It was easy to see why the Vortex was the hot spot for Trillium residents to unwind. The duel-level nightclub had spared no expense in creating an exciting and energetic atmosphere. Split almost halfway down the center by a large dance floor, was dominated at the front by a huge stage, the surrounding area was dotted with numerous tables and high stools where patrons could either sit and observe or take a breather. Buffy, Willow and Xander had commandeered one such table in easy view of the stage, and seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves.
On the far wall, opposite the dance floor, was a long bar liberally visited by both waitresses and customers alike. Two white boards were suspended over the bar. The first advertised drink specials, and the second announced upcoming groups with exotic names like "Pergatorious Limbo" and "Three Moon Tuesday", as well as declaring every Thursday to be Ladies' Night.
Apart from the dimensions and locations, the spirit of the place was also unique. Dark, as might be expected, not just from the lack of concentrated lighting but from walls, ceiling and floor painted black and deep shades of purple. Star constellations and Milky Way clusters adorned the surfaces, and overhead lights swirled and sparkled remarkably like the churning of galaxies. The effect was dazzling, but the placement of tables and other normal items precluded any chance of vertigo or nausea from taking hold.
The second floor of the Vortex was devoted entirely to tables, situated along the iron railing so that onlookers could enjoy the live music and crowds of people dancing. Situated even further back was a private room, reserved for special events and planned parties. It was a glass-walled sanctuary isolated from the general chaos of the club, placed to provide a prime view of the stage below, and complete with a door and its own tables and couches.
Buffy and Willow had seated themselves each on one side of their claimed table by the dance floor, facing each other, while Xander sat at the edge of the table closest to the stage. He was half-turned, so as to keep an eye on the spectacle taking place on the dance floor while still remaining part of the conversation. At this moment he was choosing to focus on Buffy and Willow, not especially interested in the group currently on stage – a male singer and an assortment of band mates churning out an upbeat alternative techno sound that seemed popular with the masses.
The girls, other things on their minds, were also not interested in the band. "Okay, that's it," declared Buffy, eyes firmly fixed on Willow. "Either you break off the pouty face, or I unleash my secret weapon." As she received only a cocked eyebrow in response, the blonde raised her hands, fingers wiggling menacingly in the direction of her friend. "Tickling Hands of Death!"
"You wouldn't!" gasped Willow with exaggerated shock.
"Not only would I, but there'd probably be some sickos in the audience here who'd offer to pay me for it," the Slayer confirmed with a decisive nod.
Xander raised his hand. "Speaking as just such a sicko, I'd like to bid one dollar."
With an unspoken unison, both girls grabbed a nacho chip from the bowl in the center of the table and flung them in Xander's direction, striking him in the chest and nose. He raised his arms defensively after the fact with a cry of "Sanctuary!"
"I'm sorry. I'm not meaning to be a big ol' party pooper," apologized Willow, still looking pouty but at least chagrined about it.
"You're doin' The Breakup Mambo," Xander acknowledged. "It's understandable."
Even as he said it, a couple danced by, performing moves that would make even the Lambada seem considerably less forbidden. It was as sensual as it was silly. The trio was held speechless in the power of its swiveling and gyrations, their heads pivoting in unison as the couple bumped and ground their way on by.
Blinking, Willow turned to her companions. "Please tell me The Breakup Mambo looks nothing like that."
Buffy continued to watch the couple with an eye that was appraising yet disturbed. "More broody, less thrusty."
With only the tiniest effort, Buffy was finally able to tear herself away from the sight as the band wrapped up their set to a din of applause. Xander casually swiveled in his seat to focus on the stage for the next group while Buffy and Willow sipped at their drinks.
"I really needed this. Just us, out on the town," Willow admitted.
"It's definitely been too long," the blonde agreed enthusiastically. "And what better way than to drown in our sorrows!" She suddenly frowned. "Or wait, is that just 'drown our sorrows'?"
"The latter, I think. Wouldn't really recommend drowning in anything as a fun pastime." Willow regarded her only slightly empty glass. "And I'm not so much drowning my sorrows. More like wading in the kiddie end of my sorrows. With floaties."
"Not necessarily a bad thing. Alcohol and us tend to not mix well."
"This is true. Three cheers for not de-evolving."
The two raised their glasses to toast, pausing for Xander to join in, but his attention was concentrated instead on the next band, which had now taken to the stage. Buffy and Willow surveyed the carpenter first, and then the musicians who held him transfixed. They were trendy and unique, to say the least. Each woman sported a differently dyed hair color – powder blue, fluorescent pink, and platinum blonde – as well as an assortment of body piercings, yet they somehow remained feminine and alluring. Their pants and shirts, what little they were wearing, hugged their bodies to accentuate the curves, while swatches of gauzy cloth, connected at the wrists and shoulders, wafted through the air in time with their movements.
The music was a softer tone than that of the previous band, but that only served to heighten the sensuality of the group. It wasn't just Xander who was watching them intently; almost every other male in the club was paying rapt attention to the singers.
With a shrug and a sip, the blonde and redhead turned back to each other as Willow rested her cast on the table with a mild thump. It had transformed, now looking less like a cast and more like a piece of modern art – a mobile painted sculpture grafted onto a human arm. Several designs battled for dominance, but the current alpha among them was an elaborate meadow, or at least as elaborate as could be achieved with a box of Crayola markers. Green grass, very yellow flowers, and a fluffy lamb – or possibly a hideously malformed spider, it was hard to tell – completed the piece.
"You look like a walking coloring book," remarked Buffy with a smirk, indicating the cast.
"Leonardo DawnVinci," Willow grinned in response.
"My sister is odd."
"Well, she was made from you."
At this, Buffy made a faux lunge at Willow from across the table. The redhead emitted a shriek of laughter and recoiled, pointing at the cast emphatically. "Injured woman! No beating!"
Xander, along with the other male patrons of the club, remained fixated on the stage and declined any comment on these events. Satisfied with a mock scathing glare, Buffy sat back in her seat. "In a minute that excuse'll stop working, you know."
"Then I better milk it for all it's worth now," was the conclusive response.
Buffy took another sip of her drink. "So how's the healing coming?"
"Slow. Veeeery slow." Willow's expression conveyed her lack of enthusiasm. "Turns out that reknitting tiny hand bones, slightly more delicate than just slappin' on new skin."
"Also less eww."
Turning her attention to Xander, the Slayer found that he was still neglecting them in favor of the performing group. "Hel-lo? Earth to Xander, calling Xander. Please be advised that you are failing miserably at Operation: Best Friend Post Break Up Thing. Over."
He glanced at her, but only for a moment. "Huh? Oh, yeah, they're great, aren't they?"
Willow and Buffy exchanged a look, then turned to re-appraise the band. "Sure, I guess," the witch agreed. "If you like the five-cent booth skank patrol." She nodded in the direction of the lead singer. "I've worn hair ribbons with more material."
"Is it just me, or is half the town here tonight?" asked Buffy, taking in the huge crowds for the first time.
"Yeah, the male half," Willow replied.
"Think they're gonna go home broken-hearted, though. Looks like Ms. Microphone already has a honey."
True enough, the blonde leader appeared intently focused on one person alone in the audience, a lucky man hovering at the foot of the stage. In addition to the singing, she performed an alluring dance that consisted of waving her arms and hands around his face tantalizingly but never touching. If the other males were jealous, they didn't let it show.
Turning back to Buffy, Willow looked crestfallen, "Had ta mention the broken heart thing, didn'tcha?"
"D'oh. I'm sorry. Ten points from Team Me."
"S'okay, I'm just bein' grumpy." There was a pause as she considered. "Do you think I did the right thing?"
The Slayer squeezed her friend's arm gently. "I know you did. If it wasn't there, it wasn't there. You owed it to both of you to end it as soon as you knew. Trust me, whatever hurt Kennedy's feeling right now, it would've only gotten worse the longer you let it drag out."
"Yeah," Willow smiled. "Thanks, Buffy."
"Do I get my ten points back?"
"Plus five more if you finagle me a refill," agreed Willow, holding up her now-empty glass.
"Consider it done." Buffy tapped Xander on the shoulder. "Hey, Kevin Spacey! Since you're neglecting your friendly duties, how about breaking out those stale old bartender skills and hooking us up?"
Xander leaned back, but his gaze never left the stage. "Huh?"
"Drinks. We were thinking about more of them ...?"
"Hey, sure, thanks." The conversation considered over, he turned his full attention back to the band.
"You do nothing for my fragile feminine ego," pouted Buffy. She rose to her feet. "I shall return."
While Buffy trudged off to the jam-packed bar, Willow turned to Xander with a concerned look. "Hey, Xand, you okay?"
"Oh yeah. Fine. Just fine."
The concern was allayed, but lingered in the background, ready to act again at any moment. She looked from the carpenter to the women on stage instead. "Wow, you're really into this band, aren't you?"
This got him to move his eye from the stage and on to her, if only for a brief glance. "They're the greatest. I've caught their shows the last three nights. They're just ..." He seemed to be searching for the words. "It feels like they're really touching something deep inside, you know? Something personal."
"Don't think I'd let them touch anything too personal, y'might catch somethin'," remarked Willow, her distaste from earlier still evident.
Glancing to the side, she could see Buffy returning to the table, three drinks in hand. "That was fast."
"Hey, check me out! Use number 284 for Slayer strength!" remarked the blonde happily.
At home on the living room floor, Dawn was the eye in the center of a hurricane of open books, notebooks and various other items of academia. Directly before her lay the nemesis – a half-decorated poster board. The half that was completed appeared to be about moths, emphasized by the large letters at the top stating so.
"Couldn't have finished this early, ohhh no," she lamented. "'Why put off today what you can put off until tomorrow?' You know, that philosophy only ever seems to work up to the point where you run out of tomorrows."
With disdain, she looked into one of the books and then scribbled down some notes. Dawn seemed almost enthusiastic about her lack of enthusiasm.
"And moths. I hate moths. They're, like, bleached out butterflies. And the whole flame obsession. What's up with that?" As expected, no one answered the rhetorical question. "Stupid moths."
Interrupting the diatribe, the door opened behind her. Dawn jerked her head up, surprisingly eager for company. "Buffy?"
She stood up and walked to the entrance, a poster board and legions of books patiently awaiting her return. However the tired figure bundled up in a coat was most definitely not Buffy. He was looking around the home as if trying to figure out who was there.
What followed was a running hug that nearly bowled him over. Once Giles had secured his footing, he warmly returned the gesture with a smile. "I see the world didn't fall apart the moment I left American air space."
"No, it did," remarked Dawn, "we're just getting pretty good about putting it back together again." She surveyed his condition. "So how was your trip? Did you get what you went over for?"
Almost as if on cue, a woman entered the room through the open doorway to stand behind Giles. She was quite tall, failing to match the Watcher's height by only a couple of inches, and even beneath the winter clothing it was obvious she was in great physical shape. Her age was nearly impossible to discern – she appeared at first glance to be perhaps thirty or thirty-five, however something in her stance indicated experience that could not have been accrued in so few years. The short blonde hair, layered and almost spiky, meshed surprisingly well with a piercing pair of light blue eyes– eyes that were taking in all the details of her surroundings at once. The woman's stride, her bearing, her entire demeanor made it clear that she knew how to handle herself, and probably most other people as well.
"Uhm, yes," confirmed Giles.
Dawn raised an eyebrow at the sudden and uninvited guest – not antagonistic, merely hesitant. Her gaze moved to Giles, who appeared uncharacteristically nervous. The woman, still silent, shifted her appraising look from the home to Dawn, giving the girl the once over as though she were committing every feature to memory. She smiled a very charming smile.
"Dawn, this is ..." The Watcher raised a hand to indicate the woman but paused, almost as though he were uncertain of how to address her. "Er, Hannah. Hannah, this is Dawn."
Charming smile unwavering, Hannah extended her hand. Dawn accepted the gesture with only a minimum of hesitation, and a smile. As they shook, Hannah introduced herself. "Hannah Giles."
The shake faltered for a moment before finishing. "Giles?" repeated a surprised Dawn before turning to Giles himself. "You never told us you had a sister!"
This only made him appear more nervous, now advancing into a state of flustered. "Yes, well ... You see, it's—"
"Oh, I'm not his sister," said Hannah, mercifully cutting him off, and drawing a puzzled look from Dawn. "I'm his wife."
Story by: Jet Wolf and Ultrace
Written by: Jet Wolf and Ultrace
Edited by: Novareinna
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.
It was a typical breakfast. Buffy puzzled over the morning crossword while Willow tapped away at the keys of her laptop. Dawn had nothing in front of her but her own meal, and she focused on it with great gusto, mushing up her eggs, and taking them up a notch to the really, really scrambled level. His usual plate of waffles sat before Xander, but they were strangely devoid of syrup and butter. He simply stared at them passively.
"Five letter word, 'bring into a line,'" read Buffy.
Willow's eyes remained on the laptop screen. "Align."
Tilting her head, the blonde squinted at the paper. "Seriously? But that's, like, all punny and stuff. Isn't that cheating?" She nevertheless wrote in the provided word, then perused once more. "Five letter word, 'Seragalio'."
"Harem," Willow tossed without thinking.
"Like anyone would know that," protested the Slayer. "Anyone but Willow. 'Seragalio', what does that even mean?"
"Harem," the redhead smirked.
Buffy stuck out her tongue and proceeded to fill in the letters. Xander was still staring at his waffles while Dawn focused on Buffy with one of those peculiar teenage looks that was difficult to read but obviously not conveying a lot in the pleasantries department. "Why do you even bother doing those?" She rolled her eyes. "You ask Willow, like, every question."
"Not every question. I figured out 'ass' all by myself."
Buffy beamed proudly. No one commented, an expectant air hanging over the table. Slowly, Buffy and Dawn turned to look at Xander; Willow peered over her laptop at him. He noticed none of this, simply regarding the waffles without emotion. The other three exchanged concerned looks.
"Found the secret of life yet?" Willow asked.
With no response forthcoming, Buffy waved her hand in front of his face. At this, Xander blinked slowly and finally looked up. "Huh?"
"There's that witty response we were waiting for," quipped Buffy.
Xander appeared confused. "What?"
Her frown did nothing to conceal Dawn's worry. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"Yeah. Yeah, just ... Tired. I'm real tired." Xander rubbed his forehead. "And my head hurts. Maybe I should just go back to bed."
"Yeah, o-okay," agreed Willow. "I'll come up later, bring you some juice or-or somethin'?"
Xander started to amble out of the room, leaving behind the untouched waffles and three sets of anxious eyes. "Okay," he muttered.
No sooner had he left than the girls turned to each other. Dawn spoke up first. "I'm really getting worried."
Willow nodded enthusiastically.
"If he's not better in a couple of days, we'll wrangle him in the car and take him to the doctor," agreed Buffy.
Willow smiled. "I can't believe you just said 'wrangle.' And you even used it correctly."
"If only it were one of the answers in this darned crossword," the blonde countered. Dawn's expression hadn't changed. "He'll be okay," Buffy reassured. "It's probably just a flu thing."
Reluctantly, Dawn accepted this. With a final bout of mushing, she left her eggs in a jumbled heap and stood up from the table. "I should get going. That presentation isn't going to give itself."
Suddenly, an amazing thought occurred to her. She whirled excitedly in Willow's direction.
The redhead didn't look up, her eyes never wavering from the laptop. "Nope."
Dawn's face fell and she trudged out of the room. Buffy was continuing her luck, or lack thereof, at the crossword. She looked here and there, expression occasionally lighting with hope, only to be immediately dashed. After a minute of this, she sighed and tossed the paper into the center of the table, instead pulling the flier from her back pocket and unfolding it.
The action caught Willow's attention. "Whatcha got?"
"Flier for this group that's been playing at the Vortex." Buffy handed it over.
Willow pointed to the lead singer. "This the one who was making googly eyes at that guy?"
"One and the same. Name's apparently Parth. I figured I'd take this to Giles later, see what he can make of it."
"I've got a meeting with him in about half an hour to go over the spell details one more time. I can give it to him if you want."
"That'd be great, thanks," Buffy agreed with a smile that slowly melted away into trepidation. "I think I'm gonna kinda have my hands full today."
Fourteen pairs of eyes focused entirely on Buffy while she strode back and forth in the front of the training room. Her speech was impassioned, she gestured with her hands while she paced, and somehow managed to meet the gaze of every girl. The Slayers sat on the floor in front of her, completely engrossed in Buffy's words.
"This is new. The life you're leading now," lectured Buffy, crossing her arms as she marched. "None of you could have seen yourselves here, doing what you're doing, knowing what you're knowing. That's not all that's new. By now most of you have heard of me. This job, this duty, this destiny ... whatever you want to call it, it's not new ground for me, I've been doing this for eight years now. According to the books, that makes me the longest-lived Slayer in history." Suddenly, she stopped pacing and stood before them, the firmness in her voice transforming the words from abstract to truth. "I'm here to make sure that's all of you, too," she vowed.
From the center row, toward the left-hand side, a lone hand was tentatively raised. All eyes, including Buffy's, became focused on the girl. She was one of the youngest in the group at the low-end of fifteen years. She flinched slightly under everyone's gaze as the blood rushed to her face and turned it deep red. Still, she kept her hand up, determined to ask her question.
Buffy gave the girl her full attention. "Yes?"
"I, um ..." She faltered slightly but soon found her voice. "I heard you ... died."
"True," the Senior Slayer conceded with a chipper tone. "But I got better."
But the girl still seemed to be locked in a space where two and two were not equaling four, no matter how many times she added them together. "And ... you're gonna teach us how not to die," she stated flatly, not making it a question.
Unable to fully prevent a trace of a smirk, Buffy asked, "What's your name?"
"Come on up, Shelly."
Casting nervous glances at her fellow Slayers, Shelly experienced a brief moment of panic before rising to her feet and stepping carefully around the girl next to her. A few strides and she found herself at the front of the group next to Buffy. She wrung her hands nervously, caught the action, and forced them to remain stiff and inert at her sides.
The blonde absorbed all of this with a hint of amusement that soon dissipated to leave only all-business Buffy. She crossed her arms again and slowly circled Shelly, moving to the girl's right. "How long have you been here?" Buffy questioned when she was out of the field of vision.
"A-About a month," stammered Shelly, simultaneously trying to look over her shoulder and remain still.
Buffy arrived at her destination, and Shelly turned slightly toward her. "Okay, so you've already had classes with Kennedy and Faith. You know how this works."
Immediately, Shelly's eyes began to widen, and she nodded rapidly while taking an involuntary step backward. Her arms tensed, as though wanting very much to protect certain delicate areas of her face, but she resisted valiantly.
Nothing had escaped Buffy's notice, and she regarded the girl critically. "What are you feeling right now?" she inquired.
"What?" replied Shelly with surprise, as though she hadn't heard correctly.
"Feelings. You know, those pesky little emotion things that rear their ugly heads from time to time? They usually have names. What are yours?"
"S-Scared." The girl had clearly heard and understood the question this time, and there was no hesitation in her answer. "I'm scared."
"Scared," repeated Buffy, obviously not sympathetic. "Of what, exactly? Getting old? The national debt? Another season of 'Joe Millionaire'? This?"
As soon as the last word had left her mouth, Buffy lashed out with a blur of motion, her fist aimed directly at Shelly's nose. Flinching, the girl squealed instinctively, but did nothing else. With precise control, Buffy's hand stopped as quickly as it started, her knuckles hovering mere centimeters from its target.
"You know you could've stopped me," Buffy pointed out conversationally, otherwise unmoving.
It took several seconds, but Shelly's brain eventually saw fit to inform the rest of her that she had not been hit, and she cracked open an eye, instantly zeroing in on the first so close to her face.
"Why didn't you?" the Senior Slayer asked, but Shelly semed incapable of much beyond shaking her head. When Buffy finally lowered her arm, Shelly breathed an audible sigh of relief, relaxing even more when Buffy gently placed her hand on the girl's shoulder and indicated for her to retake her seat. Shelly all but ran back to the anonymous safety of the crowd.
Resuming her pacing, Buffy attempted to explain her point. "Fear can be a powerful motivator or a crippling liability. If you were an accountant and the worst thing you had to be afraid of was a paper cut and mind numbing boredom, then it wouldn't be so bad." She took a moment to grin in appreciation of her own analogy before sobering up and becoming entirely serious. "But we fight the things that make up other people's nightmares. Fear is important and you should never ignore it, but you can't let it control you. Chances are good the next thing that takes a swing at you isn't planning on stopping."
Another Slayer in the crowd spoke up, not bothering to wait to be called on. "So what do we do?" she demanded with slightly aggressive undertones. "You've seen what's out there. That's some scary shi— Stuff." The girls next to her snickered at the near slip, but she elbowed them roughly and waited for Buffy's response.
"What do you want to do?" the blonde countered.
"Run like hell," was the prompt reply, eliciting a rumbling laugh that echoed through the crowd.
Nodding, Buffy acknowledged the girl's honesty. "Okay, so you want to run. Let's say you do. You've got Slayer speed and strength, you could probably get away, no problem." The blonde spread her arm wide, gesturing to the outside. "But then the scary thing's still out there, and now it's gonna find someone else to snack on. Someone who doesn't have Slayer speed or strength."
It seemed for a moment as though the younger Slayer had a comeback all planned and was ready to use it, but instead she closed her mouth and glanced away, her expression twinged with guilt. The rest of the class shifted their positions, collectively appearing very uncomfortable.
When Buffy continued, it was with kindness and understanding, not judgmental. "It's easy to want to give in to your instinct, it's tempting. Heck, sometimes it's the only smart thing to do and you won't have any other choice. And that's okay," she assured them. All eyes had returned to Buffy, no longer glancing away, ashamed. "But when you do have another choice, you've gotta take it, because you might be the only one who can. Only you can decide if you should give in to the temptation or not."
As Buffy's lessons continued, Hannah lounged in the doorway, intently watching the scene.
"She's something. You've done a good job. Rupert."
Giles glanced up from his intense study of the band flier in his hand to see Hannah standing in the office doorway. Her demeanor had changed slightly. She was more relaxed and informal now it was simply the two of them.
"I'm sorry?" questioned the Watcher, not understanding her statement.
Smoothly, Hannah crossed from the doorway, the flared bottoms of her jeans swishing quietly as she moved. She slid into one of the empty chairs facing Giles, studying him. "Buffy," she explained. "Just watched her teach a class."
"Oh!" he exclaimed, leaning forward interestedly. "How was it? She only started last week, I haven't been able to attend yet."
Her eyes sparkled with amusement at Giles' enthusiasm. "Quite different," she appraised. "Certainly not the sort of thing you'd expect from a Slayer. I didn't think it was in their nature to talk quite so much, as a general rule," added Hannah with a tilt of her head.
Giles smiled at that. "I've found Buffy to be an exception to most rules. How were her students reacting?" The desire to hear an outside opinion of his Slayer's performance was palpable.
"Very well, actually. She seemed to be getting through to them," replied Hannah, unable to suppress a smirk at Giles' obvious pride. "Are all the classes like that?"
"Oh no. We worked out sessions that focus on each trainer's strengths," the Watcher explained, excited to share how they had worked things out. "Buffy's classes are sort of a 'philosophy of battle', if you will. Kennedy's deal with precision, form and technical expertise, and Faith's delve more into applied fighting in realistic situations."
Hannah chewed on this for a moment. "So ... tae kwon do, street fighting, and the Zen of the Slayer?" she translated.
"Yes, basically," agreed Giles with a nod.
Finding something extremely humorous, the blonde smirked, "Wouldn't exactly be sanctioned by the old Council, would it?"
"I believe you'll find this is very much not the old Council," he hastened to point out, tone quite serious.
"No, I'm seeing that," Hannah mused as she appraised Giles carefully, taking some unknown mental stock. Giles bore the inventory without question, and eventually Hannah broke into a broad, approving grin. "It took you a couple of decades, but you finally caught on." At his raised eyebrow, she explained, "Last time we spent any great lengths of time together, if memory serves, you were very much in the Council's corner on just about everything. What socks to wear, who to marry ..."
"Hannah ..." Giles drew her name out, an undercurrent of 'not now' evident.
Lifting her hands slightly, she eased herself up from the chair. "Observation," stated Hannah cheerfully as she moved around the desk toward Giles. Her steps were evenly spaced, one in front of the other, adopting a very deliberate motion that was vaguely reminiscent of a predator stalking its pray. As she rounded the corner and moved toward him, Giles leaned back in his chair, but didn't pull away or make any move to stop her as she perched on the edge of the desk and gazed down at him. "Still," she began softly, "how differently things would've turned out, eh Ziggy?"
Giles started at the name, as though surprised to be hearing it, but Hannah continued like she hadn't noticed. "I mean, we certainly wouldn't be here, for one." The blonde gestured to the four walls surrounding them, then pierced Giles with an icy blue stare. "And you ... Look at you. Surrogate father to a handful of makeshift twenty-something heroes."
Unflinching, Giles considered her words, both those spoken and those not, very carefully. "I wouldn't have it any other way."
It was Hannah's turn to ponder, and she tilted her head to one side, deep in thought. "No," she finally responded. "No, I don't think you would." Smiling, Hannah pushed herself away from the desk and moved toward the door. "You've done well, Rupert," she complimented sincerely.
A proud, loving expression softened the Watchers face. "I'm extraordinarily lucky," he agreed, then glanced at his watch, quickly rising to his feet. "And also extraordinarily late. I think it's about time we found out who we're dealing with."
Considering the spaciousness of the room, Willow's Sanctum was surprisingly full at the moment. She and Giles were working in tandem, setting up an assortment of specially prepared herbs, candles and other spell components at key locations.
Setting down a thick white candle and lighting it, Willow glanced up briefly at Giles. "Get anywhere with Buffy's latest freak of the week?"
"Not as such," he replied, laying down long strings of some sort of root in intricate patterns on the floor. "I'm not entirely certain what she thought I could do with a band flyer. Besides marvel at what passes for music these days," he added derisively. "Perhaps you can put it in the computer and ... do whatever you do with it once it's there."
Straightening from her candle arrangement, Willow smirked at the Watcher. "Y'know eventually I'm going to tie you to a chair and make you learn how to surf."
"And oh how I long for that day," he smoothly replied.
For a minute, they worked in silence, then Willow finally spoke up. "So ... you and your missus, huh?" Giles was unable to fully contain the resigned sigh, but the redhead ignored it and pressed onward. "What's your story?"
"It's really not that interesting," Giles attempted to dismiss.
Willow could only gape in disbelief. "Please. This mystery woman you married when you were younger than me turns up out of nowhere? That's, like, prime soap opera stuff. Especially if she was in a coma. Oh!" She peered at the Watcher hopefully. "Was she in a coma?"
"There were no comas," he refuted without hesitation.
"Willow," he cautioned in his best fatherly tone.
Jutting out her bottom lip a little, Willow pouted, "Jus' wonderin'."
Sighing again, Giles gestured to the very precise mess strewn about the Sanctum. "Can we perhaps discuss my distant past a little bit later? I think it's high time we got this spell done."
"You're no fun," Willow chastised with a grin, waving her hand at the Watcher.
Carefully, the two of them sat, facing each other, on either side of the circle that had been drawn in the middle of the room. Kennedy's ruined shirt had been placed between them in the exact center of the circle, though the Mogari's blood had long since dried to little more than a dark, unpleasant stain marring the white surface. Willow's position was one of focus; her legs were crossed and neatly tucked as if in a lotus position. Giles remained more relaxed, but was clearly also concentrating on the matters at hand and ready in case anything should go awry.
Prefaced only by a singular deep breath, Willow closed her eyes and chanted.
"Shaded eye and whispered voice
Creatures made, imbued with wrath
With this blood they cast their choice
Guiding, lighting, show the path"
Her body remained loose, relaxed, eyes closed. For several moments, nothing happened, then as Giles watched, Willow looked up and stared ahead, her gaze fixed slightly above and beyond him. Tensing, Willow focused on something well beyond the confines of the Sanctum.
Glancing first a little to the left and then the right, Willow appeared almost curious, as though taking in new surroundings. Giles resisted the temptation to follow her line of sight, instead his attention centered entirely on the witch, poised and alert to any possible problems.
Suddenly, Willow's head tilted slightly, eyes narrowing. As Giles watched, her hair shifted slowly from red to a paler red and then to white. Her body posture remained the same, although it was clear she was no longer as relaxed. Giles' face betrayed a hint of concern at the changes, but he said nothing, allowing the spell to continue.
As though melting from one expression to the next, Willow's curiosity became intrigue. Her eyes narrowed further still, and a frown began to appear. Her left, uninjured hand moved up from where it had been resting on her knee, and she extended it before her, palm outwards.
"Interesting," she breathed, face masked in concentration.
"What?" asked Giles, his voice remaining calm.
The outstretched hand moved around, fingers touching and probing as if they were testing the surface of something tangible. Willow's frown intensified, and her other hand adopted a similar position. They moved independently of each other in an arcane dance for a while, sometimes pushing forward as though moving something back, and other times darting sideways in a blocking maneuver. Most alarming, however, was the transformation taking place within Willow herself the longer this progressed. Her expression had sharply deviated from mere curiosity, the narrowed gaze leaving only tiny slits and a snarl pulling at her lips. Whereas mere minutes before her hair had been a slowly flowing white, it had lost some of its pure luster and was steadily making its way down the gray scale.
Still, though, Giles held his position, swallowing back the mounting concern.
Willow's hands were moving ever faster when they stopped acting independently and came together, palms still out, focusing now on the same task. Her personal transformation was nearing completion, with hair almost entirely black and, as her slowly opening eyes revealed, green irises swallowed up by dark spheres. The snarl had subsided in favor of an emotionless expression, which then itself gave way to an amused smirk. She genuinely appeared to be enjoying the effort, triggering a new wave of concern in Giles.
"Pathetic," she growled with an almost venomous tone. "Think you can take me?"
Almost immediately, her hands were forced back by some unseen presence, but she met the challenge with gritted teeth and shoved forward again. Her hair was completely black now, as were her eyes, and telltale veins were rising to the surface of her skin, weaving their way across the almost gleeful face that even the grimace of effort didn't diffuse.
She never got a chance to finish the statement. Both hands were again forced back, this time with such power that Willow's entire body was shoved, sending her almost out of the circle. Trembling, the witch managed to maintain her position, but then her face began to change again, eyes softening and all traces of enjoyment vanishing, leaving only teeth gritted against the effort.
"T-Too much ... I can't ... I ..."
Giles quickly laid his hands on both of her knees and locked eyes with hers. "Willow, you've done enough. Time to come back now." His voice was soothing, a calming breeze in the torrential maelstrom that was battering her from all sides.
With a visible effort, she lowered her lids and relaxed her trembling arms. It took nearly half a minute, but her breathing calmed, black hair returned to a vibrant red, and veins vanished, leaving only a clear complexion. When Willow eventually opened her eyes again, they were green and weary with fatigue.
Giles lifted a bottle of fruit juice that was open and ready at his side. He offered it to Willow, who gratefully took a few sips from the straw. At her exhausted nod, he pulled it back and set it down next to him.
"Are you all right?" Giles inquired tenderly.
At first, Willow could only nod, then finally she found her voice. "Yeah, that was ... wow." She chuckled, though with less amusement than usually attributed to the sound. "There's some serious blockage goin' on here, custom made for me. I-I couldn't—" Shaking her head, Willow's eyes met Giles', filled with regret. "If I kept using the power, I might've ... you know, too much, unpredictable results, never good when we're on the dark side of me. Sorry."
Giles instantly shook his head, dismissing the regretful explanation. "There's nothing to apologize for, you did remarkably well. We thought this might happen. Simply too much time has elapsed, the- the blood has lost its potency."
"Plus whoever summoned it? They knew we were comin'. Those blocks weren't old, they were brand spankin' new." Glancing up, her gaze far away, Willow added, "They knew we were gonna try an-and find them, and they really didn't want us to."
"How far were you able to get?"
Pulling herself away from the images in her mind's eye, Willow replied, "Enough to know they're not local." Again, she looked at Giles apologetically. "That's it, though."
Far from being disappointed, the Watcher was in good spirits. "That's quite a lot, actually," he encouraged. "Knowing where they aren't is the first step to knowing where they are. In addition, the fact that they had the knowledge you would be casting this spell confirms, for all intents and purposes, that Judith was working for them. And the fact that they are so adamant that we not locate them gives us further insight into their motivations." Giles smiled at the redhead. "All in all, very well done. I'm proud of you."
Willow beamed in response. "Oh, well ... yay for me!" she chirped, before allowing herself to tilt to one side and flop limply to the floor.
Madrigan walked at a leisurely pace, circling the gathering of mages like a vulture confident its next meal was forthcoming. Overall, he appeared unconcerned, however the proceedings were clearly commanding his full attention, and he chewed thoughtfully on his thumb as he strolled.
The polar opposite, both in direction and bearing, was Robespierre. He, too, circled the mages, but his movements were angry, frustrated, and more than a little worried. Robespierre looked very much as though he thought he could fix everything wrong with this situation by the power of his glare alone, and was consequently throwing every ounce of energy into that belief.
At the nearby conference table sat Seneca in Madrigan's usual chair. Although keeping an eye on the developments several yards away, he was otherwise completely engrossed in his own activities. With only the slightest gestures with his fingers, Seneca was manipulating a Slinky, causing it to walk across the table and back again, seemingly of its own volition, as well as 'walking' up and down invisible flights of stairs. His expression was one of deeply contented amusement, giving the impression that he had been keeping himself entertained for several hours and could quite possibly continue in this manner for several more.
The mages themselves were far too focused on other matters to pay either man much attention. There were eleven in total, all sitting Indian-style around the glowing pentagram. Their knees were touching, providing not even the smallest of gaps to breech the integrity of their own circle. The face of each mage was a stony mask of concentration, their teeth gritting painfully and beads of perspiration trickling down their forehead. Still though, each was backed by an iron will, either by sheer stubbornness or abject terror at the notion of failure, and were planning to give their all to their task.
Finally, after several tense minutes, the pentagram's glow flared once, then died away, again becoming an otherwise unremarkable symbol on the floor. As one, the mages slumped forward, utterly and completely drained.
Ignoring their exhaustion, Madrigan's vague interest suddenly exploded into exhilaration and he stopped pacing with a little hop in the air. "Hot damn, did you see that?!" he cried out, gesturing wildly to the now inert marking on the floor. "Did you s—" Whirling to Seneca, Madrigan practically shouted, "How cool was that?!"
Seneca grinned toothily and gave Madrigan a thumbs up.
"Damn straight!" he enthusiastically replied. "Oh, geez, when she ... I mean, I knew she was good but this ... this was ... Whoo." It seemed the perfect way to sum up his feelings on the matter, and Madrigan basked in his fervor.
Robespierre, on the other hand, was not basking. He stomped toward the younger man, sneering disdainfully. "Rosenberg very nearly broke through your specially constructed defenses, which would have pinpointed our location with unerring accuracy and led her and that mockery of the Watcher's Council right to our bloody doorstep!"
But Madrigan's buoyant mood could not be so easily dispelled. "Key words here are 'very' and 'nearly'," he replied easily, ticking them off on his fingers. "She wasn't getting through, no way, no how." The mage's tone changed to one that was both surprised and impressed. "But she actually got all the way up to our 10th level defenses. I figured if she managed to reach the 3rd or 4th she was good, but ..." Shaking his head in awe, Madrigan turned to Robespierre with a broad smile. "She's rockin' my world, Robby."
The older man gritted his teeth against the nickname, but chose not to pursue it further, focusing instead on the problem at hand. "Well the mere fact that Rosenberg far exceeded your expectations tells me she is an even greater risk than we had originally expected."
"No, she's about as much a risk as I expected," replied Madrigan off-handedly, taking the seat next to a still-engrossed Seneca.
Responding immediately to Madrigan's nonchalance, Robespierre's face turned a deep crimson, causing the long scar to become even more noticeable than usual. "Then we must do something about it!" he shouted. "Your cavalier attitude threatens the Assemblage, Madrigan, and I will not allow that. Despite whatever you may think, The Shrouded Circle cannot stand alone. This isn't just about you helping us – need I remind you that it is we who possess the Antediluvian."
In an instant, everything about Madrigan transformed from a carefree young man to a being of immeasurable power. The pinpricks of his pupils burst with a darkness that flooded the entire surface within a fraction of a second, and seemed to continue spreading throughout his entire body, despite the deep onyx confined only to his eye. Madrigan's hair blew back momentarily from his forehead and his robe billowed outward, but the sudden windstorm died down as quickly as it had materialized, and with a blink, everything about Madrigan had returned to normal, including the charming smile that was now directed to Robespierre.
Unable to stop himself, Robespierre had taken a step backward from Madrigan, but quickly recovered and came forward again, staring down at the mage, just as angry and unyielding as ever. If he noticed the 'tsk, shame on you' look that Seneca was throwing at him from over Madrigan's shoulder, Robespierre ignored it.
"Dude, we're cool," stated Madrigan soothingly, leaning back into the plush cushion of the chair. "You need us, we need you. It's all good." The mage began to swivel his chair back and forth in tiny arcs, never glancing away from Robespierre's furious stare for a moment. "As for Rosenberg," he continued with a touch of pride, "don't worry your starchy little head about it. Thing is, no matter how much power someone's got, there's always that pesky old Achilles heel."
This genuinely appeared to interest Robespierre, and his usually stiff posture dropped ever so slightly. "And you know Rosenberg's?" he queried.
"Robby, my friend," grinned Madrigan confidently, "I know everyone's."
Through the strobing beams projected on the dance floor from the intricate arrays overhead, Faith swirled in a harsh, driving rhythm vaguely reminiscent of the one being performed by the band. Mostly, however, the Slayer appeared to be dancing in time to a beat audible only to herself, and from the expression on her face, she much preferred it that way.
She circled around and around a mostly inert figure that cared little about taking up valuable real estate on the Vortex's packed dance floor. A sudden, rapid burst of lights revealed the figure to be Kennedy, now even more annoyed than before, given that she had been half-blinded. Huffing, she crossed her arms and glared at Faith as the older Slayer completed another circuit and halted her rotation, coming to rest in front of Kennedy, although still caught up in the frenzy of her dance.
They regarded each other for a moment, then Faith jerked her chin at Kennedy. "I know you got better moves'n this," she commented, raising her voice to be heard over the music. "Or, well, maybe not better. But more fun than you bein' a statue."
"I don't even know why I'm here," Kennedy shot back, mostly to herself.
"Cuz I threatened you with two weeks of orientation once we start takin' newbies again." Faith grinned, having found some measure of humor in the strong-arm tactic that eluded her companion.
This was further evidenced by Kennedy's firm declaration of "This sucks," uttered just as the Slayer turned and stomped off the dance floor toward a table situated somewhere near the bar but still within clear view of the stage. Reaching the table, Kennedy snatched a full glass from the crowd of six or seven empty ones and downed it a single gulp before throwing herself into the nearest seat.
For a moment, Faith continued dancing, though her eyes were focused entirely on Kennedy. It didn't appear as though she was planning on moving from the spot she had staked for herself, but then rolled her eyes and claimed the other seat at the table. "Depressed don't look so good on you," she remarked.
In response, Kennedy grabbed the only other non-drained glass. "Let's try drunk instead," she suggested, and proceeded to make that glass just as empty, following up by searching the vicinity for a waitress.
Watching impassively, Faith assured her, "Feel free, I gotcher back. Not what you need, though," she added.
Kennedy was half out of her seat trying to attract attention, but turned to Faith with a frown. "Huh?"
"The booze," explained Faith, gesturing at the gathered platoon of glassware. "I mean, I guess it could be part of what you need, but really? I think you need somethin' like that."
Extending a finger to the dance floor, Faith pointed at something, and Kennedy narrowed her gaze as she tried to see what. Finally she spotted Faith's target: a woman who looked like she could've stepped off the cover of any given fashion magazine. The long dark hair was perfectly styled and moved in time to the music as did her swaying body. She filled the outfit she was almost wearing with a confident ease that only served to accentuate her attractiveness. As might be expected, the woman was not alone, but dancing with a besotted female who, while certainly not unattractive herself, was utterly dwarfed by the exotic presence of the other.
Having caught on to what Faith was insinuating, Kennedy gaped at the other Slayer. "Are you nuts?" Shock was splayed across her features at the suggestion.
"If I had a nickel for every time I'm asked that ..." replied Faith jokingly, then shrugged. "Maybe. Don't make me wrong, though."
Kennedy's alcohol-soaked brain continued to have trouble processing. "But Willow—"
"—dumped you," Faith completed matter-of-factly. "Right or wrong reasons, she did. You don't owe Red nothin' no more. You're hurt, she's ..." Tilting her head, Faith watched the dancing woman for a moment as she searched for a word, finally deciding on, "...lively. Good night's roll, no strings attached – do you a world'a better."
A waitress, presumably called 'Evie' according to her nametag, walked by balancing a tray loaded with drinks. The Slayer reached out and snatched one at random, nearly sending others tumbling to the floor. Just as the waitress was about to protest, Kennedy tossed a five-dollar bill on the tray and took several swallows from the glass. Sparing another moment to shoot a glare, Evie moved back to the bar to replace the pilfered drink.
Lowering the glass, Kennedy blinked heavily. "Can't. Will might ..." The Slayer shook her head and drained the remainder of the drink. "Too soon."
"Sure?" queried Faith, gesturing to the carnage littering the table. "Be cheaper." Kennedy simply shook her head again, and Faith turned away from the dancing couple. "Okay then, next round's on me. If we get enough in ya, we can salvage some fun outta tonight," she joked.
But Kennedy wasn't in a joking mood. Instead, she slumped down in her chair and stared at the empty glasses despondently. "I just don't understand why," she groaned miserably.
Grabbing a glass, Faith tilted it to her lips, swallowing the melted ice and remnants of whatever drink had previously resided there. "Yeah you do."
"You know why," the other Slayer repeated, fishing out an ice cube and holding it between two fingers as she sucked on it lightly. "You know exactly why. She told you."
Kennedy sniffed, a grand, maudlin sound that could only be achieved by the highly intoxicated. "But ... I love her," she declared, her voice thick. "So much. Why am I not enough?"
Unwilling to add fuel to the very messy fire that lay ahead, Faith continued to calmly lay out the facts. "Ain't about you. This is all about Red."
"She's not mine," snapped Kennedy, transitioning swiftly into anger. "I think that makes it plenty about me."
The ice cube paused on its way to Faith's lips again. The Slayer quirked an eyebrow at Kennedy, unconcerned by the other woman's rapidly shifting moods. "Wasn't that sorta thing part'a the problem in the first place?"
For a moment, Kennedy simply glared, then swiped her hand in Faith's general direction, and several other directions, since her wrist seemed to have become oddly boneless for a moment. "Fancy logic mind tricks," she slurred. "You suck."
"An' she unleashes the big guns," smirked Faith. "Here, you just need more booze. Let's see what we can do about that."
Seizing the younger Slayer by the arm, Faith took a step toward the bar, but then stopped, as something grabbed her attention. She turned toward the stage, frowning and scanning the throngs of people, eventually spying Xander. Registering surprise, Faith pushed her way through the mass to Xander's side, a griping and slightly unsteady Kennedy still in tow.
Finally carving out a hole for herself next to the carpenter, Faith ducked her head low to speak in his ear. "Yo, X-Man, s'up?" she greeted amicably, but Xander showed no sign that he had even noticed her presence, let alone make an effort to acknowledge her.
"Xand?" she tried again, frowning at the continued lack of reaction. Faith placed her hand on Xander's arm and he turned toward her, however his face displayed no reaction to either her or Kennedy. Indeed, his features were devoid of any expression. Without comment, Xander turned back toward the stage.
Confusion was the dominant response from Faith, but Kennedy, situated comfortably on the train to Drunksville, immediately became enraged. "Oh, oh, I see how it is." She staggered forward, almost breaking free of Faith's hold, and glared venomously at Xander's unconcerned back. "Don't matter I lived with you for months. Don't matter I used to listen to your lame ass jokes an' eat that failed biological experiment you call 'dinner'. Don't matter I actually had to wash your underwear sometimes." Still Xander displayed no reaction, and Kennedy progressively worked herself into a righteous fury. "Nooooo, suddenly Willow dumps me an' now I'm the bad guy. Let's just ignore Kennedy, we only barely tolerated her in the first place cuz she and Willow were fu—"
"Whoa, okay there Sparky, we're five by five," Faith intercepted smoothly, her hand still firmly clasped around Kennedy's arm. She placed herself between the agitated Slayer and a still oblivious Xander. "Time for a time out, yeah? Beatin' up on B's little Scoobies don't sit so well with her, trust me."
Pushing her way through the crowd, Faith began to lead Kennedy away, though it was clear Kennedy wasn't yet ready to depart. "An' you snore so loud I nearly Slayed you!" she yelled while being dragged off, although oddly attracting little attention from the male population crowding the dance floor.
Safely back at their table, Faith forced Kennedy to resume her seat, although all her anger had all but dissipated. "I hate men," she grumbled listlessly as she slumped forward.
"Yeah, well, that was sorta implied," replied Faith, still distracted by their recent encounter.
Kennedy sniffed loudly, scrubbing clumsily at her nose. "Xander's such a jerk."
Frowning, the other Slayer studied the stage, where the carpenter could only barely be seen through the crowd. "I dunno," she responded, half to herself. "I mean, I known the X-Man for a while now. Not really in him to keep his mouth shut. Ever. Huh." She frowned again, then turned back to Kennedy, noting immediately that the younger women was beginning to tear up.
"I miss her," Kennedy managed to whimper in a piteous voice.
"You're right," Faith readily agreed. "More booze."
The afternoon sun streamed through the walls of windows that made up Giles' loft. Blinds and curtains were thrown open to allow as much light into the area as possible, and given the clear sky outside, it cast a cheerful glow throughout the apartment.
Taking all this in, Hannah wandered around slowly, noting every detail of Giles' decorations, obviously admiring everything. At the Watcher's question, she turned to find him standing in the kitchen, presenting a bottle of amber liquid. She smiled and nodded, as Giles tipped it to fill the second glass on the counter.
Continuing her examination, Hannah accepted the drink when Giles approached her, and gestured toward the loft. "This is nice," she complimented. "Very you."
Smirking, Giles responded, "I'm going to assume you mean in an open and charming way, and not in an overpriced, midlife crisis way."
Giles sipped on his scotch as he moved to one of the couches skirting the coffee table. The table's surface was strewn with folders, papers and note pads, very clearly a work-in-progress. Setting the glass down, Giles grabbed the folder closest to him and opened it. "Shall we get started?" He didn't look up as Hannah approached, instead continuing, "Now I've sorted through most of the Slayers' backgrounds, but there are a few here who ..."
His voice trailed away as the folder was closed, and he glanced up at the blonde with a raised eyebrow.
"When's the last time you had a day off?" Hannah asked without preamble.
"What?" Blinking, it took Giles's brain a moment to switch focus. "Oh, uhm ..." He gave the matter some thought. "W-Well last week Dawn and I spent a delightful afternoon visiting every single shoe store within a ten-mile radius. Fascinating, really. Did you know that there is some sort of universal law that dictates the exact same pair of shoes are somehow better when purchased for twice the price?"
Hannah grinned at that, but pressed onward. "Anything that didn't emasculate you in some way?"
Again a moment lost in thought, then Giles' face brightened as he remembered something. "Late last month Xander and I went shopping for some power tools." His pride was undeniable. "He's becoming quite adept at woodworking, despite his handicap. You should see the chair he's been working on—"
Anxious to make her point clear, Hannah interrupted. "Okay, rephrased question: When's the last time you took a day off for you. Just you. Not your work, not your kids ... You."
"If memory serves, I spent a delightful day reading through some captivating ancient texts in ... Erm, 1999?" offered Giles meekly.
Crossing her arms, a smirk tugged at Hannah's lips, and she peered down at her ex-husband.
He met her expression with considerably less humor. "Oh do get that look off your face, being smug never did suit you."
"You need a break," she concluded emphatically.
But Giles firmly shook his head, dismissing the notion outright as he opened the folder again. "I can consider taking a day off when we are assured that things are secure and nobody is in any danger."
"Rupert, the work you do, you can never know that," countered Hannah just as firmly.
His head snapping up, Giles shot back, "Well I'd settle for making sure they can walk through the halls without running the risk of being beaten to death." Frustrated, the Watcher threw the folder back on the coffee table and crossed to the window, glaring angrily at nothing in particular. Hannah observed him for a moment before setting her own glass down and walking over, standing just by his shoulder, easily able to see his face in the reflection of the window.
For a minute, neither said anything, Giles still lost in his own thoughts and Hannah simply content to wait for him to make the first move. Finally, Giles spoke, his tone bitter. "We've lost so much."
Their eyes locked briefly in the mirrored image, and Hannah smiled sadly, but with understanding. "War is hell, Rupert."
"Unfortunately, that offers little comfort," he replied, glancing away.
Placing a comforting hand on his shoulder, Hannah's expression grew soft and compassionate. "I know and I wish I could tell you that my coming here ensured that none of them will ever be hurt again. We both know better, and I won't lie to you. But I promise, I will do whatever it takes to do my job." Giles turned toward her, and she allowed her hand to slip to his upper arm, squeezing it reassuringly. "Whatever it takes. You know I will."
Giles rested his hand on top of hers and squeezed back gratefully for just a moment. "Yes. I know. I just wish you weren't needed."
The blonde grinned broadly and gestured toward Giles. "Hey, a man's dependency? What more validation could I need?" She looked pleased when he allowed himself a small laugh, then turned back to the matter at hand. "Now seriously, Rupert, I've only been around a few days and I can see how tightly you're wound. How about you and I just go somewhere." She waved her hand at the window. "Beach or the mountains or whatever the hell's in this area. Someplace that's not Council related. I think the wheels can keep turning without you for a few hours."
For a brief moment, Giles appeared tempted, but then shook his head. "I can't. There's too much to do. It's too important."
"And how much more could you get done after a decent break?" she pressed. "You can't keep going like this, Rupert."
Giles simply shook his head again and returned to the couch. Hannah watched him go back to work. She sighed and tilted her head to one side, studying him. A fond, yet determined smile crossed her face, as she sat next to him and grabbed a file of her own.
The front door to the Scoobies' house opened slowly and a tentative Kennedy stuck her head inside, glancing around in all directions. Seeing no one, she entered carefully, a large box dangling from one hand, and pushed the door closed. Fine traces of guilt hovered around her. The manner in which her eyes constantly scanned indicated she was clearly on the lookout for something – something it seemed she largely wanted to avoid.
Safely making it to the stairs, Kennedy managed to take the first two before she heard a stomping from above. Suddenly, Dawn appeared on the first landing and screeched to a halt, blinking in surprise. The two stared at each other for a few heartbeats until Kennedy finally broke the silence. "Uh ... hi."
Crossing her arms, Dawn shifted into a position that somehow managed to convey her disdain. "God, are you stalking now?" she asked, rolling her eyes. "That is so totally lame."
"I'm not stalking, I'm collecting," retorted Kennedy, lifting the box in her hand and giving it a little shake. "I left some of my stuff here. I just wanna get it and go," she snapped, sounding tired.
"You left stuff. Right." Dawn wasn't entirely buying into the explanation. "That's only slightly less lame."
The Slayer sighed and ran a hand through her hair, clearly lacking the energy and inclination to go twelve rounds. "Look, can I go get it or not?"
Taking a long minute to appraise Kennedy, Dawn finally stood to one side. "Fine, but I'm coming too, and if you touch anything that doesn't look like yours ..." She frowned, trying to come up with a threat that would in theory hold against a Slayer. "Well I guess I can't actually stop you, but I'm telling."
Her eye roll very obviously indicated exactly how intimidated Kennedy felt. "You do that," she responded as she passed Dawn on the stairs.
Reaching the second story, Kennedy strode down the hall, Dawn right on her heels. She passed the first door without a glance, instead heading straight for the one at the far end, near the hallway junction. Twisting the knob, Kennedy pushed open the door to Willow's room. Hesitating briefly, a pained expression on her face, she took a deep breath and crossed the threshold, tossing the box on the neatly made bed and going immediately to the nearby dresser, her gaze locked and focused on the task at hand.
Skipping the top drawer, she went directly to the second, sifting through and pulling out the occasional shirt and pair of socks. Almost without looking she tossed them at the box, each item easily landing inside. Moving to the next drawer, Kennedy did her best to ignore Dawn, standing in the doorway with her arms still crossed, watching the Slayer's every move like a hawk. "I'm not sorry you broke up," Dawn finally stated factually.
"Thanks, that's comforting," responded Kennedy with an irritated glance. "Have you considered a career in psychiatry?"
Dawn glared, but continued regardless. "I'm not sorry you broke up, but I am sorry if it upset you."
Kennedy closed the last drawer and moved to one of the end tables by the bed, pulling open the drawer there and removing the books and assorted odds and ends inside. "If it upset me," she laughed bitterly. "No, I was dancing in the streets right after I got my heart pulverized. It was a great fun, you should've been there."
"I just mean," Dawn tried again, her aggressive tone had all but disappeared, "Willow kinda explained some stuff, and, well ... It's gotta suck."
Kennedy paused in the process of packing the box, not looking up as she spoke. "Not the strongest adjective, but pretty much, yeah," she admitted somberly. She quickly placed the rest of the items inside and moved to the bathroom.
Raising her voice to carry to the adjoining area, the teenager continued, "I could tell you were really into her."
The Slayer emerged with an armload of toiletries. "And we see how much that counted for," she snorted, dumping them unceremoniously into the box with the rest.
"Do you think you'll get back together?" questioned Dawn, with honest curiosity.
Arching her eyebrows, Kennedy put one hand on the box and the other on her hip as she regarded Dawn. "Planning on some pre-emptive sabotage?"
Mildly embarrassed, Dawn shifted her position. "No-o. I just, you know. Wondered," she shrugged.
With a sigh, the Slayer clenched her eyes shut. "Honestly Dawn, right now it's all I can do to keep from screaming or crying or hitting something. Or all three." She opened her eyes again and shook her head. "Not really the right frame of mind for reconciliation."
This made sense to the teenager, and she nodded. "I think you're okay though." At Kennedy's surprised look, she added, "You know, when you're not in the house, always hanging around, being all bossy and irritating and stuff."
Chuckling, Kennedy moved to the closet, tugging the door open and glancing at Dawn over her shoulder. "Yeah, well, I guess you're okay too when I don't have to listen to you whine 24/7."
Silence descended for a moment, as neither seemed particularly inclined to disagree with the other's assessment.
"I still don't like you with Willow, though," Dawn declared. "Which I know is all immature or whatever, but I don't care."
Her first instinct was to snap something back, but instead Kennedy simply shrugged as she tossed a few more shirts and a pair of jeans into the nearly full box. "Well at least you're honest," the Slayer remarked instead. "I respect that."
Dawn looked both pleased and surprised at the unexpected compliment. "You know, I never told you this, but the way you stand up to Buffy? Very cool," she grinned, gesturing with her hand for emphasis. "You don't let her push you around."
"Buffy knows her stuff, yeah, but god. Was she born superior?" Kennedy shook her head, widening her eyes at her frustration. "Drives me freakin' insane."
Delighted at having found someone who could relate, Dawn became animated and anxious to share. "Oh, and the way she gives you that look? That 'I'm not really listening, I'm just humoring you' look? Ugh!"
They both laughed, then stopped, each glancing at the other in confusion, surprised to find themselves sharing a moment.
"Huh," Dawn muttered, frowning.
"And they say love brings us together," smirked Kennedy.
The sun was a distant memory in the sky by the time Dawn joined Giles, Buffy and Willow in the library. Willow was in her usual place in front of her laptop, as engrossed with whatever was displaying on her screen as Buffy and Giles, who hovered over her shoulder, intently reading.
"Hey Willow, do you own this really slinky red and black thing, looks like something Madonna wouldn't be caught dead in?" Dawn queried as she approached the group.
All three heads jerked up at the question, Willow in particular gaping and confused. "What? Slinky, red— What?"
Buffy frowned and regarded her sister curiously. "Why are you asking and do we have to have a long talk about it?"
Dawn rolled her eyes, though without any real irritation. "Kennedy was at the house, she said she left some stuff behind. She was being grabby with this thing that was all red and shiny and looked like it was cut down to—" Lifting her hand level with the top of her chest, Dawn let it drop, rapidly plunging well beyond what might be considered a decent point.
The redhead's face flared a bright scarlet, and she waved her hands in the air, causing the teenager to pause in her careful consideration of just how low her hand should rest so as to present an accurate picture. "Uhh, no. No, that- that wasn't mine. That was— Not mine. No. So- so, gone, yes, t-that's okay, because, you know," Willow let out a sharp puff that was probably intended to be derisive, "so not mine."
Raising an eyebrow, Buffy turned to Willow, amusement evident in her voice. "Maybe I should have a long talk with you," she grinned, playfully poking the witch in the shoulder, renewing the blush.
Furiously cleaning his glasses, Giles remarked, "I beg of you to wait until I'm in no danger of being haunted by unbidden images for the rest of my life."
"So you saw her?" Willow asked Dawn, sounding a little sad. "Is she okay?"
Approaching the computer monitor to see what was holding everyone's attention, Dawn shrugged slightly. "Don't think she's ready to start painting the world in rainbows, but she seemed okay. Considering."
Willow gnawed on her lower lip, but nodded.
"So what's up?" the teenager asked, peering at the display from over Willow's head.
Buffy straightened and crossed her arms, turning to Dawn. "Wonder Willow thinks she's got something on our Shirley Manson wannabes."
Expounding, Giles added, "Willow's going through old newspapers and such from different areas of the world." He turned back to the screen, studying it carefully. "It appears as though there may be some sort of correlation between these girls' performances and a series of murder/suicides."
"They play really heavy depressing stuff?" Dawn suggested, only half joking.
Shaking her head, Buffy replied, "No, it was pretty upbeat. And very much not worth all the attention they were getting, I add."
Reaching over Willow, Dawn picked up the flier and examined it closely. "'Persephone's Tears'. Catchy name." She frowned as a memory stirred. "Rings a bell, though, hm."
At that moment, Willow spoke up. "I think I found another link," she announced, pointing to the screen.
Giles leaned forward, reading over her shoulder. "'Family of five found dead' ... Seems the father simply came home one night and- and ... Oh." Blanching, the Watcher pulled back.
"What? What is it?" Dawn tried desperately to see what everyone else was looking at, but Buffy kept a firm hand on the teenager's shoulder and prevented her from getting too close.
"Ew," the Slayer summed up, wrinkling her nose at the computer. "It involves an axe and a whole lot of details not suitable for sisters of me named Dawn." Buffy expertly ignored Dawn's glare.
Willow glanced at the others, indicating something specific. "Yeah, but here's the weirdness. Did you guys see the date?"
Buffy and Giles both braved a second look as Dawn huffed at her continued exclusion. Reading carefully, Giles squinted at the small type. "May 12, 19 ... 1938."
"A-And that's not all," the redhead continued, clicking through to another section. "See here, under local entertainment? Same group name, and that picture–" she jabbed at it accusingly "–looks mighty gosh darned familiar."
Finally allowed to get a proper view, Dawn compared it to the flier in her hand. "Less with the piercing," she reported.
Pulling back, Buffy started drawing conclusions, still staring at the grainy image on the monitor. "Okay, so either they're better preserved than Dick Clark or—"
"—or they don't age," finished Willow.
"Immortal beings leaving a trail of dead bodies in their wake. This bodes well," remarked Giles dryly.
"Will, how far back can you trace this?" Buffy asked, resting her hand on the back of the other woman's chair.
Wiggling the fingers on her left hand, Willow muttered, "Let's see ..." Despite being mostly confined to one-handed typing, the hacker's speed remained impressive.
But Buffy had more important things on her mind, and she turned to Giles, who had settled in the chair next to Willow. "I suppose it's pointless to say I don't like this."
"Yes," the Watcher agreed, "but if it makes you feel better ..."
"I don't like this."
Dawn remained engrossed in the flier, staring at it with a furrowed brow. "It's so familiar. And check out these names." Turning the paper around to the others, she pointed to the appropriate section. "Parth, Gei, Kosia ..." She chuckled. "And I thought 'Dawn' sucked."
"Whoa," Willow murmured, commanding everyone's full attention.
Leaning forward, Buffy peered at the computer screen. "What'cha got?"
"Almost a whole village wiped itself out," she replied with a touch of awe. "Right after this traveling trio of women singers with 'voices like heavenly angels' paid 'em a visit for a harvest festival."
Narrowing his gaze, Giles also leaned forward. "When exactly are we talking about?"
Willow glanced up and met his eye. "1464," she stated very carefully.
"Wow." Dawn was clearly impressed. "Move over Dick Clark."
Still firmly in Slayer mode, Buffy turned to Giles, her words coming quickly in her haste to get things taken care of. "Okay, so if we're assuming these are the same girls, the next step is to figure out what we're dealing with, before Trillium pulls a Jonestown."
Deep in thought, Giles reached out and took the flier from Dawn, studying it for a long moment. "I wonder ..." he began, then glanced up, the others all staring at him expectantly. "What do you know of the Sirens?"
"Unimpressive vehicle for Dana Delaney?" Buffy shrugged.
"Oh! That's it!" exclaimed Dawn, clapping her hands together. "In English, we were talking about The Odyssey! That's why this is so familiar! Ligeia, Leukosia, Parthenope ... They're the Sirens!"
Willow frowned and looked from Dawn to Giles. "But the Sirens were defeated, right? By Ulysses?"
"Well he managed to avoid their allure and some myths say that they then drowned themselves," Giles agreed, then shrugged with his eyebrows, "but ... well, myths. Hardly the most accurate in all details."
Disinterested in the finer points, Buffy said, "Okay, so I'm ... what? Off to battle the mascot for Chicken of the Sea?"
"They're more birdy than fishy, actually," Willow replied, turning back to her laptop and calling up another search engine.
"That'll work too," the Slayer agreed amicably, not seeming to care much about the form. "It's about time I put in my two-cents on today's music."
"Hey, the gang's all here."
Everyone glanced up at the newcomer, watching as Faith strode into the library, a book in her hand. Faith took stock of the assembled Scoobies, and amended, "Almost all. X-Man got another late night, huh?"
Buffy still hadn't quite reconciled the unexpected library appearance. "Faith? What are you doing here?"
Raising the book, Faith replied, "Just droppin' this off."
Everyone continued to stare blankly at the dark Slayer.
"What? I can read, y'know," defended Faith.
Giles was the first to shake himself from the stupor. "Er, yes, of course. You were saying something about Xander...?"
"Oh, yeah," she confirmed, gesturing behind her. "Last night, saw him at the Vortex. Way zoned."
"At the Vortex," Buffy repeated flatly. "Last night."
Tossing the book into the air and catching it, Faith nodded, not picking up on the tension in Buffy's voice. "Yup."
"But last night? He was in bed last night," Willow disputed. "He- He was all upset with the tummy a-and head and so he stayed home and rested."
The redhead's protests didn't make the words true, however, and Faith simply shrugged. "Didn't look home or restin' to me. Didn't look much of anything, actually, but it was definitely him."
Slowly, an unwelcome thought forming in her mind, Buffy turned to Willow. "Didn't Xander say he'd heard the group a few times already...?"
Her eyes widening, the witch's thoughts followed the same path. "And he was all absorby ..."
Buffy, Willow and Dawn shared a look, then as though at some unspoken command, all ran for the library exit, tearing past a surprised Faith. "Giles, keep researching!" called Buffy over her shoulder. "We need a way to kill these things!"
And with that, they were gone. Faith raised her eyebrows, then turned to Giles, holding up the paperback in her hand. "So Anita Blake, pretty wicked. Got any more?"
The front door burst open, and the girls tumbled into the house, practically falling over each other in their rush.
"Xander!" three voices called out in harmony, but received no response. Immediately, Buffy sprinted upstairs while Willow took the living room and Dawn ducked into the kitchen. A few moments later, Buffy ran back down, joining the others in the foyer, all shaking their heads.
"Okay," Buffy began in a calm, authoritative voice. "Okay, I'm gonna head to the Vortex, see if he's there. Dawn, you try his cell phone. Willow, you—"
The door opening again cut off her instructions. Xander pulled himself inside, his feet literally dragging with every step. Pale and obviously pained, the carpenter had looked better.
"Xander!" Willow exclaimed, rushing forward.
"You okay? You don't look so good," frowned Dawn from his other side.
Nodding, then groaning with the effort, Xander muttered, "Head hurts."
"Gee, think maybe it has something to do with the non-stop clubbing?" Buffy chided with a touch of sarcasm, even as she moved around to help him to the couch.
Almost immediately, Xander flopped over on his back, one arm flung across his eyes. "Don't wanna go," he croaked weakly. "Can't help it. Calls out to me..."
"Yeah, I hear that's their thing," the blonde replied sympathetically, smoothing his hair away from his forehead.
Willow chuckled, musing mostly to herself, "It's funny. Dressed like that, you'd think they could get groupies the old fashioned way."
Straightening, Buffy faced to the others. "Okay, we need answers," she declared in a no-nonsense tone that indicated playtime was long over. "No platinum record for these ladies."
"I think I found— Oh poop." Willow glanced around with a frown, then turned to Buffy. "I left my laptop in the library."
Already, the Slayer was heading for the door. "No problem. I'll run back real quick and get it."
"Oh, and can you pick up some books while you're there?" asked Dawn. "I think I remember reading something about separating mythological fact from fiction, might help."
Stopping in mid-stride, Buffy turned back to her sister and crossed her arms. "I thought you had homework."
"Well then you'd be myth-taken," replied Dawn, grinning wide at her own joke. Buffy simply glared, and the teenager rolled her eyes. "Just a little bit. But come on, I wanna help."
"You can help," Buffy readily agreed, "after homework." Dawn pouted impressively, but at her sister's sharp look, said nothing else. Buffy turned to the carpenter, who had hardly moved since settling on the couch. "Don't worry Xander, we'll get this taken care of." Xander managed a small, painful nod as Buffy said to the others, "I'll be back in a few."
The Slayer ran out of the house, tossing the door closed behind her, and Willow moved to Xander's side, tugging gently on his arm to prompt him up. "Let's get you upstairs, nice comfy bed? I can bring you some soup or somethin'?"
"No. Thanks," he replied with another groan. "Just gonna lay here for a few, try and make the world stop spinning."
The redhead let his arm drop and took a step back. "Oh, o-okay then," she smiled, instead turning to Dawn, who was hovering nearby, and led her upstairs. "C'mon Dawnie, we both got school stuff that needs finishing."
Willow and Dawn moved up the stairs, and Xander gingerly turned his head, peeking out from under his arm as he watched them go. Once they were out of sight, his face become totally blank and expressionless, even the pain vanishing without a trace. He swung his legs over the side of the couch and stood up in one fluid motion, crossing the room to the chest in the far corner. Opening it in a mechanical manner, Xander reached inside and extracted a giant duel-headed axe. He gazed at the vicious blade before his eye turned toward the stairs.
Xander turned at the first landing, taking the remaining few stairs with the same preternaturally steady pace that currently infused each action. The axe was gripped tightly in his right hand, and while it was not poised to strike at the moment, his arm muscles were bunched and tense, ready to spring to readiness in an instant.
The upper hallway was dark, but Xander didn't bother to turn on the light. He passed the first room without a glance, the unmade bed easily visible through the open door being one of the tidiest aspects of the room. Even the framed posters of old 50's movies hung crookedly from the walls.
Moving slowly but relentlessly, Xander approached the next door, this one closed. The stream of light pouring from beneath the crack glinted upon the edge of the axe, but Xander paid it no heed and veered left, continuing to follow the hallway.
One foot fell in front of the other, as Xander passed the next door, a relatively small room mostly filled with boxes, including several carelessly tossed atop a double bed that didn't appear to have been slept in for some time. The room was generic, no adornments, and could not have been linked to any particular individual.
Two doors next came into view, the one directly in front of Xander was open to reveal a spacious but currently unoccupied bathroom. The nightlight by the sink cast a cold, ethereal blue light into the hall, lending the carpenter a sunken and undead appearance. He didn't turn his head to the right, paid no attention to the other closed door, nor the brightly painted wooden sign hanging from it that read "Buffy's Room". Instead, Xander turned, slowly and methodically, continuing down the final stretch of hallway, toward the last door. It stood open, a bright light spilling into the hall along with the low but unmistakable sounds of music.
Almost reaching the end of the hall, Xander came to a stop and turned to the right. His hand tightened on the axe dangling at his side. The room was brightly decorated, almost every available inch of wall space consumed with posters for everything, ranging from rock groups to movies. The one exception was an area by Dawn's bed displaying a collage of color printouts of the Scoobies, including specially framed photographs of Joyce and Tara. Xander ignored these details, his empty gaze resting instead on Dawn's back.
The teenager sat at her desk with facing away from the door, fwipping a pencil in the air between her ring and middle finger as she leaned over an open textbook propped in front of her. As though sensing she was no longer alone, Dawn greeted, "Oh, hey, Willow, just the brain I needed to pick." The carpenter paid the words no heed, simply standing immobile in the doorway. "So I'm trying not to be a complete idiot here, but inverse functions—"
Finally glancing over her shoulder, Dawn noticed immediately that she wasn't addressing the redhead and she literally jumped out of her chair with a tiny squeak of alarm. "Xander!" she exclaimed, bringing her hand up to rest over her pounding heart. "I-I thought you were downstairs." She moved forward, concerned. "Did you need something? That soup maybe?"
Xander didn't reply, instead taking a step into the room. Seeming to sense something was amiss, Dawn halted and frowned in concern. "Xander?" Still the carpenter refused to respond, instead readjusting his grip on the axe. The movement attracted Dawn's attention, and she spotted the weapon for the first time.
"What are...?" Suddenly everything clicked into place, her eyes widening as she took a step backward, bumping into her desk. "Oh. Oh no," she muttered, shaking her head. "Xander, it's those singers. You don't wanna do this ..."
As though refuting her statement, Xander hefted the axe with intent.
"Come on! You can't!" the teenager pleaded, circling around, trying to negotiate a clear path to the door. "You're my favorite! You know, cuz you were the only one in the house who hasn't tried to kill me before!"
Her reasoning fell on deaf ears, and Xander swung wide. Dawn easily evaded the deadly arc of the blade. "So much for that," she mumbled to herself, then louder cried out, "Willow!"
With a squeal, Dawn barely danced out of the way of Xander's second swing. Looking around desperately for something to use, the teenager grabbed a cheap gas station snow globe, happily welcoming the purchaser to Nebraska, from a small collection of them on her bookcase shelf, and hurled it at Xander with all of her strength. It connected solidly with his head, sending him staggering backwards and off-balance long enough for her to dart around him and into the hallway.
"Willow!!" Dawn yelled again, using her full and not unimpressive lung capacity. She raced around the corner at full- speed, just as Willow was tearing open the door to her own room.
The redhead stuck her head out, an irritated "What?!" breaking free before she spied Xander bringing the axe down at a lethal trajectory that was all but guaranteed to split the teenager in two. Almost without thought, Willow's extended her left hand. "Razbraic," she intoned.
The reaction was immediate. A flash of light exploded between Dawn and Xander, the shockwave sending the carpenter flying through the open door of the bathroom where he landed with a heavy thud against the tub. The axe had been wrenched from his hands, imbedding itself solidly in the wall between Buffy's room and the guest room. As for Dawn, she was tossed away from Xander, landing in a sprawl at the witch's feet. Willow bent down to help Dawn get up quickly, concern etched into her features. "I-I can't do a lot of magic," she explained. "The power— I might really hurt him, my control's not quite—"
Willow interrupted herself as she saw that Xander was already on his feet, struggling to free the axe from the wall. Utterly devoted to his task, he showed no sign of any emotion whatsoever. Glancing at Dawn, Willow asked, "I suppose you tried the reasoning thing?" Her eyes wide, Dawn nodded enthusiastically, and Willow shrugged. "Okay, running then," she concluded with almost cheerful resignation.
Shoving Dawn in front, the two ran for the stairs, Xander only a few paces behind with the axe held high. They turned sharply to the left, stumbling into the kitchen, Dawn making it to the other side of the island in its center and turning around.
"Look out!" she yelled, and Willow barely managed to jump to one side, narrowly avoiding the downward arc of the blade. Recovering quickly, Xander slashed with the weapon to the side, and again Willow dodged. Gritting her teeth, the redhead stepped forward, taking advantage of the opening Xander had left, and swung her cast into his midsection with all her might, trying to wind him. She succeeded, but his mental state, whatever such might have been, was beyond the physical aftereffects.
Conversely, Willow was not so lucky. She sucked air sharply between her teeth as her damaged wrist was jarred in the impact, turning ashen at the pain and cradling her wrist protectively. "Ow, ow, not smart, such ow," she gasped, blinking back tears.
It was now Xander's turn to take advantage, and he was raising his axe for a final strike, when a broom handle connected solidly with the side of his head. He stumbled backward. Positioned between the momentarily incapacitated Willow and Xander, Dawn held the broom like a club and shifted nervously from foot to foot. "Back off!" she threatened in a slightly wavering voice. "I don't wanna hurt you!"
Unphased, Xander brought himself to his full height, raising the axe once more when a fist lashed out from behind, numbing his hand and sending the axe clattering to the ground. Almost immediately, another blow followed which bonked him on the top of his head. Xander crumpled, landing next to his axe, unconscious but otherwise seemingly undamaged. Willow and Dawn glanced up to see Buffy standing in the doorway, Willow's laptop and a few books tucked safely under her arm.
"Honestly," Buffy smirked, "can't I leave you children alone for five minutes?"
Xander had been returned to the couch, still blissfully comatose. Willow was perched on the middle cushion, focusing on Buffy, who was pacing back and forth. Dawn was similarly watching her sister, having made herself comfortable on the arm of the couch.
"At least we know who the next target was," Buffy stated optimistically.
Sighing with relief, Willow looked considerably better than she had earlier, despite still shielding the cast with her other arm. "I'm glad you got here. Not really looking to be tomorrow's headline."
"So what're we gonna do?" questioned Dawn.
The Slayer had no definitive answer, and she turned to the redhead. "Will?"
Willow didn't have one either and she shook her head. "I-I'm not really sure. I mean I can try a spell, something for breaking through mind control." She frowned, irritated at her own lack of complete information. "But I don't know if it'll hold, if it works at all, a- and if he hears them again ..."
"But we weren't affected, right? So I can still go and kick their feathery ass and be okay." The idea of kicking an ass of any sort, feathery or otherwise, seemed to instantly put Buffy in a better mood.
"Yeah it's gotta be male-specific," the witch agreed. "Every report I looked at pointed to the guy doin' the hack'n'slash."
A plan formulating, Buffy stopped pacing. "Okay, so then I go back to the club. See how good they sing when their heads are ten feet across the room."
"But can you kill them?" questioned Dawn. Buffy and Willow turned to look at her, and she clarified, "I mean, really kill them? If they're the Sirens from the myths then they've gotta be pretty hard to kill."
Hefting Xander's weapon of choice, the Slayer grinned. "Lucky for me, I've had a whole lotta practice."
Thinking him unconscious, no one was paying any attention to the carpenter when his eye suddenly opened. His face registered no more emotion than it had earlier, and his gaze fell on Willow, sitting right next to him and completely oblivious. Slowly but surely, Xander reached out his hand.
The backstage of the Vortex was nearly empty, save for the trio of women that composed Persephone's Tears. They were wearing unbelievably skimpy outfits that appeared to be brand new, despite somehow managing a very carefully orchestrated well- worn look. Seemingly oblivious to anything at all, Xander dragged himself into the area, his eye distant and glazed. Almost in unison, the women took note of his entrance and affixed him with their stares as he came to a staggering halt.
"He returns," stated Gia, her tone a cross between confusion and disbelief.
"He still lives," Kosia agreed in a similar timbre.
Parth addressed him with a pointed finger. "You, man. We bade you prove your love. We need blood. We need destruction. You cannot defy us. You must heed our call. You must submit."
Verbal demands not enough, she approached him slowly, her every movement a seductive private dance, all the while singing in a sweet, low voice. Xander continued to stare, not registering as she incorporated tantalizing and sultry hand gestures into motions that came as close as possible without touching.
After half a minute of such treatment, Xander blinked at the temptress and tilted his head. "Sure, it sounds pretty, but can you dance to it?"
Parth stopped in mid-movement. "What?"
"What with the—" Xander gestured to the Siren's outfit, "—and the—" he clumsily mimicked her hand motions, "—I give you an 'A' for effort. But the overall effect?" He shook his head. "Even Paula wouldn't be impressed, and let's not get started on Simon."
"He defies us!" Kosia hissed, her voice incredulous.
"No. He will not," insisted Parth. Almost on cue the three women began to harmonize. Their voices melded seamlessly into a melody which was both beautiful and terrible. They glided closer to Xander, three bodies acting as one.
For his part, Xander enjoyed the sights and sounds, but remained unwavering. He shook his head a little and tsk'd them. "Don't quit the day job, ladies."
"What witchery is this?" demanded Parth. "No man can resist us!"
"Not so much with the witchy woo, just a conk on my noggin." Xander pointed to the top of his head. "It made me sorta see things more clearly. Take you girls, for instance. Very nice attempt with the hair and the piercing and the thing," he complimented, waving his hand at them abstractly. "But now I can see what's really goin' on, and you're lookin' more like giant chickens." He briefly scanned them up and down. "Which, by the way... considerably less attractive."
The three creatures snarled at him. Whether by their will or the effect of a spell's disruption, their images became fuzzy and indistinct before reforming to reveal their true form. Xander's description painted a truthful picture; the Sirens were very tall birds with the exception of female heads and arms, and vaguely human-shaped chests. Even parts of their arms and heads sported a feathery appearance, and the tips of their fingers contained razor-sharp talons.
Wasting no time, they quickly advanced on Xander, Parth leading the way. She came within five feet and drew back a taloned hand to slash open the carpenter, only to find her wrist in the grip of another.
"If you girls are gonna be in show biz, you really need to learn how to take criticism," Buffy quipped.
Parth was far from amused. She jerked her arm away from Buffy, only to find the Slayer's hold stronger. Confused for a moment, the other Sirens were unsure of their next move. Parth tried a different line of attack, using her free hand to swing at Buffy, who was forced to release the creature's arm. The Slayer moved back quickly enough to avoid evisceration, but couldn't fully save her shirt.
"Ever consider a manicure?" suggested Buffy, taking note of the tear in her outfit. "Or maybe a nail trim down at PetSmart?"
Ignoring the Slayer completely, Parth turned back to Xander with a hiss, and the other two followed suit. The carpenter had retreated, and before the Sirens could close the distance again, Buffy interposed herself and launched her assault.
It soon became clear that the fighting skills and strength of the Sirens left something to be desired. Their swings at Buffy were sloppy and weak; no doubt centuries of controlling men with their voices alone had eroded much of their physical prowess. On the other hand, they were three, each of whom had razor-sharp claws for fingernails, and the Slayer had to worry about Xander. All of these details added up to neatly balanced scales, and the fact that the Sirens seemed impervious to physical harm was beginning to tip the odds uncomfortably against the Slayer.
Buffy ducked and weaved several strikes out of necessity; there was no telling how Slayer durability would hold up against those talons. The Sirens' attacks weren't well coordinated, so she was really only fighting one or two at a time. Slowly, however, the women were catching on and their old moves were coming back. The two lesser Sirens tried to rush her, and the Slayer executed a leaping cartwheel out of the way. Parth was waiting for her with a swing designed to rend entrails, but Buffy grabbed the arm easily by the wrist and used her other hand to bend it back at the elbow. Instead of a comforting snap, Buffy received only a dull thud from her hand's impact as the arm refused to sustain any damage.
Resorting to the basics, the Slayer relinquished the arm and decided instead to pummel Parth in the face with a sequence of blows. Despite the force behind her fists, the result was nothing more than momentary stunning of her avian opponent. Meanwhile, the other two had closed in on either side and were attacking the Slayer between then. With a momentary burst of inspiration, Buffy stepped back, grabbed Gia's arm in mid-strike and redirected it into Kosia's chest. Apart from irritating the pair, this also had no effect. By this time, Parth had recovered and was seizing the opportunity to land a shot in at Buffy's shoulder. The Slayer rolled with the blow but the attack still drew a trickle of blood.
Retreating slightly, Buffy focused on Xander, widening her eyes and jerking her head expectantly at the Sirens.
Catching the hint, Xander cleared his throat. "See, I've got it figured all out," he told them, "you're just tryin' to tempt me. And kill my friend," he quickly added. "But I got news for you: I've been tempted by stuff that's not good for me my whole life. Pop rocks. Molson's. Vengeance demons."
The Sirens spun toward the carpenter with hatred blazing in their eyes as their bodies began to quiver imperceptibly.
"Plus, being one of the only males around several dozen beautiful women? Believe me, my friends, I know temptation. This isn't it."
A screeching wail erupted from the Sirens' mouths, and they renewed their effort to go after Xander. Buffy was there first however, kicking, sweeping, slinging, and otherwise preventing them from being able to approach him. If their combat abilities had been sloppy before, they were downright pitiful now, unable to concentrate on anything other than trying to rip out the carpenter's throat.
Bolstered by the effect he was creating, Xander pressed onward. "As a matter of fact, the only thing you're temptin' me to do is go pick up a bucket of original recipe from Colonel Sanders," he stated with a cocky grin.
In mid-step, the Sirens toppled to their knees, shrieking, twisting – and dying. Parth, still ten feet away, made one last vain attempt to strike at him before the three of them imploded in a shower of magical sparkles and motes of light. After a few seconds, even these lingering fragments faded away.
Buffy moved to stand next to Xander. Both regarded the calm remnants of the scene they had just witnessed. A long moment passed.
"The disturbing part?" Buffy commented with a slightly worried frown. "Now I'm hungry."
"That's it, no more girly music for me."
Xander was standing near the entranceway to the living room, clearly irritated by the events of the past few days. Watching with varying levels of amusement were Willow, Buffy, Dawn, Giles and Hannah.
At their snickers, Xander reemphasized, his tone leaving no room for discussion on the matter. "I mean it. You can keep your Liz Phairs and your Sarah Mclachlans and your Tori Amoseses." He jabbed his finger with authority. "From this point forward I'm sticking to manly music. Like the Pet Shop Boys and Prince and Men Without Hats, who have all got to be manly cuz of their names."
Standing nearby, Willow patted Xander's shoulder comfortingly, with maybe just a slight condescending touch.
Dawn had claimed one side of the couch, her legs curled up comfortably to the side. "I still don't get it though," she frowned. "They just ... poof? Because you ignored them?"
"It's sorta like they fed off temptation, you know?" Willow attempted to explain. "Men giving into it. It fueled 'em, kept 'em grounded on this plane. I-It's like an ongoing spell, and once it's broken ..." She flicked her fingers in the air, poof-like.
"So that's it, they won't be back again?" Dawn asked the room.
"No, they'll return eventually," replied Giles from the other end of the couch. "So long as men are prone to temptation, they'll have a source of power to draw from." He nodded his head slowly, as though confirming his own thoughts. "It will take some time, but they'll return."
On the other side of Xander, Buffy smirked. "Hooray for fuzzy-lined victories," she commented wryly.
"Well they're not gettin' any more power from me," declared Xander emphatically. "I hereby swear off temptation." Crossing his arms decisively, Xander made a stand. "I sway for nothing and no one."
"Think we got some Chunky Monkey in the freezer, want some?" Willow asked, jerking her head toward the kitchen.
"Ooo, Chunky Monkey!" enthused Xander, bounding into the kitchen, quickly followed by the girls. Hannah and Giles remained in the living room, watching the ice cream procession with deep amusement.
"So this is what passes for normal around here," remarked Hannah, rising from her position on the arm of the sofa and sinking into the cushion next to the Watcher.
"Yes, something like that."
Examining Giles carefully, Hannah commented, "Pretty exciting."
"I suppose," he replied off-handed. "One rather gets used to it after the first fifty times."
As though receiving verification, Hannah nodded sagely. "Ahh, so that's why you're so repressed."
Glancing up sharply, Giles stared at his ex-wife. "I'm sorry?"
"Come on, Rupert, it's me," she swatted his arm, leaning back comfortably. "In thirty years, you still haven't changed. Only back then you had a good excuse. What are you hiding behind now?"
Despite the flash of anger, Giles was mostly flustered, although the blonde simply watched him intently, seeming to absorb every detail. "I have responsibilities, I-I have people who depend on me and-and the new Council and—"
"And a plague of ulcers in your future," she completed, leaning forward again, taking his hands between her own and shaking them with each statement. "You need fun, you need to relax. You need to take me to dinner."
"Dinner?" Giles echoed, very clearly not controlling this conversation in the slightest.
Smirking, Hannah nodded slowly, spelling her words out very carefully. "Yes, dinner. You know, that meal one has, usually at the end of the day, typically involving some sort of main dish, a couple of sides ..." Her eyes became heavily lidded as her voice dropped to a low, flirtatious lilt. "Maybe dessert."
Giles sped past 'flustered' on his way to 'completely discomposed' as Hannah laughed out loud, thoroughly enjoying his reactions. "Oh good, you still blush," she cajoled, delighted with her discovery. "Now – take me to dinner."
With care, Giles gently retracted his hands, speaking with kindness and maybe the faintest tinge of regret. "Hannah, for all intents and purposes, you're my employee. I-I-It wouldn't be right, I couldn't—"
Waving her hand in the air, Hannah dismissed Giles' protest. "To hell with your improprieties speech; I didn't buy it before, I'm not buying it now. Come on..." She wiggled her eyebrows enticingly. "Nice juicy steak, grilled onions, baked potato ..."
"You're not helping," he accused with a laugh in his voice.
"Quite the contrary," replied Hannah with complete seriousness, "I'm helping more than you know."
Sighing, Giles finally relented, nodding his head. "All right,"
Also smiling, Hannah leapt to her feet, Giles following suit. She threaded her arm through his, and the pair headed for the door. "This is just what you need," she reaffirmed with confidence. "A nice relaxing dinner, good company, engaging conversation, and then afterward: skydiving."
"Oh come on," Hannah grinned, giving his arm a little shake. "You know you want to."
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