Faith lashed out with a brutal left hook that very nearly connected with Buffy's chin, but at the last moment, the blonde leaned backward and it sailed harmlessly by instead. Quickly following up, Faith threw her leg out, foot aiming for Buffy's legs to sweep them aside, but Buffy simply leaned further back and leapt into the air, tucking herself into a tight roll as she spun out of harm's way, landing solidly on the mat under her feet.

The training room was filled with wide-eyed attentive Slayers who had circled the sparring area in a wide berth and were watching with rapt interest as the two Senior Slayers battled in the center. The crowd buzzed with excitement but neither Buffy nor Faith paid it much mind; Faith was focused only on Buffy. As for Buffy, she was focused too, but on something much more troubling and much further removed than this fight.

Her distraction cost her, and Buffy reeled from a well-placed elbow in her stomach, earning her a groan of sympathy from the crowd.

Two of its members in particular had a vested interest in the fight's outcome. Hazel leaned over to her companion, speaking slightly louder than normal to be heard above the surrounding buzz. "Hey Dawn, you sure you don't wanna back out?"

Dawn's reply was a firm shake of her head. "Nope." Her arms were crossed and the fight clearly held every bit of her attention. "$10 on Buffy. In fact ..." She cocked her head to one side as Buffy stumbled backward, reeling from a kick Faith had landed in her face. "...if you're game, let's made it $20."

Several other nearby Slayers turned toward Dawn, their faces registering nothing but shock.

Hazel raised an eyebrow and regarded the other girl with complete disbelief. "You are watching the same fight as me, right?"

"Uh-huh," replied Dawn, unconcerned.

"I mean I know she's your sister and everything," Hazel continued, "and it's really admirable that you have so much ..." The Slayer winced at her own upcoming pun. "...faith in her and everything, but I'm not sure I woulda bet against Fiver on a good day."

Buffy tried to throw a punch at Faith, but the other Slayer grabbed her arm instead, jerking Buffy forward and smashing an elbow into the back of Buffy's head. Collectively, the spectators hissed in sympathetic pain.

Still flinching, Hazel added, "And this looks nothing like a good day."

But Dawn remained firm. "$20 on Buffy."

Shrugging, Hazel agreed, clearly feeling that she had done her best to be charitable. "Okay then. Thanks for contributing to my New Jacket fund."

Faith continued to press her attack relentlessly, but still Buffy only offered half-hearted attempts at blocking and rarely took the offensive, even when an ample opportunity presented itself. Finally Buffy stumbled backward after a solid punch and lost her footing, falling to the floor. The blonde glanced up as Faith swaggered over, a disappointed sneer on her lips.

"This is pathetic," Faith appraised disdainfully.

"Let's just get it over with," retorted Buffy, sounding bored with the whole affair.

Shaking her head, Faith gestured at Buffy's prone position. "Nah, this sucks. I've beat up four-year olds with more fight."

"Four-year olds?" the blonde repeated, sounding incredulous and more than a little disgusted.

"Took their candy too." Reaching out with her foot, Faith nudged Buffy's leg. "C'mon, B. Can't disappoint the folks at home," she smirked, jerking her head at the throng of Slayers surrounding them. "At least try a little."

With a resigned sigh, Buffy pulled to her feet and took a few token swings at the other Slayer, but it wasn't long before she was very easily knocked down once more.

Faith rolled her eyes. "Man, when you try a little, you really try a little." The brunette 'tsk'd condescendingly and shook her head. "Lookit you. Used to be all high and mighty ... Think y'lost somethin', B. Dunno where, dunno when, but lookin' at you like this, it all makes a kinda sense. No wonder Re—"

"Shut up," Buffy spat.

Holding up her hands in mock defense, Faith smirked, "Ooo, an' the kitten has claws. You thinkin' it too, huh? That it's somehow your fault. That maybe if you'd been just that tiny bit better, Red'd be—"

"I said shut up."

Leaning down to Buffy, Faith narrowed her eyes and grinned a challenge at the blonde. "Make me."

Without another word, Buffy threw herself at Faith, attacking with a spirit sorely lacking in her previous attempts. The blows rained sharp and fast, and for a while Faith gave as good as she got. But in the end the sheer tenacity in Buffy's assault gave her an edge and the brunette suddenly found herself flat on her back, staring up wide-eyed at the other Slayer.

For a moment, just the briefest of split seconds, it seemed as though Buffy wasn't going to stop, but then she pulled back, the clear victor. Extending her hand, Buffy hauled Faith to her feet accompanied by the sound of appreciative cheers and applause. An irritated Hazel grumpily handed over several bills to Dawn, who was trying only marginally to not gloat. Together, Faith and Buffy made their way to the corner of the training room, the crowd parting for them as though they were celebrities. Both Slayers grabbed a towel and Faith fished out two water bottles from the nearby ice chest, tossing one to Buffy, who caught it easily.

Catching her breath, Faith watched the Junior Slayers break into smaller groups and file out of the room, excitedly chattering amongst themselves, several pantomiming their favorite parts of the fight.

"They'll be talkin' 'bout this for weeks," commented Faith. "I'd say your rep is pretty well established now, B."

Pausing with the water bottle halfway to her lips, Buffy cast a sidelong glance at Faith. "You didn't let me—"

"Let you win?" she finished. "Nah. Got this whole new thing I'm tryin' out. S'called 'pride'. Lettin' you publicly kick my ass prob'ly woulda put a dent in it." Grinning, Faith patted her face dry and tossed the towel in the corner. "No, that was all you, girlfriend. All I did was push the right buttons, let that inner Slayer out." She rubbed her jaw tenderly, wincing as she hit a sore spot. "Maybe I pushed too hard, though. Remind me to get a safe word around you, B," she chuckled, clearly feeling no ill will from the fight.

Buffy threw her now-empty water bottle into the nearby recycling container. "Sorry about that," she apologized sheepishly.

Shrugging, Faith didn't seem to mind much. "No big. We heal quick. So, you off soon?" she asked, deftly changing topics.

"Yup. Willow's checking out of the hospital in a few hours. Just about enough time to get the house ready." Throwing her towel next to Faith's, Buffy headed for the exit. "Coming?"

"Free food?" Faith grinned, following close behind. "I'm there."

The room had mostly cleared, only a few Slayers remaining to work out on assorted weight machines, so the two Seniors were able to exit unmolested. "Be good to get her home," Faith decided as they moved into the corridor. Neither glanced at the new paint and plaster on the outside walls. "Then maybe you an' the X-Man can stop lookin' like someone tried t'kill your best friend." Considering her words, Faith frowned slightly. "Huh."

"Yeah, well, I'd feel a whole lot better if we knew anything about all this," Buffy replied grumpily. "Research has turned up squat. It doesn't help that I'm pretty much suspecting every last girl here has some secret agenda."

"Least now when you tell 'em you'll kick their ass if they don't talk, they'll believe you," joked Faith, grinning wider when she managed to get a laugh out of Buffy. "Seriously though, what's next?"

Buffy shrugged nonchalantly. "The plan's pretty simple: We find who's behind this, and I kill them."

That brought Faith up short, and she stopped, watching the blonde's retreating back as Buffy continued walking down the hall. "Damn, girl," she muttered, shaking her head. "Maybe lettin' that inner Slayer out ain't such a good idea after all."

Still Buffy didn't stop, and Faith jogged to catch up.

"Inside Out"

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

Original Airdate: Tuesday, 15 June 2004, 8pm EST

Act One

Buffy paced back and forth, practically wearing a hole in the living room carpet. Seated on the couch, Giles watched his Slayer, an expression of vague exasperation on his face. Much more impassively, Faith also kept an eye on Buffy from her perch on the arm of the couch, occasionally sipping the bottle of beer in her hand.

In stark contrast to the contained tension personified by Buffy, Dawn was bouncing from one foot to the other, flittering from the living room, to the door, to the kitchen and back again, full of too much energy to remain stationary for more than a heartbeat.

"Soon, right?" Dawn bubbled to Buffy. "She'll be home soon?"

"Should be any minute now," her sister confirmed as she completed another pacing circuit. "Unless there's trouble." As soon as the words had been spoken, their meaning shot through the blonde, and she suddenly became riveted to the spot. With a look of alarm, she spun around to face Giles. "Do you think there's trouble? There could be trouble. I should go find them. They could've been attacked again."

She actually managed to take a couple of steps toward the front door before Giles' calm voice sliced through Buffy's mounting panic. "I'm certain they weren't attacked again. Now why don't you sit down? Relax."

Making no further motions for the door, but also not moving toward the couch, the blonde balled her hands into fists at her side, then released them with a frustrated shake. "I can't relax," she stated.

"Try," Giles sternly insisted. "Very hard."

Ungracefully, Buffy threw herself onto the couch next to Giles. The Watcher patted her knee and smiled cheerfully. "There, see? I feel more relaxed already."

"So Oxford," Faith began, declining to comment on the scene, "what'cha got on these creeps?"

With a sigh, Giles leaned forward to address Faith, resting his forearms on his knees and clasping his hands together. "Precious little, I'm afraid," he admitted. "We've been thus far unable to uncover any sort of reference to the marking that Buffy saw. If it's accurate—"

"Oh, it's accurate," confirmed Buffy, her arms crossing as she sank further into the plush cushions. "Believe me. Won't be forgetting the image of Flambé Judith any time soon."

Giles continued, "I can only assume this is some sort of new threat." He shook his head ruefully. "But beyond wild speculation, we're at something of a loss."

"Think it was an attack on Red directly?" Faith questioned, earning a tiny squeak of alarm from Dawn, who had just made her way into the living room again.

"I honestly don't know. It's entirely possible that Willow simply ... had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Buffy shook her head and frowned, remaining unconvinced. "I dunno. Maybe. But my Slayer Intuition tells me there's something else going on here."

With a one-eyed squint, Faith peered into her beer bottle and grunted. "My Slayer Intuition tells me I need another beer," she declared, rising to her feet and striding into the kitchen.

Seizing the opportunity, Buffy spun in her seat to face the Watcher directly. "Giles, seriously. I think someone has it out for Willow. Attacked like that, right in Slayer Central, right under our noses." She ground her teeth together. "If I hadn't gotten there in time ..."

"But you did," responded Giles, resting a soothing hand on her shoulder. "We'll figure this out, Buffy. We always do."

Buffy wasn't so easily placated, and she shook her head, rejecting the simple assurance. "You didn't see her like that, right after ... God, I really thought ..."

"Willow's fine," he pressed. "She's—"

"She's here!" squealed Dawn excitedly from where she had been standing in the foyer, her face practically smashed against the window. Leaping back, she bounded to the front door and hopped in place, anxiously awaiting it to open. Almost as quickly, Buffy and Giles rose and joined her, as Faith lounged by the entryway to the kitchen. Cautiously, the door opened and Willow entered, supported on one side by Xander and the other by Kennedy.

The most readily apparent remnants of the beating Willow had received were on her face. She was still pale, and her ashen complexion only served to heighten the patchwork of cuts and bruises. They were all in various stages of healing, but the bruises in particular were a sickly mix of purple, and a greenish-yellow that stood out like painful, unwelcome beacons. Neither of Willow's eyes were swollen shut, however, and although the redhead was obviously battered and weary, the twinkle in them showed she was in good spirits.

The lingering testament to the attack was in the large white cast that stretched up the witch's forearm, leaving only her fingers and thumb exposed. Kennedy was holding it level to Willow's body gently as she helped escort her girlfriend inside. The dark-haired Slayer watched every move Willow made like a hawk, but her brow was furrowed constantly in barely contained fury, and although she moved with infinite care, she seemed to almost hum with a dangerous energy.

Reaching behind from Willow's other side, Xander pushed the door closed, and turned back to the group, his own grip never once leaving the redhead's elbow. Despite not having been personally wounded, Xander seemed almost as hurt and drained as his best friend.

"Willow!" Dawn exclaimed happily as the trio made their way inside. She immediately sprung forward, arms wide and ready to close around the redhead in a massive bear hug that would, quite possibly, last until high school graduation. As she closed in, however, Dawn began to absorb in the full extent of Willow's injuries, and she froze. Shifting her arms into another, hopefully more accommodating arrangement, Dawn tried valiantly to find some position that didn't promise pain and suffering. When she decided that such a thing was impossible, she gazed worriedly at Willow.

"I'm not gonna break," Willow assured Dawn. "Just don't squeeze me too hard." She stepped forward on her own, leaving the other two hanging back, and spread her good arm wide. "C'mere you," she grinned, gesturing her head.

With utmost gentleness, Dawn embraced Willow, almost seeming to fold into the smaller woman. Kennedy hovered nearby, watching Willow intently for any sign of discomfort, ready to pull Dawn away at a moment's notice, but Willow simply smiled contentedly.

"I'm so glad you're home," whispered Dawn. "You scared us so much."

In the same tone, Willow replied, "I know. Sorry about that."

Sniffing, Dawn slowly pulled away, then glared with mock fierceness. "Just don't do it again," she ordered.

"Yes ma'am," smirked Willow.

"Red," Faith called out as she leaned against the doorway, nodding her head in greeting as the witch turned to her. "Glad you could make it."

"Hey, you know me – Party Girl. Wouldn't miss it."

They shared a smile before Giles stepped forward, clearing his throat. "Perhaps we could continue this in the living room?" he prompted. "Willow should be resting."

Stepping into the position Xander had occupied earlier, Giles took Willow's uninjured arm and began to lead her into the next room. Buffy immediately rushed to the other side, unknowingly cutting off Kennedy as the brunette stepped forward. A flash of irritation crossed Kennedy's face, but it quickly vanished and instead, she darted around the group to the couch, making sure the middle cushion was clear before occupying the one on its right. She extended her arms to help lower Willow into a sitting position as the redhead winced and hissed quietly in pain. Buffy claimed the open seat on the left as Giles sat on the coffee table, continuing to hold Willow's hand.

"How are you feeling?" he inquired gently.

Willow shrugged slightly. "Kinda groggy. Sorta like my- my head's stuffed with cotton. A-And not in a good, teddy bear kinda way." She smiled at her family reassuringly. "But I'm okay. No bleeding in the brain, no broken ribs. Some head stitches, some bruises, some really incredible pain medication ... But I'm okay."

Kneeling in front of Willow, Dawn reached out a tentative hand to touch the cast that was cradled in the witch's lap. "Does it hurt?" she asked quietly.

"Only without the aforementioned incredible pain medication," Willow joked, but became more serious as she regarded Dawn. "Yeah, kinda ouchie. I-It shattered pretty bad. But hey, no nerve damage!" she pointed out optimistically. "A-And they operated on it, and figure I'll get back a whole 80% use!" Dawn's expression fell as she was completely stricken, and the redhead hastened to add, 'Course, with a little magical bone regrowth, I think we can do better'n that, don't you?"

Dawn was cautiously hopeful. "Good as new?"

"Eventually, you betcha," nodded Willow with confidence. "I'll still even be able to play the piano! You know, if I ever get that insane urge."

That was enough for Dawn, and her spirits visibly improved.

Lingering by the entranceway, Xander watched the others but made no move to join them. Faith considered him critically as she approached; his gaze was distant and he gave no indication that he ever knew she was watching him.

"You okay over here?" she asked nonchalantly, without pressure.

"What?" Xander replied, turning his head to look at the Slayer for just a moment before returning to the others. "Oh. Yeah. I'm fine."

Faith nodded. "Right. Cuz you look fine." When Xander didn't respond, Faith jerked her chin at the group in the middle of the room just as Buffy was wrapping her arm around Willow and resting her head against her best friend's. "I figured you'd be all up in the mushy group hug stuff. That's your thing, ain't it?"

"Usually, yeah," he conceded. "I've just ... I feel like I've been livin' at the hospital ever since ..." He sighed, sounding bone weary. "We came close to losing her, Faith. Not Buffy-close, but too damn close for my taste. While I was at the hospital, I guess I didn't really think much about it. Now we're home, an' ..." He shrugged. "I dunno, it's like it's all startin' to hit me, all at once."

"Makes sense. Some sort of delayed reaction thing." Xander looked at Faith, surprised at her interpretation, but she waved it off. "Prison shrinks, they like to talk big. Anyway, point bein', now Red's home all safe an' sound, you can finally start dealin' with how scared you got."

Mulling it over, Xander asked casually, "An' how do I do that?"

"Dunno," the Slayer replied. "I broke out before we got to the big revelation. Best guess? You be all paranoid for a while then go back to normal."

With a flat stare, Xander observed, "Quite the knack for the pep talk you got goin' there."

"Here's a better one: have a beer." Faith handed him the second bottle she'd been holding and they clinked the bottlenecks together. "Cheers."

Back on the couch, Willow was complaining. Her voice was light, but strained and indicating an element of deeper truth to her words. "I still think the honor guard was a bit much," she stated.

"Absolutely not," disputed Buffy without hesitation.

"Yes, I'm inclined to agree," Giles cut in before Willow could further protest. "With no way of knowing why you were attacked, the threat of-of another assault while you were at your most vulnerable was simply too great."

"If we could've been 110% sure of more girls, I would've put a whole platoon of 'em outside your door," Kennedy practically growled.

Chuckling, the redhead tried to keep the atmosphere light. "Just as well you didn't. The two I did have nearly gave the poor orderly a heart attack."

Kennedy defended petulantly, "He was looking shifty."

"He was bringing me Jello," Willow countered.

"...shifty Jello," corrected Kennedy.

Willow smirked and shook her head lightly, finding the situation somewhere between amused and amused-with-a-hint-of-frustration. "Still, it's good to be home," she decided. "Free from 24/7 Slayer guard, to ..."

Catching the shift out of the corner of her eye, Willow first regarded her girlfriend and then slowly swiveled her head to her best friend. Both Buffy and Kennedy wore identical, stony expressions and had crossed their arms resolutely.

"Oh. 24/7 Slayer guard," observed Willow with tentative humor. "Fun."

Neither Slayer smiled.

"Oh c'mon you two. I'm home now, it's okay," the witch cajoled, trying to lighten the mood.

Buffy strongly disagreed, and vehemently pointed out, "You were attacked right in Slayer Central, Will. If it's not safe there—"

"I'm not letting you out of my sight again," interrupted Kennedy, just as insistent, "and that's final."

For a fraction of a second, Willow looked at the two women with intense irritation, but then turned to Kennedy and tried to dispel the brunette's guilt. "Kenn, sweetie, we've been over this. It wasn't your fault."

Kennedy shook her head, unwilling to forgive herself. "If I hadn't left ... If I'd brought my damn phone ..."

"And if I'd've cast the shield before goin' Detacho Girl with my brain, she never would've touched me," Willow asserted. "It happened, I'm okay, and I've learned a very valuable lesson about casting order."

But Buffy remained adamant. "Uh-uh," she stated firmly, her tone making it clear she would not be dissuaded. "Until we figure out what's going on ..."

Frustrated anger began to cloud Willow's features, and Giles quickly interceded before tempers could be allowed to build. "Have you been able to remember anything more from before the attack?"

Taking a deep breath, it caught in Willow's throat and her hand went quickly to her side as she winced in pain. "Uhh ... no," she managed, then glanced at him apologetically. "Not much. I remember they were willing to get pretty brutal ..." Her eyes dropped to her cast and she smirked. "Though I guess we figured that out the hard way. A-And they seemed really keen on me not doin' the tracer spell."

"Hm." Giles mulled this over in silence for a moment. "Obviously this isn't an option until you've recovered your strength," he finally began, "but I think it's all the more crucial that we proceed with the spell, if you still feel up to it."

Buffy and Kennedy were immediately up in arms at the idea.

"What?" the blonde exclaimed. "Are you insane?"

"No way," Kennedy stated, overlapping Buffy. "So they can send a dozen Judiths after her this time?"

Giles raised a patient hand, silencing the two protesting Slayers. "The fact that ... whoever this is was willing to kill to remain hidden makes it all the urgent that we discover who they are and what it is they have to hide."

Thoughtfully, Willow nodded her agreement. "Giles is right. We ..." Trailing off, the witch broke into a huge yawn. "We need to know," she finished drowsily.

Instantly, Kennedy leapt to her feet. "It can wait," she declared. "Sleep first."

"No, Kenn," the redhead resisted. "I ... I wanna help."

"You can help. You can sleep. That's helping."

Willow dangerously skirted the border into whining territory. "I feel like I've done nothing but sleep for a week, I don't ..."

Her eyes resting on Kennedy, she detected an admirable version of her own resolve face staring back at her unblinkingly. Willow turned to Buffy for help, and noted the same expression. Searching the room, it was abundantly clear that nobody would be coming to her defense.

"Damn," Willow pouted, realizing her defeat. With a sigh, she began to rise to her feet, aided by Buffy and Giles.

Dawn also leapt up, and beamed at Willow. "Want me to bring you some magazines or something? The new Elle has a pretty in-depth article about home perms. Guaranteed to put you right to sleep."

"Nah, I'm good," Willow smiled. "Thanks, Dawnie."

Stepping in to take Giles' place next to Willow, Kennedy wrapped one arm around the redhead's waist and used the other to support the elbow. "I've got her," Kennedy told the others, and led Willow out of the room toward the stairs.

As they retreated from sight, Willow's voice could still be heard. "Can I have my laptop? I could do some more research on that eye-thingie. One-handed, of course— Oh! But maybe I could use, like, a-a pencil between my teeth for my right hand! I saw this thing on The Learning Channel where this guy ..."

The redhead's voice trailed off, and silence enveloped the room as the others watched her depart.

Dawn moved to stand next to Buffy, looking down at her sister with a worried expression. "She's ... gonna be okay, right?"

"She'll be fine," Buffy replied calmly and with complete confidence. "I promise."

For a moment, Dawn stared into Buffy's eyes as though searching for something, then nodded her head, visibly calmed and completely trusting in her sister's vow. The teenager crossed the room to Xander, who was still hovering by the doorway, and hugged him. Xander wrapped his arms around Dawn, seeming to feel better for the contact.

Faith stepped away from the pair toward the door. "I'm gonna head back," she announced. "Keep my eye on the fort."

Both Buffy and Giles nodded, and as Faith departed, the blonde pulled her Watcher to one side. She spoke in a low, urgent tone. "Giles, the more I think about it, the more worried I'm getting about Slayer Central," Buffy admitted. "We've pretty much invited an army of super-powered strangers into our home. I'm fairly certain my mother warned me about something very similar to this."

"I understand your concern. I've already taken steps to ensure that any future recruits undergo a rigorous background check before we even consider bringing them here. The Council's resources are quite extensive; I think it's time we started using them," replied Giles, a steely tone slipping into his words.

"That's great for then, but what about now?" Gesturing toward outside, Buffy's agitation was far from assuaged. "We've still got a dorm full of She-Hulks that we know squat about."

The Watcher was patient and he spoke with a soothing calm. "We're performing the same checks on them. We've already managed to clear some, such as those we had guarding Willow at the hospital. It's a lengthy process, but I assure you, by the time we're done we'll know what these girls had for breakfast on any given Wednesday morning five years ago."

Buffy sighed heavily, rubbing her arms. "Yeah ... yeah, okay," she relented.

"In addition, I'm working out some ... internal security that should prevent anything like this from happening again. This won't happen again, Buffy," he swore.

Gazing at Giles in much the same manner as Dawn just minutes before, Buffy enveloped Giles in a tight hug, which he returned without hesitation. He stroked her hair, his eyes fixed on the entrance to the living room where Willow had exited earlier. His expression became hard and completely, utterly resolute. "I won't let anything hurt any of you again."

Giles entered his office purposefully. Closing the door tightly behind him, he made sure to twist the lock, ensuring that nobody would be able to enter until he was ready. Making his way to the desk, Giles removed his glasses and set them on the surface. He rubbed his eyes wearily, then ran a hand through his hair, the stress of the past few days evident.

Almost reluctantly, the Watcher turned to the phone that was patiently waiting. He regarded it cautiously, as though it were some sort of dangerous animal that would strike at him as soon as he was within range, but his hesitation lasted for only the briefest of moments before the decisive expression returned to his face. His decision made, Giles lifted the receiver and proceeded to dial a long stream of digits from memory.

The call was answered quickly. "It's time," Giles spoke in a firm, authoritative tone. "I need you."

With an amused shake of her head, despite her obvious weariness, Kennedy jogged down the stairs and turned right into the living room. Buffy and Xander were sitting side-by-side on the couch, involved in what appeared to be a fairly intense conversation, but they broke off, glancing up expectantly as Kennedy entered.

"How is she?" Buffy inquired.

Kennedy let herself drop onto the couch with a noisy exhalation of air, claiming the seat on the other side of Xander. "Asleep, finally," she replied gratefully. "Took a good fifteen minutes before she gave up on trying to convince me that sitting in bed surrounded by research books and her computer was just as restful as sleep."

"Gotta love a girl with a one-track mind," quipped Xander.

Leaning forward slightly, Buffy surveyed both Kennedy and Xander, taking note of their drawn and fatigued expressions as the trio sat in a tired silence. "Xander?"

"Hm?" he replied, turning to Buffy.

"Why don't you take a few hours off?" she suggested. "Go do something that doesn't involve sitting around and worrying about Willow for a while."

"What?" blinked Xander, then shook his head. "No, I'm good. I'm fine."

Rolling her head on the cushion the barest amount to see more fully, Kennedy regarded Xander critically. "You do look like hell," she assessed.

"My maleness thanks you for that," Xander retorted, though without annoyance. "Really though, Buff, I'm ..." He shrugged and nodded toward ceiling. "I don't wanna leave."

The Slayer refused to let the matter lie. "You've gotten, what? A couple hours sleep a night? Max? And that was in hospital chairs, hardly the orthopedic mattress of choice," she added with a pointed look. "You should get out for a few hours, get some fresh air, do something that doesn't involve sitting around and waiting on Willow hand and foot."

"Maybe I like waitin' on Willow hand and foot," he countered.

"Well you've been hogging all the foot waiting action, so I'm taking over for a while." Buffy's tone made it clear that as far as she was concerned, the matter was closed. Extending a finger, she poked Xander's arm, emphasizing each word as she ordered, "Go – have – fun."

At first it seemed as though Xander was going to do just that, but he hesitated and shot a nervous glance at the ceiling once more.

"I'll keep her safe, Xand," Buffy vowed, "and you know she's only gonna worry once those pain meds wear off and she sees you looking like that."

Sighing, Xander nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, okay." He rose to his feet and glanced down at his friend. "I'll be back later tonight."

"Good. Have fun."

With another nod, Xander shuffled out of the house, leaving Buffy and Kennedy to watch him depart. Silence settled for another moment.

"Good call," commented Kennedy, still moving as little as possible from where she had landed. "I don't think I saw him leave the chair in her room except to shower and change clothes. And I think he only did that because I pointed out that with Slayer senses, he ran the risk of getting offensive."

"He was pretty shaken up," Buffy agreed, her gaze still fixed on the living room entrance. "Which I get. I nearly froze up myself when I saw her like that. I think what with losing Anya just a few months ago ..." Trailing off, she shook her head and changed topics. "So, how're you holding up?" she asked, turning to the other Slayer.

The answer was as immediate as it was harsh. "Still wishing I'd killed Judith."

Buffy's expression indicated that she understood the sentiment only too well. "If it helps," she offered with a tiny smirk, "I think she died pretty horribly."

"Doesn't help." Kennedy continued to glower before sighing heavily. "I mean I'd want to do this to anybody that hurt Willow, you know? But the fact that it was Judith ..." Gritting her teeth, she gave her head a violent shake. "Man, that just gets me. I trusted that bitch. I really thought she had something. And now when I think that she was probably just pumpin' me for information the whole time ... I'm such an idiot," she spat.

"It's not your fault. She had all of us fooled," Buffy reminded her. "God, we trusted all of them, we didn't think to question."

The fact did nothing to alleviate Kennedy from her guilt, and she tilted her head back further. "Yeah, but I probably knew Judith better than anyone else here. All that time we spent together, training, even just hanging out, and I never suspected." Fury blazed suddenly in the Slayer's eyes, and her clenched fist sunk deep in the cushion next to her as she brought it down forcefully. "Dammit, I should've seen it!"

Buffy observed the outburst without any indication that she was either surprised or disturbed by it. "What could you see?" she asked simply. "You can't look inside someone's heart and examine all the evil bits. I learned a long time ago, bad guys don't always wear a black hat, you know?"

"How can I keep her safe if I can't—"

"Hey," Buffy interrupted, "we'll all keep her safe, okay? It's a group effort." Much as she'd done earlier, the Slayer regarded a frazzled Kennedy almost twitching in her pent-up anger and frustration. "Speaking of time off ..."

Kennedy's eyebrow jerked upward and she turned to Buffy. "We weren't."

"Work with me here," she smirked. "You need a break too."

Instantly, Kennedy crossed her arms and set her jaw. "Uh-uh. I'm not leaving," she declared with finality.

"Just for a little bit," coaxed Buffy, pressing onward even as the other Slayer firmly shook her head. "Take a walk, go work out, do something. Sitting here doing nothing is just gonna make you feel worse, believe me."

"How would you know?" Kennedy shot back, though without antagonism. "I heard all about your nightly patrol-slash-interrogations of the local baddies while Will was in the hospital."

Buffy waved her hand, dismissing the silly notion that she should take her own advice. "Yeah well, it's something I read about then. But I do know you need to do something, and that something's not sitting here on a couch."

Considering carefully, Kennedy began to nod. "Yeah ... yeah, you're right. I gotta do something." As though she had reached a decision, the Slayer sprung to her feet, suddenly looking quite alert. She glanced to Buffy. "You'll—"

"I'll be here," came the quick response, and it was all Kennedy needed to hear as she strode to the door.

Faith leaned against the open doorframe, content for the moment to simply watch the lone occupant, who seemed oblivious to her presence. The room was darkened, lit only by a few end table lamps, and the lack of illumination added to the gloomy atmosphere. After a minute, Faith raised her hand and knocked lightly on the door.

Glancing over her shoulder, Hazel's eyebrows were raised questioningly until she realized who it was and her expression relaxed. The girl was sitting cross-legged on her bed, back to the door as she faced the other twin bed that occupied half of the room. "Faith, hey," Hazel greeted. "Did I forget a training session or something?"

"Nah, nothin' like that," the Slayer responded. "Just thought I'd stop by, see how you're doin'."

With a smile, Hazel nodded, and Faith took that as an invitation to enter. Several long strides brought her to the center of the room, to the side of Hazel, where she seemed satisfied to simply stand, casting her gaze around the room and taking in its contents.

For all intents and purposes, it seemed every bit a typical girl's room. Posters decorated the walls, ranging from movies to promotionals from the Vortex for local bands. The dresser and end table on Hazel's side of the room included framed photographs of people who were most likely friends and family. It had a comfortable, lived-in look, which was at a complete contrast to the opposite side of the room where Hazel continued to stare, lost in thought.

It was as if someone had taken a giant eraser and simply rubbed out the room at the exact halfway point, stripping it of color and identity. There were no wall adornments, no personalizations, not even sheets on the bed. There was no sign that anybody lived there or that they ever had.

"It's so weird. I mean ..." Hazel smirked, glancing at Faith. "Sure, I was secretly wishing for a room to myself," she gestured to the empty bed, "but I didn't want it like this." Faith chuckled once, but said nothing, still watching the younger girl as she continued. "She drove me nuts and all, but it just seems so surreal." Shaking her head with disbelief, it was apparent that Hazel was still taken aback by the news. "Judith, one of the bad guys. I mean, we thought she was one of us, but then trying to kill Willow ... I just don't understand how someone could have all of this and turn their back on it."

Faith shrugged. "People do stupid crap sometimes," was her only explanation. "Most likely, you'll never know why she did it."

Eyes resting on the older Slayer, Hazel cocked her head to one side. "Because someone told her to?" she guessed.

"Nah, it's deeper'n that. It's not just about someone dishin' out orders and someone else followin' 'em." Faith spoke with authority, and Hazel hung on her every word. "Person makes their own choice t'do somethin' good or somethin' evil. Can't hide behind orders. Even with a gun to your head, person's always got a choice."

Hazel mulled this over, considering it carefully before nodding, seeming to find some insight in the words. "You sound like you know what you're talking about," she pointed out.

"Hey, I always know what I'm talkin' about," Faith shot back, amused.

"Oh?" the girl questioned, a grin forming. "What about that time you told me Karl Marx was that 'funny dude with the cigar'?"

Faith spread her arms wide. "Said I always know what I'm talkin' about, didn't say I always knew if it was right or not."

Her grin spreading across her face, Hazel leapt from the bed and began to make her way to the door. "This place is depressing," she decided. "Let's get outta here."

Not moving, Faith smirked. "That an order?"

"Maybe," replied Hazel, turning around again. "What's your choice?"

With a shrug, Faith followed Hazel out of the room. "Eh, I've followed worse ones."

The sun was beginning its descent across the sky when Kennedy returned home to find Buffy sitting alone in the living room. She didn't appear to have moved; however now a half-empty mug of coffee sat on the table next to a pile of papers that the Slayer had obviously been pouring over while on guard. Glancing up only briefly, Buffy continued reading over the pages in her hand. "Better?" she inquired.

For just a moment, Kennedy focus hard on Buffy, as though seeking something, but then blinked and refocused. "Yup. Much more accomplished."

"Cool," the blonde responded, still intent on her reading. "What'd you do?"

Kennedy shrugged nonchalantly. "Oh, you know. Nothing much. Worked out a bit, tried to gain some insight and perspective."

"How'd that work for ya?"

Considering the question, Kennedy chewed thoughtfully on her lower lip. "Not sure," she finally decided. "Nearly knocked the weight bag down again, though."

Buffy looked up with a sympathetic grimace. "I hate when that happens."

Crossing to the sofa, Kennedy sat down at the far end and took in the cluttered mess strewn across the coffee table's surface. "What's all this?" she asked with a raised eyebrow.

A small, tired groan escaped as Buffy sunk back into the couch. "Stuff on Judith. I got Giles to give me copies of everything they'd dug up so far, but I'm going nowhere fast." Flicking her fingers in the air in a 'poof!' gesture, the Slayer continued, "It's like Judith just stopped existing somewhere between Willow's big light show in Sunnydale and the day Faith turned up on her doorstep. And I can't find anything in here that points to her making like George Foreman ... Only without one of those cute low fat grill things," she added. With an irritated grunt, the blonde tossed the papers back onto the table, glaring at them as though their lack of knowledge was a personal affront.

"So what do we know?" Kennedy pressed, her own aggravation mounting.

Buffy shot a look at Kennedy, momentarily considering a snapped retort, but instead she redirected her anger, eyes becoming steely cold as she did so.

"That anything wanting to try for round two has to go through me first."

Across the room from a large conference table, three robed figures slowly circled the now-familiar glowing pentagram on the floor. Their movements were unhurried but rhythmic, their low chanting helping the trio to keep time as they threw handfuls of some sort of powder into the symbol at regular intervals. The powder would drift to the ground, only to reach an invisible point whereupon the granules would burst into a reddish flame, and the figures would repeat the action. Around the perimeter of the circle, well back from the three, stood four more mages, each clutching a wooden rod and holding it aloft, pointing toward the center of the pentagram. The four tips met in a steeple over the marking, and if the staff bearers felt any degree of discomfort from their extended limbs, they showed no sign of it.

Seated directly in front of the large eye symbol in a high-backed office chair was Madrigan. He watched the nearby proceedings with casual interest while absently tossing a tennis ball into the air and catching it. The cowl of his robe had been tossed back to reveal long, fine blond hair tied in a ponytail that rested near the nape of his neck.

"Madrigan!" an angry voice yelled out as a tall, impeccably groomed older man in a three-piece suit strode across the room toward the table. He paid no attention to the mages or their ritual, and they repaid the favor by not taking apparent notice of the huge, smooth scar that disfigured the left side of his face.

At the sound of his name, Madrigan tilted his head to one side, his golden eyes questioning. "Robespierre!" he exclaimed cheerfully as the seething man came to a stop before the chair. "Great to see you, man, how you been?"

The expression Robespierre shot at the younger man was one of pure disdain. Madrigan's, however, did not change in the slightest; he continued to beam an open, toothy smile.

"How have I been?" Robespierre repeated with a forced calm that only served to heighten his fury, aided by the fact that his accent was thick, proper and so very British. "Let me see ... I have lost my inside agent, our security is on the verge of being completely breeched, and we are still no closer to solving this Rosenberg problem that you assured me would not become such a problem in the first place!" He had closed the gap between them during his tirade, and was all but shouting in Madrigan's face by the time it was over. Robespierre did not appear to be remotely embarrassed by that fact, and Madrigan didn't seem to particularly care, his cheery smile never wavering once. With a deep, calming breath, Robespierre straightened, running a hand down the lapel of his jacket to smooth out wrinkles that only he could see. "Over all, I would say unwell," he summed up.

Leaning back, Madrigan brought a hand to his chin and he regarded Robespierre thoughtfully. "Have you considered taking a vacation?" the younger man finally inquired. "I mean, seriously, your aura ... Whoo!" Madrigan waggled his fingers in the air around Robespierre's outline. "Off the charts, man! You're headin' for heart attack city if you keep this up."

It was all Robespierre could do to remain silent, his teeth grinding together and his face turning a bright red.

With a roll of his eyes, the mage chided, "Ah, that's right, you Assemblages guys dunno the meaning of 'vacation'. Oh, but I bet I know somethin' you do know. Tea! The British like tea," Madrigan added with a wave of his hand that seemed intended to encompass the entire nation. "Seneca!"

In the far corner of the room, Seneca's gaze lifted. He was seated in a chair identical to Madrigan's, however his sheer bulk almost dwarfed it. His hood was also tossed behind him, and his short-cropped silver hair appeared to almost glow in the dim light of the room. In one giant fist he held a well-worn copy of Being and Nothingness, and he lowered it to incline his head questioningly at Madrigan.

"Tea for our esteemed guest."

Glancing at the mages working across the room, Seneca gestured toward them. Two of the staffs were ripped away and they floated serenely toward Robespierre, coming to a rest before him and reforming themselves into a capital T.

For a moment, Robespierre could only stare, and then he closed his eyes tightly as he rubbed the throbbing vein in his forehead, his lips pulling back in a snarl of endless frustration.

Madrigan simply rolled his eyes, the normal act appearing somehow incongruous given their unnatural color. "You'll have to forgive Seneca," he explained, "he's under the delusion that he's amusing."

Still grinning, Seneca returned the rods to the mages, who both snatched them from the air and did their utmost to suppress the annoyed expression that threatened to appear on their faces. If he noticed, Seneca clearly didn't care, instead grabbing a bookmark that depicted a kitten clinging desperately to a tree limb with the caption 'Hang in there!' Slipping it between the open pages, Seneca rose, carefully placed the book on his now vacant seat, and left the room, presumably in search of tea.

"Now then," Madrigan smiled at Robespierre, who was, almost reluctantly, lowering his hand, "while we're waiting for your miracle elixir, why don't you have a seat."

Robespierre stepped back as Madrigan waved a finger in the air and an office chair rolled away from the table and swiveled toward the older man. Rather than sit, however, Robespierre crossed his arms and glowered down at Madrigan, seeming fond of his stance and the authority he felt it granted him.

The mage simply looked bored. "Oh come on. It'll be okay, Robbie, don't get your panties in a bunch." Again, he waved at the chair. "Just sit."

Reluctantly, glaring all the while, Robespierre did so. As soon as he was settled, Madrigan leaned an elbow on the table, the hand still clutching the tennis ball.

"Okay, so your agent," he began. "That does suck, no denying that, but I'm sure you're in agreement that we couldn't allow her to talk, right?" Madrigan waited for Robespierre's confirming nod before continuing. "Plus, I've read her reports, and it sounds like she was about to hit her useful limit anyway. And yeah, okay, so things got a little bit sped up on our timetable, but that's what makes this so much fun! Who needs things to be all stilted and organized and planned all the time?" he queried with a huge grin, clearly enjoying himself.

A level glare was his only answer, and Madrigan waved at Robespierre dismissively. "Oh, right, you do. Okay then, I'll explain this in a very logical fashion: It's done. It can't be undone. It's a waste of energy to stay pissed about it."

Blinking, Robespierre considered this reasoning, and appeared almost irritated that it was sound. "I suppose you're right," he reluctantly agreed, speaking with some calm for the first time since his arrival. "But Rosenberg—"

"You let me worry about Rosenberg," Madrigan interrupted, becoming serious as he squeezed the tennis ball clenched in his fist. "Trust me. I've got plans, Robbie. Big plans. The witch'll never know what hit her."

Act Two

Giles slipped the thick, leather-bound books between two others that appeared identical, noting with pleasure how the oversized volumes fit perfectly on the custom shelves. Standing back, he admired the new bookcase; it was one of three aligned against the wall, side-by-side to the left of his desk. The two on the ends were edged with a stunningly intricate floral design, as though it were actually growing vines and flowers. The case in the middle continued the design seamlessly, although only at the top, as it was sandwiched between the other two. The wood was perfectly smooth and varnished to enhance the deep, rich color of the mahogany that perfectly matched the other furniture.

Obviously delighted with both the new addition and the ability to reclaim his office in its entirety, Giles gazed around the room, soaking in all the details. No longer a work-in-progress, the room now had a 'lived-in' feel, even down to the state of organized chaos that infected the desktop. His eyes rested briefly on the scythe, still hanging proudly on the wall behind his chair where it would easily be the first thing noticed upon entering the room, and then drifted to the chest that rested in corner. Having once belonged to Ashley Buchanan, it had found its new purpose in life to hold assorted items of varying importance for Rupert Giles.

With an almost guilty glance over his shoulder to ensure he was indeed alone, Giles crossed to the chest and lifted the lid. Lying atop various books, notebooks and even a few weapons lay a stuffed Owl toy, Disney version, from Winnie the Pooh. Owl seemed to appraise Giles through his spectacles as the Watcher regarded the toy with the same critical eye before reaching into the chest and lifting it out. The two started at each other at eye level for a moment before Giles carried it to the bookcase and began to place it carefully inside, next to a partially-full row of texts.

It was at that moment that his door flew open and Giles, completely surprised, quickly tossed the plushy back toward the chest and spun to face his visitor, turning his body to block Owl's arc as it sailed through the air.

"Oh! Uhh ... K-Kennedy!" he stammered nervously. "How, uh ... how may I help you?"

Either Kennedy hadn't noticed what Giles was doing or she didn't care as she stepped toward the desk. "Will's awake," she responded in a clipped tone, "and all but screaming for something 'useful' to do. So I'm here to get some books she wanted." Producing a sheet of paper that had been ripped from a small spiral notebook, Kennedy offered it to Giles. "She gave me a list. Weird titles."

With a curious expression, Giles took the list and quickly scanned it. "Hm. Books on healing magicks and meditation techniques," he stated and then glanced at Kennedy with a small smile. "I suppose she wants to start working on her wrist right away."

Kennedy shrugged. "Guess so," she replied.

As the Watcher turned to retrieve the requested volumes, Kennedy affixed him with an intense, seeking stare, but it lasted only a handful of seconds before she frowned instead. "Stupid magic," she mumbled angrily to herself.

"What was that?" inquired Giles, turning back to the Slayer.

"The spell," Kennedy quickly replied. "That spell she was gonna do that got her into this mess in the first place." Crossing her arms, Kennedy's frown became contemplative. "I was just thinking, in the long run, what good's magic really done for her? Seems to me that the biggest mistakes of her life were because of it. Maybe she'd just be better off without magic."

Giles placed the three books he was carrying on the desk and focused his entire attention on the Slayer. "The magick is as much a part of Willow as she is of it," he explained. "The two are intrinsically linked."

"But they weren't always," she countered. "You know, way back when."

Pulling a handkerchief from the back pocket of his trousers, Giles removed his glasses and set to work polishing them. "True, Willow was not always a practicing witch, however I believe that her discovery of magick was an inevitability. Willow is simply far too gifted and became far, far too powerful in such a short amount of time for me to believe otherwise."

"So some people just got the knack, huh?" summed up Kennedy with just the vaguest trace of bitterness.

"Some individuals are inherently attuned to magickal forces, yes," Giles agreed, checking to make sure his glasses were spotless before replacing them and tucking the cloth back into his pocket.

This answer did little to soothe the Slayer's rising irritation. "And what about the rest of the world? They're stuck flipping through a copy of Magic for Dummies for the rest of their life?"

Despite her rising aggression, Giles responded with utter calm, perching on the corner of his desk as he addressed Kennedy. "Magick requires dedication and practice. I-It's much like anything else in life, really. Anybody can pick up a violin and make noise. With years of study, they find they can play 'Strassburg' to perfection." He smiled fondly. "But then once in a great while, you get Mozart himself, who can only be born and never made."

Kennedy's mouth began to twitch upward in a smirk, her mood lightening. "Will's Mozart, huh?" she queried.

With a matching expression of amusement, Giles rose to his feet. "Yes, well, don't tell her I said so; I'll never hear the end of it."

"You really understand this stuff," Kennedy stated with a tone somewhere between wonder and envy. "This part of her." She snorted a humorless laugh. "I guess that's why you're the anchor."

Understanding dawning on his face, Giles regarded Kennedy with compassion. "Willow selecting me as her anchor means nothing more than the fact that we're ... mystical attuned, you might say," he explained kindly. "A-And even I'm not ultimately the best choice, I'm simply the best option available. Magickally speaking, we've been through a lot, but it doesn't mean—"

"It means I'm not good enough!"

As soon as the words left her mouth, Kennedy jumped back, every bit as startled by her outburst as Giles. They blinked dumbly at each other for a moment before the Slayer shook her head frowning.

"Sorry. Don't know where that came from," she apologized before trying to vocalize her feelings with fewer decibels. "I mean ... Yeah, I've heard it. Her version, which let's face it, is pretty much the same as yours. And I guess I'm just thinking, if she's as linked to the magic as you say she is ..." Kennedy sighed heavily and ran a hand through her hair, gaze darting away from Giles to the side, "...then me not being able to relate is kind of a problem, isn't it?"

Giles tilted his head, unsure exactly of how to respond.

Not even the repetitive motion of throwing the ping-pong ball at the wall and catching it seemed to penetrate Xander's mood. He reclined against the pool table, rhythmically going through the catch-and-throw motion. His expression largely vacant, there was no visible trace of what was going on in his mind that made the action of one-man catch so enthralling. Little attention was paid to his surroundings – not the fresh puck-sized hole in the new plaster behind the air hockey table, not the occasional outbursts from the video games along the far wall, and certainly not Andrew's entrance.

The blond spotted Xander and immediately his face brightened. He rushed over, but then slowed as he took note of the carpenter's mood and sobered considerably himself. "Hey Xander," he carefully broached with a tiny wave.

Glancing over, Xander nodded his greeting but said nothing.

Andrew winced as he tentatively asked, "How's Willow? Is she okay?"

"Yeah, Will's gonna be okay," was the reply, holding some relief. "Still stiff and sore – I hear that gettin' pummeled within an inch of your life'll do that to you – but she'll be fine."

"That's good," breathed Andrew with relief. "When I heard, my tummy got all twisty. Like on roller coasters. Or merry-go-rounds." He paused briefly before adding, "I have a sensitive stomach."

"Yeah, well, it was no joy to see, either, lemme tell you."

An awkward silence settled as Xander continued his game and Andrew shuffled his feet, but then Xander caught the ball and rather than throw it again, turned to the other man, something clearly on his mind.

"I've been thinking," Xander began. "We came close, you know? If Buffy's spider sense hadn't started tingling, we might've been too late. And while I was in the hospital, every now and then I'd look over at Will, and just for a second, I'd see Anya. Not in a delusional psychotropic freak-out way," he hastily clarified, "but I'd be thinkin' ... could we have saved her too?"

Gnawing on his bottom lip, Andrew was only too painfully aware of Xander's intense, expectant stare. "I don't—" Breaking off, he took a deep breath. "She never saw it coming," he stated with an uncharacteristic sense of assurance. "With all the swords and the fighting ... I don't think there was anything you could've done."

Xander absorbed this information with apparent impassivity and then nodded once, firmly. A defeated smile appeared on his expression. "I guess we'll never know, huh?"

At this, Andrew's confidence crumbled, and he looked stricken with guilt. The change was obvious and Xander easily picked up on it, lightly tapping the younger man in the shoulder with his fist. "Hey now, buck up little buddy," he said cheerfully, if patronizingly. "Haven't you been watching the new episodes of 'Enterprise'?"

Andrew nodded reluctantly.

"And aren't the Xindi pretty darned cool?"

Andrew nodded again, this time with much more enthusiasm.

"Then frown no more," Xander ordained. "Life is good."

And then to show just how keen he was to heed his own advice, Xander returned to throwing the ping-pong ball. The blond watched only long enough to decide that the activity was likely to continue without intermission for some time. Shuffling his feet and bringing himself up straight, Andrew took the plunge.

"Hey, d'you wanna maybe come to the comic book store with me?" he offered hopefully. "My new books are in."

Raising an eyebrow, Xander quickly checked the clock hanging over the television. "They're still open?" he asked, surprised.

"Yeah, they've having an all-night Magic tournament," Andrew explained, rolling his eyes dramatically at the notion, speaking with a tone dripping with contempt. "I can't believe people still play that. I feel that after 'Ice Age', W-o-T-C showed their true motivation was not in the beauty of a simple yet engrossing card game, but in lining their pockets with the cash of the workingman." He shook his head slowly, admonishingly. "Shame on you, Richard Garfield. Shame on you."

Catching the ball on its return trip, Xander considered it carefully. "If I try to go home now, Buffy'll just kick me out again," he reasoned. "And Slayer boot on my delicate rear end, not as pleasant as you might think." A decision reached, he slammed the ping-pong ball on the pool table behind him and stood tall. Gesturing with his arm toward the door, he announced, "Lead on, Lord Sengir."

Andrew was so excited that he actually hopped into the air with an enthusiastic, "Cool!" However he couldn't help but correct in a low, muttering tone, "Baron Sengir." Turning to Xander, he babbled, "Hey, did you know that I still have a complete set of Moxes and a Black Lotus?" Grinning, Andrew clearly felt this was something of a marvel.

"Did you know that I don't care?" Xander responded sunnily.

"KennEx delivers."

Willow glanced toward the door and away from the window she'd been staring out of. Shifting into a more comfortable position, she wiggled her back into the pillow supporting her against the headboard. When she saw that Kennedy had returned with all five books, she breathed a sigh of relief. "Geez, what'dja do? Build a time machine to go back to the 15th century and make Gutenberg print 'em for ya fresh?" The question was asked in a jovial tone, but it was clearly fueled by at least a small amount of truth.

This did not escape Kennedy's notice and her eyes narrowed. "I was just having so much fun being your errand girl, I guess I lost track of time," the brunette retorted, heavy on the sarcasm. "Still, it was worth it to know that I'm useful to you as a pack mule, if nothing else."

Hurt immediately appeared on Willow's face, and Kennedy followed just a second behind with regret. "I'm sorry," the Slayer apologized. "I didn't mean to say that."

"No. No, i-it's okay," responded Willow, her voice indicating that sting of the words lingered. "It's— I shouldn't've said what I said either. I'm being a– a Snark Mistress or something."

Grinning, Kennedy set the books on Willow's desk and sat down next to her girlfriend on the edge of the bed. "Well you know any combination of you and 'mistress' can't be a bad thing."

A smirk dispelled the remainder of the huffiness. "I guess it's just all this lyin' around like a big ol' useless lump," the redhead groused, waving her hand at her sheet-and-blanket covered torso. "I've come to the conclusion that lots of bed rest? Not all that restful."

"Mm," Kennedy agreed, her voice dropping to a sultry level as she leaned slowly toward Willow. "Maybe you're doing it wrong."

"Could just be." Flashing a flirtatious smile at the steadily approaching Slayer, Willow asked, "So ... Got any suggestions?"

Kennedy moved closer still, now only a hair's breath away. "Oh, plenty." Willow's eyes drifted closed and she leaned forward to eliminate the distance ... only to open her eyes in alarm as the Slayer abruptly pulled back and rose to her feet. "If you weren't an injured woman," she added with an evil smile.

Throwing herself back against the pillows, Willow cursed the ceiling, "Stupid Judith denying me smoochies!"

The playful attitude vanished the instant Judith's name left Willow's lips, and like a Pavlovian reaction, Kennedy immediately became a dark figure, glowering and brooding.

"Oh for—" the redhead sighed heavily. "Geez, Kenn, am I gonna have to censor the name for the next year?"

"Maybe longer."

The Slayer was completely and utterly serious, and it only served to further Willow's frustration. Though not her eloquence – she was able to get out nothing but exasperated noises.

Frowning, Kennedy found herself becoming aggravated by Willow's aggravation. "She hurt you!" the Slayer exclaimed, as though this were somehow new information.

Willow raised her cast into the air, almost shaking it. "Only too aware!" she retorted. "Look I know you don't like it. Can't say I'm too fond of it m'self. But it happens, y'know?" The witch shrugged, brushing her injuries off as given. "It's the job we do. I'm hurt. I'll heal. Life goes on."

The two women tried their best to not glare at each other, only meeting with marginal success. So wrapped up in their own argument, neither seemed to acknowledge the sound of raised voices coming from downstairs.

"Sure, this time," agreed Kennedy angrily, crossing her arms. "But what about next time, or the time after that?"

"We'll deal with next time when next time comes!" Willow all but shouted back. "I can't make any promises, Kennedy, neither of us can! You can't tell me that some night some random vampire won't get lucky and rip your throat out, o-or some demon thing'll decide one day," she dropped her voice an octave, "'Oh, hey, she's pretty, I wonder how her lower intestines'll look on my wall?'" Back to normal, she leaned forward as well as possible from her reclining position. "It's what we do!"

The faint but unmistakable rumblings of an angry exchange permeated the room, but again they were paid no heed.

"Yeah, well, maybe you shouldn't!" pressed the Slayer. "Maybe you should—"

"Should what? Let you put me in a– a glass case so you ... you can just keep me all safe a-and to yourself?"

"Well at least that way I could get you to actually—" Whatever was being said downstairs became more intense, and Kennedy cast a furious look toward the door. "Now what?!" she yelled, tearing it open and stomping toward the living room.

Buffy was not just an obstacle. She was a living, breathing Great Wall, standing for one purpose and one purpose only: to prevent the raging horde of Monguls from reaching their destination. Or, in this case, preventing Dawn from going outside.

"I'm sorry, some part of 'No' seems to have confused you," stated Buffy in a chipper tone, belied by her aggressive stance and crossed arms. "I'll try and rephrase so you can understand: NO."

Throwing her hands into the air, Dawn exclaimed, "Oh my god, condescend much?"

"Good," the Slayer continued as though her sister had done nothing but concur wholeheartedly, "now that we've reached an agreement, you can go upstairs and finish your homework."

Taking Dawn by the elbow, Buffy tried to lead the teenager upstairs, only to have Dawn violently rip her arm from the Slayer's grip.

"I can finish my homework tomorrow! What is the big deal?"

"'The big deal'," repeated Buffy with a flat tone. "The 'big deal' is my little sister seems to think it's okay to just shrug off school whenever she feels like it so she can go wander the streets, at night, by herself!" Staring at Dawn as though her sister had just claimed vampires were really misunderstood anemics, Buffy incredulously asked, "Did you miss the whole 'welcome to Trillium' ceremony about this being a Hellmouth?"

Her own arms crossing, Dawn peered down at Buffy with a superior air. "It's not a Hellmouth," she corrected snottily, "it's a Hellmouth energy convergence that—"

Waving her hand to cut off the thoroughly disinteresting elaboration, Buffy spat, "Whatever, Giles, I don't really care. It's late, you have homework, and you're not going out there. Case closed."

"But I think I might have something on this eye thing!" protested Dawn. "I was upstairs looking at the design—"

"When you should have been doing homework," the blonde interjected.

That earned a vicious glare, but Dawn concluded, "–and I think I figured out something that could be useful."

The revelation had little effect; arms remained crossed, stances remained unwavering. "And you need to go outside with this information becaaause...?"

Rolling her eyes so much it seemed for a moment they might actually rotate from her sockets, Dawn appeared to feel very strongly that Buffy's question was the single most stupid thing anybody had ever been asked in the entire world's history of questions and answers. "To tell Giles!" she replied. The 'duh!' was all but enunciated.

"I'd make some sort of comment about you not knowing what a 'phone' is," Buffy shook her head, "but given how you spend practically every waking moment on one, I know that's a lie."

Waving her hand toward her room, Dawn retorted, "Already tried that, hello? He's not answering. Besides, it'll be faster with two of us researching." It was impossible to not see that each statement, no matter how impassioned, had zero effect. "Look, I'll be an hour, maybe two tops!"

Buffy gazed at Dawn with a wondering expression. "You know, I'm fairly certain I said 'case closed', and yet here you are and your mouth still somehow moving ..."

Inarticulate noises of endless frustration were all Dawn could manage in response.

Sighing, the Slayer put on her best 'I'm being reasonable' voice. "If it's such an amazing discovery, just tell me and I'll tell Giles."

"Oh!" snapped Dawn, throwing her hands into the air and letting them smack her legs on the way down. "Oh, sure! So you can pretend you thought of it and hog all the credit?" She shot Buffy an accusatory glare. "Yeah, cuz I was born yesterday."

"This is all about brownie points now?" Buffy asked disbelievingly.

"No, but you—"

Interrupting the thought, Kennedy pounded down the stairs, her expression livid. "What the hell is wrong with you people?!" she shouted. "Did you just happen to forget that Willow's upstairs, in theory getting peace and quiet?"

To their credit, the Summers girls had the good grace to look chagrined. Taking several deep breaths, Kennedy fought to reign her own temper, and it was clearly taking some effort.

"Just ... Just keep it down, okay?" the younger Slayer requested, though managing to make it sound more like an order. "I'm going to work out, I gotta burn off some of this ... " She shook her head. "I gotta get out for a while."

Recognizing an opportunity, Dawn turned to her sister. "Can I go with Kennedy?" Buffy immediately opened her mouth to protest, but the teenager jumped in before she could. "I know, I know it's late. But it's Friday. I'll do my homework first thing tomorrow morning, I swear, and I really think this will help. Please?" she added imploringly.

Buffy sighed the sigh of the defeated. "Fine," she grudgingly conceded. "But make sure you get someone to walk you home again."

Nodding eagerly, Dawn followed Kennedy out the door. Buffy watched it close, her arms still crossed. After a second, she turned back toward the living room, ruefully shaking her head. "She drives me crazy."

Faith was able to take no more than two steps out of her room at Slayer Central before she nearly collided with Kennedy, who was absorbed in her own world and, as a consequence, paying little attention to where she was going.

"Whoa, damn." Faith managed to get her hands up as a cushion between them, and Kennedy recoiled slightly. "That almost got messy."

Kennedy nodded quickly, anxious to move to bigger and better things. "Yeah, sorry," she stated, not sounding particularly sorry at all. "You wanna spar?"

"I gotta patrol pretty soon, but sure," the Slayer shrugged, "what the heck. Could use a warm-up."

That being all the confirmation she needed, Kennedy immediately headed toward the training rooms, not bothering to wait and see if she was being accompanied.

Jogging, Faith appeared at her side with a questioning glance. "Got a Jones for some quality butt-kickin', huh?"

The question was clearly not rhetorical, but Kennedy didn't see fit to answer anyway, and Faith's curiosity slowly morphed into concern. She put her arm out, stopping the other Slayer short, and Kennedy impatiently spun toward her. "Okay, what's this really about?" Faith asked.

Tossing her head, Kennedy threw her hair over one shoulder. "You. Me. Spar. Doesn't seem that hard, even you should be able to keep up."

"Yeah, well, I dropped out an' all, so I'm kinda slow. Why don't you explain it?" Faith shot back.

"What's to explain? I want to fight something." Kennedy jutted her chin toward Faith. "You'll do." That was all the explanation she saw fit to give, and Kennedy resumed her march to the training room.

This time Faith followed immediately, and dramatically raised a hand to her chest. "Be still my heart," she intoned sardonically. "You sweet-talk all the girls like that?"

"No, just the really special ones." The retort was barbed and fully intending to wound, though if it did, Faith showed no signs.

Instead, the Slayer smirked, almost seeming to enjoy the exchange. "Speaking of special ones, why ain't you home playin' nursemaid to your honey? You pretty much been livin' at her bedside. Someone finally surgically remove ya?"

"Needed a break," Kennedy responded curtly.

Nodding as though this were all the confirmation she needed, Faith grinned, "She threw you out, huh?"

Screeching to a halt, Kennedy whirled on Faith. "She did not 'throw me out'. I left. I was getting angry and I left. That's it. Now can we please go beat each other up?" she asked with something like desperation in her voice.

"You two at it again?" the older Slayer rolled her eyes, making no effort to move. "Jesus, you're on and off again more than the vacancy sign at a by-the-hour motel."

Through clenched teeth, Kennedy spat, "Could you not?"

But Faith wouldn't back down. Quite the contrary, she seemed to be gaining momentum. "You know, I wonder why that is?" she asked curiously. "I mean, I known Red for a while now. Saw her with Oz, saw her with Tara ... Fightin' was pretty much non-existent." She started intently at Kennedy, cocking her head to one side. "Y'ever stop an' wonder why it's pretty much a given with you?"

Faith smiled charmingly. It was not a pleasant sight, and an evil gleam appeared in her eyes. This was a Faith who knew exactly what she was saying, knew exactly what its impact would be, and was rejoicing in it.

"I don't want to hear this," Kennedy muttered furiously.

If she thought that would be enough to dissuade the older Slayer, Kennedy was sadly mistaken. "I know y'don't, see, an' that's kinda where I'm thinkin' the problem is." Faith was pacing now, moving back and forth in front of Kennedy like a caged panther. "Cuz I know Red, an' no matter how much she's changed from the shy little thing cowerin' behind B's skirt, she's still the same deep down. An' deep down, she's not so big on conflict an' strife."

Blessed with a moment of forethought, Kennedy tried to walk away, but now that her hooks were in, Faith wasn't prepared to let it go that easily. Effortlessly, she matched Kennedy's stride, her eyes riveted to the younger woman, absorbing every last expression and flicker of emotion. "So I keep thinkin', if she don't fight all the time with her 'soulmates' or whatever ..."

"Shut up," Kennedy commanded, her pace not slowing.

"...but she's fightin' now, then maybe ..."

With a blur of speed, Kennedy had Faith pinned against the wall, her forearm pressed against the other woman's throat. "Keep going," dared Kennedy, increasing the pressure. "Just keep pushing, Faith."

Like a maniac, Faith grinned at Kennedy, managing somehow to lean closer still. "Maybe the problem's you," she rasped, her voice strained but only too audible.

For a moment, the only movement between the two was Kennedy's entire body trembling with only barely contained tension and rage. She looked very much like she might explode, and Faith, watching intently, seemed to welcome it. Kennedy pushed harder on Faith's throat, so hard that the other Slayer's face began to turn red, but still Faith's grin remained and the glint in her eye didn't fade. Then, with a deep shuddering breath, Kennedy pulled herself back, arms dropping to her sides.

"Get out of here," she whispered harshly.

"What, too much for ya?" Faith swaggered. "I thought you wanted t' spar."

Kennedy simply glared, her voice shaking. "Leave. Before I do something I don't want to."

"Oh, bring it, Twinkie, c'mon," challenged the older Slayer, gesturing with her fingers. "I ain't afraid'a you."

Her body tense and coiled like a spring, Faith watched with eager anticipation, but Kennedy simply sighed. "Just go."

With a disappointed huff, Faith did just that, turning on her heel and heading back the way they had come. After a few steps, her face split into a huge grin, and she pumped her arms to the side. "Damn, that felt good!" she exclaimed, then her pace slowed and her expression of delight dissolved into one of confusion. "Damn, that felt ... good," she repeated with no trace of her previous enthusiasm. Furrowing her brow, Faith gazed around her, bewildered. "What the hell's goin' on?"

Act Three

Stepping gingerly down the stairs leading to the ground level of the library, Giles shuffled the small stack of books in his arms into a more comfortable position. Dawn glanced up from the volume she was reading as the Watcher approached, taking note of the new texts to research with a slightly hopeful expression.

"Here is some more information dealing with locks and such," explained Giles, setting the books down as Dawn cleared a space next to her. "Though I must confess, I'm not convinced that this is the correct path we should be taking."

Dawn made a dismissive gesture as she reached for the topmost volume. "Yeah, well, we weren't gettin' anywhere with your 'big ol' eye on a giant magic stick' theory."

Puffing himself up, Giles retorted, "It was considerably more involved than a- a 'magic stick'." He spat the words distastefully, but Dawn remained unimpressed.

"No more helpful, though, since hey! Here we are, no closer."

The comments were anything but appreciated, and Giles threw an irritated glance at an oblivious Dawn. "Yes, well, you've delivered your idea on the symbol being some sort of key-shape, now perhaps you'd best get home." He clearly thought this was a fabulous idea, but his enthusiasm was not infectious.

"Nah, I'm good," she replied, completely missing both the point and Giles' look of exasperation. "I can't handle any more Warden Buffy today. Longer I'm out, the better."

"Matter of opinion," muttered Giles only partly under his breath as he took a seat across the table.

Pulling her nose out of the book in front of her, Dawn beamed a cheery smile at Giles. "Besides, who knows keys better than me?" she chirped.

With a long-suffering sigh, Giles relented. "Very well. But could we please try to keep the snide comments to ourselves?"

"Fine. From here on out, I'm snide-free."

Both turned back to their respective research materials and a silence descended for several minutes, with the only sound being the occasional wisp of a page being turned.

Until Dawn shattered it with an excited, "Oh!"

Expectantly, Giles glanced up to see Dawn making a selection with her finger as she twisted the book toward him. "What do you have?" he asked, adjusting his glasses.

"Look, read this passage," she tapped her finger on the page and then pulled back, a proud grin on her face as Giles concentrated on the text. The smile persisted right up until the time the Watcher's expression fell, and she frowned at him, confused.

Giles pushed the book back across the table. "This refers to a god-king locking one of his wives in a very tall tower with no food or water for the rest of her life while he ordered his eunuchs to gouge out the eyes and, erm, other things of her lover."

"Oh!" Dawn uttered again, this time sounding more like a squeak. "Guess that's not really helpful then."

"No, not as such."

Glaring at the book, Dawn snapped it shut and placed it on top of the pile to her left. "...stupid Sumerians," she muttered darkly. "They invented the wheel, they couldn't have invented English too?"

There seemed little to add to that, and several more minutes of quiet research continued until Dawn again spoke up. "I know this seems, like, impossible, but d'you ever think that maybe the answer just isn't in these books?" she asked Giles, gesturing toward the stacks on the table. "I mean, okay, it's like you have a copy of every book ever written, but ..."

"The thought has occurred to me, yes," he nodded. "When I go back to England next week, I'll be picking up some—"

Her head snapping up sharply, Dawn looked panicked. "Wait, what? England?"

"Yes," replied Giles casually. "Next week."

Dawn was anything but casual. "When were you gonna tell us?"

"I was planning on mentioning it Sunday, at dinner." He frowned at her reaction and attempted to soothe the frazzled teen. "It's not a huge trip, just for a few days."

The soothing wasn't working either, and Dawn managed to somehow make her already saucer-sized eyes even larger. "But ... but you can't go to England! What if you don't come back?"

"Dawn, I'll be coming back, I just have some business that needs to be wrapped up, and there are some texts and ... and other things that I'll be bringing back with me." It was plain that Giles was trying very hard to maintain a calm, level voice, but it wasn't easy.

Given how much impact his words were having, he mightn't even have bothered. "But you're supposed to be here!" insisted Dawn. "Willow's been all hurt a-and we're supposed to be looking stuff up to keep her safe!" She grabbed the book previously deemed useless and flapped it at Giles.

"Believe me, the safety of all of you is my paramount concern," he reaffirmed, snatching the book away and returning it to the pile. "But as you just stated, we're drawing a- a blank with what we have here. I believe I have some books in storage that will be invaluable to our continued research."

Crossing her arms, Dawn visibly huffed. "Well why can't you just have 'em delivered? Or just send one of your little Watcher flunkies to pick 'em up for you? Then you can stay here and not be away and stuff."

True anger slowly seeped into Giles' features. "First of all, I do not have 'flunkies', I have highly trained members of a professional team whose time and efforts are better spent doing their jobs than running international errands. And frankly, I could do with getting away for a few days," he snapped.

Anger quickly gave way to bafflement, as he reflected on his words, but it was too late to retract them now; Dawn had immediately latched on and was holding them in a death grip.

"Ah-ha! See? I thought so! This is all about leaving us again!" she accused.

Rolling his eyes as his emotions quickly switched gears again, Giles groaned, "Could you pretend to be a grown up for just one fleeting moment?"

"But when you leave, bad stuff happens!" whined Dawn, sounding decidedly un-grown up-like.

"'Bad stuff' happens when I'm here, too!" he retorted angrily.

But Dawn had taken a few steps back in the conversation, and she crossed her arms defensively as she glared. "What do you mean 'pretend to be a grown up'?"

"Well honestly, sometimes you act like a self-absorbed teenager."

"Hello? Teenager here!" she replied, gesturing at herself. "We're sort of supposed to be self-absorbed, it's a hormone thing..?"

"Well stop it!" Giles shouted unreasonably. "It's bloody irritating."

She exhaled sharply, communicating what she thought of that observation. "Right, because I corner the market on irritating."

"I beg your pardon?" he asked, slowly and indignantly.

"Oh come on. You're so snotty and superior and ... and ..." She searched for a proper adjective to sum up the Watcher. "So Giles."

Her conclusion was met with yet another eye roll and a heavy sigh. "Oh, yes, it all makes sense now," he responded dryly. "I see the error of my ways."

Opening her mouth silently, Dawn thrust an accusing finger at Giles. "Like that! When you do that!"

Giles' only course of action was to rub his forehead painfully and grit his teeth.

Walking briskly down the street in the onset of heavy dusk, Xander and Andrew were embroiled in the middle of a fierce, obviously extremely important intellectual discussion.

"You're insane," stated Xander with utmost conviction. "There's no way."

Andrew had just the comeback for this situation: "Yes way!"

"Nuh-uh!" the carpenter retorted.

"Yuh-huh!" was the immediate reply.

Holding up his hands, Xander brought both of them to a halt in the middle of the sidewalk of downtown Trillium. A businessman who had been following closely behind had to step around them, glaring angrily as he passed but not slowing his pace. Neither man paid him any attention.

"Okay, I'm about two seconds from giving you the mother of all wedgies, so I'm going to step back—" Xander took a step backward. "—take a deep breath—" He did so. "—and resume this debate in a calm, mature manner."

Andrew waited expectantly.


With that, Xander continued on their path, Andrew at his heels.

"Come on, hear me out," the blond pleaded. "I'm just saying, Havok was as good a leader as—"

"Don't say it," ordered Xander, holding up a finger. "It's bad enough you're even thinkin' it."

With a frustrated sigh, Andrew blurted out, "What's so great about Cyclops?"

His eye wide, Xander regarded Andrew as though he'd just suggested that Superman was big wuss who secretly played with My Little Ponies. "As compared to Havok?" he boggled. "Oh, how about maybe everything?"

They arrived outside of their destination, a decent-sized comic book store called "The Rogue's Gallery". Pulling the door open, the pair stepped inside to the jingle of bells tied to the inside door handle. It seemed the typical comic book store, with every millimeter of wall space taken up with posters, action figure displays, comic book back issues, and even a giant inflatable Spider-Man suspended from the ceiling. But the wonder of all these treasures was lost on Xander and Andrew, deep in the throws of pointless arguing; their bickering hadn't ceased in the slightest despite the location change.

As Andrew had mentioned, the store was quite packed considering the lateness of the evening. Six pairs of Magic players were seated across from their opponents at the long tables that took up one entire side of the store, and several spectators surrounded the matches in progress, either there simply to watch or, judging from the card boxes in-hand, waiting to play themselves. The man seated closest to the door rose to his feet as the door opened, and moved behind the counter. He found the shelf number he was looking for and retrieved a decent-sized stack of comic books, handing them to Andrew with a smile.

Andrew, however, was focused on Xander, and while he automatically took the offered items, neither thanked nor acknowledged, choosing instead to press on with his point. "Havok proved himself to be a versatile and capable leader during Peter David's incredible run of X-Factor starting with issue number 71 where—"

"Doesn't count."

Andrew gaped at a resolute Xander. "What?" he whined. "How can that not count?"

The reply was simple. "Peter David."

"And? So?"

"Peter David could make Speedball not suck." A chorus of affirmative mumbles and nodding heads around the store confirmed the truth of Xander's statement. "So you can't count those issues. Although they do prove my point, because Havok started sucking yet again after Peter David left."

"I liked Speedball," Andrew quietly pouted before moving back to bigger, more important matters. "But then what's left?" he asked plaintively.

Triumphantly, Xander crossed his arms and stared down at the blond. "I rest my case."

Deflated for just a moment, Andrew quickly regained some steam as a thought occurred. "Oh, wait, there's some stuff! New stuff, where Havok ..." he trailed off and went back to being defeated. "Chuck Austen," he groaned.

"Chuck Austen," echoed Xander comfortingly.

"Oh fiddle faddle."

Sensing a perfect opportunity to intercept and get paid, the store clerk cleared his throat, attracting Andrew's attention. Andrew jumped, obviously having forgotten where they were, and mumbled an apology as he handed over his purchases and fumbled for his wallet.

While ringing up the books, Counter Guy glanced over at Xander curiously. "So what were you two talkin' about?" he inquired.

Xander gave an amused snort. "Andrew seemed under the extremely amusing illusion that Havok was one of the best X-Men leaders."

Frowning as he opened his Dragonball Z wallet, Andrew defended, "But ... with his uncontrollable powers and natural leadership—"

"—we can call him 'Cyclops'," finished Xander, paying no attention to Andrew's spluttering.

The employee had his own opinions, and felt free to express them. "I always thought Storm was the best leader, personally," he shrugged, bagging Andrew's books and handing over the package.

Instantly ceasing his pout, Andrew's face became animated once more. "Oh, yes! Like when she beat—" he stared pointedly at Xander "—Cyclops for leadership of the team and soundly defeated him even without her powers!"

"It was rigged, I tell ya!" protested Xander, following Andrew out of the store. The sounds of the two grown men's squabbling seemed to linger, even after the door closed behind them and they had vanished from sight.

Amused, Counter Guy shook his head and returned to his seat at the tables, preparing to continue to watch the Magic games still in progress. Thin, scraggly male wearing a threadbare black Vesuvan Doppelgänger t-shirt caught the employee's attention and rolled his eyes toward the door.

"Geeks, huh?" the player said contemptuously. "Pfft." His light tone vanished instantly as he realized what his opponent was attempting to do, and he gawked at the man across the table. "Hel-lo, that is il-legal!" he sneered in a nasally voice. "According to rule number 502.26e, a face-down Exalted Angel has a converted mana cost of zero! Duh!"

Still propped against the headboard, Willow was balancing one of Giles' books in her lap. A soft knock on the door interrupted her reading, and she glanced up to see it slowly swing open as Kennedy crossed the threshold tentatively. Her expression guarded, Willow closed the book and set it aside as Kennedy fully entered the room, closing the door. Neither spoke for a moment that seemed to drag in the uncomfortable silence.

"Hey," the redhead finally offered.

"Hey," Kennedy replied.

Silence continued to dominate the room, thick and unpleasant.

Shuffling in the bed, when Willow spoke it sounded far too loud. "Well, that went well," she announced with false cheer. "Maybe if we try real hard, some day we'll be able to speak to each other in compound sentences."

A sigh escaped the Slayer's mouth and shaking her head, she stared at Willow. "I don't want to fight."

"Well me neither!"

"So why are we fighting?"

"We're not!" Willow immediately protested. "We're ... we're ..." She gave a puzzled frown. "I don't know what we're doing. But it isn't fighting!"

Waving her hand, Kennedy relented. "Fine. Fine, it's not fighting." Another step brought her closer to the bed. "Look, I just came up to apologize and see how you are."

"I'm okay. I'm ..." A hand crept up of its own accord and rubbed painfully across Willow's forehead. "I have a headache, actually," she admitted with some reluctance.

Responding immediately, Kennedy grabbed the mostly empty water glass from the nightstand and crossed to the adjoining bathroom. The glass now full, she returned to the bedside. Opening the bottle of pain killers, she deposited two in her hand and offered them to Willow. The redhead accepted them gratefully and quickly tossed them back, draining the glass and setting it back on the table with a "Thanks."

"It's all this not-fighting. You should be getting rest. I should go." Kennedy turned to the door and managed half a step before Willow grabbed her hand.

"No, stay," she urged. "It gets all lonely up here with just me, my books, and a whole bunch'a quiet." The Slayer's expression registered uncertainty, and Willow frowned in confusion. "What's the matter?"

Kennedy shook it off, trying to allay Willow's concerns. "I'm just having a weird day. I'm afraid I'm gonna start saying stuff if I stay."

Rather than this being a deterrent, Willow actually seemed pleased with the idea. "Stuff is good," she declared, excited at prospect. "We haven't had a good stuff-filled conversation in forever."

"Yeah, but it's not all good stuff," Kennedy persisted.

Willow tilted her head. "There's bad stuff? You have bad stuff you wanna say?"

"No, I don't, that's the thing." The Slayer sighed, a frustrated, angry sound. "It's confusing. I don't wanna talk about it."

Still frowning, Willow shrugged. "Okay," she agreed with slight reluctance. "What do you wanna do then?"

As silence once again filled the room, Willow picked at the blanket covering her legs and Kennedy crossed her arms, shifting her weight from one foot to the next. Suddenly, as though she had been trying to keep the thought quiet but it managed to somehow burst free, the witch exclaimed, "God, we don't have anything even remotely in common do we?"

Kennedy's head snapped around to regard the redhead.

"Well except for that," continued Willow mostly to herself, "and I'm so not in the mood right now." As soon as she had finished, her mouth shut so fast that the click of her teeth was audible. She gazed at Kennedy with a wide eyes, stammering, "I ... I ..."

But Kennedy didn't dispute the statement, instead seeming to take it as fact. "Do we have to have something in common?" she asked softly before attempting a chuckle. "I thought diversity was good."

"We don't. I-It is," Willow agreed with both statements. "But sometimes wouldn't it be nice to be able to actually, you know ... do stuff? Share interests?"

"We do share interests! We ..." Frowning, the Slayer fell silent as she pondered deeply, then her face lightened as she poked the air. "That movie we saw a couple weeks ago. We both liked that."

Willow's expression crumbled. "I said it was a complete waste of a perfectly good two hours and I felt the director owed me a personal apology."

Blinking, Kennedy was momentarily taken aback. "...but you enjoyed saying it, right?" she grinned weakly. "And come on, weren't the explosions the coolest?"

Willow didn't seem particularly inclined to agree.

"Okay, so no," continued Kennedy calmly, but then in the blink of an eye began to lose her temper. "What do you want from me, Will?" she asked wearily.

Willow's control wasn't doing so well either. "I don't want anything from you," she spat back. "Except maybe, you know, girlfriendy stuff, if that's not too wacky a notion."

"I'm not the one who can't make the time! Spending time with you is like ..." Kennedy shook her head, at a loss for words. "It's indescribable. I'll take any chance I can get. When you want to do something with me, my whole world stops. But when it's me coming to you, it's like I have to call ahead and schedule three weeks in advance." Crossing her arms angrily, the Slayer leveled an icy stare. "That's not fair, Will, it's not right."

"I have responsibilities! School, a-and research and—"

"You always have something. I know that only too well, believe me." Kennedy's voice was dripping with bitterness. "But this isn't a new thing. As soon as we left Sunnydale and maybe even before, if it wasn't you calling the shots then off you'd go at the drop of a hat. Something else always seemed more important." Blinking, Kennedy began to straighten and harsh realization seeped into her expression. "Something else always is more important than me ... Isn't it?"

She wanted to protest, that much was obvious. Willow's mouth opened, forming the word 'no' almost before she had heard the question. But under Kennedy's intense, searching stare, there was only one thing she could relay. The truth.


"Just talk," suggested Buffy helpfully as she threw a vicious right hook, connecting solidly with the vampire's face. The Slayer shrugged, her grip on the vamp's jacket ensuring he stayed upright. "You know, when your mouth isn't full," she advised, filling the creature's mouth with her fist.

The hold released, the vampire stumbled backward a few steps, almost colliding with a nearby gravestone as he swerved unsteadily. Buffy watched him expectantly for some sort of response, sighing heavily when none came. "Come on, you have to know something about it. Big evil, eye-thingie, kind of a pyromaniac...?" she prompted, moving her hand in a 'come on' gesture.

Obviously in great pain, the vampire simply shook his head, his hand coming up to his mouth. "I fink yoo broke m' toof!" he accused, an offended expression making its way across his face.

"Oops, my bad," replied Buffy, grabbing the vampire by the wrist and easily flipping him to the ground. "Maybe you can get it crowned," she suggested, twisting his arm to a painfully awkward angle as she stomped her boot into his chest. "Which hey! You can only do if you're not dust in the wind. Which you're about to be in three seconds if you don't talk." Emphasizing the last word, the Slayer gave the vampire's arm another painful twist, an audible snapping sound filling the air.

Groaning in pain, the vampire again shook his head. "I dunno what you're talkin' about!" he swore. "Honest!"

Buffy frowned at the vampire petulantly. "Oh come on. You evil types always know what other evil types are doing. It's like an evil type law or something. Maybe you just need more motivation." With her free arm, Buffy reached into her jacket and produced a stake. "Meet Mr. Pointy," she introduced. "Version ... six- or seven-point-something, I forget exactly." She positioned the stake over the wide-eyed vampire, the business end directly above his heart. "Now talk, or we see what happens when Mr. Pointy and Mr. Gravity meet with the help of Slayer strength."

Terror flared in the vampire's eyes, and it lent him a momentary burst of adrenaline. Ignoring the painful hold on his arm, he managed to swing his leg to the side and catch Buffy in the backs of her knees. With a yelp of surprise, the blonde's legs gave out and she tipped backward, releasing her grip on the vampire in the process. Taking full advantage of the situation, he quickly rolled to his feet and ran away from the rapidly recovering Buffy.

Twisting his head back over his shoulder to see if he was being followed, the vampire failed to notice when he ran, full speed, into an outstretched stake. He actually kept running for a pace or two before realizing what had happened and his body crumbled to dust.

Buffy jogged over and considered the remains with an expression of bitter disappointment. "I was about to do that," she glared as Faith emerged from the shadows shrouding the tree she had been leaning against.

"Yeah, looked like it, too, with him runnin' away an' all," Faith smirked, managing to make the gesture more malevolent than amused.

"I was catching up."

Shrugging, Faith spread her arms wide, the smirk still firmly in place. "Yeah well, what can I say? In the Slayer game, you snooze, you lose."

This answer only served to intensify Buffy's aggravation. "What about the part of the Slayer game that says 'Don't steal my kills'?" she demanded, waving at the general area where the vampire had been.

"I'll remember that next time a vamp's got his fangs in ya." Faith tilted her head to one side, examining Buffy carefully. "Oh, but wait, you like that, don'tcha?"

Buffy was taken aback, her eyes widening at the other Slayer for just a moment before narrowing. "Ex-cuse me?"

"You know. You. Dead things. Penetration." She frowned as though deep in thought, her lips still twitching upwards. "Pretty sure they got a name for that sorta thing."

"I know I'm thinking of several for you right about now," Buffy shot back, the fury rising in her voice. "Why are you even here, Faith?"

The brunette gestured to the entire cemetery. "Patrolling," she explained. "Keeping the world safe from the things that bump you in the night."

"I mean, why are you here? I thought you were on the big path of redemption. Serving your time, saving your soul, whatever line you fed Angel. 25 to life, wasn't it, Faith?" Crossing her arms, Buffy looked Faith up-and-down. "And yet, here you are, no bars, no unflattering orange jumpsuit. Two and a half years. That's all it takes for redemption these days?"

Faith tensed. It was a small thing, easily missed but unmistakable. In that moment, the Slayer changed from amused antagonist to something much, much more deadly. "Someone had to stick around an' clean up your mess," replied Faith, her voice quiet and steady as she stepped closer. "An' that just kills you, don't it? That it's finally me with the friends an' the respect, an' you're left on the outside lookin' in. You had it all an' you threw it away, B." Faith's face was mere inches from Buffy now, but the blonde didn't flinch, didn't look even remotely uncomfortable. "I'm finally the winner an' you're the loser an' you can't stand it."

"I'm the loser?" laughed Buffy. "Tell me Faith, I've always wondered – how did it feel when I stabbed you in the gut with your own knife?"

The response was a backhand across Buffy's face that was so powerful the sound reverberated across the graveyard. The blonde took one staggering step, but no more, and when she turned back, her eyes were blazing.

Looming nearby, her fists clenched tightly, Faith snarled, "Not as good as that."

The tension in the library had risen to a level that was nearly tangible. Dawn remained fixed in her seat, glaring defiantly at Giles. The Watcher, on the other hand, had at some point removed his glasses and was leaning across the table at Dawn, his face very nearly touching her own. His eyes were a cold, steel blue, no trace remained of his usual warmth and compassion; his expression one of complete and utter danger.

"I suggest, little girl," he spoke in a low, deadly quiet voice, "that for your own sake you learn very quickly how to keep – your mouth – shut."

Surprisingly, Dawn didn't back down. She continued to glare at Giles, unwaveringly recalcitrant. The two locked eyes, neither willing to concede even a fraction of an inch, when Dawn suddenly adopted a look of total surprise, her jaw dangling open.

"Ohmygod!" she blurted. "Did you just go all 'Ripper' on me?!"

For a moment, her words didn't even seem to register, then Giles blinked, and while his expression remained stony, his eyes softened. Blinking again, the mask vanished. A third time, and he pulled back, exhaling heavily as he did so. "Good lord," he muttered, quickly reseating himself and fumbling for his glasses.

Dawn thrust an accusing finger at Giles, waggling it frantically. "You did! I knew it!" She crossed her arms and threw herself against the back of the chair. "Okay, that is so not normal."

"No, no it's not," the Watcher readily agreed, the arms of his glasses not quite reaching his ears several time before he was able to get them situated properly. "What on earth is going on?"

"A-And Buffy, too, she was ..." Trailing off, Dawn shrugged. "Well, pretty much Buffy, but, like, times a hundred!"

Still lost in his own thoughts, Giles murmured, "I-It's like I couldn't control myself. The- The thoughts an-and feelings just came out, and then fed on themselves ..."

"Oh, and me! I think I'm being, like, all whiny and stuff." The teenager regarded Giles with interest. "Am I? Being all whiny and stuff?"

"More than usual?" he replied dryly. "I honestly hadn't noticed."

As soon as he had spoken, Giles quickly motioned with his hand at the space where words might have been, were they tangible objects, as if to say, 'Like that!'

Mildly offended, Dawn concluded, "Okay, so this blows. What is it?"

"It's like our ... inhibitions have been altered, or- or removed," began Giles, his mind hard at work to make sense of what was going on. "Whatever keeps us from saying the thoughts and giving voice to the feelings that—"

"God, can you ever answer a question in three words or less?" groaned Dawn, then quickly slapped a hand over her mouth, staring at Giles with wide eyes.

The Watcher remained unphased. "...rather like that."

Tentatively, as though something big and nasty might escape at any moment, the teenager peeled her hand away from her mouth. "Geez," she stated after a moment, considering his statement. "Well, is it just us?"

Determined to find out, Giles rose to his feet and headed for the door, Dawn right behind him. They had only taken two steps down the hallway when a Slayer sailed through the air from a nearby branching corridor, and crashed through the window. Almost immediately, with a feral cry of rage, a second Slayer dove through the new opening. The sounds of a fierce conflict could be heard from the front lawn where the two girls had landed and resumed their battle.

The pair remained rooted to the spot, not taking another step forward. "Oh dear," Giles finally decided to say. "This ... is not good."

Ever so slowly, Dawn turned her narrowed gaze at the Watcher. "Gee, d'ya think?" she asked with every scrap of sarcasm she could muster. Which, it turned out, was quite a lot.

With just as much irritation, Giles glowered at the young girl. "Yes, I do. Emotion is one of the most powerful forces on the planet. It is raw, primal. Only the restrictions we place on ourselves keep it from dominating us completely. The words we say, the actions we take ... All are governed by our inhibitions. If they have indeed been removed ..." His eyes fell on the shattered window. "There's absolutely no telling what may happen."

Letting her body to go limp, Faith crashed through a tombstone back first, sending an explosion of rock into the air. She landed on her shoulders and allowed the momentum to carry her into a roll, tumbling across the cool, wet grass for several yards before kicking out of the move and springing to her feet. Bouncing up and down, Faith rotated her head and shook her shoulders, a look of pure delight spreading across her features. Coupled with the hungry gleam in her eyes, the Slayer looked more than a little insane.

"Oh yeah," she whooped to the sky, "that's what I'm talkin' about!" Grinning, Faith fixed her gaze upon her opponent. "Don't hold back B. Tell me how you really feel."

Buffy took a step forward, staring at Faith with the same murderous intensity. "Trust me, by the time I'm done? You'll feel it too."

Act Four

All the air was audibly propelled out of Faith's lungs by Buffy's full-force tackle. Somehow the pair managed to avoid all the trees and gravestones as they stumbled back a few feet. Finally the weight of the blonde Slayer brought Faith to the ground, and they landed with a thud. Taking immediate advantage, Buffy let loose with a punch across Faith's jaw, and the brunette responded by grabbing Buffy's arm and hurling her to one side. Almost simultaneously they got to their feet, several yards separating them as they regarded each other appraisingly.

Both were panting heavily, the fight obviously well underway by this stage. Despite that, however, neither seemed much the worse for wear, being largely unmarred, although Faith was sporting a nasty bruise on her left cheek and a trail of blood trickled from the corner of Buffy's mouth.

Swiping a hand across her nose, Faith spared it a quick check for blood, her manic smile never faltering as she jutted her chin at Buffy. "Lookit all that pent up rage an' anger you got, B. I'm shocked. Didn't know you had it in you."

"Guess you don't know me as well as you like to think," Buffy replied tersely, rapidly closing the distance between them and landing another solid punch that snapped Faith's head to one side. "But then thinking never was your strong point, was it?"

"Nah, I'm more an action kinda girl."

There was no warning, no indication of the spinning kick that connected with Buffy's face, and in her momentary daze, Buffy failed to see Faith's other foot following up, taking full advantage of the force she'd gained from the swing. The blonde stumbled backward, nearly losing her balance entirely, but remained standing, prompting Faith to attempt a leg sweep. It was the obvious move, however, and Buffy easily leaped over it, lashing out with a kick of her own in mid-air, which caught Faith on the cheekbone in such a way that it was all but guaranteed to enhance the already vivid bruise.

Landing easily, Buffy brought her fists up in a defensive stance and flicked her head to toss the hair out of her eyes. "That enough action for you?"

"This?" Faith responded, still grinning broadly at Buffy. "No way. You know I like it rough."

"I aim to please."

True to her word, Buffy unleashed a hard and fast series of well-aimed punches. Her fists were moving with such speed they almost became a blur, which only made the fact that Faith blocked each and every one of them all the more impressive. Buffy pressed her attack, but was still unable to make contact, until finally Faith caught a fist in mid-swing, clenching it tightly in her own. Instinctively Buffy tried to jerk it back, but it was held fast, and Faith began to squeeze. A crunching sound was drowned out as Buffy gasped painfully, even as she thrust her knee into the other Slayer's stomach. This time Faith was the one to gasp as the wind was knocked out of her and she released her hold. Striving to take advantage, Buffy swung at Faith, who easily deflected the blow. Faith tried an attack of her own, but Buffy parried. Each Slayer struggled to gain the upper hand, but they were too easily matched, too in tune with each other's moves to do so.

Attempting another tactic, Faith aimed a fist at Buffy that was effortlessly avoided, but then suddenly her other arm appeared to come from nowhere and caught the blonde in the nose. Faith tried to expand on her minute advantage with a crippling punch, her eyes widening in surprise as Buffy ducked to the side and ensnared Faith, one hand clamped around the brunette's fist, the other around her forearm. With a brutal twist, Buffy stepped to the side and yanked hard, pulling Faith forward. Again Buffy kneed the other Slayer in the stomach, followed immediately by one to the face. Faith grunted involuntarily as the knee found its target, and Buffy released her grip, only to savagely jab Faith in the nerve point at the base of her throat. The brunette seized up for just a moment, but it was enough time for Buffy to throw all of her strength behind the punch that was driven into Faith's forehead, and the dark Slayer fell backward to the ground.

Not wanting to grant her opponent even a second of reprieve, Buffy approached Faith, but was taken by surprise when she discovered Faith was nowhere near as stunned as she had appeared. Lashing out with her foot, Faith connected with Buffy's knee, causing the blonde to stumble back, off-balance. With a high kick that seemed almost impossible to execute, Faith's boot impacted solidly with Buffy's head, and as the blonde staggered, Faith leapt to her feet. Grabbing a handful of Buffy's shirt, the brunette hammered two quick punches into the small of Buffy's back, then released her hold and just as quickly thrust her hand around Buffy's neck. In one smooth motion Faith tightened her grip, lifted Buffy into the air, and slammed her to the ground. Straddling Buffy's midsection, Faith brought her second hand up, both latching around the blonde's throat in a death grip.

"What, nothin' to say?" Faith taunted, peering down as Buffy's eyes widened and she scrabbled desperately at Faith's hands. "Where's all your self-righteous holier-than-thou crap now, huh B?"

The only response Buffy could make was a strangled gasp for oxygen, earning a grin from the other Slayer. "Huh? What was that?" Faith inquired mockingly, looking altogether pleased with herself. "Damn, if I'd known this was all it'd take to shut you up, I'd've done this years ago."

With amazing agility, Buffy bucked her hips, bringing up her leg to smash Faith in the back of the head. Faith's grip loosened just enough for Buffy to grab the other Slayer and throw her overhead. Rolling backward, Buffy straightened into a handstand, then tensed and sprung easily to her feet, facing the direction where Faith had gone flying.

"Blah blah blah," commented Buffy in a bored tone. "God do you even listen to yourself? And I'm the one with the 'talks too much' stigma," she added with an incredulous shake of her head.

Faith recovered just as Buffy's foot lashed out and caught her in the face, the brunette's head snapping violently to one side. "All this stuff you think you have, this life you're pretending to lead?" Buffy regarded Faith with undisguised contempt. "You may have fooled the others, but not me. I know you. This is just one more pathetic attempt to hide what you are."

"Hide what I am?" repeated Faith, venom in her voice and hatred blazing in her eyes. "I know exactly what I am. It's you that can't deal." Not attempting any movement, let alone stand, Faith sneered at Buffy with nothing but scorn. "You think life is what? Some fairy princess tale where you get to be all pretty an' popular, fight the evil and ride off into the sunset? Where you get a happy ending? It's crap, B, an' you know it. People like you an' me? We don't get happy endings."

Buffy remained poised and ready for any action Faith might make, but the blonde may as well have been a statue. Her fists remained tight and defensive, and as Faith rose slowly to her feet, Buffy's gaze never flinched.

"An' that's why you can't stand me," Faith continued, raising to her full height. "I'm the reality of what we are. You need me. I'm your shadow, I'm your reflection." She laughed once, a bitter but knowing sound. "I'm the you that you wish you were."

"I am nothing like you," spat Buffy, her teeth gritted painfully.

Faith's mocking grin spoke volumes of how much veracity she sensed in Buffy's words. "No? So you can't feel that buzzin' in your brain? That haze that's just hoverin', right on the outside, wantin' t' come in and blanket everything?" Closing her eyes, Faith tilted her head back. reveling in her emotions. "Tell me you don't feel the blood boilin' in your veins. Tell me you don't wanna feel my neck in your hands," she opened her eyes again, her gaze locking Buffy, "an' tell me they don't itch with the need t' keep squeezin' and squeezin'."

Slowly, like a tiger stalking its prey, Faith edged closer. The blonde remained stock still, her fists clenched so tight they were trembling, but yet she made no move to halt the advancing Faith.

"You want to." Faith's voice was low and intimate. "Right now you want nothin' more than t' just shut me up for good. T' kill that part of you that's me. Don't you?" Buffy didn't answer, and Faith edged closer still, her tone demanding an answer. "Don't you?"

"NO!!" Buffy screamed, channeling every ounce of defiance she could muster into that single word, as though its force alone would render Faith's words inert and meaningless.


Wide-eyed and slack jawed, Kennedy gaped at Willow like she couldn't believe what she had just heard.

For her part, Willow appeared almost as surprised as Kennedy, but the word was out there now and she couldn't seem to help but expound further. "Yes!" she insisted. "You're right, everything else always seems more important because ... because it always is!" Her eyes dropped to her lap and her voice softened. "A-And I hate that it's that way." Taking a deep, calming breath, the redhead lifted her gaze to meet Kennedy's unflinchingly. "But it is."

"So I'm supposed to, what?" Kennedy demanded, throwing her arm out to the side. "Just sit around like a dog under the table waiting for a scrap?"

"No! You're ... we're ..." Trailing off, Willow stared at her hands again as she admitted, "I don't know what we're supposed to do."

This did little to placate the Slayer, and although her tone became less harsh, she still spoke decisively. "Well we've got to do something, because this? This isn't working. Not for me." Sighing heavily, Kennedy reached out and curled her fingers around Willow's hand, ducking her head to meet the witch's eyes, but her gaze remained elusive. "You're the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning, Willow. When I go to sleep, you're the last thing I want to see."

Swallowing hard, Willow played with a loose thread on the blanket. "Maybe that's the problem?" she wondered aloud. "That's ... I've been there. Those feelings ... they're dangerous. When they're gone, when you realize never again ..." She shook her head sadly. "It destroys the world."

Kennedy squeezed Willow's hand more tightly, giving it a small shake. "We're not talking about the world; we're talking about you and me."

Slowly, Willow extricated her hand from Kennedy's grasp. She lifted her head to meet the Slayer's eyes once again. "The world isn't just about you and me, Kenn. You want me all to yourself, all the time. But there's more to life than that. I can't only be yours. I won't be."

"And I'd be okay with that if you were even a tiny bit mine, but you're not." The anger was creeping back into Kennedy's voice. "You call yourself my girlfriend, but it's really just a word, isn't it? It's a title you give yourself to make you feel ... I don't know. Secure? Not alone?"

Defensively, Willow protested, "It's not just a title! It's ... I ..."

"You know you've never told me you love me?"

The statement seemed to come out of nowhere, and for a moment, all the wind was sucked out of Willow's sails. She opened and closed her mouth several times, frowning all the while. "No, that's ..." she began uncertainly. "I have."

"You haven't," insisted Kennedy, then she laughed acerbically. "Believe me, I've been waiting. But I know you, and I know you won't say it unless you mean it." Pausing, the pieces slowly seemed to be slotting into place for the Slayer. "And I suppose that's what it comes down to. I want to hear you say that, so bad ... but you can't, and it eats me up every day."

"I want to," Willow whispered in a tiny, plaintive tone.

Kennedy regarded the redhead with open, unabashed need. "Then do it. Please."

A small nod was the only prelude as Willow licked her lips and, slowly, began to open her mouth. The room was blanketed in a thick, unyielding tension, Kennedy's every sense tuned to Willow.

The door flying open caused both women to jump in fright as Dawn and Giles burst into the room, both nearly trampling over each other in their rush.

"Willow, we need your help," Giles immediately began. "There's some sort of, ah, suspected mystical energy tha-that's twisting a-and causing everyone to- to—"

Rolling her eyes, Dawn elbowed past Giles and interrupted. "We think someone worked some mojo and now people are fighting." Noticing the Watcher's glare, Dawn allowed every ounce of frustration to make its presence known in a long, heavy, drawn-out sigh. "What? Your way, we'd be back to two Chosen Ones by the time you finished."

Willow was neither interested nor amused. "Uhm, guys?" she snapped, gesturing at herself and Kennedy. "Kinda in the middle of something here...?"

"Yes, and I'm sure it's fascinating," dismissed Giles impatiently. "Now can we please address the rather pressing issue at hand regarding, oh, the rampaging violence?"

"No! I-I'm sick of always putting stuff aside! You, wi-with your big 'Oh, I'm a Watcher, I know everything, I can just—'" The redhead stopped short and she furrowed her brow at Giles. "Wait, there's rampaging violence?"

The teenager nodded enthusiastically. "Big time. Half of Slayer Central's at each other's throats. And then there's us. Haven't you noticed it? Sort of like, you can't stop yourself from saying what's on your mind?"

Kennedy had been unceasingly glaring at the two since the moment they stepped inside the room, but now her expression changed instead into one of deep thought.

Shrugging, Willow agreed, "Tiny bit, yeah."

"It's freaky. A-And sort of liberating." Dawn caught the disbelieving expression on Giles' face and hastened to add, "But mostly freaky."

"And it's getting worse," pressed Giles with urgency. "With no restraints, we're being forced to speak our true thoughts and-and feelings, our—"

"What's in our hearts," Kennedy muttered softly to herself.

Glancing over interestedly, Giles frowned at the Slayer. "I'm sorry?"

Louder, she repeated, "Our hearts. We're seeing what's in each other's hearts."

Giles considered this thoughtfully, nodding his agreement. "Well ... yes. In a way I suppose we are."

That was all the confirmation Kennedy needed, and she rose to her feet, crossing her arms as she turned to Giles and Dawn decisively. "I know what's doing this," she announced. Surprised, three heads turned to the Slayer. She looked at each in turn.

"It's me."

The cemetery had fallen into peaceful serenity, no sounds of fighting, no sounds of evil. From their perch atop one of the many crypts that littered the graveyard, Buffy and Faith had a perfect view of their surroundings, which they surveyed casually while sitting on the edge of the stone structure, legs dangling over the side. The tension had somehow evaporated, and the two women seemed content to simply chat.

"It's just that you make me so crazy sometimes," Buffy explained. "And then with all the murders and the trying to kill my friends and the taking over my life thing ... I think there are trust issues."

"That's fair," conceded Faith with a nod of her head. "You though ... Damn, you gotta know you're freakin' infuriating sometimes. The way you walk around, like you're just the queen of everything ... An' that superior way you got of talkin' to people, makes me just wanna slap the sh—"

Subconsciously, Faith's voice had been gaining strength, and her right hand had balled into a tight fist. It looked for just a moment as though the battle would begin anew, when something passed over the Slayers and they both shuddered violently.

Searching around for some unseen assailant, Faith mumbled, "The hell?"

"Did you feel that?" Buffy gasped, a hand on her chest as she looked at the brunette.

"Yeah, felt like ..." Glancing down, Faith regarded her hand, still clenched in a tight first. Twisting it back and forth, as though seeing it for the first time, she observed it with wonder. "Huh. I still wanna punch you, but I don't. Which is ... good?" She turned the statement into a question, as though unsure of her word choice. "Unsatisfying, though. What's goin' on?"

"Beats me," the blonde replied. "But I know where to go when I need weirdness explained in big, slightly less weird words."

Swinging her legs out, Buffy leaped down from the crypt and headed for the exit. Faith followed close behind, staring at her fist with a puzzled expression. She made a few swings in the air in Buffy's general direction, as though testing to make sure it still worked properly.

Apparently heedless of the activity behind her, Buffy tentatively asked, "Guess we aired a few things, huh?"

"Know I been waitin' four years or so for a decent rematch," agreed Faith, increasing her stride until the Slayers were walking side by side.

A little sheepish, Buffy began, "About what I said ..."

Faith smirked and nudged Buffy with her shoulder. "Don't even try to pretend you didn't mean it."

"Oh, no, I meant it," the blonde assented. "Just that ... it's not all I meant. You do good here, Faith. You really do. More good out here than you would in there." She glanced at Faith. "I'm glad you're here." Rubbing her jaw, she added, "Maybe less so at this exact moment, true, but over all."

Carefully considering Buffy's words, the Slayer remained silent for a few seconds. "I dunno. I keep thinkin' I've made these great strides, that I'm such a different person. But lookit me. I mean whatever may be goin' on, sure didn't take much to shove me over the edge, y'know?"

"But you managed to rein it in all on your own," Buffy pointed out. "And it's the rest of the time that really counts. Not when some weird supernatural PMS thing's affecting us."

"I'll see what kinda comfort that brings next time you start jabberin' away 'bout honor an' duty an' rinsin' off dishes before you put 'em in the dishwasher, whatever the hell you latch on to."

"Sounds like a plan."

Neither spoke for a moment, each lost in thought.

"That 'bump you in the night' thing was a pretty good one," complimented Buffy.

"Thanks," Faith grinned, "I try."

Giles paced back and forth in the Scoobies' living room, his glasses off and in the process of a good cleaning as he spoke. Dawn sat in the center of the couch as Buffy stood by the mantle, her arms crossed. Faith leaned against the entranceway to the room, adopting a position similar to Buffy's.

"It was a spell. Kennedy cast it earlier this evening, some time after speaking with you, Buffy," Giles gestured at the Slayer with his glasses before slipping them back on. "Its intended purpose was to allow her to see into the hearts of others, to- to try and determine their inner, most true intentions. Somehow or another, a- a misspoken word or some such, she instead cast a spell that caused herself and those she came in contact with to ... speak their mind, to act upon their most base desires."

Buffy frowned, trying to fully understand. "So it was a truth spell?"

"Sort of," replied Dawn. "It's like, you know how you have a gazillion thoughts and impulses that run through your head all the time, but you know you'll never actually act on them?" At Buffy's nod, she continued. "Well whatever it is that keeps you from saying what you're really thinking, this spell obliterated it."

"Why would she do somethin' like that?" Faith wondered aloud. "Seems the Brat usually don't got a problem speakin' her mind."

Ceasing his pacing, Giles addressed Faith. "Judith's attack on Willow shook her badly. She said she wanted to be able to ferret out any future turncoats long before they got another chance at her."

"It sounds good in theory," offered Dawn helpfully, trying to look on the bright side.

"Application left a little somethin' to be desired," Faith commented with a dark glance toward the stairs.

Buffy shook her head ruefully. "And they say honesty is the best policy. Whoever 'they' are, they're pretty stupid sometimes."

Settling next to Dawn on the couch, Giles continued, "At least the spell was easily reversible. Once we knew the source, a simple counter charm, and everything returned to normal."

As if on cue, the front door opened to reveal Xander and Andrew, both glaring at each other with open hostility as they entered the living room.

"So are you a full-time moron, or is this just a temp job?" snapped Xander.

With an astonished expression, Dawn needlessly jabbed her finger at Xander repeatedly while looking expectantly at Giles.

The Watcher seemed equally as surprised. "That's— I don't understand, the spell has been broken, its effects should have been reversed."

Buffy nodded slightly at Faith, and the two Slayers circled the boys carefully, ready to leap into action at a moment's notice. Xander wasn't paying any attention, his nose buried in the comic book bag as he dug around, searching for something.

"Okay, Xander? Andrew?" prompted Buffy in an overly calm tone. "Just back away from each other, nice and slow ..."

Having found what he was seeking, Xander pulled out the latest issue of Batman. Andrew's eyes widened in horror when he saw what Xander was holding and he lunged at the other man. "No! The last part of 'Hush'!" he wailed. "I haven't read it ye— Hey!"

Having interpreted the move as an attack, the Slayers had responded appropriately. Buffy laid a restraining hand on Xander's arm, and Faith had very deftly put Andrew in a headlock, pinning his arms behind his head.

"Okay, ow!" Andrew yelped. "Back off, Chyna!"

"Buff, what's goin' on?" queried Xander with a confused expression.

Not answering immediately, Buffy instead turned to Giles, puzzled. "Do they seem kinda ... less grouchy than the rest of us were?"

"Xander, when did you last see Kennedy?" the Watcher inquired.

"Kennedy? Not since I left."

Turning to Andrew, Giles asked, "And you?"

"I haven't seen her all day!" he whined. "Now let me go, my hands are getting all tingly!"

Casting a questioning glance at Giles first, Faith released her hold on Andrew, shoving him forward and away just enough to make sure he couldn't turn on her immediately. With considerably less fanfare, Buffy simply released her grip on Xander's arm.

"Kennedy didn't cast the spell until after Xander had already left," stated Giles. "I'm guessing they were never infected. They simply appear to be ..."

"Complete and utter geeks?" Dawn finished with a smirk. "Yeah, well, we knew that already."

Xander smoothed down the wrinkles in his shirt as he glared at Dawn. "I resent that remark. Just for that, I'm keepin' my season six TNG DVDs all to my little lonesome."

And with that, Xander spun on his heel dramatically and left the room, Andrew on his heels, massaging his hands. "Oo, can I watch?" Andrew asked hopefully. "'Tapestry' was just one of the best episodes ever, don't you think?"

The momentary excitement over, Faith resumed her lounging. "'nother day, 'nother disaster," she summed up casually.

A relieved Giles added, "Thankfully more didn't go wrong. This had the potential to become exceedingly ugly."

"Just as well you two didn't meet up, huh?" Dawn motioned at Buffy and Faith. "We'd probably still be scraping Slayer off the walls."

The two exchanged an unreadable look.

"Oh, I dunno," replied Buffy with a shrug. "I think that sort of thing's beneath us."

Nodding firmly, Faith was in complete agreement. "Yeah, we got an understandin'."

"Well I sincerely hope Kennedy has learned her lesson," stated Giles, unable to completely keep the irritation out of his voice as he glared at the ceiling. "Magic is not something to be toyed with, not even under the most noble of intentions."

"This is true," Buffy concurred in a chipper voice. "But at least there was no permanent damage ... right?"

Kennedy stood by the bed, gazing down at Willow with an expression that went beyond apologetic. The redhead refused to meet her eyes. She simply sat and stared at the blanket.

"I'm sorry. All that stuff I said ... God, I'm so sorry," Kennedy entreated, all but pleading for forgiveness. "I didn't mean it, and I know you didn't mean it either," she hastily excused Willow's words. "I just want to—"

"We did."

Her mouth still moved silently for a moment, but Kennedy quickly regained control. "What?"

Lifting her head, Willow's eyes were shining with unshed tears. Her expression was one of complete misery, but underneath it was firm, unwavering resolve. "We meant it," she clarified. "Every word."

"No," the Slayer denied. "No, Will. It was the spell. The spell made us—"

"The spell made us say what we were thinking," she continued sadly. "That's it. I-It took away our ... inner censor, the little guy in our head that throws up a red flag and keeps the inside stuff from comin' out." Staring intently at Kennedy with a gaze she was helpless to break, Willow spoke with utter certainty. "But it didn't put anything in our head that wasn't already there, a-and it didn't twist it, or modify it, or cushion it. It was all us."

It was obvious that the Slayer wanted to maintain her denial, to tell Willow that she was completely wrong, but the words wouldn't come. "...okay," she finally relented. "Okay, so maybe it was. But so what? So we have a few issues." Kennedy tried to laugh, but it was a weak and hollow sound. "Keeps things interesting, right?"

Willow didn't laugh, she didn't flinch. She simply continued to stare at Kennedy with an expression that spoke of inevitability.

"C'mon. It'll be okay," the Slayer urged, but she made no move toward Willow. "It's good this way. Now it's all out in the open, we can tackle it and beat it down."

Slowly, Willow shook her head. "I'm sorry, but we can't."

"We can. We will," Kennedy insisted with as much confidence as she could muster.

The redhead refused to be swayed. "We won't. We won't, because ..." Willow closed her eyes, sucking in a deep breath as she steeled herself. When she opened them again, they were steady and fixed on Kennedy. "Because I don't love you."

The words hung in the silence that ensued. Willow's eyes continued to shine, but no tears fell and she didn't look away. Kennedy's face was impassive, then just for a second, a crack appeared and her entire expression crumbled, threatening to fall apart. But the Slayer simply tore her eyes away, sniffing as she stared at the ceiling, and when she looked back, there was no hint of any emotion whatsoever.

Willow resumed, gently and full of compassion. "Not how you want me to. Now how you deserve me to. And I've tried. I think. ...Sometimes I try. Other times ..." Trailing off, Willow smiled sadly at the Slayer, who was obviously listening to every word but was otherwise a statue. "You probably saved me, y'know? You got me to open up again, to let go of some of the pain. I can't tell you how much that means to me. But you're right. Everything else comes first ... a-and I think it always will."

Shame now crept into Willow's face, and she hung her head as she spoke. "I think ... I think I've been using you. The way you made me feel ..." She chuckled, a short and self-depreciating sound. "...beautiful and desirable and special and loved. And I needed that, so much. But I wanted it on my terms. I wanted— I want it without having to work for it. I want it without going any deeper than we are now. That's not enough for you, and it shouldn't be."

Kennedy's voice was taut and strained. "Why don't you let me tell you what's enough for me?"

Lifting her head, Willow smiled, but it was an expression of sorrow. "You did."

Recoiling slightly, the Slayer found she had no answer for that.

"You deserve someone who can meet you on all levels, Kenn, not just the easy, surfacy ones. And that someone's just not me. I'm sorry." Willow gazed openly at Kennedy, speaking honestly and from the heart. "I ... I wish it were. I really do."

Breathing rapidly, deeply, Kennedy was fighting a losing battle to hold her composure together. "So," she choked. "That's ... that's it then?"

Nodding, her tears threatening to spill over, Willow softly replied, "Yeah."

"Just like that."

"Not just like that. I think we've both felt this coming, way deep down."

Unable to think of what else to say, Kennedy simply continued to stare at Willow, eyes searching, begging for something to hold on to, some sort of ledge she could snag to prevent herself from falling completely. But she found nothing.

"I'm sorry," Willow apologized with absolute sincerity.

"Yeah. Yeah, me too."

Kennedy's voice cracked as she spoke, and with a final pained look of yearning, she turned to the door, She opened it slowly, reluctantly, but didn't glance back as she walked through, closing it behind her with a soft click.

Willow watched Kennedy leave, finally allowing a few tears to trickle down her cheeks. But no more than that spilled. She took a deep breath, her sadness palpable, but her expression one of certainty and assurance. Reaching for the books of healing on her bedside table, Willow opened one and began to read.

Main Page | Episodes