The enthusiastic sounds of chattering outside the door prefaced Buffy and Willow's return home. "And did you see that one guy?" Buffy asked incredulously as she slipped off her coat.
Bleary eyed, Xander dragged himself inside a few paces behind the girls, blinking as he tried to focus in the face of actual interior lighting.
"Oh my god!" exclaimed Willow, spinning to the blonde with an expression of complete horrific amusement. "Some people should just say no to leather pants."
The Slayer shook her head sadly. "I feel bad for the cow," she empathized. "It was probably fed this big line about noble sacrifice and look where it ended up."
Demonstrating little desire to participate in the conversation, Xander slunk past the others, managing to make it to the couch before sitting down in a flop that was just shy of being a collapse. His friends exchanged a look of concern and simultaneously moved to follow him when Dawn practically bounced in from the kitchen. Buffy held back to talk to her while Willow continued to Xander.
"Hey," Dawn bubbled, a distinct but unrecognizable gleam in her eyes as she regarded her sister. "How was the big night?"
"Fun," replied Buffy without much thought, "though extremely disturbing in places."
"Cool," Dawn nodded before adding in an overly nonchalant tone, "Giles is back."
Buffy's eyes lit up at the prospect. "Ooo, did he bring me a surprise?"
The teenager's grin widened into something mostly insufferable and just a touch evil. "Oh yeah."
Buffy didn't need Slayer senses to tell her something was going on, and she narrowed her eyes at Dawn, the 'tell me or I break you' threat fully implied. However it appeared that sisters carried a natural immunity, and Dawn didn't have the decency to look even mildly intimidated. Quite the contrary, she only became more delighted.
"You'll have to wait until tomorrow," the teenager cheerfully informed. "He wants to give it to you himself."
Instantly, Buffy smiled, as though she had been gifted with the most wonderful idea to ever grace humankind. "Well, why don't you just tell me what it is now, and I'll act surprised tomorrow."
"Oh, c'mon," the Slayer nearly begged. "You know I hate not knowing."
"I know," agreed Dawn in such a way that said not only did she know, she wallowed in it.
Her lower lip threatening to jut out at any moment, Buffy was far from sharing in her sister's delight. "You are so evil."
"And it's a big surprise too," continued Dawn.
Buffy had slipped into full pouting mode now. "Nyh! Not fair! You shouldn't know things that I don't know."
"Well, you'll find out tomorrow morning." Dawn leaned past Buffy and addressed the occupants of the living room. "You guys too."
Willow glanced up from the couch, where she held her good hand on Xander's forehead. The carpenter's head was tilted back on the cushions and gave no indication that he realized Willow was there. "I-I have a class, doesn't let out until 10, so I'll probably be a bit late. But I'll catch up."
Apparently noticing his condition for the first time, Dawn asked, "Xander, you okay?"
She received only a noncommittal grunt in response, so Willow expounded. "Yeah, he'll be okay. Just caught a- a tummy bug or somethin'."
From Dawn's perspective, it didn't appear to be just a tummy bug, and she frowned worriedly, but when a glance at Buffy and Willow displayed no undue concern, she visibly relaxed. "Okay. Well, I hope you feel better."
Moving his head as little as possible, Xander managed a feeble nod.
"I'm gonna head up to my room," Dawn announced, jerking her thumb toward the stairs. "The Wide Wonderful World of Moths has proven itself to be neither wide nor wonderful."
"Project's done?" questioned Buffy in her best Mom voice.
"Yup. I now know more about the reproductive cycle of the Io moth than you could ever, ever want to know."
"Okay then." The blonde gave her sister a kiss on the cheek. "Good night."
"Night." Redirecting into the living room, Dawn called out, "Night guys."
From Xander she received only a half-hearted wave, but Willow tossed in a pleasant "Night Dawnie."
Having said her goodnights, the younger Summers headed up. She made it about halfway before her voice, lilted in a singsong, drifted downstairs. "IIIII know a seeeeee-creeeet, IIIII know a seeee-creeeet ..."
Shaking her head, Buffy didn't bother with shooting back a response until she was well out of earshot. "I bet even the ball of green energy was annoying," she huffed to her friends. "I fail to believe she's just picked that up in a couple of years." She considered Xander, still strewn in the same position he'd landed and seeming disinclined to move. "How y'holding up?"
"Better now I'm home. Ugh," he managed in a strained voice. "Think I'm gonna head up too."
Willow nodded in full support. "Good idea."
With only a little assistance from Buffy, Xander rose to his feet. It was slow going, but he was able to get himself to the stairs and he trudged up slowly.
The two women intently watched him go, and Buffy allowed the first traces of worry to cross her face. "Think he'll be okay?"
"Yeah, doesn't seem to be anything major," replied Willow, turning to the blonde. "He said he was just feeling generally blecchy. Probably be okay in a day or so."
With a nod, Buffy sat down on the couch, occupying Xander's former seat. "So."
Several long seconds passed.
"And that guy's shirt," Buffy boggled, tossing her hands in the air. "What, did he go through some horrific Easter Egg accident?"
The witch shook her head ruefully. "Makes you wonder what gets into people's heads."
"And the match-up between the Eagles and Steelers is looking like it's going to be a hot one."
The sports commentator, as it was his job to do, was chittering away happily into the late hours of the night. On this particular occasion, his excitable manner and well-dressed appearance brought the only light into a dark living room for the benefit of two spectators on the couch.
"Jerome Dickinson has simply been on fire since moving over to Philly's side in July, and he'll be directly up against Pittsburg's Matt Whelks, who seems to have come into the sweet spot between youth and experience."
A bottle had fallen on the floor, its contents spilled onto the carpet. A small dribble of beer continued to drip onto the growing puddle, unheeded by the room's occupants. Their eyes simply remained fixed on the television screen, staring at it with vacant, glassy expressions.
"We had a chance to talk to Eagles head coach Wilson Brown on his plans for the game."
The commentator's bubbling enthusiasm never waned. He was unaware that his two viewers in this home both lay lifeless on a couch, a nearly identical bullet hole through each man's chest, just over the heart. A faint trace of surprise was registered in the eyes of each young victim, and the nerveless fingers of the one who had been drinking remained half-extended, as though still gripping the bottle.
Upstairs, away from the sound of the television, all was quiet. Each door lining the hallway was closed save one. Only the moonlight streaming in from a window provided any illumination, and it fell on the sleeping woman in bed, the light framing her almost as if in a picture. She lay on her stomach, the bed sheets and her pajamas unruffled. The woman's eyes were closed, and from her tranquil expression, she had likely never realized the imminence of her own death. A single gunshot wound marred her otherwise flawless skin, a thin stream of blood trickling down her cheek and soaking into the pillow.
On the nearby nightstand, she happily posed in an idyllic picture. She was laughing, her arms tossed around the shoulders of the beaming man standing in front of her. The sun was shining down on the young couple. It was serene and peaceful, a twisted reflection of her current state.
Just a few feet away, the gun remained aimed at her head. The hand clenching the grip was that of the man in the photograph, the same man who had been serenaded at the Vortex earlier that night. He looked on without expression, unmoved by the scene or his actions. He started to raise the pistol. His eyes remained blank, as though he saw nothing in front of him.
The muzzle rested against the man's temple.
A few seconds later, a shot pierced the silent neighborhood, and all was quiet once more.
Hannah moved casually around Giles' office, examining the décor with a curious, appraising eye. Giles had situated himself in his chair behind the desk, a familiar and secure position, though his nervousness was still readily apparent. Despite being the newcomer to the situation, Hannah did not reflect even the slightest ounce of concern. Quite the contrary, she seemed excited.
"They should be here soon," declared Giles in a strained tone.
Glancing over from her examination of a framed and ancient-looking scroll, Hannah smiled. "Great," she responded with clear enthusiasm. "I'm really looking forward to meeting them. They're each legends in their own right."
"The real thing is considerably less awe-inspiring, I assure you," the Watcher replied partly under his breath.
"Familiarity breeds contempt, hm?" Giles was unable to fully suppress a smirk, and Hannah grinned upon seeing it before returning her attentions to the seemingly endless treasure trove of interesting items with which Giles had surrounded himself.
A small box on a nearby shelf attracted her attention, and she curiously opened it to peer inside. Spotting something, she frowned and fished it out, laying the contents of the box on her open palm. It appeared to be a broken piece from some sort of statue – a fist clutching a spear. The blonde glanced to Giles with a frown, a question already forming on her lips, but just then the door opened. She put the hand back from whence it came and instead turned toward the door as Giles rose to his feet to greet Buffy and Faith.
They were clearly alone, but that didn't stop Giles from waiting expectantly as he looked over their shoulders into the empty hallway beyond. "Willow?" he inquired. "An-And Xander?"
"Will's class is letting out, oh, about now," replied Buffy. "She said she'll be here as soon as she can. As for Xander, he's still feeling kinda out of it, so he stayed in bed. We'll catch him up."
"Oh." The note of disappointment was evident, but Giles nodded in understanding. "Yes, well, all right then."
However the Slayers weren't particularly listening; they were focused entirely on Hannah, who in turn was focused entirely upon them.
"Bit old for the Slayer game, ain'tcha?" Faith appraised bluntly.
Hannah made no effort to hide her amusement. "I'm nothing quite so sensational, I assure you," she smiled. "What I am, however, is delighted to meet you both. I've heard so much about you."
"I'd like to say the feeling's mutual," began Buffy, "but what with the never having seen you before in my life and all ..." She turned to Giles, her expression becoming more serious. "Care to clarify before I start feeling really uncomfortable?"
"This is Hannah." Giles introduced, extending his hand toward the woman. "She's something of an expert in ... security. I've brought her here to institute and oversee some internal processes in that field."
Satisfied with that information, Buffy visibly relaxed. Faith, on the other hand, surveyed Hannah in a new light. The head-to-toe scan completely lacked subtlety, with the brunette very obviously taking stock and measure of the older woman. Hannah, for her part, seemed nothing but amused by Faith's scrutiny.
"Well, I'm for anything that keeps one of us from being the next main event at Caesar's Palace," Buffy decided, letting out a small but undeniably bitter smile.
Slowly, Hannah turned to Giles, a mild, expectant expression on her face.
Giles tried to steel himself. He took a breath. "She's also, uhm ... My-my ... Uh, my wife."
For a few seconds, as the words traveled into the ears of the Slayers and cogitated in their brains, nothing happened. Then like the flipping of a switch, realization dawned and two pairs of eyes widened accordingly.
"Whoa, dude," remarked Faith, surprised yet restrained.
Buffy was anything but. "Your— Your what?"
"Wife," Hannah calmly confirmed. She remained totally unphased by the reactions instead, obviously finding them entirely entertaining.
Giles glanced away from Buffy's intense glare. "Well, ex-wife, technically ..." he mumbled.
If the blonde Slayer heard him, it was clear those words could not hope to supercede the ones already bouncing around her brain and echoing in her ears. "Wife? Wife??" she repeated with incredulity. "You have a wife now? What, was this some sort of twisted new promotion from Brinks? Free matrimony with every new installation?"
"Sure beats the hell outta steak knives," Faith chimed in.
Buffy jabbed a decisive finger in Giles' direction. "That's it, no more going to England for you."
"I was afraid you'd take it this way," he sighed.
"What way did you expect me to take it? Was I supposed to rush out to Tiffany's and pick up something from your registry?"
"We had a Tiffany's bridal registry?" Hannah inquired teasingly, looking at Giles. "And I was happy to get a stick of gum from the vending machine. I always knew you were holding out on me."
The Watcher cast a sideways glance at her. "Don't you start," he warned without real malice before turning back to his highly agitated Slayer. "If you'd just settle down, we can discuss this rationally—"
Any possible hope for rationality at that moment was lost as Willow entered, completely oblivious to the heightened tensions permeating the room. "Hey guys, here I am. I didn't think that class was ever gonna end. Don't know if you were aware of this, but rocks? Turns out that no matter how much ya study 'em, they're still just rocks." Her eyes rested on Hannah, and she took note of the unfamiliar presence for the first time. "Oh, hey, you're new ...?" She searched the room for someone to fill her in.
"Giles' wife," Faith informed the redhead off-handedly.
"Nice to meet—" Willow's head snapped back to Faith in mid-welcome. "Wait, what?"
"Wife," Buffy nearly spat. "His wife. He has a wife," she reported with an accusing tone.
"Ex-wife," insisted Giles, ramping up the volume since there was no indication any attention had been paid last time. That situation did not appear to change.
"Wi— Bu— Wuh—" Willow stammered, looking back and forth between Giles and Hannah in a strange and desperate bid to understand. "W-When did this happen?"
"1974, I believe it was," replied Hannah casually, as though someone had just asked her for the time.
Buffy threw her hands up in the air. "Great! That's just great! Hey, you're coming up on thirty years," she glared at Giles. "We can get you something! What's a 30th anniversary, Will?"
"Pearl ..." Willow replied in a detached voice as she tilted her head curiously at Hannah, as though seeing a peculiar new species of demon, never before discovered by man.
"See?" Buffy asked all of them. "Pearl. Maybe we can get one engraved with something like, oh, I don't know, maybe 'Gee, I really should've told everyone about this before my 30th anniversary'!"
Still completely unphased, Faith pointed out, "Pearl's pretty small, don't think it'd fit."
Laying his hands on the desk surface, Giles leaned forward, speaking to the room although his eyes never left Buffy. "Hannah is my ex-wife," he reiterated for a third time. "We've been separated since—"
"That'd be 1974 too, " Hannah interrupted, smile never fading.
Faith shot him an impressed look. "Damn, you the mack daddy, Oxford."
The Watcher seemed unsure how to take the comment. Initially, he looked pleased, like he might thank her for a compliment, but then confused, as though the thought occurred that it might not be a compliment after all, before finally moving to perplexed. He finally decided however to wisely let the matter rest and move on. "My point being, it ended some considerable time ago, a-and as it had no bearing on my life today, I saw no need to bring it up."
"Stop, you'll make me blush," Hannah responded with a demure wave of her hand, but the sparkle in her eyes belied any possible sting from her sarcasm.
Giles looked at her regretfully for a moment before Faith managed to break the deadlock that had crippled the room. Crossing to Hannah, not quite confrontationally but with definite intent, the Slayer tilted her head curiously. "So, what brings you outta the woodwork now, after all these years?"
"Like Rupert said, for security," the blonde replied, giving no indication that she found Faith's proximity intimidating. "He contacted me shortly after your attack," she nodded to Willow then turned back to Faith, "and asked me to come here and help. I was bored with my current line of work and wanted a change anyway ..." She looked around the room for effect. "And here I am."
"What were you doin' before?"
Faith's eyes lit up with interest. "Oh, like bail jumpers, that sorta thing?"
Smirking, Hannah inclined her head in acknowledgement. "At first. It wasn't really challenging enough, however, so I turned to the supernatural instead. With more emphasis on the 'hunter' than the 'bounty'." Hannah gave a small shrug, as if it wasn't a big deal. "Demons, Fey, Metahumans, things like that."
"'Metahuman'?" Faith repeated with a frown, the word obviously unfamiliar. "Ain't heard that one before, what's that?"
Hannah shrugged, the gesture coming off blasé. "Oh, enhanced humans ... Witches, warlocks ..." She glanced meaningfully at Faith. "Slayers ..."
It was clearly an unexpected response, and Faith's eyebrows twitched upward. "Slayers, huh? Anyone we know?"
"No, although I did almost accept a contract a while ago." Shifting position, Hannah stared down at Faith. "On you, actually." A charming smile then appeared, and the blonde relaxed again, seeming to have already moved beyond the conversation.
The surprise that had taken momentary possession of Faith's features evaporated just as quickly, and she grinned cockily. "Came to your senses, huh?" she surmised with an understanding nod.
"Actually," replied Hannah slowly, "he couldn't meet my price."
Faith's eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly. What had started as a casual glance became a much more concentrated analysis of the woman before her. No detail, no possibility escaped Faith's eagle eyes, and in that moment, the unspoken question was, 'Could I take her?' The Slayer's gaze drifted upward again, resting finally on pale blue that betrayed nothing other than complete, calm confidence. It was an expression that Faith echoed wholeheartedly as she crossed her arms and nodded to herself. Oh yeah. I could take her.
While the two women were performing their mutual assessments, Buffy consulted Giles in a low voice, speaking only loud enough to be reasonably heard by Willow, who was still mostly riveted on Hannah and not paying attention.
"Giles, I don't know about this. Are you sure we can trust her?" Buffy hissed with a suspicious glance over her shoulder.
"Absolutely. I wouldn't have brought her here otherwise." Giles spoke with rock-solid assurance and he locked on to Buffy directly without flinching from her questioning expression. "We may have separated years ago, but we've remained in touch. Hannah is one of the most trustworthy people I have ever known. I would stake my life on it."
Buffy cast another worried look at the Watcher's ex-wife and sighed. "You might be staking our lives too ... I hope you're right."
"I wouldn't endanger any of you, you must know that."
His comment elicited a nod of support, but the blonde Slayer clearly harbored reservations. Meanwhile, Willow continued to stare openly. "She doesn't really look like his type, does she?" the redhead asked of no one in particular. "I mean sure she's really, really pretty and all, big duh there, but he always seemed to go for more the dark, exotic types. Well except for Joyce that one time, but there were candy issues, so that probably doesn't count. Still though, she looks like she stepped out of a Swedish porn movie – not that I'd know anything about the Swedish, or their porn, though they do make good chocolate. No, wait, that's the Swiss. You know, I wonder why Toblerone—"
Suddenly Willow broke off and her eyes darted from one side to the other, astonished to note that she had garnered the undivided attention of everyone in the room. The witch's face immediately exploded into a deep blush. "IIIII was talkin' out loud again, huh?" Nobody answered, but as it was a rhetorical question, Willow wasn't really waiting for one. "Yeah, right, see the- the pain medication, good for happies, not so good for judgment, a-and I'm gonna sit in the chair now and see if I can disappear just by thinkin' about it real hard."
She proceeded to do just that, sliding into the nearby chair with as little fanfare as possible and, with her hands clenched tightly in her lap, tried to make as few attention-attracting movements as possible. Giles had fallen back on old habits and was polishing his glasses with fierce determination, while Faith and Hannah both wore equal expressions of utter amusement. Buffy on the other hand looked as though she had become trapped on a train hurtling to a terrifying visual place involving Willow and some naughty Scandinavian videos. She desperately wanted off the ride.
Fortunately for all of them, Andrew arrived, providing a welcome break in the tension, replete with a pot of tea on a tray and a newspaper.
"Your morning tea, Mr. Giles," he announced with as much of an English accent as he could muster, which was to say none at all. He set the tray down on a rare patch of cleared real estate on the desk and held up the newspaper with a little shake. "I already took the funnies, hope that's okay. Luann's such a delight."
Buffy was still reeling from Willow's exposition on videos when something caught her eye. One glance at the newspaper, and she snatched it away from Andrew.
He put his hands on his hips petulantly. "Sure, I'm done looking, Miss Manners!"
"Thank you, Andrew," sighed Giles.
"You're welcome, Mr. Giles," Andrew stated rather pointedly as he glared at Buffy. She ignored him completely, and after a few seconds and an expression that promised much whining about this later, he left altogether. As Buffy continued to read the paper, Willow's curiosity began to take precedence, but as she was reluctant to move from her chair, she simply tried craning her neck to see properly. With no such constraints, Faith simply ambled over to get a look, Hannah following, but at a discreet distance.
"What's up?" Faith asked, peering over Buffy's shoulder.
The other Slayer held the paper out for all to see. The front page read in a large bold font, "Four Slaughtered in Brutal Murder-Suicide!" Incongruous to the sensationalist headline was a grainy but still recognizable photograph of a clean-shaven, otherwise normal man. The photograph was oddly situated next to one of a two-story house, the second picture having clearly been taken that morning, judging by the police officers and yellow tape surrounding the perimeter. Buffy ignored that image however and pointed to the portrait. "Look familiar?"
Amidst furrowed brows and blank looks, Willow suddenly piped up. "Oh! I-It's that guy from the Vortex! The one all swoony over that singer last night!" she declared in a momentary bout of not trying to hide.
"Yup. Guess music doesn't always soothe the savage beast." The Slayer turned the paper back toward her, frowning in puzzlement as she studied it carefully. "There's something funny about this. I'm gonna head to the Vortex, check it out." She started towards the door without waiting for confirmation, then stopped and turned back to Giles. "We're done here, right? No previously unannounced children going to walk through the door in a second?"
A glare was his only response. "Just making sure," Buffy stated with raised hands, taking a few more steps toward the door.
"Buffy!" Hannah called out, bringing the Slayer to a halt once more. "I was hoping to get the chance to sit down and talk with you later, find out all I can about Judith's attack, get your opinion on some good preventative measures, things like that."
Casting a slightly evil glance toward Giles, Buffy replied, "Throw in some terribly embarrassing story from Giles' past, and I'm all yours."
"Deal," Hannah smiled.
Giles didn't bother to restrain a heavy sigh as Buffy left the room. "Well, that could have gone worse," he commented with a touch of sarcasm.
Willow glanced up with a slightly bewildered expression. "Am I actually invisible yet, or is it just the drugs?"
The Vortex was open during the daytime, but the comparison between its ambiance during the day and its evening incarnation were as different as day and night themselves. Less than half a dozen patrons were present, calmly sitting at the bar drinking. Brightly illuminated and without the swirling lightshows, the club lacked the exotic outer space effect and was nothing more than a well-decorated hangout.
Buffy walked through, giving the place only a casual examination. She moved directly to the closest employee, the bartender. "Hey."
She received no response. The bartender wasn't looking at her, and didn't really appear to be looking at much of anything, he just absently rubbed the inside of a shot glass with a towel. She waved a hand in front of his face. "Hey ...?"
This drew his attention, and he blinked away some of the fog. However when he turned his head to Buffy, the eyes were still hazy. "Hey. What can I get you?"
Buffy noted the impressive wall of booze, bottles of every shape and size, their contents displaying all colors of the spectrum. "Just a few answers and I'm good to go." She offered him the morning paper, sensationalist headline and all. "This guy look familiar?"
But the bartender had spaced out again and just stared ahead. Slowly, he set down his now extra-shiny glass and reached for another.
"The guy. In the picture," she urged. "He was here last night?" Receiving no response, she gave the friendliest glare she could that was still a glare. "Oh come on, I can't be that boring."
"You'd have better luck getting' an answer outta the stool than him, honey," a warm female voice stated from behind.
Buffy turned. It was one of the waitresses, easy to spot because of the outfit: very tight fitting and all black except for silver speckles and designs arranged to look like stars and other heavenly objects. While the uniform was undeniably showy, it was easy to spot at night when a couple hundred people packed the place.
Giving up on the bartender, Buffy went to the newcomer, taking note of the nametag identifying the waitress as Evie. "Too many late nights?" she asked, jerking her head to indicate the bartender. "It's these lights you guys have, they'd be enough to mash anybody's brain if you stared at them long enough."
"Y'get used to 'em," said Evie, waving her hand dismissively at the mechanical setup overhead. She gestured to the bartender. "I dunno what's wrong with him. He's usually a friendly guy, loves to talk ... bit too much for my tastes, to be honest, but it's somethin' you come to expect from someone, y'know?" She shrugged. "Past few days though, he's just been completely out of it."
Looking back, the Slayer saw the man still aimlessly polishing. "Personal trouble maybe? Something at home?"
"You'd think, but here's the weird thing – it's not just him. It's all the guys around here, like their brains have just checked out. Which I guess doesn't sound too unusual, but even for them, it's a bit much."
"Huh," Buffy frowned. "So this is new then?"
"Yeah, I'd say I've really noticed it in the past few days."
Holding out the paper, Buffy asked, "How about him? Was he a regular?"
The waitress took the paper and studied it for a moment, nodding her recognition. "Yeah ... Yeah, he's been around a lot lately." The headline caught her eye for the first time. "Wow, dead, huh?" She gave a little chuckle despite the subject. "I give Parth half an hour into their next set to find a new guy."
Buffy, who had been following along well up to this point, cocked her head a little. "Parth?"
"Lead singer of the current headliner," Evie replied, looking up from the newspaper. With a sweeping motion of her hand, she indicated the many fliers hanging on the walls around the club. "Sort of latches onto a boytoy of the moment. I guess it gives her some kinda rush on stage or something."
The Slayer frowned, and accepted the paper back from the waitress. "The article says the guy's girlfriend was killed too. I thought ..." Looking down to the paper and back up at Evie, Buffy asked, "So the singer wasn't his girlfriend?"
"Honey, I don't think that word's in Parth's vocabulary. And she's definitely not dead; she stopped by earlier to do some equipment checks." She glanced across at the bar. "Hey, I gotta get back to it. Good luck with whatever it is you're workin' on."
"Thanks," replied Buffy almost absently. She examined the fliers, a small sea of fluorescent photocopies covering the wall. Apart from the colors, they were all identical, proclaiming the band, "Persephone's Tears", to be the hottest new group making the club circuit. A photograph of the trio and their performance dates was included.
Buffy tore down one of the fliers, studying it carefully.
Willow reached up and captured another long section of Dawn's hair, adding it to the pair already draped across her cast. The teenager already sported several braids in varying degrees of neatness, but given that the redhead was largely working one-handed, she wasn't doing a bad job. The contented expression on Dawn's face indicated that provided no permanent damage was being done, she would likely have been thrilled with whatever Willow chose to do.
The pair was seated in the living room, Willow perched on the edge of the couch with Dawn settled comfortably on the floor in front. The television was tuned to what appeared to be any one of a number of reality programs, but neither was paying the screen much attention.
"It's not too late, y'know," Willow began tentatively. "If you want to go to Jackie's."
Dawn tried to swivel around fully to regard Willow, but work being done on her hair only allowed her a brief sideways glance. "You bored?"
"No," the redhead quickly assured, smoothing out the locks of hair and concentrating on trying to loop them, one over the other while using her cast as a prop. "No, nothin' like that. It's just, I know how it is. Teenager, friend's house, away from all the stodgy adults. Just didn't wantcha to think ya had to stick around here for me."
"'Stodgy'? You're 22, Willow, not a hundred and twenty-two." Considering this, Dawn added, "Which is just as well, because you'd probably be evil or something and we've so been there. Besides," she snuggled her back against the couch a little, smiling happily. "You do my hair way better than Jackie."
A wry grin made its way to Willow's face. "I've been told I have magic fingers," she agreed, then her eyes widened as she reflected on her words. "I, uh ..."
Dawn interjected, quickly putting an end to the embarrassment. "You sound good though. Which is good. Are you? Good, I mean."
"I'm good. It's hard sometimes. But I'm okay."
Eyes narrowing, Dawn hunched in place, fuming. "Man, when I think about what Kennedy did to you—"
Hands stopped in mid-braid. "Whoa, hold up there. What she—? What did she do?" questioned Willow, leaning to one side in an effort to see the teenager's face.
"You know, with her spell and all." Dawn waved her hand in the air. "And the possessiveness and the bossy and the whatever she did that made you not be happy."
Willow shook her head and straightened, turning back to the braid. "Kennedy didn't make me not happy. I-It was more me making her not happy."
"Oh yeah, right. Like this wasn't totally her fault." The redhead might not have been able to see the sneer, but she could hear it.
"It wasn't. Really. Kennedy was fine." Dawn's head tilted to one side, and the imagined flat stare prompted a rolling of the eyes from Willow. "Okay, she wasn't perfect," the witch conceded, "but really, this was all me, Dawnie."
Dawn remained quiet, clearly working on reconciling this new information. "Then I don't get it. If it wasn't her, then why ...?"
The braiding stopped again as Willow sighed and bit her bottom lip. Dawn slowly turned to be able to fully see the witch, her eyes questioning and trying to understand. "Cuz I couldn't be what she needed me to be. A-And I didn't realize it until ..." She glanced down, guilty, then up again. "I didn't want to think about it. So I didn't, but then when it was all spit out and revealy ... I couldn't really keep ignoring it any more. Kennedy's a good person, she deserves someone who can love her a-and connect with her ... And right now, that's just not me."
There was significant mulling over going on in Dawn's brain. Willow reached out and gently urged the teenager to turn around once more so the braiding could resume. Neither said anything for several seconds, until Dawn finally spoke again.
"But you're okay?"
"Well, still a little on the raw and sting-y side at the moment," Willow admitted, "but it's for the best."
Frowning, but seeking final confirmation, Dawn persisted, "And it's really not her fault?"
"Really very not," Willow reaffirmed.
Dawn absorbed with this with a "Huh." Soon after, she added, "I never liked her."
"And here I thought you were bestest buds," remarked the redhead, sarcasm oozing from her voice like thick syrup.
"I mean, I guess she's okay as a human being or something," the teenager grudgingly relented, "but with you ... I dunno. But ... I'd rather you be with her and happy than not be and sad. Just saying."
With a smile, Willow leaned over and kissed the top of the girl's head, Dawn caught somewhere between the standard teenage protest of affection and lapping it up. "How about I try bein' alone an' happy instead for a while, sound good?" Willow questioned cheerfully.
"Not that you're alone," Dawn hastily pointed out.
Waving her good hand, Willow dismissed the very notion that she ever imagined otherwise. "With you guys around? Pfft. Never."
"Good. So long as you know that."
"I do." Willow beamed in spite of herself. "I'm okay, really."
"Okay, then. Though speaking of alone ..." Dawn glanced around the room and house. "I sorta thought Buffy and Xander were gonna be here."
"Buffy's got some Slayer stuff cookin', an' Xander's still feelin' all yucky. He's been upstairs sleeping pretty much all day."
Dawn's concern from the previous night immediately returned, manifesting in the form of a deep frown. "I hope it's nothing serious."
With her best reassuring smile, Willow finished a braid. "Oh no. I'm sure he'll be just fine."
The lights of the Vortex engaged in their cosmic dance. Music seemed to pour forth from every corner of the galaxy. To the delight of all, Persephone's Tears dominated the stage. Like a sultry summer breeze, the lead singer's voice caressed her adoring fans. However, there was one in particular who was the target of her very special interest.
Parth knelt down at the edge of the stage, where Xander stood enraptured and more than a little entranced. She smiled. It was alluring and inviting.