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."