The lights in The Vortex were dim, most of the illumination focused upon the stage, where a group new to the club played a solid ballad, soft but laced with a beat that lent additional passion to the melody and lyrics. Many of the patrons chatted in low voices while swaying in their seats to the rhythmic song, which was infused with an old-time feel and obviously composed by one who found inspiration more in the classic rock era than anything that had since arrived on the musical scene. The enthusiastic drummer, perched upon a small podium at the rear of the stage, twirled the stick in his right hand with an expert flick of his wrist while tapping his foot lightly on the pedal pounding the large bass drum, the face of which declared the ensemble to be "Three Moon Tuesday." The displayed motif was rather attractive in a moody sort of way – a lunar image, partially obscured by meandering clouds set in an inky and starless sky.

The overall air of the quintet tended toward the casual. No two members of the band were dressed in the same fashion, nor did they make any pretense of being so. Composed of a trio of males and a duo of females, Three Moon Tuesday appeared to be a rather motley crew of individuals, but their sound was unmistakably original and very soulful. The lead singer, a tall and well-built young man with crisply curling chestnut hair which reflected a copper tinge beneath the spotlight, had an unusual voice, gravelly but laden with potential power. He strummed occasionally on the rhythm guitar which was slung low on his hips, but obviously possessed no true talent for the instrument, his major contribution being the unique tone of his gruff but surprisingly melodious pipes. The final male member was short in stature and, although he played lead guitar, seemed content to loiter in the shadows stage-right rather than dominate the center as most lead guitarists preferred to do. His demeanor was one of easy nonchalance as he soundlessly mouthed the lyrics in perfect time with the vocalist.

The keyboard player, exotic in appearance and unmistakably of American Indian descent, sang harmony. Her waist-length hair was smooth and sleek like liquid mahogany. Her expert fingers caressed the ivories of the synthesizer and she was by far the most striking member of the band. The second female was a tiny thing, virtually dwarfed by the bass guitar that she plucked with supreme proficiency. Elfin-like with her layered cap of dishwater blonde hair, the most prominent features of this pixie were her huge blue eyes, the color of cornflowers.

The club was packed almost to capacity, but there were a few vacant tables and unoccupied bar stools to be had for the taking. Buffy and Xander had staked out a table relatively close to the dance floor, but at a far enough distance to maintain the illusion at least of engaging in private conversation. Facing the stage, the Slayer wasn't truly paying attention to the performance, her gaze fixed upon two female figures sitting at a table on the other side of the floor. There, Dawn and Kennedy were indulging in what appeared to be a rather secretive exchange of words. Buffy did her best not stare obsessively, but she kept a watchful eye out nonetheless, just to make sure everything was going smoothly between her sister and the younger Slayer.

The song being played swirled around the club, invading every corner with its haunting melody and mournful lyrics.

Upon the lake, reflections I see,
As blossoms trail from a tree.
I look at her, she's looking at me.
There's sun in her hair, my Circe so fair.

"Have you ever tried actually carving a Chinese dragon?" queried Xander.

Buffy pondered the question for a moment. "No," she replied, "but I may have killed one once."

Xander nodded with understanding. "It's good we have things in common."

"What's good," retorted Buffy with admiration, "is you. All Mr. Business Guy. You've been in that workshop of yours almost non-stop for weeks. I was feeling very neglected."

Xander chewed on this remark for a while. "Well you've still had Willow, Dawn, Giles, all your Slayerness ..."

"Yes, but I was developing a Xander deficiency," pouted Buffy.

Xander winked his one good eye. "I hear they'll have a pill for that any day now."

"A pale imitation," scoffed the Slayer "I want my Xander 100% pure and without an accompanying list of twenty disturbing side effects."

"Okay, point taken. And, may I say, ego fluffed," beamed the carpenter. "Anyway, being around more shouldn't be so hard. The bulk of this project is done now. And just in time. If I had to carve one more elephant on a display case, I think I'd have to dress Banan up in a giant peanut outfit and leave him at the zoo for Jumbo."

Buffy crinkled her nose. "Death by snackage. Not very dignified."

"And yet still extremely satisfying. Like a Snickers, only without so much nougat," stated Xander with a firm nod of his head.

The seasons change to nature's own call.
The leaves are starting to fall
And I know that I must stand tall.
As I say goodbye, my Circe, don't cry.

Sipping on her drink, Buffy looked over toward Dawn's table, leaning a little to one side to she could be sure to have a good view of her sister around Kennedy. Following her gaze, Xander threw the Slayer an admonishing look and prodded at her arm. "Buffy."

"What?" she demanded. "I'm ... "

She scanned the crowd for something to blame.

"... admiring that guy's ..."

She tilted her head to one side as the object of her apparent attention began to shake his moneymaker with much gusto. It was far from a pretty sight and totally inappropriate for the music.

Buffy frowned but had reached the point of no return. "... butt," she said confidently. "Yes. He has a nice butt, and it's worthy of both admiration and songs. Lasting tributes to the ... buttness of his firm—"

"Okay," the carpenter hastened to interrupt. "I'm stopping you now, partly because I do not want to hear the other adjectives you're about to use, and partly because I'm not about to turn around and see if you're tellin' the truth or not. But I will say this: you gotta give the Dawnster some room. Back off a little."

Buffy sighed. "I'm trying, it's just really hard. There's so much going on here we don't know, you know? At least in Sunnydale, I knew where all the bad parts were and made sure Dawn knew too. But here, we've only been around for what? About six months? I've only barely figured out my way to the 7-Eleven. And anyway, I'm just wondering what she and Kennedy are doing. I keep getting this weird ringing in my ear ..." She paused mid-sentence as her expression grew vaguely paranoid and totally suspicious. "I think they're talking about me."

"Maybe it's just Tinnitus," suggested Xander pleasantly.


Kennedy poked at the paper umbrella floating gaily on the surface of her drink while Dawn slurped noisily on her Shirley Temple.

"That one?" queried Dawn, gesturing toward the dance floor.

The tree has grown and sprinkled with starlight.
A beacon, it glows ever-bright
And it guides me on through the night.
Do you yet feel the same, my Circe, my flame?

Kennedy squinted and then shook her head. "Too tall."

Biting into a maraschino cherry, Dawn looked around and then took another stab. "That one?" she asked brightly, pointing across the room.

Kennedy followed the teenager's extended finger. "In the red?" she asked.

Dawn shook her head and jabbed more fiercely. "No, the black. With the jacket?" She looked at Kennedy with excitement, but Kennedy simply shrugged, not seeing.

"There," insisted Dawn losing patience, "next to the guy with the thing?"

Leaning over, Kennedy attempted to see where Dawn was pointing. Still at a loss, she stood up slightly in her seat and then nodded. "Oh!" The Slayer sat back down again. "Too short."

Dawn let out a heavy puff of air. "Okay, then the one in the red."

"Too bony," came the swift reply.

"Oh, come on," said an exasperated Dawn. "Willow is, like, 89% bone, don't even pretend you don't go for that type."

Kennedy narrowed her eyes. "Look, I'm just not interested, okay?"

Dawn tossed her head. "Fine," she huffed, glowering at the Slayer.

Kennedy prodded at her umbrella until it finally gave up the ghost and sank into the depths of her drink.

"That one?" proposed Dawn chirpily, pointing at the dance floor yet again.

"Arg," groaned Kennedy. "Would you knock it off already?"

Dawn quickly became indignant. "Whaaat? I'm just trying to help."

But nothing ever stands still.
It never has, never will
And the shaded tree casts such a chill.
It stings like a dart, my Circe, my heart.

"You're trying to set me up with some other girl so I won't try and get back with Willow. I got you pegged, Sunshine," Kennedy told the teenager. Her voice was flat and devoid of emotion.

Dawn grimaced. "Well there's that, yeah, but- but not just that. I just think, you know, you'd be happier with ..."

"I'm perfectly happy," insisted the Slayer, her eyes faltering at the younger girls' intense stare. She lowered her gaze before continuing. "Okay, I'm not perfectly happy, but I'm also not interested in window-shopping for girlfriends with you, alright?"

Offended, Dawn sniffed. "Fine." She cocked her head curiously. "Have you even spoken to her yet?"

"... words were exchanged," came the clipped response.

"Words besides 'Hi' and 'Fine'?"

Kennedy shrugged. "Okay, no then."

"It's been over a month," said Dawn gently.

"42 days," the Slayer corrected, "but who's counting?"

I smile as you call me friend
And accept what I cannot mend.
But we've a bond that no one can rend.
I'm glad you're complete, my Circe so sweet.

"I just think you should move on ..." remarked Dawn not unkindly.

"Fine," Kennedy agreed tersely. "Message received. Now drop it."

Dawn pursued her lips. "Dropped," she grouched.

Kennedy took a long pull of her drink and, keen to smooth things over, treated Dawn to a brightly-painted smile. "So, did you hear about Buffy getting her butt kicked by one of the Super New Newbies the other day?"

The teenager's eyes widened in anticipation as she excitedly leaned across the table, her elbows resting in a puddle of melting ice.


Across the room, Buffy glowered at Dawn and Kennedy and then swatted at her ear, violently shaking her head. When her vision cleared, she looked up to find Willow standing at the table. The redhead looked very much like a female version of Nanook of the North wearing a thickly-quilted brown parka, complete with fur-trimmed hood. Her cheeks were rosy from the cold.

"Hi guys!" announced the witch with a tiny wave of her mitten-clad hand.

On stage, the vocalist hesitated as his lead guitarist paused mid-riff. As the singer stole a quick glance to the right, it appeared as though the musician was about to sneeze as he gazed out over the footlights but after a few twitches of the nose, he found the chord and continued.

Sitting down, Willow slipped back the hood of her parka and shook out her hair.

There's sun shining down on the tree
And my spirit is once again free.
Though you'll always be part of me,
The memory's enough, my Circe, my love.

The witch shivered as she shrugged the jacket off her shoulders and draped it over the back of her chair. "I miss California already," she sighed, flexing the fingers of her right hand. She was no longer wearing the brace, although the digits curled stiffly.

"You know I hear it could snow next week? Snow. The last time I saw snow, it was a foreshadowing portent of the world's first, greatest evil awakening on Earth to ... to, uhm ..." The carpenter turned to Buffy. "What was it doing again?"

"Near as I could tell, insisting repeatedly that it was very, very evil. And killing Christmas trees," the Slayer informed him. She shrugged. "Didn't get much more out of it than that."

To a round of appreciative applause, Three Moon Tuesday concluded their first set of the evening. A healthy rendition of cheers emanated from the back of the room. The lead singer slipped the mic back into its stand and leaned forward. Directly in the beam of the lights, his handsomely-chiseled features were even more apparent and his eyes were darkly brooding as he surveyed the crowd. A bevy of young teenage girls gathered at the front of the stage breathed a collective sigh of adulation and one of them stifled a small squeal.

"We're gonna take a breather," he growled huskily. The girl squealed again. "Be back in 20."

He leapt gracefully from the stage and then turned to help down the Indian princess, his arm curling protectively around her waist. She slipped a hand into his back pocket and together, they strolled toward the bar, whispering intimately. The flock of disappointed groupies scattered, heads drooping and shoulders slumped in dejection. With nowhere near as much flamboyancy, the lead guitarist propped his instrument against the amplifier and made his way down the steps of the stage into the audience.

As the lights dimmed, a throbbing techno beat pumped through the sound system and the dance floor erupted into a torrent of energy. Xander, Buffy and Willow, however, seemed not to notice the change of musical pace, engrossed as they were in conversation.

"So," shouted Buffy smiling at Willow, "how'd the magic lesson go, Ms. Granger?"

Willow grinned. "Hit and miss. I floated a pencil all the way around the room! A-And then somehow managed to make it fold in on itself." She gave a nervous chuckle. "Created a teensy little spatial anomaly. Heh."

A look of alarm crossed Xander's face as Buffy's eyes grew saucer-like.

"But I totally fixed it, easy as pie," the redhead assured, grabbing Xander's drink and taking a sip. "The pencil's kinda ... you know, blue and possibly sentient in some way now, but otherwise—"

Willow paused for a moment as a hand tapped her lightly on the shoulder. Startled and still lost in thought, she spun around in her chair, "—no ... problem."

Her voice trailed away as her jaw dropped. With a look of utter shock and surprise, Willow blinked at the figure standing in front of her, hands thrust deeply into the pockets of his jeans.

"Hey," said Oz.

"Waxing and Waning"

Story by: Jet Wolf and Ultrace
Written by: Jet Wolf and Novareinna
"My Circe" lyrics by: Novareinna
Tireless support and mucho de editing assistance by: Novareinna

Original Airdate: Tuesday, 6 July 2004, 8pm EST

Act One

Almost as soon as recognition flared in Willow's synapses, she threw her arms around the werewolf's neck with a cry of "Oh my god, Oz!"

Oz's response was traditionally low-key. He simply smiled and slowly wrapped his arms around Willow in return, clearly savoring every moment and luxuriating in the feel of Willow's hair as he stroked the back of her head.

After a moment, Willow pulled away and immediately smacked him lightly in the arm. "You never wrote me back, you cad!" she chastised with a smile.

Shrugging, Oz shoved his hands back into the depths of his jeans pockets. "Yeah, AOL cut me off. It's a funny thing – when people send you bills? They actually expect you to pay 'em." Oz frowned as if to say, 'who knew?'

Xander waved his hand at the notion. "Pay? Pshaw. What do you think all those free discs are for?" Grinning broadly, Xander extended his hand. "Hey man, good to see you."

Oz clasped Xander's hand warmly. "You too. Hey Buffy," he said, nodding to the blonde.

"Hey," Buffy greeted, clearly pleased to see Oz again after so many years. "Don't suppose you've set up shop here in Trillium, huh?"

"Nah," he replied with a slight shake of his head. "Me and the band are just passing through." Turning his gaze to Willow, Oz lowered his voice slightly, seeming to block out everything in the world apart from the redhead. "We were on our way up to Cleveland, actually. I thought that's where you were."

In response, Willow poked him in the arm. "Well if someone hadn't been a little delinquent – or somehow managed to forget the wonders of Hotmail and Net Cafes," she cast him a dubious look and he had the good grace to appear at least a little chagrined, "– he woulda gotten that memo and not been all outta the loopy."

"Sorry about that." He glanced around the table, clearly searching for something. "So where's your new girl? Kennedy?"

Buffy and Xander exchanged a quick, uncomfortable look and Willow's smile faltered for just a second. "We, uh ... we broke up."

The werewolf's eyebrows twitched upwards slightly, the only betrayal of his surprise. "Oh. I thought you were doing good."

"Yeah, it's a kinda long story," responded Willow by way of explanation.

"Tell me later?" he requested gently, earning a nod and smile that he was compelled to mirror.

Reclaiming her seat, Willow tugged Oz's hand until he slid into the one next to her. "So you!" she began, very obviously appraising him up and down. "Lookit you! New band and everything!"

"Yeah. They're pretty cool." Oz inclined his head toward the bar. "Vic, the lead singer, has a voice like some sort of cross between Barry Manilow and Joe Cocker. It's interesting."

"How'd you meet up with 'em?" the witch inquired, taking another long sip of Xander's drink, heedless of his expression that indicated she might want to get her own.

"I was just driving around after Sunnydale. Goin' wherever. One night, a few days before full moon, I was in this club where Vic was singing. Turns out he's a wolf too, but couldn't control it. He asked for my help, so I did." Oz shrugged nonchalantly, as though the situation was nothing extraordinary.

Buffy, on the other hand, had a look of mild alarm at the realization there were other werewolves around.

Her best friend's distress went unnoticed by Willow, who was beaming proudly at Oz. "Wow, that's great. So you– you helped him and his wolfie's all under control?"

"Yeah, Vic's got a good handle on it. The others, it's varies."

Mild alarm climbed up one notch. "Wait, 'others'?" Buffy cut in sharply. "What others?"

"The band," replied Oz calmly. "Roadies."

"So you have, what? A pack now?" asked Buffy, an undeniable edge to her voice.

Without hesitation, Oz countered, "Sometimes we call ourselves a posse."

Ignoring the sarcasm, Xander frowned and leaned forward, resting his forearms on the table. "Isn't that kinda ... I dunno, dangerous?"

"Not really. Those of us with more control help those with less. Keeps everyone safe."

Buffy seemed far from convinced, but she held her tongue for the moment.

"But ... tonight's a full moon. Right?" Willow frowned and tilted her head to one side as she cast her gaze to the remaining band members on stage who had been joined by a few of the group's roadies.

"Yup," confirmed Oz. "We like to play on full moon nights. Gives the sound something extra."

Her expression registering full disapproval, Buffy opened her mouth, but any possible words were guaranteed to be ignored as Oz leaned over to Willow. "Listen, we're due back on in a few minutes. Can we meet later? Get some coffee?" He looked hopeful. "Talk?"

"Coffee with a werewolf on a full moon night?" The witch's smirk said she was perfectly okay with that arrangement. "Twist my arm."

Oz's smile was subdued but genuine, and with parting nods to the others, he moved back toward the stage. Neither he nor Willow noticed the uneasy looks shared by Buffy and Xander.

The recreational room was mostly empty, something of a rarity for Slayer Central. Neither Faith nor Hazel was complaining about being the sole occupants, however. They had laid claim to the large, comfortable couch that was perfectly positioned in front of the 42" flat-panel HDTV. The exceptionally high quality of the television managed to heighten the staggeringly low quality of the kung fu movie in the DVD player

Faith contentedly sipped on a beer as she watched the film, her head tilted just slightly to the side to convey her concentration. On the opposite end of the couch, Hazel was also watching the movie while occasionally shoveling handfuls of potato chips into her mouth. The Junior Slayer's expression, however, was considerably more skeptical.

She spared a sideways glance at Faith, confirming that she was alone in her dubious viewing of the film. Still, she pressed on valiantly. "Uhm ... why are we watching this again?"

"Cuz you were bitchin' that all we ever did was train and try an' beat each other up," replied Faith, not taking her eyes from the screen.

"So ... you ... got us a movie about other people beating each other up?" Hazel summed up with a confused frown.

Glancing over, Faith jabbed her finger at the screen, the beer can still clenched in her fist. "It's not just about that. It's got ..." The Slayer searched her memory bank. "What's that thing called?"

"Kicks?" offered Hazel helpfully, wincing as a series of high-pitched, inarticulate screams ripped from the throats of the characters on screen.

Faith shook her head, still frowning as she tried to remember. "No."




Becoming frustrated, Faith shook her head again. "No, the story thing."

"Oh! Plot."

"That's it." Faith settled back onto the couch. "It's got plot."

Hazel regarded the movie critically. "Really doesn't."

"Sure it does! See that guy's—" Faith stabbed her finger at one of the characters, sloshing beer onto her hand "—gotta find and beat up that other guy because that guy won the fighting tournament thing, but he cheated, right, so he's gotta get his honor back by beatin' the other guy ..."

The younger girl wasn't persuaded. "Those aren't so much plot as lame excuses for more fighting."

Faith stared at Hazel, blinking. "And?"

Sighing, Hazel tossed the remaining half-handful of greasy chips into the bowl and wiped her hand on a nearby napkin. "When you mentioned movie night, I was kinda hopin' we'd get away from the all the violent stuff. Maybe see ... Oh! Finding Nemo is out!"

Hazel grinned at Faith with obvious excitement that Faith did not share, heightened by the completely blank expression the Senior Slayer wore. Hazel attempted to explain. "The animated movie? About the little fish that gets lost?" Faith's lack of comprehension was replaced by an expression that simply seemed to say 'yeah, I'm gonna watch that'.

"No, seriously, it's cute!" insisted the younger girl. "I went with my friends when it was in the theater, back home? See, Nemo's dad teams up with this really stupid fish, but she's so funny! And then they have to try to swim all the way to Sydney to find Nemo – hence the title and all – but along the way they ..."

The sounds of obviously fake and wholly obnoxious snoring began to drown out Hazel's dissertation on the movie's merits, and she threw a potato chip directly at Faith's head. Despite her eyes being closed, Faith deflected the salty projectile with ease and cracked an eye open with a grin.

"Stop that! It's good!" Hazel demanded, then her face lightened as a thought occurred to her. "Actually, you know? There's a character that kinda reminds me of you. The Willem Dafoe-fish. Can't remember his name. But he's all, like, scarred and grumpy on the outside, but—"

"But soft and chewy on the inside?" finished Faith with a slightly mocking tone.

Suddenly finding the entire conversation embarrassing, Hazel's head dipped toward her chip bowl. "Uh ... I just wanted ... You know ..."

"Somethin' besides fightin'?"

Chewing this over for a moment, Hazel shrugged. "...suppose so..."

"Well that's good. You should want more'n fightin'." Directing her attention to the television screen and its never-ending parade of violence, Faith sipped her beer. "Guess I should too."

Hopefully, Hazel regarded Faith. "So maybe...?"

"Your fish movie?" Studying the film, Faith pointed to the screen again. "Only if you can do that by next week."

Hazel threw herself back into the sofa cushions with a loud groan.

In his office, Giles was working hard on some rearranging and general upkeep. The files folders were now categorized and neatly stored in their appropriately-labeled cabinets, the surface of his desk had been polished, as evidenced by the can of Lemon Pledge and yellow duster thrown on the floor, and his next task was to hang his newly-acquired print above the bookcases built by Xander.

Giles stepped back for a moment and admired the framed poster– Gustave Moreau's "Saint George and the Dragon", the original of which hung in the National Gallery. Balancing precariously on a small stepladder, he hoisted the picture and set it carefully against the wall. Frowning, he shifted the frame a fraction to the right and eyed it critically. Shaking his head, he inched it to the left and wrinkled his nose. With a small groan, he lowered his aching arms and rested the frame momentarily on the top of the middle bookcase before hefting it upward once more. A miniscule shimmy left, an infinitesimal slew right, and Giles smiled happily at the result. Gluing his eyes to the exact point of reference, he cautiously allowed the picture to slide down the wall until it met the top of the bookcase and then reached up to his mouth for the pencil clenched between his teeth. Leaning forward, he marked the wall with the a small dot and then peered closer to make sure he could see it properly. Maintaining his focus, he felt around the top step of the ladder for hammer and nails. With precise positioning and making sure his feet were firmly planted, the Watcher raised the hammer and prepared to strike. At that exact moment the telephone rang with what seemed to be a deafening jangle in the silence of concentration. Startled, Giles glanced swiftly at his desk and muttered under his breath before letting loose with an agonized yelp as the head of the hammer met squarely and heavily with his thumb.

"Bloody hell," he cursed, clambering down the ladder and sucking on his injured digit. The throb was almost unbearable and he glared at the telephone that was merrily insistent in making its demand to be answered. He placed the hammer on his desk and gingerly flexed the wounded appendage, wincing as prickles of pain assaulted his wrist. The telephone emitted yet another cheerful jingle and an ill-tempered Giles grabbed angrily at the receiver.

"I have high expectations for this call being worth what I went through to answer it," he said icily into the mouthpiece. "Please don't disappoint me."

As he listened to the voice at the other end, his aggravation melted to be replaced by an expression of surprise.

"Ms. Harkness! Good eve—" he checked the antique clock/barometer hanging on the far wall and noted the time, 10 o'clock at night. "Well, very early morning where you are, I suppose. How have you been?" He smiled pleasantly even though nobody could see him.

Perching on his desk, the Watcher tucked the phone against his hunched shoulder, crossed his arms, and paid close attention to what he was being told. However, the pleasure initially registered on his face quickly faded to concern.

"Well, yes. I-I mean, no, not as such, but ... It was buried. The– The entire town collapsed on—" he paused, hearkening thoughtfully to the words filtering into his ear.

"No," declared Giles with much confidence. "No. It's closed. I'm certain of that."

He frowned at the response.

"We did tests. Spells, to– to test for any lingering traces, and there were none. There was nothing left," he assured, tilting his head as the faraway voice continued.

"You're sure?" he queried hesitantly before adding, "No, I understand. ... I agree, we can't risk going anywhere near it until we know for certain. ... Thank you for telling me. Please, as soon as you know anything more— ... Yes. Good night."

As the conversation ended, a look of extreme worry crossed the Watcher's face and he absent-mindedly settled his glasses more firmly against the bridge of his nose. With a series of rapid beeps, the telephone reminded him that the connection had been severed. Running a hand through his hair, Giles allowed the receiver to drop slowly back into its cradle.

Willow and Oz had sequestered a table at The Common Grounds, the local all-night coffee shop in downtown Trillium. Given the lateness of the hour, it was largely empty; only one other person was present, a young college student who was sitting in the far corner pouring over stacks of textbooks. The two redheads had seated themselves outside under the clear night sky, not seeming to mind the biting winter wind. While the coffee shop was well lit, the full moon hanging overhead would have provided more than ample illumination.

Willow had tugged off her mittens and was warming her hands on a steaming mocha, sipping it occasionally. She remained bundled in her parka, and seemed quite a contrast to Oz, wearing only a thin cotton button-up shirt that was left hanging open to reveal a well-worn t-shirt underneath. Oz showed no signs that the cold bothered him, however, and was instead focused on the cup of herbal tea sitting on the table before him.

Pulling a small leather pouch from his back pocket, Oz undid the laces and reached inside. He grabbed a pinch of some sort of powder and sprinkled it into the tea. Closing the pouch with practiced ease, he stirred the mixture, watching as the granules quickly dissolved.

Wisps of yellowish smoke trailed upwards, and Willow's nose crinkled involuntarily. "Well, that's certainly ... pungent," she commented. "What is it?"

"Lots of stuff," Oz replied, giving the tea one final swirl for good measure and taking a huge drink, oblivious to its temperature. "Arnica root mostly."

Tilting her head to one side, Willow's eyes narrowed in thought for a few seconds, then she grinned. "Wolfsbane."

"Yeah. Figured at first it was a big joke, but turns out not. Guess things are clichés for a reason." After his first initial gulp, Oz seemed content to simply sip his tea, very calm and sedate.

Willow watched every movement, and Oz watched Willow watching him. "You're doing good then?" she inquired. "No– No relapses or anything?"

"There were a few tense moments when I found out 'Charmed' was renewed," responded Oz in complete seriousness, "but I worked through it."

"You look good," the witch appraised.

"You too."

The moment that passed between them was silent but charged as the two stared at one another, their gazes locked. Willow glanced away first, a faint blush painting her cheeks as she busied herself with the mocha. Smoothly, Oz resumed the conversation. "So what happened with Kennedy?"

"Oh ... well, there was a spell— Not me, though," Willow hastened to point out, despite the lack of any reproaching look from Oz. "Kenn cast it. Kinda backfired – magick's kooky that way, as you know – and we all sorta started sayin' all the stuff we always really wanted to say but never did. Led to some moderately interesting exchanges ... an' me realizing that I just couldn't love her like she wanted me to. Not right now."

Oz absorbed this for several seconds, then nodded in understanding. "Makes sense."

"Yup. Guess I'm just not really ready for the shiny new relationships right now, you know?" replied Willow with some resignation.

As Willow drank her mocha, Oz studied her very carefully, mulling over her words but saying nothing.

Once more, the witch broke the silence. "But what about you? Any new amours I gotta give the ol' hairy eyeball to?" she queried, proceeding to very exaggeratedly pantomime said hairy eyeball.

"Not so much," he replied with a faint smile.

Willow was aghast. "Oh, come on! All this time, and no one's tickled your fancy?"

"My fancy's pretty tickle-free," admitted Oz. "Haven't really been interested." Willow's face immediately became sad at this news, but the musician shrugged dismissively. "The band keeps me pretty busy. And the work's important. We've got twelve wolves with us now."

"Wow." She was suitably impressed. "So everyone in the group...?"

Oz shook his head before draining the remainder of his tea. "Most are, but some are here just to help out. We've got five people who are around because a wolf friend or family member travels with us. Anyone's welcome, though."

Beaming at this information, Willow slapped her hand lightly on the tabletop. "That's so great! You're, like, the spokesperson for lycanthropy." Her eyes widening, she excitedly suggested, "We should have a telethon!"

"Me and Jerry Lewis." Oz nodded sagely.

Already off and running with the idea, Willow enthused, "We can get some of those guys who spin plates ..."

"Put someone up in a tree for three days," was Oz's suggestion.

"Show back-to-back episodes of 'Are You Being Served?' ..." Willow was really getting into it now.

"It'll be an all-star extravaganza."

Willow laughed merrily at the picture they were painting, and Oz smiled contentedly, basking in her good mood. Finally, the witch's laughter petered out, and she returned to her rapidly cooling mocha. Raising her eyes, Willow regarded Oz fondly. "I missed you."

"I missed you, too," he replied sincerely.

Another moment of silence passed, filled with things unsaid.

"So, what day should be National Werewolf Day?" Willow finally asked, her thoughtful frown only semi-serious.

"I'm thinking the same as National Corndog Day," mused Oz. "If that's our only competition, we'll have it made."

Willow's laughter returned full force, and Oz settled back into his chair, happy to simply watch her.

"So whaddya think they're talkin' about?" asked Xander, his hot breath crystallizing in the chilly night air.

Buffy hunched further into her coat and blew upon her gloved hands. "Whatever it is, it's probably pretty serious,"

The moon was suspended like a huge silver disk as Buffy and Xander walked home. Their shadows lengthened to gigantic proportions and then shrank to dwarven size as they passed beneath the streetlamps. After she'd spoken, the Slayer glance behind her with a concerned frown. She paused for a second and peered more closely into the gloom but discerning nothing untoward, quickened her pace to catch up with Xander.

"Do you think they'll ...?" began the carpenter, his tone leaning toward the pondering side of speculation.

The Slayer halted any further conversation along those particular lines. "That knowledge is SO far beyond me," she stated firmly.

"Yeah. Me too," Xander admitted.

"I'll tell you what I DO know, though," she continued, "having my monster scorecard suddenly filled with werewolves is making for an edgy Buffy."

Xander nodded wisely. "Agreed it's minorly wig-suggesting, but Oz said they've got it all under control."

"Yeah," scoffed the Slayer, "and the last time Oz thought he had it under control, he nearly ATE Tara." She sighed and stared at a brightly-twinkling star. "I trust Oz. I do. I know he wouldn't let himself be around people if he thought he'd hurt them. But the others ... That's a whole deck of wild cards. I just think–"

Stopping short, Buffy swiftly turned and, with narrowed eyes, surveyed the area intently. Just beyond her line of vision, a vague indiscriminate shade stealthily blended into the darkness and, ducking low, slunk furtively behind a nearby dumpster. Buffy's head snapped in the direction of the imperceptible movement, obviously sensing the action rather than actually perceiving it.

Realizing that the Slayer was no longer matching him stride-for-stride, Xander craned his neck to see where she was, finally spotting the blonde head topped by a knitted cap that sported an incredibly large bobble. "What?" he whispered covertly. "What is it?"

Frowning, Buffy held up her hand. She fixed her gaze on the dumpster and then her eyes speedily traveled to the vicinity of a neatly-clipped row of Rhododendron bushes partially encircling a front garden. She stared keenly at the shrubbery, seemingly guiltless in its immaculate innocence, and tilted her head to one side.

"Wait there," she hissed softly at the carpenter. Xander shuffled his feet uncomfortably and took a step forward, halting only when Buffy treated him to one of her 'I dare you to move' glares. He huffed a little under his breath but stayed put.

The Slayer cautiously crept toward the targeted hedge. Closer and closer she approached, soundless as a stalking tiger. Upon reaching her destination, she ripped the branches apart and stood ready to attack. But the flattened shrub revealed nothing of interest – indeed, it revealed nothing at all. Her forehead creasing deeply, Buffy tensed her muscles while her eyes rapidly darted in every direction. Still nothing. Her shoulders slumped and then she grimaced at the trampled Rhododendron. The Slayer attempted to fluff the crippled twigs back into a nice bushy shape, but they hung limply and listed badly to one side.

"Buff?" murmured Xander questioningly with something of a theatrical tone.

Sighing at the carnage left in her wake, Buffy joined Xander. Her eyes continued to appraise the immediate area but whatever she had sensed, if there had been anything at all, had made good its escape. Her expression was puzzled as she looked up at the carpenter. "I thought I heard ... I thought something was following us. Nothing's there, though."

Anxiously glancing over his shoulder, Xander stated with conviction, "Oh great, now the suggested wig is the arrived-and-moved-in-next-door wig. That's the last thing I need, to become a werewolf snausage."

The Slayer tucked her arm into the crook of his elbow and led him away. "Your confidence in my ability to keep you safe is assuring," she told him flatly with a wry smile.

"Nah," responded Xander, "it's nothin' to do with you. It's just a thing. I saw Cujo last week. Images of big, angry, flesh-rending, man-killing dogs – little too fresh in my mind."

As they made their way home, the shadows of Buffy and Xander lengthened and shortened in tempo to the light filtering down from the streetlamps – as did the dim and indistinct silhouette which followed at a very safe distance.

The full moon shed its pale illumination over the park. The night was crisp and clear with only the occasional cloud to obscure the sharply twinkling stars. The young teenage boy strolled the path in an unhurried manner, listening intently for the muted rustlings of nocturnal insects making their way through the undergrowth. In his left hand, he carried a large jar, empty and carefully cleaned, with the shreds of a mayonnaise label still attached to the outside. Clutched in his right hand was a small net. He looked up as a firefly, moving far too swiftly to be caught, darted in front of his eyes. He followed its glowing wake into the depths of the trees and failed to notice the silent parting of the tall grasses behind him. Hesitating, it appeared for a moment as though he might make chase and attempt to capture the flittering insect, but apparently thinking better of it, he moved further down the path.

A barn owl perched upon the branch of a nearby oak startled him with a mournful hoot while regarding the youngster solemnly with huge saucer-like eyes. The boy chuckled to himself for being such a wuss and then dropped to his knees as a cricket, chirping merrily, hopped across the graveled walkway.

"Gotcha!" he whispered delightedly, trapping the small insect with his net. Unscrewing the cap of his jar, he scooped the cricket up from the ground and shook it gently until it tumbled from the netting and hit the glass bottom with a tiny ping. The teenager grinned, obviously exceedingly pleased with his first find of the night. Without warning and with an ear-piercing screech, the owl took flight and the boy almost dropped the jar in astonishment at the sudden departure. Scrambling to make sure the lid was still closed, he pushed himself to his feet and looked back at the now vacant branch.

With the eruption of a stiff breeze, the leaves of the oak swayed violently back and forth. The riffle they made was somewhat eerie and the teenager shivered, looking behind him hesitantly as the cricket, seeking an escape route, leapt ever higher within the confines of the jar. From the corner of his eye, the boy discerned a shadow falling across the path, but it had vanished when he turned to face it. "Wuss," he chided again.

Straightening his shoulders, he made a fine show of nonchalance as he purposely strode forward, stopping short when he heard a snuffling coming from his left. He bent down and peered curiously into the gloomy light shrouding a row of dense bushes. Shaking his head, he was about to move on when the snuffle sounded again and he inched closer, noticing a pair of bright jade eyes watching him through the murk.

Frowning, the teenager crouched and craned his neck in order to gain a better look. A black nose, shiny and glistening in the moonlight, sniffed inquisitively as the boy shuffled nearer. With an audible sigh of relief, the youngster dropped his net and stretched out his hand.

"Aww," he murmured softly with a broad smile. "Nice puppy. Don't be scared. I ain't gonna hurt you. Are you lost?"

The boy opened his mouth in a soundless scream as the animal's pointed snout emerged from the darkness of the hedge. He appeared to want to draw back his hand, run from the spot, cry out for help, but he was frozen in panic and unable to do any of those things. He closed his terror-struck eyes and shrieked in agony as the wide jaws snapped around his wrist. A trickle of scalding tears meandered down his cheeks and he whimpered, allowing the mayonnaise jar to drop. Upon hitting the ground, the lid flew off and the cricket, having gained its freedom, chirped merrily again before hopping away to sanctuary.

Raising its shaggy head, the creature howled at the image of the lunar goddess shining down from above as the teen's body quivered with pain. Summoning all the strength he could muster, the boy tried to scuttle away from the bushes and he screamed pitifully into the night sky. A sorrowful hoot from the returning barn owl was his only response. Tightly seizing the boy's ankle within its curving claws, the animal slowly and deliberately dragged the teenager into the depths of the bushes. The youngster snatched desperately at the small branches with his good hand, but the fragile twigs snapped easily within his grasp. His fingers trailed in the dirt as he disappeared into the undergrowth. He shrieked only once more before falling silent.

Soon, the only sounds that could be heard were those of fabric and flesh being shredded, accompanied by the sickly slurpings of frenzied feeding and the merry chirp of a cricket.

Act Two

Buffy bounded up the stairs of the Scoobies' house and headed directly for Willow's room. She paused just outside the door, rapping lightly on the wood and then shifted her weight from foot to foot impatiently. After a second or two had passed without response, the blonde frowned and opened the door slowly, peering inside.

Willow was still in bed, clad in a pair of red flannel pajamas. The covers were almost entirely ripped away from the empty side and bunched around Willow at odd angles. Even more amusing was that at some point, Willow had kicked half of them off, but still clutched a fistful of sheets and blanket possessively.

Grinning madly, Buffy crept fully into the room. Willow didn't move a muscle, deeply asleep and even snoring ever so lightly. The Slayer considered the bed with an appraising eye, then ran toward it. Launching herself into the air at the last second, Buffy landed solidly on the empty side, sending Willow bouncing into the air. The redhead squeaked in alarm, her eyes flying open. She very nearly rolled off the mattress entirely, but somehow managed to stay on. Wild-eyed and with a terrible case of bed-hair, Willow's head whipped around frantically for her attacker.

Only Buffy could be found, lying casually next to Willow, her head propped up by one elbow and huge cheesy grin plastered to her face despite, or perhaps because of, Willow's glower. "I wanted girl talk and got tired of waiting," the Slayer stated cheerfully without the slightest hint of remorse.

Willow groaned and flopped down again, pulling the nearest pillow over her head.

"Oh no you don't." The Slayer easily yanked the pillow away. Willow shot her the most fearsome glare she could manage at that moment, but Buffy was clearly, irritatingly, completely immune. "You have dirt and I wannit," she insisted.

"No dirt. This is a dirt-free zone, sterilized and hermetically sealed."

"And that's why you didn't come home until six in the morning?"

Buffy waggled her eyebrows suggestively. Willow bonked her in the head with a spare pillow.

"We were talking, you perv," the witch said with bottomless exasperation.

Still Buffy's mind was on a singular track and refused to be deterred by such silly and unimportant things like facts. "So that's what they're calling it now?" she asked with an innocence that could never hope to be genuine.

Willow rolled her eyes as she spoke to the ceiling. "God, someone in this room is in serious need of a good—"

"But enough about me," Buffy hastily interrupted before her face displayed extreme disappointment. "Seriously, nothing? Zippo on the best friend shareage front? No cuddles, no smoochies?"

Grinning indulgently, Willow rolled her head to the left and regarded her best friend. "Buff, what part'a 'gay now' was left open to interpretation?"

"Well, yeah, I know," she quickly defended, "but ... it's Oz."

"It is. And I love Oz, but I don't love love Oz, you know? I made my choice a long time ago."

"Oh." Buffy's disappointment in a failed reconciliation lasted only for the briefest of moments, and she soon brightened. "But the talking, that was good?"

Smiling happily, Willow nodded, although the gesture seemed awkward given that she was still sprawled on the bed. "It was. He's doing really well, with the 'grr' thing. Oh, an' his band? They actually have a couple of record companies asking for demo tapes." The redhead glowed with pride, as though this were somehow a personal achievement.

"That's really great," agreed Buffy wholeheartedly. "Good for him."

"And you can tell he's really excited about it, too, cuz when he told me?" She made a cutting motion in the air for emphasis. "His tone of voice actually changed."

Buffy's jaw dropped and she gaped at Willow, drawing on every ounce of power she possessed to exaggerate her shock to epic proportions. "Get out."

"Strange but true," the redhead confirmed solemnly, and then her expression and tone grew serious. "I admit, though – I'm kinda worried about him."

"In what way?" questioned Buffy with concern.

"Well ..." Willow pushed herself up from the bed, and she turned to face Buffy directly, tucking her legs beneath her. Buffy moved as well, shifting from her reclining position until she was in one that mirrored the redhead's. Willow sighed slightly before continuing. "We talked about pretty much everything last night, and ... I dunno, it seems like he's in sort of a ... a holding pattern? I mean, I don't think he's even had a date since Sunnydale." Willow's expression was suddenly profoundly sad. "I think he's lonely."

"Maybe he's just not ready," the blonde suggested.

"Maybe," agreed Willow, drawing the word out thoughtfully. "But it's not the wolf. He says he has complete control of it now, and I believe him. A–And I don't think it's his music, or his work with the others ..." She shook her head, unable to come up with any other possible deterrents. "I dunno."

Smirking, Buffy pointed out, "Well you are a pretty tough act to follow."

"Don't get me wrong, that's flattering as all heck," the witch admitted with a grin, "but I want him to find someone else. He's such a great guy, Buffy, he deserves to be happy. I just want him to be happy."

Buffy chewed over the puzzle for a minute before responding. "I guess when you think you've found The One – capital 'tee', capital 'oh' – moving on isn't as easy as it sounds. Even when you don't have any other choice," she lamented.

The words – and more importantly, the truth behind them – settled around the two friends, and they received a simultaneous flash of insight. The look they shared made it perfectly clear that they were each suddenly empathizing only too well with Oz's plight.

Anxious to not dwell on unpleasant topics so early in the day, Buffy bounced off the bed and to her feet. "But enough of this maudlin-ness," she announced with authority. "Xander's already gone to the Vortex to hang with Oz for a bit, and we are going to do the same." The blonde completely ignored Willow's pleading glance at the clock, happily displaying the time to be 9:37, heedless of tired little witches who stayed out too late. "The band's only in town for a few more days, and I say we milk 'em for all they're worth. If we hang around them enough now, we can maybe be on their VH-1 'Behind the Music' special when they get all big and famous."

"And if that isn't incentive for getting out of bed, I dunno what is," grumbled Willow, reluctantly swinging her legs off the bed.

On stage at the Vortex, Three Moon Tuesday roadies were conducting sound checks and fine-tuning audio equipment while the vocalist and keyboard player worked the kinks out of some new harmonies. On the podium, the drummer adjusted the set-up of his kit and then began to polish his cymbals to a brilliant shine. Perched upon a high stool near the drummer's podium, ankles curled around the legs of the chair, the bassist strummed absent-mindedly on her six-string and clutched the instrument tightly to her chest as though it were a security blanket. Her eyes were fixed firmly on a table in the center of the room, where Oz was engaged in conversation with Xander.

Just beyond the fringe of the stage, Dawn chattered in an animated fashion to a young boy lounging on the corner of the platform, the design on his oversized black sweatshirt ostensibly proclaiming him to be a Spider-Man enthusiast. With delicate features, tousled wheaten hair, and eyes an unusually striking shade of green, the kid was nodding politely and seemed to be listening to Dawn's babble, but his demeanor was one of distraction and his expression somewhat troubled. Obviously not particularly eager to be participating in chitchat, he swung his legs back-and-forth, heels striking the wooden base of the stage with a dull thud every other second. Seemingly oblivious to his lack of verbal enthusiasm, Dawn exuded more than enough for the both of them.

"... I find it leaves a real lasting impression," Xander stated with much conviction. "I'm talkin' serious, heavy duty, no holds barred, engrained in your head for the rest of your life effect, my friend."

"You're certainly passionate," replied Oz.

"Damned right I'm passionate!" exclaimed the carpenter. "I searched years for results like this! ...well okay, three weeks. But those were three long, arduous weeks, not to be scoffed at."

Oz nodded. "Absolutely. I'll also be abstaining from flouting or gibing."

Xander's head bobbed in a wholehearted fashion as he drove his point home. "So take it from a man who's been around – a man who knows. You need only remember these three simple words: Mop 'n' Glo. Mop. 'nnn'. Glo."

"I always pegged you for a Pine Sol man," commented Oz wryly.

The carpenter let out a sigh of utter contentment. "See this is what I've been missing. Real man-oh-ah-man-oh discussions. I mean don't get me wrong, Buffy an' Willow are great, but for the love of testosterone, huh?"

"I've always ranked it among my personal top three hormones," agreed the lead guitarist.


Balancing on the rim of a bar stool, a brightly smiling Dawn continued to effervesce at her preoccupied companion. The boy scuttled a little further back onto the floor of the stage and Dawn scooted her chair closer.

"So, Toby," she said, twisting her neck in order to catch his attention, "hangin' out with a band. That's gotta be cool."

Toby shrugged and stared at the design on his sweatshirt. "It's okay."

"Sounds exciting to me," Dawn virtually gushed. "Always going from place to place, new cities to see and explore ..."

"I guess," the boy conceded. "But it gets a little ... tedious? I mean, just when you think you've maybe found some place nice, it's time to run again."

A frown creased Dawn's forehead. "Run?"

Toby flashed her a nervous glance. "Move on," he clarified quickly. "Move on again. To the next gig. Stability's underrated."

Dawn wrinkled her nose. "I suppose. I dunno though, it can be boring. Sometimes I feel so stable, I think they should start modeling buildings in California on me!" She chuckled, but the giggle sounded lame and Toby simply stared. "You know," she added "cuz'a earthquakes and designing stable, shake-proof buildings, and okay, just forget I said anything."

Turning away momentarily, Dawn gave a small self-conscious cough, took a deep breath and then plunged back into the conversation. "If you don't like it, why don't you stop?"

Swiveling, the boy earnestly regarded the band's bassist, still strumming the strings of her instrument with an inattentive air. His eyes grew clouded and sorrowful. "Sometimes you gotta do stuff. Even if you don't want to, y'know?"

Dawn nodded emphatically. "Boy, tell me about it! Just the other day Buffy – Buffy's my sister – anyway, Buffy was all like, 'No, you can't stay up until 2am on a school night!', and I'm all, 'But if I don't catch this show, I'm gonna be left out and ostracized by my peers', and then she's entirely unsympathetic and says ..."


Xander leaned across the table. "I still think this'd be a little freaktacular. I mean, how do you make sure everyone's in line and not sneaking off at night to trip the wolf fantastic?" he asked skeptically.

Oz rocked back in his chair and folded his arms. "Restraints, for those who can't control it yet," he supplied.

The carpenter was somewhat cynical. "And that's safe?"

Oz hesitated briefly before replying. "Safer than leaving behind someone who can't work through the urge."

"Huh," the carpenter mused. "Well, you have more patience than I. But then, we knew that. You know, it sucks that you'll be leaving again so soon. Nothing we can bribe you with to get you to stay?"

Before the lead guitarist could answer, the door to the club burst open and a sparkling stream of winter sun flooded the dimly lit interior. Buffy and Willow entered, arm-in-arm with heads together, alternately whispering and breaking into peals of delighted laughter. Oz squinted at the bright light but otherwise never took his eyes from the redhead as the pair approached his table and settled themselves down.

"Mornin' stranger," grinned Willow. Oz returned the enthusiastic greeting with one of his enigmatic smiles. "Gosh," she continued, "it's been so long since I saw ya last, I almost forgot whatcha look like!"

"Much like before," he admitted. "Only more so."

"How'd everything go last night?" queried the Slayer with a tiny frown.

Oz vacillated, but only for the fraction of a second and nobody appeared to notice his slight hesitation. "You know. Pretty much normal. Lots of howling."

"Because last night I–" Buffy stopped suddenly, noticing Dawn and Toby by the stage. "Is that Dawn?" she asked sharply.

Her eyes narrowed suspiciously at the chiming of Dawn's excessive laughter and then her face adopted a stern expression as her sister reached out to touch the boy's arm. Abruptly, the Slayer's jaw dropped.

"Is that Dawn flirting?" she demanded of nobody in particular. Nonetheless, all heads turned in the direction of the young couple.

"Reply hazy," reported Oz. "Try again."

Buffy stared aghast as Dawn flipped her hair over one shoulder and giggled loudly once more.

"Aaaand we have flirting confirmation," verified Willow with a broad grin.

"Yup," nodded Xander with authority. "She's definitely doin' her best to dazzle and enchant with her shiny hair."

The Slayer was totally astounded. "I can't believe she's flirting! Why is she flirting?"

Her challenge was directed at Xander, then Willow, then Oz. The three exchanged a look of stunned surprise.

"Cuz she's a seventeen an' doesn't have a boyfriend?" suggested the redhead with raised eyebrows.

"Exactly!" Buffy snorted with self-righteous indignation. "Seventeen! Half of which is less than nine! Too young for boyfriend!"

"Buff," prompted the carpenter, "I feel compelled to point out that at seventeen, not only did you have a boyfriend, but he was, like, fourteen times your age, and went all charmingly psychopathic when ya ... y'know ... gave him the grande muy mucho happy. Again – feelin' the need to point out – at seventeen."

Buffy's mouth jerked soundlessly for a moment, then she found her voice once more. "So ... she ... should ... learn from my example. Yes. And now I will go. To example-fy. And possibly threaten."

Without further ado, Buffy leapt to her feet and stomped purposefully toward Dawn and Toby. With much trepidation, the others watched her go.

"I forgot the frightening intensity," remarked a sardonic Oz.

Xander shrugged and grinned cheerfully, "That's our Buffy! She's so wacky."

"Like a sitcom next-door neighbor who becomes way more popular than the rest of the cast, and so they go and give him his own show," announced Willow. "Only it's never as funny as the real sitcom because whose house is he going to burst into unannounced now? And what's he gonna do, borrow his own lawnmower and not return it?" The redhead expelled a puff of air and waved her had, arbitrarily dismissing sitcom neighbor spin-offs everywhere.

"Right," agreed the carpenter with a hint of sarcasm. "Just like that. Only without the laugh track or the painfully hollow morals or the actually being a neighbor." He gaped at Willow incredulously. "Where do you come up with this stuff?"

Willow tossed her head with a high and mighty gesture. "You cannot hope to understand the secret depths of my mind," she told him haughtily.

"And believe me," retorted Xander, "both I and my sanity are eternally grateful for that fact."

Wrinkling her nose, the redhead stuck out her tongue at the carpenter, who quickly mimicked the sentiment. Oz shook his head slightly at the apparent regression and then looked over in Buffy's direction. The Slayer and the boy were standing nose-to-nose. Indeed, although Buffy was on tiptoe in order to do so, she actually appeared to be looming over the youngster although Toby was a good foot taller, albeit that he was cowering from the confrontation.

On the other hand, Dawn had visibly shrunk at least a foot-and-a-half since Buffy's arrival. She seemed to be wishing that she could die, or that Buffy would die, or that maybe they could both die, that would be good too.

"The Dawn thing's still got me," Oz reflected. "It's, like, I met her years ago, but until yesterday, I hadn't met her at all." He lapsed into contemplative silence before summing up the situation with an introspected "Huh."

"Yeah, best not to dwell on it. It's sorta brain melty material," Willow commiserated.

The trio at the table continued to watch Buffy's intimidation for a few seconds more and then the redhead's attention diverted to the petite bassist still perched on the stool. The girl's eyes continued to be transfixed upon Oz, but when she noticed Willow's gaze, she ducked her head shyly and looked away. The witch frowned.

"Who's that?" she asked Oz, unable to stifle her curiosity.

Oz glanced over his shoulder. "Oh," he replied with a fond smile. "That's Jemma. She's the bass guitarist."

Xander swiveled in his seat searching out the object of their conversation. "She can strum my bass any–," he began appreciatively and then took note of the stares being directed at him from Oz and Willow. Oz quirked an eyebrow while Willow gawked, eyes wide and unbelieving.

Xander was suitably abashed. "I'm doing that 'talking' thing again," muttered the carpenter. "I thought I broke that habit. Bad Xander. Xander quiet now." He sipped on his drink and averted his gaze toward the ceiling.

"She looks a little freaked," remarked the redhead as she appraised Jemma from a distance.

Oz tilted his head. "Might have something to do with Buffy swinging a chair at her brother," he deadpanned.

Willow grinned and leapt to her feet. "I think it's time for me to network!" she announced as she cheerfully bounded over to the bass guitarist. With confounded expressions, Oz and Xander watched her leave.

"Behold the secret depths of her mind," stated a mystified Xander.

By the time the witch had reached Jemma, the performer's attention was riveted upon the exchange taking place between her brother and Buffy. The Slayer was still ranting and raving, hands placed resolutely on hips in a threatening stance. Toby, however, appeared completely at a loss for words as he shrank further and further back onto the stage, apparently hoping that a deep chasm would materialize into which he could plunge headfirst.

Willow positioned herself between Jemma and the ongoing drama. "Hey," she beamed brightly.

Startled, the guitarist instinctively responded with a shrill, "Hey!" She blinked timidly for a moment and then seemed to calm down. "Hey," she repeated softly.

"Nice guitar," complimented the redhead. "Is it a, uhm ... a–a Bender?"

Jemma frowned. "A ... bender?" she queried.

"Yeah," confirmed the witch. "Bender. No, wait, that's the robot on 'Futurama'." She frowned.

Jemma smiled bashfully. "You mean Fender," she corrected nervously.

Willow nodded with enthusiasm and Jemma's smile grew a shade less reserved.

"It's not," she said quietly, "but thanks for thinking so. You've given it quite an ego-boost."

"And if you can't make a musical instrument feel better about itself, then you're just a lousy stinkin' sorry excuse for a human being," the redhead stated with certainty.

Jemma chuckled and the eyes which regarded the witch timorously grew a little more friendly.

Taking this to be a good sign, Willow hopped up onto the stage and tracked down a vacant stool. She dragged it over next to the guitarist and grinned. After a few moments of silence, during which Jemma returned to gazing at Oz and Willow closely observed Jemma's expression, the witch smirked knowingly.

"So, part'a the band ... You're a wolf too, huh?" she asked of Jemma, her face beaming once more.

Jemma's eyes grew wide and wary. "Me? N–No! No, not me. Toby. My brother," she told Willow, gesturing with her head.

Willow's gaze wandered to where the confrontation had been taking place. Ostensibly done with her ranting and raving, at least for the time being, the Slayer was sitting with arms crossed over her chest in an authoritative manner, glowering at Dawn, whose face was the approximate color of a newly boiled lobster.

"He's a wolf? queried Willow. Jemma nodded. "Oh, good," sighed the witch sarcastically, "because Buffy didn't have enough ammo. Poor Dawnie."

"Toby's a good kid," insisted his sister. "Just kinda on edge right now. It's a hard time for him. For all of us."

Willow nodded with understanding. "He's new, then?" Jemma confirmed with a slight inclination of her head. "It's hard, I know," continued the witch. "When someone you love has to go through that. The feeling that there's not a whole heck of a lot you can do for them."

Jemma propped her guitar against the stool and twisted her hands in her lap, a guilty expression creeping over her face.

Willow wrinkled her nose. "Tip?" she suggested gently. "Don't read Call of the Wild – not quite the soothing fare you're looking for. Oo! Maybe Clifford books instead! Never tried that one."

Jemma chuckled, her self-imposed blame lifting a little. "You're Willow, right?" she queried.

"Right," verified the witch. "Gah, sorry. My manners stayed in bed this morning." She beamed anew before adding, "And you're Jemma."

The bass guitarist appeared astounded that Willow should be in possession of such knowledge. "Oz mentioned," divulged the redhead in a whisper.

"Yeah, that's how I knew," Jemma returned. "Oz. He ... He talks about you. A lot." She paused and a tiny frown creased her forehead. "Or, well not a lot," she quickly explained. "He doesn't really talk a lot. But comparatively speaking."

Willow rolled her eyes in agreement. "Great guy, that Oz," she said simply, casting a glance sideways in order to make note of the younger girl's reaction.

Jemma blushed. The pinkish tinge lent a glow to her cheeks, enhancing the pale blue shimmer of her eyes as she absent-mindedly ruffled her layered cap of hair.

"Yeah," she sighed, her blush deepening. "He sure is."

Reaction received and duly processed, Willow's smile widened as her attention focused first on Jemma and then on Oz. With a visible twinkle, the witch wrapped her arms around herself and hugged.

Kennedy's room remained almost entirely spartan. A punching bag hung from the far right corner of the room and a rowing machine occupied the space across from it in the opposite corner. The only other adornment in the room was a cheap calendar, currently depicting a tree well within the grips of autumn. It was the sort of calendar that everyone seemed to have, but nobody ever paid for, and such was likely the case here as well. Regardless of how she had come across it, however, Kennedy had made full use of it and the boxes of days underneath the picture were scrawled with notes and times for her various classes and sessions at Slayer Central. Practically no box remained untouched; Kennedy's time was filled near to capacity with Slaying duties of one kind or another.

The bed and a bookcase bearing only three random books that appeared to have been tossed inside took up the remainder of the room's space. The bed was still unmade, but Dawn didn't mind. She'd claimed one of the corners and was perched on it, seething in righteous anger. Kennedy, working out on the rowing machine, was bearing the brunt of Dawn's venting.

"And then she – oh my god, get this – and then she says, 'I break five two-by-fours as easily as you'd snap a toothpick. Imagine what that would do to guys who got grabby with my sister.'"

The Slayer chuckled appreciatively. "That's good, I'll have to remember that one." Dawn glared furiously but Kennedy only shrugged, unwilling to apologize or retract the comment.

This did little to soothe Dawn's fury. "I just don't get it! When she was my age, she'd been Slaying for two years! She'd already saved the world! She died. Why can't I talk to a boy without her getting all butch ..." She cast a wary eye at the Slayer. "... Cassidy about it?" she added lamely.

Kennedy didn't seem to notice. As she spoke, her workout never faltered once, and her breathing was steady and even. "Well you're her sister. It's a sister-thing."

"No," the teenager argued, "a sister-thing is to steal my clothes without asking. This is an insane-out-of-control-parental thing. She's like every over-protective TV dad ever created, all rolled into one short blonde package and I hate it."

"I don't think she does it to piss you off." The Slayer considered that statement carefully. "I mean, she might ... but I don't think so." Shrugging, she continued, "The whole monk thing you were telling me about? Sounds like they scrambled her brains, kinda hardwired her into 'Protect Dawn' mode. Though I don't think that's all it is. I think she just loves you and wants you to be safe."

"I can be safe!" Dawn protested, throwing her hands in the air. "I can have a life and be safe! I've gotta make her see that, because this?" Her wave encompassed years of sibling unfairness. "I can't take this any more! The choices are very simple: she stops, or I kill her!"

The rowing machine slowed and then stopped. Kennedy considered Dawn thoughtfully, biting her bottom lip as her gaze narrowed. "I think I can help you out with that ..."

Initially, Dawn looked extremely hopeful and expectant, then a different, more sinister, possibility wormed its way into her head and her eyes widened. "I–I don't mean really ... kill her. I mean, yeah, sure, she's irritating, but I kinda like having her around." Dawn brushed the suggestion aside. "Besides, if you kill her, she just comes back."

Rolling her eyes, Kennedy resumed rowing. "Not with the killing. The stopping. I think part of the problem is that Buffy still has this image of you, and she's having trouble shaking it. So what we need to do is give her a new image. Show her you can take care of yourself, and maybe she'll let the leash slack a bit."

"Take care of myself?" Dawn repeated in an interesting tone that clearly said she was liking this idea already.

The Slayer nodded. "Yeah. You know, self-defense, learn a few moves. I know you're not too bad with a sword, but I'm thinking more hand-to-hand stuff, since you can't really carry a sword around all the time. Or, well, you can, but the long coats get really hot in summer."

"You'd teach me?" The teenager's eyes were bright and shining.


"Oh my god, that's so awesome!" enthused Dawn, bouncing in place on the bed.

"Fills up more time in my day," Kennedy replied off-handedly.

Realizing now that Kennedy's offer wasn't entirely altruistic, Dawn's exuberance became more subdued. "You know you really should talk to her," she encouraged gently.

"You know you really should let it go, or I become Slayer-exclusive," was the counter.

Unwilling to lose this opportunity, Dawn grinned and let the matter drop. "Deal."

Kennedy nodded, short and final, keeping her rowing smooth and constant. "Okay then. Oh, and ... don't tell Buffy. It'll make it that much better when you can surprise her, right?

Smirking, the teenager added, "Plus she can't tell us not to if she doesn't know."

"There's that," agreed Kennedy.

Dawn leaned forward excitedly. "Think you can teach me how to do the pinch, like Xena?"

'Are you nuts?' was unspoken, but very clearly implied. Kennedy decided to halt that little train of thought before it started. "So some ground rules ..."

"No aside comments. No sarcasm," cautioned Giles.

Buffy rolled her eyes.

"No rolling your eyes," he quickly added. "And above all else, no questions about my shirt."

Standing in the center of the private training room, the Watcher was wearing a pair of jogging pants and a gray t-shirt which read "/(bb|[^b]{2})/". The Slayer, also decked in workout gear, leaned on the hilt of a large and heavy broadsword.

She tilted her head. "But what does it mean?"

"That would be a question," was the tart response. "Now come on."

Hefting his sword with both hands, Giles launched an attack. Buffy, balancing her weapon in one fist, easily parried. She shuffled to one side, a bemused smile on her face as she continued to fixate upon the gray shirt bearing the mysterious message.

"Slash, bracket, bee, bee," she read wrinkling her nose. "Little line thingie, bracket—"

"You're still on about the shirt," accused the Watcher.

"I'm reading," Buffy countered. "You didn't say no reading, you said no questions. That wasn't a question."

"Yes, all right," Giles conceded with an irritated sigh.

"This is a question: Why are you wearing it?" asked Buffy brightly.

Giles lowered his sword and then swiftly raised it again as the Slayer charged. "Because my other workout clothes are currently in need of laundering, and I haven't yet taken the time."

Halting in mid-assault, Buffy regarded her Watcher with extreme amusement. "Why Giles, are you actually acting like a bachelor?"

"The moment I begin subsisting on inferior American beers and tins of canned meat, then by all means, point out whatever you like," snapped an aggravated Giles. "Until then, keep your arm straight and remember to watch my eyes." He thrust forward but the Slayer simply dodged out of harm's way and then cocked her head at the shirt's enigmatic content.

"Why'd you even buy a shirt if you don't know what it says?" she asked. "It could say anything. It could say 'I'm a hunka hunka British-guy love'."

"I doubt that very much," came the sardonic reply.

The Slayer shrugged, "Me too, actually. Nothing there looks like 'hunka'."

"And I didn't buy it. It was a gift," Giles hastened to add.

Buffy was instantaneously intrigued. "A gift? Ooo, from your estranged sweetie-honey? Maybe it does say 'I'm a hunka—'"

"It does not, and no. Willow gave it to me. She seemed to think it ... charming in some fashion," he protested firmly.

The Slayer pouted. "Willow, huh? I didn't get a strange, indecipherable pressie for no good reason. I'm jealous."

"I'd give you mine if you meant you'd pay more attention to this lesson," stated Giles with conviction. "Now stop just automatically blocking my blows. It's very annoying."

Sighing the sigh of the supremely put-upon, Buffy widened her eyes until they were mockingly large and began to pay far too much obvious attention to the Watcher's onslaught. To his chagrin, she continued to block and counter-swing with an ease that was somewhat eerie.

Several minutes of swinging and parrying continued until Giles cleared his throat. "Buffy ..." he began nervously.

The Slayer huffed. "What, now I can't even think about the shirt?"

The Watcher peered through his glasses. "What? No. Not that ... I have something to tell you."

Buffy slowed down the arc of her hefty sweeps until the sword came to a stop. "Sounds serious."

"Hopefully not," intimated Giles, "but ... just in case ..."

"Okay," the Slayer replied cautiously, trying to make light of things but obviously fearing the worse. "What is it? Are they changing my conditioner formula?"

"It's the Hellmouth." He carefully rested his sword against the wall and waited for a reaction.

"You mean Tri-Mouth," Buffy censured sharply.

Giles ran his fingers through his hair and then crossed his arms. "No, I mean Hellmouth. The Sunnydale Hellmouth." He frowned at himself, trying to find the best way to explain things. "Or, well, perhaps not the Hellmouth itself, but- but Sunnydale."

Her eyes widening for a split second, Buffy rested her sword next to Giles' weapon and crossed her arms. "Okay, you've got my attention ..."

"I received a call from the Coven last night," the Watcher explained. "Last month some time they noticed a surge of mystical energies over the Hellmouth. They've been trying since then to- to somehow get a reading on- on what exactly is happening."

"And ...?" queried a wary Buffy.

"Well, they can't really tell. The energies used there were extraordinarily potent. Their seers haven't been able to get a fix on anything specific," Giles admitted regretfully.

"They can't just ..." The Slayer paused to flick her fingers into the air. "... bamf on over and check it out?"

A pensive expression crossed Giles' face. "Unfortunately not. Again, the mystical forces are far too disruptive. By the same token, they can't risk sending anyone in a more conventional sense to investigate. Not without some idea of what could be happening there."

Buffy's voice became strained. "So what're we talking ... Nasty tentacled beasties? Dimensional barriers coming down? Hell on Earth? Cuz we've so been there."

The Watcher reached out a consoling hand. "Buffy ..."

She shrugged away the comforting gesture. "I thought we were done with Sunnydale, Giles. The Hellmouth is closed. Remember you telling me that?" She struggled to summon a reasonable facsimile of his accent. It was very poor. "'The Hellmouth is closed'."

Despite the seriousness of the issue, the Watcher couldn't help but flash an amused smile. "It is closed. I'm certain of it," he reiterated. "I don't know what this is, but it's not the Hellmouth."

Buffy rubbed the back of neck, wincing at the tension she found there. "I hope you're right, cuz that thing's killed me twice already, and I'm not anxious to give it a shot at best of three."

"It would be best of five, actually," the Watcher corrected automatically, quickly dropping the issue under Buffy's glare. "I understand. I just thought you should know. I'll keep you and everyone appraised of the Coven's findings. In the meantime, please, don't let it worry you too much. There's far too much here at home that needs your attention."

The silence which ensued, as Buffy glared sulkily at Giles and Giles attempted to smile reassuringly at his Slayer, was broken by Xander bursting through the door with a loud declaration of "Buffy!"

Both Buffy and Giles turned toward him. Sensing his urgency, the Slayer asked quickly, "What is it?"

"It was just on the news. Last night," panted the carpenter. "An attack. This kid – they found his body in the park, near Holton Street." He paused for a moment and grimaced as his complexion took on a vaguely green tinge. "It was ... ugh. They said he was mauled, some kind of wild animal."

"Animal attack," confirmed the Slayer. Spinning on her heel, she faced Giles. "I knew you shouldn't have said that thing about trouble here at home."

"I'm thinkin' maybe lions and tigers ...?" pondered Xander.

"And wolves," added Buffy, her tone flat and angry.

Giles removed his glasses and began to polish them with the hem of his shirt. "Oh, my."

"Oz," spat the Slayer. The name sounded almost like a curse. Her eyes narrowed as she looked from Giles to Xander. "I knew there were wolves here, wolves they couldn't control." She shook her head and balled her hands into fists. "And I didn't do anything."

"Buffy, you couldn't have known," Giles told her softly. "Oz assured you—"

The Slayer agreed, but her tone was cold and harsh. "That's right. Oz assured me. Let's see how assuring he can be now."

Xander and Giles stood motionless as Buffy stormed out of the room.

"Wouldn't wanna be Mr. Stoicism right now," remarked the carpenter. The Watcher replaced his glasses and shook his head in soundless but absolute agreement.

"So," said Xander, his eye fixed firmly on Giles' chest. "What's up with the shirt?"

Buffy rounded the corner of the Vortex, heading toward the side lot where bands could park to easily load and unload their equipment on stage. Oz's van was parked just outside. The vehicle's exterior paintwork was plastered with stickers of all shapes, sizes, colors and designs – mementos of the places he'd visited. A curtain of multi-colored beads was suspended from the ceiling, separating the back from the front. It was obvious that the rear of the van had served as a lodging for more than one night. There were rolled-up sleeping bags stacked in a corner, together with a few piles of assorted clothing scattered about the floor and a box of various musical paraphernalia, such as picks, extra guitar strings and a few spare drumsticks.

What immediately drew Buffy's attention, however, were the van's owner and his visitor. The side door had been rolled back and Oz was perched at the entrance, his legs dangling over the cement below. Standing nearby, leaning against the vehicle's side was Toby. The boy's head was lowered with his eyes cast to the ground, and they were talking in low voices.

At the Slayer's appearance, the conversation came to an abrupt halt. A momentary flash of fear and something else appeared in Toby's eyes. He looked to Oz for guidance and the guitarist simply nodded his head. It was all the encouragement Toby needed, and he quickly jogged away, casting a final glance at Buffy over his shoulder before he rounded the corner out of sight.

"Buffy," called Oz to the figure that was rapidly approaching. "Hey."

Buffy's eyes narrowed as she stared after Toby. "We need to talk," she told Oz crisply.

"Okay," he easily agreed, giving her his complete attention.

Buffy folded her arms across her chest. "Last night. A boy was attacked." She scrutinized Oz's face but although his eyes widened slightly, it was otherwise as enigmatic as ever. "Killed," she stated matter-of-factly. "The police think it was some sort of wild animal attack, a bear or bobcat."

"A wolf," suggested Oz.

Buffy nodded her agreement. "I think so. Full moon last night, and knowing what you can do—"

Oz held up his hand, effectively halting the current flow. "I didn't do this. I wouldn't."

Rounding the corner of the Vortex, Jemma froze as she saw Buffy and Oz deeply embroiled in their exchange. Quickly, she ducked back out of sight and pressed herself fully against the side of the building. Her expression was apprehensive but she strained to hear as much as the conversation as possible without moving closer.

"I don't think it was you," Buffy continued. Her tone had softened considerably. "But Oz, you've got a whole pack of unknowns here. People you yourself admit can't control what happens to them."

Oz remained stoic. "We restrain whoever needs it. We don't let them just run around."

Buffy sighed. "I'm sure you don't let them, but ... Did anyone get out last night? Get free?"

Pressing a tight fist to her mouth, Jemma inhaled sharply. An expression of intense worry crept into her eyes.

"No," maintained a confident Oz.

Buffy pressed further. "No one."

She frowned at Oz's negative shake of the head and studied him intently. Her entire stance screamed of disbelief, and she couldn't stop herself from glancing again in the direction that Toby had taken minutes before.

"You know I'll stop whoever's doing this," she told him.

He paused, but only for a heartbeat. "I know."

The Slayer's face was stony in its determination. "I will not let one more innocent person die."

"You're the Slayer," conceded Oz. "Protecting the innocent's what you do."

Behind the wall, Jemma bit her lip and wrung her hands. Turning to leave, Buffy looked back over her shoulder at Oz, but his expression was unreadable.

Cautiously, Jemma peeked around the wall and then darted back when she realized that Buffy would very soon be heading in her direction. Flattening herself against the bricks, she felt her way along until she found the side door to the Vortex and hopefully turned the handle. With a sigh of relief, she crept inside just in time to avoid the retreating Buffy.

Oz watched Buffy's departure with a thinly disguised frown. Her stride was decisive, her posture regulated and her spine straight. He nodded thoughtfully to himself, seeming to acknowledge the personal recognition of full Slayer mode when he saw it. He blew out a deep puff of repressed air as she disappeared around the corner.

Act Three

In the park, lines of bright yellow tape cordoned off the vicinity around the bushes where the boy's mutilated body had been found. Inside the temporary barricade, detectives meticulously scoured the area for evidence. Some distance away, seated upon a swing in the children's playground, Jemma watched the painstaking search for clues. Her expression was despondent as she swung slowly back-and-forth, the toes of her sneakers cutting grooves in the sand. Lost in deep thought, she failed to notice the shadow that approached from the rear until a tall outline obliterated the pale light of the sun.

"Eddie!," she gasped, looking up in astonishment as the motion of the swing was abruptly halted by a sharp tug on the chains.

Eddie towered over the frail girl and would have easily done so even she hadn't been sitting down. Well-built with broad shoulders and a powerful upper body, Eddie was a little over six feet tall, every square inch of which appeared to be solid muscle. With more than a day's worth of five o'clock shadow gracing his chin, his appearance was disheveled and scruffy. He appeared to have been on the road for some time.

"Hey baby doll," he whispered.

Jemma's eyes opened wide. "I ... I can't believe you're here!" Her voice was laced with apprehension, but she sported a brave smile.

"'Course I'm here," assured Eddie as though there could never have been any doubt. "You an' the kid get all bewitched and seduced by that band ... runnin' off, leavin' me worried sick about you. You think I was gonna leave you in the hands'a those freaks?"

A flash of resentment invaded Jemma's eyes but she quickly disguised it by looking down. "They're not freaks," she replied softly.

"Baby doll," patronized Eddie with a condescending smirk, "'course they're freaks. Goin' around, actin' like they're normal people." Releasing his grip on the chain, he knelt down and peered into her face. The girl flinched involuntarily. "But they're not normal people. Are they?" he asked harshly.

Jemma twisted her hands in her lap. "They just- Something happened to them. To Toby. It's not his fault," she insisted quietly.

Eddie laughed, but the sound lacked any true mirth. "I know that," he snorted. "I don't blame Toby. I've looked after him since he got attacked, haven't I? Haven't I been the only one that understands? That can help him? Help you?"

Jemma sniffed and fought to suppress the tears. "But he wasn't getting better."

Eddie ran his fingers through his dark wavy hair. "There's no gettin' better from this," he sneered. "There's only control. He doesn't have, we have to have it for him."

Jemma voiced a meek protest. "But ... But Oz, he says—"

The expression on Eddie's face grew ugly. He got to his feet and jerked angrily upon the chains of the swing. "'Oz'. That the one who made you run away from me?"

"He didn't make me, I ..." responded the girl, cowering beneath the looming presence.

Eddie's eyes narrowed. "What? You what?"

Jemma sat very still. "Nothing," she muttered fearfully.

Blowing out a huge sigh, Eddie stroked the girl's hair. The gesture wasn't particularly gentle, being more possessive and domineering. Jemma smothered the urge to instantly recoil from his touch.

"Baby doll," said Eddie firmly, "you know I love you. I've only ever loved you. An' because I love you, I'm here to give you a choice."

He jutted his chin toward the crime scene and forced her head to turn in the same direction. "I know what happened here. An' you do too. Don't you?" Not replying the girl struggled to look away from the miserable sight.

Reluctantly, Eddie dropped his hand. "He can't be allowed to run free. I can stop him from huntin' an' killin', you know I can." He massaged the back of her neck, his forceful fingers causing scarlet welts to appear on the delicate skin.

Jemma swallowed nervously. "He's a good kid, Eddie. He doesn't like what you do to him. He doesn't deserve—"

Violently jerking the swing backward, Eddie clenched his hands into tight fists and held them close to his sides. The knuckles shone white and the girl cringed. "Doesn't deserve!!" he roared. "He's a freak. He's a monster! He's—"

From the vicinity of the crime scene, a couple of the detectives looked over at the pair with inquiring glances, their attention from the task at hand broken by the disturbance.

Eddie returned the stares for a moment and then relaxed his body. "The only one here who didn't deserve what he got was that kid your brother ripped to shreds." His tone was calm, but nonetheless accusing. Jemma hung her head, guilt shining from her eyes.

"I can give you until just before sundown, baby doll," Eddie told her, low and menacing. "You meet me here – you an' Toby – an' we'll go back and never talk about this again."

Jemma's gazed at him, her expression unsure and very confused. Her unwillingness to make such a commitment was readily apparent. Eddie smiled, his mouth crooked and cruel.

"If you don't ..." His voice trailed off but the unspoken warning hung in the air. "You know what a Slayer is?"

The girl blinked and regarded him with wide eyes.

"Slayer kills monsters. Monsters like your Toby," he confided. "Don't even bat an eye, just another day on the job for a Slayer. Got Slayers in this town, baby doll, an' believe me, they ain't so much interested in reformin' murderers."

Stretching, Eddie straightened his shoulders and made ready to leave. Jemma watched him with dread.

"Sundown," he reiterated, cracking his knuckles. "Or I find me a Slayer. Toby's gotta be stopped one way or the other. I know you won't let him kill again."

Clinging desperately to the chains of the swing, Jemma watched him stride away until he was swallowed up by the elongated shadows cast by the trees. Her glance traveled back to the policemen within the bright yellow confines of plastic tape. Her lips trembled and her quivering fingers flew to her mouth in an effort to stem the sob rising in her throat.

Her nose buried in a book on herb usage, it was a wonder that Willow didn't collide with any one of a number of obstacles in her path as she moved through the halls of Slayer Central. Her ability to walk and read was well honed, however, and she deftly skirted aside Slayers, tables, and piles of boxes lining the halls. When she reached her Sanctum she pushed open the door, still not bothering to look up from the volume in her hand. She entered, reading all the while, and it was only after she had closed the door behind her and fully entered the room that Willow bothered to tear herself away.

Immediately, she jumped, a startled gasp ripping from her throat as her hand instinctively went up to her rapidly beating heart. Kennedy was in the room also, perched on a stool by one of the tables lining the far wall. There was no way of knowing how long the Slayer had been waiting, but from her posture, it had been some time.

"Kenn...?" Willow questioned cautiously, setting the herb book aside.

Kennedy regarded the witch with an intense stare. "We need to talk."

"How've you been? Have you been good?"

The conversation had been relocated to outside. Kennedy and Willow strolled through the huge open field behind Slayer Central, walking together at a casual, seemingly directionless pace. Willow was swinging her arms nervously, while Kennedy had simply shoved her hands as deep as possible into the pockets of her leather jacket.

"Getting better," Kennedy replied coolly with a shrug of her shoulders. "Taking a while, but getting there."

"Good. That's good. Me too. Good, I mean. I've been good too. And that's ... good."

Willow frowned at her apparent broken record, but Kennedy grinned at the flustered redhead. "Breathe, Will. We're okay."

An expression of pure hopefulness appeared on Willow's face as she turned to the Slayer. "Yeah?"

Kennedy gave the question careful consideration. "Yeah," she finally agreed with sincerity.

Visibly relaxing, Willow let out a puff of air and let her hands clap against her thighs in relief. "Oh yay. Because I've missed you, you know." The leer was obligatory and Kennedy's heart wasn't really in it, but Willow chuckled appreciatively at the gesture. "For more than that. I miss you." She bumped her shoulder against Kennedy's affectionately. "I actually miss having to clean that icky sword polish stuff off the carpet."

"I got some spare tubes if you want," the brunette offered helpfully.

"That's okay, I don't miss it that much," Willow hastened to assure her. "I miss how you never really let me get too ... Willowy though, you know? You're always first in line to give me that swift boot in the you-know-where when I need it."

Kennedy regarded Willow seriously. "If you're having second thoughts ..." There was just the slightest wishful note in her voice.

But the witch shook her head sadly. "No. I'm not. It was right, and we both know it was."

Sighing, Kennedy reluctantly agreed. "Yeah. But hey, you can always rely on me to kick your ass, day or night."

"Thanks," responded Willow with a smirk.


The two continued to walk through the tall, browning grass. Willow gnawed her lower lip for a moment. "I–I've been ..." She trailed off and fished around in her jeans pocket instead. Kennedy watched curiously as the redhead produced a shiny silver stone – the butterfly tear. She glanced at it, then offered it to Kennedy.

The Slayer stared at her hand for a moment then pushed it back toward Willow. "I gave that to you," she stated.

"I know," agreed Willow. "That's why I'm, y'know, giving it back."

"But I gave it to you," Kennedy repeated, as though this were all the information needed. She frowned at the witch. "Don't you want it anymore?"

Willow rapidly shook her head, anxious to dispel any possible offense. "No, i–it's not that. It's ... I know it's means a lot to you, and—"

"That's right. It means a lot. And I gave it to you. So unless you totally hate me now or something ..."

Her eyes wide at the mere suggestion, Willow exclaimed, "No! Of course not!"

"Well okay then, so keep it." The brunette's tone was final with no room for argument. "I wanted you to remember that someone thinks you're special. And someone still does." Her voice softened. "So keep it, Will. Please."

Willow hesitated, and for just a second, it appeared as though she was going to insist. But then she instead slipped it back into her pocket reverently, patting it securely for good measure.

As soon as the stone was safely tucked away again, Kennedy spoke. "I've been doing a lot of thinking lately." The Slayer laughed then, and it wasn't an entirely bitter-free sound. "You know, cuz not a whole lot else takin' up my nights."

Willow immediately looked down at her feet, at the grass crushed beneath her shoes with every step. Only Kennedy's gentle but demanding nudge brought her gaze up again, to find the Slayer's reassuring smile that let her know it was still okay.

Continuing, Kennedy declared, "I've come to some conclusions." This peaked Willow's interest, and she tilted her head to one side. The Slayer took a deep breath – clearly whatever she was about to say was far from easy. Finally, she found her voice. "I pushed. I pushed you too hard, too fast."

The witch digested this information thoughtfully, but said nothing.

"Which is entirely your fault," Kennedy added. Willow gaped in disbelief, but Kennedy simply shot her a look that said 'come on, you know it's true'. "Those adorable big baby seal eyes," she explained, gesturing to Willow's eyes which were, undeniable, large at that moment. "How you're all intense when you read. The way your forehead gets that wrinkle when you don't understand." Grinning, Kennedy studied Willow's features. "Like now."

Entirely flustered, Willow tried to force her face into a different look, but her emotions were simply too erratic and her face too expressive. What she wound up with was a jumbled heap of expressions, a Frankenstein's monster of emotion.

Kennedy laughed, finding the whole thing tremendously endearing. "See what I mean? I was supposed to resist all that?" She shook her head at the ludicrous suggestion, like someone had demanded she force her heart to stop beating. "I'm only human."

Willow's blush spread from her hairline down her neck and she ducked her head. "Kennedy ..."

"It's true," the Slayer shrugged, her observations rock-solid fact in her mind. "And it's okay." She sighed magnanimously, resting a hand on her chest dramatically. "I forgive you."

Still rattled, Willow shook her head, trying to sort out her thoughts. "I don't ... I don't know why I couldn't ... Why we—"

"I do." Kennedy finally stopped walking, and Willow halted as well. They turned to face each other, neither paying any heed to their surroundings. Willow's expressions had finally calmed down and she was left with open searching, a desire to hear Kennedy's explanation.

It was easily summed up in one word. "Tara."

Instinctively, Willow jerked back as though she'd been shocked. "No. I–It's not—"

"It is. You're not over her." Willow shook her head a little too emphatically, and Kennedy raised a quizzical eyebrow. "You think I'm wrong? I suppose it's possible, there's a first for everything, right?" Her tone made it clear that she felt she was on the opposite end of the globe from 'wrong'. The Slayer crossed her arms and looked at Willow, challenging. "So. Tell me right now that you don't still love her more than you've ever loved anything and it doesn't rip your heart out every day that she's not here with you."

Willow didn't. She didn't even try. Instead, she stared miserably at her feet, and Kennedy's hard features softened. Willow glanced up again as Kennedy rested a hand on her shoulder.

"It's okay, Will," the Slayer assured her. "You never really got the chance to mourn. Part of that's my fault, and I'm sorry. You have to let her go before you can move on, and I get that now. What you need is time." Kennedy dropped her hand, letting it rest at her side. "So time's what you'll get."

Speaking the words aloud seemed to infuse Kennedy with conviction, and she straightened. Her eyes flashed as though she faced a new challenge that must be defeated, and the Slayer had every ounce of confidence that she would do just that.

"I'm patient," announced Kennedy, before her lips curled into a cocky smirk. "I mean, I'm not gonna live a nun's life while I'm waiting, you know? Life's too short."

Willow couldn't help but grin and roll her eyes at that, but there was nothing reproachful in her reaction to the proclamation.

Kennedy was on a roll now, and she continued. "But one day, you'll actually be ready to start again." Leaning in, Kennedy's face was mere centimeters away from the redhead's. Her voice dropped to a deep, husky timbre, full of promise. "I'll be watching you, Rosenberg. And when that day comes, you better believe I'll be asking for the first dance."

To seal the vow, Kennedy closed the distance entirely. Her lips captured Willow's in a move that was possessive, yet soft and loving – a reminder of what was waiting. She pulled back after a lingering moment and smiled, charming and certain. Spinning on her heel, Kennedy walked away without a glance, leaving Willow simply standing rooted to the spot, a bubbling cauldron of emotions.

A moment passed, where she simply stared at the place the Slayer had been, and then glanced around to take in her surroundings for the first time. Immediately, she recognized that Kennedy had led her to the memorial site, and her eyes filled with tears. None spilled, however.

Infused with magickal energies, the grass here was green and lush, as though it were the first days of spring instead of the onset of winter. Willow settled herself down before the sapling and smiled.

"Hey," she began.

Wood made his way down the concourse of the busy airport terminal, his black leather suitcase-on-wheels trailing behind. Carefully skirting a woman struggling with an overloaded Smarte Carte, he made his way to the "Cloud Nine" coffee shop. The café was packed and after much searching, he finally spotted a hand waving above the crowd. With murmurs of, "Excuse me," accompanied by a charming smile of apology, Wood pressed through the herd.

Upon his reaching the table, he stared pointedly at the chair where Hannah was resting her feet. With a grin, she swung her legs down and went back to nibbling at her humongous poppy seed muffin. Placing his cup of steaming tea on the saucer, Giles rose and extended his hand. "How was the flight?"

Wood sank into the now vacant seat with a heavy sigh. "Bumpy, but I'm getting to the point where I don't even notice it any more. You know, I think I have enough frequent flier miles to take a trip anywhere in the world now. Pity all I want to do is curl up in my own bed and sleep for the next week." He treated Giles to a sharp and wary glance. "I will get to just sleep in my own bed for the next week, right?"

Giles and Hannah shared a knowing look. "Possibly," muttered Giles. Then, changing the subject asked, "Can I get you anything?" He gestured toward the counter, his smile overly bright.

Wood shook his head before groaning, "It's so nice to be home. Okay, so what's up?"

"First, why don't you tell us what you found out," suggested Giles as Hannah skimmed a spoonful of whipped cream from the top of her hot chocolate.

"Mmmmm," she murmured ecstatically with eyes closed, licking the spoon front and back. She cast a sideways glance at her ex-husband who rubbed his forehead wearily.

"That good, huh?" queried Wood.

"This or ..." began Hannah then, taking note of Giles' heavy sigh and apologetic nod to Wood, continued, "Okay, okay. It's quite ... striking news."

"Well mine's not much better," announced Wood. "I checked all over the storage locations you gave me, and there's nothing. No trace of anything that might've been misplaced by our guys. Also, no evidence of any theft. Whatever was taken, it looks like it was an inside job. The inventory log copies clearly show the items being placed in those safe house locations. Knowing how meticulous the old Council records were, I think we can assume it wasn't a data entry mistake and the items disappeared sometime between being placed there and our removal."

Giles pondered the information for a moment. "That still gives us a fairly large window of opportunity ... Twenty, thirty years?"

"Twenty-six, yeah," confirmed Wood.

"I don't suppose the Council could've just cleaned up any evidence?" queried Hannah and then dismissed the statement with a wave of her spoon. "But there still would've been records of the items being stolen. So they never knew," she added thoughtfully, handing Giles a napkin. He glanced down at the dollop of whipped cream that had been flung onto the lapel of his jacket and scrubbed at it fiercely.

"It certainly seems that way." Giles grimaced as the stain ingrained itself more firmly into the fabric. He forlornly tossed the napkin onto the empty plate in front of him. "Could you find any indication of what exactly was stolen?" he asked of Wood.

"Aside from what's listed in the log? Not a thing. Not there, anyway. If these are big-time artifacts, they're probably mentioned in several places."

Hannah cocked her head at Giles. "It would be a good idea to know exactly what was stolen."

He agreed with a pained expression. "I'll get some people working on that. Could take some time ... I have rather a lot of books."

Hannah leaned across the table to Wood. "Understatement of the year," she whispered, bringing her hand up to her lips in a secretive motion. Wood nodded vehemently as though she had just taken the words right out of his mouth. He turned and smiled encouragingly at Giles who was doing his best not to appear curious at the obvious conspiracy.

"Moving on," said Wood with a conviction that vetoed any possible questioning, "while I was over there I ran through the list of new Slayers you gave me."

Immediately, Giles' demeanor perked-up. "Oh, yes? How many were you able to recruit?"

"None," came the curt reply.

"No one?" inquired Hannah incredulously. She adopted a woebegone expression. "I suddenly feel tremendously unpopular." She grinned, first and Wood and then at Giles.

"Well, I– What–," stammered Giles. "What did they say?"

"Nothing." Wood rocked in his chair. "That was part of the problem. I couldn't find them."

Giles frowned and leaned across the table, his left elbow landing squarely in a puddle of spilled tea. Hannah handed him another napkin. "The addresses were wrong?" he asked anxiously, absent-mindedly wadding up the serviette without using it and placing it neatly on the plate, next to the first. Hannah rolled her eyes and gazed up at the ceiling.

"The girls weren't there," stated Wood matter-of-factly.

Hannah was instantly all business. "Where'd they go?"

"That appeared to be a question a great many parents and not a few policemen would like the answer to," Wood told her.

"You're saying they vanished?" Giles' tone was riddled with puzzlement and no little concern.

"Without a trace," Woof verified.

Hannah's eyes narrowed. "Is this like before?"

Wood linked his hands behind his head and rocked back and forth some more. "Before, we had evidence of at least half the girls having spoken to someone trying to recruit them before they disappeared. Someone besides us, that is. But this time, nothing. One minute they're going to their room, walking to a friend's house, leaving for school ... and then nobody hears from them again."

Hannah mulled this over for a brief second. "So either whoever's behind this is getting better ..."

"... or they've stopped bothering to talk first," finished Giles.

Wood massaged the nape of his neck. "Nice and ominous, huh? So that's me out. What's your good news?" He peered at Giles inquisitively and then tapped him on the arm when no response appeared to be forthcoming.

Giles started slightly as he emerged from his reveries. "Hm? Oh. Oh, yes. Erm ... Do you remember Sunnydale ...?"

Wood allowed the legs of his chair to hit the floor with a thud. A look of surprise invaded his face. Breaking off a piece of muffin, Hannah popped it into her mouth and lifted her eyebrows. She didn't have to say anything. The 'how about that?' expression said it all.

Faith had laid possession to the big comfy couch in the rec room. As with before, it was empty, save for Faith and another Slayer, a Junior, who had entered with a book in her hand. She smiled at Faith and went to sit on the opposite end of the couch, then suddenly seemed to feel a cold, icy stare boring into her. Glancing up again, she realized such was indeed happening. Quickly, the Junior claimed a nearby chair instead, and proceeded to bury herself in the book, casing occasional sidelong glances to see if Faith had stopped glowering yet.

Moments later, Hazel quickly entered the room. "I'm here! I'm here!" she announced unnecessarily.

"You're late," pointed out Faith with a grumble.

Hazel came to a halt before Faith, her hands behind her back. "I know, but I had to stop off for something."

The older Slayer glanced up hopefully. "Beer?"

"Underage?" Hazel reminded, indicating herself.

"Oh. Oh yeah. Keep forgettin' those booze-buying laws."

With a smirk and an eye roll, Hazel returned to bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet, only barely containing her excitement. "Not beer. Better than beer." Faith raised a skeptical brow at that one, but Hazel ignored it. "Nemo!!"

With a flourish, Hazel produced the DVD from behind her back and presented it to Faith proudly. She wiggled the case slightly, trying to urge the other woman to take it.

Faith could only stare. "This is better?" she questioned dubiously.

"This," Hazel declared with authority, "is awesome."

Not waiting for the inevitable derisive retort, Hazel spun around and bounced to the DVD player. The Junior sitting in the chair nearby happily lowered her book. "I love this movie!" she exclaimed.

Hazel glanced over her shoulder from where she was kneeling. "Isn't it great? Those seagulls just crack me up!"

"Oh, and the sharks?"

They both started giggling at the shared memories.

Faith looked on, thoroughly disenchanted. "I'm pretty sure I said get a fighting movie," she groused.

Settling herself comfortably on the couch Hazel picked up the remote control and pressed play. "Well this ... is a fighting movie," she responded. Faith continued to stare at her flatly. "Okay, I'm lying. But it has conflict. And ... surfing turtles! And a tidy little moral at the end."

She capped off her summary with a bright, sunny smile. Faith was not impressed.

"It's about fish," the older Slayer underlined.

Seeing that reason was getting her nowhere, Hazel waved her hand at Faith as the movie began. "Fiver, just be quiet and watch," she commanded.

Grumbling, Faith did so, but her shuffling of positions on the couch made it clear she was doing so under protest. Hazel and the Junior Slayer, by contrast, were immediately, completely engrossed.

Several minutes passed and just as Nemo was getting ready for his first day at school, Buffy rushed into the room with a cry of, "Faith!"

Instantly, Faith's head jerked up. "I wasn't watchin' this," she stated defensively.

"Fine, sure, whatever." Buffy didn't even bother to look at the screen. "Look, I need you to grab some silver weapons and get ready for my call." Faith tilted her head to one side, curious. "We're going wolf hunting."

The dark Slayer sprung to her feet, an eager grin on her face. "Aw, sweet! Never tangled with no werewolf before."

"I'd like to say you won't get to tonight either, but I've got a bad feeling." Buffy checked her watch with a concerned frown. "We've got about half an hour to sundown. Can you make it?"

"I can make it."

With a nod, Buffy ran out of the room as Faith turned to Hazel. "Sorry Haze. Catch your fish next time."

Turning and sprinting for the exit, Faith leapt effortlessly over the air hockey table in her way and was gone. With an unmistakable pout on her face, Hazel watched the older Slayer leave.

"Heh," the Junior chuckled, eyes still riveted to the screen. "Lucky fin."

Outside the Vortex, Oz sat in his parked van and strummed on his guitar. The melody was vague and wandering but then Oz, his face a study in deep thoughts, wasn't particularly concentrating on the music. He looked up quickly as Jemma rounded the corner and set his instrument to one side. She hurried toward him and he glanced into the sky, where the sun was glowing orange as it sank below the horizon.

"Oz!" she called as she came closer.

Oz nodded. "Jemma."

"Oz," she began. "I– I need– Toby—"

"I know." he told her softly. Noting the hopeful expression, he looked away briefly and then turned back " About that ... I think you should leave."

"What? Leave?" Her tone was shocked and she shrank a little as though she had been suddenly injured.

"Yeah," he said regretfully.

"But, but..." she stammered, "... leave? Why?"

"He's killed," said Oz, although the words were far from accusatory. "And they know." His eyes drifted to the side, as though expecting someone to already be there. "Or they will soon."

Distraught and fearful, Jemma twisted her hands. Apparently, this was not what she had been hoping to hear.

"They're counting on me," continued Oz. "The others. To keep them safe. I covered for Toby once, but when they find him – and they will find him – if he's with us, they'll take us all down." He swallowed hard as though the statement had become stuck in his throat.

Stricken, Jemma rubbed her upper arms as her gaze darted from Oz to the area surrounding the street. Her lips quivered and she looked like a lost and frightened child who could find nowhere to hide. Oz sighed regretfully and shook his head. Jemma stared into his eyes and blinked at the reflected pain.

"But he didn't mean to," she insisted desperately. "He doesn't want to be like this."

"No one does," replied a sorrowful Oz.

Jemma sniffed and tried to stifle the tears. "What'll happen to him?" she asked in a small voice.

Oz sighed again. "I don't know."

Reaching out, he took her hand and held it tenderly in his own. Jemma's body was racked with soundless sobs as she fought to quell the rising panic and gain control. In a gallant gesture, Oz brought the trembling hand to his lips and kissed it.

"Is there somewhere you can go?" he asked gently.

She bit her lip and nodded.

Releasing her hand, Oz looked up at the sun. "You should go now."

With beseeching eyes, Jemma peered into Oz's face, her expression conveying a wish to do anything else in the world but leave at this point in time. Downcast, he remained sad but stoic. His finger traced the outline of her cheek and she slowly backed away. Swiping at her tears, she looked at Oz one more time before she turned and took off like a startled rabbit.

Oz let out a rueful puff of air as he watched her retreat, then his gaze darted swiftly toward the boundary of trees growing nearby. A worried frown creased his forehead as a shadowy figure sprinted after the girl with a determined stride.

Act Four

In the private training room, Kennedy had commandeered a large section of the available space. Dressed in workout clothes, with her dark hair fastened securely away from her face, she was in the throes of executing a series of extremely intricate and precise martial arts moves. Concentrating solely on the image reflecting back from the mirrors which lined one wall, the Slayer only barely acknowledged Hannah's entrance until the woman greeted her with a friendly, "Evening."

Similarly dressed, Giles' ex-wife smiled at Kennedy and was treated only to a very terse nod. Refusing to break her form, the Slayer continued to work on her exercises – executing a sequence of lightning fast jabs in the air and elbow strikes. Her actions were measured and exact and she moved with the elegance of a lithe panther. Still watching the younger woman closely and with much interest, Hannah settled down at a nearby machine and, after adjusting the weights, began her own workout.

As her performance came to a close, Kennedy brought her hands together and bowed crisply at her own reflection.

"I'm impressed," observed Hannah with admiration. "Kusanku kata."

Kennedy grabbed a small towel from the mat on the floor and mopped at the glistening perspiration on her face before hooking it over her shoulders. She turned to face the older blonde.

"Hey. Good call." Her expression registered surprise and even a little heartfelt admiration of her own at Hannah's statement.

Hannah grinned and pulled down on the bar grasped between her hands. The heavy weights at the rear of the machine glided effortlessly upward. "Made for nighttime fighting," she remarked, repeating the action. "Good choice."

"Thanks," acknowledged Kennedy. "You, uh ... You know karate, huh?"

The blonde smirked but there was truly no trace of smugness. "Among other things," she admitted casually.

Kennedy nodded and appeared to remain suitably impressed as Hannah continued to work the weights throughout the conversation without breaking a sweat. Tossing down the hand towel, the Slayer turned back to the mirror and began her routine from the beginning. The blonde moved to the stationary rowing equipment and pulled on the oars as though she were stroke for the Oxford Blue Boat. She watched Kennedy more appraisingly this time.

"Very good," she confirmed as the brunette executed a second neat bow toward her reflection. "Your form is excellent," she added. "You want to watch yourself at the beginning of series six, though. You should step back, in case of attack. You don't bother, you just progress to the next move."

Kennedy cockily dismissed the advice. "Don't think I need to worry too much by that point. I doubt anything's lasting that long."

Hannah dropped the oars and shrugged. "No, quite possibly not ... but anything that does is probably planning on a counterattack right about then." She tilted her head to one side. "Wouldn't you say?"

Kennedy considered the question. "You have a point," she conceded grudgingly.

Hannah grinned. "In addition, when you step back, it allows you room to move forward for the next swing, giving you a momentum you can't gain otherwise."

Kennedy quirked an eyebrow. "You're pretty sharp."

Hannah chuckled and retrieved the oars. "In-out ... in-out ... " she muttered under her breath.

Kennedy squatted on the floor next to the machine. "Don't suppose you'd like to replace a skinny little repressed Englishman as my Watcher, would you?"

"You still have a Watcher?" asked the blonde in astonishment.

Kennedy stomped over to an exercise bike. "Believe it or don't," she stated grumpily, swinging herself into the seat.

Hannah tutted. "That just seems an absurd waste of resources to me. I'll talk to Rupert, see what we can possibly do about that."

Kennedy's face brightened. "That'd be cool. Thanks," she offered.

Hannah shrugged. "My pleasure."

The bike rocked precariously as Kennedy's legs pumped furiously at the pedals. "So what other surprises you got?"

"Well if I told you, they'd hardly be surprises, now would they?" chuckled the blonde.

"Oh come on," the Slayer urged. "Some little tidbit. The rumor mill's already churning out reports faster'n I can keep up 'em, and believe me – you can't possibly say anything more shocking than some of the stuff I've already heard."

Hannah threw back her head and laughed. It was an infectious sound and Kennedy found herself joining in. "All right. Something interesting," she pondered. "Let's see ... I made it to the casting semi-finals of the original 'Survivor'."

"Get out," accused the Slayer. "Seriously?"

"Believe it or don't," replied the blonde with a mock display of petulance as her rowing slowed and then stopped. She winked and Kennedy's face broke into a wide grin.

"What happened?" asked the excited Slayer, reducing her speed to something slightly less break-neck. "Lemme guess, you got beat out by Sue Hawk."

"Oh, please," scoffed Hannah with a wave of her hand. She looked into Kennedy's eager face, obviously anxious to know the full story, and smiled. "Not entirely. I removed myself from the competition when I realized, much to my disgust, that nobody would actually be surviving anything."

"Just between you and me?" confided the Slayer. "I watch every week in the hopes that someone, some time, will actually have to do something.

"Well they do run an awful lot," Hannah pointed out with a grin.

Her breath coming in short gasps, Jemma raced toward the park. The sun had almost disappeared beneath the horizon and the pale moon was beginning to dominate the darkening sky. The temperature had abruptly dropped several degrees but she barely noticed, Oz's words still ringing in her ears. Upon reaching the entrance, she paused hesitantly for a moment then, with a tiny sob of desperation, increased her stride once more. She soon arrived at a secluded area, obviously some type of nature trail. She glanced fearfully toward the dense thicket of trees at her right, unsure whether she should go any further. Panting and with perspiration trickling down her forehead, Jemma nervously scanned her surroundings.

"Almost didn't make it," commented Eddie emerging from the shadows. Ignoring the cold, he wore no jacket, only an old t-shirt, its design long since faded, and a pair of oil-stained jeans. His dark curls had been slicked down and combed away from his face. A rifle was slung over one broad shoulder and there was a handgun tucked neatly into a holster over the other. A large hunting knife was safely encased in a sheath attached to his belt. In his left hand, he carried a sturdy chain that he swung back-and-forth with ease despite its apparent weight.

"Thought you were gonna make me do somethin' I really didn't wanna do," he told Jemma gruffly with a sneer.

The girl said nothing, but her eyes widened as Eddie tossed the length of chain carelessly onto the dirt path and moved closer. He nodded emphatically. "You made the right choice."

"Did I?" whispered Jemma.

"'Course," insisted Eddie with a grin, not altogether pleasant. "You're savin' the pup. S'what you really want, right? Not like you'd come back for me ..."

He stretched out a hand toward her cheek but she flinched and took an involuntary step backward. Gritting his teeth, Eddie's fingers balled quickly into a tight fist, but he seemed to be fighting the urge to lash out and instead, crouched down to retrieve the chain.

"That's alright," he told her with forced calm. "You came back. All that matters."

Hefting the rifle from behind his back, he checked to make sure it was loaded.

"Where's your brother?" he asked, voice clipped and eyes narrowed.

"Don't hurt him!" cried Jemma in alarm.

Eddie chuckled. "Relax baby doll, it's a tranq gun." He patted the holster. "The silver bullets are in this one. Now where is he?"

"I– He's still with the others. The group. They ... have him locked away. For safety."

"Yeah, and we see what kinda job their portable cages did last night, didn't we?" he sneered, his expression ugly.

A puzzled frown crossed Jemma's face. "How did you know—"

Eddie swiftly dismissed the potential question. "Prob'ly gonna wake him up early tomorrow and make him sing 'Kumbaya' or some other crap," he stated with scorn. "An' that's what it is, y'know? See, I got this wolf thing all figured out. It's not about chants and herbs and moons. It's about power and control. Your brother, he's weak, see? He don't got the control."

"And you like control. Don'tcha Eddie?"

Eddie spun to face the intruder, momentarily startled when he realized that he and Jemma were no longer alone. Buffy stepped confidently into the moonlight and Eddie took careful measure of the rifle she carried over her shoulder. With a sharp intake of breath, a fearful Jemma stumbled backward.

Eddie snorted. "Slayer, huh?"

"The Alpha," agreed Buffy. "Which, considering the circumstances, takes on an entirely new level of irony, don't you think?"

Slowly, Eddie took stock of the blonde from head-to-toe. Obviously unimpressed with what he saw, he grinned. "You're just a little girl."

"Yes, and you're just a big dumb guy with some serious issues," replied Buffy. "I mean look at that gun!" She waved a hand toward the bulky holster and blew out a puff of air. Overcompensate much?" she asked innocently.

"Look Slayer, I don't got a problem with you," snarled Eddie. "We're just gonna collect her kid brother an' then get outta here."

"Right," responded Buffy, inclining her head. "See, that's where I'm kinda having trouble. I don't make it a habit to let murderous creatures get away." She paused for a second before adding an apparent afterthought. "As a general rule."

Jemma's eyes were wide as she cautiously took a step forward. "Please! Miss Slayer!," she begged. "Toby didn't mean to! I know it was wrong, and I know he feels so bad about what happened, but it's not his fault! Please, just let us go, you'll never hear from us again! Please!"

Buffy glanced at the girl. "Toby? This is nothing to do with Toby. His talking to Dawn aside, he seems like a nice, normal, occasionally furry guy. I'm talking about him." Her finger jabbed accusingly at Eddie.

His laugh was laced with contempt. "What?"

Jemma stared at Eddie before turning back to the Slayer. "But ... but they said the body was torn apart. An animal."

A small frown creased Buffy's forehead and she wrinkled her nose. "Huh. So they did. Wonder what that could mean?" She fixed her gaze knowingly upon Eddie.

"You're nuts," he scoffed as his upper lip curled menacingly.

Buffy was inclined to disagree. "Nope, pretty sane really. Oh, don't get me wrong, it's was a decent enough plan, as really stupid plans go. Kill someone and frame Toby for it. Then scare poor Jemma into thinking you're the only choice she's got left and she comes running back to you."

Eddie tightened his grip on the chain, veins standing out starkly against the back of his hands.

The Slayer smiled. "Boy, it must've just killed you when she ran away, didn't it? After all the work you'd done to make sure she could never leave you."

Jemma ran her fingers through her hair and looked around in confusion. "I don't understand."

Buffy crossed her arms and maintained a wary eye on Eddie. "Mr. Control Freak here, he's had the hots for you for a while now, huh? Before Toby's little 'accident'?"

"We were together," the girl admitted in a whisper, hanging her head. " He ... I had to break it off."

Eddie whipped the chain into the dirt. "You left me," he growled.

Buffy nodded in an all-knowing fashion. "Uh-huh. And I'm willing to bet that just after you found out about Toby, he came to you, right? Said he knew, that he could help you? Didn't the timing ever seem a little ... I dunno, too convenient to you?"

A light of awareness began to dawn in Jemma's eyes. She turned to Eddie. "You told me you'd seen him change."

Eddie discounted the thinly veiled accusation. "And I did! Look, haven't I kept you safe? Both of you? You belong to me, Jemma." With a swift lunge, he roughly seized the girl's wrist.

"Let her go!" commanded a low voice as Oz materialized from the darkness.

Eddie roared with laughter. "Oh, look at you," he sneered before pulling Jemma closer. Releasing her wrist to grab her neck, he forced the girl to look in Oz's direction. "Isn't he just adorable?" he asked, the tone dripping with sarcasm. "I can see why you left me for him!"

Viciously yanking her off the ground, Eddie shook Jemma as though she were a rag doll. She choked and kicked her legs before landing with a sickening thud as Eddie threw her behind him. Crouching, Oz moved forward with a muted growl but Buffy cautioned him back with a wave of her hand.

"You like that, huh?" she asked, her tone dangerously soft. "Picking on someone small and defenseless. I'm guessing that when you bit Toby, it wasn't even just about controlling Jemma, was it? You liked it."

Gasping, Jemma raised herself on one elbow and gaped at Eddie, her expression one of utter astonishment. "You?," she labored, still fighting for breath. "But ... but he's not—"

"He is," confirmed Oz, body still taut and poised ready to strike . "I can tell."

"He's got his wolf suppression mode on, but it was him, Jemma," the Slayer told the girl.

Oz relaxed a little, but continued to remain prepared for action if necessary. "Toby told me. This morning. He thought that Eddie let him out last night. He told me everything."

Buffy nodded in confirmation. "Turns out that Eddie here had something over Toby, too. If he told you what was really going on, Eddie threatened to turn you, too."

Jemma's hand flew to her mouth as she made dry, retching sounds. "Oh my god." Her blue eyes spilled with tears. "Oz ..." she pleaded.

"Dont you talk to him!" raged Eddie, furiously lashing the chain around a nearby branch and letting it hang. "I'm here. I'm right here. I've always been here for you. And you don't care, do you? You've never cared!"

Jemma clutched at her stomach., cheeks wet and streaked with dirt. "I cared Eddie. I just can't be with you."

"Ungrateful bitch!" he thundered with a powerful backhand that sent her sprawling once again. A thin trickle of blood oozed from her split lip.

With amazing agility and speed, Oz launched his attack, surprising the much larger man with a solid punch that landed directly in the solar plexus. Unfortunately, it was a brief advantage. Quickly recovering, Eddie threw an uppercut which caught Oz squarely on the chin, sending him slamming into a tree. Momentarily stunned, he sank to the ground.

"Oz!" cried Jemma as she scrambled frantically to his side. She cradled his head in her lap and gently stroked his face.

Overcome with fury, Eddie raised his head to the moon and howled. His clothes began to rip and shred as his body transformed. The straps holding his weapons snapped as his torso grew larger and shaggy fur became visible. The elongated mouth opened to reveal teeth, razor-like and deadly. He extended his hands, now sporting cruelly hooked claws. Dropping to all fours, jade eyes glimmered maliciously as the massive wolf surveyed his surroundings, looking first at Oz and Jemma before focusing on the Slayer. He howled again at the moon and wavered, as if trying to determine his first target of choice.

"Okay, seen enough. Naptime for you, big doggy," remarked Buffy with a flat tone as she raised the barrel of her tranquilizer gun. Seeming to have made his decision, or perhaps had it made for him, the wolf now directed his full attention to the Slayer instead of the other two. He growled a low and somewhat apprehensive warning, almost as though part of him recognized the weapon she was holding.

"Sorry," she apologized wryly, "but puppy dog eyes never did work on me."

Without hesitation, she pulled the trigger. The dart traveled swiftly toward the wolf's hindquarters, which would have caused him to promptly collapse in an unconscious stupor, had Eddie not leapt clear at the last moment. With a thunk, the dart imbedded itself into the bark of a nearby tree.

The Slayer puffed. "Really gotta talk to Giles about more training time with these things," she grumbled.

Before she had the opportunity to reload, the werewolf charged, and she resorted to using the long-barreled gun as a makeshift club. Turning wolf hadn't made Eddie any smaller, and he was a huge target. It was easy for her to catch him in the face and torso with the butt of the weapon, and this seemed to give him pause, but only for the first few hits, afterwards only serving to anger him. In wolf form, both hands and mouth were all rapid and lethal, and it only took a few seconds for Buffy to realize that useful as the range of the club might be, it was too slow to deal with assaults from all those fronts.

She tossed the weapon aside and started in with the good old hand-to-hand which, while no more effective at harming him, allowed her to use all her limbs in the fight. The constantly snapping jaws made landing any blows to the face difficult, and Buffy had connected three solid hits in the chest with no effect when he managed to get a claw on her shoulder, ripping her shirt and drawing blood. Turning to the side to favor the arm, she tilted and brought up one leg into his midsection – a straight kick that knocked him back a few feet despite his size. The Slayer took a look at her arm, and Eddie paused, nose quivering as he sniffed the air in her direction.

"Fine," said Buffy with a wince. "Plan C."

Almost on cue, he charged again. She braced for the attack and made to grab him by the wrists and start grappling, wrestling with the beast to force it into a position where she would have useful leverage. The match-up was difficult—although she was stronger, he had more mass and a pair of sharp, slavering jaws that snapped at her any time she started to get the upper hand. When Buffy tried to spread his arms apart, he went after her face, and when she tried to force them together, he nearly bit her arms. To make matters worse, Eddie showed no signs of slowing down. She wasn't going to be able to wear him out anytime soon.

Buffy stole a moment to look back at the other two. For all intents and purposes, Oz still appeared to be out of it. Jemma was next to him, eyes riveted on Buffy and the wolf, staring with a sort of horror at what her former boyfriend had become and what he was doing. The Slayer looked back just in time to dodge a vicious chomp. She swerved her head and avoided having most of it ripped off, but he had also pushed forward with all his weight, causing Buffy to lose her balance, and the two of them fell to the ground, Buffy landing on her back.

The wolf, sensing weakness, renewed his efforts to tear out her throat, face and anything else he could get his teeth on. She had managed to hold firm the paws in her hands, and resorted to bringing a knee up into Eddie's stomach, but it had no visible impact.

"Get out of here!" she yelled at the other two.

Using the ground as a brace against her back, she began to push up, forcing the wolf off of her. Before she got far with this, however, he thrashed about, and the shift of a couple hundred pounds weight brought him back down again, even closer than before. Eddie reared back for a full-force bite, and lunged forward at the Slayer's vulnerable throat.

Suddenly, just as Buffy felt the hot wolf breath on her neck, the sound of a single gunshot rang through the air. With a yelp of pain, the creature slumped unmoving to the side. Looking over, the Slayer saw Jemma standing like a statue, Eddie's silver bullet-loaded gun, still smoking, braced rigidly in front of her. Almost in slow motion, she allowed it to drop from her hands. The vacant gaze of her eyes barely registered Buffy and Oz as they approached. Then, hot tears began to well. Opening his arms, Oz enveloped her in a close embrace and she clung to him like a small child. He smoothed her hair and whispered to her comfortingly as Buffy stared down at the body. No longer wolf-like in appearance, Eddie had returned in death to his human shape.

With a great show of readiness, Faith burst into the clearing armed to the teeth with suitable weapons – several daggers sporting silver blades and a crossbow complete with specially made arrows. Planting her feet firmly upon the ground and with a huge grin, she was very the image of delighted anticipation and sheer excitement. She looked around expectantly and then her face began to fall when she found nothing of particular interest taking place. She noted the weeping Jemma enveloped in Oz's arms and then spotted Buffy.

"Where's the wolf?" she demanded in hushed tones.

Buffy said nothing, simply pointing to the deceased Eddie. Faith threw up her hands in disappointment.

"Dammit!" she spat, "I always miss the good fights!"

Buffy shrugged. "Maybe next time."

"Yeah?," queried the Dark Slayer regretfully. She spared a glance in Oz's direction. "Think he's got any more big bad wolves need takin' out?"

Buffy regarded Jemma and Oz with a smile before shaking her head. "Nope," she stated with conviction, treating Faith to a consoling pat on the shoulder. "I don't think we'll be hearing any more huffing and puffing for a while."

The night crowd had swarmed in and taken over the Vortex. The floor was packed with bodies dancing to the musical selections of the DJ on stage. In the center of the action, Faith moved to the energetic beat, orbiting around Wood who was managing admirably to keep up with her. Not far away, Kennedy had found herself a tall, curvy blonde and they were each obviously enjoying both the music and the other's attentions.

The tables were also filled nearly to capacity and waitresses ducked around in their ceaseless circuits to the bar and back again to fill orders. Oz and Willow had staked a table in good location to the stage, while nearby Buffy, Xander and a very dejected Dawn were embroiled in conversation. Two tables away from Willow and Oz sat Jemma, an untouched drink in front of her and a vacant, stunned look lingering on her face.

"I can't believe you lied to her," Willow said in a vaguely admonishing tone. She fished the olive out of her martini and popped it in her mouth, shaking her head at the werewolf.

"Didn't want to, but it was sort of a necessity." Oz's tone was level, as usual, but there were traces of regret just beneath the surface. "She had to believe she was really going back to him. He would've been able to smell if she wasn't telling the truth. He might've attacked her, or just run off."

Willow was sipping her drink when she heard that and choked a little, quickly setting the glass back on the table. "You can smell emotion?" she marveled, obviously never having heard that tidbit of information before.

"Yeah," he replied as though she'd just pointed out his hair was spiky.

"That's ..." she quirked her eyebrow at him, filing the information away as she searched for the right words. "... really freaky," the redhead finally summed up.

Without registering a change in facial expression, Oz responded, "Absolutely."

Mulling over this new insight, Willow leaned forward a little conspiratorially. "So what's a lie smell like?"

"Sort of buttery."


Dawn sat between Buffy and Xander, blowing bubbles dejectedly into her soda. Her cheek didn't so much rest on her hand as her hand had somehow managed to sink into the flesh and possibly meld with it.

Xander patted her comfortingly on the shoulder. "There there. Someday your prince will come."

Nodding enthusiastically, Buffy cheerfully added, "And he will be sweet and polite and of the non-monster variety."

"It just sucks that he's a werewolf," the teenager complained. "I mean, I guess I should've known ... but I didn't think to ask. I mean, usually you ask, you know ... 'What grade are you in?' or 'Do you like Good Charlotte?' Not, 'Are you planning to eat me tomorrow?'" She blinked. "Okay, that came out wrong."

"Well, you could just overlook the whole werewolf thing," Xander suggested helpfully. "I mean, Will did it for a couple'a years and—"

He glanced up. Buffy was glaring. Big glares. Xander gulped.

"Or you could be pen pals," he backpedaled.

"It just sucks!" Dawn's quick exhalation of air somehow seemed to emphasize exactly how much suckage was contained in this situation. "My first kiss is with a vampire, then I fall hard for a guy and his magic jacket, now a werewolf ..." She looked despairingly from Xander to Buffy. "It's like I'm turning into you guys!"

Buffy and Xander's sympathetic expressions instantly dissolved.


Willow was twirling the now olive-less toothpick around the rim of her glass. "How'd you know it wasn't Toby?" she inquired.

Oz shook his head, draining the last of his herbal tea. "We didn't. Not for sure. But this morning, Toby told me that when he was the wolf, he sensed something. Someone."

The redhead nodded. "Eddie."

"He thought so," confirmed Oz. "When he told me everything, seemed a definite maybe."

"Good hunch. What if it wasn't, though?" queried Willow, peering into Oz's face.

"Toby wanted to be locked down and tranq'd up. If it was him, he'd be where we left him until tomorrow morning."

Willow's expression melted. "Aww, that's sweet. In a visually disturbing way. Do you think he'll be okay? With the wolfie?"

"Eventually," replied Oz. "Sense memory from the wolf's a good sign."

"So," intoned a meaningful Willow, "What now?"

Oz frowned at the question, seeming to think that the answer should be obvious. "We keep working. Keep teaching."

"No," huffed the witch impatiently. "I mean for you."

Oz appeared to be rather surprised. "Oh. We have a gig in Logan Town ..."

The redhead laughed and poked at his arm with the toothpick. "No! For you you."

Confused, he gazed at her. She grabbed both sides of his head with her hands and swiveled his face until it was directed at Jemma. Oz widened his eyes.

"Ah," he smiled slightly, finally making the connection. "Don't know. I guess she'll be coming with us. Gig and all."

With a dramatic roll of her eyes, Willow shook his head from side-to-side. "Ask her out, you big dork! Geez, do I hafta put you two in a wolf-cage or somethin'? Cuz I will."

Oz was uncertain. "I don't know, Will."

"Well I do!" announced the redhead. "She's so obviously totally into you. And you ..." the poking of the toothpick moved to his shoulder, "You like her too." Oz made to open his mouth in protest, but Willow tutted and dismissed the unspoken thought. "Ah-ah-ah! Don't even try to deny it. I can tell. You've got your little chivalrous protective aura thing goin' on."

Tilting his head, Oz regarded Jemma solemnly but still failed to make a move, the expression on his face indicating that something seemed to be holding him back.

"Oz," murmured Willow, swiping affectionately at his nose to get his attention. "You know I love you. I always will. So when I say this, know that I say it with every ounce of infinite affection for you I have in my heart." Her tone grew stern. "If you don't ask her out, Daniel Osborne, you are a very dumb man and I will seriously consider cursing you with itchy palms for at least a week."

Scratching his head, Oz smiled at the threat.

"Now go," insisted Willow. "Make her as happy as you made me."

Getting to his feet, Oz leaned over and gave Willow a kiss on the cheek. She beamed and touched the place where his lips had been with her fingertip. His eyes were wistful and she nodded encouragingly, seeming to acknowledge his desire for what had once been but could never be again. Tugging on his shirt and thrusting his hands into his pockets, Oz walked with determination to Jemma's table. Willow beamed as the girl looked up, expression growing brighter with every stride Oz took. He smiled down at her, one of those enchanting enigmatic smiles that only Oz could produce, as he pulled out a chair and sat down. Willow heard the echo of his voice over the loud music. "Hey."

The redhead sighed happily at the developments and looked up in surprise as a frazzled waitress placed a fresh martini in front of her, complete with three olives. The girl waved unenthusiastically at the table where Xander was sitting. He grinned and gave Willow the thumbs-up. Willow returned the gesture and promptly downed one of the olives before taking a sip of the drink. Her eyes scanned the dance floor, finally coming to rest on Kennedy. Her smile was warm as she took note of the fact that Kenn appeared to be having a thoroughly good time, apparently as much into the music as she was into her swaying partner.

Willow's gaze darted briefly to Oz. He was holding Jemma's hand and smiling, their heads close together in conversation. Jemma looked so happy. Willow sighed contentedly. The lights dimmed and a slow number filtered through the audio equipment. Willow watched as Kennedy slipped an arm around the blonde's trim waist and whispered in her ear. The blonde nodded and closed her eyes, cheek resting on Kennedy's shoulder. Willow sighed with contentment once more before popping both remaining olives into her mouth at the same time.

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