of the paved surface, the zombies stopped altogether.
It was, without doubt a puzzling development, and the Slayer made no effort to hide it. "You don't want to step into the road? What's so special about it?" Buffy looked back and forth between the road and the zombies, apparently trying to formulate a connection. "I mean, it's not like it's going to—"
Whether by intuition, a flash of movement, or some imperceptible sound, Buffy turned her head to the right, looking down the length of the paved lane, and did so just in time to see a very large, very fast truck, speeding toward her and less than twenty feet away.
Surprised into immobility, she stared at the oncoming vehicle. "—kill you?"
Jerking upright, Buffy blinked her eyes in the morning light, apparently surprised to not find herself a highway statistic. She flopped backward, unspeakably pleased to discover soft, comfy sheets instead of cold, hard asphalt beneath her head.
"Once – just once – I'd like to wake up in a cold sweat over sunshine and daffodils. And I don't even care that that made no sense."