The explosion of glass shattered the peaceful nighttime silence as a metal trashcan flew through the storefront window. Fragments rained down on the carefully constructed display of VCRs and DVD players that had been arranged there in a hopeful attempt to appeal to passers-by. Suspended over the front window was a neon sign declaring the store to be "Clarke Electronics". The warm glow illuminated the street for a brief moment before it was pelted by palm-sized rocks that destroyed the bright letters. A burst of sparks danced across the sky, continuing to erupt at sporadic intervals from the jagged remains.
Cackling with laughter, two girls stepped forward. The first, clearly the elder at about 17 years, had short-cropped brown hair streaked with platinum blonde. Her clothes, black from head-to-toe, enhanced her pale complexion. She lashed out at the sharp remnants of the glass window with her foot, safely encased in an army boot, and grinned with vicious pleasure as she decimated the shards.
Next to her, focusing on the other side, was second girl who looked to be perhaps 14. Her clothing was much brighter, verging even on tacky as it was clearly assembled haphazardly with little regard for color coordination. The only thing more shocking than her outfit was her hair. It was impossible to tell what color it might naturally have been underneath the rainbow of random streaks. The whole effect was disconcerting and not particularly attractive, but appearing on the cover of Vogue was clearly not a primary concern. Instead, the girl was focused entirely on using the lid of the trashcan as a shield, driving it into the remaining glass, sending the pieces falling to join the others that coated the equipment.
The opening now considered to be relatively safe, Rainbow carelessly threw the lid to one side where it clattered noisily onto the sidewalk while her companion leapt inside. Rainbow followed suit, and four more girls, all of similar ages, soon joined them.
Like toddlers given free reign in a candy store, the group ran from display to display, stuffing their pockets with cell phones, portable CD players, or whatever else could fit. A small Asian girl hurriedly distributed over-sized duffel bags to several of her cohorts, who proceeded to tear into the boxes for DVD players, liberate the contents and shove them with minimal care into the bags.
A tiny girl with straight, shoulder-length hair the color of raven's feathers broke away from the feeding frenzy and contemplated the row of television sets that lined one wall. She tilted her head to one side, no expression visible on her angelic features, until she reached into her bulging pocket and pulled out one of the cell phones, not caring to notice as two more fell out and bounced on the carpet. She tightened her fist around the brightly colored plastic, then cocked her arm back and hurled it with all her strength into the nearest picture tube.
The screen shattered under the impact, exposing its innards, and delight spread across Raven's features. She laughed, a deceptively innocent sound, and reached for another phone, repeating the action.
The sounds of destruction attracted the others, and soon their bags had been abandoned. Several joined in with hurling anything they could find at the fragile television sets, while others derived more enjoyment out of throwing DVD players to the ground and then stomping on the thin plastic casing until it caved in, revealing the delicate mechanisms that were promptly crushed under their heels.
The devastation may very well have lasted long into the next morning had a sharp whistle not ripped through the store, causing each girl's head to jerk away from her fun and stare out of the obliterated front window.
Stepping into view, Faith took in the scene with an impassive expression. Her hair was darker and cut shorter, about shoulder-length, and her face showed none of the hardness earned by years in prison and even more years of being a Slayer. This Faith was tempered only by the harshness of her own life. Traces of baby-fat still clung to her features, making them rounder and softer, although her eyes seemed deceptively old for her 15 years.
The marauders remained stock still, their gazes locked on Faith. None moved a muscle, seeming to wait in unison for some unknown signal. Faith surveyed the damage, paying little heed to the dangerous sparks floating around her from the death spasms of the neon lights overhead. Finally, her face split into a grin that boded far more malice than joy. She hoisted a gasoline canister, presenting it with both hands as her muscles strained under the weight.
"Torch it," she ordered.
With those words, she chucked the canister into the store, where it landed with a sloshing thud and was immediately set upon by the tall blonde. The other girls whooped their delight and, with parting shots to whatever happened to be at hand, grabbed the partially filled duffel bags and clambered out of the window onto the street, standing slightly behind Faith.
The back walls glistened as they were coated with the gasoline, the blonde flinging and pouring it with abandon wherever her eyes fell. As though she were impatient to get things underway, she simply allowed the canister to drop and, gigging with anticipation, she turned to the other girl. A cigarette dangled from Rainbow's lips, and she raised a match. Scratching it across her jagged thumbnail, it flared to life, and she touched it to the end of her cigarette, inhaling the smoke deep into her lungs.
With a final giggle, the blonde ran for the window, as Rainbow nonchalantly tossed the still-burning match into the growing pool of gasoline, backing toward the window in a manner that suggested she was not in any kind of hurry.
The match landed solidly in the puddle, and immediately set the pool ablaze. The flames were intense and quickly fed from the surrounding fuel, lapping up the walls and consuming everything in its path. Black plastic casings bubbled and warped under the blistering heat as the fire reached the displays along the back wall, unrelenting and unstoppable in its raging destruction.
Safely outside, the girls cheered, laughed and danced in the flickering light of their creation. Only Faith stood apart, not having moved an inch, staring at the inferno with intent but curiously detached interest. Her face was an unreadable mask that basked in the orange glow.
Older now, and aged in a way that only experience can mould, Faith's expression was eerily identical to that she had worn so long ago. The store had obviously changed some from that night, but was at its heart the same. Even upon close examination there would be no way of knowing that it had once been utterly destroyed from the inside. Even the sign had been replaced; it still read "Clarke Electronics", but the lettering used was more modern and clearly hoped to be more attractive in its appeal to the average consumer. The VCRs and DVD players once stacked so neatly in the window had been replaced with rows of televisions, screens pointing out toward the street and tuned to CNN or some equally homogenized news channel.
Faith paid no attention any of this, simply staring at the whole, unmarred glass surface and seeing something only in her mind's eye.
Story by: Jet Wolf and Ultrace
Written by: Jet Wolf and Novareinna
Tireless support and mucho de editing assistance by: Novareinna
Original Airdate: Tuesday, 29 June 2004, 8pm EST
Navigating with only minimal difficulty, Xander and Dawn managed to dodge around a small cluster of teenage girls who felt it was their duty to occupy as much of the pathway leading toward the front of the school as possible without actually being accused of hogging it all. Walking side-by-side, each carrying a moderately cumbersome box in their arms, the two were smiling broadly as they chatted, obviously in good spirits.
"This is so cool," gushed Dawn, beaming from ear-to-ear. "I'm so glad you agreed to do this."
"What, miss out on an opportunity to make thinly veiled and highly inappropriate wood jokes?" Xander smirked, nodding his head at the box he was carrying. "'Sides, I had all this stuff just lyin' around, why not earn a few extra bucks?"
Nodding emphatically, Dawn added with a grin, "Plus it makes me look really good."
"Which is of course the true goal behind absolutely everything I ever do." Xander turned to the teenager with a good-natured smile, which quickly vanished as his head recoiled from the impact of a football, colliding with his face on his blind side. Startled from the unexpected blow, Xander dropped the box he was carrying, sending wooden toys, decorative boxes and other carved items spilling across the sidewalk. Almost stepping on a delicate wooden duck, Xander hopped awkwardly out of the way, tripping in the process and landing hard on the ground.
Almost immediately Dawn was there to help him up when she saw a pair of heavily beefed-up guys wearing letter jackets in the school's colors jogging over. Dawn scowled and took a few steps forward to meet them. "You big jerk!" she yelled at the tallest. "Watch where you're throwing!"
The jerk in question ignored Dawn instead looking at Xander, who was still sprawled on the ground and tenderly rubbing his ankle. "Aw, sorry man," he apologized, not sounding remotely sorry, "I thought you were keepin' an eye out." Both of the jocks broke into snickers, clearly finding their joke hilarious, nudging each other with their elbows.
Dawn did not share in the amusement and she stepped in front of Xander, her box still clutched tightly. "That's really funny, Blake. Did you learn that in your second or third trip through kindergarten?"
Their snickering died instantly and Blake drew himself up to his full height, towering a good six inches over Dawn's head. He peered down at her, his eyes narrowing. "You got a big mouth, Summers."
"And you've got a fat head," shrugged Dawn, "so I guess we all have our faults."
Blake took another step forward, now all but dwarfing Dawn, not a difficult feat considering he looked to be three times her weight. Still Dawn refused to budge and didn't flinch a muscle. "I think what you need's a real man to keep you in line," Blake growled, low and menacing.
"Oh? Know where I can find one?" inquired Dawn innocently.
A sharp intake of breath accompanied the flash of anger that crossed Blake's face, and things appeared to be getting very ugly very quickly. Xander's eye widened and he struggled to get to his feet, holding out his hand and ready to intercede, but then there was someone standing between the two combatants.
His hair still a pleasant shade of blue, Grip peered at Blake, not challenging but knowing. The contrast between the two was striking – where Blake was all muscle and very little neck, Grip was lean and almost gangly. Regardless, Grip showed as little discomfort or fear as Dawn as he smiled charmingly. "Blake. You maybe wanna take the testosterone down to three or so?"
Clearly thinking he had found an ally in brotherhood solidarity, Blake tried to explain. "Dude, she—"
"I know," interrupted Grip understandingly, "and I'm sure it was real threatening to your manhood and all, but really, do you want to be voted 'most likely to appear on "Cops"'?" Bending over, Grip retrieved the football and tossed it. Blake easily caught it. "So maybe you wanna pick up your ball and go play over there, hm?"
Blake looked at Grip for a moment, glared at Dawn and Xander, and then stomped off with his friend without another word. The group watched them leave, and when they were a safe distance away, Dawn turned to Grip.
"Thanks," she smiled gratefully. "God, those guys are such social retards."
Shrugging, Grip absently twirled the small diamond stud in his left ear. "Eh, Blake's ..." He considered it for a moment. "Yeah, I guess 'social retard' pretty much covers it."
Together, they both started helping Xander retrieve the spilled items, carefully returning them to the box. Dawn glanced worriedly at Xander, who remained uncharacteristically silent. "You okay?" she asked gently.
Xander smiled a little too broadly at the teenager. "Who me? Oh sure. It's just like high school!" He laughed, then stopped short. "I hated high school."
With the last of the items safely stowed away, Grip got to his feet along with the others. "You guys okay from here?"
"I think we can manage," Dawn nodded.
"Sure!" agreed Xander, his tone still far too pleasant. "If memory serves, I have at least a five-minute window before the next group arrive to mock me and all I stand for. Hey, if I'm really lucky, maybe this time it'll be the chess club!" He balled up his hand and made a 'golly gee whiz that's swell!' gesture, which only served to further confuse Grip, who seemed unsure of how to deal with the contradicting signals.
Dawn smiled at the younger man's frown. "We'll be fine," she assured him.
Accepting this, Grip nodded and began to move off toward the school. "'Kay then. Hey, I'll see you around?"
"Yeah. Thanks again."
"Don't mention it," he dismissed, turning to Xander. "I really like your stuff, I'm sure it's gonna sell big." With that, Grip jogged off, soon blending into the crowd.
Now at a much more sedate pace, Xander and Dawn headed in the same direction. "I'm really sorry," Dawn began with a pained expression.
"Not your fault. Heck, it's not even their fault." Noting Dawn's incredulous expression, Xander amended, "Well the throwing and the hitting and the insulting, yeah, but you know," he frowned, "once upon a time I could've ducked. Or at least tried to duck, which would have counted for something." Dawn's look had quickly shifted from confused to concern, and Xander tried visibly to brighten. "Ah, but no worries," he dismissed. "At least I didn't have to hear another One-Eyed Jack comment. Stops being funny after the first twenty times or so, huh? I mean, is it too much to ask for some originality?"
Shuffling his box under one arm, Xander tossed the other reassuringly over Dawn's shoulders and the two continued toward the crowd of students by the auditorium.
Moving at a hurried pace, Giles and his assistant Mina strode through the halls of Slayer Central. The dark-haired woman was referring to a clipboard in her hands as she spoke in a soft but authoritative voice that seemed to indicate her gift for organization. "Wood will be returning early next week with a preliminary report on the construction of our European branch." Casting a sidelong gaze, she questioned, "I assume you'd like to meet with him as soon as possible?"
"Absolutely," Giles agreed. "Also, I want to discuss the possibility of shifting him from administration to security, so the earliest opportunity where Hannah will also be available would be—"
"Mr. Giles, sir!"
Both Giles and Mina looked over to see a young man in a tailored suit jogging up alongside them, as they showed no signs of halting their forward movement. He looked both eager and anxious when he suddenly realized he'd gained their complete attention, and adjusted his tie nervously.
Giles regarded the young man for a moment, then declared, "Those are far too many names for one person, Preston. Pick one and stick with it."
The young Watcher frowned in confusion. "Sir?"
"That one will do," agreed Giles. "How may I help you?"
Still every bit as confused, but choosing not to linger on it, the Watcher pressed on valiantly. "I'd like to broach the status of some of my Slayers, sir. Several of them seem to be exceptionally gifted, and I wanted to talk about possibly accelerating their training in a more leadership capacity."
Giles nodded thoughtfully. "Of course. We have a staff meeting scheduled for next Monday—"
"Tuesday," Mina corrected.
"—Tuesday. We can brainstorm ideas for new training curriculums then."
Preston inclined his head gratefully. "Thank you, sir," he smiled, before bounding away in the opposite direction.
As though there had been no interruption, Mina continued. "You have a free lunch on Wednesday, and I believe both Robin and Hannah will be available to join you."
"Excellent, we'll go with that then," decided Giles. His eyes lit up as a thought occurred. "Would you make us reservations at Rosario's? I think Hannah will love their shrimp scampi."
Mina jotted down a note on her clipboard and moved to the next item as they rounded a corner. "As for the rest of this week, I'm afraid there's precious little wiggle room," she stated with a hint of apology. "A representative from the Strabane Coven will be teleporting over tomorrow, so—"
Again their conversation was interrupted, this time by a woman emerging from the room they had just passed. "Mr. Giles, I was just on my way to see you," she called out before ducking back into the room for a moment. Giles came to a stop, Mina a pace behind him, and both turned to the doorway as the woman emerged, two file folders in hand. "I've completed a revised version of the training schedule," she explained, handing him the first folder, "and possible scholastic distribution. Unfortunately Trillium's schools have limited placement for so many Slayers, however I've included some contact information for local area tutors in the event that we choose to establish in-house schooling." Looking very pleased with herself, she proudly handed over the second folder, then clasped her now empty hands behind her back.
"Thank you, Elisabeth." Giles tucked the folders under one arm. "I'll review these and we'll discuss them in greater detail on Friday?"
Nodding happily, Elisabeth beamed and returned to the room. Mina and Giles resumed their walk, neither displaying any evidence that the continual interruptions were phasing them.
"You have a meeting with the Coven representative tomorrow, as well as—"
Arriving at his office door, Giles turned to see Hannah approaching from the opposite direction. With an apologetic expression, Giles held up a finger and cut Mina short, calling out, "Hannah, may I see you a moment?"
The blonde nodded, lengthening her stride until she was standing alongside the others. Giles turned to his assistant and smiled with a touch of self-depreciation. "It sounds like this week is going to do its utmost to finish me off once and for all. Would you please leave a finalized copy of the appointments on my desk and I'll review them in greater detail at the earliest opportunity."
"Of course," nodded Mina, not seeming to mind the brush off as she went to leave. "However don't forget you're sitting in on Worthington's training session at one."
Smiling his thanks, Giles turned back to Hannah, who had crossed her arms and was wearing an expression that indicated she was finding everything entirely too amusing. "You're such a busy little bee," she teased.
Giles' only answer was a groan as he pushed open his office door and led her inside. "Things haven't been this insane since we started," he complained. "Of course, if I could delegate more easily ..."
"You always did have to do everything the hard way," Hannah pointed out with a jovial tone.
Slinking into his chair, Giles uttered a louder groan as he seemed literally buried under the mountain of paperwork on his desk. He tossed the two files he'd been carrying onto a nearby stack, where they were absorbed by the mass already present.
Hannah gestured to the piles. "A metal trashcan, one little match ... this could all disappear and nobody would ever have to know." At Giles' flat look, she jokingly grumbled, "You're no fun."
"Of course not," the Watcher replied dryly. "I don't think I have 'fun' scheduled for another two weeks yet."
With a chuckle, Hannah leaned her hip against the side of the desk. "I doubt talking to me is scheduled right now either. What's on your mind?"
"The message you left me," replied Giles, clearing off a section of his desk by creating towers of files in various locations, "about Faith?"
"Ahh, yes. I'm quite anxious to speak with her." Hannah pulled one of the chairs opposite the Watcher into a position where she could see him easily and slid into it. Leaning forward, she rested her elbows on the armrests and regarded Giles with an expression that was all business. "I assume you're aware of Faith's ... rather interesting history since acquiring her Slayer powers."
"Yes, I have a ... passing familiarity with it," he understated.
Giles shook his head, considering the state of his desk and resigning himself to the fact that it was as tidy as possible, given the circumstances. "Not especially, no. Only what little the Council provided me after her arrival in Sunnydale." Leaning back in his chair, Giles began to rattle of several facts. "Born and raised in Boston, her father left when she was quite young ..."
More interested with getting to the heart of the matter, the blonde cut in. "She concerns me."
The statement seemed to amuse Giles greatly. "I don't know of anyone Faith hasn't concerned at some point or another," he smirked.
"She's an unpredictable element, a wild animal," Hannah insisted. "You realize you'll never be able to control her."
"Then it's just as well I'm not looking for control," snapped Giles. He sighed heavily and ran a hand through his hair before beginning again. "You're doing the job I brought you here to do, so I'll say no more. I simply wanted to let you know that Faith has taken some personal time and won't be back until next week." Hannah raised a questioning eyebrow at this, but Giles had little more information. "She didn't say, she simply asked for personal time."
"Interesting," Hannah commented in an unreadable tone.
"Knowing Faith, most likely," agreed an amused Giles. Taking note of the obvious mounds of work facing the Watcher, Hannah rose to leave. "Out of curiosity," enquired Giles, "has anyone managed to convince you yet that they're completely trustworthy?"
Turning back, Hannah smirked, "I'm pretty sure you're alright."
A wry expression crossed his face. "Oh good, I was afraid I'd have to start keeping myself under close observation."
As far as cemeteries went, it was fairly average. Much like today's small towns, it had its section for the rich and elite, the broader stretch of land taken up by those whose loved ones were of middle income, and finally, tucked toward the back and far out of the way, the final resting place for the poor. Were Faith paying attention, she might have found some degree of irony in the idea that despite death being the great equalizer, society still managed to draw a definitive line. But she was not.
If anything, Faith appeared more out of place. Though clearly at home in a graveyard, such was rarely the case when the sun was still high in the sky. Despite the near guarantee that nothing nasty and salivating was lurking behind the next tombstone, Faith stalked toward her prey as though she was on the hunt. But unlike her usual games of cat and mouse, her expression offered no elation.
Finally, toward the end of the graveyard, far from the entrance and most visitors' eyes, rested several rows of identical markers. Each was a gray, washed-out memorial to whoever was buried underneath. Mundane, generic, unremarkable. As though drawn by some invisible force, Faith made a straight line for one grave in particular, eventually standing before her target. She stared down at it, unblinking in the too-bright sun.
It read, "Marlene Kendrick: March 18, 1962 – August 24, 2003". A name and two dates. No words of affection or mourning. Like the others surrounding it, there were no indications that anyone had visited, aside from the groundskeeper and his lawnmower.
Faith simply stared.
The front door swung open on a squalid, tiny apartment, and a 16-year old Faith strode inside. She stepped on a discarded hamburger wrapper, paying it as little attention as she did the other trash strewn about the living room floor. The only illumination in the room was provided by a naked bulb stuck in a floor lamp completely lacking a shade, and the 13" television showing an unfunny black-and-white comedy. Still, it was enough light for Faith to admire the beautiful brown suede jacket she was wearing, and she ran a hand appreciatively down its length.
Kicking the door closed behind her, Faith fully entered, looking up for the first time. Next to the lumpy and stained couch, which looked twice Faith's age and less comfortable than the floor, was an equally dirty recliner. Seated in the chair, her legs thrown out in front and her head lolling to one side, slumped a dark-haired woman, very clearly unconscious.
She bore a similar resemblance to Faith, largely due to the shade of her hair and her bone structure, but whereas Faith was only just beginning to shed the lingering touches of childhood, this woman was drawn and almost skeletal, her skin pale and unhealthy. She was wearing a rumpled and thoroughly unflattering waitress uniform, including a nametag that identified her as "Marlene". The only indication that there was breath in her body was the occasional snore, and the way she clutched a bottle of Wild Turkey to her chest like a security blanket. From the limp fingers of her left hand dangled a lit cigarette, and it was only through some miracle that gravity hadn't completely laid claim to it and turned everything inside to a pile of ashes.
Faith stood before the woman, noting her appearance and gazing with blatant disgust. Rolling her eyes, she took a step past, originally heading toward the closed doors at the rear of the apartment when she stopped and turned around. Again, Faith considered the woman, then sighed and went to her side, snatching the cigarette and taking a long, deep drag. Shaking her head, Faith angrily jabbed it out in the overflowing ashtray on the nearby end table, and exhaled the smoke between clenched teeth.
"Marlene," she stated in a commanding tone, watching for some sign of movement and receiving none. "Marlene," she repeated, louder. Still the woman didn't move, didn't even twitch. "Mom!"
Nothing. Sighing again, Faith grabbed her mother's limp arm and tried to haul the woman to her feet, but it was dead weight and Faith simply didn't have the necessary leverage. Marlene groaned and clutched the bottle tighter as Faith tugged without concern for being gentle.
"Little help here, huh?" growled Faith, noting the woman's slow rise from unconsciousness.
"Go 'way," Marlene slurred, trying unsuccessfully to jerk her hand away.
Faith simply snorted and continued to pull. "Whatever, I stopped listenin' t' you years ago."
"I said—!" With an inarticulate grunt, Marlene lashed out sloppily but with surprising force, shoving Faith in the shoulder and sending the young girl staggering backward.
Pure rage flashed across Faith's features for just a moment, and she glared with hatred at the woman before her. "Don't want my help, fine, then do it yourself!" she yelled. "You know sleepin' here makes your back go, an' you can't afford t' miss any more work!"
Marlene simply raised the bottle clumsily to her lips and took another deep swallow. "Lea' me 'lone," she muttered.
Disgusted, Faith rolled her eyes again. "Look, can't you lay off that for five whole seconds?" She stepped forward, compelled to try again. Latching onto her mother's free arm, she yanked.
With a sudden burst of unexpected strength, Marlene swung out with her other hand, still grasping the bottle tightly. "Go to hell!" she shrieked as the bottle connected with the side of Faith's head. It shattered instantly, dousing Faith with its contents as the girl fell to the ground.
Her mother didn't even blink, didn't pay Faith any attention, choosing instead to stare at the now jagged remains of the bottle in her hand. "Dammit!" swore Marlene. "Look what you made me do!"
Throwing the bottleneck to one side, she somehow managed to struggle to her feet. Without sparing Faith a glance, she staggered to the rear of the apartment, muttering all the while. "Frickin' ungrateful brat," she spat quietly, yanking open one of the doors and slamming it shut behind her.
The only sound remaining in the room was the laughter coming from the television set. Slowly and painfully, Faith sat up, blood coating the side of her face from the gash across her right temple. The girl look around for a moment, seeming almost bewildered, then without warning her expression crumpled. She sobbed once, then twice – harsh, agonizing sounds – then took a deep, shuddering breath and regained her control. Struggling, nearly pulling the now vacated armchair over in the process, Faith managed to stand up, swaying slightly at first then finding her balance. She sniffed loudly and wiped a hand across her face, as though to physically remove the remnants of whatever she had been feeling, and once her hand had passed, her eyes were dry and filled only with anger and loathing.
She looked down at the jacket she was still wearing, totally ruined and coated in blood and cheap whiskey. Glaring at the door her mother had exited through, Faith snarled, "An' I just lifted this. Bitch."
Still standing and staring, though the sun now hung lower in the sky, Faith's expression was no more readable than it had been hours before. The Slayer was deeply lost in thought as she absently puffed on the cigarette dangling between two fingers. Considering, she tilted her head to one side and then flicked it toward the stone. It bounced off, sending out a few sparks, before landing, still burning, on the weeds that covered the grave.
Five heads glanced up at the incessant call as Willow rushed down the corridor toward Giles and the group of Watchers he was accompanying into one of Slayer Central's conference rooms. Each was loaded down with briefcases and file folders, and were clearly intent on discussing the contents of many of them in the very near future. The others proceeded inside, Giles smiling at them gratefully as he remained in the hallway to await the arrival of a very anxious witch.
"Willow, hello," he greeted. Inclining his head into the conference room, which was filled with other Watchers all seated expectantly around the table, Giles began, "I was just about to—"
He didn't get very far. "I need your help," Willow declared simply, wringing her hands nervously in front of her.
"Now," confirmed the witch with an agitated bob of her head. "Nowy now. Quicker than now. Th-The magic it's ... There's bad," she summed up. "A-and I feel the bad. It's bad. I think it—" Suddenly Willow's eyes widened and she burst into panic mode. "Oh god, I don't have Joan Jett hair, do I?" Spinning to the nearby window, she tried to see her reflection, moving her head around in jerky motions to get the best angle.
The Watcher placed a calming hand on her shoulder. "Your hair's fine, Willow," he assured her. "Let's go discuss this, shall we?" Sticking his head into the conference room, Giles suggested, "Stephen, perhaps you can get started, and I'll catch up shortly."
An intelligent-looking older man seated near the head of the table nodded his head and began extracting papers from his briefcase. Giles placed his own stack on a nearby table inside the room and pulled the door closed behind him. Placing an arm around Willow's shoulder, the two walked down the hall.
"Now then, deep breath, and tell me what's going on," he prompted gently.
Sucking in a lungful of air, Willow let it out slowly, calming considerably. "Okay. Okay, so I've been meditating right? Trying to fix my hand?" She raised her injured wrist, which was no longer encased in a clunky white cast. Instead, it bore a stiff black brace that extended halfway up her forearm and held her thumb and fingers rigidly in place. Giles nodded his understanding, but Willow missed the gesture, instead glaring accusingly at her wrist. "Only it's taking so damned long!" she complained bitterly.
Giles allowed himself a tiny smile at her impatience. "Yes, but look at the remarkable progress you've already made," he pointed out, opening the door to Willow's sanctum and following her inside. "In just a few short weeks, you were able to have the cast removed. Given the extent of your injuries, that's nothing short of extraordinary."
"Yeah, maybe, but look!" Again she thrust her wrist into the air, holding it steady while she tried to wiggle her fingers. Despite the obvious effort, she succeeded in moving them only marginally, and was thoroughly disappointed with the result. "Hands should work, Giles," she insisted, then took another deep breath as she tried to explain further. "It's just that ... So I'm sitting there, meditating, pulling energy from the earth, all that crunchy goodness, and i-it's like I'm sitting there for hours and hours a-and zippo! Then I just start gettin' all cranky, and the next thing ya know, I can feel this big ol' geyser of power that promises to make my hand good as new within seconds if I'd just touch it, and I know it can. And I don't want to, but- but I do. A-And I know it's the Dark Side of the Force, so I'm all 'Uh-uh, no way! Just back the heck off, mister,' but I still really, really want to, and it's like some big nuclear meltdown in my brain and whoosh! No more meditating for me!"
Staring at the redhead, Giles looked exhausted just listening to her, then shook his head as though to clear his mind. "First of all, you're doing delicate reconstruction of a complex instrument. It's bound to take time." Willow opened her mouth to interject, but Giles quickly raised a hand to stave off her comments. "I realize you want it fixed now, but that's part of the problem. You must remain patient. You just need to find your center."
"I thought I had found my center," she pouted. "It was all ... focused and center-y."
"I would venture to say you've not, if you're feeling the temptation toward dark magicks," replied Giles not unkindly. "My advice to you: rest for today, don't try any more meditations. Tomorrow, you'll start again, a clean slate. Let it happen, channel the magicks, but don't try to force them."
Willow sighed and shifted her weight from one foot to the next, deriving little satisfaction from Giles' advice. "Yeah, I guess," she conceded. "I'm just so sick of one-handed typing. My left hand's gonna be all ... freakishly over-muscled or something by the time I'm done."
Smiling, the Watcher replied, "I doubt that very much. But I assure you, you'll be fine. If things don't seem to be improving within a few days, we'll sit down together and work on some meditations, all right?"
That seemed to do the trick, and Willow's mood brightened considerably. "Okay," she agreed sunnily. "Thanks Giles. Sorry for interrupting your big important Watcher meeting."
"I'd consider it less a disturbance and more a rescue," he corrected, earning him a grin as Willow bounded out of the room. Giles watched her go for a moment with a smirk on his face, before heading toward the meeting in progress.
While the street may have looked more open and inviting in the sunlight, its true effectiveness would ultimately have been debatable. The shadows that shrouded most of the dark alleys hinted at danger but also hid the overflowing dumpsters and homeless people hunched over trying to find shelter from the crisp fall air. The area was, by and large, uninviting, but it seemed to perfectly suit Faith's mood. She moved easily along the pavement, directionless but still seeming somehow to belong. The groups of men hiding from the streetlights like a vampire from the sun who might have normally caused a lone young woman considerable trouble, took one glimpse at the Slayer and averted their eyes.
Reaching into the pocket of her leather jacket, Faith pulled out a pack of cigarettes and flicked her wrist in a practiced move to expel one. When nothing happened she examined it more closely, finding the pack to be empty. Swearing, she crushed the package in her fist and threw it carelessly to the side, where it mingled with the other trash lining the gutters. A quick glance at the garishly bright neon signs across the street revealed a 24-hour liquor store, and Faith headed toward it with only a cursory glance for traffic.
Shoving the door open, Faith nearly winced at the discordant jingle of cheap Christmas bells tied to the handle that announced her presence. The shop was empty, save an unshaven and bored attendant behind the front counter and a jacketed figure loitering in the corner pretending to read a magazine. Faith glanced at the figure for a moment but otherwise paid it little mind as she approached the counter. "Marlboros," she ordered, reaching into her pocket and pulling out a wad of assorted items, picking through for some loose bits of cash.
The attendant's back was turned as he pulled the pack down for Faith, and the figure took the opportunity to dash out into the street. If the attendant noticed the hasty exit – and it was unreasonable to assume he didn't with those obnoxious bells – he chose not to show any concern. Faith on the other hand had become quite interested. She shoved a five-dollar bill across the counter, snatched the pack and quickly exited the store.
Back on the street, Faith surveyed all directions, catching sight of the figure darting around the corner about a block to the left. A quick sprint brought the Slayer to the alley in a few seconds. The figure had stopped not far inside, and was hunched over with its back to the entrance.
Faith approached silently, careful not to scare away whoever it was. She reached out a hand. "Hey," she announced simply, spinning the figure to face her.
Each party was surprised to see the other there. In Faith's case, she instantly absorbed the girl's youth, tempered by a harshness that seemed all too familiar, particularly on someone who was likely no older than fourteen. But for a fleeting moment there appeared to be more, a recognition that went beyond simple kindred understanding. It faded as quickly as it had surfaced, however.
As for the girl, she seemed at first to be utterly shaken by Faith's presence, but that shock, too, was transient. Tightly gripped in the girl's hands was a small stack of chocolate bars, which seemed somehow to lend the entire situation a surreal quality.
Nodding to the candy, Faith smirked and crossed her arms. "Hershey's really worth six months in juvey?" she queried.
Immediately, the girl's demeanor changed from startled little girl to defensive young woman. "What's it to—" she began, jutting her jaw at the Slayer, but then her expression softened to mystified conclusion. "Faith?" she whispered, almost in awe.
It was clearly the last thing Faith had expected to hear, and she took a step back away from the girl in complete confusion. "Huh?"
This only served to cement the idea her mind, and the girl closed the gap between them, taking the older woman's hand reverently. "Faith! It is you!" she exclaimed with a tone approaching rapture. "You've come home!"
Faith continued to stare at the girl, seeming to consider whether or not she might actually be on something that would cause her to react so familiarly. Searching the girl's face, the Slayer tried to find a hint, some sort clue that would give her memory a jump-start.
At first glance, the girl appeared to be much like any other you would pass on the street. She was obviously trying for some sort of pseudo goth look, her hair very obviously dyed the darkest black possible, cut short and spiked. Draped around her tiny frame was a black satin jacket that was at least two sizes too big, slipping almost constantly from one bony shoulder, only to be tugged back into place and then slip again moments later. Her shirt was white with thin spaghetti straps that, in contrast to the jacket, seemed almost too small, not quite reaching her short skirt and exposing a simple bellybutton ring. Fishnet stockings and fingerless gloves rounded out the ensemble, which was topped off by a thick, chunky necklace clearly made of some cheap silver-knock-off.
But it was her face that made her stand out from the crowd. Despite the fact that her appearance created a decidedly unsavory impression, her face was still round and somehow unmarred, despite the very liberal application of makeup, including far too thick eyeliner and mascara. 'Angelic' would be the first adjective to spring to mind, including bright, pale blue eyes that seemed out of place amidst all the darkness with which the girl was clearly attempting to enshroud herself.
Faith frowned, unable to link the image before her with anything in her mind and she shook her head. "I don't know what you're—"
"Roxi!" the girl exclaimed, gesturing to herself, but still only received a blank stare from Faith. Enthusiasm deflating slightly under the lack of response, she tried again. "You know ... Roxanne?" When Faith only blinked, she added, "Renee's sister?"
All the house lights came up at once. "Oh! Rainbow Brite!" Faith nodded eagerly, happy to finally have a frame of reference. Smiling, the Slayer shook her head wistfully. "Damn, it's been forever. How's she doin'? Still got 31 flavors of hair?"
Shrugging nonchalantly, Roxi chewed on her jagged, nicotine-stained thumbnail. "Dunno," she replied without emotion. "Last I saw, she was hangin' with this guy. Real jerkwad. Said he wanted her to go with him, score some quick cash. Never saw her again."
"Oh." Every trace of joy vanished instantly from Faith's features, and for a second, she could only blink. "Crap, I'm sorry, I—"
"No biggie," the girl replied, showing no more regret than if she'd lost a paperclip of which she was moderately fond. "Not like we were all that close anyway. And hey, more room at home for me now, huh?" Her eyes darted away from Faith's briefly as she said that, but soon returned to find the Slayer frowning.
"What about the rest? Monroe, and Skeeter, and—"
"Gone. Jail, dead, or just gone."
The words were delivered in a flat, factual tone, and Faith didn't appear to know exactly how to react to them. There was a small measure of disbelief, but nothing else particularly discernable.
By contract, Roxi apparently had an tendency toward optimism, and she grabbed the perceived bright side with both hands and held on tight. "Hey, but now you're back, we can maybe, y'know, start again." The girl smiled brightly, even as Faith looked at her in confusion. "Get some new girls. I been wantin' to myself, but they all think I'm just some stupid kid. But now you're back, we'll have 'em rushin' to our door, beggin' to team up with us!"
Faith shook her head slowly and raised an eyebrow at Roxi. "I think you got me confused. I don't go for that no more."
"Oh? Then why the hell'd you come back to this armpit?" the girl challenged.
Instinctively, the Slayer opened her mouth to answer, but no words seemed inclined to emerge.
Noting the lack of response, Roxi filled in the silence. "You're just outta the loop is all," she concluded with a wave of her hand. "Life's better for all of us when you got friends to back you up. You'll remember."
"I just ..." Faith broke off as Roxi's words sunk in, and she glared slightly. "I got friends," she protested somewhat defensively.
Roxi's eyebrow twitched and she made a grand show of looking all around Faith, searching valiantly. "Invisible variety? Or they just in your head?"
'Defensive' had become Faith's new defining adjective. "Not here, not now, but I got 'em," the Slayer insisted, her hands balling into fists.
With a patronizing smirk, Roxi crossed her arms, causing the jacket to slip off both shoulders. "I can tell they're close friends, too."
"You don't know nothin' about me," spat Faith, jabbing her finger at the girl as she took a step forward.
Immediately taking one back to maintain the distance between them, Roxi's hands shot in the air. "Hey, we're cool," she soothed. "I'm sure you and your mystery friends're real tight." She relaxed again, and grinned, still with a condescending tone. "An' you're just here for the scenery, right? Say, have you met the latest members of the sanitation force?" Stepping to one side, Roxi dramatically presented the dumpster.
"No, not here for the scenery," Faith sneered, obviously finding no humor in this exchange.
"So you're here for ...?"
Expelling a lungful of air, the Slayer ran a hand through her hair. "I don't know!" she exclaimed, then slumped, as though the burst of frustration had left her drained. "Okay? I don't know."
"Hm." Roxi appeared to have extracted something significant from Faith's admission, and the discovery obviously pleased her. Tucking the pilfered candy bars into the inside lining of her jacket, the girl kept one out. Tugging away the outer wrapper, she balled it in one hand and tossed it in the general vicinity of the dumpster, unconcerned as she missed it completely. Watching Faith the entire time, Roxi took a huge bite of the chocolate, chewing thoughtfully for a moment before offering it to the older woman. "Want?" she asked simply.
Faith considered it warily, giving more attention to a candy bar than might have been expected for something so seemingly innocuous. Still, despite whatever reservations she may have been feeling, Faith reached out and plucked it from the other girl's hand. "Yeah."
Roxi's face split in a wide grin, and for just a moment she looked like nothing more than a young girl who woke up on Christmas morning to find everything she ever wanted under the tree. "Hell yeah," she agreed, then cast a quick glance over her shoulder. "Listen, I gotta be somewhere, but I'll catch you later. Enjoy."
With that, Roxi sprinted in the opposite direction. Faith watched her go without comment, then lifted the chocolate bar and ravenously sunk in her teeth.
The sapling had grown a little taller, a little prouder, since Willow had last visited the clearing. Its trunk was more sturdy and its boughs less fragile. She tilted her head and squinted through the sunlight at the leaves, sleek and glossy in the dappled rays. When grown, it would be a fine tree, a handsome tree, a worthy tribute to those it honored. The redhead walked slowly to the center of the glade and sat indian-style on the cool grass. From her position, she could easily see the sapling as it reached toward the sky, limbs gleefully embracing the warmth of the sun and the soft breeze that played among its branches. Smiling, she closed her eyes, seemingly lost for a moment in happy recollections, absorbing the peace and tranquility radiating throughout the area. Willow sighed with contentment.
The brace encircling her right wrist rested heavily in the witch's lap, but she appeared oblivious to the weight. Eyes remaining closed, she hummed quietly under her breath – a tuneless melody, but the nearby sparrows didn't seem to mind as they chirruped cheerfully in return. The passage of time was difficult to determine here in this place. It might take a spiraling blossom several minutes to fall to the earth or a cotton ball cloud might complete the journey of its arc in less than a heartbeat. And so, when Willow opened her eyes again, she was unsure how long she had been lost in her reverie. Stretching the injured arm, she steeled herself and then tried to wriggle her fingers. Almost immediately, they curled toward her palm. The motion was stilted and stiff and not totally devoid of pain, but still, it was a vast improvement when compared to the imperceptible twitching of the day before.
The smile that crossed the face of the redhead was radiant, but tears glistened in her eyes. With a great effort, she managed to swallow the tiny lump forming in her throat as her gaze traveled to the patches of bright blue sky peeking shyly through the branches of the sapling. "Thanks, baby," she whispered.
A sudden breeze swept through the clearing and tugged at Willow's shirt. Chuckling, she clutched at the collar and smoothed it down into place. Swiftly changing direction, the mischievous gust ruffled at her bright hair, tousling it impishly with what seemed to be intense affection. Exhaling deeply, the witch threw herself backward onto the lush carpet, allowed her eyelids to close and reveled in the magical moment.
"You okay?" There was a brief pause before Buffy added the non sequitur, "Battleaxe."
Willow and Buffy were stretched out on their backs upon an open, neatly trimmed grass lawn. They lay with their heads inches apart, toes pointed in opposite directions, so that their eyes could easily survey the same patch of sky.
Frowning at the blue, Willow scrutinized the clouds that drifted overhead. "Which one?"
"There." Buffy lifted her hand and pointed.
The witch leaned closer, trying to see along Buffy's line of sight. "Hm. Looks like one of those wiener dogs to me," she remarked after careful consideration, raising her own finger and tracing the outline. "See, with the tail, and the body, and the cute stumpy little legs?"
"Ugch, I hate those," griped the blonde with obvious disdain. "Something just shouldn't be that disproportionately long and self-propelled. It's unnatural." She gave her head a decisive shake. "No, I'm sticking with my battleaxe. Much more comfy."
Casting a sideways glance at her friend, Willow smirked, "You're so violent."
"And you're so ditching my question," countered Buffy, lightly jerking up her shoulder to bap the top of Willow's head, "which is totally not allowed."
"I'm not ditching." The denial lacked any real conviction. "I'm just ... inhabiting a shallow trench of avoidance for the moment."
Buffy's face softened and she rolled her head to the side to regard Willow more closely. "That bad, huh?"
Willow didn't meet her gaze. "Only in a painful way," she replied with an air far too casual to be genuine. After a moment, she spoke again, her voice pained but resigned. "She would've been 23 today."
Nodding, the blonde returned to staring blankly at the clouds. "Yeah," Buffy agreed softly.
"I had big plans, y'know?" Willow's spoke just a touch too loudly, the false cheer unable to fully cloak the bitterness. "Back before we ..." Trailing off, she started again. "Back then, I had it all mapped out. Where I was gonna take her on her 25th birthday. All the gifts I was gonna shower her with for her 48th. How I was gonna hold her hostage in our bed and do naughty things to her all day long on her 72nd." Buffy was unable to keep her eyebrow from shooting into her hairline with that one, and she slowly turned to regard her friend with something between hilarity and grievous concern. Catching the expression, Willow could only smirk and shrug. "Hey, it was my list," she defended, then sobered quickly. "But ... I can't. So yeah. Been better."
Neither spoke for a long moment, lost in thought as they watched the clouds wander airily in the cool breeze.
"I'm sorry." The words were so soft, it was almost as though they hadn't been spoken at all, and Willow frowned at the Slayer in confusion. But Buffy gave no indication that she had apologized, and instead, in a normal tone, asked, "You'll be okay though?"
"Yeah," replied Willow, choosing not to pursue the matter. "I mean, I'll probably have a good cry tonight, but I'll be okay."
Buffy allowed her head drop, her gaze meeting sad green eyes. "You know if you need to ..."
"I know." Willow smiled, genuine and grateful. "And maybe I will. Maybe a weepy chick flick movie fest is just what the doctor ordered."
"Beaches ..." began Buffy.
"Boys on the Side ..." Willow added.
They both grinned and rolled their eyes together, speaking in eerie synchronicity. "Steel Magnolias ..."
Willow chuckled and rested her forehead against the blonde's. "That'd be nice."
"Yeah," agreed Buffy in a soft voice. "Yeah, it would."
Drifting into a comfortable silence, their attention returned to the clouds overhead.
After several moments, Willow tilted her head to one side and extended her finger, toward a particularly complex-looking puffy cloud. "Glucose atom," she announced.
Buffy quickly identified the target, and examined it carefully, twisting her head first to the right and then the left. "That blobby demon I killed last week," the Slayer finally decided.
"Oh no, no issues here," remarked Willow with a grin.
The sunshine did little to enhance the overall gloominess of the dingy street, but Faith didn't seem to pay it any attention. She kicked a discarded Coke can in front of her, sending it flying several feet before it landed and bounced to one side and out of her immediate path. She glanced to one side as she passed by, seeming to give consideration toward retrieving it and renewing her game, but her feet continued moving forward and she soon abandoned the idea. Having been engrossed in her own thoughts, however, Faith looked up just in time to dart to the side as three teenage girls tore past, running at break-neck speed. She turned to watch them, her brow furrowed in irritation at the near-collision, but the trio obviously had more pressing concerns. They veered around the first corner they reached and disappeared from sight. Faith turned back the way they had come, and cocked her head to one side as her ears detected the faint and distant sounds of a burglar alarm. The ringing was soon drowned out by the high-pitched wail of a siren, and a police car sped into view. It shot past Faith, rounding the same corner the girls had taken moments before and the screeching rapidly faded into obscurity.
Faith watched the corner long after the police car had disappeared from sight and sound, lost to her own memories.
A teenaged Faith ducked around the corner of the dimly lit street, merging almost seamlessly with the shadows enveloping them on all sides. Five other girls joined her a fraction of a second later, all panting heavily, with beads of perspiration running down their faces. The girls were of varying ages and heights, although two, like Faith, were less winded and appeared more comfortable with their surroundings, hiding in the doorway of a darkened building. The tall blonde's eyes darted in every direction as she hid, allowing no detail to escape her keen notice. The other girl, her hair now dyed in black and white stripes rather than a colorful rainbow, crouched low and peeked cautiously out from around the corner.
The remaining girls were largely unremarkable, save for one who was obviously the youngest of the group by far. Her mousy brown hair and overly large dark eyes gave her the appearance of a frightened fawn, and as she trembled with fear and confusion, the comparison was not entirely inaccurate.
"We should split up," the blonde stated, glancing down to Rainbow Brite and receiving a quick nod, indicating that for now, the coast was clear.
"Split up, are you nuts?" one of the girls hissed, her tone making it plain she felt the question was rhetorical.
Brite rose smoothly and joined the remainder the group, casting a final glance over her shoulder. "Monroe's right. Leigh said that Zero said that cops're crackin' down. Somethin' 'bout the police chief guy promisin' to stamp out 'youth violence' or somethin'. They ain't gonna give up easy, not this time." Crossing her arms, Brite looked expectantly to Faith, as did the others.
"I hate election year," Faith grumbled to herself, then addressed the girls decisively. "Alright, split up. We'll meet later."
That was all they had been waiting for, and four bodies broke away instantly, running in different directions and vanishing as the city swallowed them whole. Faith prepared to join them when something attracted her attention out of the corner of her eye. She turned, surprised to see that the smallest girl had remained frozen in place, her eyes still wide.
"What, you deaf or somethin'?" gaped Faith. She thrust her finger to the side, glaring at the younger girl. "I said split!"
All the girl could do was remain in place, quivering with fear and tension. "Bu-But I—"
Her explanation was cut short as Faith slapped her hand roughly over the girl's mouth and yanked her back into the shadows. A second later, two policemen ran by. "I think I saw someone go this way!" one called out as they sprinted past, neither sparing a glance to the side street.
After the sound of pounding feet had died away, Faith cautiously released her grip on the girl, who spun toward Faith with terror in her eyes. "I can't. I can't," she insisted, her tone making valiant strides toward hysteria. "I don't know what to do."
"Pretty simple," Faith replied in a hushed but clipped voice, her eyes scanning in all directions. "Run. Don't get caught. Not freakin' brain surgery."
This did nothing for the girl's confidence and she shook her head rapidly. "Can't you—"
Again interrupting, Faith glared down at the younger girl, her patience having been thoroughly decimated by this point. "Look Skeeter, you said you wanted in this. Well congrats, you're in. But'cha playin' with the big girls now, and it's time you learned a hard lesson. In this life, y'got only one person you can rely on," she held up a lone finger for emphasis and stabbed it at the wide-eyed girl, "an' that's you. People come an' people go, an' yeah – maybe for a minute or two you got someone watchin' your back. But come the end of day, you only got you and I only got me." Straightening, Faith stared at Skeeter. Her face was devoid of any sympathy or compassion. "Me's who I gotta take care of now."
With that, Faith sprinted down the length of the side street, scaling a ten-foot high chain link fence in seconds and disappearing from sight. Skeeter watched her go, lower jaw quivering as she tried to decide what to do. Swallowing hard, she ran back out onto the street.
Almost immediately, a authoritative voice called out, "Hey, you!"
Skeeter turned and saw a policeman down the street, quickly joined by his partner. Panic welled within the girl, and she fled, running as fast as she could in the opposite direction. Immediately the officers gave chase, and they were rapidly gaining. Skeeter was already out of breath, and her legs were so comparatively short, there was no question that she would be caught. Gasping for breath, the girl sounded as though she would burst into tears at any moment.
The policemen were now only a few strides away when a bottle flew through the air, connecting solidly with one of the officer's shoulders. It didn't break, but the impact was sufficient to make him grunt in pain, and he gave up the pursuit to spin around angrily at his attacker. His partner, having run a few paces ahead, stopped and also turned.
Her hand resting casually against a nearby building, Faith observed the cops without a trace of fear or respect. "Oink oink, little piggies," taunted the brunette, her lips pulling back in a defiant smirk. "Think maybe you c'n take on a little girl who's actually more'n half your size?"
The policemen spared each other only a passing glance, then as one they rushed toward Faith, anger and humiliation evident in their eyes.
Grinning broadly, Faith pushed away from the wall and took a few jogging steps backward. "That's the spirit," she baited, before turning and running, the cops on her heels.
Giles strode hurriedly and purposefully through the halls of Slayer Central, bent over a clipboard and absently chewing on the pencil clenched between his teeth. Zipping past the private training room, he only barely glanced up to see Buffy, clad in a tank top and pair of loose jogging pants, pummeling a punching bag within an inch of its life. The Watcher screeched to a stop and stepped into the room, plucking the pencil from his mouth as he did so.
Buffy's eyes darted up at his entrance, and she nodded curtly before returning her full attention to the workout. "Hey."
"Buffy, I'm glad you're here," responded Giles, delving into the fascinating worlds of his clipboard. "I'm working on a new schedule, and I wanted to run it by you."
"Sure," the Slayer replied nonchalantly, her punches not ceasing.
Tracing down the list with his pencil, Giles came to the appropriate spot and shifted his weight to the other foot, planning to stay for a while to discuss these latest developments. "Now, I know that you're not especially fond of mornings, so I've made an effort to schedule the bulk of your classes in the early afternoon."
"Cool." Buffy didn't especially sound like she felt it was cool at all, but Giles didn't notice.
"Also, I'm hoping that I can get you and Faith to work on a curriculum in tandem." Glancing up, Giles explained, "I believe the lessons we're teaching will be more effective when demonstrated from the physical as well as the philosophical side."
Punches coming fast and rhythmically, Buffy gave one brusque nod. "Sounds good. Not like it'll make a whole lotta difference anyway, right?"
"Excellent," continued Giles, returning to his clipboard as he smoothly transitioned to the next topic at hand. "For Thursdays, I was— Wait, what was that?" His eyes narrowing, he stared at the blonde in confusion.
"Oh, nothing." The Slayer's voice was bright and cheerful, even as she did her best to beat the punching bag to within an inch of its stuffed life. "Just thinking, you know. How much difference does it really make? Paperwork. Schedules. Training to be the best."
His frown increasing, Giles tilted his head to one side. "This is one of those times when you're not really talking about what we're talking about, isn't it?"
"Suppose," conceded Buffy, grunting as she escalated her attacks.
"Well at least I identified it early this time," he congratulated himself, setting his clipboard on top of the nearest weight machine and regarding Buffy with stern but kind eyes. "What's this really all about?"
For a moment, Buffy's only answer was to pound on the bag. "Willow's in pain," she finally announced. "Big time pain."
Immediately, Giles became concerned. "Has the medication stopped working? I thought she was healing nicely. I mean, I know her hand is frustrating her, but—"
"Not ouch pain," Buffy corrected with a shake of her head. "Heart pain. Tara pain."
"Oh." Unconsciously, the Watcher whipped off his glasses and started to polish, staring at them intently as he decided on what to say next. "Well, yes, I suppose she is," he finally decided, replacing his glasses and looking to Buffy once more.
Judging from the speed of her jabs, Buffy had a lot of frustration to work through. "It's not gonna get better for her is it?" Without warning, her punches ceased, and Buffy reached out both hands to steady the quivering bag. "Not really. I mean, sometimes even now I hurt for Angel and Riley, and they're still alive somewhere off in not-with-Buffy Land. Losing Mom and ..." Hesitating for the briefest of moments, she continued, "...Spike – those are worse, but even then I think it's so completely different."
Giles favored his Slayer with a sad and understanding smile, free from judgment. "Everyone deals with grief and loss in their own way. Hers is no more or less valid than your own."
"No, I get that, and I'm not saying it is. But ... I mean, she's not trying to blow up the world anymore, and that's undeniably of the good, but then ..." Trailing off, Buffy's eyes darted to the ceiling, trying to find the right words to express herself.
"It takes time," Giles assured her. "Tara's death is still quite raw, and without Kennedy there to help remove some of the sting ... well, I'm not surprised things are a little rough for her right now."
Buffy sighed and rested her forehead against the punching bag briefly, then straightened and let her hands drop uselessly to her sides. "But it's never gonna go away. Gone, for good, like we can only hope might one day be the case for boy bands."
"Will she ever fully recover? Not entirely." Speaking with gentle authority, Giles was clearly drawing from his own experiences. "When you lose someone you love, particularly tragically, you never really do. But you know all this, so what is it really?"
Sighing again, more heavily this time, Buffy tossed her hands in the air. "I just feel guilty sometimes. Like I could've stopped all this. Like I should've stopped all this." The blonde shoved the punching bag, watching as it swayed back and forth. "And I guess it just makes me wonder, what's the point? We train and we work and when it really matters, we fail spectacularly." Buffy laughed, a humorless sound, then dropped her eyes. "Willow, Xander ... you. I can save the world, but when you guys need me most, I let you down."
"Buffy, you mustn't blame yourself," the Watcher insisted earnestly. "You can't save everyone."
Again, Buffy laughed, seeped in bitterness. "No? Seems to me I've done that six or seven times now."
"On a grand scale, yes, but not as individuals. You cannot know the future, you cannot keep everyone safe."
"I'm not asking for everyone. I'm asking for the people I care about," the Slayer snapped. She took a deep, calming breath and continued in an even voice. "We're talking six or seven apocalypses, Giles. So many I've lost count. If I can't have a 'save one, get one free' deal, then you'd think the world would at least give me a punch card system. You know – 'get five apocalypse stamps, turn in your card for a free saving of someone who matters'. It works for Subway."
Flashing her a small but genuine smile, Giles shook his head ruefully. "Unfortunately, it's not so simple. There are limits to what you can do. That's a hard thing to admit, I know, but it's the truth. Despite your calling, you are only human, living an, albeit extraordinary, yet still human life. And as I believe I've heard a bright young woman of my acquaintance say from time to time, 'life sucks'."
Despite herself, Buffy laughed, a clear and true sound this time. Giles chuckled along with her.
"I know," the blonde sighed, the humor evaporating and leaving her serious once more. "It doesn't really make it easier, but I know. I just wish ..."
Buffy's voice faded away, and Giles watched as an expression of deep regret settled on her features. "Wish what?" he gently prompted.
The Slayer blinked rapidly and sighed, a resigned and sorrowful sound. "I wish I could've saved them."
Giles' smile spoke of pure understanding. "I know," he commiserated. "I wish I could have too."
Stepping away from the punching bag, Buffy folded into Giles, embracing him and the comfort he offered. The Watcher unhesitatingly returned the hug, all thoughts of schedules, training and other unimportant matters forgotten.
The front door to the Scoobies' house was tossed open with complete disgust and Xander stomped inside. Unceremoniously, he threw his keys on the nearby table, heedless of their loud, angry jangle, and shrugged off his jacket. It, too, was thrown toward the coat rack, but the jacket wisely chose not to complain, and simply settled quietly on its hook.
"Xander?" Willow's voice called out from the kitchen.
"Yup, that's me," the carpenter replied with appallingly faux cheer. "Captain Xander of the brave ship No Depth Perception, home from a rousing adventure on the grand seas of high school, where I'm reminded of all the extracurricular reasons I was glad I blew mine up."
Wincing from the doorway, Willow regarded her friend. "Wanna super-size that cup of bitter?"
Xander waved his hand in the air sharply. "Ahh, I'm sorry," he apologized. Crossing to the living room, he hurled himself onto the couch, bouncing once on the cushions and crossing his arms, appearing for a moment as though he were a six-year old. A very grumpy, pouty six-year old in need of a nap and his woobie.
"No, it's okay," the redhead assured, following Xander and sitting next to him on the couch. "What happened?"
Somehow, Xander managed to slump further into the cushions. "Well after yesterday's little encounter with the jock flock, they decided it'd be neat to harass me all day. You know, hangin' around the table and snickering, making loud and thoroughly obnoxious comments while I'm quietly peddling my wares ... Nothing really obvious that would stand up in a court of law as justification for killing them all." Huffing, the carpenter's gaze narrowed. "You know, if only I did have two eyes, then I could double my glaring power."
Despite its seeming inappropriateness, Willow's face broke into a huge smile. "Well I just might be able t'do a little somethin' about that."
"Paint an eye on the patch?" guessed Xander, waving off the suggestion. "Already thought of that. Not as cool as you might think. It actually looks kinda disturbing. I had nightmares."
"No," Willow chuckled. She took his hand between both of hers, causing him to turn toward her. "Xander ... I can regrow your eye."
Xander simply sat, blinking stupidly the beaming Willow next to him.
"You can what?" he asked, dumbfounded.
"Your eye. I can regrow your eye," she repeated excitedly, then stopped and frowned as she considered her words. "Or, well, not I I. You I. Since it's your eye."
"Aye?" offered Xander tentatively, desperately seeking some sort of roadmap for the conversation.
His confusion only seemed to fuel Willow's fervor, and she bounced his hand up and down several times before calming enough to explain. "I can help you channel energies and regrow your eye. You'll be back to normal, Xander, like it never happened."
Slowly, the carpenter retracted his hand, frowning. "What, like ... just like that?"
"Well, no, it'll take a little while," she admitted. "If you want all-at-once, you hafta go to the dark magicks, and that's just unpleasant." The witch crinkled her nose distastefully. "Icky fluids, a sacrifice or two, and you'd probably end up with an evil hell-eye or something."
"Would it shoot laser beams?" Xander found himself asking curiously.
For the briefest of brief seconds, the carpenter looked intrigued before sanity returned and he shook his head. "But this other thing ... that's all natural? Like, organic hippy farm natural?"
"Yup. I found something while I was looking up stuff for my hand—" Eyes widening, Willow interrupted herself. "Oh! Look!" Raising her right hand, she wiggled her fingers as much as possible, a huge, proud grin plastered to her face.
"That's great Will, you'll be flipping me off in no time," Xander commented quickly. "Now my eye...?"
Lowering her hand again, Willow became serious. "Oh, yeah. See, I've ..." The witch shuffled slightly in her seat, and dropped her eyes briefly. "I-I've been looking for something to ... to, y'know, make your eye better. Since Caleb." Regaining some of her earlier conviction, Willow's voice grew stronger. "The thing is, the eye's really complex. I mean, one wrong slip and you're seeing everything half upside-down and in psychedelic colors for the rest of your life."
Xander raised an eyebrow at his friend warily. "Way to instill confidence."
"Shh, I'm not done," she chastised, batting her hand in his direction. "So I've been looking, ever since, and zippo. But I figured it out while going through some of Giles' books. By combining different meditation and channeling techniques with some magic – of the white variety," she quickly added, "– and a whole lotta reading up on ophthalmology ... Presto!" Settling back with a very proud grin, Willow beamed at Xander. "New eye."
"You can do it," he stated with wonder, not quite making it a question.
"I can do it," she replied, steady and assured.
Pushing up to his feet, Xander nervously ran his fingers through his hair and began pacing around the room. "I dunno."
Whatever answer Willow was expecting, that was clearly not it. "You don't ..." she began, frowning. "What's not to know? Don't you trust me?"
Turning back quickly, the carpenter hastened to reassure her. "No, it's not that. Of course I trust you. Just that ... It feels wrong."
"It's not wrong," the redhead insisted, also rising to her feet and moving to stand in front of Xander. "What's wrong is that this happened to you in the first place. What's wrong is that you can't get a job at a construction company because of some crazy preacher." Gesturing toward the window, she added angrily, "A couple'a fatheads bothering you for wearing an eye patch, that's what's wrong here. All we'll be doing is putting it right."
Xander was still not fully convinced. "And this isn't all ooky, hair dyeing, world-ending bad mojo?" he asked provisionally.
"Absolutely not. We're asking for your body to be allowed to heal itself, that's it. You'll actually be doing most of the work, I'm just like- like the director." Eyes widening, the witch became excited again. "Ooo, maybe I can get myself one of those chairs."
She was alone in her enthusiasm, however. Xander sighed heavily, the offer seeming to weigh heavily. "I dunno, I still ..." He didn't complete his sentence, and his gaze darted to the side.
Still frowning, Willow moved her head to to catch his attention. "What is it?" she gently questioned.
"I'm not sure." Frustration was making itself evident in the carpenter's speech. "I mean, you're offering to give me back one of the things I've wanted most ... so why'm I not grabbin' it?"
Willow had no easy answers, but was keen to help. "D'you wanna talk about it?"
A contemplative moment passed, then Xander shook his head. "I don't really know what to say," he explained with an apologetic shrug. "How long do I have to figure this out?'
She was quick to assure him. "Long as you want, I'm not goin' anywhere. I mean, some times are better than others for working on this," the witch brushed the details aside, "but that's just the doing. Take as long as you need."
Xander nodded and opened his mouth as though he were about to say something else, then closed it again without comment and headed for the stairs.
"If you wanna talk ..." Willow offered, watching him leave with concern.
Glancing over his shoulder, Xander smiled gratefully. "Thanks, Will."
He continued out of the room, and the echo of his footsteps reached where Willow stood, watching him with a perplexed frown.
The glow from Faith's cigarette was almost obliterated by the pale, unnatural light cast down from the streetlamps that lined the sidewalk. She was seated atop a pile of crates, dumped in front of the fence surrounding a vacant lot. Faith stared absently at the three-story abandoned building across the street. In its prime, it appeared to have possibly been a warehouse of some sort, but its prime had long since passed, and while the building seemed stable, it was undeniably derelict.
The Slayer didn't bother to glance up as a figure approached her and silently stood nearby, for a minute or two. "I knew you'd come here eventually," Roxi stated with a hint of pride for her deductive skills.
"Got me all figured out, huh?" inquired Faith in a flat tone that very clearly stated her opinion on the matter.
Roxi tilted her head to the side and gnawed absently on her thumbnail as she considered Faith. "Not totally," she admitted. "Still not sure why you think you're here."
That earned her a chuckle, and Faith took a drag from her cigarette. Still, she remained focused on the building and had yet to visually acknowledge the girl's presence. "Why I think I'm here," she repeated, a laugh in her voice.
Shrugging, Roxi nodded. "Well yeah. Cuz I'm pretty sure I know the real reason, just don't know what you're telling yourself."
Without being asked, the girl tugged her jacket closer around her bony shoulders and settled down on one of the crates at Faith's feet. She gazed up at Faith, looking rather like an adoring subject at her ruler's throne.
"Bum a cig?" she asked.
"Shouldn't smoke at your age," responded Faith, the words coming out more automatic than derived from any true aversion to the young girl's nicotine habit. Roxi didn't see fit to grace the comment with one of her own, and simply continued to stare at Faith. The Slayer reached into her jacket and pulled out a pack of Marlboros, shaking one free and offering it to the girl. The cigarette plucked free, Faith followed up with her lighter, her thumb easily bringing the flame to life. For the first time, the Slayer beheld the girl, watching as Roxi set the paper in the fire and inhaled deeply.
Faith released her thumb, and the flame died once more. She easily slipped it back into the depths of her jacket and the two were content to smoke in silence, only the distant sounds of traffic breaking the stillness of the night.
"Not gonna ask me why you're here?" broached Roxi.
Puffing out her lungful of smoke, Faith replied, "Still figuring it out myself."
"You mean hiding."
"You always this annoying?" shot the Slayer, glaring at the younger girl.
Roxi grinned at Faith's reaction, but didn't answer the question. Instead, she took another long drag and blew the smoke in the direction of the abandoned building that had so completely captured Faith's attention. "The girls tried for a while. After you suddenly got all high and mighty and left with Mary Poppins."
The news was received without obvious impact. "What happened?"
"I only know what Renee bitched about," Roxi explained, reporting the details in an almost bored tone. "Pretty much seemed like nobody could agree on what to do next. There was some screamin', some hair pullin', and finally everyone just said 'Screw this' an' went their own way. Most vanished soon after, you know how that is."
Faith acknowledged only with a nod.
"Might come back, though." Roxi brightened, seeming hopeful for the first time. "Now you're here. An' that IS why you're here, y'know."
Unable or unwilling to suppress an eye roll, Faith sighed. "You're not gonna let it go until you've spilled it, so go ahead." She waved her hand indulgently. "Enlighten me."
"You're not happy," the girl responded immediately, leaning forward in her makeshift chair, the forgotten cigarette dangling from her fingertips. "Where you went. You can't be, else you'd sure as hell be there an' not here." Straightening again, the girl spoke with strength and unwavering conviction. "But here's where you belong. On these streets, doin' whatever you want, whenever you want."
"Life's not all about doin' whatever you want."
"No, only the parts worth livin'."
The Slayer looked weary as she shook her head. "It's not that simple."
Giving Faith's words carefully consideration, Roxi shrugged. "Seems like it to me. Maybe some people get the best stuff handed to 'em, but not us. We gotta do the best we can with what we got. Make things better for us." For emphasis, she jerked a thumb toward herself.
"There's more people'n just us to worry about," pressed Faith, continuing to debate but lacking the passion exhibited by the younger girl.
Openly scoffing, Roxi flicked her cigarette ashes to the ground, all but sneering at Faith. "So that's what you are now? Some great people-helper? That somehow make it better that not one'a them gives a crap about you?"
When the Slayer didn't answer, Roxi smirked, a self-satisfied expression that would make a compelling argument for being slapped. "Good comeback."
Faith didn't rise to the bait. "Helpin' other people ... It's got its own reward." Again, her words sounded automated, like the Slayer had been programmed with a select group of responses and was simply regurgitating them on command.
"Very convincing," the girl remarked, her sarcasm blatant. "Say it a few thousand more times, y'might even start believin' it." Taking a final pull on the cigarette, Roxi rose to her feet and flicked the butt over the fence into the vacant lot. "Thanks for the cancer," she called over her shoulder as she walked away, leaving Faith to her contemplations.
In the training room of Slayer Central, large squadrons of girls dominated almost the entire area, overseen by several Watchers. Giles hovered on the fringes of the apparent pandemonium and glanced nervously at his clipboard.
"Chaos," he muttered, running a hand through his hair.
"Ah, but organized chaos," corrected a young auburn-haired Watcher standing on his left.
"But still chaos," admitted the Watcher with a rueful grin.
Giles raised his voice so as to be heard above the commotion of shuffling feet and animated conversation. "Girls," he ventured then, more loudly, "Girls!"
Several dozen pairs of expectant eyes turned in his direction.
"Um...yes," he flashed what he hoped would be a charming smile. "All of you scheduled for the 11:00 a.m. class with Mr. MacDonald, please assemble in this corner." He gestured toward the red-headed Watcher who promptly waved a fistful of folders into the air.
"11:00 a.m.," boomed Mac. "Staff weaponry, over here!" His voice carried easily over the incessant chatter and about fifteen trainee Slayers rushed to form a line. He grinned at their eager young faces and a couple of them blushed. There were mutterings of, "He reminds me of Danny Bonaduce, you know, 'Partridge Family'," followed by protestations of, "Well, I think he's kinda cute." Mac continued to grin.
"Erm, yes," said Giles peering over the rims of his glasses, "Thank you, Mac." He turned his attention back to the group. "Those scheduled to be in the meeting to discuss schooling alternatives, over here with Ms. Bartrum!"
Approximately half of the remaining assembly moved to a corner of the room. Visibly far from enthusiastic about their upcoming assignment, the girls gathered in an untidy circle around the petite brunette wearing a tailored suit and sporting functional low-heeled shoes. Turning sharply, she led her reluctant students from the room. They followed slowly in ragged single file.
Entering the training room, Kennedy watched them go and chuckled to herself before making her way to where Giles was standing, clipboard hanging limply from his hand. She quirked an eyebrow. "Y'know," she began, "I've been meaning to ask why you thought it'd be a good idea to restructure everything, like ... now."
Giles blinked and then stared for a moment, obviously still lost in thought. "Oh, Kennedy!" he said as the face registered. "Uhm, good morning, how are you?"
"Not in the mood for small talk," came the curt reply before she returned to her previous question. "So why now?"
Giles sighed. "Logistics, mostly. We knew that our previous arrangements weren't quite working out under the weight of all the Slayers we were bringing in, and since it will be at least another week before we're ready to resume admissions, this seemed an opportune time."
Kennedy shrugged. "Suppose it makes as much sense as anything else going on these days,"
Through the doorway, a Watcher clutching yet another clipboard surveyed the room with confusion before spotting Giles. Tall and wiry with a decided spring to his step, he bounced purposefully in Giles' direction.
"Mr. Giles," he called, waving to attract attention. "Mr. Giles, there's a problem."
"Oh good," replied Giles with the slightest hint of sarcasm. "That's new."
"Indeed," confirmed the newcomer, nodding cheerfully and obviously immune to all variations of irony. "It appears that two of my classes conflict: I have swordsmanship at 11:00 and archery at 11:30, but both have been allotted an hour."
Irritated, Giles tapped a pencil on his own master schedule. "Dammit, they assured me they'd worked all this out." His eyes searched the room. "Spencer!"
Kennedy peered over Giles' shoulder. "I'll do it," she volunteered.
"Spencer!" yelled Giles again and then turned to the Slayer. "You'll do what?" he asked.
"The archery class," Kennedy told him firmly. "Actually pretty much what I wanted to talk to you about anyway."
Giles dismissed the agitated Watcher with a tired flick of his wrist. "All right then Preston, you stick with swordplay."
Beaming, Preston bounded toward the door, rounding up his small army of wannabe fencers along the way.
Shaking his head, Giles turned back to Kennedy. "Are you certain? You're already taking on a lot as it is. With your own classes, simulations and patrols ..."
Kennedy laughed. It was a hollow sound. "I'm sure. I mean, what else am I gonna do? Sit in my thoroughly depressing, lonely room and stare at the walls I can't be bothered to decorate?"
Giles forehead creased a little with concern. "Just because your relationship with Wil-"
The Slayer quickly held up a hand, effectively stifling any further conversation on that point. "Don't. I mean ... I appreciate what you're saying ... or, well, what you'd say if I let you ... but I don't wanna talk about it right now." Embarrassed, she shrugged her shoulders. "I've sorta moved to the 'angry' stage."
"So I see," came the reply. "Well, if you do ..."
Kennedy nodded. "Got you on speed dial. So, that's one more hour killed outta my day. What else you got for me?"
Giles contemplated the question for a moment. "Oh, well ... We are thinking about instituting some sort of classes or seminars on leadership ..."
"Yeah, cool," agreed an uninterested Kennedy, peering closer at the clipboard in the Watcher's hand. "Anything where I can hit stuff?"
Giles slowly lowered the syllabus until it was hidden from the Slayer's view. "Uhm ... Yes. Let's- Let's see how you do with what you've got now, and we can perhaps discuss expanding next week, hm? A-And do please try not to injure the girls too badly."
Kennedy jogged lightly from one foot to the other, "I'll do my best," she promised. She sprinted toward the waiting group, who brightened considerably upon realizing she would be their instructor. "Okay maggots – archery, 11:30, let's line up, people!" she ordered. The group collectively grinned.
Wincing, Giles rubbed vigorously at his forehead as a well-built man, who could have been cast from the same mould as an NFL defensive linebacker, strode toward him. The three-piece business suit looked odd on his large frame, odd but somehow not necessarily out of place.
"I was told you bellowed for me, sir?" he queried. His voice was deep, but soft and rather soothing.
"Indeed I did, Spencer," said the Watcher wearily. "We need to make note that Kennedy will be taking over Preston's 11:30, since he appears to have lost the ability to clone himself."
Spencer scrutinized his own clipboard and then grimaced. "Oops. Sorry sir, I thought we caught all those."
The Watcher settled his glasses on the bridge of his nose. "Do another review. I think we have more than enough natural stress, no need to go out of our way to create more."
"Yes sir," concurred Spencer respectfully.
Slamming his pencil down on the clipboard, Giles shoved everything into Spencer's barrel chest. "And take over for a moment, would you? I believe I need a good not being here."
"Yes sir," replied the would-be linebacker, cradling the clipboard with exaggerated reverence. "Enjoy the momentary breath of sanity." He watched Giles leave the room and then swiftly reviewed the checklist before resuming the task of organization.
Outside the door, Giles sighed heavily and marched down the hall. He paused, made to turn left and then went straight on. At the next intersection, he veered right, but again changed his mind. He threw up his hands and then spun on his heel, bumping directly into Hannah who was making her way around the corner.
"Oh Hannah! Oh, I'm sorry," he muttered.
Hannah smiled. "Quite alright. I was just looking for you, actually."
Giles removed his glasses and began to polish them with a handkerchief from his back pocket. "Please do say you've come to take me away from all this."
"I have been saying that," smirked Hannah.
"Oh, yes, so you have," agreed the Watcher. "My push toward sarcasm isn't really working very well."
Hannah tucked her arm into the crook of his elbow and squeezed. "Come on, we need a cigarette break." She led him toward the entrance hall.
"I thought you quit?" accused Giles.
"I did," confessed Hannah, "I was talking about you."
"But I quit too," he insisted.
"Yes, but you look like you might want to start again very soon."
Chuckling, Giles allowed his ex-wife to escort him outside. They leaned comfortably across from each other on the large stone banisters lining the front staircase.
"So what is it?" queried Hannah, her tone gentle and somewhat concerned.
Giles sighed. "Oh, just ... stress. Chaos."
"Bureaucracy," snorted Hannah..
"I remember when you used to hate bureaucracy," she stated.
"And I remember when you first began to wear that exact style of clothing," retorted the Watcher. "Only it was in fashion then." He tilted his head and gestured at the flared hip-huggers and wide leather belt.
Hannah shrugged, obviously taking no offense whatsoever at the remark. "I like what I like. Find a thing that works for you and stick with it, that's what I always say." She grinned. "Admittedly, Carnaby Street isn't what it used to be, but if you know where to look ..." She extended her arms and twirled, before coming to rest with a hand against her hip. Fluttering her eyelashes, she struck a pose.
Giles laughed admiringly, "You really haven't changed."
"And you really have," replied Hannah regretfully. Then, she cocked her head and examined him from head to toe. "Or have you?" she mused. "Hmmm."
Giles coughed and inspected a cloud skittering overhead with intense interest. Thrusting his hands into his pockets, he shuffled a little from side-to-side. Hannah sat down on the stone step and clasped her knees to her chin, content to silently observe his obvious discomfort.
"Truly as adorable as ever," she murmured to herself.
Xander sat behind his assigned table, one among dozens just like it that stretched down the breezeway of Trillium High. Each was occupied by another prospective local craftsperson, their creations on display for all to see. Numerous residents were browsing the tables and enjoying the pleasant weather on this crisp October afternoon.
Reaching out, Xander straightened the items on his table – small, beautifully carved boxes and toy wooden cars sat alongside incense holders, magazine racks, and other works of art that had originated from his workshop. Ducking momentarily under the table, Xander opened the toolbox at his feet, which had been commandeered and transformed into a till. From the look of the cash inside, the fair was being good to him.
Checking to make sure he had plenty of change, Xander moved to the box behind him and pulled out a few more items to supplement those on table. He retrieved an incense boat with a cute little carved dragon on one end to hold the stick, and turned back to table, only to jump when he realized he wasn't alone.
Dawn's friend Virginia was standing there, as close as physically possible to the carpenter without crossing the imaginary border between seller and customer. Her hands were clasped in front of her and she was wringing them nervously, but a delighted and thoroughly enamored smile was plastered on her face. Now she had Xander's attention, it seemed the tiny blonde didn't know what to do, and for the briefest moment it looked as though she might suddenly turn tail and run. But instead, she raised her hand, jerking it upward in a mechanical motion and then just as rapidly dropping it again. "Xander! Hi!" she blurted out in a shrill voice.
"Ginny!" Xander responded, blinking in surprise. "Good to see you. You're looking very truant-y today."
Virginia laughed. And laughed. And then laughed some more. It was high-pitched and unsettling. People began to glance in their direction. Unable to do much more than stare, Xander's expression was trapped just on the pleasant side of horrified.
Winding down first to giggles and then a long, contented sigh, Virginia stared at Xander adoringly. "You're so funny."
Smirking, Xander set the incense boat on the table and rearranged the display to accommodate it. "Yeah, me an' Carrot Top, we'll be takin' the world by storm any day now, just you wait. Seriously, though, I thought you had class."
The blonde sheepishly raised the bathroom pass clutched tight in her hand.
"Ahh, the old 'Pass and Play'." The carpenter nodded his approval. "I know it well."
Blushing, Virginia shuffled her feet, stealing the occasional glance at Xander. "Dawn told me you were here but whenever I passed by earlier you had some many people around and I wanted to see you. And have you see me. So we could see each other." The girl erupted into peals of nervous laughter, startling an elderly woman a few booths away who was browsing a table of afghans.
"Ha-ha ... Yeeeah."
"So, you've been busy?" she asked, bouncing on the balls of her feet and peering at him with interest. "Selling lots of stuff?"
Xander nodded and smiled proudly. "I have, actually, which is doing wonders for my already fragile self-esteem. I'm actually out of ducks, and that is a phrase I never thought I'd hear myself say."
Virginia laughed again, far too loudly, and then the noise finally echoed back to her and she seemed to realize just how creepy it sounded. She stopped short, much to everyone's relief. "Sorry," she hastily apologized.
Xander smiled again, reassuring the embarrassed girl. "No problem. This isn't too bad for my self-esteem either."
The expression that blanketed Virginia's features was bright, glassy, and utterly smitten. "You have the most gorgeous eyes," she murmured, then her face fell, not just from the realization that she'd spoken aloud, but also from her word choice. "Eye!" the blonde spluttered, hastily correcting herself. "Oh, god!"
Renewing her hand-wringing, it seemed quite possible that she would twist her fingers off completely if left to her own devices. She was totally stricken, and only began to calm when Xander smiled at her gently.
"Hey, it's okay. I have it on good authority that all the gorgeousness simply shifted into one eye." He jerked his head to the right, indicating the side without the patch, then shrugged. "Okay, so it was my authority, but it was good."
Visibly relaxing, Virginia giggled, genuine this time and thankfully not so scary. A moment later, her mood shifted again, and she suddenly found her feet intensely interesting. "Do you ..." Gnawing her bottom lip, the blonde tried again. "After school, do you ... doyouwannagogetaburgerwithme?"
The words spilled out in one jumbled rush, and it took Xander a second to decode the message received. All the while, Virginia regarded him hopefully. Both were far too engrossed to pay much attention to the young man who had approached from the side, his interest having been ensnared by a beautiful end table standing among several larger items the carpenter had for sale.
Once the question was unscrambled, Xander's eye widened. "That's ... very Lolita of you," he smiled uncomfortably. "How's about you, me, Dawn, and any number of your friends who can all act as able-bodied witnesses get a pizza in a crowded, well-lit establishment instead?"
Giggling again, Virginia nodded enthusiastically and bounced once. "See you after school!" she called out, as she prepared to leave.
"Bring a hankerin' for all the tomato-cheese bread you can muster," Xander advised, earning him a broad smile before the blonde jogged to the main school building.
Free from the awkward, if flattering, attentions, Xander noticed the potential customer closely examining his end table. The man had an olive complexion and short, straight black hair with dark, intelligent eyes. He had a definitive exotic appearance to him, doubtless heightened by the blue silk shirt he wore tucked into a pair of pressed black slacks. The man exuded an air of someone used to the finer things in life.
"Hey," Xander nodded in greeting.
"Hi," the man replied with a charming smile. He gestured to the wooden items that surrounded Xander. "Did you create all these yourself?" Interestingly, he didn't appear to carry an accent, although the precise crispness of his words hinted that English was not his native language.
Grinning proudly, Xander stated, "Yup. Just me, a pair'a hands, an' the best power tools someone else's money can buy."
With a chuckle, the man ran his fingers along the edge of an elaborate jewelry box set out for display. "I'm impressed. You're very good."
"Thanks. Just your average, run of the mill, genius."
"Genius, huh?" he repeated with an amused expression.
Xander shrugged and spread his hands. "Or, well, person of somewhat average ability. But 'genius' has a much more impressive sound."
Further amused, the man extended his hand to Xander with a warm smile, his fingers long and tapered like a piano player. Xander's, by contrast, were large and calloused from years of hard work – both of the construction and Slaying variety – but the two shook firmly.
"Banan," the man introduced. "Henry Banan. I own a shop downtown, The Bazaar."
Still smiling in a friendly fashion, the carpenter's expression was devoid of recognition. "Uhh, okay."
"And that blank look on your face would be why I'm renovating," smirked Banan, not offended in the slightest. "I'm considering branching out a bit ... and I think you might just be what I'm looking for."
Faith was walking through the darkened streets, not seeming to have any specific goal in mind, when the sound of shattering glass echoed through the night and brought the Slayer up short. Instinctively, she turned around to investigate, tracing the noise to a local music store. The front window had been kicked in, and a figure could be seen inside, though the details were obscured by shadows. Whoever it was, they didn't appear to be in any hurry, casually perusing the rows of CDs and selectively stuffing the odd one or two in into pockets.
Silently, Faith climbed in through the window and observed the figure for a moment, a smirk forming on her lips at the brazen and unhurried attitude. "What, the new Christina Aguilera album out already?" Faith inquired casually. "Nobody told me."
Startled, the figure jumped and spun around, suddenly illuminated by a nearby streetlight. Faith rolled her eyes. "And somehow, I'm not surprised. The hell you doin'?"
Roxi's eyes had widened automatically at the sound of someone else's voice, but as soon as she saw it was Faith, she visibly relaxed, her manner returning to its usual flippancy. "Gettin' some new tunes, the hell you doin'?"
"Seriously thinkin' about stompin' your ass," the Slayer replied, narrowing her eyes threateningly.
"Right, cuz this?" Roxi spread her arms wide to encompass the store. "Nothing you'd ever do. C'mon." Glancing at the rack next to her, the girl grabbed a CD and waggled it in the air. "A little Primus makes everything better."
The brunette wasn't remotely impressed, and she shook her head disapprovingly. "I know CD prices are mad crazy now, but this is kinda extreme, don'tcha think?"
Returning to her browsing, Roxi leisurely wandered through the aisles, looking for all the world like a casual shopper. She sneered derisively at Faith's chastising. "There was a sale. I couldn't resist."
"C'mon, let's go," urged Faith, jerking her head toward the broken window behind her. "Put the stuff back, an' let's get outta here."
Flipping through the CDs, Roxi grabbed one and turned it over to examine the track listing. She didn't grant Faith the courtesy of even a glance as she responded, "Oh, sure. Then I can leave a big 'Sorry, my bad!' note about the window and we go to the five and dime for a milk shake." Stuffing the case in her pocket with the others, Roxi examined Faith critically, a disappointed frown on her face. "What's happened to you, Faith? You so miserable you gotta ruin everyone else's time?"
The Slayer gestured to the store. "This is a good time, huh?"
"Works for me."
A police siren erupting into the silence caused both to jerk their heads toward the window. It was rapidly approaching, and very obviously heading straight for them. Wearing a knowing expression, Faith turned to Roxi. "How 'bout bein' cellmates with Big Bertha, think that'll work for ya too?"
Roxi winked as she grabbed yet another CD and shoved it into her bulging pockets. "They gotta catch me first."
The girl zipped past Faith and jumped dexterously through the empty windowpane, hitting the street at a run, soon disappearing from sight. Faith stepped back into the shadows as the police car, sirens wailing, shot by the window in the direction Roxi had taken. Faith watched it drive past, remaining cloaked in the darkness.
By contrast, Roxi was not hidden at all, and looked very much like she wished she were. Taking a corner sharply, the small brunette was not the fastest runner, but she had a feline grace and was obviously no stranger to similar situations.
The alley she found herself in was narrow – far too narrow for a car to squeeze through. The vehicle came to a screeching halt at the entrance, and two officers, a man and a woman, leapt out. Without hesitation, they ran down the alley after the girl.
Like a twisting corridor, the alley was long and branching, and Roxi ducked down the first left she came to, knowing the police officers were rapidly closing in. "Silent alarms," Roxi muttered to herself between pants. "It's always the damned silent alarms."
Casting her gaze all around, Roxi spied an opening that had likely held glass once upon a time, and dove through it. She found herself in an abandoned building, but to her dismay, could find no back exit. Realizing she was trapped, Roxi looked around frantically, seeking some way out of this situation, but there was none. Her eyes wide and frightened, she turned back to the window, just as the officers' silhouettes filled the opening.
The girl's curse was broken off by the shattering sound of glass breaking. A bottle had been thrown with unerring accuracy, impacting with the brick wall over the cops' heads, showering them with glass fragments but causing no real damage. Shocked, the police officers spun to where the bottle must have come from, their gazes drifting up to the rooftop of the two-story building behind them.
A figure stood, hands on hips, glaring down defiantly. "Oink oink," it called out, before executing a spectacular flip from the roof, landing solidly on the ground below. The officers stared dumbly at Faith, who strode forward, oozing confidence and danger. She remained well out of reach, but close enough so they could easily hear her.
Clutched in Faith's grasp were a handful of CDs. As the police officers looked on, dumbfounded, Faith began to sort through them, off-hand and almost bored. "Robbie Williams," she read. "Ugh." She flicked it over her shoulder, the plastic case clattering to the ground and echoing down the narrow passage. "Evanescence. Way overplayed," she confided, tossing it to the side carelessly. Examining each of the remaining discs in her hand, Faith declared, "Crap. Crap. And crap." Each case was dropped without regard.
Sighing despondently, Faith regarded the officers, shaking her head. "Dunno. Popular music? Does nothin' for me. Maybe the Tower Records down the block's got a better collection, what'cha think?"
The cops, who had been staring at Faith this entire time, locked in a dumb stupor, simultaneously rushed the Slayer. She grinned and easily backed out of their grasp.
"That's the spirit," she breathed, smiling in a moment of pure delight before spinning and running in the opposite direction, the officers right on her heels. Roxi emerged from the abandoned building and grinned.
Entering the hotel room, Faith emptied her pockets onto the nightstand...a wad of bills, some spare change and a key ring bearing the Harley Davidson insignia. Crossing to the television, she grabbed the remote control and then cursed when the coiled lead attached to the side of the set refused to stretch to the head of the bed. Randomly punching buttons, she finally settled on a local station, not really caring much what appeared on the screen. Throwing herself down onto the comforter, Faith leaned back against the pillows and folded her arms beneath her head. Staring at the ceiling, she concentrated on the bygone images that began to form in her mind.
Seated on the steps of the fire escape, Faith took a deep drag of her cigarette while Skeeter blew a chain of smoke rings. Faith took a sideways glance at the nasty scar marring the younger girl's face. It was healing nicely but still stood out red and angry in the moonlight and puckered the skin around her left eye. It would probably never fade completely, but Skeeter didn't seem to care – instead, she bore the mark proudly, like a newly-acquired trophy.
Leaning forward, Faith watched the people and cars below. The area was busier now than it used to be, which was good. Meant it was easier to get lost in the crowd. Still ...
"Ever think there's more'n this out there?" asked Faith.
Skeeter pondered the question for a moment and then scrubbed at her nose. "There's that boutique on Eastern. New place, got some decent stuff. Zero took a scarf the other day, says she thinks it's real silk or something."
Faith gritted her teeth. "No, more'n this," she reiterated, waving her hand in frustration to encompass everything within her field of vision. "Where're we goin'? We gonna be fifty an' still bustin' up vending machines for smokes?"
"Way prices keep going up, probably," chuckled Skeeter.
"I'm bein' serious," snapped Faith. "I mean ... you're still young. Hell, I'M still young. An' I just keep havin' this thought, like this itch on my spine, y'know? That there's more out there."
"Like what? School? Job? Corporate husband and two-point-five kids? Can't see any of that sticking, can you?" accused the younger girl.
"Suppose not. So what's left then? Just wanderin' day to day, 'til we run outta luck an' the cops catch us? Get shot an' dumped in an alley?" Faith sighed.
Faith nodded and huddled further into her jacket. "Guess it's that kinda mood."
"Know what I think?" asked Skeeter. Then, without waiting for a reply, she added, "I think you're thinking too much. Someone told me once, life's simple. Got a few basic rules. Follow those rules, and everything else'll work out."
Smirking, Faith puffed at her cigarette and stared at the vacant lot across the street before flicking her butt over the railing. She tilted her head and watched the flickering glow as it fell before lighting up another. "Wise woman," she acknowledged.
Skeeter snickered. "She sure likes to think so. When she's not tryin' to be brainy and retrospective."
"That's a two-dollar word. I'm impressed," mocked Faith.
"What, you got the corner on brainy? Skeeter demanded. She turned her head to look at Faith. Beneath the harsh and unforgiving glare of the street lamp, her face was pale with huge raccoon-like eyes. The scar stood out raw and livid.
Faith chuckled at the display of aggression. It showed that Skeeter had come a long way, for better or worse. "Not always sure 'bout my advice though. Between you an' me, sometimes I talk outta my ass."
Faith's temper moved up a notch and she glared at Skeeter threateningly. The younger girl lit another cigarette from the stub of the first and treated Faith to an amused grin. "Nah, seriously," she insisted. "It's good stuff. True life stuff. You do a lot for us, Faith. You've done a lot for me. Kept me outta trouble."
From beneath lowered lids, Faith stole a brief but guilty look at Skeeter's scar and then shrugged. She regarded the tip of her cigarette with great interest for a moment and then went back to staring down into the street below.
"Ever wonder what might'a been? If we'd got better cards?"
Skeeter considered this before answering, biting savagely at an irritating hangnail. "Sometimes. Then I figure, doesn't really matter. Gotta make the most of what you got."
Faith's eyes fixed on the younger girl, who appeared to be totally impassive to the scrutiny. There had been a time when Skeeter might have cowered or looked away, but those days were long gone. Faith sighed with a tinge of regret, seeming to miss the Skeeter of yesterday ... the Skeeter who was always lost and looking for something better. As for the Skeeter of now, she simply met Faith's gaze unflinchingly, almost like a challenge.
"You got a brain in there, Skeet," said Faith with unusual gentleness. "Think you're wastin' it around losers like us. You could be more." She shivered as a blisteringly cold wind cut across from the vacant lot.
"Maybe I could," scoffed the younger girl. "Maybe you could be too. Guess until we try, we'll never know, huh?" Her fingertip traced the scar's contours in an absent-minded fashion. "Our experiences make us who we are, Faith. The good and the bad. It's up to you what you do with 'em."
Wearily, Xander dragged himself downstairs and into the living room, blinking at the mid-morning sun that streamed in through the large window behind the couch. Willow was stretched out in the sunshine, leaning back against the arm of the sofa and thoroughly engrossed in the novel she was reading, American Gods.
Upon Xander's entrance, she peeked over the top of the book and smirked at his disheveled appearance. "Mornin' Mr. Sleepyhead," she greeted cheerfully.
Yawning, the carpenter scratched the back of his head and cast a glance toward the kitchen. "Missed breakfast, huh?" He crossed to the couch and sat down as Willow pulled her legs up to make room for him.
"Don't worry. Between Buffy and Dawn, much food was inhaled. It was just like you were there!" Taking note of Xander's bleary attempts to join the waking world, she asked, "Late night?
Xander nodded, rotating his neck to work out the kinks. "Yeah. Cleaning up from the fair. Then I got to work on some new design ideas. And doin' some thinkin'," he added.
"That's good," Willow quickly assured him. "Thinking's good."
Turning, Xander regarded Willow thoughtfully. "We've been through a lot, haven't we?"
"I'd say our share, plus," she confirmed.
"Anything you regret?"
The witch laughed at that, and closed her book, setting it on the coffee table nearby. "Only every second of every day."
"Me too," admitted Xander.
He lapsed into a silence, clearly organizing his thoughts. Willow waited patiently.
Taking a deep, steeling breath, Xander declared, "I'm gonna pass on the spell."
This news seemed to genuinely shock Willow, and she sat up fully, curling her legs underneath her as she leaned forward. "You're gonna ... But ..."
"Like I said, doin' a lot of thinkin'. About the choices we make." He motioned vaguely to his missing eye. "A few we don't. I've done a lot of stuff I'm not too proud of. I've been a me I haven't liked for a while."
Chuckling lightly, Willow showed she understood only too well. "See Jane. See Jane relate."
"But lately, I think I got a pretty good shot of becomin' a me I could not want to throttle," he continued, his voice becoming stronger the more he explained his decision. "An' you know, that feels nice." Willow smiled at that, and Xander couldn't help but reciprocate with one of his own before ducking his head sheepishly. "We're all together again, hopefully to be better than ever. Trillium's not such a bad place, and I hear there are actual winters here, which should be a refreshing change. An' you know the carpentry thing? Turning out to not only be enjoyable, but also profitable." He paused, before adding in a proud voice, "I'm actually thinkin' about opening my own business."
Upon hearing this, Willow's expression became one of complete joy. "Xander that's wonderful! You should totally do that! Oh! Oh!" The redhead flapped her hands in the air as her eyes grew wide. "And I could help you make a web page! It'll be so neat! We can call it, 'Spruce Up', or 'Elm-entary', or 'Just Fir You'!"
Visible wincing, Xander stared at his friend with something akin to disgust. "Will? Havin' a moment. Don't make me hurt you."
"That wood be just pine," she replied happily, a huge, proud grin on her face at her own humor. It was difficult, but she managed to forcibly sober under Xander's stern glare. "Done now," she assured him.
Xander remained cautious for a moment, but was convinced when Willow simply smiled innocently and kept her dreadful puns to herself. "So yeah, me likin' me," he resumed. "An' the eye thing, or lack thereof ... it's kinda me now, y'know? Part of Today Me. If I'm truly gonna start likin' that me, it means takin' the good with the bad, not wipin' out the bad and pretending it never happened." Frowning, Xander tilted his head. "Does that make sense?"
Nodding, Willow smiled, pleased for Xander but a touch melancholy. "Yeah. Kinda does."
"And we of course can't underestimate the power of the patch," the carpenter pointed out, obliterating the mood. "I've convinced myself it makes me appear entirely three times more intimidating."
"Just the three?"
"And only when I paint on a giant scar."
Twisting on the couch, Willow scooched next to Xander and curled up on his arm, resting her head on his shoulder. "I think this is good," she reaffirmed, giving his arm a little shake. "Great even. I'm totally, 1010% behind this."
"Good," responded Xander sincerely. "I was hopin' you wouldn't be upset I said no."
Gesturing in the air, Willow dismissed the very idea. "Pish. This is fantastic. An' like I said, there's no time limit. If you change your mind later, we can just do it then."
Smiling down at his best friend, Xander nodded, very obviously satisfied with the turn of events. "Sounds like a plan."
"In the meantime," she began excitedly, "let's think up some names for your business, oak-ay?"
Xander groaned, long, loud and very, very pained.
"Don't make me kick your ash," he threatened.
"Ooo," Willow responded in mock appreciation of his verbal sparring. "Keep that up, mister, and I'll leave you in the larch."
Giles was hunched over his desk, barely visible between the mountains of paperwork closing in on all sides. Two cups of tea, both cold and neglected, sat nearby, but he ignored their presence. He seemed to be ignoring everything, in fact, before a knock at the door caused him to jump. His pen jerked across the paper and the Watcher rolled his eyes in a resigned and thoroughly irritated manner. Somehow, he managed to call out, "Come in," without snapping.
Spencer, his burly assistant who had freed him momentarily from the training room insanity, stepped inside and closed the door. "Sir," Spencer greeted in his deep baritone. "I have the final copies of the Watcher assignments and rotation schedules. Free of duplicates this time, I'm happy to report. I triple checked them myself."
"Thank you," Giles replied, weary but grateful. "Just set them down there and I'll review them as soon as possible."
Warily, Spencer eyed the teetering stacks of papers, and very carefully placed his folder on top of the pile nearest to the Watcher. Still clutched in his hands was a large but relatively thin volume. Judging from its cover, it was quite old.
"And we've processed the last of the shipments from the old Watcher's Council storage facilities. This—" Spencer lifted the book into plain view "—is the original inventory log of all the items that should have been held there." A frown appeared on his face and he considered Giles with a hint of concern. "Disturbingly, several items appear to have gone missing."
"Missing?" Giles echoed sharply.
Spencer nodded, and proceeded to outline out the facts. "Yes sir. A few, thankfully, seem to be of little importance ... some old paintings – non-mystical. Several texts on demonology. But there are a few items that could be worrisome. And still more whose purpose was never fully documented." Again, he lifted the book. "I've marked those that we cannot account for in the log."
With that, Spencer extended the slim volume to Giles, who accepted it with an extremely unsettled frown. "Thank you, Spencer," Giles stated in a distracted tone as he examined the cover carefully.
"No problem, sir. Enjoy your crippling paperwork, sir."
The large man turned and left, and Giles was alone with his thoughts. He considered the book for a moment longer, regarding it almost with reluctance. He then opened one of the drawers of his desk, carefully placed it inside and slid the drawer closed again. Casting it a final glance, the Watcher returned to the work in front of him, getting no more than another few scribbles completed before there was another knock at the door. Irritation flashed in his eyes, and didn't fully dissipate as he barked out, "Yes?"
The door opened again to reveal Mina, moving with the same efficiency as always with her ever-present clipboard close at hand. "We have a problem," she announced without preamble.
"Of course," sighed Giles, seeming already reconciled to whatever it might be.
"Zaira, the representative from the Strabane Coven has been called back on an emergency."
"I was just wondering if it were possible for things to become any more ominously disturbing." Giles rubbed his forehead, wincing at the onset of a headache. "I'm so pleased to find out they can."
Mina was unconcerned for his plight and continued as though he hadn't spoken. "She didn't say much else, except that they would keep you informed as soon as they knew something concrete."
"Tell me there's some good news in there somewhere," the Watcher requested hopefully.
"Your meetings with Zaira have been postponed until we can reschedule."
"And the bad?"
Poking at the appropriate notations on the clipboard, Mina replied, "I've moved up your all-hands and begun scheduling one-on-ones earlier."
"Thank you." The words carried no trace of true gratitude, but the brunette didn't appear offended. She simply nodded and left Giles to return to work.
Sighing heavily, Giles ran a hand through his hair and reached for the closest teacup. He lifted it a quarter inch from the saucer before remembering that it was very, very old and with a grimace set it down again. He picked up his pen instead.
As was becoming the trend, he got no more than a few words written when there was another knock. Slapping the pen down on the desktop, Giles glared balefully at the door. "Unless you're here to deliver nothing but good news that involves no increased work for me whatsoever, go away."
The door opened and Hannah's head appeared, her eyebrow raised and a stack of folders visible in her hand. "I'm sensing this is a bad time," she surmised.
Taking note of the folders, the Watcher emitted a low groan. "Not you too."
Hannah eyed the paperwork for a moment, then tossed it almost casually onto one of the nearby bookcases. "It can wait," she decided, closing the door behind her and settling into one of the vacant chairs. "Rough day?"
Pulling his glasses free, Giles rubbed his eyes. "Rough day, rough week, rough month ..."
The blonde regarded him in a manner that somehow managed to be both sympathetic and devoid of sympathy. "You know I think you're working too hard."
"I do," he agreed, inclining his head.
"So I shouldn't say it again."
"But you will."
"You're working too hard."
Replacing his glasses, Giles glanced at Hannah, a look of near desperation crossing his face for a brief moment. "Someone has to."
She leaned forward, resting her forearms on his desk and clasping her hands together. "Rupert, the Watcher's Council has existed for ... How many years is it?"
"Many," he replied simply.
"...many years now. It will likely continue to exist long after you've burned out." Hannah waved her hand up and down at Giles to encompass his state of being. "Which at this rate may very well be tomorrow. My point is, if you stop, someone will take your place. That's the nature of these sorts of things. They're self-perpetuating."
The tone of her last comments made the statment appear uncomplimentary, but Giles didn't stop to dwell on it, instead meeting her words with the strength of his own. "Yes, but without a moderate hand to guide it, I've seen what it can become. And believe me, Quentin Travers was by far the lesser of a great many evils."
Leaning back in the chair, Hannah sighed and beseeched the ceiling for answers. "Are you happy, Rupert?" she asked point-blank.
Giles tilted his head to one side, a puzzled frown on his face. "What?" It sounded as though Hannah had just asked him to describe the taste of the color pink.
"Are you happy?" the blonde repeated, her frustration fading. "I mean, don't you ever wonder? If you hadn't let them annul the marriage? We could've spent the last 30 years living in Bora Bora, sipping decadent tropical beverages under a dazzling blue sky."
The Watcher blinked. "I hate the sunshine."
"Yet more proof that you let your work dominate your life," she quickly dismissed, staring at her ex-husband intently. "Which brings me back to my question: Are you happy?"
Before Giles could answer, his door flew open again. It appeared for a moment as though an extremely impressive shout were about to emerge from his mouth when he saw that it was Dawn and he swallowed his initial reaction.
For her part, Dawn didn't even seem to notice. "Hi Giles." She turned to the older woman and greeted, "Hi Mrs. Giles," then quickly turned back to the Watcher and launched into a babble that would've done Willow proud. "I got a thing to ask you. See they're doing this absolutely lame thing at school all to do with career week or some other laughable attempt to get us all enrolled in the army or something, and anyway, can you really tell what kind of work you're suited for by answering twenty stupid, transparent questions? What-ever. But so they're having this parental picnic lunch thing where we bring Mom or Dad to school, which, I know, so feeble – but I was hoping, would you go with me?"
Dawn's final question carried a hopeful note, which completely undercut the nonchalant attitude applied to the rest of the speech. A second or two passed, in which Giles' brain worked to filter down the important parts of what she said, and he smiled, large and proud. "I would be honored," he replied.
The teenager beamed immediately. "Great!" she chirped, then her face rapidly fell again. "Oh, wait, I-I didn't tell you when. I know you're all busy with—"
"It doesn't matter," the Watcher smoothly assured her. "I'll be there."
"Really?" Dawn asked excitedly.
"Miss an opportunity to attend a school board sanctioned social event?" Giles smirked, but still sounded sincere. "Those were entirely the highlight of my librarian years."
The grin Dawn flashed was almost impossibly bright, and she swept out of the room, obviously in high spirits. Hannah had watched the exchange without comment, and once the door was closed again, she turned to Giles with a cocked eyebrow. "I thought you were far too busy next week for anything unscheduled?"
"I am," he replied, reclaiming his previously abandoned pen.
Jerking her head toward the door, Hannah queried, "How do you explain that?"
"Oh, it was scheduled. She had a date and a time. And I just conveniently happen to have an opening whenever that might be." Hannah chuckled, and Giles considered her thoughtfully. "I'm very happy," he finally answered in response to her question.
Saying nothing more, Giles bent back to his paperwork, immersing himself in the files and reports with considerably less scorn.
Dusk was settling across the sky as Faith wandered along the street. It was fairly busy, a sharp contrast to the streets the Slayer had been frequenting and the area was perhaps a little less run down than others. She didn't pay much outward attention to her surroundings, however, with her hands thrust deep in her pockets as she walked.
"Faith!" Hey, Faith!"
Turning to look behind, Faith saw Roxi jogging toward her. She didn't stop, however she also didn't speed up, maintaining the same steady, unhurried stride.
The younger girl came up alongside Faith, and easily matched her pace. "I been lookin' for ya," Roxi announced, pleased to have located her target.
This declaration didn't seem especially engrossing to Faith. "Well now y'found me," she replied in a flat voice.
"I was thinkin', now there's two of us, we can probably upscale a bit," the girl mused as though Faith had demonstrated interest. "Maybe find us a place? Be good if we got somewhere. Won't be long before we got girls comin' t'find us."
"The hell you talkin' about?" the Slayer snapped, glaring angrily as she spun toward the girl, still keeping up her steady walk to nowhere.
"You an' me. Us. After last night—"
Faith's gaze returned to straight ahead as her temper faded. "Last night wasn't nothin'."
Roxi gaped at Faith, full of disbelief at the other girl's nonchalance. "You're kiddin'. You save me from the pigs in blue, an' it don't mean nothin'?"
Lashing out, Roxi's hand closed around Faith's elbow and she brought the Slayer to a halt. Faith jerked her arm free, but made no move to resume her walk, simply glowering down at Roxi. The faint electronic hum of the neon lights overhead blinking to life filled the void between them. Neither girl paid the Clarke Electronics sign any notice, instead fully intent on glaring at the other.
"Bull," Roxi spat. "It was you realizin' this is where you belong. This is who you are, Faith, an' the sooner you figure that out, the sooner you can get back t—"
"To what?" retorted Faith, tossing her hands in the air. "Wanderin' through my day, lookin' for somethin' new to steal that night? Drinkin' too much an' gettin' in fights I don't care if I win or lose?" She jabbed her finger in the younger girl's face, her expression dark. "Tell me, since you got all the answers – why the hell would I wanna come back t' any of that?"
There was no hesitation. "B'cause it's easy. You do what you want when you want. Don't gotta worry 'bout nothin' an' no one but you. You see something you want, you take it, you have it." Roxi laughed, a mocking and unpleasant sound as she examined Faith up and down. "See I lookit you, an' y'know what I see? I see someone tryin' so hard to find out who she is, when all this time she's known damn well. Someone somewhere's made you think it's wrong, but you don't really believe that, do you?" She thrust her finger down the sidewalk in the direction Faith had been walking. "Out there, you don't matter. What can you give anybody?" Roxi pointed in another direction, to the spot between her and Faith. "But here, you do, an' you love it."
"I make difference! I matter!" The Slayer was yelling now, her fists trembling as she barely maintained what was left of her composure.
The girl either had no idea how far she was pushing Faith, or she didn't care. She remained calm, almost aloof as she crossed her arms. "Name me one. Just one name of someone you really think you've been good for."
Faith wanted to. That much was obvious. But after several seconds, she still hadn't answered.
Roxi didn't dwell on the Slayer's inability to produce the requested evidence. She simply smiled warmly. "Well I can: me."
The Slayer started at this revelation, and widened her eyes at Roxi. Faith's expression was one of surprise, but even more, a deep yearning that had she seen it in her own eyes, would likely have shocked her.
"I used to hear, from my sister, about all the stuff you used to do. An' I couldn't wait to grow up an' be part'a that." The girl shrugged sadly as she added, "It was all over before I could, but I remembered. I remembered everything, an' I've tried t' do it myself." She straightened, her stance and bearing proud. "I wanna be just like you, Faith. You're my hero."
Instantly, Faith was stricken. Whatever she had wanted – needed – to hear, this was clearly not it. "Livin' on the streets, stealin' candy bars an' bad music ..." She laughed bitterly. "That's my legacy."
"Hey, we all gotta start somewhere," replied Roxi encouragingly, unoffended.
But Faith didn't comment, lost in her own world of thoughts and disappointments.
Tilting her head to one side, Roxi considered the Slayer with wonder. "You don't even know why you saved me last night, do you?" Faith glanced up, but remained silent, and the girl flashed her an expression of understanding. "When you figure it out, go to the old place. I'll be there."
Roxi spun on her heel and walked back the way she came. Faith watched her every move, but made none to follow. The girl's voice rang out, carrying reaching Faith easily even though the small brunette never turned her head. The smile in Roxi's tone was evident, as was her confidence. "You got a lot to teach a girl, Faith. Sooner you figure that out, happier you'll be."
Soon after, Roxi had vanished sight, becoming an undefined detail of the city streets. Faith turned first one way and then the other, unsure of where to go next. She seemed ready to move again, to just pick a direction and head that way, when her ears perked up and she swiveled toward the televisions displayed in the window of the electronics store behind her.
As they had been a few days earlier, all the sets were tuned to a generic 24-hour news station, showing highlights from local, national and international stories constantly, usually the same ones several dozen times a day. What had caught Faith's attention was the newscaster, her voice drifting into the street from the door that was propped open to allow the occasional breeze to waft into the store.
"A devastating fire swept through a small apartment block in Trillium, Pennsylvania earlier today," the newscaster was reporting in the same level yet overly fake interested voice that seemed unique to that particular breed of human.
Faith stepped closer to the window just as the scene changed to footage obviously shot on location. Fire trucks were surrounding a blazing building, and teams of firefighters were assisting the dirty and shaken residents who were gathered on a lawn nearby but well out of harm's way.
In voice over, the newscaster continued. "Luckily, no one was hurt, but they might have been were it not for one young girl, who rushed inside to save a elderly woman trapped in her apartment."
The footage cut to a picture of Hazel, looking disheveled, soot-covered, and even a little embarrassed by all the attention, but she was grinning regardless. Her eyes widening, Faith regarded the image before her with wonder, unable to fully suppress a smile as the Hazel on screen ducked her head nervously and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.
Another voice, this one male and speaking with a rushed urgency that attempted to infuse every scenario he encountered with excitement and energy, spoke over Hazel's image, and the girl looked up, focused on whoever was speaking off-screen.
"Rushing into a burning building without hesitation – that's an unbelievably brave thing to do, especially for someone so young." Hazel blushed and ducked her head again. "What was going through your mind?"
A microphone was thrust in Hazel's face, and she jerked back slightly in surprise, then leaned forward and spoke into it tentatively. "Uhm, not a whole lot. I just, uh ..." She glanced over her shoulder at the still-blazing apartment building. "I just saw someone trapped and ... and I knew I had to help."
The microphone disappeared, and the reporter's voice overlaid Hazel's image again. "You didn't worry about the fire?"
"Well sure I worried," Hazel responded when the microphone was once more presented to her. "I mean, kinda hot, you know?" She laughed at her own joke, then shrugged. Nonchalantly, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, she simply stated, "But I just thought, 'What would Faith do?' ... and then I did it."
Hazel was replaced by more images of firemen discussing what might have caused the accident, but Faith was no longer listening. She stared at the screen without really seeing it, but focused intently on it as though it held the secrets to life. Then a smile – small and nearly imperceptible but undeniably present – spread across her face. Turning to the left, Faith considered the direction that Roxi had taken. Then she turned right and walked down the street.
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